First Impressions –Social Etiquette

Saudi Arabia is a very different place from other countries. There is a social system of etiquette that must be observed when out in public. Whether on the street, in a park, restaurant or travelling.

My own personal experience so far: Touch/Personal Space and Conversation

One natural habit I have formed from living in a western society, is the ability to reach out and touch someone. Touch an arm, shoulder, give someone a hug, etc. Here in Saudi I needed to get used to keeping more to myself. My body language needed to be more reserved, centered and keeping within my family’s parameters. Maybe for you this is normal. Perhaps you don’t like when your friend claps you on the back or nudges you with their elbow. You are already more prepared for life here. More intimate interactions are based on men and women being separate, whereas men can shake hands between men and women can shake hands between women, etc.

In one example I was getting a taxi driver whom I normally use, to pick me up at the airport here in Dammam. Forgetting about the societal rules here, I shook his hand as he took my bag and put in into the back of the cab. My husband reminded me that was not to be done here. I was happy to see an “old friend”, someone whom I felt comfortable with, and in my country wouldn’t have thought twice of greeting him this way.

In public married couples do not hold hands, or exchange amorous affections. They stroll along together, exchange conversation, laugh, smile, and sit with each other. The most I will do is lean into my hubby or touch his shoulder. You won’t see anyone dancing on the street or “high-five”ing their friend.

Similarly a woman generally does not speak to a man she doesn’t know, unless say at a supermarket, IKEA, bookstore, clothing store, etc. when she wants to know where something is and there is a worker there to help. Also same goes for a man asking a woman.

When I am on the street and want to ask say directions to a store, or where to get food, etc., I will ask a woman if she is in a group, or with her husband, etc. If the man answers me that is ok, but I will not go up to him first. Similarly my husband will address a man first.

I found this passage while surfing the net that sums up Saudi tradition toward guests and residents.

Cultural Considerations:  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is proud of its tradition of hospitality towards guests.  In return, guests to the Kingdom are kindly requested to respect our cultural traditions. Modesty in dress is customary for both men and women.  For men this means that long sleeves and full-length pants, while female visitors to the Kingdom generally wear an abbaya over their clothing, accompanied by a head scarf.  For those female visitors who do not have an abbaya, once you complete the visa process you will be contacted for measurements and an abbaya will be provided upon your arrival.  However, it is still important to be dressed modestly for arrival at the airport – in general this means long sleeves, high neckline, and covered legs.  As when visiting any country, it is important to know what goods are permitted entry.  Remember that no alcohol or products containing alcohol are permitted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all medications must be accompanied by their original prescription label.  For a complete list of prohibited items, you may visit the Saudi Customs website.

published in Asharqia Equestrian Festival website
Photo by Ann H on

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