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  Saudi Arabia Info - Culture  



For thousands of years, the people of the Arabian Peninsula have been at the geographic, commercial and cultural crossroads of the world. As early as 3,000 BC, the people of the western region of the peninsula were part of a far-reaching commercial network extending to south Asia, the Mediterranean and Egypt. The discovery some 1,900 years ago of the cyclical pattern of trade winds known as the monsoon, from the Arabic “Mausam” meaning season, increased the importance of the peninsula. Trade flourished, with merchants of the peninsula acting as the vital link between India and the Far East on the one side and Byzantium and the Mediterranean states on the other. Interaction with other cultures of east and west over the centuries enriched the ancient traditions and culture of the people of the peninsula.

The introduction of Islam to the Arabian heartland in the seventh century AD further strengthened the region's cultural heritage. Within a century, Islam spread west to the Atlantic Ocean and as far east as the Indian subcontinent and China. With Makkah as its core, the Islamic world witnessed a flowering of culture, the sciences and the arts unparalleled in human history. Every year for the past fourteen centuries, Muslim pilgrims from around the world have traveled to Islam's holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah, helping further enrich the culture of the people of the peninsula.

With the formation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, King Abdulaziz bin Abdelrahman Al-Saud directed his efforts to preserving and perpetuating Arab traditions and culture. His legendary dedication to this cause was emulated by his sons and successors at a crucial time when the nation was entering an era of rapid economic development.

That Saudi Arabia has successfully preserved and strengthened its cultural heritage while achieving the spectacular development and modernization of the past three decades is testimony to the resilience of Saudi culture and the nation's determination to cherish and protect it. Today amid the bustle of life in the 21st century in modern Saudi society contemporary Saudi writers look to the past for inspiration. Popular musicians incorporate ancient rhythms and instruments into their modern music and painters capture traditional scenes.

The accelerating pace of development in the 1970s, however, led Saudi leaders to take additional steps to preserve the nation's cultural and artistic heritage. In 1974 the General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) was established. One of its main functions is to strengthen an understanding and respect for the nation's culture and arts among young people.

In 1974, the Department of Museums and Antiquities was formed in the Ministry of Education. Today, in addition to the National Museum in Riyadh there are eleven major museums throughout the Kingdom, and many smaller ones. Thousands of Saudis, particularly the younger generation, visit these museums daily to become better acquainted with their heritage.

"Assalam aleekom warahmato Allah wbrakatoh" (translation: "Peace, Mercy and Blessings of Allah upon you”) is the Muslims' greeting which is common in Saudi Arabia. It offers affection and peace. "Waleekom assalam warahmato Allah wbrakatoh" (translation: "Peace, Mercy and Blessings of Allah upon you too”) is the response to the greeting.

Saudis are kind, benevolent, and sincere in their dealings. They are proud of their ancestors' values and uphold them in everyday life. Generosity, respect for elders, being kind to those who are younger, and keeping the family bond strong, form the foundations of every day life.

Modern Saudi society is a mix of deep-rooted traditions based on the teachings of Islam, and a progressive technologically focused outlook.

Most citizens wear traditional Arab dress which helps define their identity. They are proud to wear these clothes but on some occasions enjoy wearing western style clothes. Visitors are expected to wear modest clothing appropriate to this Islamic society.

Saudis enjoy inviting guests to join them in their homes that are designed for the present times but also reflect traditional feature.

If you are invited to go out for dinner by a Saudi, it is customary for the person who invited you to pay for the dinner.

Saudis welcome their guests by serving traditional Arabic coffee (based on the spice cardamon) and dates in a reception room (Almajlis). Shaking the cup of coffee is one of the many non-verbal methods of communication and it means, "I have had enough coffee!" Following coffee, guests move to another room where they eat. They usually use the right hand for eating. If there are both male and female guests, it is customary to have a separate reception room and dining room for men and women.

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 Jeddah, 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.

As in many parts of the Middle East, Saudis view the nomadic Bedouin as the embodiment of core social and cultural values, including honor, valor, chivalry, and hospitality. In pre-Islamic times called jahiliyya (Arabic for “time of ignorance”), Bedouin poetry was one of the most developed and influential forms of cultural expression on the Arabian Peninsula. Among these nomadic people, poetry was an oral tradition: Poets recited or sang their works, and listeners memorized the poems and retold them to others. The Bedouin poetical tradition influenced subsequent Arabian literature, and survives to the present day.

The ancient Arab tradition of hospitality continues unchanged to the present day. Both town dwellers and Bedouins, however, shared one ancient Arab tradition: That of hospitality. Even today, in the home, or on Saudi flight, drinking Arab coffee. The method of preparation is traditional; each step is an almost ritually observed process.

Islam developed in Arabia in the 7th century and soon came to influence nearly all aspects of Arabian cultural life, including the arts, architecture, the Arabic language, and literature. Today, the kingdom’s conservative religious authorities attempt to control cultural expression strictly, forbidding movie theaters, and singing or dancing at religious observances.

The interlinking spheres of mathematics and astronomy are equally important aspects of the Arabian culture heritage. The word "algebra" is derived from Arabic word "Algebra". Navigation and cartography were direct developments of these numerate skills.


Poetry was the first form of Arabic literature to attain a high degree of refinement, and the poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia is still admired and influential. The most notable type of poem was the qasida, an ode that could have a number of often-complex rhyming patterns. These odes dealt with themes such as love, beauty, courage in battle, and praise for noble leaders. The most influential poet of the pre-Islamic period was Imru al-Qays. The Quraan, revealed to Muhammad and recorded in Arabic, has had a profound influence on Arabian literature and society. Not only a guide for living life according to God’s will, the Quraan is also considered by many to exemplify the perfect use of the Arabic language and provide an ultimate literary model.

Art, Architecture, Traditions & Craftsmanship

One direct manifestation of this heritage is the art of calligraphy of all Arabic art forms of this artistic expression. Craftsmanship of a high order is evident in the beautiful workmanship in precious metals.

The Holy Koran cautions against images of living creatures. Calligraphy is an important Islamic art form and throughout Saudi Arabia training, competitions and exhibitions are organized to encourage calligraphy.

Saudi Arabia's music and traditional dance are derived from the chants of desert poets. The national dance, the Ardha, is a men's sword dance involving singers, dancers and a poet/narrator. Other traditional songs and dances use a variety of instruments such as the oud, tar and al-mizmer.

The traditional poems and stories of the desert people are carried on today with poetry competitions and popular readings.

As a part of the Kingdom's interest in preservation, contemporary Saudi architects are increasingly using traditional Islamic concepts in building designs. Historically, building designs and materials were dictated by the climate, geography and resources of the various regions. Adobe was a mainstay of traditional builders in Riyadh, the Najd and parts of the Eastern Province due to its malleability, availability and insulation qualities. In western Saudi Arabia stone and red brick are common construction materials. In Jeddah, coral taken from the Red Sea reefs is used.

Today Saudi architects have been instrumental in preserving the Kingdom's architectural integrity, as well as in revitalizing traditional building designs. Utilizing elements of traditional architecture in the design of new structures strengthens the link between the country's architectural past and its innovative future.

Researchers at various universities, such as the King Faisal University, analyze and draft suggestions for the architectural development of various regions throughout the Kingdom based on studies of traditional architecture. King Saud University and the King Khalid International Airport are two striking examples of just how well traditional Islamic design and modern structure can be combined.

The efforts of the government and local organizations have resulted in the preservation of Saudi Arabia's rich heritage and a greater appreciation among young Saudis that promises to ensure that the Kingdom's cultural and artistic treasures will be cherished by future generations.

A relatively poor region until the exploitation of oil began in the mid-20th century; Arabia’s artistic and architectural heritage is small, particularly in comparison to centers of Islamic culture elsewhere in the Middle East (see Islamic Art and Architecture). Because of Islamic prohibitions against idolatry (idol worship), religious art has focused more on nonhuman subjects. Islamic artists in Arabia have explored the artistic possibilities of geometric shapes and calligraphy (artistic writing) in pottery decoration, mosaics, weavings, and illustrated manuscripts. Since the 19th century puritanical Muslims have been responsible for the destruction of many historic structures, such as funerary monuments, associated with figures from early Islam. They have viewed these structures as examples of idolatry or as encouraging worship of saints, deviations from Islam considered unacceptable.

Few architectural artifacts survive from pre-oil times. Most buildings were made using local materials: mud brick, stone, wood, trunks and fronds of palm trees, and plaster. Simple mud-brick structures of one or two stories were the most common dwellings throughout the country. Nomads lived in tents woven from sheep’s wool and goat hair. Since the mid-20th century, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth has enabled the construction of a number of significant buildings that have artistically married local styles, materials, and influences with modern concepts of design. For example, the Hajj Terminal of King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah consists of numerous conical fabric structures reminiscent of the tents of hajj pilgrims.

The old cities of Saudi Arabia were built in styles and out of materials dictated by the climate and local resources. By the Red Sea coral taken from the reefs was used while the central and eastern regions mainly used adobe (mud).

The modern cities of Riyadh and Jeddah include dramatic buildings by the world's leading architects. Saudi Arabia's own architects are now using elements of traditional design in new structures as part of the country's commitment to the revitalizing and preservation of its national heritage.

Similar attributes of outstanding craftsmanship are shown in the development of intricate workmanship in precious metals and even in household goods. It was in the settled communities such as Jeddah, Makkah that these skills flourished.

The poetic tradition of the Bedouin is a further example of complex and beautiful art form. Poetry promulgated the virtues and merits of their tribes such as the obligation to respect social values. Generosity, hospitality and courage were, to them, a matter of honor and failure to adhere to this unwritten code was regarded as a great insult.

Despite the great pace of growth the Kingdom has witnessed over the last two decades, traditional culture and social values have been maintained steadfastly and the rich heritage of the Kingdom protected and enhanced.

Folk Music and Dance

A living part of the country's ancient heritage, Saudi Arabia's music and traditional dance echo the timeless melodies of chanting Bedouin poets and singing swordsmen. Folklore music varies from region to region. The national dance of Saudi Arabia, the men's sword dance known as ardha, has its roots in the Najd. It is an ancient tradition that combines singers, dancers and a poet or narrator. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder and, from their midst, a poet begins to sing verses or a short melodic line while drummers beat out the rhythm. In the Hijaz, the al-sihba folk music combines poetry and songs of Arab Andalusia in medieval Spain. A traditional dance and song known as the al-mizmar is also performed in Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah. This features the music of the al-mizmar, a woodwind instrument similar to the oboe.

Since the early 1980s the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and the Arts has been studying and recording folk music and dance traditions in the Kingdom. The producers of a popular television show "Folk Arts" have also traveled around the country interviewing local musicians and recording the music and dance of every tribe and village.

Today, there are over 50 folklore dance and music groups in the Kingdom. Popular contemporary Saudi singers value the classical music traditions that have influenced their work and are skilled at incorporating ancient rhythms and instruments, such as the tar and the oud, into their modern music.

Traditional Bedouin song styles and melodies are enjoyed throughout Saudi Arabia. Saudi singers are among the most popular in the Arab world and their works fuel a vibrant recording industry. The recordings of popular Saudi singers such as Mohammad Abdo and Abdul Majid Abdullah are commonly played in many Arab countries. The Jenadriyyah, an annual two-week cultural festival held near Riyadh, features performances of traditional music and dance from around the country, as well as crafts such as weaving and woodworking.

Museums, Libraries, and Cultural Organizations

Oil revenues have funded the development of Saudi cultural institutions. The King Abdul-Aziz Historical Center, which opened in Riyadh in 1999, contains facilities for research as well as the National Museum, which houses exhibits depicting the history of Saudi Arabia, the rise of Islam, and the hajj. Local museums are found in towns and cities across the country.

The King Fahd Library in Riyadh, one of the Middle East’s premier research facilities, has one of the largest collections of rare manuscripts on Arabic and Islamic literature and arts. The King Abdul-Aziz Public Library is another major library in Riyadh. Bookstores and libraries can be found in all major Saudi cities. However, religious and political sensitivities govern what texts can be sold or read.

The Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, founded in 1972, sponsors Saudi artists and provides sites to present their works. The society has also established a library, information center, and cultural center in Riyadh. The King Faisal Foundation, founded in 1976, promotes Arab and Islamic culture within the country and abroad. The Riyadh-based organization awards the annual King Faisal International Prizes in the categories of service to Islam, Islamic studies, Arabic literature, medicine, and science. These prizes are among the most prestigious in the Arab world.

Traditional Arab Dress and Jewelry

Saudi Arabia's dress is one of its strongest ties to the past and reflects the challenging environment, faith and values of its people. The practicality of loose, flowing garments in a hot wind-swept climate was reinforced by the Islamic ideals of propriety in dress and conduct.

Today, as in antiquity, men wear a thawb, a simple, ankle-length shirt of wool or cotton. Traditional headwear includes a ghutra, large diagonally-folded cotton square worn over a kufiyyah (skull cap) and held in place by an igaal, a double-coiled cord circlet. A flowing floor-length outer cloak, known as a bisht, is generally made of wool or camel hair in black, beige, brown or cream tones.

The woman's traditional dress displays regional and tribal motifs and is embellished with coins, sequins, metallic thread or brilliantly colored fabric appliqués. The classic headdress is a shayla - a scarf of black gauzy fabric wrapped around the head and secured by a variety of head circlets, hats or jewelry. An abaya, a black outer cloak, is customarily worn over the dress in public.

Fine embroidery of clothes and the weaving of elaborately-designed textiles have also been long practiced in the peninsula. Designs used in tent coverings, saddlebags and carpets vary from region to region.

Jewelry has been an essential element of Arabian dress for thousands of years. Typically made of silver or silver alloy, traditional bracelets, rings, necklaces and head ornaments are characterized by their impressive size, bold designs and hand-crafted appearance. The jewelry is often embellished with semi-precious stones, corals, beads and coins.

The traditional dress of the Saudi people contributes to their unique identity.

    Men's Wear

  • THOBE: A loose, long outfit reaching almost to the ankle with long sleeves. In summer, men usually wear a white cotton thobe while in winter they wear heavy dark thobes made of wool.

  • TAKIA: Tagiyah is white knitted skull cap worn on the head.

  • GOTRA: Ghutra is a square scarf generally white or red-and-white checked is made of cotton or silk. It is worn over the cap and can be used to protect the face from sand storms and dust. While a white scarf is often worn on special occasions the choice of color (either white or red-and-white checked) for everyday wear is up to the individual’s personal taste.

  • AGAL: A thick doubled round black binding worn to hold the Ghutra in its place.
    Women's Wear

  • THOBE: Women wear the Thobe - a loose, long-sleeved, ankle-length garment, but, for women, the neck and front can be embroidered and decorated with beads.

  • ABAYA: A loose, long, black garment that covers the body. It is usually made of silk or artificial fabric.

  • SHEILA: A light veil worn to cover the face.

  • BOSHIYA: The Boshiya is a black veil, light in weight, worn across the lower part of the face.

  • SURWAL: The Surwal are cotton or silk trousers worn by women under the Thobe.

The colors of the garments worn by men and women may vary from region to region.

Visitors to the country are advised to wear modest dress that is lightweight and covers the arms and legs. In certain areas, women may be required to wear an Abaya and cover their head.

Religion - Islam

Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia and culture revolves almost entirely around it - two of Islam's holiest sites are in the country, and it is considered the birthplace of the religion. A monotheistic religion, Islam's holy book is the Quraan, and Friday is its Sabbath day. Every day, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques that dot the country. Mohammed salallahu alaih wa sallam was the last Prophet, and it was to him that Allah dictated the Quraan. The Quraan is Saudi Arabia's constitution, and Shariah (Islamic law) is the foundation of its legal system.

Arabic Language

Arabic is one of the Semitic groups of languages, one of the oldest groups of languages in the world. The richness of its language is without comparison and it is the fountainhead of Arabia's culture and faith.

The precise origins of the Arabic language are unknown but it is certain that the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula were the first to use it in pre-Islamic times. With the expansion of Islam and Islamic culture in the 7th century AD, the Arabic language spread north, east and west...

The Arabic language is today one of the world's most widely spoken languages. There are some 200 million Arabic speakers in more than 20 countries. Arabic is the official language of many Arab nations in the Middle East and northern Africa, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia.

There are two types of Arabic, written and spoken.

Written (Classical) Arabic serves as the standard written language of all Arab nations. It is the language of the Holy Quran, the sacred book of the Islam, and has changed little over the centuries. Arabs use a spoken form of written Arabic for formal speech, radio and TV news broadcasts and in films, plays and poetry. This form also serves as a common spoken language for Arabs from all parts of the Arabic-speaking world who have their own dialects for every day speech.

Spoken Arabic appears in a variety of dialects of which the main ones are:

  • Gulf dialect (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE)

  • Egyptian (northern and southern) dialect

  • North African dialect (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia)

  • Shami dialect (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria)

  • Sudanese dialect

With the increasingly prominent role played by many Arab countries in world affairs in recent decades, Arabic has become a major language in international business and politics.

In addition, the languages of many other nations have been enriched by Arabic. Many Arabic words will be found in the vocabularies of countries as far apart as Spain and Iran, Turkey and India. It was, after all, the Arabs who not only gave the world the word algebra but the branch of mathematics which it denotes.


Arabic calligraphy dates back approximately 1,400 years to the first century of Islam. Historically, the primary subject matter for calligraphy has been the Holy Quraan. Characterized as the quintessential Islamic art form, calligraphy is a revered art in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi museums collect and display rare manuscripts and other organizations commission works of calligraphy, provide training in the art form, and hold competitions to foster a new generation of young artists. Today, calligraphy is a dominant theme in metal work, ceramics, glass, textiles, painting and sculpture throughout Saudi Arabia. Inscriptions can be found adorning the interior walls of mosques, as well as public and private office buildings and homes.

Cultural Institutions

Saudi Arabia's emphasis on preserving its cultural heritage is facilitated by a variety of institutions throughout the Kingdom. First and foremost is the nation's education system. Already introduced by their families to Islamic and Arab values and traditions, young Saudis entering school are exposed to literature and the arts. Through their curricula and special events the schools instill in Saudi youths a deep respect for their past and love for their culture.

The General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) sponsors a wide variety of cultural programs, including literary and drama clubs, folklore classes, library events, arts and crafts as well as science projects. In the drama clubs participants engage in writing competitions and dramatic performances as part of a team. The nine literary clubs throughout the Kingdom sponsor lectures and symposiums and encourage talented young writers. Similar clubs offer Saudis the opportunity to develop other artistic talents. The GPYW is also very active in national and international cultural events, such as poetry competitions, essay competitions, calligraphy and art exhibits, to name a few. The organization sponsors a series of regular exhibitions, literary readings and symposiums at its regional offices and at its Riyadh headquarters. It also sponsors the participation of Saudis in international arts and cultural events.

Another organization involved in arts and culture is the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, which was founded in 1972 and is affiliated with the GPYW. Divided into six committees - culture, theatre, music and vocal arts, visual arts, information, and publishing - its mandate includes sponsoring Saudi artists and providing avenues for these new talents to develop and display their skills. In addition the society has established a library and an information center, as well as the Kingdom's first cultural center, located in Riyadh.

The King Faisal Foundation promotes Arab and Islamic culture both within the country and abroad. The Riyadh-based organization awards one of its annual King Faisal International Prizes to individuals who have promoted literature.

The King Fahd Library in Riyadh has one of the largest collections of rare manuscripts on Arabic and Islamic literature and the arts and is a premier research facility in the Middle East.

Social Profile

  • Cuisine

    The Kingdom is well known for its variety of traditional dishes that reflect the diversity of the regions and the custom of the people. Most of the dishes contain meat, rice, wheat, vegetables and spices that give these recipes a special flavor.

    One of Saudi Arabia's most famous dishes is Al-Kabsa. Al-Kabsa is made of rice cooked with red or white meat in a pot. A variety of spices and salads can be added to the dish. Al-Kabsa is considered a staple dish throughout the Kingdom.

    Meat is cooked in various ways. A popular way of preparing meat is called Al-Mandi. This involves barbequing lamb or chicken in a deep hole in the ground and adding rice, spices and water and then covering the hole while the meat cooks.

    Another unique way of preparing and serving meat is Mathbi. Al-Mathbi involves grilling seasoned lamb or chicken on flat stones that are placed on top of burning embers.

    There are many other popular dishes in the Kingdom like Jarish. Jarish is prepared by cooking wheat with Laban (sour milk) or milk and adding spices to it.

    Qursan is another dish which consists of dried thin wheat loafs which are saturated with gravy and cooked in a special way.

    Another popular meal which is called Mathlutha is created by adding rice and Jarish to Qursan.

    Mathlutha is usually served with red meat or with chicken and is cooked in either the Al- Mathbi or Mandi style.

    Saleeg is another dish made by cooking rice with milk until the mixture becomes solid. It is then served in a bowl with butter sprinkled on top of it and poached meat.

    Different kinds of gravy, cooked with vegetables and meat, are also common in the Kingdom.

    Of course the costal areas are famous for seafood and rice dishes. Al-Sayadiah is an example of such a dish. It consists of fish cooked with rice and onions.

    Local food is often strongly flavored and spicy. The staple diet is pitta bread (flat, unleavened bread) which accompanies every dish. Rice, lentils, chick peas (hummus) and cracked wheat (burghul) are also common. The most common meats are lamb and chicken. Beef is rare and pork is proscribed under Islamic law. The main meat meal of the day is lunch, either kultra (meat on skewers) or kebabs served with soup, salad, bread, rice, tomatoes, onions and other vegetables. Arabic cakes, cream desserts and rice pudding (muhalabia) also feature in the diet. Mezzeh may include up to 40 dishes. Foreign cooking is on offer in larger towns and the whole range of international cuisine, including fast food, is available in the oil-producing Eastern Province and in Jeddah. Restaurants have table service.

    Bedouin coffee is unsweetened and flavored with cardamom. Serving coffee to visitors is an age old custom derived from Bedouin hospitality traditions and an important part of Saudi etiquette.

    There are no bars. Alcohol is forbidden by law, and there are severe penalties for infringement; it is important to note that this applies to all nationals regardless of religion. Arabic coffee and fruit drinks are popular alternatives. Alcohol-free beers and cocktails are served in hotel bars.

  • Shopping

    Large, noisy open-air markets where merchants share a cup of tea with customers before haggling over prices, while the hot mid-day sun beats down on stalls loaded with shiny brass coffee pots and long flowing bishts (robes) for sale, and the fragrant aroma of incense and spices entices the buyer: these are the visions that come into one's mind when a traditional Saudi souq (market) is mentioned. Just a few decades ago, Saudi consumers purchased nearly all of their clothes, home furnishings and foodstuffs in these open-air souqs. Today, however, most Saudis do their daily shopping in the comfort of modern, air conditioned, multi-leveled shopping malls or gigantic supermarkets and only venture into traditional souqs for special items, such as gold jewelry or carpets.

    Saudi Arabia certainly has a wide variety of shopping plazas and sophisticated malls to choose from. In the city of Jeddah alone, there are now more than 70 modern shopping centers offering a variety of goods made both in the Kingdom and imported from the United States, Europe and the Far East. On the city's King Abdul Aziz Street or along Madinah Road, patrons can find anything from clothes to trinkets in the many shops in this old shopping district. Other cities throughout the Kingdom also have numerous malls as well as traditional souqs. In Riyadh, for instance, Al-Akariyya Mall is well known for its European fashions, expensive perfumes and elegant home furnishings, while the old souq sells carpets, traditional clothes and sandals.

    Many of the products sold in Saudi shops are manufactured in the Kingdom. From socks and kitchenware to chandeliers, dairy products and air conditioners to mattresses, a wide variety of high-quality domestic products can be found. Shopping malls in the Kingdom offer not only access to a wide range of goods, but also provide a source for family entertainment. Young children can play in large, supervised play areas at the malls while their parents shop. Teenage boys like to gather with their friends in the arcades, and mothers can shop knowing their children are safely occupied.

    The Kingdom's shopping malls offer consumers the most modern amenities while retaining their uniquely Saudi flavor.

    From coast to coast, Saudi Arabia boasts some of the best designed and most elegant shopping centers in the Middle East. The Jamjoom Commercial Center in Jeddah is one of the best known malls in the region. The distinctive blue, glass and chrome complex houses a two-story shopping mall and several additional floors of offices and apartments. Located just off the city's scenic corniche, the Jamjoom Center was built in the late 1980s by the Jamjoom Group, a large Saudi-owned corporation. Inside, the mall offers one stop shopping set among a graceful decor; a large gourmet supermarket is flanked by stores offering inexpensive, moderate and luxury items. On the top floor of the center is a popular restaurant that offers a spectacular view of the Red Sea to accompany one's meal.

    Shoppers in search of the perfect gift or a new ensemble often head to Al-Fitaihi in Jeddah. This upscale department store carries the finest china, linens and jewelry. Well-trained salespeople help customers choose clothes for themselves and their children or purchase cosmetics. Bargain hunters do not haggle over prices in such a refined shop, as they might in the traditional souq. Here they look to price tags and sale signs when searching for a good deal.

    Brightly lit shopping malls, such as the Al-Oruba Plaza, are a common sight along boulevards.

    Driving from one end of Tahlia Street to the other, consumers in Jeddah can choose from several shopping centers and restaurants. Along this boulevard is Al-Basateen Center, one of the most prestigious malls in the country. Its world famous boutiques and exclusive shops draw thousands of visitors each year. Near Al-Basateen is another elegant shopping center, Al-Hayat. Here the shops are set around an impeccably landscaped courtyard. Shoppers in search of the latest European fashions are always successful at the boutiques of Al-Hayat shopping center.

    Using bank-issued credit cards has become an increasingly popular way for Saudi consumers to pay for their purchases. Most shopping malls also have several automated teller machines (ATMs) on the premises for those who prefer to pay in cash.

    In the Eastern Province, shoppers have many stores and souqs to choose from. However, the most popular is the Al-Rashed Mall on Dhahran Street in Al-Khobar, where visitors spend their day browsing in the mall's 380 shops and eight department stores. The 500 million riyal (133.33 million U.S. dollar), three-story complex took two years to construct and opened in 1995, becoming an immediate hit with shoppers. In between visiting shops for clothes, toys, music and home furnishings, patrons can relax at one of the mall's two restaurants or grab a snack at one of the numerous food kiosks on the second floor. At the fast food counters, one can choose from traditional fare such as shawarma and falafel or try popular Western foods such as pizza or hamburgers. Young people enjoy spending time in the "fun city" amusement arcade. A special feature of this 30 million riyal (eight million dollar) arcade is the virtual reality and space animation section. Here, sitting at a computer console, one can experience the thrill of driving a sports car or piloting an airplane.

    Whether shopping for dinner or combing the old Souq for a bargain, shoppers in Saudi Arabia have limitless choices.

    Tired shoppers are often seen resting on a bench near one of the mall's spectacular indoor fountains. In the main atrium of the building under the octagonal roof there is a "four seasons" fountain, an unusual visual spectacle that depicts the weather changes with bursts of clouds, fog, fire and rain. The second, smaller atrium has an interactive fountain with sparkling water arches that dance to music, especially thrilling the children who gather to watch.

    Another interesting feature of Al-Rashed Mall is the seven automated information kiosks. By simply pressing a button, shoppers can find out details about shops, goods or services in the building. Outside, parking for 2,500 cars is available to accommodate the mall's numerous visitors.

    Thursday is the most popular shopping day for most Saudis, as it is the beginning of their weekend. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, many shops close. Throughout the week, shopkeepers stop doing business during prayer times, and many malls have rooms where customers can go to perform their prayers.

    Whether searching for a traditional white thobe, a dazzling piece of gold jewelry or a new television, the shopping malls of Saudi Arabia have something for everyone.

    Souks (markets) sell incense and incense burners, jewelry, bronze and brassware, richly-decorated daggers and swords, and in the Eastern Province, huge brass-bonded chests. Bargaining is often expected, even for modern goods such as cameras and electrical equipment (which can be very good value).

  • Social Conventions

    Saudi culture is based on Islam and the perfection of the Arabic language. Women are required by law only to leave the home totally covered in black robes (abaya) and masks, although there are regional variations of dress. The Najd and other remote areas remain true to Islamic tradition. Shaking hands is the customary form of greeting. Entertaining is usually in hotels or restaurants and although the custom of eating with the right hand persists, it is more likely that knives and forks will be used. A small gift either promoting the company or representing your country will generally be well received. Women are expected to dress modestly and it is best to do so to avoid offence. Men should not wear shorts in public or go without a shirt. The norms for public behavior are extremely conservative and religious police, known as Mutawwain, are charged with enforcing these standards. Customs regarding smoking are the same as in Europe and non-smoking areas are indicated. During Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat; smoke or drink during the day and it is illegal for a foreign visitor to do so in public.

Sports & Recreation

Saudi Arabia has placed special emphasis on encouraging and making sports accessible to all as a healthy leisure-time activity. Although this policy provides for the preservation of traditional sports, it focuses on modern popular sports such as soccer, volleyball and basketball with a view to encourage active participation by as large a number of Saudis, particularly the youth, as possible.

Saudi Arabia has magnificent modern sports complexes in which to hold sporting events, setting the stage for spectacular international and local competitions. Stadiums, sports clubs and neighborhood recreational facilities have been established in large and small towns alike for use by all. Modern sports have captured the interest of Saudi Arabia's youth, who now have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities, while traditional sporting events continue to enrich the lives of Saudi Arabians. Sports, old and new, will be enjoyed by generations to come -- thanks in large measure to the investments and efforts carried out today.

Obhour Creek, 50km (30 miles) north of Jeddah, has good facilities for swimming, water-skiing, fishing and sailing, and there are similar beaches on the Gulf coast south of Al Khobar. Elsewhere, hotels have swimming pools. Modern Hotels & Compounds have men-only health clubs as well as swimming pools, golf clubs and squash and tennis facilities. Most companies employing foreign workers also have some sports facilities. The desert terrain provides great opportunities for off-road motorcycling but this sport is prohibited from time to time. Football is popular and most large towns have modern stadium.

Saudi Arabia has fifteen "Sports Cities" - each with outdoor and indoor stadium, swimming pools, outdoor and indoor courts and other facilities. Smaller neighborhood centers and local sports clubs are also strongly supported.

The traditional sports are not neglected, with falconry, horse and camel racing more popular than ever. In the most important annual camel races more than two thousand camels compete on a 13.6 mile track.

The Saudi national soccer team has been particularly successful, qualifying for the 1984 Olympic finals and the 1994 World Cup finals. In 1989 the National Youth Team won the National Youth Soccer Cup held in Saudi Arabia.

The Red Sea and the Gulf provide wonderful facilities for diving, snorkeling and other water sports such as sailing and windsurfing. The Red Sea also offers excellent deep-sea fishing.

Outdoor Recreation

Saudis now enjoy a network of hundreds of parks, camp sites, picnic grounds and other facilities where families can relax and enjoy nature. In addition to the parks established in cities and towns across the country, Saudi Arabia has a network of national parks and preserves for the protection of the country's unique wildlife and ecosystems, as well as for the enjoyment of the public.

The crown jewel of the Kingdom's national parks system is the 1.1 million acre Asir National Park in the southwest region. Reaching from the Red Sea up into the cliffs along the great Rift, the park is a cool, green paradise featuring valleys and scenic mountain splendor. Hiking, camping, hill climbing and various other outdoor recreational activities can be enjoyed within the park and beyond. The largest preserve in Saudi Arabia is the Al-Khunfah in the northwest. Visitors can enjoy the park's spectacular views and observe wildlife, including gazelles and oryx, in their natural habitat. Camping is a popular pastime among Saudis not only in these parks but also in the open desert.

Urban parks also provide city dwellers with beauty and relaxation. The graceful 50-mile corniche along the coastline of Jeddah, along with a similar one in Dammam on the Arabian Gulf, offers opportunities for picnicking, swimming, fishing and other water sports. Residents of the capital city of Riyadh, which means the "garden city," can stroll through some 50 public parks. Hundreds of other public parks and recreational areas have been established in other cities and towns.


In April 2000 the Kingdom set up the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), assigned the task of forging a general policy to promote the tourist sector. This task includes evaluating tourist-related infrastructure, establishing programs necessary for its completion, providing facilities and incentives for investors, and carrying out a comprehensive survey of tourist locations in the Kingdom. It also includes encouragement of all efforts to boost tourism, preserve tourist sites, and encourage handicrafts, coordinating such efforts among concerned authorities, both government and private.

The decision by the Government to establish the Supreme Commission for Tourism is acknowledgment of the important role tourism will play in shaping the future of the Kingdom. The tourism industry is important from a cultural, social and economic perspective.

Tourism continues to be one of the growth industries in the global economy and a high degree of planning is required to develop and promote the tourism sector in an appropriate manner. Tourism is about encouraging more Saudis to travel and explore the Kingdom; it is about encouraging pilgrims to spend more time in the Kingdom, as well as improving access for foreign visitors who want to explore the Kingdom.

The Kingdom has many of the features required to develop a successful tourism industry. Tourism sites, attractions and facilities must be developed in a coordinated manner.

The tourism proposition in the Kingdom will be built on the following foundations:

  • The hospitable nature of the Saudis

  • The security and peacefulness the Kingdom enjoys

  • The unique location of the Kingdom

  • The vastness of the Kingdom's area with its varied topographic relief, varying climate, and fascinating sights

  • The richness of the important historical and archeological places and sights

  • The presence of the infrastructure and modern services necessary for the tourism industry

Discover Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian Airlines started the "Discover Saudi Arabia" program in 1996.AD. It enables foreign visitors to obtain a visa and travel to the Kingdom on organized tours.

There are more than 15 licensed tour operators who are able to issue visas and arrange various tour programs. Theses agencies are located both in and out of the Kingdom. They arrange a variety of tours to appeal to different interest groups. These range from historical tours focused on important sites to under water diving programs in the Red Sea.

It is possible for 22 nationalities to apply for such visas in their countries and participate in various tour programs. The minimum group size must exceed 10 people.

Visitors are required to travel to and from the Kingdom on Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Saudi Cultural Festivals

  • Jenadriyah Heritage & Cultural Festival

    In 1985, the first Saudi National Heritage and Culture Festival was held at Jenadriyah near Riyadh. The annual event, organized by the National Guard under the patronage of the King, epitomizes Saudi Arabia's commitment to preserving and exploring its cultural heritage. For two weeks out of the year, the festival provides over a million Saudis with a glimpse into the past. A traditional camel race opens the festival, which encompasses almost every aspect of Saudi Arabia's culture and heritage. Artisans, such as potters, woodworkers and weavers demonstrate their traditional crafts in small shops with typical palm-frond-roofed porches. During the course of the festival, folklore troupes perform the Ardha and other national dances, while singers from around the Kingdom perform traditional songs and music.

  • Abha Festival

    Shopping lovers will get to enjoy visiting the traditional souqs and modern commercial centers.

    Different sports activities whether played individually or in a group can be practiced or attended. In addition visitor can see the International Friendship Football Series in which many different teams will play.

    The festival will also include Aseer Souq for Handicrafts and Traditional Dishes sponsored by the Supreme Commission for Tourism.

  • Al Baha Summer Festival

    Al Baha Summer Tourism Festival (Al Baha Qimmat Al Siyaha)

    During this time, the festival will present a number of activities and sports events, as well as a number of cultural, literary and religious programs.

    Equestrian and Olympic marathon activities will be held as well as air shows.

    A number of prizes will be given during this festival such as cars and flight tickets. In addition to daily draws and prizes of cash and gifts.

  • Eastern Province Festival

    The activities will take place in all cities and areas of the region and will include different educational and entertainment activities.

    In addition to the children’s activities, there will be traditional handicrafts and family restaurants, and beach activities for the youth held at Nisf Al Qamar Beach.

    The festival will also include the Eastern Province Souq for Handicrafts and Traditional Dishes in Dammam sponsored by the Supreme Commission for Tourism. Also, there will be the participation of Al Ahsa Province in many tourism, educational and cultural programs.

  • Hail Summer Festival

    The activities of the festival are at the Prince Sultan Park, Al Salam Park and Al Samra Park.

    In addition to the lectures, the festival will include a number of poetry readings, plays, cultural seminars and the Free Art Competition.

    The festival will also include traditional shows and Hail folklore group’s shows.

  • Jeddah Festival

    During this festival also known as “Jeddah Ghair” many entertaining, educational, social and athletic activities are held at the Prince Abdallah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah.

    In addition to the Festival’s Village which includes more than 100 activities on an area that covers a space of 65.000 square meters, there are a number of children’s plays, cartoon figure shows and many different competitions.

    Several poetry readings, health sessions, summer programs in addition to Jeddah entertainment nights, the Red Sea Wonders Exhibition and other cultural and social activities are held.

    During the time of the festival aviation and sports lovers get to enjoy the different air shows and hot air balloon shows in addition to many athletic activities.

    Draws will be held in shopping centers and there will be fireworks every Thursday of every week during the festival.

    The activities in the historic area, which take place in the center of the city, include the Jeddah Souq for Handicrafts and Traditional Dishes sponsored by the Supreme Commission for Tourism.

  • Al Madinah Festival

    The festival’s activities are divided over a period of four weeks. Each week has a different logo as follows:

    First Week (wa bilwalidain ehsanan)

    Second Week (linuhafiz ala madeenatina)

    Third Week (Athar wa Ma’ather)

    Fourth Week (wa ta’awano ala albir wal taqwa)

    In addition to a number of specialized seminars and local/ international product exhibitions, the festival includes a number of religious sessions and poetry readings.

    The festival also presents a group of different entertainment activities. Children get to enjoy the exciting programs and shows held at parks. They also get to visit the historic sites of the city along with their parents as a part of the organized tours.

    Youth can practice many entertaining activities such as parachute jumping and youth educational camps.

    Visitors to the festival get to enjoy visiting the festival’s village where many shopping carnivals are held during the time of the festival.

    The festival will also include Al Madinah Al Munawarah Souq for Handicrafts and Traditional Dishes sponsored by the Supreme Commission for Tourism.

Archeological Heritage

Saudi Arabia has a deep-rooted past and a bright future. It is the country of Islam. This is reflected in its unique traditions, customs, heritage, and achievements.

Saudi Arabia is rich in heritage and has many historical sites covering both the prehistoric and Islamic periods. The two Holy Mosques form the base of cultural tourism in the Kingdom since it is where the Prophet Mohamed (peace blessing be upon him) was born and lived. In addition, there are some ancient sites that are testament to Saudi's rich history. They are a reminder of prominent event and figures in Saudi culture.

Saudi has passed through three phases: The first Saudi unification, the second Saudi unification, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Arabic poetry, such poets as Imrao Algais and Anter bin Shaddad have captured the details of the country's rich history in words.

The country's heritage is steeped in traditional customs and values that are captured in old fairy tales and anecdotes. More traditional art forms, as well as civilizations it also reflect the unique character of the Kingdom and its regions.

Historic preservation is an essential element of Saudi Arabian culture. Today the Kingdom's archaeological heritage is safeguarded by the Department of Museums and Antiquities which has excavated, catalogued and preserved pre-historic and historic sites. Important archaeological work is also carried out by the Department of Archaeology at King Saud University in Riyadh.

As the birthplace of Islam special emphasis is placed on preserving the Kingdom's Islamic archaeological heritage. In addition to the Holy Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, a large number of mosques around the Kingdom, such as those built by the first caliphs after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, have been meticulously restored.

The recent restoration of the old Qasr Al-Hokm area in Riyadh is indicative of the Kingdom's commitment to preserve and cherish its cultural heritage for the benefit of its citizens. Similar restoration work of the old city quarters has been undertaken in Jeddah, Hail and other cities around the Kingdom. This restoration work was particularly significant during the celebrations in 1999 marking the hijrah centennial since the taking of the Masmak Fortress in 1902.

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