To typical Filipinos newly arrived in Saudi Arabia, it’s quite the norm to get exposed to things not practiced or enforced back home. Listed in the dos and don’ts in Saudi Arabia are gestures that might be practiced freely in other countries but are considered taboo in the Kingdom.
The list of dos and don’ts in Saudi Arabia
Such episodes of so-called culture shock may add up to loneliness and homesickness, but as migrant workers and ex-pats in the Kingdom, all are bound to adopt and respect these laws and cultural practices.
When greeting others
- When you enter a room or an office, greet the people with “as-salam alaikom” (peace be with you).
- If you are greeted with “as-salam alaikom”, kindly answer “wa alaikom as-salam” (and peace be with you).
When entering homes
- When entering a living room, a holy place, or a house, it is customary to remove your shoes unless you are told not to do so.
- Observe your hosts and others when visiting homes. Treat this as standard practice.
- Do not visit anyone’s house between 2 p.m. And 4 p.m. This is the normal siesta time for most locals.
When introduced to others
- Shaking hands is customary when people meet or are introduced.
- Do not shake hands with women if you are a man and with men if you are a woman.
- Both host and visitor address each other using “Mr” with family name. This is the most commonly used form of address.
- Other forms of address are: “shaik, hajji” (indicating one who has made the pilgrimage to mecca), “said” or “saeid” (sir) and “abu” (father of) followed by a first name.
- Do not call anyone by nickname or a slang name that would sound strange to others.
- Never call anyone with a “come here” motion of your finger as this may offend him.
When communicating with locals
- Try to learn Arabic. It will greatly help in your progress and work relationship.
- Learn at least all the basic phrases of courtesy and respect. This will be appreciated.
- Avoid the topics of Middle East politics and religion.
- Do not talk to women if you are a man, unless you already know each other.
- Never point your finger to a person you are talking to.
- Do not cross your legs or sit showing the undersides of your feet while talking to someone.
- Never laugh at anything pertaining to their customs or way of life that may appear strange or unusual to you.
- Avoid indulging in loud conversations or boisterous laughter.
When dressing up and choosing clothes to wear
- Both men and women never appear in shorts, except when swimming or when engaged in sports.
- Ladies should always present a modest appearance, keeping upper arms and shoulders covered.
- Men should always present a clean and fresh appearance.
- Whenever in public, a woman should wear an abaya, a full-length cloak.
When offering or receiving something
- Use your right hand when offering or receiving something to or from an Arab (or a Muslim). Do not give or receive anything with your left hand.
- The right hand is used for eating, holding books or any clean item. The left hand is for cleaning oneself.
When invited for coffee and tea
- It is polite to have two cups of Arabic coffee in a Saudi home, no more, no less. When you have enough, place your hand over the cup or shake it from side to side as you give it back to the waiter. He will understand you have finished.
- An invitation to tea should be accepted. You are being honored as a guest. Be very courteous if you really must refuse.
When on a dining function
- Use a knife and fork or a spoon and fork. You will be served food in the usual western manner.
- Do not burp at meal tables.
- During the holy month of Ramadan, do not eat in public or in the presence of a Muslim within daylight hours.
- In a banquet where food is served in one large dish, no cutlery is provided and only the right hand should be used to pick the food and eat.
- Avoid talking about pork and dog meat. They consider these dirty and should not be eaten. Dogs have a negative connotation in their religion.
When thinking of drinking an alcoholic beverage
- Never drink or serve alcoholic beverages. Like drugs, possession and/or taking of alcohol is prohibited and punishable by law.
- Newcomers are advised to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, especially during summer.
- Manufacturing, selling and drinking of liquor is an offense that is punishable by law.
When trying to understand religion
- The proper term is “Islam” for the religion, not Mohammedanism and “Muslim” or “Moslem” for the person, not Mohammedan.
- Islam means “submission to god”.
- Do not discuss religion. This can be a sensitive subject to some people.
- Do not use the name of God (Allah), the qu’ran of the prophet Mohammed and other Muslim saints irreverently. Say “allah ta, ala” (the most high), “qu”ran el karim” (holy qu’ran) and “rasul allah” (messenger of allah).
- Do not attempt to enter a mosque if you are not a Muslim unless you have permission.
- Do not enter the cities of Makkah and Medina if you are not a Muslim.
When trying to understand Muslim prayers
- Prayers are said at 12 noon, 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. And 3:30 a.m. But the time changes with the seasons.
- Do not attempt to do business during daily prayer hours.
- Do not talk, play music, or make any form of noise while someone is praying and while the holy qu’ran is being read or played on a cassette, television, or radio.
- Do not walk in front of someone who is praying.
- Do not stare at someone who is praying.
- Do not step on a prayer rug if someone is preparing to pray.
When trying to understand the Holy Qu’ran
- Do not touch the holy qu’ran or other Muslim prayer books when you are in private houses or offices. It is a very irreverent gesture. Even a Muslim is discouraged from touching the holy qu’ran without ablution.
When carrying religious articles
- Do not carry in your possession any non-Muslim religious articles or objects, i.e. Bible, rosary, stampitas, medallions, etc., when traveling to Arab countries in the Middle East, especially to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
- Proselytizing is prohibited in the kingdom.
When participating in local holidays and Muslim festivities
- All Muslims celebrate the holidays of Eid-el-fitr (end of Ramadan, the month of fasting) and Eid-el-addha (pilgrimage to Makkah, better known as the “haj”).
- Familiarize yourself with these and other festivities in the Islamic calendar.
- During the holy month of Ramadan, eating, drinking and smoking are all strictly prohibited with daylight hours. The penalty, if caught, is expulsion especially from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
When thinking of smoking
- Although smoking is not prohibited, most religious people in Saudi Arabia do not welcome cigarette smoking. Some consider it an evil habit. It is advisable to avoid smoking, most especially for women.
- During the holy month of Ramadan, smoking is strictly forbidden in the streets or anywhere in public within daylight hours. If caught, you will be expelled from the Kingdom.
When thinking of driving
- Until recently, women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.
- Be a defensive driver. It’s not uncommon to find aggressive driving styles among the local population.
When taking photographs
- Do not take a picture of any person without asking his or her permission first.
- Do not photograph military installations, ports, and airport facilities without official permission.
- Do not bring lewd or pornographic pictures, tapes, and magazines/reading materials.
When dealing with women
- Do not stare at women.
- Women are advised to avoid going out alone for their own safety and protection.
- Women should not talk intimately in public with their husbands. They may go out with other male friends, provided they maintain a distance from them.
- Women should refrain from exhibiting aggressive stances or attitudes at all times.
When going for entertainment
- Disco dancing is prohibited.
- Do not bring or sell raffle tickets, as this is considered gambling.
When going out as couples
- Even if you are husband and wife or officially engaged, you should never embrace in public, hold hands romantically or show any signs of romance. These acts are considered offensive to public morals.
- Do not insist that a Saudi bring his wife to social gatherings. There are two separate social groups: men and women; and they do not usually intermingle in public gatherings and occasions.
- Taxi drivers and barbers do not expect tips.
- Tipping is an uncommon practice except in airports (for porters) and in hotels (for waiters and porters).
When you encounter accidents or giving first aid
- Unless you are a doctor, medical staff or an authorized person, do not administer first aid in case of an accident.
When trying to assimilate with your hosts or learn more about Saudi Arabia / Middle East
- Learn about their ways, traditions, and religion.
- Accept invitations to their homes.
- Acquaint yourself with the people.
- Try traditional produce and local materials.
- Adjust your mental attitude and notions.
- Be modest at all times.
- Show your respect and regard for your host.
What are the grounds for deportation?
- Commission of crimes and unlawful activities.
- Use of fraudulent documents.
- Expiration of required residence/working permits.
Showing respect for the Saudi flag/monarch
- Never show disrespect for the Saudi flag or the Saudi monarch. A tattoo of the Saudi flag could be considered an offense.
When carrying your Iqama/passport
- Always carry your Iqama (residence permit) and a copy of your passport. Authorities have the right to demand to see the documents for identification purposes. Most public transactions in the Kingdom require the presentation of an Iqama.
- Always check the validity of your iqama and passport. Both documents should never expire. A passport must always have 6 months validity.
When applying for loans
- Loaning and borrowing money with interest is prohibited.
- Being a guarantor for a loan would make you liable for the whole amount of the loan.
- Non-payment of a loan, even if you are a guarantor, could result in imprisonment.
When dealing with drugs and narcotics
- Drugs and narcotics are prohibited in the kingdom so never attempt to use or smuggle banned substances.
- Mere possession of a narcotic, even in very small amounts, is a criminal offense.
- Manufacturing, selling, using, or possessing drugs are all grounds for criminal action.
- Even slimming pills or pharmaceuticals containing small amounts of narcotics are prohibited.