A Summary of Saudi Culture Brought to you by Debbie Baldwin
the young Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud, with 40 followers, retook the Masmak Fortress in Riyadh. It wasn’t until 1932, however, that Abdulaziz was finally able to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which he ruled until his death in 1953. Saudi Arabia’s current ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, is the Kingdom’s sixth king and a son of Abdullaziz. King Abdullah will turn 86 this year. Diriyah is considered the ancestral home of the Al-Saud family, twenty miles outside of Riyadh.
The first Saudi state was ruled by Muhammad ibn Saud, who ruled over the city of Diriyah. He formed an agreement with Muhammad bin Abdul- Wahhab (a Muslim scholar who preached for a return to the original form of Islam) to dedicate themselves to purifying the Muslim religion.It was in this spirit that the first Saudi state (the “House of Sauds,” with its capital in Diriyah) was formed in the year 1744. In 1818, the Ottoman Empire attacked and besieged Diriyah.
By 1824, the Al-Saud family regained their political control, and transferred the capital to Riyadh (Riyadh derives from the Arabic, “Rowdah,” meaning garden). However, by 1891, Abdulrahman bin Faisal Al-Saud was forced from central Arabia by the Al-Rashid family (of Hail) and the Ottoman Empire. His son Abdulaziz had proven himself a brave warrior and a natural leader and in 1902,
Because of Saudi Arabia’s central location at the center of important ancient trade roots, the country was influenced by a variety of middle eastern cultures. They had the Nile River Valley on one side and all of Mesopotamia on the other, and with each new power that emerged (Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome) their culture found ways of adapting and expanding.
Much of its culture has been influenced by the Muslim religion, which emerged in 7 th century AD.
The Faisaliah. This picture was taken by my grandmother from the Kingdom Tower, overlooking the city of Riyadh.
The K ingdom T ower In S audi’s capital city, R iyadh. Both pictures were taken by my grandmother, Jan Baldwin, a photographer for National Geographic. The Kingdom Tower is owned by Prince Al Waleed.
Jenadriyah National Heritage and Culture Festival
The most famous cultural event in Saudi Arabia, it is organized each year by the National Guard. It was first held in 1985, as a way of demonstrating the Kingdom’s commitment to preserving its culture. The Festival is two weeks long and is commenced with a camel race.
(King Abdullah is the head of the National Guard).
The prophet Muhammad was born in Makkah (or “Mecca” in English). In the year 610 AD, he received a message from Allah (God) through the Angel Gabriel.
The 7 th century AD introduced the Muslim religion, one of the major monotheistic religions of the world. With it brought an Islamic “Golden Age” during which there was vast improvement in the knowledge of science, and a growth in culture, philosophy and the arts.
Every year since, Muslims from around the world pilgrimage to Mecca and Medinah, bringing with them a variety of cultures and foreign goods and taking local goods back to their homelands, thereby furthering the spread of Saudi culture.
Makkah (or Mecca)- the Birthplace of Prophet Muhammad. It is where Muslims make their pilgrimage during the Hajj (which is explained later in this powerpoint). It is home to The Holy Mosque, which houses the Ka’ abah, Islam’s most sacred shrine. This is the shrine to which Muslims around the world turn in prayer five times a day.
Medinah - This is where the Prophet Muhammad spent the last several years of his life. Upon hearing of an assassination plot against him in 622 AD, he led his followers here. It is home to the burial sites of him and many of his companions, and home as well to the famous Prophet’s Mosque (another of Islam’s holiest sites).
Makkah and Medinah are open only to Muslim visitors.
“ They have a tradition of serving cardomen coffee with dates. When accepting the drink, always take the cup with your right hand, never with your left hand. It is polite to have two cups of the coffee. When you have had enough, you wag the cup when the coffee server approaches, so he will know you do not wish to have any more, and will pick up your cup.” –Jan Baldwin, during interview.
2 of the most highly regarded Islamic traditions are those of generosity and hospitality. As a hospitable gesture, Saudis will offer their guests coffee with dates (a type of cookie made with the fruit, dates) and by burning incense (in Arabic, “oud”). Coffee to them is the simplest form of hospitality. It is often served in small cups and even its preparation is considered an intricate cultural tradition.
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. butter
2 c. oatmeal
2 1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. sour milk
1 tsp. soda in flour
Ingredients Cook filling until thickened. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and mix well. Add flour and soda alternately with sour milk, then add oatmeal. Roll out on floured board, cut with cookie cutter. Put one teaspoon of dough filling on cookie and cover with another cookie. Bake at about 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Preparation
1 pkg. dates, finely chopped
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. water
---------- Recipe for Date Cookies -------------------------------------
Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting. Because Muslims use the lunar calendar (as opposed to our use of the solar calendar), their dates shift and Ramadan occurs at different times each year. During Ramadan, those aged twelve and up are required to fast from dawn to dusk. At nighttime, they go to their local mosques, where they recite 1/30 of the Qur’an each night. By the end of the month, they’ll have recited the entire Qur’an.
Eid-Al-Fitr- This concludes Ramadan. Eid-Al-Fitr means, quite literally, “Festival of Breaking the Fast.” It is customary to give presents to children and visit friends and family during this time. Muslims decorate their homes with lights as well, just like we do for Christmas.
It is during the Hajj that Muslims from around the world will make their pilgrimage to Mecca. It is required that Muslims do this at least once in their lifetime, and this custom began during the Islamic Golden Age.
Eid Al-Adha- This concludes the Hajj. During this “Festival of Sacrifice,” families will typically sacrifice a sheep or a goat to commemorate the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Upon sacrifice, 1/3 of the meat is eaten by close relatives, 1/3 is given to friends and 1/3 is donated to the poor. The act of giving symbolizes their willingness to share their “bounty” in order to strengthen friendships and help those who are in need.
Saudis typically dress in traditional apparel. This includes loose garments which help in preserving their moral code of modesty while keeping them cool as well in the hot Arab climate.
Jewelry- Jewelry is important because it symbolizes socioeconomic status. Saudi women today will often receive jewelry as gifts when they marry or have children, and solid gold bracelets are considered a traditional gift for girls.
Men- typically wear a thawb (an ankle-length shirt, often made of wool or cotton)
Women- typically wear the abaya, which is a black outer cloak the covers the dress. Some Saudi wear a veil, which serves to protect the face from exposure to sun while signifying Islamic modesty.
The Holy Qur’an is considered to be the ultimate literary model while Calligraphy is a revered art.
Poetry is popular among Saudis, and published works are read yearly at the Jenadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival. They also have a televised poetry competition.
The Department of Culture at the Ministry of Culture and Information sponsors programs such as literary and drama clubs, library events, arts and crafts and folklore classes. Other noteworthy cultural institutions are the King Faisal Foundation and the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts
You had mentioned the stereotype that Americans tend to have about people from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. (She had mentioned in a previous e-mail that Americans typically view Saudi Arabians as being terrorists, and for that reason, many Saudis will lie about where they are from) How has this affected you living as an American in the Middle East and what kinds of stereotypes do citizens from Saudi have about Americans? Are you ever discriminated against for being from America?
I'm afraid our television programs which depict and over-emphasize the worst of our American culture, i.e. the soaps, and other television shows that portray women as "available" to men in the workplace, etc. The local religious group which controls what is shown here, loves this, as they can use this as an example of how bad our culture is. We must be very careful not to look at a Saudi male, smile at him, or any any way appear friendly, as this to them is an invitation. It does not matter than we are married, because it has been demonstrated on our TV shows, that married women as not faithful and thus are just as available as the single women. We are also not Muslim. Thus, we are considered non-believers.
American women must comport themselves in such a way as to not be sending the wrong signals, especially to men. I have not had any problems in that area, but I am also very careful not to portray myself as anything but honorable. We work with Saudis and interact with them in the workplace. They admire us as a couple and as professionals. Most of the Saudis we work with are western educated, many in the US, and they each have fond memories of studying in the US or Europe. They all speak English and prefer to speak English whenever possible.
We must wear their national uniform, the abaya, and carry a scarf to cover the hair when appropriate, whenever outside our compound. We do not need to wear the abaya inside our home or in our residential compound.
What is the biggest cultural difference between Saudi and America? Men and women are not allowed to mix socially, unless they are related. The traditional Saudi home is divided. The wife has a room set aside with a private entrance so she can entertain her women friends. The husband has separate quarters in the home reserved for entertaining male guests. There is a separate entrance to this area of the home. The home is walled. This serves as privacy to the family, and it keeps the desert sand out.
What has been the hardest part for you in trying to adapt to their culture?
1. The freedom of movement. Women are not allowed to drive here, so if I want to go anywhere, I must either have my husband take me, or hire a taxi.
2. Shopping has to be done in between prayer calls. They are five times a day, with many stores only open in the morning between 9:30-10 a.m. and Noon prayers, then not reopening until after 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Thankfully, grocery stores close, but reopen soon after each prayer. Some grocery stores allow you to stay inside and shop. You just can't checkout, or get served at any of the stations, like the deli, or bulk foods counter until prayers has ended and the store reopens. One must take prayer calls into consideration before ever going shopping. We learn to prioritize our list so we can get the most out of the little time we have to shop.
What do you like most about living in Saudi Arabia?
1. We love our work. And we really admire and respect the gentleman who brought us here.
2. Travel. We both love to travel, and as a result, have seen quite a bit of this part of the Middle East. Being close to so many interesting parts of the world has been wonderful. For example, we are a little over 2 hours flight to Cairo, Egypt, 2 1/2 hours to Amman, Jordan, an hour and a half flight to Dubai, UAE, and the list goes on. The people (Saudis) we work with have been very good to us. We also work with Pakistani clerks who are some of the nicest people to work with.
3. Living and working abroad should be high on every American's list of things to do. It broadens our perspective on the way other cultures live and we learn to appreciate that not everyone in the world lives or thinks the same way we do about a whole host of things. We Americans often pass judgment on other cultures, because they are different and have different ways of doing things. We allow our media to inflict their ideas on how we should think about these cultures and countries, and it is often inaccurate. It takes actually living in a country before we can learn to appreciate and respect other cultures and their countries.
What do you feel is the most bizarre custom practiced? I really can't answer that question. This is a very interesting place to live. I guess what immediately comes to mind is the camel beauty contest. This is very serious business and a lot goes into choosing the most beautiful camel. There are also camel races, and the riders are stuck to the backs of the camels using Velcro. It is a pretty wild ride and the rider does not wish to fall off. It is quite a sight to see.
There are over 220 countries in the world that have a McDonalds. Are the foods in Saudi much different from the ones that we eat in America, and what is your favorite Middle Eastern dish?
Saudi Arabia is a country that loves American culture, believe it or not. It is also a very international country when it comes to its foods. Hotels offer everything from Italian, to Japanese, to Chinese foods. They love fresh fish, so there are restaurants who cater to the seafood lovers. There are multiples of Starbuck, McDonald's, and all the other American fast-food places are here in great number. Their fresh fruit cocktails are made with fresh squeezed and blended fruits and are delicious and refreshing. They have juice bars in restaurants and mix some wonderfully delicious blends
A favorite staple for Saudis is tabuli, which is chopped parsley, tomatoes with oils and spices; Arabic flat breads are made fresh in the Tamimi Safeway. They are big on lamb, fish and beef. They do not eat pork or anything made with pork products. Rice dishes are another food they enjoy. They add pine nuts and raisins in it and it is delicious.
What do you believe to be the most commonly prepared food in Saudi? Riyadh’s Rumex vesicarius, an annual known for its short growth cycle (typically between February and March). This picture was taken by my grandmother The White Cheeked Bulbul, outside my grandparents’ window. It has a pretty song.
C o m b a t i n g T e r r o r i s m - S t a t i s t i c s
From 2003 to June 2006:
_ Saudi forces killed over 100 militants.
_ All of the terrorists on Saudi Arabia’s initial most-wanted list of 26 were killed,
captured, or surrendered.
_ The Kingdom issued a second most-wanted list of 36, and 17 on the list were killed or detained.
_ More than 800 individuals were arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity
_ Saudi forces prevented more than 50 planned terror acts.
_ More than 90 Saudi security officers were killed and more than 200 wounded
while combating terrorism.
_ A number of Al-Qaeda cells have been dismantled.
_ Large quantities of arms caches have been seized.
_ Saudi Arabia and the United States established two joint task forces to combat
terrorism and block terrorist funding.
_ Suspects have been extradited to a number of countries, including the US.
This information is from a brochure printed by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC
“ The worst decision our State Department made after 9/11 was to declare this country unsafe and send all the embassy families home. For the next 8-9 years, only unaccompanied males were allowed to work in the embassy and they could only serve for one year. The Saudis took one look at that arrangement and decided it was not worth their effort to work with them. They would soon be leaving and they would have to start all over again. So the upper Saudi management would pass the embassy person off to a lower ranking officer. The drawback also was the fact there was no long term commitment on the part of the unaccompanied employee, because his focus was on the next trip home to see family. We figured that person was probably productive for about 6 months of his one-year posting. The State Department has just lifted the restriction, but the damage has already been done. The embassy families chosen for this posting must not have school-aged children, which still restricts who can come over here.” – Jan Baldwin
The US and Saudi Arabia have had close ties since the early 20 th century, decades before the forming of the Kingdom in 1932. At the end World War I, when all of the European allies powers sought to partition the countries of Africa and the Middle East, Woodrow Wilson refused to take part. He called for granting “self-determination” to the struggling Arab states and the young Abdulaziz viewed him with great respect and admiration. On February 15, 1945, King Abdulaziz met with President Roosevelt (FDR) on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal to discuss various issues. The meeting set a historic precedent and since then, each Saudi king has met with the sitting US president. The two countries have cherished strong economic ties as well as political. In 1933, the American oil company Socal (Standard Oil of California) was chosen over the established European firms to find oil in Saudi Arabia. The company later became known as the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), but now is referred to as Saudi Aramco. It is the initial exploration of the American company that led to the finding of oil wells such as Dammam #7 and the discovery that Saudi Arabia held approximately one quarter of the world’s proven reserves. Today, the Kingdom buys goods from every state in America, and most of the members of the Council of Minister hold degrees from American universities.
Letter to President Bush- This letter was sent on the eve of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 Terrorist attacks, written by then Crowned Prince Abdullah
September 10, 2002
President George W. Bush
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
On the eve of the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the
American people, I take the opportunity to renew to you and the families
of the victims and indeed the entire American nation, the sincere condolences
and sympathy of the Saudi people and myself.
As long as I live, I shall never forget the horrible scenes of carnage,
the raging fires, the smoke that covered the horizon, and the innocent
people who jumped out of the windows in their attempt to escape. On
that fateful day, the whole world stood with the American people in
unprecedented solidarity that made no distinction as to race, religion or
It was the perverted hope of the perpetrators of this heinous crime
that they could bring humiliation to, and terrorize the American nation.
But the brave people of the United States of America, whose greatness
lies in the strength of its brave sons and daughters in facing adversity,
and which is enriched by their remarkable achievements, all of this will
make them ever stronger than the designs of the evildoers. Instead of
being terrorized by this catastrophe, they became more steadfast and
The target of the terrorists who engineered this crime was humanity at
large. They hoped that this outrageous act would incite and ignite
bloody strife among different faiths and civilizations. But their evil was
turned against them, for all humanity united to fight terrorism, and wise
voices from all corners of the world arose to echo your declaration that
terrorism has no religion or nationality ; that it is pure evil, condemned
We in Saudi Arabia felt an especially great pain at the realization that a
number of young Saudi citizens had been enticed and deluded and their
reasoning subverted to the degree of denying the tolerance that their religion
embraced, and turning their backs on their homeland, which always
stood for understanding and moderation. They allowed themselves to be
used as a tool to do great damage to Islam, a religion they espoused, and
to all Muslims. They also aimed at causing considerable harm to the historic
and strong relationship between the American people and the people
of Saudi Arabia. I would like to make it clear that true Muslims all
over the world will never allow a minority of deviant extremists to speak
in the name of Islam and distort its spirit of tolerance . Your friends in the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia denounced and condemned the September 11
attacks as strongly as did the American people. We, like you, are convinced
that nothing can ever justify the shedding of innocent blood or the
taking of lives and the terrorizing of people, regardless of whatever cause
Therefore, we do not simply reiterate sincere and true condolences to the
relatives of the victims, but assure all of our continued will and determination
to do our utmost to combat this malignant evil and uproot it from
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to stand solidly against terrorism.
We shall act, independently as well as collectively, with the US-led international
coalition to wage a fierce and merciless war against the terrorists
in order to eradicate this deadly disease that threatens all societies.
In conclusion, I would like to say to you, my dear friend, that God
Almighty, in His wisdom, tests the faithful by allowing such calamities to
happen. But He, in His mercy, also provides us with the will and determination,
generated by faith, to enable us to transform such tragedies into
great achievements, and crises that seem debilitating are transformed into
opportunities for the advancement of humanity. I only hope that, with your
cooperation and leadership, a new world will emerge out of the rubble of
the World Trade Center; a world that is blessed by the virtues of freedom,
peace, prosperity and harmony.
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud
Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister,
and Commander of the National Guard
W h i m s i c a l R a n d o m n e s s - T h e F a c t s o f L i f e
Arabic Proverb: “A beetle saw her children on the wall, she said they look like a string of pearls.”
The Qu’ran serves as Saudi Arabia’s Constitution, while the Shari’ah (body of Islamic law) serves as the guideline for all legal matters in the country. In other words, there is no difference between laws that are religious and those that are secular. The Saudi government is divided into branches: Executive, Judicial and Consultative Council; the king oversees and makes appointments for all three . Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 provinces.