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Conflicting Negotiation Styles and Strategies: Comparing Perspectives from Saudi Arabia & USA

  1. Introduction

Conflicts are a part of life, and can arise any time. There are many types of conflicts, but everyone has different conflict negotiation styles and strategies. Some people adopt a passive or competitive approach to resolve conflicts, while others adopt cooperative or considerate approaches. When it comes to business, managers and executives attend various conflict resolution trainings to satisfy all internal and external stakeholders. Furthermore, culture plays an important role in conflict resolution, styles in business, and even personal conflicts. Cultures remain in the “blood” of every individual, a lens through which life is perceived. Our culture influence our mind and thoughts, which shape our ideas, judgements, attributions, and perceptions. It influences our mind, consciously and unconsciously, when resolving conflicts during negotiations. Consequently, culture is an integral part of negotiations and conflict resolution style.

Cultures are beyond food, dress, and language norms. They are composed of gender, religious affiliation, political affiliation, disability, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, trends of generations, nationality, ethnicity, race, and much more. Before conducting a cross-cultural study regarding negotiations, it must be kept in mind that cultures are related to the symbolic dimension of life, and they keep on changing with the transformation of each generation. The symbolic dimension of the culture means that individuals continuously endorse their identities and define meanings in their minds.

Furthermore, one needs to understand the concept of cultural messages, which can only be comprehended by the individual who belongs to a specific culture.[1] This is focused on analysing the conflict negotiations styles and strategies in different countries, as this piece shall depict by referencing to American and Saudi Arabian cultures. Note, however, that culture, aligned with conflict negotiations styles, can not only differ from country to country, but even differ from city to city. This piece highlights the prominent issues, styles, and strategies that these two cultures—American and Saudi Arabian—use to resolve the conflicts through negotiations.

  1. Loud & Aggressive Vs. Quiet & Cooperative

It is considered normal in Saudi Arabia for a person to be aggressive and loud. It is their style of negotiation, and an indicative factor that they are concerned about the business and the dispute. It is generally said that one needs to manage their emotions during negotiation. Although Saudis are loud during conversations in negotiation, that does not mean that they are disrespectful; they are just passionate about the deal. It is advisable that other negotiators be patient with a Saudi while a Saudi is speaking, as a sign of respect. Other negotiators may certainly disagree with a Saudi because Saudis appreciate when a person expresses a genuine thought.

The negotiation styles of Americans can be very different. They may have a distinctive style that can include being result-oriented, urgent, legalistic, explicit, and forceful. However, because United States itself is a very large country and possesses a very diversified culture, these negotiation styles may vary according to circumstances, location, and demographics. There is also an involvement of different cultural and structural factors in the American style of negotiation. According to some researchers who conducted surveys in America, American negotiators are hard to comprehend.[2]  One the major cause of this proposition is the homogeneity in cultural and racial domains.[3]  Therefore, negotiation styles may not be exact recipes, but good guides. Negotiators need to understand that there are various circumstantial factors involved in addition to culture that include mood, interpersonal dynamics, individual preferences, nature of the issue, history between the parties, stakes, setting, and time.[4]

  1. Developing Relationships First vs. Straight to Business

Saudis are keen on doing business with individuals, rather than corporations. Before making any deal, they believe in building relationships first. This style is not just adopted in Saudi Arabia, but in the whole Middle East. Their business deals are dependent upon personal relationships and trust. They take time to know and understand another person before making any strong deal. If a Saudi trusts someone, it is likely that there won’t be a question of any reluctance.

If a Saudi offers food and drink, and if the other party rejects such offer, it may certainly be considered to be a rude gesture. One must accept the offer to help create trust and build a relationship. Saudis are famous for their hospitality, and one can use it as an advantage to build professional and personal associations.[5] Therefore, the negotiation culture in business is mixed with personal relationships in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, American business and negotiation culture is quite different. Americans are usually like or prefer keeping it straight about the deal, and avoid intermingling business and personal relationships. This is a wide distinction in the negotiation characteristics of the two cultures.

Another example of culture differences in negotiations comes from South America. It is said that South-Americans usually establish a personal rapport, and small-talk during negotiations.[6] They would want to know the person’s background they’re dealing with, and generally use humour to make other people comfortable. Nonetheless, during negotiations, they avoid being sarcastic, cynical, and ironic.[7]  In contrast, North-Americans usually want to keep the negotiations short, and generally leave the room for breaks, or even move around the room to stretch their legs. Often, these gestures, in other cultures, may indicate a lack of interest. Overall, the business culture in America is very task-oriented. Considering America is a capitalist society, people build business relationships when they can benefit in return.[8] And as explained above, American negotiation and business culture may greatly differ from Saudi Arabia, given the differences in importance of relationships that are only business oriented but personal.

  1. Timelines: Strict vs. Casual

Saudi Arabians have a lax behaviour toward punctuality. The negotiation meetings are usually less structured in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis do not conduct negotiations during prayers; therefore, others should consider this point under strict consideration. There is an official holiday on Thursdays and Fridays, which differs from western countries.[9]  Conversely, United States negotiators may be very strict about time and punctuality. Time is an intangible asset for Americans, which cannot be wasted on unproductive work. The weekend for those in the United States is Saturdays and Sundays, which strikingly differs from Saudi culture.

Americans may sometimes dress informally in a meeting or during negotiations, unlike Saudis. Although it is not an indication of disrespect if Americans dress casually, it is possible that Saudis may interpret it to be disrespectful, if they are unaware of the American culture. Another important point that needs to be considered is that Americans do not like to be silent during negotiations. In some Asian countries, for instance, continuous argument may be a sign of disrespect,[10] but that may not the case in the United States.  Americans do not typically use silence as conscious or strategic choices.[11] Despite their informal dressing or conversation, negotiators from the United States pursue a very strategic hierarchy of meeting.[12] Before starting any meeting, there is always a schedule for the beginning and end of the meeting.[13] This is unlike Saudi Arabia.

  1. Appealing to Emotion

In the absence of facts and solid proof, appealing to emotion is a rational delusion categorized by the influence of the receiver’s feelings to get success in any negotiation.[14] There are numerous fallacies involved in this category, such as wishful thinking, and appealing to spite, ridicule, pity, flattery, fear, and to consequences.[15] There is a similarity between Saudi Arabian and American cultures in this regard, as both appeal to emotions frequently.[16]  Even so, in terms of expressing emotions, Saudis are more reserved than Americans.

An example of Saudi reservation is that one cannot kiss or hold the hand of his own wife in public, or else he may be criticized by the public, and may even face imprisonment. However, in Saudi Arabia, a husband and wife can communicate with anger within workplace, which might be a rare instance in the United States. In Saudi Arabia, people are also very concerned with respect and dignity, which is especially true with elderly people. It is considered a sign of respect if a person meets the most elderly individual while entering a room, whether in personal or professional situations. There are appropriate levels of deference and titles when people address those who are elderly. There is also an appropriate distribution of discernment and power in Saudi Arabia. Sub-ordinates cannot argue with supervisors, as might be more common in the United States, even though they’re are not appreciated. Moreover, people at senior positions have more power than anyone else in the workplace. Status and respect are very important in Saudi Arabia, even more so than it is probably in the United States.

  1. Importance of Social Obligations

Social obligations play a very significant role for both parties during the negotiations. Organizations who involve themselves in social responsibility may get a higher stock price, improve public image of the organization, and improve the communities.[17] Nonetheless, the significance of social responsibility varies from culture to culture, or country to country. Recently, the organizations and individuals in Saudi Arabia have given adequate attention to social obligations and responsibilities by changing the mind-set of the public, concentrating on youth development, focusing on long-term plans, and investment in human capital.[18] Furthermore, due to the strong influence of religion in Saudi Arabia, they place greater importance on social behaviour and ethics, including solidarity, respect, and generosity, pulled from religious context into personal and professional contexts.

The United States, however, is a capitalist society. According to stakeholder theory, companies and managers are accountable to shareholders or investors, not the whole society.[19] Nonetheless, a new trend of corporate social responsibility has emerged in the United States, which argues that companies also have many social responsibilities and obligations toward society.[20] Although they meet customer needs, produce wealth, and create employment, these organizations can also destroy the environment and ecosystem. Thus, the American public has become very keen on corporate social responsibility, and prefer the organizations that conduct campaigns on environmental prosperity.[21] Researchers debated that there are five areas of corporate social responsibility including voluntary, relational, economic, social and environmental.[22] These areas clear the direction of the company in term of their responsibility in the business, and Americans have picked up on this fact. In addition to this, it could also improve the disclosure and transparency policy of the company, encouraging Americans to become interested in these organizations because of their transparency.

  1. Handling Conflicts Implicitly and Indirectly

In Saudi Arabia, conflicts are usually handled in implicit and indirect ways. Generally, straight hostility is avoided because it can often lead to criticism. Furthermore, to resolve certain types of conflicts, they involve a senior person to act as negotiator. In Saudi Arabia, people show humility even in times of conflict, and prefer negotiations to solve the conflicts. Although there is much favouritism and nepotism in Saudi Arabia, people usually consider it rude if a person directly asks for something. They may say, “maybe,” if they want to say, “yes,” and if they want to say, “no,” then they will say, “we will see.” According to various studies, indirect communication is better during negotiation if a person wants to avoid any certain type of conflict.[23]

Saudi students also employ indirect communication if they want to express dislike towards a subject. On the other hand, people in United State usually like punctual and direct communications. Especially, during negotiation or meeting, if a person needs to prove a point then he or she needs to do direct negotiations with an American. Trying to indirectly bring up an issue is not effective, normally. Nonetheless, if Saudis observe indirect communication by an American, then it means he or she is trying to know the personality traits and character of the person.[24] Directness in negotiations is normal and very common in American culture, However, Saudis that are straight and direct may likely be dealing with a very specific topic. Furthermore, if one sees a Saudi doing very direct negotiations, it means he is very comfortable with that person. Negative emotions or disclosure may lead to severe conflicts in Saudi culture during negotiations; on the other hand, it may be the norm in American negotiations. Regardless, each party should be aware of these norms.

  1. Respect and Authority to Pressure Concessions

While in conflict or during negotiation, both parties give respect to the negotiator and the negotiator can resolve the conflict. The negotiator has the ability, to an extent, to pressure the parties into changing their mind.  Respectful communications always vary from culture to culture. Loud tone of communication in Saudi culture is not considered as disrespect in most situations. Americans resolve conflicts on own their own—in most cases—but they also include negotiators for professional support. On most occasions, they may not actually involve any negotiator to resolve the conflict. Interestingly, Saudis perceive it as a rude gesture if someone stops them while passing by at a street, for example, and starts having a conversation. However, in America, it might be totally acceptable to carry out entire conversation while you are just passing by each other.

  1. Communication

In Saudi culture, negotiators must be able to resist pressures that opponents exercise, and understand the cultural differences in communication. People in Saudi Arabia do not talk in a sequential order; there could be very large jumps in topics during negotiations, while Americans are accustomed to orderly topics and arrangement. Saudis cannot stick to single topic for a long period of time, and can jump to another topic very quickly. Influencing Saudis on a deal or conflict can be very difficult, because they often resurrect old topics, which have already been discussed or settled. Usually, there is no bad intention and this behaviour emerges from their cultural background.

This can cause an issue, for instance, with Americans, who may think they are trying to confuse them or distract them as part of their negotiation style. Owing to a polychronic type of culture, one needs to understand the complexities and diversities in the Saudi Arabian culture.[25] They may make the conversation very long, or they may try to discuss every part of a business deal all at once. Nonetheless, negotiators from a distinct culture may need to remain calm with them during negotiations, or else they will lose the deal. Although, they believe in word-of-mouth and agreement, it is also very common behaviour among Saudis to change their mind after the deal is made final.

In addition, Saudis do not look at the concept of chit-chatting in a positive way. One may face arrogance if they start a conservation on a topic before pointing it out.[26] Not just in Saudi Arabia, but almost every Middle Eastern country, people respect negotiators and listen very carefully. In the Arab culture, negotiation was considered guaranteeing stability in earlier phases. Later, after the advent of Islam among Arabs, the culture of mediation was promoted by the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).[27] After the death of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), Khalifahs, his successors or stewards, and their companions were considered mediators.[28] Therefore, the culture of mediation is very prominent and valuable in Saudi culture and proper communication is essential.

  1. Leverage to Pressure Opponents

Leverage is a very powerful tool in negotiation. It is the ability of strong negotiator to influence an opponent to move closer to his or her exchanging point of view. There are various kinds of leverages in a negotiation, including normative leverage, negative leverage and positive leverage.[29] Normative leverage is very usual in Saudi culture because they strongly believe in their standard and norm. Generally, Saudi businessmen are very concerned about quality and advance the arguments for their own good.

Alternatively, Americans use positive leverage in most of the negotiations.[30] They have the capability to offer things that the other negotiator wants. Interestingly, negative leverage is very uncommon in both cultures. Both Saudis and Americans want a win-win situation in an argument and negotiation, but they do not want other party to suffer. Therefore, there is leverage to pressure opponents during the negotiation, but the provision of extra pressure during the negotiations is considered as negative aspect in both cultures.

  1. Bargaining

Bargaining styles, in addition to negotiation styles, are also different in Saudi Arabia than in United States. It is known that bargaining is an essential part of every negotiation.  Therefore, it is essential to have in-depth analysis of bargaining styles in Saudi Arabia, as well as United States.

    1. Bargaining Style & Strategies in Saudi Arabia

Many have said that it is very difficult to bargain with Saudi people because they are considered as shrewd negotiators. Therefore, every person should keep this in mind before starting negotiations. They usually enjoy bargaining while purchasing or selling products. Bargaining is in their habit and culture, and they love to do it. Therefore, they bargain for every product besides newspapers and stamps! Moreover, almost every price is open for bargaining. They can reduce the price up to 50% as well during the bargaining. However, they also feel offended if buyer declines to pay according to their will. People must ask for concessions but minimize pressing them during the bargaining.

However, Saudis also mislead the other people with the intention to get the bargaining advantage during the negotiations.[31] In addition to this, Saudis do not like those negotiators that use hard bargaining tactics. Price is considered a sensitive issue while bargaining with Saudi people. It is also observed that Saudis particularly focus on products rather than services during the bargaining. Nevertheless, some of them consider services as free with products. People must let Saudis start bargaining first, because if another person starts it initially they consider it as rude. Building relationships are very important during the bargaining process.[32]  If someone builds a good relationship with a Saudi person, they must do less bargaining during negotiations. These are all important factors to keep in mind when negotiating with someone from Saudi Arabia.

    1. Bargaining Style & Strategies in United States

Bargaining styles and strategies are tough in the United States.[33] Americans are tough during the bargaining, but they are fair as well. This is also observed that Americans do not prefer to bargain during the negotiations because they usually persuade others to buy their products due to features.  Americans usually offer an unrealistic offer while starting the bargaining.[34]  They also enjoy bargaining with their peers like the Saudis, and look over things universally.[35] They particularly focus on having a discussion on the disagreements rather than agreements.  Americans feel confident, energetic, and determined during the bargains. 

      1. Comparison of Negotiation Process

Comparing the negotiation process is also essential to analyse both countries. This helps to understand the complete negotiation process in these regions. The negotiation process of Saudi Arabia and United States is discussed in the following paragraphs. 

      1. Negotiation Process in Saudi Arabia

Negotiations take time to begin in Saudi Arabia. The process of negotiation consists of several steps, which include socializing.[36]  Saudis particularly focus on building relationships by socializing. If they see that they can work with someone, then they focus on enhancing the relationship.  It does not happen overnight. They will only talk with the person who has the power of decision-making in the business. They start negotiations with the person in charge and discuss the complexities of the contract. They also provide written material, which is usually in both languages, such as English and Arabic. Saudis also provide or show the prototype of the products in business negotiations, if available. Saudis bargain, negotiation, and then reach a final decision. Lastly, Saudis usually handshake to make a contract with the person that they are negotiating with.  

    1. Negotiation Process in United States

Individuals or teams start the negotiation process in United States. However, it is not essential to build relationships before negotiations, unlike in Saudi Arabia. Most decisions are made by individuals, and meetings are scheduled to start the negotiations. Negotiations mostly start with an introduction and small talk, with the aim to establish personal connection. Americans also use humour during the negotiations. The descriptions of business deals are presented in front of guests, who usually ask questions after reading the descriptions. Presentations also a large part of business deals. After presentations, the parties start negotiations, and are realistic in their discussions during negotiations. Americans usually close the negotiation to save the time. Smaller business deals are often finalized after bargaining in the first meeting, but it takes time to finalize the big business deals.      

      1. Contract Agreements

Contract agreements are usually made on the higher level in Saudi Arabia. However, it can be done orally through handshake on smaller level. The people of Saudi Arabia do not like to have lengthy contracts. However, sometimes they ask their legal consultants to write the drafts of contract agreement. This draft is considered as an actual contract after having the signatures from both parties. In addition to this, if there is a foreign party involved in the contract, they should be registered with the Ministry of Commerce.[37]  However, there are offset requirements in the international contract agreement of Saudi Arabia.[38]

In United States, contract agreements are formulated on the higher level as well as on the lower level. People do not believe or trust on oral contract agreements for the most part. Therefore, only written contract agreements are considered as valuable. Moreover, sometimes they also involve the legal consultants or attorneys while drafting the contract. However, it depends on the complexity of the contract. Contracts should be designed as user friendly so that everyone will be able to understand them.  In addition to this, one party can sue the other party in court if there is a breach of contract agreement.  Americans also add terms & conditions while developing the contract agreements with other party.  There is a strict implication of contract agreement in United States in contrast to Saudi Arabia. 

  1. Conclusion

Conflict negotiation styles and strategies of both Saudi Arabia and United States are very different. One must keep in mind that the Saudi style of negotiation is usually aggressive and loud, but it does not mean that they are expressing negative emotion. On the other hand, Americans are cooperative and quiet during negotiations. Americans go straight to business, but Saudis build relationships and trust before inaugurating any deal. In case of timeliness, Saudis are somewhat causal, but Americans consider time as money and are very punctual.

Both cultures know the importance of social obligations, but the priorities are different. Americans are very direct in communication and conflict handling. Conversely, Saudis prefer indirect communication, as they avoid direct confrontation to save face for all parties involved. Americans and Saudis both follow etiquette during conflict resolution and negotiation, although, their etiquette varies due to cultural diversities. Overall, one must be aware of the culture in which they are negotiating and be prepared to alter, or at least understand, their communications with one another.




[1] See Douglas P. Fry & Kaj Bjorkqvist, Cultural Variation in Conflict Resolution: Alternatives to Violence (2013).

[2] R. E. Potter & P.A. Balthazard, Supporting Integrative Negotiation Via Computer Mediated Communication Technologies: An Empirical Example with Geographically Dispersed Chinese and American Negotiators, 12(4) J. of Int’l Consumer Marketing 7-32 (2000).

[3] R. Menger, Japanese and American Negotiators: Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Understanding, 13(4) The Academy of Mgmt. Executive 100-101 (1999).

[4] K. Rosenblum & T. M. Travis, The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class, Sexual Orientation, and Disability, McGraw-Hill Higher Education (2015). 

[5] V. Costantini, G. Sforna, & M. Zoli, Interpreting Bargaining Strategies of Developing Countries in Climate Negotiations a Quantitative Approach, 121 Ecological Econ. 128-139 (2016).

[6] R. L. Jackson, The Negotiation of Cultural Identity: Perceptions of European Americans and African Americans (1999).

[7] V. M. Pearson, & W. G. Stephan, Preferences for styles of negotiation: A comparison of Brazil and the US, 22(1) International Journal of Intercultural Relations 67-83 (1998).

[8] F. O. Hampson & I. W. Zartman, Global Power of Talk: Negotiating America’s Interests (2015).

[9] K. S. Groves, A. Feyerherm et al. Examining Cultural Intelligence and Cross-Cultural Negotiation Effectiveness, J. Mgmt. Educ. (2014).

[10] S. T. Cavusgil, P. N. Ghauri et al., Doing Business in Emerging Markets: Entry and Negotiation Strategies (2002).

[11] Jackson, supra note 6.

[12] J. L. Graham, L. Lawrence et al., Leveraging Diversity, Inventive Negotiation 99 (2014).

[13] Id.

[14] J. C. Usunier, Cultural Aspects of International Business Negotiations 93-118 (1996).

[15] P. Khakhar, & H. G. Rammal, Culture and Business Networks: International Business Negotiations with Arab Managers, 22(3) Int’l Bus. Rev. 578-590 (2013).

[16] M. Behboudi, H. Vazifehdoust et al., Using Rational and Emotional Appeals in Online Advertisements for Muslim Customers 5(1) J. Islamic Marketing 97-124 (2014).

[17] B. M. Öberg, Team Work in Business Negotiations 6(11) J. Language Comm. Bus. 61-86 (2015).

[18] A. J. Ali & A. Al-Aali, Corporate Social Responsibility in Saudi Arabia 19(4) Middle East Policy 40-53 (2012).

[19] Harrison, J. S., & Wicks, A. C., Stakeholder Theory, Value, and Firm Performance 23(01) Business Ethics Quarterly 97-124 (2013).

[20] A. Theaker, A., Corporate Social Responsibility, The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit: An Essential Guide to Successful Public Relations Practice 193 (2012).

[21] Mirvis, P. H., Corporate Social Responsibility, The Encyclopedia of Hum. Res. Mgmt.: Short Entries, 153-159 (2012).

[22] Clapp, J., & Rowlands, I. H., Corporate Social Responsibility: Essential Concepts of Global Environmental Governance 42 (2014).

[23] Salacuse, J. W., Negotiating: The Top Ten Ways That Culture Can Affect Your Negotiation 69(1) IVEY Business Journal 1-6 (2004).

[24] V. Hand, Operationalizing Culture and Identity in Ways to Capture the Negotiation of Participation Across Communities 49(1) Human Development 36-41 (2006).

[25] G. Fisher, International Negotiation. A Cross-Cultural Perspective (1980).

[26] Dean, O., & Popp, G. E., Intercultural Communication Effectiveness as Perceived by American Managers in Saudi Arabia and French Managers in the US 14(4) International J. Intercultural Rel. 405-424 (1990).

[27] Hoover, S. M., & Clark, L. S., Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture (2002).

[28] Id.

[29] Touval, S., Multilateral Negotiation: An Analytic Approach 5(2) Negot. J. 159-173 (1989).

[30] Min, H., LaTour, M. S., & Jones, M. A., Negotiation Outcomes: The Impact of the Initial Offer, Time, Gender, and Team Size 31(3) Int’l J. of Purchasing and Materials Mgmt. 19-24 (1995).

[31] S. E. Weiss, Negotiating with” Romans” Part 1, 35(2) Sloan Mgmt. Rev. 51 (1994).

[32] Id.

[33] Yan, A., & Gray, B., Bargaining Power, Management Control, and Performance in United States–China Joint Ventures: a Comparative Case Study, 37(6) Acad. of Mgmt. J. 1478-1517 (1994).

[34] Adler, N. J., Graham, J. L., & Gehrke, T. S., Business Negotiations in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, 15(5) J. of Bus. Res. 411-429 (1987).

[35]  Yan, supra note 53.

[36] Kasa, S., Gullberg, A. T., & Heggelund, G., The Group of 77 in the International Climate Negotiations: Recent Developments and Future Directions, 8(2) Int’l Envtl. Agreements: Pol., Law and Econ.113-127 (2008).

[37] Al-Khalil, M. I., & Al-Ghafly, M. A., Delay in Public Utility Projects in Saudi Arabia, 17(2), Int’l. J. Project Mgmt. 101-106 (1999).

[38] Madhi, S. T., & Barrientos, A., Saudisation and Employment in Saudi Arabia, 8(2) Career Dev. Int’l. 70-77 (2003).



Norah Alsugair

Norah Alsugair is a qualified lawyer from Saudi Arabia. She earned her degree in Bachelor of Laws from King Saud University in 2013. From thereon, Norah interned at the law office of Feras Al Amro in Riyadh, where her work primarily involved collaborations with KPMG focusing on specialized consumer services.… MORE >

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