A COUNTRY PROFILE
Getting There & Around
Arabia has intrigued westerners for centuries. Its vast deserts were the birthplace of the Arab race Islam and of Arabic, a language considered holy by Muslims. It's also home to two of Islam's holiest cities Mecca and Medina and to a host of modern, thriving, oil-rich metropolises.
Today's Saudi Arabia has held on to its mystique by being incredibly difficult to visit as a tourist, but this "closed society" hosts more than five million foreign workers earning excellent salaries. The country has beautiful desert and mountain scenery, and some of the Middle East's best archaeological sites. There also is a fascinating spectacle of a society juggling deeply conservative religious beliefs and oil-boom modernity.
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Full country name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Area: 2 million sq km (1.2 million sq mi)
Population: 21.5 million
Capital city: Riyadh (population 3 million)
People: Arabs, Bedouins, Najdis and expats from all over the world
Language: Arabic, English
Head of State: King Fahd
GDP: US$186 billion
GDP per head: US$ 9000
Annual growth: 9%
Major industries: Petro-chemical, construction
Major trading partners: Japan, United States, EU, India
Currency: Saudi Arabian Riyal, fixed to the US$ at a rate of SR 3,75 to a Dollar
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About 2.2 million sq km (0.85 million sq mi) in size, Saudi Arabia is mostly desert. It's bordered to the south-east by Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, to the north by Iraq and Kuwait, and to the west by Jordan. Western Saudi Arabia is dominated by a mountain chain which runs the entire length of the country, getting higher and wider to the south. About half the country (an area the size of France) is taken up by the Rub' al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. A second great sand desert, the Nafud, stretches its way across the north-west of the country, while the centre and north of Saudi Arabia is mostly gravelly plains. The east is flat and low-lying, an area of sabkhas (or salt flats). Its main geographical feature is the gigantic Al-Hasa oasis.
Unsurprisingly, considering all that desert, there's not much in the way of flora and fauna in Saudi Arabia. There are a number of scrub species, as well as tamarinds growing in some deserts and evergreens in the forested regions of Asir. If it's fauna you're after, you'd better like camels. They're Saudi Arabia's most visible wildlife, although there are also nocturnal hedgehogs and sand cats in some areas, and Hamadryas baboons in Asir.
Saudi Arabia's deserts have extreme climates. From mid-April to mid-October, expect daytime temperatures of 45°C or higher throughout the country. In the dead of winter (December to January) things cool down in the cities: it's only around 20°C during the day, and can be colder in the central deserts overnight. In the coastal areas it rains regularly, with high humidity in the summer, but there's very little rainfall in the capital Riyadh.
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Parts of what is now eastern Saudi Arabia were first settled in the fourth or fifth millenium BC by migrants from what is now southern Iraq. The Nabateans had the biggest of the early empires, stretching as far as Damascus around the first century BC.
In the early 18th century the Al-Saud, the ruling family of modern Saudi Arabia, were the ruling shaikhs of the oasis village of Dir'aiyah, near modern Riyadh. When they formed an alliance, in the mid-18th century, with Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, the result was Wahhabism, the back-to-basics religious movement which is still Saudi Arabia's official form of Islam. By 1806, the converting armies of Wahhabism had conquered most of modern Saudi Arabia as well as a large part of southern Iraq.
None of this went down well in Constantinople, as western Arabia was, at least in theory, part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1812 the empire retook western Arabia, and by the end of the 19th century the Al-Saud had retreated to Kuwait, where they were given sanctuary. From here one of the great Al-Saud leaders, known as Ibn Saud, brewed up an irresistible combination of piety, strategy and diplomacy and retook Riyadh and then, in 1925, Jeddah.
In 1938, Chevron found commercial quantities of oil in Saudi Arabia, and when WWII started oil production really took off. By 1950 the kingdom's royalties were running at about US$1 million a week, and by 1960, 80% of the government's revenues came from oil. The Arab oil embargo, in 1973-74, increased the price of oil fourfold and Saudi Arabia became something of a world power. As the government raked in the cash, a building boom began and Saudi Arabia became one immense construction site.
The days of easy oil money are just a fond memory and the country's population is growing rapidly (the average Saudi woman bears six children), presenting the Saudi Arabia and the aging King Fahd with an impressive challenge. Two generations of generous public assistance haven't inculcated the country's youth with the strongest work ethic, either. In 1999, the first high-end tour groups entered the difficult-to-visit nation, but visas remain officially restricted to business travellers, Muslims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and those few lucky folk able to convince a Saudi national to sponsor their visit.
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Saudi Arabian culture revolves almost entirely around Islam - two of Islam's holiest sites are in the country, and it considers itself the birthplace of the religion. A monotheistic religion, Islam's holy book is the Qur'an, and Friday is its sabbath day. Every day, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques which dot the country. Islam derives from the same monotheistic roots as Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims generally regard Christians and Jews with respect - in Islam, Jesus is regarded as one of the Prophets of Allah, and Jews and Christians are considered fellow 'people of the Book'. Mohammed was the last Prophet, and it was to him that Allah dictated the Qur'an. The Qur'an is Saudi Arabia's constitution, and Shari'ah (Islamic law) is the foundation of its legal system.
One of Saudi Arabia's most compelling folk rituals is the Ardha, the country's national dance. This sword dance is based on ancient Bedouin traditions: drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder. Al-sihba folk music, from the Hijaz, has its origins in Arab Andalusia, a region of medieval Spain. In Mecca, Medina and Jedda, dance and song incorporate the sound of the al-mizmar, an oboe-like woodwind instrument.
Saudi Arabian dress is strongly symbolic, representing the people's ties to the land, the past and to Islam. The predominantly loose, flowing garments reflect the practicalities of life in a desert country as well as Islam's emphasis on keeping it all covered up. Traditionally, men usually wear an ankle-length shirt woven from wool or cotton (known as a thawb), with a ghutra (a large square of cotton held in place by a cord coil) worn on the head. For those rare days when it gets a bit chilly, Saudi men chuck a camel-hair cloak (bisht) over the top. Women's clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread and appliques. Unfortunately, only their family gets to see them in all their glory, as Saudi women must wear a black cloak and veil (abaya) when they leave the house, to protect their modesty.
Islamic law forbids eating pig and drinking alcohol, and this law is followed pretty strictly throughout Saudi Arabia. Arabic unleavened bread, or khobz, is eaten with almost everything. The other staples are grilled chicken, felafel (deep-fried chickpea balls), shwarma (spit-cooked sliced lamb), and fuul (a paste of fava beans, garlic and lemon). Traditional coffee houses (where everyone drinks tea) used to be ubiquitous, but they're now being displaced by food-hall style cafes.
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Saudi Arabia's only public holidays are Islamic. Ramadan, a month when everyone fasts between sunrise and sunset to conform to the fourth pillar of Islam. Ramadan is mandatory for all Muslims and non Muslims should respect it by not smoking, drinking or eating in public during this period. Ramadan ends with a feast, Eid al-Fitr, during which everyone prays together, visits friends and gives presents. Eid al-Adah, held around March, is the other big feast of the year, and marks the time when Muslims should make the pilgrimage to Mecca. The only non-religious festival is the Jinadriyah National Festival of folklore and culture, held every February.
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Although Riyadh has officially been the capital of Saudi Arabia since 1932, it played second fiddle to Jeddah until the 1970s. Built with oil boom money, Riyadh is now a high-tech oasis of glass, steel and concrete, home to huge hotels, even larger hospitals and one of the biggest airports in the world. The centre of Riyadh is called Al-Bathaa and is the oldest part of the city. Al Bathaa is home to the bus station, General Post Office and most other things needed. Most of Riyadh's places to stay are near the bus station, as are the coffee shops and shwarma stands.
The Riyadh Museum, to the west of Al-Bathaa, has all the usual covering the history and archaeology of the kingdom from the Stone Age to early Islam. There's an interesting display on Islamic architecture and a separate Ethnographic Hall, with clothes, musical instruments, weapons and jewellery. Signs are in English and Arabic.
Once the citadel in the heart of Old Riyadh, the Masmak Fortress was built around 1865 and extensively renovated in the 1980s. Inside the mud fortress there's a reconstructed traditional diwan (sitting room) with an open courtyard and a working well. The fortress is now a museum devoted to Abdul Aziz and his unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Other museums in Riyadh include the King Saud University Museum, which has a display of finds from archaeological digs, and Murabba Palace, with exhibits of traditional clothing and crafts.
The Al-Thumairi Gate, in the centre of town, is an impressive restoration of one of the 9 gates which used to lead into the city before the wall was torn down in 1950. The new, modern Al-Thumairi Gate is just across the road. About 30km out of town is one of the largest camel markets in the Middle East. It's open every day and is a fascinating place to wander around (despite the smell).
Riyadh's most interesting attraction, the ruins of Dir'aiyah, lie 30km north of the city centre. This was the kingdom's first capital and is now the country's most popular archaeological site. Dir'aiyah was founded in 1446, reached the height of its powers at the end of the 18th century, and was razed in 1818. The reconstructed ruins include palaces, mosques and the city wall.
Hyperbolically known as the Paris of Arabia, Jeddah is one of the few cities in the region to have built around, rather than over, its history. Although it's definitely a modern metropolis, Jeddah (which is mid-way down the country's Red Sea coast) is also the most interesting and friendly of Saudi Arabia's big cities. Jeddah is centred on Al-Balad, the strip of buildings along its coast road and the old city directly behind them.
Jeddah has some great museums, including the Municipality Museum. Located in a 200-year-old restored traditional house built from Red Sea coral, the museum has interesting photos of the development of Jeddah, along with rooms done up in traditional style. The Museum of Abdel Raouf Hasan Khalil houses 10,000 items crammed into 4 mock-Arab, Disney-style buildings. The museum is a spectacularly badly organised mish-mash of kitsch exhibits, but there are a few real gems among the flotsam. The Jeddah Museum, the regional museum of archaeology and ethnography, covers the same turf as the Riyadh Museum.
Jeddah has one of the best souks (markets) in the kingdom, the spectacular Souk Al-Alawi, which winds its way through the old city. Although some sections of it have been paved over, and others fitted with bizarre green and white columns, it's still a great place to spend hours strolling and browsing. Jeddah's 3 reconstructed old city gates are also worth a look, as are the several good examples of traditional Jeddah architecture found around the North City Gate.
Mecca & Taif
Millions of Muslims visit Saudi Arabia solely to visit Mecca, just inland from Jeddah. Mecca is Islam's holiest city, and all devout Muslims - wherever they live in the world - are supposed to make the pilgrimage (or hajj) here once in their life. This is where Mohammed was born in the 6th century AD, where he began preaching and where he returned for his final pilgrimage. Mecca and the holy sites in its immediate vicinity are off limits to non-Muslims. Apart from the obvious ideological arguments against breaking this rule, there are checkpoints along the roads to the city to stop non-Muslims from coming too close.
The centre of Mecca is the Grand Mosque and the sacred Zamzam well inside it. The Kaaba, which all Muslims face when they pray, is in the mosque's central courtyard. According to tradition, the Kaaba was originally built by Adam, and later rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael, as a replica of God's house in heaven.
In the mountains above Mecca, the summer capital of Taif is open to all. People come here for the weather (much cooler than Jeddah in the summer months), the scenery and the town's relaxed atmosphere. Taif's central mosque is a good example of simple, refined Islamic architecture. Shubra Palace is a beautifully restored traditional house which doubles as the city's museum. It was originally built around the turn of the century, and has been used as a residence by a number of Saudi kings. For a real taste of old Taif, the Tailor's Souk is a sandstone alleyway of ancient shops tucked between the town's modern buildings.
Asir National Park
This park covers some 450,000ha (over 1 million acres) from the southern Red Sea coast to the desert areas east of the mountains. It's a conglomeration of small parks rather than one big one. Each of the individual parks has a free camping ground/picnic area, though the campgrounds have no facilities. You'll need a car to get to and around the park.
The park has two main parts: mountains in the north-west and plains in the south-east - the mountains are arguably the most interesting. Al-Soudah, near the summit of Saudi Arabia's highest mountain - the 2910m (9544ft) Jebel Sawdah - is the most amazing part of the park. The park visitors' centre is a great introduction to Asir, but is only open to families. It's got a scale model of the park and a good observation deck.
The nearby town of Abha is also worth a visit. Its relatively cool weather, forested hills and striking mountain scenery have made it a very popular weekend resort (which means it can be very crowded during summer). There's not much to see here - most visitors just wander around, gazing at the view and enjoying the weather, or head out to the national park. The Shada Palace is the main attraction. Built in 1927, this traditional palace was turned into a museum in 1987, and includes restored rooms and exhibits of regional handicrafts and household goods.
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Getting There & Around
Flying to Saudi Arabia is expensive, but air tickets are provided by employers when recruited to work there. There are buses between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. There is also a car ferry which links Jeddah to Suez, as well as passenger-only services from Jeddah to Port Sudan and Musawwa (in Eritrea). There is no departure tax.
All domestic air services are run by Saudi, which is quite reliable and reasonably priced. The most frequent and efficient service runs Jeddah-Riyadh-Dhahran. If you're not pressed for time and you don't have a car, the bus is a pretty good option. The bus company, SAPTCO, has comfortable, air-conditioned buses, but you can only buy tickets one day in advance or on the day of travel. Service taxis go to most of the same destinations as buses for around the same price, but don't run to a timetable.
Saudi Arabia has the only stretch of railway track in the entire Arabian peninsula - one line from Riyadh to Dammam, via Hofuf and Abqaiq. Trains run three times a day. If you plan to drive, a western driving license is acceptable. Rental rates are government controlled and comparable to rates in the West. Theoretically Saudis drive on the right; car insurance, sensibly, is compulsory.
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