Once forbidden to outsiders for tourism, Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to those who want to learn more about the country, see its historical and cultural treasures, and meet the Saudi people. Saudi Arabia can be a difficult place to get an understanding of without actually visiting. There are plenty of books and websites to read to try and get an idea of the country, but the average people and their way of life are almost unheard of outside the kingdom. We can read all about the oil, the deserts, the wealth and the royal family, but to really begin to understand the Saudi people, you have to meet them and talk to them on their terms.
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 renewed interest in preserving and even reconstructing 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, until recently Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic capital, which remains the most important commercial and cultural gateway to the country.
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.
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 rapid 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 eventually. As the saying goes, third time is the charm, and a third attempt by Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud is credited as the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that the Saud family still rules over today.
As a monarchy, the king has the final say, but 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.