Living in the Middle East / Saudi Arabia

Behavior Dos and Don’ts

Date Posted: February 16, 2016      

In the Arab world there are a few actions that in the western world may not be considered rude, yet in the Middle East would cause offence.

It is considered impolite to expose the soles of the feet or footwear to anyone as both feet and shoes are perceived to be unclean. Similarly, crossing of legs is usually an unconscious gesture made by westerners, which can be deemed disrespectful particularly if the foot of the upper crossed leg is pointed in the direction of an Arab. Shoes are considered to be dirty, which is why footwear is always removed before entering a mosque or someone’s home. This is a similar concept to that found in some other cultures, Buddhism for example.

Hand gestures considered rude in most societies will also be regarded as similarly offensive, as is asking someone to approach you by beckoning with your upright forefinger. This is another gesture that can be made unconsciously by a non-Arab. Excessive pointing, fist clenching and pounding of the right fist into the left palm is also considered rude.

As in the patriarchal tradition often seen in Asian countries like Japan and Thailand, Arabian culture is more hierarchical than some Western societies. Arab men are generally proud and the importance of honor in the Arabian culture cannot be underestimated. Therefore, please do take care not to do or say anything that would cause another person (particularly an Arab or Saudi Arabian citizen) embarrassment or loss of face.

Photography is another area that expatriates may risk offending local Arabs. Taking photographs of anyone you don’t know is considered very rude, and there are also many buildings and holy sites that prohibit photography, so it is always best to ask.

Dos and Don’ts – A Quick Guide

Below is a quick summary of the behavior to respect, and to avoid, when in Saudi Arabia.

Do

  • Dress appropriately
  • Respect gender segregation and stay within your assigned area
  • Exchange greetings. For example, in Ramadan it is customary to use the greeting “Ramadan Kareem” when meeting Muslims, and at the end of Ramadan during the Eid celebrations, “Eid Mubarak”. Using such greetings is much appreciated
  • Ask for permission before taking pictures. Saudi society is conservative and private.
  • Remember you are a guest in their country.
  • Remember to smile, and have fun!!

Do Not

  • Have any form of physical contact with members of the opposite gender in public
  • Attempt to co-habit with a member of the opposite sex unless you are married
  • Play loud music: especially during Ramadan
  • Make rude hand gestures
  • Point the soles of your feet or footwear in the direction of anyone
  • Do anything which may be viewed as undermining a person’s honor
  • Smoke in public areas
  • Work for an employer who is not your legal sponsor – this is a breach of the labor and immigration laws
  • Make any statements (verbally or in writing, including social media) that could offend Islam or Saudi Arabian culture
  • Drive if you are female
  • Bring any gambling apparatus into the country or engage in any gambling while you are here
  • Swear in public (including the work place)
  • Take photographs of any public building or Saudi nationals without express permission.