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A few cultural thoughts on living and working in the Middle East
As providers of hospitality, Arabs are renowned. There is a genuine delight in social interchange, and most Arabs take pride in the range and variety of their friendships.
The most familiar gesture of hospitality, whether it is Arabians entertaining one another or foreign visitors, is the serving of coffee. The coffee is served from an Arabic Coffeepot, called a "Dallah" and offered in small cups without handles which are usually only half filled when offered.
The coffee itself is strongly flavored with cardamom, and sometimes with cloves and saffron. The server of coffee will refill the cup until the guest returns the cup to him giving it a little shake. To accept three cups of coffee is normal; more may be considered excessive.
An invitation to dinner may mean the offering of a meal in the "Western style," or it may be a grand affair in which Arab food is served in large dishes placed on a tablecloth on rugs on the floor; guests seated on the floor. The central dish could be a young camel or a sheep - either boiled or roasted whole - served on a mound of steaming rice.
To eat with the left hand is not considered acceptable. The right hand is washed before and after meals. Women do not mix with strangers in Arab society, so many times these elaborate feasts are all-male affairs, although exceptions to this rule are more common today than in years past.
It is customary to shake hands on meeting and parting. Hearty behavior seldom impresses, and acting like you're in a hurry can cause affront. It is also customary for hosts to accompany visitors to the door of the house or office or to an awaiting car. Such gestures should be reciprocated by Westerners receiving an Arab guest.
Westerners are often surprised at the ease of relationships between various ranks of Arab society. This equality of men in the eyes of God derives from the teachings of the Holy Koran. Frequently, drivers or others in relatively humble capacities will accompany those in whose service they are employed into the presence of those of standing and high rank
Dress and Fashion
Saudis of virtually all ranks hold firmly to the traditional manner of dress in their own land, considering it to be more appropriate to the climate of their country. Men wear the headcloth, ghutrah, on the head, held in place by the taqiyyah beneath, and the black woven circlet, 'iqal, above. The ghutrah is usually of checkered red and white in the cooler months and of white in the hot months.
The main body garment is the long white shirt, thawb, above which may be worn the loose and flowing gown, mishlah, often of a brown color. Women cover themselves with the abaya, which is black in color and designed to cover them completely.
The fact that many Saudis speak English should not deter the Westerner from the pleasure a basic knowledge of the Arabic language can bring. To be able to greet and reply in Arabic is regarded as a complement towards the society you are entering.
We encourage all of the candidates we send to Saudi Arabia to interact socially as often as possible with the locals. Saudis are genuinely warm and gracious and love to discuss world politics, events and religion. Accepting a dinner invitation in the desert can be the experience of a lifetime as you sit on scattered carpets and experience what life must have been like for the beduin wanderers of the past.
Similarly, you should reciprocate by inviting your new Arab friends to dinner at your home. Just be aware that for many Saudis, this dinner invitation may be taken to mean only the male member and he may arrive at your home without his wife. Some Saudis are comfortable socializing among women but many are not. Use your good judgement to ensure a successful evening.
Life As An Expat In The Middle East