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Cultural differences in management


Report Title : Saudi Arabia – Cultural Differences for an Expatriate Manager from the United Kingdom

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Date Submitted: March 5, 2006

1. Table of Content

1.Table of Content

2.Abstract Summary/Executive Summary


4.Literature Review



2. Abstract Summary/Executive Summary

The report considers the cultural challenges facing a manager relocating to work in Saudi Arabia from the United Kingdom. Its purpose is to identify the differences and make recommendations on areas of differences.

The single overriding difference is the strict adherence to the Islamic faith and practices and the banning of the practice of any other religion within the country. This is reflected in all aspects of life, including the ban on alcohol, dress code, and the rights of women and the existence of a police force to enforce the Islamic way of life in all areas. Penalties are strict and are considered to abuse general human rights as upheld in the Western world.

The manager should seriously consider the restrictions this will place on him in business and his daily life, as well as his family, if this is applicable.

3. Introduction

Managers working overseas need to understand and address the differences in culture they will work with in their host country.

This report will investigate and make recommendations for a manager moving to take up work in Saudi Arabia from the United Kingdom.

4. Literature Review

Country Profile

Saudi Arabia is the largest Arabic speaking country in the Middle East, with a population of 25,6m [1](UN, 2005) and a GNI per capita of US $10,430 [2](World Bank, 2005).

The BBC [3]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/country_profiles/791936.stm#facts

states Saudi Arabia is ‘One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources.’

More than 1/3 of the workforce are foreigners, estimates show that less that less than 100,000 are Westerners. The UK embassy in Riyadh says about 30,000 British nationals live in Saudi Arabia, working in all sectors of the economy.

In the UK, the population is 59.6 million (National Statistics, 2003) with a GNI per capita of US $33,940 (World Bank, 2005)


[4] Ref http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Arabia#Culture

The Saudi Arabian culture revolves almost entirely around the religion of Islam. Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are located in the country. Every day, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer. The public practice of Christianity, the presence of churches and open possession of Christian religious materials are outlawed in Saudi Arabia. Islam's holy book the Qur'an is Saudi Arabia's constitution, and Shari'ah (Islamic law) is the foundation of its legal system.

Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official attention.

The job of the Mutaween or religious police - 3,500 officers assisted by thousands of volunteers - is to enforce religious doctrine and to root out "un-Islamic" activities. They have the power to arrest any unrelated males and females caught socializing, and to ban consumer products and media, such as games and toys, various Western musical groups, and television shows.

The US Consular Affairs[5]http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1012.html report that the public display of non-Islamic religious articles such as crosses and Bibles is not permitted.

The Government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private; however, it does not always respect this right in practice.

All government offices and businesses close during prayer time, which occurs five times a day – at dawn, mid-day, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall.

In the UK, religious freedom is a fundamental human right with public places of worship for all major religions. The practice of an individual’s religion and displays of religious articles are the norm and generally respected by the population at large.

Dress Code

Saudi Arabian dress is strongly symbolic, representing the people's ties to the land, the past, and Islam. The predominantly loose and flowing, but covering garments reflect Islam's emphasis on conservative dress.

Traditionally, men usually wear an ankle-length shirt with a shimagh (a large checkered square of cotton held in place by a cord coil) worn on the head.

Women's clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliqués. However, Saudi women must wear a long cloak (abaya) and veil when they leave the house to protect their modesty. The law does not apply to foreigners at such a high degree, but both men and women are told to dress modestly.

Arabnet, [6]http://www.arab.net/saudi/sa_clothing.htm states ‘The religion and customs of Saudi Arabia dictate conservative dress for both men and women.

Foreigners are given some leeway in the matter of dress, but they are expected to follow local customs, particularly in public places. As a general rule, foreign men should wear long trousers and shirts that cover the upper torso. Foreign women should wear loose fitting skirts with hemlines well below the knee. Sleeves should be at least elbow length and the neckline modest.’

In the UK the business dress code is very flexible, often based on the type of work and the seasonal climatic conditions. Increasingly casual wear is acceptable and companies allow a wide variety of appropriate attire, regardless of style or color. Although office wear is generally conservative, freedom of choice is an option only limited by it being generally appropriate and not suggestive or provocative.

Women’s Rights

By western standards Saudi women face severe discrimination in many aspects of their lives, including education, employment, and the justice system. Women are not allowed to drive or ride bicycles on public roads in large cities. (Ref, Wilkipedia.com)

Religious police enforce a modest code of dress, sometimes even asking American Armed Services women to cover their heads.

Institutions from schools to ministries to restaurants are always gender-segregated.

The British Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Blair made a demand for rights for Saudi women in Jeddah on 13/02/2006, as reported in [7]The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/02/13/ncherie13.xml

‘Countries that discouraged women from pursuing careers were squandering vital human assets. This in turn would harm the chances of making scientific and human advances.

"It leads to a huge loss of human potential that has a massive cost for society, male and female," Mrs. Blair said. "Human rights and development go hand in hand. Educating girls is one of the most important investments a country can make."

On January 18th 2006, only due to intervention and pressure from Sweden, women were allowed to watch a football match. [8]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4623572.stm

‘Saudi Arabia has agreed to allow women to attend a football match against Sweden, reversing an earlier decision.

The ban on women spectators had caused upset in Sweden, one of the world's leading nations on gender equality.

The Editor in Chief of Woman’s eNews, Rita Henley Jensen in July 2005, on a business trip to Jeddah, noted the following in her articled ‘Taking the Gender Apartheid Tour to Saudi Arabia’

  • Women on Saudi soil must have a husband or male relative as an escort.
  • When sight-seeing we must wear a full-length black gown known as an abaya.
  • During Saudi Arabia's first elections in 2005, women were not permitted to vote or run for office.
  • Saudi women have the right to own property, transact business, go to school and be supported by their husbands, while maintaining their separate bank accounts.
  • Although I would stay at the Hilton Hotel and attend a conference on the hotel's premises, I would not be permitted to use the hotel's pool or athletic facilities.
  • The expansive hotel dining area was reserved for men. Women were relegated to the smaller "family area," that was blocked from public view

Clearly the rights and status of women in Saudi Arabia differ greatly from those in the UK who enjoy equal rights. Western women travel, dress and socialize on an equal basis with men, limited only by personal choices, not by law. Many single women travel alone and are used to equality in remuneration, services, facilities, etc in all aspects of their lives.

What women in both societies have in common includes the rights to own property, go to school and manage their own finances.

General Cultural Differences

The British Embassy in Saudi Arabia, [9]http://www.britishembassy.gov.ukwarns visitors to Saudi of the following

  • The penalties for the possession of alcohol are severe and result in prison sentences. The punishment for importing drugs includes the death penalty.
  • The British Government has a number of concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia. These include the implementation of basic international human rights norms; aspects of the judicial system; corporal and capital punishment; torture; discrimination against women and non-Muslims; and restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, assembly and worship.
  • Homosexual behavior and adultery are illegal and can carry the death penalty.
  • Public theatres and cinemas are prohibited.

The International House WorldOrg adds, [10]http://www.ihworld.com/directory/countries.asp?country=SA

  • Do not show the soles of your feet when sitting opposite someone; ask personal questions or compliment relatives or things
  • The left hand should be reserved only for unclean usage. To offer someone something by the left hand is most rude.

General comments on manners as reported by Executive Planet, http://www.executiveplanet.com/business-culture-in/145301317562.html, include

  • To the Saudis, good manners are all important, meaning that they are far too polite to embarrass an offender by pointing out his social gaffes. To make matters even more difficult, Saudi and western concepts of courtesy can be precise opposites. In the west, for example, it is very polite for a man to hold a door for a lady - the same gesture is offensive by Saudi standards because the man puts himself in a position to ogle the woman from behind.


The contrasts in culture between the UK and Saudi Arabia are vast and complex, particularly as the overriding difference is driven by a different faith that pervades all aspects of one’s life.

An understanding of the Islamic faith and observance of the religious requirements of more than 90% of the work force to observe 5 prayer sessions daily and the fast during the holy month of Ramadan could be challenging to an expatriate who is not allowed to practice his own faith publicly.

The manager relocating to Saudi will want to maintain good working relationships within the host country, and at the same time, uphold the human rights standards and freedom that he/she is used to.

Within a country so strictly ruled by the Islamic faith, this will require restrain, diplomacy and a thorough understanding of the local culture and norms.

The manager would be challenged by the segregation of the genders and should take advise on how to uphold the religious requirement without further marginalizing women in the workplace and society.

There is a dilemma, even within international hotels, when handling conferences for overseas companies with good human right policies in their home country, and yet the female attendees are not allowed to eat or socialize with their male counterparts.

In the manager’s daily life observing a modest dress code at all times, abstaining from alcohol and respecting the only recognized faith, with the various restrictions it imposes on non-Muslims, would require commitment and a mind set change due to the paradigm shift from the home country.

In addition, a clear understanding of etiquette and general good manners will be essential in order to avoid causing offense inadvertedly.

5. Conclusions

The expatriate manager working in Saudi Arabia must observe the restrictions imposed by the strict Islam faith observed by the nationals while not publicly practicing his own.

The manager must dress and respect, if not follow, local practices and cultural norms in order to retain credibility, continue to do business and show respect for the Saudi traditions, however they deviate from his own.

The individual should ensure that he is well informed on the requirements before committing to live and work within an Islamic culture that has come under fire for human rights and other abuses.

Should the manager be repatriating his family, he must consider the impacts on their daily lives and their ability to adjust and adapt within a small English speaking population based in an Islamic country.

6. Bibliography

  1. Arabnet, http://www.arab.net/saudi/sa_clothing.htm Owned by ArabNet Technology (ANT), part of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, publisher of the leading newspapers and magazines in Saudi Arabia
  2. BBC new web site - http://news.bbc.co.uk
  3. British daily newspaper, The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/02/13/ncherie13.xml
  4. The International House WorldOrg, a non-profit education organization http://www.ihworld.com/directory/countries.asp?country=SA
  5. The US Consular Affairs, http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1012.html
  6. The World Bank, 2005 statistics
  7. United Nations, statistics taken from the 2005 report
  8. Wilkipedia on line encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Arabia#Culture

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[1] United Nations, 2005

[2] The World Bank, 2005 statistics

[3] The BBC country profile site

[4] Wilkipedia on line encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Arabia#Culture

[5] The US Consular Affairs, http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1012.html

[6] Arabnet, owned by Arab Net Technology and part of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group

[7] The Telegraph, British daily newspaper

[8] The BBC

[9] The British Embassy in Saudi Arabia

[10] A non profit organization raising language education worldwide

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