Differences in the American and the Saudi Arabian society


Whitehouse construction Inc is a private construction company in America. It has a range of overseas projects and activities mainly for American clients in Western Europe. The company has been awarded a contract to build a 75 storey hotel and conference centre in Jeddah, for a Saudi Arabian client. As the client is in Saudi Arabia, the company will have to select a project team comprising of company’s US nationals working at home and in Europe.


Whitehouse Construction Inc has suffered loss in the past due to lack of appreciation about the European culture and their way of doing business. The company is concerned that the differences in cultures of the West and the Arab nations may be challenging in this project. It has been said that if we don’t learn from the past, we are sure to repeat the same mistakes. It holds true for the evolution of understanding diversity in culture. There is a huge cultural difference between US and Saudi Arabia. These differences are likely to affect the construction workers and their working capabilities as they would be operating outside their cultural norm.

Cultural diversity:

Cultural diversity is the variety of human societies or cultures in a specific region, or in the world as a whole (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_diversity) . Communication differences related to culture may become the source of misunderstandings and may lower workgroup effectiveness. The diversities in cultures can be an advantage or an inconvenience for the firm. Indeed, different behaviours or habits between people in the same company could be the key to success or on the contrary, the failure too.

“Managing diversity does not mean changing valid expectations and standards. It simply recognizes the fact that some groups react differently to different situations, and we should try to reduce the frictions that may result.” ( http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/acsc/97-0607c.pdf)

Differences in the American and the Saudi Arabian society:

There are many differences between the societies all over the world. Saudi people’s methods are bonded by Islamic religion instructions and very old customs. Therefore, Saudi people’s methods are different than American people methods, which depend completely on development and freedom.

The Saudi culture is a polychromic society. In this kind of country, the natural cycle is respected and the time is shared. People do several things at a time, they have a very flexible concept of time. They can easily change plans and activities. They may set a time to meet “sometime in the afternoon” and on many occasions the schedule is broken, changed or deadline unmet.

The United States is considered a monochromic society. Here the things are done one at a time and the time is segmented into precise units. Here the time is arranged, scheduled and managed. They will schedule meeting at a precise time, such as 2.15 p.m. and expect all involved parties to be punctual. For Americans, time is a precious resource not to be wasted or taken lightly. The American society has non-working days on Saturday and Sunday while Saudi society has non-working days on Thursday and Friday.

Collectivism in Saudi society is more important than it is in the American society. Saudi people prefer group activities; they prefer doing work in the companies with a group to doing it alone. In contrast, American people prefer doing their activities alone. , at work, Saudi people expect the boss to make all the decisions, and all they do is the achieving. In contrast, at work in American companies there is not as much difference between people of high and low status. The boss listens to people at all levels in the company too. Saudi society is close minded. For example, the employees in the company are always against any change in the company procedures which they work in, while American company employees are more open to changes. Saudi people never work devotedly without having good relations exist between them and the mangers in their work. However, in American society the most important thing at work is the work itself. They never let the relationship between them and their mangers affect strongly on their work. Saudi people tend to like having many rules. For example, at work if there were not many rules, they would not achieve, come to work on time and leave on time, so the employer could put a lot of rules to actualizing his work. In the other hand, American employees prefer less rules and more freedom in their work to achieve efficiently. (http://ceslae2.blogspot.com/2008/09/differences-between-saudi-society-and_13.html)

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Impact of diversity on the American workers: Diversity can act as double edged sword. If not handled properly it could lead to a huge loss which the company has faced earlier. Due to diversity, the work culture and the work environment for the American workers would be completely different. Coping up with the new environment would be a huge task for them which could even result in decrease in the output of their work. Communication difference related to culture may become source of misunderstanding and may lower the effectiveness of the entire group. In order to avoid a huge impact on the workers, they should be properly selected and sent for an appropriate pre-departure training programme.

Strategy and criteria for selecting appropriate staff:

Face: Dignity and respect are key elements in Saudi Arabian culture and saving face, through the use of compromise, patience and self-control is a means by which to maintain these qualities. In a culture where confrontation and conflict are to be avoided, the concept of face is a fundamental issue of daily life. In Saudi Arabia, the concept of face is used to avoid conflicts and to avoid embarrassing situations and to avoid discomforting others. So the American workers who have human nature and the quality to save the face by means of non-conflict measures should be selected. In business context, preventing face is equally important. For example, the Saudi Arabian counterparts would not like it if they are placed under pressure that places them under discomforting situation. So the American staff which can work well in difficult situation without losing their cool should be selected.

Islam: Islam governs every aspect of a Muslim’s life and permeates every aspect of Saudi state. As a result, Arabian culture is described as detail oriented, where emphasis is placed on ethics and expected social behaviour such as generosity, respect and solidarity. These are social customs and duties which also interfere with the way the Arabians handle business dealings. The American staff having high ethical values n social behaviour should be selected. Also the staff should be able to produce every detail of the construction project as the Arabs may demand it.

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High Context Communication: Saudi Arabia is considered a very high context culture. It implies that the message which people are trying to convey relies heavily on the other communicative cues such as body language, eye contact rather than direct words. A particular emphasis is placed on tone of voice, use of silence, facial expressions and body language. The American staff should be selected such that they are aware of these non-verbal aspects of communication in any business setting and also the misunderstanding due to false interpretation of the gestures would be avoided. For example, silence is often used for contemplation and you should not speak during such periods.

Issues to be included in pre-departure development programme:

Successful conduct of business in Saudi Arabia requires attitudes and skills significantly different from those needed in the United States. Distinct societal differences can turn winning practices in one culture into failures in another. Despite Saudi Arabia’s recent emergence as a wealthy marketplace, traditional values and a unique lifestyle persist.  Distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable tasks are much more pronounced than in U.S. society. The pre-departure training programme is a mandatory training for all departing migrant workers which normally includes language training, culture familiarization, stress management, country specific orientation, health and safety, government schemes etc. http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED304884&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED304884)

Working practices in Saudi Arabia: The work culture of Saudi Arabia is different than that of America. There are many major points which play an important role in the way the Arabians carry out their business. So, while dealing with them these points should not be forgotten. Some of them may be as follows:

Generally, business appointments in Saudi Arabia are necessary. Appointments should be scheduled in accordance with the five daily prayer times and the religious holidays of Ramadan and Hajj. It is customary to make appointments for times of day rather than precise hours as hospitable and relaxed nature of Saudi business culture may cause delays in schedule.

The Americans have their weekly off on Saturdays and Sundays. But the Saudi week begins on Saturday and ends on Wednesday. So the staff must be provided with training to work on Saturdays and Sundays and take official rest on Thursdays and Fridays according to the Arabian culture. The office hours tend to be 0900-1300 and 1630-2000 (Ramadan 2000-0100), with some regional variations.

The concept of time is different in Arabia as compared to the western countries. Time is not an issue and hence Arabians are generally unpunctual as compared to the western standards. So the American staff must not mind if their Arabian counterparts are running out of schedule. Despite this, it is unusual for meetings to encroach on daily prayers and you will be expected to arrive at appointments on time.

Initial meetings are a way to become acquainted with your counterparts. They are generally long in duration and discussions are conducted at a leisurely pace over tea and coffee. Time should be allocated for such business meetings, as they are an essential part of Saudi Arabian business culture.

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In the event that you are offered a gift, it is considered impolite and offensive if you do not except it.

Work relationships in Saudi Arabia: For any successful business is it vital to maintain healthy work relationships. The kind of relation may depend upon the culture and background of the countries involved.

The Saudi Arabian business people prefer face to face meetings as doing business in the Kingdom is done against an intensely personal background.

Establishing trust is an essential part of Saudi business culture. The American staff must try to make every effort to establish trust and cultivate solid business relationships before entering into business dealing as this is the key to success in business in Saudi Arabia.

Respect and friendship are the values that are held very high by the Arabs. Americans should not forget that in business setting, favours based on mutual benefit and trusts are the ways of enhancing these cultural values. Often personal connections and family influence take precedence over the governing factors in the business of Saudi Arabia.

Structural hierarchy in Saudi Arabian companies: There exists a dichotomy between subordinates and managers within the Saudi Arabia companies.

The people with authority are accepted and expected to issue complete and specific directives to others.

Age plays an important role in the culture of Saudi Arabia. The American workers must keep in mind that greater respect must be shown to elders at all times. For instance, when entering a room or greeting your Saudi counterparts for the first time, you should shake hands with most senior person first. You should greet each of your Saudi counterparts individually, making your way in the room in anti-clockwise direction.

Saudi Arabian business etiquette: There are certain do’s and don’ts in every business culture. It is always beneficial for the business dealings if we follow the etiquettes as they may work in our favour.

Do abide by standards of modesty and dress appropriately. For men, conservation business suits are recommended. For women, high necklines, sleeves at least to elbow, and preferably long skirts below the knee.

Maintain a strong eye contact and keep a closer distance during conversation at both business and social settings. Both are the ways to strengthen trust and show respect in Saudi Arabia.

Communications occur at slower pace and patience is absolutely necessary. So Americans should not rush their Arabian counterparts during business negotiations.

Maintaining humility and displaying conservative behaviour at all times is important. Appearing loud or overly animated in public is considered as rude and vulgar.

While in a business meeting don’t assume that the person who asks most questions is the decision maker. In Saudi Arabia this person is considered to be least respected or least important. The decision maker is mostly a silent observer. For this reason, if American staff should keep in mind that they should not ask all the questions in the business meeting. ( http://www.communicaid.com/cross-cultural-training/culture-for-business-and-management/doing-business-in/Saudi-arabian-business-and-social-culture.php)

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