The Culture of Saudi Arabia

Gary Greer 4/8/2020
Arab Culture

With an area of less than 2,150,000 km2, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East. As the motherland of both Arabs and Islam, its influence on its neighbors is certainly unquestionable.  If you think about it, even on the rest of the Arab world.

The people of Saudi Arabia primarily identify with the cultures of Muslims, Arabs and Bedouins as well as the modern Kingdom and its national culture; after all, the country’s name links the ruling Al Saud dynasty with Arabia, the state’s cultural and geographic setting.  Furthermore, economic changes have transformed or ended the more traditional ways of life of the Bedouin and oasis dwelling farmers, fishermen, craftspeople and artisans, merchants, caravaneers and long-distance traders. However, many Saudis are still connected to these cultures and their way of life until today. There is no doubt of the cultural influence of regional and kin-based tribal and clan identities shared among the Saudi Arabian people.

Thanks to oil interest, modern Saudi Arabia is a cash-rich country. Home to shiny, contemporary cities and technological advances, yet ancient religious law governs all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia making the nation a true dichotomy. therefore, understanding Saudi Arabia values and beliefs, along with its cultural traditions, is a must. Obviously, for anyone planning to visit or do business in this vast and hospitable kingdom.

Family Values and Customs

Saudi Arabia follows Islamic rules when it comes to the sacredness of family. Large, extended families live together, and clans and tribes dictate the Saudi social structure. If invited to a Saudi’s house, follow the Saudi rules of etiquette when it comes to gift-giving. It’s acceptable to give small gifts as a way of saying thanks for the invite. However, they will most likely be open them after you leave. Do not bring flowers for women and a bottle of wine or other alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is a definite no-no for religious reasons.  

Major Holidays

The holiest time of the year is the month of Ramadan. Saudi’s will not eat, drink and smoke from sunup to sundown. Also, no more than six hours of work may be done in a day.  Families break their fasts together at the time of the sunset prayer. Most important to know when traveling or living in Saudi is that, because they are based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan holidays change every year. So, check your calendar and know the days before you go. Also during Ramadan, markets (souks) operate on reduced schedules. Keep this in mind when seeking food, souvenirs, and any other shopping you might have planned. Additionally, once a year, Mecca welcomes millions of pilgrims in town for the centuries-old Islamic pilgrimage known as Hajj. So, like Ramadan, check your calendar for these dates as well.

Traditional Food and Drink

Speaking of food, throughout the country you’ll discover traditional Saudi fare. This includes spicy dishes made with rice, lentils, grains, lamb and chicken. People usually serve these with Arab flatbread as they’ve been doing for millennia in the region.  Lunch is traditionally the day’s main meal. Don’t look for pork or alcohol on the menu as they are both forbidden in accordance with religious practices. As you might have guessed, there is also no nightlife to speak of. When you finish eating, be sure to ask for a mishwak to care for your teeth while visiting Saudi Arabia as the Prophet Mohammed encouraged oral hygiene. Thus, it’s customary to clean your teeth in public.

Saudi Arabia’s Art Tradition

Not many cultural traditions are as held dear as Saudi Arabia’s native art forms. Pre-Islamic society poetry is preserved as a national cultural treasure along with another favorite form of artistic expression – storytelling. However, in keeping with Islamic law, guidelines govern public performances. Artists can’t make “graven images”, or pictures of any living things, which has led the art of calligraphy to the forefront of Saudi art. Hand-lettered Qurans are considered sacred art that’s to be respected and kept safe for generations.

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