Introduction to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia occupies four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, the Gulf of Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen border it. To the west lies the Red Sea.
Riyadh (Ryad), the capital, is a modern city and the largest on the Arabian Peninsula. Apart from the fort and a few traditional Najdi palaces near Deera Square, little trace of the old town remains, however there has been some preservation and even reconstruction of the buildings from the original walled city of Riyadh and surrounding areas.
The West Coast is a center for trade, but of equal importance is the concentration of Islamic holy cities, including Mecca and Medina. The region also includes the city of Jeddah, which remains the most important commercial and cultural gateway to the country. Because of the international influences of trade in this city, it often feels a little less conservative than the capitol of Riyadh.
On the East Coast you will find the industrial and oil capital of the country. Dammam and Dhahran are the main cities here. The headquarters for the national oil and gas company Saudi Aramco is located in Dhahran as well as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a project by Saudi Aramco, also known as iThra’, the Arabic word for ‘enrichment’. It is a gigantic center for culture, history, study, the arts, and more.
Mecca is the spiritual center of the Islamic world. Places of significance to Muslims include the Kaabah enclosure and the House of Abdullah Bin Abdul Muttalib, where Muhammad was born.
The landscape of Saudi Arabia isn’t just sand dunes and oil wells. There are mountains and rocky regions, coastal areas with beaches and resorts, and vibrant modern cities. Closer to the west coast, there is a mountain range that runs north to south. Climbing up the sides of the mountains are terraced gardens for the local crops, and roads with hairpin switchbacks that transport people to the top of the mountains for cooler weather and stunning views. The interior is dotted with green oases that are break from the desert harshness. In the north, closer to the border with Jordan, you can see amazing rock formations, such as Mammoth Rock, as well as remnants of the Nabatean civilization that was responsible for the building of Petra in Jordan.
Saudi culture is based on Islam and the perfection of the Arabic language. The Saudi form of Islam is conservative and fundamentalist, based on the 18th-century revivalist movement of the Najdi leader Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab. This still has great impact on Saudi society, especially on the position of women, who are required by law not go out without being totally covered in black robes (abaya) and masks, although there are regional variations of dress. The Najd and other remote areas remain true to Wahhabi tradition, but throughout the country modernization and continuing development are slowly changing this way of life.
Saudi Arabia, the modern country we see outlined on a map, is fairly young. In the mid-1700’s and again in the early 1800’s the Saud tribe of Dariyah, just outside of modern Riyadh, tried to consolidate their power and create a Saudi state. Both these attempts were unsuccessful in creating a long-lasting sovereign state and collapsed. As the saying goes, third time is the charm, and a third attempt by Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud is credited as the founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that the Saud family still rules over today.
As a monarchy, the king has the final say. There is a Consultative Council, called the Majlis Al-Shura, that is a legislative body that advises the king on issues important to the country. In 2013 the first women were appointed to the council, and the King decreed that women should always hold at least one fifth of the 150 seats on the council. Even at that time women were not allowed to drive but they could now have a more active role in legislative affairs.
For women in the kingdom, this was a small step in the right direction, and the following year they won the right to vote for the first time ever. A few years later came the reversal of the law prohibiting them from driving. Women still face many restrictions in the kingdom, and visitors are required to obey the dress code of covering their heads and dressing modestly. (Visitors used to have to wear an abaya, but at this time they do not. This rule is subject to change without notice.)
Saudi people are generally very reserved and conservative, and on the surface may seem very distant, but you must keep in mind that the kingdom has been very insular for a very long time. Many outsiders – non-Muslims and non-Saudis that have spent any time there, generally for business or government work, often find they know a lot less about Saudi Arabia and its people than they thought.
There is so much more to the country than the few lines above about the birth of the country and deserts and oil. Go and see for yourself and get a first-hand glimpse of life in Saudi Arabia and its vast history and unique culture.
A great resource on cultural and historical aspects of Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general, is the publication Saudi Aramco World. The articles are interesting and the photography often is on par with what you would find in the National Geographic.
This is an archive article about the birth of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia: https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/196301/seven.wells.of.dammam.htm