If you work in the Middle East long enough, odds are eventually you’ll be in a situation where you interact in professional settings with members of a Gulf Royal Family.
In doing so, it is important to remember that there are specific Arabic language protocols that need to be utilized. Don’t take them lightly. Getting them right marks the difference between being an Arabic-pro and an obvious rookie.
(1) 3 Mistakes to Avoid:
I have generally seen three mistakes people make.
First, Americans in particular, given that we generally have a less hierarchal culture, sometimes make the mistake of being too familiar or too direct.
I happen to be from the hometown of the current US Vice President, where it’s totally appropriate, if not expected, if you see him out and about to yell out “Hey Joe!”
That would not be the most appropriate approach to take in the Gulf.
Second, don’t assume that any old fancy sounding title will work. I have seen, for example, situations where Egyptians or Lebanese who aren’t familiar with Saudi will just use a term like this:
If you write a letter to a Royal addressed like this, you might as well walk around with a Giant sign that says “Rookie.” You have to use the term that is used Locally. In Saudi and pretty much all other Arab monarchies – it’s:
Finally, the 3rd mistake: some people for political reasons, don’t like Saudi Arabia, and tend to downplay the linguistic etiquette stuff. They may even intentionally make Mistake 2 above.
Everyone is free to believe whatever they want politically. But don’t expect to get anything done if you go to Saudi Arabia and have that kind of attitude. You will be insulting the people as much as anything.
(2) What does the practical Arabic speaker need to know?
You don’t need to be an expert on the titles for each country. Just be aware that there are specific titles and phrases and they can vary from country to country. If you are working on any kind of project in a given country, just ask around about your specific situation.
The linguistic etiquette in this context is generally similar from Monarchy to Monarchy, and while the post is about Saudi Arabia, there are some variations throughout the Gulf. So, for example, if you are in Oman, don’t assume everything you read here applies to Oman (although most of it might).
(3) Speaking Directly to a Royal in Arabic:
Don’t over-think. Just show basic deference and generally try to describe problems indirectly, rather than directly, especially if there is anything remotely contentious that involves the person you are speaking to.
Generally in French, one would always use Vous instead of Tu if you were talking to a Minister. But in Arabic it is ok to say (أنت ). Although I would say it’s best not to frequently say it.
Perfect example – 4:40 – note how above the interviewer directly starts the conversation with (أهلا وسهلا بسمو الأمير ) then starts right into the conversation and says ( أنت ) directly.
Another example below: – 6:20 to 6:40.
Watch how the interviewer asks this Prince a question, based on several premises he lays out, mixing in (سمو الأمير ).
The interviewer sets up a train of thought that goes like this:
“There has been alot of changes in technology, (سمو الأمير ), we used to have a situation like X, but now I’d like to talk about some different angles of this problem. First there was that issue, then there was that issue, (سمو الأمير ), do you have any thoughts on this issue?”
And pauses to say (سمو الأمير ) through, to show the right respect, here and there. Follow this pattern and you will be just fine.
(4) What about describing a Prince in 3rd Person?
Never say “He did this” or “She did that.” It’s His or Her Royal Highness. See the beginning of the first Youtube interview, around 1:40, the biography of the Prince is described, using this 3rd person title:
went to school etc etc << صاحب السمو الملكي الأمير تركي الفيصل
(5) If a Royal Calls You on the Phone:
Number one thing, make sure you answer the phone.
About 50 or so times I have stood next to someone who got a phone-call from various Princes. They always answered like this:
business at hand <various greetings <سمو الأمير
Although if the call was a Rush – they got right down to business, after the initial greeting.
So just judge by the situation. But as a general rule answer with (سمو الأمير ) and you are fine.
(6) When Writing a Letter:
There is probably multiple ways you could do this. Address the header as this – HIS – not YOUR even though you are writing to them directly. Like this:
صاحب السمو الملكي الأمير فلان
Or if a Princess:
صاحبة السمو الملكي الأميرة فلانة
(7) But – Titles Are Not Cited By Royals Themselves
If for whatever reason working in the Gulf, chances are you might be in a position where you draft a letter in the name of a member of a Royal Family (pretty standard – most Congress members or business executives don’t write their own drafts).
My suggestion, draft a letter with your suggestions ahead of time. Pitch them in the meeting. If your suggestion is accepted, pull out the pre-written Arabic letter for them to sign.
However, as a general principle, the title of Royal or Aristocrat is not usually used by that person themself. This isn’t necessarily a Saudi thing either.
Titles are for others to use to the person who holds the title. Just as an “expert” wants others to call them an “expert” – not to have to go around describing themselves as an expert.
So here’s what this means in practical terms. If Prince Fulan, to whom, you wrote a letter to in points 3 and 6, is now writing the letter, the titles of Royalty are removed (job title says though):
صاحب السمو الملكي الأمير فلان بن فلان
Remember this bit of nuance and you will distinguish yourself from 99% of the other non-native Arabic speakers in the Gulf.
(8) What do you do if the person wants to speak English?
It’s a possibility. Just say “Your Highness” in English.
And write he letters in English as HRH and so on….
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