LOCATION: Saudi Arabia

POPULATION: 10 to 16 million




Modern-day Saudis are descended from ancient nomadic desert tribes who were fiercely independent. The country, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was officially founded on September 23, 1932.

The Islamic religion started in the city of Mecca (or Makkah) in what is now Saudi Arabia sometime around AD 610. Mecca is still the spiritual center of Islam. All Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. Saudi Arabia hosts these pilgrims, who number in the millions every year. The discovery of oil in the 1930s led to rapid economic growth and development for the entire nation. Saudi Arabia is a founding member and the largest supplier of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), established in 1960. OPEC is an oil cartel (an international monopoly that sets its own production amounts and prices).


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia makes up almost four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudi government estimates the size of the country to be 856,350 square miles (2,217,949 square kilometers). The country is about one-third as big as the United States, yet the population is less than that of the state of New York. Population figures are difficult to estimate, with figures ranging from 10 to 16 million (the higher figure includes foreigners living in Saudi Arabia). About 99 percent of the land is barren and harsh, unable to support large numbers of people. The national annual average rainfall is only 4 inches (10 centimeters). The Empty Quarter (Rub al-Khali) is the largest undivided sand desert in the world, and rain may only fall there once every ten years. There are only a few permanent streams and natural lakes in Saudi Arabia. In the desert, summer temperatures can reach as high as 111° F to 122° F (44° C to 50° C ). In the midwinter and early summer, the shamal— a north wind carrying sand and dust—blows fiercely.

Saudi Arabia is surrounded on three sides by water: the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the east, the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden to the south, and the Red Sea to the west. Saudi Arabia is bordered on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait; on the south by Yemen and Oman; on the east by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain; and on the west by the Red Sea.


The official language of Saudi Arabia, spoken by virtually all Saudis, is Arabic. Arabic is spoken by 100 million people worldwide and has many distinctive dialects. Written Arabic, on the other hand, is the same for Arabic writers the world over. It is written and read from right to left.

"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan , to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn . Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you) with the reply of Walaykum as-salam (and to you peace). Ma'assalama means "goodbye." The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sita, sab'a, thamanya, tis'a, and 'ashara.


Much folklore glorifies the city of Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. One such story tells the tale of the creation of Mecca. According to the tale, in creating the earth, Allah (God) first shaped the area around Mecca, laying the rest of the earth around Mecca to make this sacred city the center of the world. He then made the angels from light and the jinn (supernatural beings that take human or animal form) from fire. The angels remained in heaven, circling Allah's Sacred House, and the jinn were sent to the earth. When Allah decided to create Adam, the angels objected, making Allah angry. To gain His favor, the angels built on earth a replica of Allah's Sacred House in heaven. This was the Ka'ba (the sacred cubic shrine in Mecca), to which all Muslims should go for their pilgrimage.

There are also thousands of proverbs and fables known to Saudis. Some are attributed to an ancient wise man known as Lukman. Two of Lukman's proverbs are: He who does good has good done unto him; and Walk quietly, lower your voice, for the voice of the jackass is the loudest and most ugly of voices.


Saudis are Muslims (followers of Islam). Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state and by law no other religious practices are allowed. Non-Muslim religious services were tolerated in Saudi Arabia for a long time. Although they were discouraged, they were not prohibited outright until after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In the eighteenth century, the Muslim preacher Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab advocated strict observance of Islamic practices. He founded the Wahhabi sect of Islam, which is still followed in Saudi Arabia. In the Wahhabi sect, men are required to pray in a ritual manner, music and dancing are at times forbidden, and the type of clothing women are allowed to wear is specified.

Since the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia has experienced a religious revival, reflected in an increase in religious programs on television and radio, and an increase in religious articles in newspapers.


There is one secular (nonreligious) holiday, National Day, on September 23. It commemorates the founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The rest of the official holidays are Muslim, which follow the lunar calendar. The main Muslim holidays are: Eid al-Fitr , a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha , a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj ) —families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the first of Muharram , or the Muslim New Year; Mawlid An-Nabawi , the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid al-Isra wa al-Miraj , celebrating Muhammad's night visit to heaven from Jerusalem. Most businesses and services are closed on Fridays because it is the Muslim day of rest.


A Saudi marriage involves a contract, which specifies the amount of the dowry (mahr) that the groom pays to the bride. It might also specify a second amount of money known as muta'akhir (a postponed dowry), to be paid to the wife in case of divorce. Sometimes the requirement of an advanced dowry makes it difficult for a young man to afford marriage. Some couples, however, set only a token amount for the dowry in order to fulfill the legal requirements. In case of divorce, the woman receives the postponed dowry, and her father and brothers become responsible for her.


Arab customs are the norm in Saudi Arabia. An Arab will never ask personal questions, as that is considered rude. A person is expected to say what he or she wishes without being asked. A direct refusal is also considered rude, so one must learn to recognize indirect signals.

Men either shake hands or kiss on the cheeks during a salutation. Women do the same. However, a man and woman who are unrelated do neither.

Chastity and sexual modesty are highly valued, and many of the social restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia are said to be for the purpose of protecting a woman's honor and virtue.

Saudi society is tribal in nature, with a tribe consisting of groups of relatives traced through males. Members of the tribe take an interest in one another's well-being, and the more wealthy come to the aid of the poor if the need arises. Each tribe has a leader known as a shaykh , who serves as a mediator in conflicts between tribal members. The shaykhs and their tribes pledge their allegiance to the ruling Al Saud royal family.

Saudis highly value hospitality to guests. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand. Even if a host or hostess has a domestic staff, it is customary for him or her to personally serve guests.


Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, there have been dramatic improvements in the Saudi standard of living. An extensive network of roadways connects almost every corner of Saudi Arabia, and public transportation is widely available within and between cities. Saudi Arabia has many modern airports, and the national airline, Saudia, is the largest in the Middle East. Telephone, telex, pager, and cellular phone services are available.

Modern health care and education are available free of charge to all Saudi citizens and pilgrims. Social services provide for workers and families in case of disability, retirement, or death. There are also provisions for social security pensions; elderly, orphans, or widows without incomes; home health care; rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents; nursing homes for the elderly; and orphanages for children. Low-income housing is available for public employees and students. The government also offers no-interest, long-term loans for the construction of homes. All adult Saudis, if not independently wealthy, are entitled to a plot of land and a loan to build a home.

The media exercises self-censorship, in keeping with an unwritten censorship code that restricts expressing opposition to the government. Foreign newspapers are heavily censored for political and moral content.


Extended families often live together in the same house. Marriages are usually arranged by families. Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives, if he can treat and love them all equally. However, men rarely marry more than one woman at a time. Divorce, easy for men and possible for women, is now commonplace. Women may write their own provisions into the marriage contract, and they may own and dispose of property freely. A Saudi woman does not take her husband's last name. She keeps her own family name because she is legally considered to belong to her own family for life.

Socially, women are very restricted. They are not permitted to mingle with men who are not close family members, at any time or in any way. They must wear a black veil over their heads, faces, and clothing whenever they are in public. It is illegal for women to drive cars or to travel alone. A woman may not attend a lecture given by a man, but she may watch it on closed-circuit television; in this way, women may now earn advanced degrees at universities formerly closed to them.


Saudis generally wear traditional clothing. Men wear a thob , a simple ankle-length robe of wool or cotton, usually in white or earth tones. On their heads they wear a ghutra , a large, diagonally folded cotton square worn over a kufiyyah (skull-cap) and held in place with an i'gal , a double-coiled cord circlet. Sometimes men wear a flowing floor-length outer cloak called a bisht over their thob; the bisht is made of wool or camel hair in black, beige, brown, or cream colors.

Women's traditional dress varies by region, but it always covers the body from head to toe. It is often adorned with coins, sequins, metallic thread, or brightly colored fabric appliques. Some women wear a shayla , a black gauzy scarf wrapped around the head and held in place by a variety of hats, head circlets, or jewelry. In public, women sometimes wear a black outer cloak called an ' abaya over their dress. In the southwest district known as the Asir , women wear brightly colored, long-waisted dresses and no veils.

12 • FOOD

Traditionally, dates were the staple food of the Saudis. A typical Saudi dish is lamb (or chicken) on a bed of seasoned rice. Pork is forbidden by Islamic law, as is alcohol. Tea and/or coffee are served at all gatherings, large or small. Buttermilk, camel's milk, and laban— a yogurt drink—are favorite beverages. Dessert generally consists of fruit. A unique Saudi food is arikah , a bread from the southwest region (the Asir ) which is broken off and formed into a spoon shape to be dipped into a dish of honey. Locusts, although terribly destructive when swarming, are considered a delicacy in the Saudi diet.

Meals that commemorate religious events, such as the birth of the prophet Muhammad, are served on a white tablecloth on the floor. Forks and knives are not used at these meals; either the right hand or a spoon is used on religious occasions. Everyday meals are served at tables, and forks and knives are commonplace.


The emphasis on completing secondary school (high school) includes academic and religious studies. Both boys and girls are educated, but they are educated separately. The purpose of education for girls is to teach them how to serve their families. Training prepares girls for occupations such as teaching and nursing.

Parents are very involved in their children's education. Public education—from preschool through university—is free to all citizens. Government scholarships are also available for study abroad; most students go to the United States. Saudi Arabia has 7 universities, 83 colleges, and more than 18,000 schools. Primary schooling begins at age six and continues for six years. Intermediate schooling begins at age twelve and lasts for three years. High school lasts from age fifteen to eighteen and is geared toward either the arts and sciences or vocational training. Nearly all children attend school until they are twelve years old, but many do not continue beyond that.

Most Saudi Arabian schools are run by the government, which also provides schools for children and adults who are blind, deaf, or physically or mentally challenged. As of 1990, literacy rates among men had reached 73 percent, but those for women had only reached 48 percent.


The national dance of Saudi Arabia is the ardha , or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder, and a poet among them sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm. The dance consists of a ceremonial procession and symbolizes the unity of the kingdom. Al-mizmar is the name of both a folk dance involving skillful stick movements and a musical instrument resembling an oboe.

Islam forbids showing the human body in art, so Saudi art focuses on geometric and abstract shapes. Calligraphy is considered a sacred art, with the Koran (or Qur'an—the sacred text of Islam) being the primary subject matter.


The Saudi work week runs from Saturday through Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday as the weekend. Working hours are usually 8:00 AM to 7:00 or 8:00 PM , with a long break in the afternoon. Eight industrial cities have been built near sources of raw materials, with factories and other industrial facilities.

Many jobs are not open to women because women are not allowed to mingle with men who are not close family members, even in the workplace. However, this is slowly changing, and women are beginning to enter all ranks of employment, from skilled labor to professional positions.


Soccer is the national sport of Saudi Arabia. Volleyball, basketball, and tennis are also popular modern sports. The traditional sports of horse-and camel-racing are still enjoyed as well. The annual King's Camel Race draws 2,000 competitors and 20,000 to 30,000 spectators each year. Many other horse and camel races are also held throughout the country. Hunting with guns is banned, but traditional hunting (with dogs or falcons) is still popular.

The government promotes sports through physical education in the public schools and the establishment of huge Sports Cities in large urban centers, smaller neighborhood Sports Centers, and Sports Clubs in rural areas. Fifteen Sports Cities already exist; each contains a multipurpose stadium, a small indoor stadium, Olympic-size swimming pools, indoor and outdoor courts and playgrounds, cafeterias, conference facilities, and sports-medicine clinics.


Entertainment is largely a private matter—there are no public cinemas, for example. Camping is very popular, and there is an extensive network of local and national parks and campgrounds across Saudi Arabia. Water sports are enjoyed in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea.

The strict Saudi moral standard restricts what can be broadcast on television or radio for entertainment. Programs are screened for scenes that contradict the codes of sexual chastity and religious observance.


Saudi Arabia is famous for gold and silver handicrafts, particularly jewelry fashioned as both a decorative art and as a status symbol. Jewelry is treasured both for its beauty and for the its monetary value, and is regarded as insurance against hard times. One of the finest examples of gold and silver handicrafts is on the kiswah , a black cloth embroidered in gold and silver with verses from the Koran (Qur'an). The kiswah measures approximately 28,500 square feet (2,650 square meters) and covers the four walls of the Ka'ba (the sacred cubic shrine in Mecca). The kiswah is replaced every year and made in Mecca.

Pottery is another Saudi craft, and brass and copper crafts are also abundant. Since ancient times, Saudis have crafted goods from leather, including handbags, saddlebags, sandals, and shoes. Wood carving is another prized art. Geometric designs and religious inscriptions are carved with sharp knives to create both artwork and fixtures such as wooden plates and engraved panels for doors. Straw is also used in artwork, with straw hats, mats, containers, and cooking lids.


Violent street crime is rare in Saudi Arabia, although crime rates have risen with the presence of foreign workers. The most common crimes are theft, the possession of alcohol, fighting, and moral offenses. People convicted of murder, abandoning the Islamic faith, adultery, drug smuggling, and sabotage are subject to the death penalty, which is carried out by beheading, firing squad, or stoning. Repeated theft is punishable by amputation of the right hand, and drunkenness and gambling are punishable by flogging with a cane. Saudi Arabia has been criticized by Amnesty International for its human rights record concerning prison conditions. People opposing the government have been arbitrarily arrested, held without trial, and routinely tortured during interrogations.


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