A Traveler’s Handbook: 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 royal capital, is a modern city built on the site of the original town. Apart from the fort and a few traditional Najdi palaces near Deera Square, little trace of the old town remains. The west coast is a centre 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: The spiritual centre 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.
Jeddah: Priority has been given to the preservation of the ancient city, but leisure facilities have increased and the corniche has a ‘Brighton’ feel about it. The main meat meal of the day is lunch, usually either kultra (meat on skewers) or kebabs served with soup and vegetables.
Saudi Arabia has a desert climate. In Jeddah it is warm for most of the year. Riyadh, which is inland, is hotter in summer and colder in winter, when occasional heavy rainstorms occur. The Rub al Khali seldom receives rain, making Saudi Arabia one of the driest countries in the world. Required clothing: Tropical or lightweight clothing.
Local food is often strongly flavoured and spicy. The staple diet is pitta bread (flat, unleavened bread) which accompanies every dish. Rice, lentils, chick peas (hummus) and cracked wheat (burghul) are also common. The most common meats are lamb and chicken. Beef is rare and pork is proscribed under Islamic law. The main meat meal of the day is lunch, either kultra (meat on skewers) or kebabs served with soup and vegetables. Arabic cakes, cream desserts and rice pudding (muhalabia) also feature in the diet. Mezzeh, the equivalent of hôrs d’oeuvres, may include up to 40 dishes. Foreign cooking is on offer in larger towns and the whole range of international cuisine, including fast food, is available in the oil-producing Eastern Province and in Jeddah. Restaurants have table service. Drink: There are no bars. Alcohol is forbidden by law, and there are severe penalties for infringement; it is important to note that this applies to all nationals regardless of religion. Arabic coffee and fruit drinks are popular alternatives. Alcohol-free beers and cocktails are served in hotel bars.
Apart from restaurants and hotels there is no nightlife in the Western sense.
Souks (markets) sell incense and incense burners, jewellery, bronze and brassware, richly-decorated daggers and swords, and in the Eastern Province, huge brass-bonded chests. Bargaining is often expected, even for modern goods such as cameras and electrical equipment (which can be very good value). Shopping hours: 0900-1300 and 1630-2000 Saturday to Thursday (Ramadan 2000-0100). These hours differ in various parts of the country.
Most visitors to Saudi Arabia are Muslim pilgrims and the majority of events celebrated in the country are of a religious nature. For for more information on special events contact the Saudi Arabian Information Centre.
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 a great effect 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 this way of life is being threatened by modernisation and rapid development. For more information, see the World of Islam appendix. Shaking hands is the customary form of greeting. Invitations to private homes are unusual. Entertaining is usually in hotels or restaurants and although the custom of eating with the right hand persists, it is more likely that knives and forks will be used.
A small gift either promoting the company or representing your country will generally be well received. Women are expected to dress modestly and it is best to do so to avoid offence. Men should not wear shorts in public or go without a shirt. The norms for public behaviour are extremely conservative and religious police, known as Mutawwa’in, are charged with enforcing these standards. Customs regarding smoking are the same as in Europe and non-smoking areas are indicated. During Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat, smoke or drink during the day and it is illegal for a foreign visitor to do so in public. Tipping: The practice of tipping is becoming much more common and waiters, hotel porters and taxi drivers should be given 10%.
Note: Muslim festivals are timed according to local sightings of various phases of the Moon and the dates given above are approximations. During the lunar month of Ramadan that precedes Eid al-Fitr, Muslims fast during the day and feast at night and normal business patterns may be interrupted. Some disruption may continue into Eid al-Fitr itself. Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha may last anything from two to ten days, depending on the region. During Hajj (when pilgrims visit Mecca) all government establishments and some businesses will be closed for five to ten days.