Saudi Arabia – Basics

The monarchy Saudi Arabia is stretching over more than 2 million km². There are vast deserts, breathtaking beaches on the Red Sea, and beautiful mountain areas. Saudi Arabia boasts of a great cultural heritage and the most sacred mosques.

The 33 million Saudi Arabs are composed mainly of various ethnic groups who are native to the Arabian Peninsula and share a common general Saudi culture. According to the 2010 census, Saudi nationals represent 74.1% of the total population. While the official language is Arabic, English is quite widespread due to the presence of a large community of foreigners. 80% of Saudis live in the major urban centers Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

The House of Saud is the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. It is estimated to comprise 15,000 members, but the majority of the power and wealth is possessed by a group of about 2,000. The King of Saudi Arabia is head of state with almost absolute political power, while his appointed cabinet includes many relatives.

Being the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is known as the holy land. Many Muslims from around the world travel here for pilgrimage. Saudis define themselves first by being a Sunni Muslim, living according to the strict Wahhabism doctrine, and then as an Arab. They observe the Islamic law, while many traditions are centuries-old and derive from Arab civilization. Five times each day they are called to prayer from the minarets throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.

The Saudi customs dictate a uniformity of dress: Women wear an abaya in public, a long black cloak that covers all, but the hands and face. A face veil, such as a niqāb, is optional or is required in certain regions only. Underneath the abaya many women wear modest Western style clothes. Saudi Arabic men wear a white thobe or thawb during  hot weather, or wool thobes in dark colors during the colder months. At special occasions, men often wear a bisht or mishlah over the thobe, long cloaks trimmed in gold. A Saudi’s headdress consists of a tagia, a small white cap, a gutra, which is a large square of cloth and an igal, a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place. More recently, Western T-shirts and jeans have become quite common leisure wear, particularly in Jeddah.

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