Many customs in Saudi Arabia are undergoing rapid change and because of outside influences certain modes of behaviour are no longer so rigidly maintained. However, it is as well to familiarise yourself with the etiquette and customs. You will appreciate the people more if you understand how they think and act, and in return they will appreciate your courtesy and consideration.
The family is the all-important social unit. Arranged marriages are still common. Never ask after a Saudi’s wife. They may, however, ask after yours, because they know that it is acceptable to do so in the West. The extended family system is very much in operation, and relatives remain in close touch with each other.
A woman leaving the immediate family circle will be veiled and must not be alone with a man other than her husband or a close relative. Traditionally men and women do not mix in public, but nowadays they are often invited to dine together. Women are not allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia. Men should not wear shorts except at the beach. Women should keep their knees and elbows covered. Western women often wear a long black cape or abaya over their clothes when going out into the street.
Ancient Arab customs established that noble actions are performed with the right hand and ignoble ones with the left. It is always better to use the right hand to take and to give, and if eating with one’s fingers, to eat with the right hand only.
When the time for prayer is called by the muessin, people pray wherever it is clean and convenient. Never walk immediately in front of someone who is praying; leave at least a few metres’ distance.
Non-Muslims should not attempt to enter a mosque, which is a consecrated place for prayer. They are not allowed to approach the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and during Ramadan even non-Muslims must not eat, drink or smoke in public or in the presence of Muslims during the daylight hours.
Photography is a sensitive subject. Don’t photograph women, mosques, royal residences or military establishments without permission.