When eating in the home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, there
are a couple etiquette rules related to Islam you must know and follow. First, dress
very conservatively, which means your entire legs and arms should be covered; for
women all skin should be covered with the exception of your eyes (although legally
you can show your face, few women do so). Second, it is generally not accepted to
eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse.
Due to this, many restaurants are divided into a "Men Only" section and
a "family section." This makes traveling with anyone of the opposite sex
other than immediate family difficult, if not impossible in Saudi Arabia. If you
are with someone of the opposite sex who is not in your family (a co-worker for
example), don't eat together.
If you get by those first two rules (much easier for men than for women), try to
arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes
at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but men should not touch
the hand of a woman, although you should greet and acknowledge everyone. Prior to
sitting down, everyone will likely wash their hands and you should follow them as
you will likely be using your hand to eat. Let your host seat you and when sitting
be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the
soles of your feet at another can be offensive.
Once the food is served, and you will likely be served first as the guest or second,
after the elders, your host will indicate you may begin eating with the word "sahtain"
or "Bismillah." Try a bit of everything offered as turning down
food is rude. Eat as the locals eat; in some settings this means eating directly
with your right hand (and your right hand only, in fact your left hand should remain
out of sight if not in use), but in other settings you may be offered dining utensils
(cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand,
fork in the left). If a knife is not present, most locals will hold the spoon in
their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold
in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your
right hand. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was
more than enough then place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position. After
everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and
wash your hands once more. After this you may be asked to stay for coffee or tea,
an invitation you should accept to avoid offending your host.
If dining in a restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Many hotel
restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service
charge is included and you're in a nice restaurant or a hotel restaurant, leave
a tip of 10%.
Celebrations & Events
The Saudis celebrate weddings, reunions, and the arrival
of a special guest in nearly the same way. Historically the arrival of a guest was
a rare occasion and due to that encouraged the slaughter of a sheep, camel, or goat.
Today this is still the case for weddings and other large gatherings, but for most
occasions, the event only requires that a meat is served; today that meat is most
commonly chicken or meat from a sheep (lamb or mutton). These meats are traditionally
boiled and served with rice and soup.
The two religious festivals are celebrated in much the same way. Eid al Fitr
is an event filled with numerous foods, which differ from family to family, but
always includes dates and generally also consists of various meats or fish, grains,
and vegetables. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday
that requires fasting for 30 days.
The second major food celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated
after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able
Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and
meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.
The most traditional drinks in Saudi Arabia are coffee
and tea, which are also the most commonly offered drinks to guests. Coffee comes
in numerous styles, but Arabian coffee and Turkish coffee are the most popular.
Juices, milk, and soft drinks are also readily available so no matter your tastes,
there will be plenty of options.
As a Muslim country, Saudi Arabia has no alcohol available
and it is illegal to consume or transport alcohol in the country.
The tap water is generally safe to drink in Saudi Arabia.
If you do drink the water (or the ice or salads washed in the tap water), many people
may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different
from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.