The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a western Asian nation in the Arabian Peninsula, is a deeply religious country where Islam is the state religion of the country and plays an important role in shaping the culture and the way of life of the people of the country.
Religion and kinship play important roles in Saudi Arabian society. There is a high rate of gender segregation in the country. Women are not allowed to work in areas where they will come into contact with unrelated men. Women can only work in settings where they interact with others of the same sex only like girls’ schools, universities for women, etc. Even in social settings, women and men who are unrelated are not allowed to interact with each other. Women participation in the country’s workforce is quite low. Women also enjoy lesser rights and freedoms than men. They cannot drive or leave the country without assistance from a mehram (a male guardian). They have to depend on men in their family (usually father, brother, and husband) throughout their lives for all public dealings. They have to wear covered clothing and a veil at all times in public.
Arranged marriages are common in Saudi Arabia. A man is allowed to have four wives at one time but he must subject them to equal treatment. Getting divorced is easy for men but difficult for women. Men and women hardly interact in the Saudi society as the gender divide prevents such interactions outside the home. The elderly are highly regarded in the society. Guests are greeted very well and offered tea and other refreshments by the host family. Cultural traditions place a high importance on generosity and hospitality. Social interactions are highly gender and age specific in the Saudi society. Likewise, extended family is held in very high regard in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a theocratic state. Al Saud, or the House of Saud, is the name of the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state where the Saudi government makes rules according to different aspects of Islamic teaching. The practice of religions other than Islam in public is not allowed. All citizens of the country must be Muslims and conversion to other religions is punishable by law. Propagation of other faiths is banned. About 99.3% of Saudis are Sunni Muslims.
September 23 is a secular holiday in the country and is celebrated as the National Day, marking the founding of the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. All the remaining official holidays are related to Islam. Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Mawlid An-Nabawi are some of the Islamic festivals and events observed in the country. The holy month of Ramadan is observed in Saudi Arabia, which affects man aspects of Saudi life. During Ramadan, shops and services shut down and working hours are generally reduced.
Music and dance are an integral part of the lives of Saudis. One of the native dances of this country is Al Ardha that features Saudi men in their traditional attires and with swords or rifles in hand, positioned shoulder to shoulder, dancing to the rhythms of sung poetry and drum beats. The mizmar dance form is another traditional dance of the Saudis that is popular in Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina. The performing arts form uses an oboe-like instrument called the mizmar. The drum plays an important role in tribal and traditional customs. The Bedouin poetry form of nabaṭī is also very popular in Saudi Arabia. Another native dance and music form of the Saudis is the Samri. Here men, seated on their knees, clap their hands and sway to the rhythm of drums and poetry.
Arabic literature is ages old and features both poetry and prose written in the Arabic language. The Qur'an, regarded as the best piece of Arabic literature by many, has helped shape Arabic culture and literature over the years. The Islamic Golden Age was the time when the Arabic literature flourished but it continues to have a great impact in the modern world today.
Saudi Arabia is also famous amongst Arab and Islam countries for its art and craft. The gold and silver jewelry and handicrafts of the country are praised across the world. The kiswah is a traditional handicraft of the country that is a black cloth with the Quranic verses embroidered with threads of gold and silver. It is made in Mecca and replaced each year in the Ka’ba, Mecca’s sacred shrine. Pottery, leather goods, wood carving, and handicrafts in copper and brass are also famous craft forms of Saudi Arabia. Since Islam forbids the display of the human body in art, the work of Saudi artists mainly concentrates on abstract and geometric shapes. Calligraphy is an important sacred art of the Saudis.
The cuisine of Saudi Arabia is similar to that of the neighboring nations of the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey. Pork is considered impure in Islam and thus consumption of it is banned in the country. Halal Islamic dietary laws are followed while slaughtering animals for meat. The khūzī, a stuffed lamb dish is regarded as the traditional national dish of Saudi Arabia. Another popular dish is the shāwarmā that features flat bread wrapped marinated and grilled meat. Kebabs are also a delicacy of Saudi Arabian cuisine. A rice dish served with shrimp or fish called machbūs is also consumed as a delectable dish. Dates and fresh fruit are also commonly served.
As the consumption of alcohol is forbidden by Islam, Saudi Arabian law prohibits the sale of alcohol. Coffee and tea are popular beverages served to guests invited to homes in the country. A yogurt drink called laban, camel milk and buttermilk are also popular beverages.
Globalization and the appearance of modern supermarkets and multi-cuisine restaurants have greatly altered the culinary dietary habits of the urban Saudis. Fast food has become particularly popular in the country. The traditional Saudi customs favor consumption of food while sitting on the ground and discourage the use of forks and knives.
Clothing in Saudi Arabia is dictated by the religion and customs of the country and is strictly enforced. Women are required to adorn the abaya, a long (usually black) cloak that covers their entire body, revealing only the hands. The Saudi women are also required to wear a veil called the niqāb that covers their head and face. Foreign women in Saudi also must wear the abaya but they can keep their hair and face exposed.
Dress codes also exist for Saudi men and boys. The traditional dress for men, irrespective of social status or type of job, is a thobe which is a long, loose traditional dress. The men usually wear white thobes during the hot summers and dark colored woollen thobes in winter. On special occasions, the thobe is accompanied with a bisht that is a long cloak (usually black, brown or white) with gold trimmings. The Saudi men also adorn the traditional headgear which has three parts: a small white cap called the tagia, a large square piece of cloth (white, red or white checked) called the gutra, and a doubled black cord called the igal that keeps the gutra in position. Leather sandals act as the traditional footwear. Western-style clothes are common among the young Saudis for casual style.
Sports and Entertainment
Soccer is Saudi Arabia’s national sport and the Saudi Arabia Football Federation governs the national soccer team of the country. The team has participated in about four FIFA World Cup games and 12 AFC Asian Cup games. The country also has a skilled national basketball team that won bronze at the 1999 Asian Championship. Volleyball, tennis, and others sports are also popular here. Among the traditional sports, camel and horse racing are hugely popular. Camel racing tracks are present throughout the country and the animals are raced for prize money. The King's Camel Race that is held annually attracts about 2,000 competitors and 30,000 spectators every year. Hunting with guns is not allowed in the Saudi culture but hunting using falcons and dogs is very popular. The Government of Saudi Arabia promotes sports to a great extent and has set up sports cities, centers and clubs in both the urban and rural areas of the nation with world-class facilities to encourage the citizens of the country to participate in sports.
Other forms of entertainment are largely a private matter in Saudi Arabia. The country has no public cinema halls. Cinema halls and theaters in the country were completely shut down in 1980 due to an increase in Islamist activism. Saudis usually watch films at their private residences using DVD’s, satellite, or video.
Camping and water sports are popular activities in the national park and coastal areas of Saudi Arabia, respectively.
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