The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Islam, and society itself is in general deeply religious, conservative, traditional, and family oriented. Many attitudes and traditions are centuries-old, derived from Arab civilization. However its culture has also been affected by rapid change, as the country was transformed from an impoverished nomadic society into a rich commodity producer in just a few years in the 1970s.
The Wahhabi Islamic movement, which arose in the 18th century and is sometimes described as austerely puritanical, now predominates in the country. Following the principle of “enjoining good and forbidding wrong”, there are many limitations on behaviour and dress are strictly enforced both legally and socially, often more so than in other Muslim countries. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, for example, and there is no theatre or public exhibition of films.
Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Five times each day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques scattered throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.In accordance with Wahhabi doctrine, only two religious holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, were publicly recognized, until 2006 when a non-religious holiday, the 23 September national holiday (which commemorates the unification of the kingdom) was reintroduced in 2006.
Observers have described Saudi Arabian society as deeply religious and deeply conservative. Saudi Arabia is the “only modern Muslim state to have been created by jihad, the only one to claim the Quran as its constitution”, and the only Arab-Muslim country “to have escaped European imperialism.” Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia.
The official and dominant form of Islam in the kingdom, and “the predominant feature of Saudi culture” is the austerely puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism arose in the central region of Najd, the eighteenth century. Proponents call the movement “Salafism”, and believe that its teachings purify the practice of Islam of innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of Muhammad and his companions.
The many limitations on behaviour and dress are strictly enforced both legally and socially. Saudi is one of the few countries that have “religious police” (also known as Haia or Mutaween), who patrol the streets “enjoining good and forbidding wrong” by enforcing dress codes, strict separation of men and women, attendance at prayer (salat) five times each day, the ban on alcohol, and other aspects of Sharia (Islamic law) or behavior it believes to be commanded by Islam. Cinema theatres were shut down in 1980, for example. (In the privacy of the home behavior can be far looser, and reports from the Daily Mail and WikiLeaks indicate that the ruling Saudi Royal family applies a different moral code to itself, indulging in parties, drugs and sex.
The kingdom uses not the international Gregorian calendar, but the lunar Islamic calendar, with the start of each lunar month determined not ahead of time by astronomical calculation, but only after the crescent moon is sighted by the proper religious authorities. Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Businesses are closed three or four times a day during business hours for 30 to 45 minutes while employees and customers sent off to pray; Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.In accordance with Wahhabi doctrine, for many years only two religious holidays were publicly recognized, ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā. (ʿĪd al-Fiṭr is “the biggest” holiday a three-day period of “feasting, gift-giving and general letting go”.In 2006, the 23 September national holiday (which commemorates the unification of the kingdom) was reintroduced over the objections of religious clerics. As of 2004 approximately half of the broadcast airtime of Saudi state television was devoted to religious issues. 90% of books published in the kingdom were on religious subjects, and most of the doctorates awarded by its universities were in Islamic studies. In the state school system, about half of the material taught is religious. In contrast, assigned readings over twelve years of primary and secondary schooling devoted to covering the history, literature, and cultures of the non-Muslim world comes to a total of about 40 pages.
“Fierce religious resistance” had to be overcome to permit such innovations as paper money (in 1951), female education (1964), and television (1965) and the abolition of slavery (1962).There were a number of terrorist attacks targeting foreigners between 2001 and 2004, but these have been brought under control.
Public support for the traditional political/religious structure of the kingdom is so strong that one researcher interviewing Saudis found virtually no support for reforms to secularize the state. Even the small minority of Westernized and liberal Saudis expressed “a desire for the kingdom to remain a Muslim society ruled by an overtly Muslim state.”
Because of religious restrictions, Saudi culture lacks any diversity of religious expression or buildings but annual festivals such as the Janadriah Festival which celebrates Saudi Culture, custom and handicraft held in a specialized arena just north of Riyadh and public events such as The Annual Book Fair are open to the public and are very popular although policed by the religious police.
The festivals (such as Day of Ashura) and communal public worship of Shia Muslims who make up an estimated 10-15% are suppressed. Celebration of other (non-Wahhabi) Islamic holidays, such as the Muhammad’s birthday and the Day of Ashura, (an important holiday for Shiites), are tolerated only when celebrated locally and on a small scale. Shia also face systematic discrimination in employment, education, the justice system according to Human Rights Watch.
No churches, temples or other non-Muslim houses of worship permitted in the country (although there are nearly a million Christians as well as Hindus and Buddhists among the foreign workers). Foreign workers are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter, and reportedly private prayer services are forbidden in practice. And at least one religious minority, the Ahmadiyya, are banned with adherents being deported according to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch.
Proselytizing by non-Muslims and conversion by Muslims to another religion is illegal. According to the HeartCry Missionary Society, in 2014 the Saudi government “issued an official statement signifying that capital punishment may now be used” on those who distribute the Bible and all other “publications that have prejudice to any other religious belief other than Islam.”
In legal compensation court cases (Diyya) non-Muslim are awarded less than Muslims.Atheists are legally designated as terrorists. Saudis or foreign residents who call “into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based” may be subject to as much as 20 years in prison.
Social life and customs
The original inhabitants of the area that is now Saudi were desert nomads known as Bedouin. They remain a significant and very influential minority of the indigenous Saudi population, though many who call themselves “bedou” no longer engage in “traditional tribal activities of herding sheep and riding camels.”According to authors Harvey Tripp and Peter North, Bedouin make up most of the judiciary, religious leaders and National Guard (which protects the throne) of the country. Bedouin culture is “actively” preserved by the government.
Greetings in Saudi Arabia have been called “formal and proscribed” and lengthy. Saudis (men) tend “to take their time and converse for a bit when meeting”. Inquiries “about health and family” are customary, but never about a man’s wife, as this “is considered disrespectful.”Saudi men are known for the physical affection they express towards total strangers (i.e. Saudi male strangers), thought by some to be a continuation of the desert tradition of offering strangers hospitality to ensure their survival.
Red and white keffiyeh commonly worn in the desert held with a black agal.White keffiyeh is more common in cities.Brown Bisht (or mishlah), worn over a thawb.
Gulf woman in abaya
The religion and customs of Saudi Arabia dictate not only conservative dress for men and women, but a uniformity of dress unique to most of the Middle East. Traditionally, the different regions of Saudi have had different dress, but since the re-establishment of Saudi rule these have been reserved for festive occasions, and “altered if not entirely displaced” by the dress of the homeland of their rulers (i.e. Najd).
All women are required to wear a long black cloak that covers all but the hands and face called an abaya in public. (Modest dress is compulsory for women in Islam but the color black for women and white for men is apparently based on tradition not religious scripture.Saudi women also normally wear a full face veil, such as a niqāb. Women’s clothes are often decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliques. Foreign women are required to wear an abaya, but don’t need to cover their hair.
In recent years it is common to wear Western dress underneath the abaya. (Foreign women in Saudi Arabia are “encouraged” by the religious police to wear an abaya, or at least cover their hair according to the New York Times. Authors Harvey Tripp and Peter North encourage women to wear an abaya in “more conservative” areas of the kingdom, i.e. in the interior.
Saudi men and boys, whatever their job or social status, wear the traditional dress called a thobe or thawb, which has been called the “Wahhabi national dress”. During warm and hot weather, Saudi men and boys wear white thobes. During the cool weather, wool thobes in dark colors are not uncommon. At special times, men often wear a bisht or mishlah over the thobe. These are long white, brown or black cloaks trimmed in gold. A man’s headdress consists of three things: the tagia, a small white cap that keeps the gutra from slipping off the head; the gutra itself, which is a large square of cloth; and the igal, a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place. Not wearing an igal is considered a sign of piety. The gutra is usually made of cotton and traditionally is either all white or a red and white checked. The gutra is worn folded into a triangle and centred on the head.
Being part of a closed, family-oriented society, Saudis tend to prefer to do business with, socialize with, and communicate with family members rather than outsiders, be they foreigners, or Saudis from other clans. Extended families tend to live in family compounds in cities whenever possible and stay in contact by cellphone when not. It is customary for elder family member to use their influence (wasta) for the benefit of family members, particularly for employment and advancement in the large Saudi government bureaucracy where most Saudis work.
Traditionally, in Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf countries), families arrange marriages with the tribe or family’s considerations in mind, rather than Western/modern ideas of romantic love and self-identity.Sons and daughters have been encouraged to “marry cousins or other relatives in order to increase and strengthen” the extended family or tribe,”or occasionally to marry into another tribe in order to heal rifts”. At least in the 1990s, most marriages in Saudi were “consanguineous”—i.e. between close relatives—sometimes a second cousin but usually a first cousin. and marriage between cousins in Saudi is among the highest rate in the world. Unfortunately the practice has been cited as a factor in higher rates of Type 2 diabetes, (which affects about 32% of adult Saudis), hypertension, (which affects 33%),and higher rates of severe genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or Thalassemia, a blood disorder, thalassemia, sickle cell anemia, spinal muscular atrophy, deafness and muteness. As a consequence, Islamic clerics have “gingerly” counseled young men to ‘choose a wife carefully with an eye to health.’
Many outsiders are struck by the superficial resemblance of Saudi cities (at least those on the coast such as Jeddah) — with their superhighways, shopping malls and fast food—to those of post-World War II western cities and suburbs.
As late as 1970, most Saudis lived a subsistence life in the rural provinces, but the kingdom has urbanized rapidly in the last half of the 20th century. As of 2012 about 80% of Saudis live in urban metropolitan areas—specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, or Dammam.
Saudi houses and housing compounds are often noted for the high walls (3 or 4 metres high) surrounding them, explained as useful in keeping out sandstorms and/or reflective of the families’ self-contained outlook on the world.
Style and decoration
Like many people throughout the world, many Saudis derive “much pleasure and pride” in their homes. Saudis enjoy decorating rooms of their homes in “all the colours of the spectrum” and display objets d’art of many different styles together. “Clashes of colour and culture are the norm, not the exception,” with the value of an artefact, “rather than consistency of style” being the major criterion of display. Foreigners may be also be struck by the lack of finishing touches in construction (“Electrical switches may protrude from the wall supported only by their wiring”) or maintenance (“Piles of masonry are likely to lie scattered beside and on the streets of expensive suburbs”).
Women, youth and foreigners
While women are forbidden to drive motor vehicles and consequently limited in mobility, they traditionally have often had considerable informal power in the home. According to journalist Judith Miller, “some Saudi women were veritable tyrants in their own homes. They decided where their children would go to school, when and whom they would marry, whether their husbands would accept new jobs, with whom the family socialized, and where the family would live and spend vacations. They promoted their friends’ husbands, sons and relatives to key jobs.” David Long, a former American diplomat who had taught in the kingdom, has described Saudi men as `the world’s most henpecked`.
Outside the home, a number of Saudi women have risen to the top of some professions or otherwise achieved prominence; for example, Dr. Ghada Al-Mutairi heads a medical research center in California and Dr. Salwa Al-Hazzaa is head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh and was the late King Fahad’s personal ophthalmologist. However employment for women is limited, and urban middle and upper class women spend much time in socializing with the extended family and close friends.Writing in National Geographic Marrianne Alireza noted: ‘For city women like us the only activity besides living communally within the extended family was leaving our quarters to visit other women in their quarters.’
Food and drink
Saudi Arabian cuisine is similar to that of the surrounding countries in the Arabian Peninsula, and has been heavily influenced by Turkish, Persian, and African food. Animals are slaughtered in accordance with halal Islamic dietary laws, which consider pork impure (najis) and alcohol forbidden (haram). As a general rule, Saudis (like other Muslims) consider impure pork to be disgusting, but forbidden alcohol a temptation. Consequently, dietary laws regarding the former are more strictly observed than those regarding the latter.
A dish consisting of a stuffed lamb, known as khūzī, is the traditional national dish. Kebabs are popular, as is shāwarmā, a marinated grilled meat dish of lamb, mutton, or chicken, sometimes wrapped in flat bread. As in other Arab countries of the Arabian Peninsula, machbūs (kabsa), a rice dish with fish or shrimp, is popular. Flat, unleavened bread is a staple of virtually every meal, as are dates and fresh fruit. Coffee, served in the Turkish or Arabic style, is the traditional beverage.
The appearance of modern supermarkets and commercial restaurants starting in the 1970s has changed Saudi culinary habits. International cuisine, particularly fast food, has become popular in all Saudi urban areas (i.e. in 80% of the country).While traditionally Saudis ate sitting on the floor using the right hand or flat bread to take food from a roasted lamb, goat or camel carcass,the practice of eating while sitting on a chair at a table has become more standard practice, if not the use of knives and forks.
Music and dance
Music and dance have always been part of Saudi life. Bedouin poetry, known as nabaṭī, is still very popular. Traditional music is generally associated with poetry and is sung collectively. Instruments include the rabābah, an instrument not unlike a three-string fiddle, and various types of percussion instruments, such as the ṭabl (drum) and the ṭār (tambourine). Al-sihba folk music, has its origins in al-Andalus. In Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, dance and song incorporate the sound of the mizmar, an oboe-like woodwind instrument in the performance of the mizmar dance. The drum is also an important instrument according to traditional and tribal customs. Samri is a popular traditional form of music and dance in which poetry is sung. Of the native dances, the most popular is a martial line dance known as the Al Ardha, which includes lines of men, frequently armed with swords or rifles, dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines (or as one non-Saudi described it: “barefooted males clad in their normal street clothes of thobe and gutra jumping up and down mostly in one spot while wielding swords”.