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Saudi Arabia History, Language and Culture

History of Saudi Arabia

The Abyssinians occupied the whole of the Arabian Peninsula until the Persians drove them out of the southern regions in 576 AD. Following the flight of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to nearby Medina in 672, many Arabs joined his campaign to recapture Mecca before his death in 632. This allowed for the spread of Islam across the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia and westwards into Egypt and North Africa. Mecca and Medina, both thriving cultural and commercial centres before and after Muhammad, are the holiest cities of Islam and the Saudis avidly protect their integrity. Arabia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, but subsequent local rulers were allowed a great deal of autonomy. In 1914 the British offered the Sherif of Mecca independence on condition that he supported the campaign against the Turks and the Kingdom of Hijaz was duly recognised as independent at the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. On the other side of the peninsula, the leading potentate was Ibn Saud and throughout the 1920s, military clashes escalated between his troops and those loyal to the Hashemite King of Hijaz. Eventually, Ibn Saud pushed out the Hashemites and in 1926 was recognised as ruler of the Kingdom of Hijaz and Najd, which became Saudi Arabia.

In 1933 vast deposits of oil were discovered, setting the country on the road to its current prosperity. Ibn Saud's descendants have ruled Saudi Arabia ever since. When the Saudis sided with the OPEC cartel in trebling the price of oil in 1973, relations were cooled with its previously staunch ally, the USA. The damage to relations was resolved after the revolution in Iran in 1979 and Saudi Arabia invested heavily in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war only to be astonished when, following the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, it looked as if Saddam was preparing to occupy Saudi territory. The UN coalition was permitted to base its troops in Saudi Arabia before the Desert Storm campaign to repel Iraq.

The current King Salman has overseen Saudi intervention in the civil war in Yemen, a stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mina that lead to the death of more than 2,200, and the execution of Sheikh Nimr and 46 other dissidents in 2016.

Did you know?

• Saudi is also known as the Land of the Two Holy Mosques after Al-Masjid al-haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, the two most holy sites in Islam.

• Saudi Arabia adheres closely to the Islamic principal of modesty, the hijab.

• Since 1974 the annual King’s Camel Race has been one of the country’s biggest sporting events.

Saudi Arabia Culture

Religion in Saudi Arabia

The majority of Saudi Arabians follow Islam; around 90% are Sunni Muslim, but Shia Muslims predominate in the Eastern Province.

Social Conventions in Saudi Arabia

Saudi culture is based on Islam and the perfection of the Arabic language. The Saudi form of Islam is conservative and fundamentalist, based on the 18th-century revivalist movement of the Najdi leader Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab. This has had a great effect on Saudi society, especially on the position of women, who are required by law to leave the home covered in abaya, (black robes). Some women also wear a niqab, a black mask that covers the face, and gloves, though there are regional variations of dress. The Najd and other remote areas remain true to Wahhabi tradition, but throughout the country this way of life is being altered by modernisation and rapid development.

Shaking hands and kissing on the cheek is the customary form of greeting between men. Invitations to private homes are unusual, though not unheard of. 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 behaviour are extremely conservative and religious police, known as muttawa, 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.

Photography: Strictly speaking, photography is not permitted. However, many people do still take photos, but are careful to ask permission of the relevant authority before photographing people or any building. In recent years, the spread of small digital cameras and mobile phones with cameras have eased official and unofficial acceptance of photography.

Language in Saudi Arabia

Arabic. English is spoken in business circles.