World Cultures


A Saudi man using the Internet in his office in Riyadh. There are substantial variations in the amount of income and accumulated wealth among Saudi Arabians.
A Bedouin tribesman at a market in Abha.
Urban houses in Al-Balad Medina, Jeddah. Gender-segregated space still exists in many households.
A group of Saudi men gather in front of a store in Jeddah. Men have substantially more rights than women, who must remain out of public view.
An Arabian coffee pot.
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Culture Name

Saudi Arabian

Alternative Names

Arabia, Saudi, North Arabia, Desert Arabia; informally, the Kingdom

Orientation

Identification. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (in Arabic, al-Mamlaka al-Arabiya as-Saudiya ) occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, the original homeland of the Arab people and of Islam. The cultural identities Saudi Arabian citizens express are principally those of Muslim and Arab, linking them to millions of people beyond the nation's borders. They also identify with the contemporary state and its national culture; the country's name links the ruling dynasty, Al Saud, with the state's cultural and geographic setting.

Identities connected to the traditional ways of life of the Bedouin and of oasis-dwelling farmers, fishers, craftspeople and artisans, and merchants, caravaneers, and long-distance traders remain in force even as economic changes have transformed or ended those ways of life. Regional and kin-based tribal and clan identities are shared among Saudi Arabian citizens.

Location and Geography. Saudi Arabia occupies 868,730 square miles (2,250,000 square kilometers). It is bounded on the east by the Arabian (Persian) Gulf; on the west by the Red Sea; to the south and southeast by Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar; and to the north and northeast by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia has a hot desert climate with high humidity on the coastal fringes. Rainfall is scarce except in the area of Asir, where it is sufficient for agriculture on terraced farms and upper slopes and alluvial planes.

Rainfall is adequate for the nomadic herding of sheep, goats, and camels and for the sustenance of nondomesticated desert fauna, but crop production is dependent on irrigation from underground aquifers. Saudi Arabia has no rivers or permanent bodies of water other than artificial lakes and pools. Wadis, the dry beds of ancient rivers, sometimes flow with runoff from downpours and seep with underground water.

Saudi Arabia has four main regions. Najd, the geographic center and political and cultural core, is a vast plateau that combines rocky and sandy areas with isolated mountains and wadi systems. Agricultural oases are the sites of villages, towns, and cities. This area's rangelands have long sustained nomadic pastoral production and are the homelands of the main Bedouin communities. Najd is bordered to the west by the regions of Hijaz and Asir along the Red Sea. A narrow coastal plane known as Tihama is predominant in the south, while a mountain chain with a steep western escarpment runs through these areas.

Hijaz has strong and ancient urban traditions and is the location of Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (al-Madinah). Other important Hijazi cities are Jiddah, a seaport, a commercial center, and formerly diplomatic capital; Taif, summer capital; and Yanbu, a newly developing industrial and longtime port city. Hijaz has agricultural oases, and a history of tribally organized nomadic pastoralism.

Asir has several cities and some nomadic presence, yet it is rural, with farmers living in settled communities largely organized in accordance with tribal and clan identities. The seaports of Hijaz and Asir also have populations traditionally oriented toward the sea, for trade or fishing, a characteristic they share with the Eastern Province.

The largest oasis, al-Ahsa (al-Hasa), is watered by artesian wells and springs in the interior of the Eastern Province and provides dates and other crops. The Eastern Province is also the main source

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

of oil wealth. Oil and gas wells, refineries and other processing and distribution plants, and the headquarters of the national oil industry are located there. Trade and urban centers have long existed in this area, but the tricity complex of Dammam, al-Khubar, and Dhahran has been predominant since the 1960s, while Jubail is becoming a large industrial city.

 

Each geographic region has diverse local customs and histories. However, all the regions share traditional ways of life in a harsh desert environment and from a long history that includes the creation of the contemporary state and its culture in the last three centuries. They also share a common history of development since the 1950s, including a vast oil-revenue-induced boom between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, military events that led to the presence of foreign troops on Saudi Arabian soil in the 1990s, and the process of "globalization" at the end of the twentieth century.

Demography. The population in 1992 was about 16,900,000 and was increasing at a rate of 3.3 percent annually. A population of twenty million was projected for the year 2000, almost triple the roughly seven million enumerated in the early 1970s. The 1992 population consisted of 12,300,000 Saudi Arabian citizens and 4,600,000 resident foreigners, of whom about half were other Arabs. Just over three-quarters of the population was urban, with the remainder classified as rural, including the few remaining nomads. More than half the citizens were less than 20 years old.

Linguistic Affiliation. Arabic is the language of all Saudi Arabian citizens and about half the immigrants. Classical Arabic ( fusha ) in its Koranic, high literary, and modern standard forms is used for prayers and religious rituals, poetry, lectures, speeches, broadcasts, written communications, and other formal purposes. Conversationally, people use colloquial Arabic ( amiya ). There are many subdialects and internal variants. English is the main second language.

Symbolism. The national flag is green, the color of Islam, and bears a white inscription that translates as, "There is No God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." A white saber, the sword of Islam, was added in 1906 and symbolizes the military successes of Islam and of Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, the founder of the contemporary state. The national logo depicts two crossed swords and a date palm tree. The national day is 23 September, marking the unification in 1932 of the regions of Najd and its dependencies, Hijaz, and Asir to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The national day is celebrated with speeches, receptions, and school-related activities but usually lacks pomp and ceremony. The king, leading princes, and government ministers often are seen on television performing their culturally prescribed roles.

The state and people engage in the creation of a national cultural heritage through the preservation or reconstruction of elements from the past that are seen as embodying the traditional culture. Examples are the preservation of old houses and mosques, the use of traditional motifs in new buildings, the holding of camel races, and the setting up in museums and hotels of tents with rugs and paraphernalia typical of traditional Bedouin tented households.

The national culture also embraces the new and the modern: a national airline (Saudia), oil industry and petrochemical installations, wheat growing in the irrigated desert, skyscrapers, shopping malls with artificial waterfalls and ice-skating rinks, and supermodern highways, ports, and airports. The contemporary consumer culture includes automobiles, pickup trucks, videocassette recorders, multi-channel televisions, and telephones as well as computers and mobile phones.

Other dimensions of the national culture and its symbolism include performances such as the ardah , where men dance waving swords in the air; the recitation of epic poems about historical events related to tribal affairs; and national sports competitions. The distinctive clothing worn by both men and women conforms with Muslim dress codes that prescribe modesty for both sexes but especially women.

Saudi Arabia's most powerful cultural symbols are those linked to Islam. The ritual celebrations that have the strongest hold on people's imaginations are the holy month of Ramadan, the holy pilgrimage ( haj ) to Mecca, and the Muslim feasts of Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha , which occur after the end of Ramadan and in conjunction with the pilgrimage, respectively. Other important rituals are the more private social celebrations of weddings, visits (especially among women) for joyous and sad occasions, extended family and clan reunions and other kin-based socializing, and the expression of condolences and participation in funerals.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Saudi Arabia's cultural roots lie deep in antiquity. Although remote from centers of ancient civilizations, Arabia's people had a multiplicity of contacts with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq and with the Roman and Byzantine empires. Ancient Arabia was home to states, cities, and other manifestations of complex cultures and societies. Of particular significance to ancient Arabia was the domestication of the dromedary (one-humped camel) in the southern part of the peninsula between 3000 and 2500 B.C.E. By 1000 B.C.E. , camels were important in the lucrative caravan trade, especially for the transport of incense, between southern Arabia and markets in the north. The invention of the north Arabian camel saddle between about 500 and 100 B.C.E. allowed tribally organized camel raisers to enhance their power and influence.

Armed camel raisers did not subsist on their own in desert Arabia but depended on foods produced by farmers in the region's oases and on a wide range of products, including weapons, manufactured by local craftspeople. The Bedouin obtained some of their necessities through tribute in return for their protection of farmers and craftspeople. Market exchange also existed, and the output of nomadic and sedentary producers was marketed locally and, in the case of camels and horses, through long-distance trade.

Markets and their specialized personnel of merchants and traders are as indigenous to the culture of Arabia as are Bedouin camel raisers and oasis-dwelling farmers. Knowledge of the state as an institution has also long been present, although the exercise of effective state power was often lacking in the past.

The foundation and legitimacy of the state are linked to Islam, which is itself historically linked to Arabia. Muslims believe that God (Allah) sent His final revelation "in clear Arabic," in the form of the holy Koran, through His Messenger, Muhammad. This occurred first in and around Mecca and then in Medina beginning in 622 C.E. , which marks the first year of the Islamic era (1 A.H. ). By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, almost all the tribal and local communities in Arabia had declared their loyalty to him as a political leader and most had accepted Islam. The process of conversion was completed under the leadership of Islam's first caliph, Abu Bakr. The religion was then carried by Arabian converts throughout the Middle East and north Africa.

Islam brought not only a new religion but a new way of life that included innovations in legal and political concepts and practices and a new identity that was universalistic and cosmopolitan. The new Muslim identity, politics, and laws transcended the social and cultural borders of existing communities that had been organized as localities or kinbased tribes.

National Identity. Contemporary Saudi Arabia arose from a process of state development that began in the late seventeenth century, when leaders of the Bani Khalid tribe created a state in the al-Ahsa area of today's Eastern Province. Other attempts at state building involved the Al Rashid and Al Idrisi dynasties in Najd and Asir, respectively. However, the most effective movement was initiated in the late 1730s by Sheikh Muhammad Al Abd al-Wahab (died 1792). After studying in the Hijaz and Iraq, he returned to Najd and preached and wrote against practices that deviated from Islam. He stressed the unity of God and urged his followers, who became known as muwahidun ("unitarians"), to end polytheistic practices and adhere strictly to the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet).

In 1744, the sheikh swore an oath with Muhammad Al Saud, the emir of ad-Diriyah, that they would collaborate to establish a state

Urban houses in Al-Balad Medina, Jeddah. Gender-segregated space still exists in many households.

organized and run according to Islamic principles. Their goal was religious reform, a phenomenon that involved a new leadership structure that placed Al Saud in the position of umara (princes, rulers) and Al Abd al-Wahab (also known as Al Sheikh) in the position of ulama (learned in religion). The reform movement also involved military struggle, preaching, the establishment of Koranic schools, the setting up of new communities, and the creation of a bureaucratic state that ruled in Najd from 1765 and in Hijaz from 1803 until 1818, when it was defeated by an Ottoman army from Egypt. This state was reestablished in the mid-nineteenth century, overthrown by Al Rashid, and re-created through reconquest and religious reform under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Al Saud beginning in 1902 and culminating with the declaration of the present kingdom in 1932.

 

Never a colony of a foreign power or a province of the Ottoman Empire, the Saudi Arabian state resulted from an indigenous local process of sociopolitical change and religious reform. Some think of that state as having a strong tribal dimension, in part because the Al Saud are of tribal origins. However, merchants provided loans and financial assistance, preachers and teachers built a consciousness among Muslims and imparted religious knowledge, and jurists and bureaucrats labored to carry out the work of a state without regard to tribal identity.

The legitimacy of the state is derived from Islam, along with the will of the citizens, who swear an oath of allegiance ( bayah ) to the ruler. The constitution is the Koran, and Sharia (Islamic law) is the law of the land. The ruler has the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," which implies an Islamic role, yet he also carries the title of malik ("king"), which may be seen as symbolic of the state's technical, administrative, and policing functions.

Ethnic Relations. As Muslims, Saudi Arabians participate in a community ( ummah ) in which issues of race, ethnicity, and national origin should be of no significance and never form the basis for social action, political behavior, and economic organization. The identity of Muslim transcends the borders of states and ideally takes precedence over all other identities.

Socially, however, the concept of origin ( asl )is strong among many Saudi Arabians. Some people, mainly in Hijaz, are recognized descendants of Muhammad and are known as Ashraf . Many others throughout the kingdom assert patrilineal descent from eponymous ancestors from ancient Arab tribes. Still others stress Arabian origins but without tribal connections. However, Saudi citizenship embraces people with historical origins outside the Arabian Peninsula. Considerations of origin are important markers and influence social interaction, including marriage, but do not translate directly into economic or power differentials in the national society. Moreover, the social significance of such considerations is waning, especially among younger people.

The more prominent cultural division within Saudi Arabian society is between citizens and immigrants. That division sometimes is muted by the common bonds of Islam and/or Arabism, yet many immigrants are neither Muslim nor Arab. In these cases, religious, linguistic, and other cultural barriers accentuate the social cleavage between the local person and the foreigner. Moreover, class divisions separate citizens from the many immigrants who are low-skilled workers. The immigrants come temporarily and mostly as individuals without families. They are thus in the society but not of it, and little effort is made to assimilate them.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

In 1950, roughly 40 percent of the population was nomadic and resided in tents in highly dispersed patterns on vast rangelands, where they migrated with herds of camels, sheep, and goats to seasonal pastures and for access to water. Another 40 percent lived in villages in the rural areas of oases or the Asir highlands and worked mainly in agriculture. The remaining 20 percent were urbanites in the old cities of Mecca, Medina, Jiddah, Taif, Abha, Buraydah, Unayzah, Ha'il, Hufuf, and Riyadh. In 1992, three-quarters of the population was classified as urban.

Major changes accompanied the growth of the oil industry in the 1950s. New cities developed rapidly, while older ones increased in size. Nomadic Bedouin settled in villages and in and around cities, and villagers left their communities for rapidly growing urban areas. This geographic mobility was accompanied by occupational mobility as Bedouin and villagers worked as wage laborers or small-scale traders and taxi drivers and then became government and private sector employees, professionals, and businesspeople. People from old cities also moved to newly developing cities and experienced occupational change.

The new cities and the transformed areas of old ones depend on the use of automobiles. They sprawl over large areas, have neighborhoods separated by open spaces, and are linked by wide thoroughfares, freeways, and ring roads. The new urban fabric contrasts sharply with urban scenes that lingered into the 1970s. The old cities were walled and had compact residential areas with mazes of narrow paths, parts of which were covered by the upper stories of houses. Most houses had inward-looking courtyards, and some used wind catches to circulate air. The old cities also had date palm gardens with wells and other greenery between and among neighborhoods. Mosques were within easy walking distance from residences, and there was always a main central mosque, a major market area, and a principal seat of government that was usually part of a fort.

Similarities in the social use of domestic space transcended the categories of nomad, villager, and urbanite and continue today. The tents of nomads and the permanent houses of others were divided into sections for men and women, which also served as the family living quarters. Among the nomads, men sat on kilims and carpets around a hearth outside the front of the tent to visit, drink coffee and tea, and eat. Boys past puberty and male visitors slept there. Women made similar use of the space set aside for their visiting in the tents.

The same pattern of gender-segregated space continues to exist in the homes of sedentary people. Modern housing often has separate entrances and separate reception areas or living rooms for each gender. In many houses, people sit on carpets or cushions alongside the walls of the room, and most of those houses have areas with chairs and sofas around the walls. The central space of the room is left open.

People in both cities and smaller communities now live mainly in individual dwellings with exterior surrounding walls. Although apartment buildings exist, they usually are inhabited by immigrants. The tents and old houses usually housed extended families of three or more generations. Although nuclear family households are increasingly the norm, relatives continue to cluster together, and it is not uncommon for brothers to locate their dwellings on adjacent lots or inside a common compound. Many immigrants live in camps specifically created for them or in abandoned housing in the older parts of towns; some guest workers live on farms.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The traditional staple foods were dates; goat, camel, and cow's milk; ghee, cheese, and other milk products; bread and other foods from wheat, millet, and barley; squash, eggplant, okra, pumpkin, beans, leeks, onions, and a few other vegetables; mint, coriander, parsley, and cumin; and occasionally mutton, goat, or camel meat and, on the coasts, fish. Elderly people remember meals of the past as simple but adequate, without a morsel wasted. They regularly ate at home and started the day with a breakfast of coffee and a few dates soon after the dawn prayer. A meal of dates, milk and/or milk products, and bread was served at midmorning. The last and main meal often was taken before the sunset prayer and consisted of a hot grain-based dish, vegetables among sedentary people in oases, milk among the nomadic Bedouin, rarely some meat, and dates.

Meals today are eaten later, and the foods are more copious and elaborate. Cheese, yogurt, jam, eggs, beans, and bread may be consumed around eight a.m. A lunch of mutton or chicken on a plate of rice with side dishes of vegetables and salads followed by fresh fruit is shared by family members around 2:30 P.M. The evening meal is usually a lighter version of lunch and is eaten well after eight o'clock. Less common today are dates, grain-based dishes, and milk. Rice has become ubiquitous, and chicken very common. Light roasted Arabic coffee without sugar but spiced with cardamom remains the national beverage; tea is also popular.

Foods that are taboo are those forbidden by Islam, notably pork and wine and other alcoholic beverages. Restaurants were uncommon and considered somewhat improper in the past, but a wide spectrum now serves Middle Eastern, north African, Italian, Indian and Pakistani, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and other cuisines in addition to American and Middle Eastern fast food.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. The arrival of a guest at one's home is an event that leads to a special meal in honor of the visitor. Traditional etiquette required that sheep, goat, or camel be sacrificially slaughtered, and this is still often done. However, chicken may be substituted, and in many urban households meat dishes have replaced eating the whole animal. Major ritual occasions associated with Islamic feasts, weddings, reunions of family and kin, and other social events still require the sacrificial slaughter of sheep or, less commonly, goats or young camels.

For these events, meat is boiled in huge pots, and part of the soup is passed among the guests, with the rest poured over large trays of rice on top of which the cooked meat is placed. Traditionally, male guests and older men gather around the tray and eat first, using the right hand; they are followed by younger men and finally boys. Women and girls eat separately, often food prepared specially for them but sometimes eating what the men and boys have not consumed. Multiple rounds of coffee and tea are served before and after the meal, and incense is burned.

Basic Economy. Saudi Arabia produced all its staple foods until the 1940s. Coffee, tea, sugar, cardamom, rice, cloth, and some manufactured

A Saudi man using the Internet in his office in Riyadh. There are substantial variations in the amount of income and accumulated wealth among Saudi Arabians.

items were the main imports. Exports consisted of dates, camels, horses, and sheep, with western India, Iraq, greater Syria, and Egypt being the main centers of long-distance trade. Saudi Arabia also received a modest income related to the holy pilgrimage and other travel to shrines. Generally, the country was self-reliant, but for a smaller population and at a lower consumption level. The majority of the population worked in food production; however, most people depended on local exchange for food and other items. Today, a vastly richer country is dependent on international trade for much of its food and almost everything else.

 

In the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia invested heavily in new commercial agriculture. Spectacular increases have been achieved in the production of wheat, sorghum, barley, poultry and eggs, and new vegetable and fruit crops. However, much of this expansion depends on the use of fossil water (not replenishible), guest workers, imported machinery, and state subsidies. Saudi Arabia has regained self-sufficiency in wheat, and range-based livestock raising is increasingly commercial in orientation. Many Saudi Arabians still work in agriculture and ranching, but as owners and managers rather than workers; some are absentee owners, and many have other occupations and other sources of income.

Land Tenure and Property. Land developed for agricultural, residential, commercial, and industrial uses that has been demarcated is usually owned as private property ( mulk ) and can be bought and sold freely. Some property, however, may be held as a trust ( waqf ) for the support of a religious institution or an owner's descendants. Nondemarcated, undeveloped land in the desert belongs to the state, but traditional rights of access to rangeland and the ownership of water wells dug by nomads or their ancestors are informally attributed to lineages and clans in Bedouin communities. Much land in older settlements is encumbered by informal but powerful ancestral claims of ownership and tenure.

Commercial Activities. Saudi Arabia has banks, foreign exchange houses, and gold and jewelry shops; import houses and agencies of international companies; engineering and contracting firms; supermarkets, grocery stores, butcheries, and bakeries; hotels and restaurants; coffeehouses (for men only); and retail firms selling clothing, home wares, electronics, automobiles, and other consumer items. There are tailors, small repair shops, and other service shops.

Major Industries. The Saudi Arabian oil industry began in 1933, when Americans obtained concessions to explore for oil. Commercial quantities of "black gold" were discovered in 1938, but development of the industry was interrupted by World War II. The Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was formed in 1944, and the industry's expansion followed rapidly. Saudi Arabia has more than 261 billion barrels of proven oil reserves—more than a fourth of the world total—and perhaps a trillion barrels of potentially recoverable oil. It is the world's leading oil producer and exporter, has the world's greatest capacity for oil production, and has the world's fifth largest proven reserves of natural gas. Saudi Arabia also has large and expanding refinery projects and an ambitious program to develop petrochemical production. In the late 1990s, oil revenues accounted for 85 percent of export earnings and 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Gradual nationalization of the oil industry started in the 1970s. Control and ownership shifted to the state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) for crude production, refining, and marketing. Petrochemical production falls under the Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), while much of the downstream parts of the industry are controlled by state companies. The state holds title to all the country's mineral resources, and the oil industry as a whole is governed by the Supreme Petroleum Council headed by the king.

Trade. The bulk of exports are crude oil, refined products, and natural gas liquids. The main customers are Japan and other Asian countries, western Europe, and the United States. Aside from military items, the principal imports include machinery, appliances, electrical equipment, foodstuffs, chemical products, jewelry and metals, and transport items. The major source of imports is the European Union, followed by the United States, and Japan, with only 3 to 4 percent from other Middle Eastern countries.

Division of Labor. Unskilled manual work and that of servants and nannies is performed almost exclusively by immigrants. Medium- to high-skilled private sector salaried employment has also been dominated by guest workers. Saudi Arabian citizens prevail in government employment and ownership and management positions in business enterprises. A process of "Saudization" of the modern workforce has been a national goal since the 1980s. With rapidly rising levels of higher education and the local development of specialized expertise, young Saudi Arabians increasingly have taken

A group of Saudi men gather in front of a store in Jeddah. Men have substantially more rights than women, who must remain out of public view.

on positions requiring advanced professional knowledge. Economic and demographic forces have contributed to the replacement of immigrants by local citizens in middle-level private sector jobs.

 

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. A major social division is that between guest workers and local citizens. The working class is largely composed of temporary immigrants, who also occupy middle-class positions and a few positions in the upper class.

Major variations in income and accumulated wealth exist, with the major categories including the super-rich, the very rich, and the rich alongside a large middle-income group and some with limited incomes. Only small pockets of poverty persist. A strong ideology of egalitarianism is traditional among Saudi Arabians, whose social and verbal patterns of interaction stress equality and siblinghood rather than status differentiation. However, degrees of luxury vary greatly. Differences in lifestyle are increasing as wealthy elites interact less commonly with middle-class people. Common attitudes, beliefs, and practices are shared across economic divides, which also are bridged by ties of kinship and religion.

Political Life

Government. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy whose king serves as both head of state and head of government. The Koran is the constitution. Legislation and other regulations are promulgated by royal decree or ministerial decree sanctioned by the king. The monarch appoints cabinet ministers, governors of provinces, senior military officers, and ambassadors. He is also commander in chief of the armed forces and the final court of appeal with the power of pardon. Since the rule of King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud (died 1953), the kings have all come from among King Abd al-Aziz's sons, a provision that has been extended to include his grandsons.

The government also consists of the Royal Divan, which includes the king's private office; advisers for domestic, religious, and international issues; the chief of protocol; and the heads of the office of Bedouin affairs, along with the department of religious research, missionary activities, and guidance and the committees for the propagation of virtue and prevention of vice. The king holds court in the divan, where citizens can make requests or express complaints.

The Council of Ministers is the main executive organ and is composed of the king, the crown prince, several royal ministers of state without portfolio, other ministers of state, the heads of twenty ministries and the national guard, several main provincial governors, and the heads of the monetary agency and the petroleum and mineral organization. The kingdom has a large civil service that began to expand rapidly in the early 1970s and employed an estimated 400,000 persons in the early 1990s. Saudi Arabia has fourteen provinces, each governed by an emir, usually from the royal family, who reports to the minister of the interior.

Leadership and Political Officials. There are no political parties, but the royal family is a large grouping with significant political influence. It consists of about twenty thousand people and has several main branches and clans. Some princes are especially influential in politics, while others are active in business. The ulama also play important leadership roles and consist of members of the Al Sheikh family and several thousand religious scholars, qadis (judges), lawyers, seminary teachers, and imams (prayer leaders) of mosques. Business and merchant families often exert political influence, but there are no labor unions or syndicates for professional groups. Opposition groups exist outside the country. Political upheavals, some of them violent, have taken place, yet the political system has remained relatively stable over decades of rapid economic, social, and demographic change.

Social Problems and Control. Adherence to Islamic values and maintenance of social stability in the context of rapid economic change have been consistent goals of Saudi Arabia's development plans. Religion and society combine to foster significant social control. A powerful deterrent to deviant behavior is that such behavior brings shame to one's family and kin and is considered sinful. Crimes related to alcohol and drugs and to sexual misconduct sometimes are linked to rapid modernization. Theft is rare, and other economic crimes are relatively uncommon, with the exception of smuggling. Assault and murder are limited mainly to segments of tribal communities and usually involve issues of honor and revenge.

The justice system is based on the Sharia , which defines many crimes and specifies punishments. Crimes not specifically identified in the Sharia are defined on the basis of analogy and often are punished by prison sentences. Sharia-prescribed punishments usually have a physical component. An individual arrested on a criminal charge is detained in a police station until a judgment is rendered by a court of first instance presided over by one or more qadis. A court of cassation, or appeals court, also exists, and the king functions as a final court of appeal. A person found not guilty is released. If a physical punishment is prescribed, it is carried out in a public place, usually outside a main mosque on Friday, where the criminal's name and ancestral names are called out loudly for all to hear and where the shame is said to be more painful than the physical blow. Prison sentences, typical for cases involving drugs, are less public. Foreigners convicted of crimes are punished and then deported.

Islam is strict about issues of law and order and rigorous in the use of witnesses. For a man to be convicted of theft, four Muslims must swear a religious oath that they saw the theft take place. Alternatively, an individual may confess. Physical punishment usually is applied only to serious repeat offenders. The state employs the police, supports the qadis and the court system, provides the prisons, and assures that maximum media attention is given to punishments.

Military Activity. Saudi Arabia maintains an army, navy, air force, coast guard, national guard, and frontier guard with a combined total of about two hundred thousand men. These all-volunteer forces have state-of-the-art equipment and a reputation for professionalism.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

The giving of alms or a tithe ( zakat ) is one of the five pillars of Islam. This religious obligation sometimes is paid as a tax to Islamic states. Considerable private donations are made to philanthropic societies that address the changing needs of the poor and the handicapped. Other private voluntary organizations deal with community needs, establish sports and cultural clubs, and contribute to development programs that complement state activities. These associations normally are registered with the ministry of social affairs and often receive financial support from the state in addition to contributions from citizens.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Strict gender segregation is sanctioned by the state and society. Males and females who are not not barred from marriage by incest rules should not interact in individual or group settings. Women may work outside the home in settings where they do not have contact with unrelated men. Women are employed in girls' schools and the women's sections of universities, social work and development programs for women, banks that cater to female clients, medicine and nursing for women, television and radio programming, and computer and library work. Sections of markets are set aside for women sellers. However, only about 7 percent of Saudi Arabia's formal workforce is female.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Men have more rights than do women. Women are not allowed to drive; cannot travel abroad without the permission or presence of a male guardian ( mahram ); are dependent on fathers, brothers, or husbands to conduct almost all their private and public business; and have to wear a veil and remain out of public view. However, women can own property in their own names and invest their own money in business deals. Women's status is high in the family, especially in the roles of mothers and sisters. Significant numbers of women have had high levels of success in academia, literary production, business, and other fields, yet their achievements go publicly unremarked and they are barred from most aspects of public life.

 

An Arabian coffee pot.

 

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage was between paternal first cousins or other patrilineally related kin. It was customary for potential spouses not to meet before the wedding night, and marriages had to be arranged by fathers, mothers, and other relatives. These practices are changing slowly and unevenly, but the tendency is toward fewer close-cousin marriages and for the couple to communicate with each other before the wedding. Parents still arrange marriages but are more likely to manage indirectly and from the background. Men are allowed to have four wives at a time as long as they can treat them equally, but polygyny is uncommon in most of the population. Marriage is considered a necessary part of life, and almost all adults marry. Marriage is usually a costly affair. Divorce is relatively easy for men and difficult for women. Divorce rates are high, and remarriage is common, especially for men.

Domestic Unit. In traditional residence pattern, a bride joined her husband in his father's household. Authority was held by the husband's father, and the new wife was under the control of her mother-in-law. Neolocal residence is now the norm, or at least the ideal, for newly married couples. In these smaller conjugal families, the roles of husbands and wives feature greater equality and more sharing of responsibilities. Authority formally rests with the husband, who also has the religiously sanctioned duty of providing for the needs of his wife and children.

Inheritance. The stipulations of Islam are widely followed in the inheritance of property. Sons inherit twice the share of daughters from their fathers. Provisions exist for a widow to inherit a small portion, but sons are enjoined to support their mothers, especially widowed or divorced mothers. Custom, but not the Sharia, allows immobile property to be inherited intact by male descendants; in such cases, daughters are usually given a "share" of a potential inheritance in money or other items when they marry.

Kin Groups. Kinship is patrilineal, and women continue to remain members of their kin groups after marriage. Among Bedouin and many rural settlers, kin groups identified by ancestral names in larger aggregations include lineages, clans, and tribes and have major social significance. Genealogy is of great interest; although corporate kin groups have largely ceased to exist, many people continue to identify with and take pride in their lineage, clan, and tribal names and descent.

Socialization

Child Rearing and Education. Mothers used to give birth at home, perhaps with the assistance of a midwife. Infants were cared for by their mothers, who carried them everywhere and nursed them. Other women in extended households, including longtime domestic servants, participated actively in rearing children, teaching them Arabian culture and mores. Fathers and uncles and grandfathers did not take part in child care but played with the children, kissed them, and taught them genealogies and morality. They taught them generosity and hospitality by example.

Intense family and kin-based socialization at home is now mainly a memory. Birth takes place at a hospital, and infant boys are circumcised there before going home (girls are not circumcised). A foreign maid or nanny who may speak little or no Arabic often does much of the work of child rearing. This is an issue that troubles many Saudi Arabians. Breast-feeding sometimes is rejected for not being modern. While much visiting goes on among relatives, conjugal family households today do not provide the rich family learning setting of the past.

Boys and girls go to kindergarten and the rest of the educational system. In 1970, the literacy rate was 15 percent for men and 2 percent for women. In 1990, the rate was 73 percent for men and 48 percent for women, and it is even higher now. The increased role of the school in society represents a break with the past, yet there is also continuity. Religious subjects and the Arabic language are strongly represented in curricula but are not always taught in traditional ways. Universities have produced tens of thousands of graduates in a single generation. Half or more of those graduates are women.

Etiquette

Social interaction is marked by strong gender segregation and respect for age differentials. An egalitarian ethos and a high valorization of polite behavior also prevail. Men and women seldom interact across the gender divide outside the domestic space of families, and many of the society's most powerful do's and don'ts aim to regulate such interaction beyond the confines of a home. Thus male-female interaction in a commercial shop should be formal and strictly limited to the process of buying and selling. Generally, men and women should refrain from making specific references to individuals of the other gender, although it is appropriate and common for one to inquire about the well-being of another individual's "family" or "house"—concepts which are understood as circumlocutions for significant others of the opposite gender. Deference should be shown to those who are older, and relations between generations are often characterized by strict formality and the maintenance of decorum in social gatherings.

Most social interaction takes place in groups that are gender- and age-specific. Social visiting within such contexts is very common and occurs on both an everyday basis and for special events. The latter especially include visits to convey condolences for a death or, conversely, to express congratulations for a happy occurrence such as a wedding, a graduation or promotion, or a safe return from a trip. A guest, upon arrival, should greet individually the host and all others present by shaking hands or, if well-known to each other and of similar age, by kissing on the cheeks three or more times. The individual being greeted should stand. The guest must be offered refreshments of coffee and tea. An invitation to lunch or dinner should also be offered by the host. An animated and relatively long exchange of greetings is expected between host and guest and between the guest and others present, as

A Bedouin tribesman at a market in Abha.

each individual inquires about the other's health and wishes him/her God's protection. The offering of refreshments and the exchange of greetings is extended to office and shop settings (at least among people of the same gender); failure to observe them is very rude. Meanwhile, gender segregation is maintained in public places such as airports or banks, where separate lines for men and women are usual.

 

People tend to remain in close physical contact during social interaction. Walking arm-in-arm or holding hands and gently slapping or touching a person's outstretched palm while talking is common, especially among people of the same gender who know each other well. Gazing, and especially staring, at strangers is rude. In public, people should avoid direct eye-contact with passers-by. When greeting a stranger or an acquaintance, it is appropriate for the person who arrives first to say, in Arabic, "Peace be upon you," to which the proper reply is, "And upon you peace." When saying goodbye, it is proper to say, in Arabic, "In the custody of God," the reply being "In the custody of the Generous One." Generally, the same patterns of etiquette hold throughout Saudi Arabia. Greater formality, however, prevails among Bedouin and rural people, while more relaxed, informal interaction occurs among younger urbanites. The same patterns, but in attenuated forms, apply between local citizens and immigrants.

Religion

Religious Beliefs. All Saudi Arabian citizens are Muslims. Except for a small minority of Shia, Saudi Arabians are Sunni and mainly follow the Handbali school of Islamic law ( madhab ). Half or more of the immigrants are also Muslims. Non-Muslim faiths are not allowed to practice in Saudi Arabia.

Religious Practitioners. Islam does not have ordained clergy or priests. The person most learned in Islam is the one who leads the prayers. The learned ( ulama ) include judges, preachers, teachers, prayer leaders, and others who have studied Islam.

Rituals and Holy Places. The major everyday rituals are related to the five daily prayers that constitute one of the five pillars of Islam. Those who pray face Mecca, ideally in a mosque or as a group. The haj (pilgrimage) is another of the five pillars and should be performed at least once in one's life. Visits also take place to the mosque and tomb of Muhammad in Medina. The other three pillars of Islam are witnessing that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger, fasting during the day throughout the month of Ramadan, and the giving of alms.

Death and the Afterlife. The dead are washed, wrapped in seamless shrouds, and buried in graves facing Mecca without coffins or markers. Burial takes place before sunset on the day of death. The dead go to heaven or hell.

Medicine and Health Care

A rich body of traditional medicine previously existed in Saudi Arabia. Physical ailments were treated with the use of herbs and other plants and also by cauterization or burning a specific part of the body with a hot iron. Severe mental health problems were often addressed through special readings of the Koran. Modern Western medicine is now wide-spread and is used by all segments of the society. Public and private hospitals and clinics are established throughout the country, and several specialist hospitals with state-of-the-art medical technologies and practice exist in the major cities. Still, travel abroad to other Arab countries and to Europe and the United States for medical treatment remains common and is supported by the state.

The Arts and Humanities

Literature. The main art form in Saudi Arabia is in the realm of literature. Classical Arabic poetry is highly valued, while a wide range of colloquial poetic forms is popular and are widely used in different social settings. Recitations of poetry are common at weddings and to mark other important public events. The novel has also become popular among both men and women authors. Local publishing houses exist, while authors also have access to publishers in other Arab countries. The state censor of publications, however, plays a powerful role in deciding what can be published.

Graphic Arts. Painting and sculpture are practiced, but a rich variety of folk art in weaving, decorative arts, furniture making, and similar work is of a high quality. The making of jewelry in both traditional and modern styles is also common.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The physical and social sciences are all taught in Saudi Arabian universities, which exist in all the main cities. Medical sciences are especially popular among both women and men students. One university is specifically devoted to study and research relevant to petroleum. Agriculture and agricultural engineering is a specialty at several other universities, while courses and programs in social studies bring anthropology, sociology, and social work to a wide spectrum of students. Psychology is also taught, as are economics and business. Research centers tied to universities, government entities, and to Islamic entities have a significant presence. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has a long history of state sponsorship of large numbers of university students and scholars abroad, especially in the United States.

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—D ONALD P OWELL C OLE

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