Saudi Arabia: The Bi-Cultural Hostess


It is always a pleasure to receive queries and requests for posts from American Bedu followers.  Today’s query comes from a Westerner who is in a relationship with an Arab.  Her partner frequently has his friends come over to visit and sometimes stay with them.  She wants to know how to be a good hostess.

Arabs take great pride in demonstrating their hospitality.  No guests are turned away whether expected or not.  The best dishes will be prepared and offered.  The host and hostess will never give any indication whether they have another commitment or not.  While they have their guest, the guest receives the full attention.

It is always important to offer drinks and refreshments to guests.  In Saudi Arabia, it is common to first offer a guest water and then follow up with a selection of fresh juices.  Many Saudis will also start out with sweets before offering anything more savory.

I had a tendency to combine both Western and Saudi cultures when hosting guests.  I would always offer something to drink but usually have a variety of choices on a tray, to include water, fruit juice or soft drinks.  I’d also mix up the “finger foods” too.  I’d like to have several platters with selections that offer a sweet tray, vegetable tray, mini sandwiches or something simple like mini-pizzas.

In Saudi Arabia it’s not a bad idea to keep items on hand which can be prepared easily and quickly in the event of unexpected guests.

While guests would enjoy their drinks and finger foods, I’d coordinate and begin preparations for a meal.  Usually I’d prepare a basic kupsa (chicken and rice dish) with a traditional Arabic salad.  Lasagne is also a popular and easy dish to put together for unexpected and hungry guests.  These are also dishes that both Westerners and “Easterners” like to enjoy.

If you are not a quick cook or prepared to cook, then it is okay to slip to another room and place an order for delivery.

One of the biggest cultural considerations to remember when entertaining Saudi or other Arab guests is to make sure that whatever you offer does not contain any alcohol or pork products.

In addition to providing appealing food and drink, the hostess is generally expected to serve and attend to the needs of guests.  If the guests are staying overnight then their room(s) should be prepared with fresh sheets, flowers and perhaps one basket with appetizing snacks and another with a selection of toiletries.  Fresh towels and face clothes should be either in the room they are staying in or clearly designated for them in the washroom.

In most Eastern cultures, the guests are not expected to make up their beds.  This is due in large part that many have domestic help who see to these tasks.  If the hostess does not have domestic help, my recommendation is that she go ahead and make up the beds after guests.  Again, the key is hospitality and showing the guest they are always most welcomed.

Some houseguests will offer to help out.  The Saudi way is to politely turn down their offer.  If the guest is sincere, he or she will help out regardless.

I hope that these tips are useful and provide some insights into traditional Saudi hospitality.


30 Responses

  1. I would not have guessed this, but these are right out of Emily Post, the American who wrote a book on proper ettiquette about the turn of the nineteenth century, for those who are not from America. I don’t think young people are taught proper ettiquette anymore. Westerners could learn from our Saudi brothers and sisiters.

  2. Yes; Saudi Arabia hospitality is very much like Emily Post and Betty Crocker combined….and nothing wrong with that either!

    On Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 5:04 PM, American Bedu

  3. I don’t think the level of hospitality in my mother’s family is anywhere near that of the Saudis, but we always had food for visitors, at least on the weekends. I had an aunt who had a large pot of boiling water on the stove, italian bread and sauce ready for visitors on what seemed a moments notice.

  4. I think folks of Italian or Irish heritage have hospitality close to that of Saudis.

    On Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 5:46 PM, American Bedu

  5. I would not be a good Arab. I really wish I were more hospitable, but it’s just not my thing to entertain people especially ones who drop in without calling.

  6. Agreed, the world would be much better if everyone lived by those rules

  7. African hospitality is quite close to this as well. This fine if you don’t work, don’t have kids to attend, have domestic help & most importantly if people to mooch of you. Once in a while is OK, though I’m not that hospitable.

  8. I Think it’s great to be hospitable to guests.
    But there are limits to what is possible. It sounds lovely in the article but is it feasible? What about one’s daily work which also has to be done? What about the food itself? I don’t like wasting food.
    You would always have to have tons of food in the house, and apparently absolutely nothing to do.

    I welcome all my visitors with coffee or tea, and I can make a juice for them, but I don’t eat artifact food and don’t have it in my house, I only have fresh food and if they come unannounced they will have to share what food I happen to have, I don’t buy more than I need for if I have to throw away lots of food I consider that a waste of Earth’s resources. I consider it a sin to throw away food and I already have to do so when vegetables spoil before I have eaten them.

    Besides, if you visit me unannounced chances are I am either hard at work, and I can’t stop working when I am in the middle of a painting with my palette set out and the paint wet.
    Or I am out, with my horse or working outside.
    So in the Netherlands it is considered bad taste to drop in unannounced and expect the impossible

    I much prefer if I have a proper engagement with people so I can be prepared, buy lots of nice food and make sure I have the time to attend to them and spoil them. I love spoiling my friends.

  9. Which made me think… if you don’t want Saudi people dropping in all the time, a selection of fine wines, pork sausages, and ham, and paté would be my choice for offering visitors… 😈

  10. There is an old saying, a Yiddish one; What does a dead fish and company (visitors) have in common?? After three days they both stink.

  11. this reminds me of our days in india and the endless visitors and cups of tea 🙂
    my parents and aunt -inlaws/ grand parents greatly enjoyed visitors because they were retired or semi-retired adn had plenty of time, so they took great pleasure in preparing trays and tea and yummy snacks.

    when me and F ran our separate home, we had visitors , those days no one ever called nad visited , they just showed up 🙂 and it would be terribly inconvienient, we tried to be hospitable, but even as i was chatting and offering snacks my mind would race to the next task or next exam i was studying for..
    worse was when we had our first baby and both were resident.. ooh it was not fun, so much so that i had f’s aunt or my grandmom at our home, i begged them to come int he morning and leave late , so i could study in peace or come form work and not entertain, they happily took over the baby and my visitors .

    it’s nice to have visitors and hospitality should be the norm , i enjoy visitors now.. kids gone, no where to rush , sedate pace and more time to smell the roses. i think it’s families with young ones and a million tasks and no help that struggle. and as visitors we should be considerate and not show up @ their doorstep.

    carol/aafke – come to boston, visit us, we will pamper you 🙂 although you have to show up when my daughter visits from college since she’s the fab cook. or i’ll subject you to my indian cooking 🙂
    i too dont have any junk or packaged stuff at home, no kids so just fruits and veggies and healthy stuff and all the time inthe world to get fresh stuff ..

  12. Radha, it’s a deal! My move is imminent, once everything is moved and settled there will be time to bug other people with (long 😈 ) visits!

  13. Aafke – let’s plan on a road trip together when you get to the States and we’ll visit Radha. You can fix your scrumptious teas and drinks. I can make Saudi food and we’ll get to enjoy Rahdha & P’s fabulous Indian cooking!

    On Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 9:57 AM, American Bedu

  14. Most visitors who do drop in in Saudi will do so between the two evening prayers. Many will depart prior to the next prayer but there are guests who will stay, pray and then remain awhile. Due to working schedules, school schedules and oftentimes challenges for women to have a driver, the majority of visits take place in the evening.

    We never wasted food in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah always gave our leftovers to the third-national domestic/labor workers who lived on our all-Saudi compound.

  15. Sudan and Saudi are the same when it comes to guests except that Sudan is a poor country so you may or may not be offered food depending on the time of day and what is in the house. You will always be given water first and or a soft drink and then tea. Candies are always on offer sadly. If there are cookies or fruit they will also be offered. If a guest arrives around meal time they will be fed. A large amount of food is always cooked to accommodate extra people. The door is always open to visitors and they seldom phone ahead. Usually there is one person at home who will take on the duties of host if others are busy doing things.

    In Saudi it is the same but with much more food offered. There were fewer drop-ins and most seemed to phone ahead to arrange a visit. I could be that my sister in law trained her friends and relatives to do that as she did not like drop-ins at all. In both countries a bed will also be made ready at the drop of a hat.

    Middle East and African hospitality far exceeds any that I’ve ever experienced and I have traveled extensively.

    If I lived in either place I’d have rules. I do not like ‘drop in’ visitors – not even family drop-ins. LOL!!!

  16. Ditto Wendy, i do not like unannounced visitors. My sister likes to do that. She would call me at the last minute and what I do is tell her to bring over food. But since she’s and I get on well, it’s not an inconvenience. Just make yourself at home. Rather like the siblings in According to Jim.

  17. I used to be good at being a hostess, but then life got crazy for me and now, I feel like I’m a terrible hostess these days! (And no kids yet, either- thankfully!) I think being a good hostess and homemaker has lost its value in modern “Western” society. I know of more than a few people who thought it was easy until they tried it (businesswoman turned stay-at-home mother and housewife).

    One interesting thing I have noticed is that the concept of “good tea” varies from country to country. I KNOW how to fix tea, the concept of brewing times and temperatures, etc. However, I have had some people complain even when I thought I had made the tea perfectly.

    I don’t mind unannounced visitors as long as they don’t stay too long and are respectful. I really don’t mind them if they don’t mind “making themselves at home” which in my family means that after the 2nd or 3rd time you visit, we show you around the house. You are free to use anything and have full access to the kitchen (and rest of the house for that matter), but don’t expect us to cater to your every whim. (Which is so much easier!!) In other words, we treat you like family. 😀

    What about a post on how to be a “good” guest in Saudi culture?

  18. I like your way Strangeone. But what if the guest took the term ‘make yourself at home’ seriously with their kids all over the place and start to make mess of your house just the way they are accustomed to at home…Would we be bad hostesses if we complained? I think this link is a good lesson on how to be the ideal guests

  19. One thing I have a hard time remembering and practicing when in Muslim countries is the need to say hello and good bye to every single person in the room. It can take forever to get the long individual greetings done. LOL!!!

    It’s not like North America or Europe where you can enter or exit a room and say a general hello pr good-bye to the group. It is not abnormal when leaving a party to only say good bye to the host and hostess either and not the entire group.

  20. You’re quite right, Wendy… and to remember the protocol of who gets what kind of kiss when leaving too!

  21. I believe France might be similar in that one has to greet every person in the group (and also with who gets what kiss)?

    @Mrs B., If I treat you like family, that means when I disagree with you I speak my mind; I’m very American in this way. Most people are surprised by my bluntness after they get to know me better as I tend to be more quiet and demure on the surface. However, I’m still quite nice, loving, and kind either way; I’m just a little shy sometimes.

    And one thing that is different for me is that in my culture, if someone insults me in my home (or my family’s home) it is normal to kick them out or at least tell them how I feel. It is a great insult in American culture for someone to insult you in your own home. From what I have learned about Arab culture, the opposite is true. In other words, if someone insults me in my home in Arab culture, I am supposed to bite my tongue and not say anything while they are there. After they leave, however, it would be quite acceptable for me not to talk to them again if they had insulted me. One thing I have been working on is biting my tongue when it’s not that important around Arab men. Not so easy for a passionate person!

  22. In that case Strangeone, I much prefer the American culture in that respect. For I believe that when you are in someone’s house, you adapt to the host rules and manners. I just hate it when visitors especially family members bang the doors or are too rough with the furniture. How do you deal with that? And I am very OCD so I expect a level of respect when visitors enter my house and see everything shiny and spotless to not allow their kids to touch the curtain with their dirty chocolatey fingers. Even my toddler knows how to use a tissue to blot up spills.

  23. @mrsB,
    I’m pretty easy-going about that sort of thing. While I expect people to clean up after themselves, I don’t expect peace or quiet when there are visitors around. It doesn’t bother me when kids get a little messy and I would expect some level of chaos and noise when children are present. (Although, it will bother me if their parents are more than a little messy). Curtains can be washed, and stains can usually be removed. If the stains can’t be removed, then oh well. But every person is different, and so I agree that guests should be respectful of the host.

  24. Anybody who is given the great honor of being allowed to come to my house, and then messes and dirties up my home, my personal space, my center of life, will have to pay for the damage, cleaning and replacements and will never come through the door again.

    It’s great to be invited, but that doesn’t give the guest to behave like a retarded uncivilized savage.

  25. ME kids are often spoiled to ridiculousness and especially boys who can reek havoc wherever they go. I have seen such bad behaviour in someone else’s home it’s unbelievable. I simply could not tolerate the same in my home. Another reason to not accept guests who do not phone ahead. For some of these people I’d NEVER be home and it’s even tougher when it’s a relative. LOL!!!

  26. I don’t mind the children as they don’t know any better. Its the parents that irks me so much when they don’t even bat an eye seeing their kids wrecking the host’s house. You’re in someone’s house not a fun fair so I think it’s important for parents who like having their kids tow along to discipline their kids.

  27. Well it is customary that we call prior to going over to anyone’s home and I expect the same from out guests. In addition, we bring gifts and help clean up. The clean up part is definitely based on the hosts level of confort on this item. Now that is not expect from my guests but if they offer we accept. This is also not to say that I would never not welcome an unexpected guest but it would put me off.

    In regards to children, we expect oursto be well behaved and courtesy. If they act like little hellions there will be consequence. In addition, if a guest’s children were to act in a manner that creates intended or reckless damage or rudeness or physical altercations then I will inform the parents that I view it as disrespectful and ask that they not return with their children. It would also diminsh my respect for that guest. Now that is not to say that I don’t expect children to act up because I do but I do expect parents to deal with it where they put the child into a mode of acceptable behavior.

    As far as I am concerned, hospitality is a two way street.

  28. We had unexpected visitors the other day, and their 2-year old girl was causing quite a mess in the living room. When I went to the kitchen, she followed me and spilled the cats water tray all over the floor. So I thought I’d try something. I pointed to the floor and told her that she’d made a mess and needed to clean it up. Mind you – she doesn’t speak English but she knew exactly what she’d done wrong. I grabbed a towel and told her to clean it up. She took it and looked at it as if it came from another planet. She looked back up to me and tried to hand back the towel, but I insisted and told her that she’d have to clean that up. She hesitated for a moment and then, oh miracle, went down on her knees and mopped up the water. I couldn’t help bursting out laughing and gave her a big kiss and sent her off. Moral of the story – children respond quite well to being disciplined, especially if they’re usually spoilt. I prefer to deal with the kids directly, rather than upset the guests by complaining about their ways.

  29. Would you have done that had the mother been there? Good for you!

  30. Yes, and then congratulate the mother about her exceptionally well-raised child 😀

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