Conducting a culture audit for Saudi Arabia

What should one do if software is being localized to a language, country and culture quite different from the original? Translation is a necessary first step, but translation alone is inadequate for communication across cultures. A culture audit may identify problem areas in software for relatively little time and money, avoiding wasted effort in translating content that should never have been translated/localized in the first place.

In 2010, Client X (anonymity requested), a major software translation and localization firm, assisted Client Y with the localization of its library management software. This software is currently used in more than 100,000 schools and universities throughout the United States and in 165 countries worldwide. The culture audit examined specific problems with the software in the context of the wider culture, especially the rapid educational reform currently underway in the target country. The audit focused on a culture-oriented evaluation of the software’s usability, usefulness and appeal for the Saudi Arabian market (with eventual adaptation for the Gulf and Levantine regions), with particular attention paid to the visual design and use of icons and imagery. To build an in-depth understanding of computer usage patterns in the target audience and to uncover potential problems with the user interface, a small sample of Saudi students studying in North America were interviewed.


Contextual and cultural analysis

In considering the user-interface requirements for an Arabic version of educational software, in this case a library management application, it was important to understand the influence of the central government on the adoption of software and on the training of academics to use new educational technologies. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a major spending program to combat the global recession and maintain its economy. Much of this spending ($US32.6 billion, or 25% of the total) is aimed at education and training. More than 1,500 new schools are scheduled to be built and more than 2,000 renovated. New private colleges and the two new elite universities have introduced educational reforms. King Abdullah has emphasized the need for Saudi Arabia to embrace higher education — for women as well as men — to diversify its economy, reduce dependence on oil exports and employ its graduates.

The General Project for Curriculum Development, adopted in 2002 by the Ministry of Education, laid the groundwork for the increased use of educational technologies. However, a recent study cited by Abdulrahman Kamal describes barriers that prevent the full use of technology in schools during 2008:

Weakness of infrastructure, especially communication infrastructure

Need for technology specialists

Lack of technological knowledge and skills among teachers and administrators

English language barriers (for example, most Web 2.0 tools are in English)

High cost of technology

The Computer and Information Center in the Ministry of Education has the mission of overcoming these problems and managing the development of educational technology and infrastructure. However, not all of the country’s more than 28,000 schools are computerized and connected. Boys and girls are educated separately and it is not clear whether education for girls is at the same technological level. A separate department within the Ministry, the General Presidency of Girl’s Education, handles requirements for girls’ education. Although King Abdullah promotes education and expanded career options for women, religious conservatives continue to restrict opportunities, and many female academics complain that the system is unequal. As a result, a number of private schools exist alongside the public school system, and many have been sources of curricular and technological innovation. The Ministry’s latest ten-year plan (put forth in 2005) seeks an integrated solution for the application of information and communication technologies by 2014. In addition, there are plans to train 30,000 new teachers.

Geert Hofstede’s 1997 study of cultural values characterized Arab cultures as having high power distance (respect for authority), medium collectivism and medium masculinity. However, these ratings need to be put in an historical and procedural context. Hofstede did his research in the 1970s-1980s; he sampled employees of a Western corporation (IBM); and he amalgamated the statistics from a number of Arab countries (Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia). As he himself admits, “impressionistically, the Saudis within this region are even more collectivist than some other Arabs like Lebanese or Egyptians” (p. 54). Studies of Saudi Arabia itself describe the country as having extremely high power distance, strong collectivism and strong masculinity.

These cultural values influence the educational system. Power distance is expressed in a number of ways. Not only is government education centralized, it is standardized and based on religious teachings. Schools follow a curriculum that focuses on instilling Islamic (specifically Wahabi, an offshoot of Sunni) values. Elementary students take nine hours per week of Islamic studies from first to sixth grades; intermediate students take eight hours per week from seventh to ninth grades.

Concern with moral values legitimates censorship and public surveillance. Women are not allowed to buy CDs and DVDs in shops; internet cafes are required by law to install surveillance cameras; and Arab News reported the Saudi Communication and Information Technology Commission asked Research in Motion to allow it to monitor its BlackBerry Messenger service or be shut down. The Saudi Government censors the internet through its Internet Services Unit, and new laws authorize five-year jail sentences for people distributing pornography or other materials that violate public law, religious values and social standards. Even before the “Arab Spring,” Saudi Arabia was considered one of the least open countries on the internet.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has extremely strong collectivism; national and religious goals are promoted over individual goals in the school systems. Even though King Abdullah’s educational reforms are intended to upgrade standards and open new professional opportunities to men and to women, his program is couched in nationalistic and religious terms. The concept of the ummah, the community of believers, is central to Islam and used to justify the kingdom’s social conservatism.

Lastly, Saudi Arabia practices strict gender segregation and, until recently, restricted women to non-technical jobs. Girls are now being encouraged to consider new occupations, such as software engineering and architecture, but all professions remain segregated. For example, only women teach women. If women professors are not available, men lecture women students using video technology and have no other contact with them. Children are educated separately, but girls are not required to be covered (veiled) until they become teenagers.


Successful Saudi websites

The Saudi students being interviewed nominated websites that demonstrated “good” design. The students felt that the websites for Saudi Arabian Airlines and KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), as seen in Figure 1, were especially sophisticated and attractive, and would serve as good models for design.

While not a universal preference, young Saudis tended to prefer websites with a simplified appearance overall and a limited number of colors, as shown in Figure 2.

Most buttons and tabs on Saudi and other Arabic-language websites only contain text; there is very little use of icons. There does not appear to be a general cultural objection to user-interface icons; this trend may be a result of an artistic tradition in which calligraphy is a major art form and figurative painting less valued. However, by contrast, photographs are widely used on nearly every Arabic-language website and many identify buttons.

On the King Saud University website (Figure 3), buttons usually have text only, but occasionally there are icons in addition to text. Note that when websites are available in both Arabic and English, icon usage is almost always the same in both languages. Also of note, most websites for Saudi educational institutions use blue, green and gray palettes. The color green is associated with Islam, but is acceptable for use on secular websites.

As a general rule, icon design should avoid the use of Roman alphabet or numeric characters within the icon area, though there are some exceptions to this rule. Where the Roman character is in wide use as an international symbol, it can be used without translation. Many standard icons use characters from the Roman alphabet, but are meaningful because of widespread internet usage. Some examples are seen in Figure 4.

Icons that might be associated with other religions, such as a Christian cross, the Jewish star of David or a magic wand, should be avoided. Both witchcraft and sorcery are outlawed, and a psychic was arrested and sentenced to death as recently as November 2009. Plus signs are acceptable as indicating that something new is being added. However, the vertical line of the plus should not be longer than the horizontal in order to avoid any resemblance to a typical Christian cross.

The thumbs-up icon is used by some young Saudis on social networking sites to indicate approval, but it could be misinterpreted by older Saudis. Hand gestures often do not translate well between cultures and should be avoided. Similarly, icons showing people should be abstract, gender-neutral and well-clothed due to the importance of female modesty in Islamic culture. For example, icons should avoid the suggestion of short sleeves or uncovered hair for young women.

Respondents told us that they customized their mobile phones with photographs and preferred to put their own photos in backgrounds — appealing images included soccer heroes, beaches, pleasant views and Angelina Jolie. However, note that the use of personal photographs in social media has been contentious. A recent court case in Saudi Arabia dealt with the possible damage to a young woman’s reputation from photos placed on Facebook. Most of the images we saw on Saudi websites were photographs of men in authority (like King Abdullah) or views of modern buildings that reinforce national pride.

Visual designers should be aware that there is a 25% size expansion rate when English is translated into Arabic, if the type size remains the same. Buttons should be sized accordingly to keep type easy to read. User testing may be required to ensure that the text is legible.

Some Arabic library sites have been designed so that the same page can accommodate English text on the left and Arabic text on the right (Figure 5). This dual-language layout has advantages for bilingual users who need to switch back and forth between languages when searching for materials in both languages.

On an interesting sidenote, most educated Saudis are familiar with the Microsoft Office suite through their introduction to Office products during secondary school education. If in doubt about whether an icon is appropriate or meaningful, user-interface designers can safely refer to the equivalent icon in an Office application as a basis for concept and appearance. All of the students interviewed had been trained to use Office products during secondary school. When asked if they would prefer local software, they said they preferred to use translated Microsoft products. One conjecture is that Microsoft’s product has come to represent the “standard” and/or “best” product available; another is that students liked the opportunity to switch between the translated Arabic and English user interfaces to improve their language skills. However, as Saudi educational standards improve and more graduates begin developing a local software industry, this preference for Microsoft interfaces may change.



Translating its software application is an excellent first step for Client Y to localize its product for sale in Saudi Arabia. To keep localization expenditure to a minimum, the basic visual design and color palette of the current software could be used with only minor changes. However, it was important to realize that at least two levels of acceptance are involved. Users must feel comfortable with and enjoy the user interface, but first, the country’s conservative religious and social culture must approve the product for use in schools. This application could be made more appealing to the Middle Eastern market by making the design resemble some of the more popular Saudi sites with a crisper, cleaner look. Incorporating more blues into the screen design would also bring it more closely in line with Saudi tastes. Further, icons with a more abstract, simplified look would better harmonize with the abstract geometric appearance of Arabic calligraphy.

However, to pass an initial review, user interfaces may need to accommodate Saudi concerns about access to information. All decisions on the purchase and implementation of software for government schools are made by the national Ministry of Education.

Nevertheless, even with current turmoil and change in the Middle East, this is a unique and exciting time for a US company to engage with the process of educational change. Saudi Arabia is dramatically raising the level of its entire educational system, equalizing opportunities for girls and boys and implementing modern educational technology. As the country builds and equips its new schools, it is negotiating its own path to modernity and its students are finding their own places in the wider world.

As the current ten-year plan notes: “The development and wide spread of unrestricted mass media communication and the reduction of its costs constitute a challenge and a threat to the Kingdom’s national identity and culture. This issue requires a balanced approach that will allow students to enjoy the benefits of modern technology (which, in turn, will benefit the community) while maintaining the Kingdom’s values and faith, and that is able to protect them from the risks that might harm them as individuals and groups and that might negatively affect Muslim society.”

As many people and countries in the West support the efforts of young people themselves throughout North Africa and the Middle East to bring about change, we should provide appropriately localized technology for education and social improvement.  M



 Kamal, Abdulrahman. “Exemplary use of technology in K-12 education in Saudi Arabia: Dar Al-Fikr Private School.” Proposal submitted to the Conference of the Association of Educational Communication and Technology, 2009.

Mills, A. “Reforms to women’s education make slow progress in Saudi Arabia.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 55 (43), 2009. 11-15.

Ministry of Education, Saudi Arabia. “Executive summary of the Ministry of Education Ten – Year Plan.” Second Edition, 2005. 1425-1435.

Hofstede, Geert. Cultures and organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill, 1997.

Al-Abdulkareem, Saleh. “Historical project: Summary of education development in Saudi Arabia.” 2010.