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Doing Business in Saudi Arabia – I Part: 7 impressions of Riyadh November 29, 2008

Posted by jgarciaalvarez in Colombia, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Latin America, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, USA.

At the present time, I am Project Director of the Saudi Fast Growth 100, an annual ranking of the 100 fastest-growing emerging companies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, recognizing the new generation of companies that are creating jobs and spurring innovation in KSA. The Saudi Fast Growth 100 was launched by three founding partners, including Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority’s (SAGIA) National Competitiveness Center, Al Watan newspaper and Next Economics.

“Doing business in Saudi Arabia” is a series of articles designed to share about my social, cultural, and professional experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I seek to bridge the gap between the entrepreneurial economies in the Middle East and those more developed in Europe and the United States. I seek to understand the opportunities and the challenges small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have to achieve size and scale in the Middle East and Latin America. I seek to learn what common attitudes towards increasing equity capital financing are shared among entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia and Colombia.

This first “blog post” describes my first 7 impressions of Riyadh, capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Inshallah”!

1. Landmarks. Two buildings characterize Riyadh’s panoramic view.

Kingdom Tower, built by Prince Alwaleed, is the tallest building in Riyadh with a height of 302 meters. It has three floors of commercial space, two for men and one for only women. All the finest boutiques around the world have a store here. Spazio restaurant is located in the 99th floor. My suggestion, go with an empty stomach — “five-course meal”!

Prince Alwaleed initially made his fortune in real estate but quickly diversified into purchasing world-known brands which were undergoing difficult times. He bought brands such as Apple, Planet Hollywood, Hyundai, and Disney, at discounted prices. He was catapulted into the world stage in the early 1990s, after investing millions of dollars to save Citigroup. It would be interesting to learn what he thinks today.

Al-Faysalia Tower, built in honor of King Faysal, Saudi monarch in the 1970s, is the second tallest building. King Faysal strongly encouraged progress in the education sector and inspired the first college for women. Today, many of his sons and daughters, princes and princesses, are leaders in the non-profit sector.

2. Dress/Clothing. All women wear a black “abbayas”. The most conservative women cover their faces and use black gloves to cover their hands. All Saudi men were a “thobe”, which are mostly white, except during winter where you see some beige, blue, and gray colors spur. Men were a “guthra” to cover their heads, the traditional red and white or just white piece of clothing.  

3. Immigrants. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the second country in the world, with the largest amount of remittances sent abroad. A vast number of Philippines, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankas, Indians, or from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, work in Saudi Arabia and send money to their families at home.

4. Gasoline. Judge yourself if the following phrase is true, “gasoline is cheaper than water”. This last week I filled my car’s tank with $4.8 USD! By the way, most of the water consumed in Saudi Arabia has been desalinated, extracted from underground rivers, or sourced from old oasis, “wadis” in Arabic.

5. Restaurants. All restaurants and coffee shops have a “men” area and a “family” section. Men can sit in both areas, pending they are sitting with their wife or female family relatives. Women can only sit in the family section.

6. SMS. Learn to quickly send text messages before coming to Saudi Arabia. SMS may be the preferred choice of communication. Even at a professional level, SMS can surpass emails as the best way to contact business colleagues in a written form.

7. Five daily prayers. Mosques kickoff prayer time with hymns. Stores, supermarkets, fast food chains, are closed. Many people leave their work places to go to the closest mosque. My suggestion, schedule in advance your supermarket visits!

“Ah salam aleykem” — “La Paz sea con ustedes” — “Peace be upon you”



1. Taleb Kabbara - December 5, 2008

I would love to learn more about the methods you follow to bridge the gap between the entrepreneurial economies in the Middle East and the more developed ones in Europe and America.

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