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Modesty is the watchword for business dress in Saudi Arabia, whether you're male or female. Covering up in this region's high temperatures may present something of a challenge, but dressing correctly is more likely to lead to a successful business transaction. Women face a more difficult dress challenge and may need to buy clothes specifically for Saudi Arabia.
Dressing Etiquette for Men
Men should wear a traditional business suit to meetings, ideally in a dark color. You should also wear a long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the collar and a tie. Saudi etiquette does permit a man to wear a short-sleeved shirt, but a long-sleeved one is preferable. Never wear shorts to a business meeting, or even to a social gathering with Saudis, because Islamic law states that men must not expose the thighs, knees and calves. Avoid wearing any visible jewelry, especially a neck chain with a cross. Either remove them before meetings or make sure your jewelry is hidden. Wear smart dress shoes with your suit.
Dressing Etiquette for Women
Doing business in Saudi Arabia is more challenging for women. Whether you are part of business negotiations or attending a business function with your husband, you need to dress conservatively. Ideally, your outfit should be ankle length, although shorter skirts are permitted provided they cover the calves. Dress or blouse sleeves should be wrist length or at least reach the elbow. Play it safe with a high neckline, and if you wear a shirt that unbuttons, button it up. Don't choose an outfit that hugs the body; loose clothing is more acceptable. Wear shoes that are appropriate to your outfit. Keep a headscarf at hand in case you are invited to a mosque. It's also advisable to wear one if you're in a public place. Non-Saudi women are not obliged to cover up in public, but you'll draw less attention to yourself if you cover your head. Whatever you do, don't wear pants or a pantsuit.
Saudi Business Dress
A Saudi businessman turns up for meetings either in western-style or traditional Saudi clothing. The traditional outfit consists of a long white robe called a thawb, although in winter a Saudi man may wear it in darker colors. He wears a ghutrah or shumagh on his head -- a square piece of fabric folded into a triangle. The ghutrah is white cloth and the shumagh is red and white. The head covering is held in place with an igal, which is a black double cord often made of goat hair and sheep's wool. He may wear a mishlah over his thawb. This floor length cloak is made of cotton or wool and trimmed with gold embroidery. Open-toed leather sandals complete his outfit.
One of the best ways for a Western woman to conform to Saudi clothing rules is to wear a traditional abaya over a business outfit, especially in public places. Traditionally an abaya is a long black dress with long sleeves. It's loose enough to fit over a business outfit. Abayas are now available in brighter colors and in a variety of materials, including denim. Some are heavily embroidered and suitable for evening wear.
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