Culture of Saudi Arabia

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King Abdullah practicing falconry, a traditional pursuit in Saudi Arabia
King Fahd Road in Riyadh

The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Islam. Society itself is in general deeply religious, conservative, traditional, and family oriented. Many attitudes and traditions are centuries-old, derived from Arab civilization. However its culture has also been affected by rapid change, as the country was transformed from an impoverished nomadic society into a rich commodity producer in just a few years in the 1970s.The most recent ruler or king of Saudi is King Salman Al Saud [1]

The Wahhabi Islamic movement, which arose in the 18th century and is sometimes described as austerely puritanical, now predominates in the country. Following the principle of "enjoining good and forbidding wrong", there are many limitations and prohibitions on behaviour and dress which are strictly enforced both legally and socially, often more so than in other Muslim countries. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, for example.

Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Five times each day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques scattered throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.[2] In accordance with Wahhabi doctrine, only two religious holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, were publicly recognized, until 2006 when a non-religious holiday, the 23 September national holiday (which commemorates the unification of the kingdom) was reintroduced.[3][4] In terms of gender relations, Saudi norms usually discourages nonconsanguineal freemixing between the sexes between non-wedders.[5]


Supplicating Pilgrim at Masjid Al Haram, Mecca

Observers have described Saudi Arabian society as deeply religious and deeply conservative. Saudi Arabia is the "only modern Muslim state to have been created by jihad, the only one to claim the Quran as its constitution", and the only Arab-Muslim country "to have escaped European imperialism."[6] Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia

The official and dominant form of Islam in the kingdom, and "the predominant feature of Saudi culture"[7] is the austerely puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism arose in the central region of Najd, the eighteenth century. Proponents call the movement "Salafism",[8] and believe that its teachings purify the practice of Islam of innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of Muhammad and his companions.[9]

The many limitations on behaviour and dress are strictly enforced both legally and socially. Saudi is one of the few countries that have "religious police" (also known as Haia or Mutaween), who patrol the streets "enjoining good and forbidding wrong" by enforcing dress codes, strict separation of men and women, attendance at prayer (salat) five times each day, the ban on alcohol, and other aspects of Sharia (Islamic law) or behavior it believes to be commanded by Islam. Cinema theatres were shut down in 1980, for example. (In the privacy of the home behavior can be far looser, and reports from the Daily Mail and WikiLeaks indicate that the ruling Saudi Royal family applies a different moral code to itself, indulging in parties, drugs and sex.[10])

The kingdom uses not the international Gregorian calendar, but the lunar Islamic calendar, with the start of each lunar month determined not ahead of time by astronomical calculation, but only after the crescent moon is sighted by the proper religious authorities.[11] Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Businesses are closed three or four times a day[12] during business hours for 30 to 45 minutes while employees and customers sent off to pray;[13] Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.[3][14][15] In accordance with Wahhabi doctrine, for many years only two religious holidays were publicly recognized, ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā. (ʿĪd al-Fiṭr is "the biggest" holiday a three-day period of "feasting, gift-giving and general letting go".[16]) In 2006, the 23 September national holiday (which commemorates the unification of the kingdom) was reintroduced over the objections of religious clerics. [3][4] As of 2004 approximately half of the broadcast airtime of Saudi state television was devoted to religious issues.[17] 90% of books published in the kingdom were on religious subjects, and most of the doctorates awarded by its universities were in Islamic studies. [18] In the state school system, about half of the material taught is religious. In contrast, assigned readings over twelve years of primary and secondary schooling devoted to covering the history, literature, and cultures of the non-Muslim world comes to a total of about 40 pages. [17]

"Fierce religious resistance" had to be overcome to permit such innovations as paper money (in 1951), female education (1964), and television (1965) and the abolition of slavery (1962).[6] There were a number of terrorist attacks targeting foreigners between 2001 and 2004, but these have been brought under control.[19]

Public support for the traditional political/religious structure of the kingdom is so strong that one researcher interviewing Saudis found virtually no support for reforms to secularize the state. Even the small minority of Westernized and liberal Saudis expressed "a desire for the kingdom to remain a Muslim society ruled by an overtly Muslim state."[20]

Because of religious restrictions, Saudi culture lacks any diversity of religious expression or buildings but annual festivals such as the Janadriah Festival which celebrates Saudi Culture, custom and handicraft held in a specialized arena just north of Riyadh and public events such as The Annual Book Fair are open to the public and are very popular although policed by the religious police.[21][22]

The festivals (such as Day of Ashura) and communal public worship[23][24] of Shia Muslims who make up an estimated 10-15%[25][26][27] are suppressed. Celebration of other (non-Wahhabi) Islamic holidays, such as the Muhammad's birthday and the Day of Ashura, (an important holiday for Shiites), are tolerated only when celebrated locally and on a small scale.[28] Shia also face systematic discrimination in employment, education, the justice system according to Human Rights Watch.[29]

No churches, temples or other non-Muslim houses of worship permitted in the country (although there are nearly a million Christians as well as Hindus and Buddhists among the foreign workers).[30][31] Foreign workers are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter,[30] and reportedly private prayer services are forbidden in practice.[30] And at least one religious minority, the Ahmadiyya, are banned with adherents being deported according to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch.[32]

Proselytizing by non-Muslims and conversion by Muslims to another religion is illegal.[31] According to the HeartCry Missionary Society, in 2014 the Saudi government "issued an official statement signifying that capital punishment may now be used" on those who distribute the Bible and all other "publications that have prejudice to any other religious belief other than Islam."[33][34]

In legal compensation court cases (Diyya) non-Muslim are awarded less than Muslims.[30] Atheists are legally designated as terrorists.[35] Saudis or foreign residents who call "into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based" may be subject to as much as 20 years in prison.[36]

Social life and customs


A large portion of the original inhabitants of the area that is now Saudi were desert nomads known as Bedouin. They remain a significant and very influential minority of the indigenous Saudi population, though many who call themselves "bedou" no longer engage in "traditional tribal activities of herding sheep and riding camels."[37] According to authors Harvey Tripp and Peter North, Bedouin make up most of the judiciary, religious leaders and National Guard (which protects the throne) of the country. Bedouin culture is "actively" preserved by the government.[37].


Greetings in Saudi Arabia have been called "formal and proscribed" and lengthy. Saudis (men) tend "to take their time and converse for a bit when meeting". Inquiries "about health and family" are customary, but never about a man's wife, as this "is considered disrespectful."[38] Saudi men are known for the physical affection they express towards total strangers (i.e. Saudi male strangers), thought by some to be a continuation of the desert tradition of offering strangers hospitality to ensure their survival.[39]


Red and white keffiyeh commonly worn in the desert[40] held with a black agal.
White keffiyeh is more common in cities.[40]
Brown Bisht (or mishlah), worn over a thawb.

The religion and customs of Saudi Arabia dictate not only conservative dress for men and women, but a uniformity of dress unique to most of the Middle East.[41] Traditionally, the different regions of Saudi have had different dress, but since the re-establishment of Saudi rule these have been reserved for festive occasions, and "altered if not entirely displaced" by the dress of the homeland of their rulers (i.e. Najd). [42]

All women are required to wear an abaya a long black cloak that covers all, but the hands and face in public. (Modest dress is compulsory for women in Islam but the color black for women and white for men is apparently based on tradition not religious scripture.[43]) Saudi women also normally wear a full face veil, such as a niqāb. Women's clothes are often decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliques. Foreign women are required to wear an abaya, but don't need to cover their hair.

In recent years it is common to wear Western dress underneath the abaya. (Foreign women in Saudi Arabia are "encouraged" by the religious police to wear an abaya, or at least cover their hair according to the New York Times.[44] Authors Harvey Tripp and Peter North encourage women to wear an abaya in "more conservative" areas of the kingdom, i.e. in the interior.[45])

Saudi men and boys, whatever their job or social status, wear the traditional dress called a thobe or thawb, which has been called the "Arabic dress".[46] During warm and hot weather, Saudi men and boys wear white thobes. During the cool weather, wool thobes in dark colors are not uncommon. At special times, men often wear a bisht or mishlah over the thobe. These are long white, brown or black cloaks trimmed in gold. A man's headdress consists of three things: the tagia, a small white cap that keeps the gutra from slipping off the head; the gutra itself, which is a large square of cloth; and the igal, a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place. Not wearing an igal is considered a sign of piety. The gutra is usually made of cotton and traditionally is either all white or a red and white checked. The gutra is worn folded into a triangle and centred on the head.

  • Ghutrah (Arabic: غتره‎) is a traditional keffiyeh headdress worn by men in the Arabian peninsula. It is made of a square of usually finer cotton cloth ("scarf"), folded and wrapped in various styles (usually a triangle) around the head. It is commonly worn in areas with an arid climate, to provide protection from direct sun exposure, and also protection of the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand.
  • Agal (Arabic: عقال‎) is an item of Arab headgear constructed of cord which is fastened around the keffiyeh to hold it in place. The agal is usually black in colour.
  • Thawb (Arabic: ثوب‎) is the standard Arabic word for garment. It is ankle length, woven from wool or cotton, usually with long sleeves similar to a robe.
  • Bisht (Arabic: بشت‎) is a traditional long, white, brown or black Arabic cloak trimmed in gold worn by men. It is usually only worn for prestige on special occasions such as weddings, or in chilly weather.
  • Abaya (Arabic: عباءة‎) is a women's garment. It is a black cloak which loosely covers the entire body except the head, although some Abayas cover the top of the head as well.

Among young men, since around 2000, Western dress, particularly T-shirts and jeans have become quite common leisure wear, particularly in the Eastern Province.[47] Traditional footwear has been leather sandals but most footwear is now imported.[42]


Employment does not play the same part in native Saudi society as in some others. With enormous petroleum export earnings beginning in the mid-1970s the Saudi economy was not dependent on income from productive employment. Economists "estimate only 30-40 percent" of working-age Saudis "hold jobs or actively seek work,"[48] and most employed Saudis have less-than-demanding jobs with the government.[49] [50] As of 2008, 90% of those employed in the private sector were foreigners,[51] and several decades long efforts to replace significant numbers of them with Saudis have been less than successful.[52][53][54][55][56][57]

One explanation for this culture of leisure is the hot, dry climate of the peninsula which allowed nomadic herding but permitted agriculture only in a small area (the southwest corner). Like other nomadic herders worldwide, the ancestors of most Saudis did not develop the habits (so-called "work ethic"), skills, infrastructure, etc. of agricultural societies "that lead ultimately to present-day industrialisation".[58] As a consequence, "Saudis have rarely worked in the sense that other nationalities have worked. No product-based commercial economy existed until oil" was discovered.[58]


Traditionally social life in the kingdom has revolved around the home and family. Saudis regularly visit family members, particularly those of an older generation. For women, most of whom have their own jobs,[59][60] it is routine (in fact the only outside activity[61][62]) to pay visits to each other during the day, though the ban on women driving can make transportation a problem. The ban was lifted in 2017.[63]

For men, traditional hours involve a nap in late afternoon, (after work if they are employed), and then socializing that begins after maghrib (roughly between 5 and 6:30 pm) and can last until well after midnight. Men gather in groups (known as shillas or majmu'as) of close friends of similar age, background, and occupation. Men typically relax, gossip, and joke while smoking shisha and playing balot (a card game), and have a meal around midnight before returning home. The groups may meet in diwaniyyas in each other's homes or a residence rented for the occasion. [63]


Being part of a closed, family-oriented society, Saudis tend to prefer to do business with, socialize with, and communicate with family members rather than outsiders, be they foreigners, or Saudis from other clans. [64] Extended families tend to live in family compounds in cities whenever possible and stay in contact by cellphone when not. [65] It is customary for elder family member to use their influence (wasta) for the benefit of family members, particularly for employment and advancement in the large Saudi government bureaucracy[66] where most Saudis work.[48]


Traditionally, in Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf countries), families arrange marriages with the tribe[67] or family's considerations in mind, rather than Western/modern ideas of romantic love and self-identity.[68] Sons and daughters have been encouraged to "marry cousins or other relatives in order to increase and strengthen" the extended family or tribe,[69] "or occasionally to marry into another tribe in order to heal rifts". At least in the 1990s, most marriages in Saudi were "consanguineous"—i.e. between close relatives—sometimes a second cousin but usually a first cousin.[67] and marriage between cousins in Saudi is among the highest rate in the world.[69] The practice has been cited as a factor in higher rates of Type 2 diabetes, (which affects about 32% of adult Saudis), hypertension, (which affects 33%),[70] and higher rates of severe genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or a blood disorder,[70] thalassemia, sickle cell anemia, spinal muscular atrophy, deafness and muteness.[70][71][72] As a consequence of frequent consanguineous marriage, genetic counseling is a growing field in Saudi Arabia.[73]

Traditionally men having more than one wife (polygyny) was "fairly common", but marriage has become increasingly monogamous as income has declined and western ideas of mutual compatibility between husband and wife have taken hold.[68]

Steps of marriage

wedding in Saudi Arabia
  • Proposal: Traditionally, the prospective groom's senior female leader informs the prospective bride's mother of his intentions. . .both families determine whether or not the marriage would be suitable.[74]
  • The Viewing (Shawfa): If assent is given by the two families, the bride is "formally allowed to unveil in the presence of the future husband." This unveiling is delayed until the wedding party among very strict families.[74]
  • Marriage contract (Milka): If the viewing does not stop wedding plans, the amount of the dowery (mahr) and other terms are negotiated by the prospective groom and the father (or legal male guardian) of the prospective bride, and are executed (approved) usually by the imam of a mosque and witnessed by two male witnesses (or one man and two women) and recorded by a qadi.[74] The mahr is much higher for a virgin than for a divorcee or widow.[75] According to former diplomat Carol Fleming, as of 2008, a typical Saudi mahr was typically 70,000 SAR (about USD $18660) for a virgin and 20,000 SAR (about USD $5330) for a non-virgin (i.e. widowed or divorced woman).[76] (As some observers—Harvey Tripp and Peter North—put it, "unmarried non-virgins may be lucky to escape with their lives".[75])
  • Meeting of the Families (Shabka): This is a "gala" party of both families, hosted by the bride's family, at which time the bridegroom presents the dowry and an engagement ring to the bride along with other gifts of jewelry.[74]
  • Betrothal (Makhtui, Khatub, or Makhtubayn): "Setting the date" for the wedding parties (one for men and one for women) is "considered the formal betrothal."[74]
  • Henna Party or `Night of the Henna`: A party based around decorating the hands and feet of the bride with paste made from the henna plant, "a traditional wedding custom throughout the Arabian Peninsula" and elsewhere in the Muslim world.[77]
  • Wedding Celebrations (`Irs, Zaffaf, or Zawaj): Usually comes six months to a year after the acceptance of the wedding proposal. The separate wedding celebrations for men and women are attended by family, close friends and distinguished guests. Traditionally they were held in homes, but today are usually held in large hotel ballrooms or special wedding halls.[78] Each party usually consists of a large dinner featuring roast lamb or baby camel over rice or cracked wheat served on the floor, that begins after `Isha`. A traditional congratulatory phrase the guests tell the groom is 'from you the money; from her the children.' The men's party ends after the dinner, but the bridegroom and the male members of his and the bride's immediate family then go to the women's party. The women's party lasts longer than the men's, is more elaborately decorated, and in addition to food, has music, singing, and dancing. Around midnight, the bridegroom and the other family male members arrive and are announced amidst the ululation or zaghārīt (high keening sound) of the women. The other men then leave, but the groom sits beside his bride on a dais while the party continues. Some wedding celebrations can go on for several days, but the groom need attend only the first night. After all the celebrations, the couple is traditionally escorted to their new home,[78] or leave on their honeymoon. In some weddings, the couple meet for the first time on the final night of celebrations. On their return from the honeymoon if they have one, the couple either set up home with the groom's parents and "become members of the extended family or – as is increasingly the case – set up home by themselves".

Marrying foreigners

Although a Muslim woman is forbidden to marry a non-Muslim man, the reverse is permitted, although non-Muslim women are often strongly encouraged to convert to Islam. There have been many cases of foreign women marrying Arabs and discovering they are unable to endure the restrictions of local culture, deciding to divorce and finding that the Saudi father has custody in his home country.


Saudi Arabia allows the traditional practice of "triple talaq" divorce, where a man can divorce his wife simply by saying ‘I divorce you’ (ṭalāq) three times. He can rescind the divorce if this was done in the heat of the moment, but only if the wife agrees (and only on three occasions). The husband must maintain a divorced wife and any children from the marriage if the wife is unable to support herself, although she may have trouble receiving timely payments.[79] Children generally remain with their mother until about five or six, after which boys return to their father to begin their formal education.[80] The husband can claim custody of any sons when they reach the age of ten. Girls more often remain with their mother.[80] A female divorcee usually returns to her family, and few remarry. Despite the liberality of divorce laws, divorce is not commonplace outside of the royal family where it is "endemic".[81])

Divorce for women who have been abandoned by their husbands in Saudi Arabia has been criticized for being slow.[82] Divorce initiated by a wife (khula) is unusual in the kingdom even if a husband has been unfaithful, abused or deserted his wife, or engaged in criminal activity. For female initiated divorce in Saudi, a wife must go to a court for the case to be heard. The divorce wife is typically required to financially compensate their husbands for the mahr and any marriage gifts, no matter how long they were married.[83] She may also have to surrender custody rights to their children.[84]

LGBT rights

Saudi is one of ten countries where homosexuality is punishable by death (the punishment of stoning to death may be applied to married men who've engaged in homosexual acts or any non-Muslim married or unmarried who commits sexual acts with a Muslim,[85]) as well as fines, flogging, prison time, on first offense.

Other customs

As in other Arab and especially Gulf countries, Saudi customs include avoiding certain practices, such as:

  • anything that would cause someone (or at least another Saudi) embarrassment and loss of face,[86] criticism by outsiders must be delivered indirectly, circumspectly, and never in front of others;[87]
  • exposing the soles of the feet or footwear to someone;[86] (other insulting body language include upward raising of a single finger, excessive pointing, fist clenching and pounding of the right fist into the left palm);[88]
  • using the left hand when eating (that hand traditionally being used for personal hygiene);[86]
  • rushing into doing business before conversation and the drinking of tea and coffee (violation of a desert code of hospitality, a code stemming from the recognition that a desert traveler who is denied hospitality might not survive).[86]
  • admiring a movable possession of a Saudi, since an hospitable Saudi will feel obliged to offer the possession as a gift to the guest admirer.[89]

Observers have noted the importance of custom and tradition in Saudi society. Folk beliefs such as "which foot to step first into the bathroom with, or urinating on the wheel of a new car to ward off the evil eye," hold an important place. [90]

Older brothers—even if older by only a few days—should have their hand kissed by younger brothers, sit above them on formal occasions, enter a room before them.[91]

Women who go on even short trips of a few days are expected to visit senior relatives and even close neighbors to bid them goodbye, and upon returning, make another round of visits to the same individuals to pay her respects and dispense small gifts. [92] Saudis may "require four to six months" to check their plans with extended family before finalizing them, [93] (and as a consequence travel by women is limited).

One observer has noted that "through their love of language, Saudis are swayed more by words rather than ideas and more by ideas than facts." While vigorous public arguments ("shouting matches") may be commonplace, it "is most unusual to see a Saudi strike another Saudi." This emphasis on rhetoric is reflected in foreign affairs where, for example, the government "regularly condemns the State of Israel in the most vehement and bloodcurdling terms but rarely takes action."[94]

Physical environment

Many outsiders are struck by the superficial resemblance of Saudi cities (at least those on the coast such as Jeddah) -- with their superhighways, shopping malls and fast food—to those of post-World War II western cities and suburbs.[95][96]


As late as 1970, most Saudis lived a subsistence life in the rural provinces, but the kingdom has urbanized rapidly in the last half of the 20th century. As of 2012 about 80% of Saudis live in urban metropolitan areas—specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, or Dammam.[97][98]


Saudi houses and housing compounds are often noted for the high walls (3 or 4 metres high) surrounding them, explained as useful in keeping out sandstorms[99] and/or reflective of the families' self-contained outlook on the world.[100]

Style and decoration

Like many people throughout the world, many Saudis derive "much pleasure and pride" in their homes. Saudis enjoy decorating rooms of their homes in "all the colours of the spectrum" and display objets d'art of many different styles together. "Clashes of colour and culture are the norm, not the exception," with the value of an artefact, "rather than consistency of style" being the major criterion of display. Foreigners may also be struck by the lack of finishing touches in construction ("Electrical switches may protrude from the wall supported only by their wiring") or maintenance ("Piles of masonry are likely to lie scattered beside and on the streets of expensive suburbs").[89]

Islamic heritage sites

The Mosque of the Prophet in Medina containing the tomb of Muhammad.

Saudi Arabia, and specifically the Hejaz, as the cradle of Islam, has many of the most significant historic Muslim sites, including the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina.[101] (One of the King's titles is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the two mosques being Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, (which contains Islam's most sacred place, the Kaaba), and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, which contains Muhammad's tomb.[102][103])

However, Saudi Wahhabism doctrine is hostile to any reverence given to historical or religious places of significance for fear that it may give rise to 'shirk' (that is, idolatry). As a consequence, under Saudi rule, an estimated 95% of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished for religious reasons.[104] Critics claim that over the last 50 years, 300 historic sites linked to Muhammad, his family or companions have been lost,[105] leaving fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad.[106]

Demolished structures include the mosque originally built by Muhammad's daughter Fatima, and other mosques founded by Abu Bakr (Muhammad's father-in-law and the first Caliph), Umar (the second Caliph), Ali (Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth Caliph), and Salman al-Farsi (another of Muhammad's companions).[107] Other historic buildings that have been destroyed include the house of Khadijah, the wife of Muhammad, the house of Abu Bakr, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of Muhammad, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.[106]

Women, youth and foreigners


While women were forbidden to drive motor vehicles until 24 June 2018 [108] and were consequently limited in mobility, they traditionally have often had considerable informal power in the home. According to journalist Judith Miller, "some Saudi women were veritable tyrants in their own homes. They decided where their children would go to school, when and whom they would marry, whether their husbands would accept new jobs, with whom the family socialized, and where the family would live and spend vacations. They promoted their friends' husbands, sons and relatives to key jobs."[109] David Long, a former American diplomat who had taught in the kingdom, has described Saudi men as "the world's most henpecked".[109]

Outside the home, a number of Saudi women have risen to the top of some professions or otherwise achieved prominence; for example, Dr. Ghada Al-Mutairi heads a medical research center in California[110] and Dr. Salwa Al-Hazzaa is head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh and was the late King Fahad's personal ophthalmologist.[111] However employment for women is limited, and urban middle and upper class women spend much time in socializing with the extended family and close friends.[62] Writing in National Geographic Marrianne Alireza noted: "For city women like us the only activity besides living communally within the extended family was leaving our quarters to visit other women in their quarters." [61][62]

As of 2014, child marriage is still legal[112][113][114] but no longer common,[115][116] with the average age at first marriage among Saudi females being 25 years old.[117][118][119] Female literacy (81%) is lower than that of males,[120][121] but the percentage of university graduates who are women (60%) is higher.[122]

While the status of women in the kingdom is "a very noble and lofty one", according to leading Islamic scholars, it does not include equal rights with men.[123] Foreign sources have complained of discrimination being a "significant problem" and there being an absence of laws criminalizing violence against women.[124] The World Economic Forum 2010 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity.[125]

Saudi woman wearing a niqāb in Riyadh. Under Saudi law, women are required to wear a abaya but niqab and hijab is optional.

Under Saudi law, every adult female must have a male relative as her "guardian",[124] whose permission she is required to have in order to travel, study, or work.[126] The guardian is legally entitled to make a number of critical decisions on a woman's behalf.[124][126][127]

In the courts, the testimony of one man equals that of two women in family and inheritance law.[124] Men are permitted up to four wives, but women are permitted no more than one husband.[128] Men need no legal justification to unilaterally divorce their wives (talaq),[129] while a woman can only obtain a divorce with the consent of her husband or judicially if her husband has harmed her.[130] In practice, it is very difficult for a Saudi woman to obtain a judicial divorce.[130] With regard to the law of inheritance, the Quran specifies that fixed portions of the deceased's estate must be left to the "Qu'ranic heirs"[131] and generally, female heirs receive half the portion of male heirs.[131]

According to a leading Saudi feminist and journalist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, "Saudi women are weak, no matter how high their status, even the 'pampered' ones among them, because they have no law to protect them from attack by anyone."[132]

Saudi women's lives are also shaped by Wahhabi religious policy of strict gender segregation. In health, obesity is a problem among middle and upper class Saudi women, who have domestic servants to do traditional work and have limited ability to leave their house.[133] School sports for girls is forbidden, but as of April 2014, Saudi authorities in the education ministry have been asked by the Shoura Council to consider lifting that ban (with the proviso that any sports conform to Sharia rules on dress and gender segregation, according to the official SPA news agency).[48]

In the public sphere restaurants have specially designated family sections women are required to use. They are also required to wear an abaya and at the very least cover their hair.[124] Women are forbidden to drive (though an exception is usually made in rural areas).[134] (These restrictions are usually enforced by the "religious police", known as the mutaween.[124][135]) Women have been promised the vote in 2015 municipal elections.[136][137]


Like many Muslim countries of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has a high population growth rate and high percentage of its population under 30 years of age, Estimates of the young population of Saudi Arabia vary.

  • Carlye Murphy gives the figure of 51% of the population being under the age of 25, as of February 2012.[138]
  • The Economist magazine estimates 60% of the Saudi population under the age of 21, as of March, 2012.[139]
  • The "United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision" estimates only 28% of the population is under 14 years of age[140] and significant change to Saudi culture is foreseen as this generation becomes older.

Factors—such as the decline in per capita income from the failure of oil revenue to keep up with population growth, exposure to youth lifestyles of the outside world, lack of access to quality education and employment opportunity, change in child rearing practices and attitudes towards the ruling royal family—indicate their lives and level of satisfaction will be different than the generation before them.

In recent decades, child rearing in Saudi Arabia has increasingly been handled by hired servants.[141] Since foreign labour is cheap and common, even families of modest means usually have servants.[142] In richer families, each child may have an individual servant.[143]

However, unlike parents, servants can be fired/sacked and are often neither Muslims nor Arabs. Consequently, according to at least one observer (John R. Bradley), they both "lack the authority ... to discipline those in their care", and the ability and knowledge to "pass down by example the core Islamic values and traditions that have always formed the bedrock of Saudi society."[144][145]

Unlike their parents, who grew up during the oil boom of the 1970s and saw their standard of living rise from poverty to affluence, Saudis born "in the 1980s and 1990s have no memory of the impoverished Arabia prior to the oil boom and thus express almost no sense of appreciation."[146]

Instead, they have experienced a kingdom of poor schools, overcrowded universities, and declining job opportunities.. Moreover, their royal rulers' profligate and often non-Islamic lifestyles are increasingly transparent to Saudis and stand in sharp contrast both to Al Saud religious pretensions and to their own declining living standards."[147]

Saudi youth are exposed to youth lifestyles of the outside world via the internet, as cinemas, dating, and concerts are banned in their country. Public fields for soccer are scarce. Even shopping malls do not allow young men unless they are accompanied by a female relative.[148] Insofar as young people have a tendency to "resent authority, reject rules, and seek to exert their independence," youth rebellion is more problematic because the number of "restrictions and conventions against which youth can rebel" in the kingdom is far larger than in most societies.[149] The average age of the king and crown prince is 74,[150] while 50-60% of Saudis are under twenty, creating a significant generation gap between rulers and ruled.[138][139][151]

In a 2011 survey, 31% of Saudi youth agreed with the statement `traditional values are outdated and ... I am keen to embrace modern values and beliefs`—the highest percentage in the ten Arab countries surveyed.[152][153][154] The number who had confidence about the direction of their country dropped from 98% (in 2010) to 62%.[146][155] While in most societies these numbers might seem unremarkable, in Saudi Arabia any rebellion stands out against "the unquestioning acceptance ... of previous generations".[149]

Nearly two-thirds of university graduates earn degrees in Islamic subjects,[156] where job prospects are in the public sector, dependent on government revenues. However, funding for public sector may decline not expand in coming years. At least some experts expect the kingdom's expenditures to "exceed its oil revenues as soon as 2014."[157]

Unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds is 39% - 45% for women and 30.3% for men—compared to an official unemployment rate of 10% circa 2012.[158]


The sport of Tafheet also called "drifting" or joyriding—illegal street racing-like phenomenon of generally non-modified factory-setup rental cars at very high speeds, around 160–260 km/h (100–160 mph), across wide highways throwing the car left and right that is especially popular in the margins of society—has been noted by observers.[159] A 2004 school survey carried out in the kingdom’s three biggest cities found that 45% of teenage boys were involved to some degree in joyriding.[160] The sport has been described as "tyre-burning acrobatics often in stolen or `borrowed` cars before a flash-mob of youthful admirers, represents not only a deliberate challenge to authority but also a reclaiming of turf, manliness and even tribal pride from an emasculating society."[160] As a recreation by and for young men (since women are forbidden to drive and should be at home) " it is often for the alluring eyes of pretty teenage boys that skilled drivers perform" according to popular songs and poetry. As a dangerous, illegal and so unregulated activity, crashes and fatalities sometimes occur.[160]


Since the 1960s there has been a significant number of guest workers/foreign expatriates allowed into Saudi on work visas, and these now make up around 20-30% of the population of the country. Guest workers range in occupation from high skilled workers (employed to jobs Saudis cannot do), to manual service workers (doing jobs Saudis "will not do").[161] A number of sources describe a "pecking order" among workers established by factors such as the importance of your employer,[162] and country of origin. One source places workers from Gulf oil producing countries at the top,[162] another places Americans there,[163] but all agree that Nationals from places like Bangladesh, Yemen and Philippines are at the bottom.[162][163] While foreign workers from Western countries are now a small minority, numbering only approximately 100,000,[164] most of whom live in compounds or gated communities.

With a large number of unemployed Saudis, a growing population and need for government spending but stagnating oil revenues with which to pay foreign workers, the large number of expats has come to be seen as "an enormous problem" that "distorts" the Saudi economy and "keeps young people out of the labour market."[165]

In October 2011, the Saudi Labour Ministry put a "ceiling" on the number of guest workers at 20% of the Saudi population, requiring a reduction of foreign population by up to three million over several years.[166] In March 2013, a campaign was initiated to "get rid of its illegal foreign workers, control the legal ones", and lower native-born Saudi unemployment.[165] Approximately one million Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis left between the campaign's beginning and the deadline (November 4, 2013), with authorities planning to expel another one million illegal foreigners in 2014.[165] Ethiopians were a particular target of the campaign, with thousands expelled.[165] Various Human Rights entities have criticised Saudi Arabia's handling of the issue.[167] Prior to this workers were sometimes not hired or expelled as a way of registering Saudi disapproval of the workers' country. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 during the Gulf War due to Yemen's support for Saddam Hussein against Saudi Arabia,[168] and cut the number of Bangladeshis allowed to enter Saudi in 2013 after the Bangladeshi government cracked down on the Islamist Jamaat-e Islami party there.[169]

The Saudi–Yemen barrier was constructed by Saudi Arabia against an influx of illegal immigrants and against the smuggling of drugs and weapons.[170] A 2004 law passed by Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers, entitles Muslim[171] expatriates of all nationalities (except Palestinian) who have resided in the kingdom for ten years to apply for citizenship with priority being given to holders of degrees in various scientific fields.[172] (The estimated 240,000 Palestinians living in Saudi Arabia are excluded, because of Arab League agreement instructions barring the Arab states from granting them citizenship of another Arab state.)

Treatment of foreign workers is also an issue. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2014, there was a "worrying trend" of expatriate domestic workers filing "complaints of exploitation and abuse" only to face counter-allegations by their employers of "theft, witchcraft or adultery." 41 expat workers from just one country, Indonesia, faced "possible death sentences" in Saudi Arabia on charges "ranging from black magic to stealing, adultery and murder".[173]

In 2014 Saudi men were banned from marrying women from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Chad.[174]

Legacy of slavery

The Arabian Peninsula has a long tradition of slavery and ethnically, Saudis have a range of skin color "from very light to very dark and features from Caucasian to African", a testimony to ethnicity of the slaves that intermarried over the centuries with natives of the region.[175] Abolition of slavery came relatively recently in Saudi (1962), so that it has existed within in the lifetime of many present day Saudis, and according to at least some observers, "a semblance of the slave owner mentality sometimes lingers on" among some Saudi.[175]

Food and drink

Saudi Arabian cuisine is similar to that of the surrounding countries in the Arabian Peninsula, and has been heavily influenced by Turkish, Persian, and African food. Animals are slaughtered in accordance with halal Islamic dietary laws, which consider pork impure (najis) and alcohol forbidden (haram). As a general rule, Saudis (like other Muslims) consider impure pork to be disgusting, but forbidden alcohol a temptation. Consequently, dietary laws regarding the former are more strictly observed than those regarding the latter.[176]


According to some observers (Harvey Tripp and Peter North), though the kingdom is a "prohibition state", "discreet consumption" of alcohol by foreigners and even by Saudis is tolerated by authorities. Both home brewed ("sidiqui") and black market imports are consumed.[177]


A dish consisting of a stuffed lamb, known as khūzī, is the traditional national dish. Kebabs are popular, as is shāwarmā, a marinated grilled meat dish of lamb, mutton, or chicken, sometimes wrapped in flat bread. As in other Arab countries of the Arabian Peninsula, machbūs (kabsa), a rice dish with fish or shrimp, is popular. Flat, unleavened bread is a staple of virtually every meal, as are dates and fresh fruit. Coffee, served in the Arabic style, is the traditional beverage.[3]

The appearance of modern supermarkets and commercial restaurants starting in the 1970s has changed Saudi culinary habits. International cuisine, particularly fast food, has become popular in all Saudi urban areas (i.e. in 80% of the country).[178] While traditionally Saudis ate sitting on the floor using the right hand or flat bread to take food from a roasted lamb, goat or camel carcass,[179] the practice of eating while sitting on a chair at a table has become more standard practice, if not the use of knives and forks.[180]

Table manners

Coffee is often served "with great ceremony", and it is customary to drink two or three cups to indicate your approval of the coffee. Cups are refilled unless a gesture—shaking your cup—is made to indicate you've had enough.[181] It is considered good manners for a guest to eat heartily, and burping appreciatively "verges on being considered good form".[180]

News media

Educated Saudis are well informed of issues of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the world at large, but freedom of the press and public expression of opinion are not recognized by the government.[3] The "Basic Law" of the kingdom states that the media's role is to educate and inspire national unity, and are prohibited from acts that lead "to disorder and division".[182] News stories, public speeches and other acts of personal expression cannot conflict with traditional Islamic values, or dissent from government policy, insult government officials, especially the royal family, and cannot delve too deeply into certain sensitive and taboo subject matters that might embarrass the government or spread dissent, i.e. the role of women in Saudi society, the treatment of Shiite Muslims, damage caused by natural disasters, or social problems such as the AIDS-HIV pandemic and human trafficking.[3]

Most Saudi Arabian newspapers are privately owned but subsidized and regulated by the government.[183] As of 2013, BBC news reported that criticism of the government and royal family and the questioning of Islamic tenets "are not generally tolerated. Self-censorship is pervasive." [184] As of 2014, Freedom House[185] rates the kingdom's press and internet "Not Free".

Civil society

Labor unions and political parties are prohibited in the kingdom, although a few underground political parties do exist. The government has created a national "Consultative Council" (which is appointed not elected, and does not pass laws), and has given permission for certain "societies" to exist (though they have little ability to influence government policy).[186] Informal public discussion of public policy is not actively encouraged, although it is not expressly illegal per se, unless it is deemed to be promoting immorality, dissent or disloyalty. Limited non-partisan municipal elections were held in 2005.


Association football (soccer) is the national sport in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, some Saudi players have become skilled enough to play in Europe. The Saudi Arabian national football team is governed by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SFF). The national team competed in the FIFA World Cup four times, and the AFC Asian Cup 12 times.

Basketball is also popular. The Saudi Arabian national basketball team won the bronze medal at the 1999 Asian Championship.

While spectator sport is popular, participant sport is less so, possibly because of the heat of the climate for most of the year, and the difficulty of playing football and other sports in traditional clothing. "Injuries are commonplace amongst those who trip over the hems of their thobes while attempting to knock a ball around."[187]

Camel racing is a uniquely Arabian sport practiced in the kingdom (and the UAE) that still has some mass popularity. There are camel racetracks in most of the kingdom's major centres, and races for prize money on many weekends throughout the winter months. Like racehorses, camels with breeding pedigrees may be very valuable.[188]

Women's sport

In 2012 Saudi Arabia included women in its Olympic team for the first time. Two female athletes—a runner and judoka—participated. The inclusion followed international criticism for years of exclusion,[189] but was controversial in the kingdom, and "prompted some to abuse the morals" of the athletes on social media.[190]

As of April 2014, Saudi authorities in the education ministry have been asked by the Shoura Council to consider lifting a state school ban on sports for girls with the proviso that any sports conform to Sharia rules on dress and gender segregation, according to the official SPA news agency.[48]

Arts and entertainment

Visual arts tend to be dominated by geometric, floral, and abstract designs and by calligraphy. Sunni Islam traditionally prohibits creating representations of people, and from the 18th century onward, Wahhabi fundamentalism discouraged artistic development inconsistent with its teaching. With the advent of oil wealth in the 20th century came exposure to outside influences, such as Western housing styles, furnishings, and clothes.[191]

The ten-day-long Jenadriyah National Festival celebrates the founding of the kingdom and showcases Saudi culture and heritage, traditional crafts such as pottery and woodcutting, folk dance and traditional songs.[192]

Music and dance

Music and dance have always been part of Saudi life. Bedouin poetry, known as nabaṭī, is still very popular.[3] Traditional music is generally associated with poetry and is sung collectively. Instruments include the rabābah, an instrument not unlike a three-string fiddle, and various types of percussion instruments, such as the ṭabl (drum) and the ṭār (tambourine). Al-sihba folk music has its origins in al-Andalus. In Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, dance and song incorporate the sound of the mizmar, an oboe-like woodwind instrument, in the performance of the mizmar dance. The drum is also an important instrument according to traditional and tribal customs. Samri is a popular traditional form of music and dance in which poetry is sung. Of the native dances, the most popular is a martial line dance known as the Al Ardha, which includes lines of men, frequently armed with swords or rifles, dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines. As one non-Saudi described it, the performance consists of : "barefooted males clad in their normal street clothes of thobe and gutra jumping up and down mostly in one spot while wielding swords".[193]


Bedouin poetry is a cultural tradition in Saudi Arabia. According to Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, "the role that formal poetry, prose, and oratory play in Saudi culture is totally alien to Western culture."[194] Mackey explained that the Bedouin poet was the origin of Saudi society's traditionally strong attachment to the concept of language.[194] She said that poetry "can arise in the most curious of situations" due to the role of poetry in Saudi culture.[194]

Some Saudi novelists have had their books published in Aden, Yemen, because of censorship in Saudi Arabia. Despite signs of increasing openness, Saudi novelists and artists in film, theatre, and the visual arts used to face greater restrictions on their freedom of expression than in the West, things are starting to change nowadays and a lot of contemporary novelists and artists are being well known in Saudi Arabia and internationally.

Contemporary Saudi novelists and artists include:


During the 1970s, cinemas were numerous in the kingdom although they were seen as contrary to tribal norms.[196] All cinemas and theaters were closed in 1980 as a political response to the Islamic revival and the increase in Islamist activism, most particularly the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As of 2018, cinemas opened in multiple cities including Riyadh and Jeddah.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 should bring cinemas back to the country in early 2018.[197]

See also


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  2. ^ "Weekend shift: A welcome change",, 24 June 2013 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-10-29. Retrieved 2014-10-28.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Encyclopædia Britannica Online: Saudi Arabia". Retrieved 28 April 2011.
  4. ^ a b Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. p. 267. "... for decades the sheikhs successfully resisted attempts to add September 23 to the short list of official holidays. But with the accession of [King] Abdullah, the battlefield changed. If the king wanted a holiday, the king could grant it, and whatever the clerics might mutter, the people approved. Since 2006 the night of September 23 has become an occasion for national mayhem in Saudi Arabia, the streets blocked with green-flag-waving cars, many of them sprayed with green foam for the night.
  5. ^ Govender, Veloshnee, and Loveday Penn-Kekana. "Gender biases and discrimination: a review of health care interpersonal interactions." Global public health 3.S1 (2008): 90-103
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  7. ^ Tripp, Culture Shock, 2003: p.14
  8. ^ The Daily Star| Lamine Chikhi| 27.11.2010.
  9. ^ 'The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya', US Congressional Research Service Report, 2008, by Christopher M. Blanchard available from the Federation of American Scientists website
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  12. ^ the time varying according to sunrise and sunset times
  13. ^ Tripp, Culture Shock, 2009: p.214
  14. ^ Sulaiman, Tosin. Bahrain changes the weekend in efficiency drive, The Times, 2 August 2006. Retrieved 25 June 2008. Turkey has a weekend on Saturday and Sunday
  15. ^ Prior to 29 June 2013, the weekend was Thursday-Friday, but was shifted to better serve the Saudi economy and its international commitments. (source: "Weekend shift: A welcome change",, 24 June 2013 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-10-29. Retrieved 2014-10-28. )
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  90. ^ Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. p. 93. To an outsider, the ability to hold manifestly inconsistent views to cover the picture of a woman but ogle real women sunbathing .... may seem like outright hypocrisy. But Saudi's thinking patterns revolve around a series of rituals, obsessions, and categories that are self-contained. On the one hand devoutly religious and strictly so; on the other, prone to folk beliefs akin to magic and superstition, including which foot to step first into the bathroom with, or urinating on the wheel of a new car to ward off the evil eye. Their behavior does not reach the self-conscious level of hypocrisy, of believing one thing and doing another, for it is a set of dissonant beliefs that they do not even recognize coexist at the same time.
  91. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 132. [conservative Prince Abdul Aziz bin Sattam] recounts how a cousin a few days older than he encouraged Prince Abdul Aziz to enter the room first. Abdul Aziz's father, witnessing this break with tradition, quickly corrected the younger men. `I am only fifteen days older than my brother Ahmed, and I enter in front of him,` Prince Sattam told his son. In other words stick with tradition. Abdul Aziz says his father Prince Sattam, governor of Riyadh since 2011, kissed the hand of his older half-brother, Prince Salman, who preceded him in that post, each times the two met during the 40 years Prince Sattam served as Prince Salman's deputy governor. Similarly, at formal occasions, Prince Sattam understand that his nephew, Prince Saud al Faisal, the kingdom's foreign minister, sits above him because Saud is older. Tradition means predictability, and predictability means that everyone royal or otherwise knows his or her place in society.
  92. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 63. "Something as simple as a wife accompanying her husband on a brief trip abroad is laden with rules and norms that trap her into largely self-induced inaction. A young Saudi mother, ... describes with dismay how tradition prevented her mother from accompanying her father on a short trip ... If a Saudi woman is traveling, Ranan explains, she is expected to visit senior relatives and even close neighbors to bid them goodbye. Upon her return, she is obliged to make another round of visits to the same individuals to pay her respects and dispense small gifts. To simply pack her bag and fly off for a few days with her husband would break society's conventions and thus disrupt social harmony, exposing her to negative gossip and bringing shame upon her family. So confronted with that heavy load of tradition, the wife simply stayed home. (p.63).
  93. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 64. [the daughter, Rana, however, was much to up to date for that] she recounts flying to neighboring Dubai with her two children for a four-day holiday after `only` two weeks of planning with her extended family. `It was as satisfying as if I had gone to the moon, to travel with so little planning,` she ways, explaining that normally Saudis require four to six months to check their plans with extended family before finalizing them.
  94. ^ Tripp, Culture Shock, 2009: p.196
  95. ^ Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. p. xiii. Jeddah ... at first glance, nothing more inspiring than a bland Chicago suburb: so Westernized and modern with its flashing neon lights, it massive shopping malls.
  96. ^ Tripp, Harvey; North, Peter (2009). CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Saudi Arabia (3rd ed.). Marshall Cavendish. p. 78. On the surface, the culture of Western consumerism seems alive and well in Saudi Arabia as in most places. People strive to build enormous houses for themselves and their extended families. Young Saudi men drive souped-up cars, patronise fast food outlets and wear designer jeans. Shopping malls offer a global selection of merchandise and trade long into the night. But at a deeper level, Saudi Arabia and the West are poles apart ...
  97. ^ House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 69. Most Saudis only two generations ago eked out a subsistence living in rural provinces, but ... urbanization over the past 40 years [so now] .... fully 80% of Saudis now live in one of the country's three major urban centers -- Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.
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  145. ^ Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. pp. 94–95. ...Saudi teenagers ... are increasingly not being handed down core Islamic values to begin with during their formative years by their appointed role models.
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1.Long, David E. (2005). Culture and Customs of Saudi Arabia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313320217.

2.Otto, Jan Michiel (2010). Sharia Incorporated: A Comparative Overview of the Legal Systems of Twelve Muslim Countries in Past and Present. ISBN 978-90-8728-057-4.

3.Tripp, Harvey; North, Peter (2003). Culture Shock, Saudi Arabia. A Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Singapore; Portland, Oregon: Times Media Private Limited.

4.Tripp, Harvey; North, Peter (2009). CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Saudi Arabia (3rd ed.). Marshall Cavendish.

5.Tripp, Harvey; North, Peter (2012). CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Saudi Arabia (4th ed.). Marshall Cavendish.

External links

  • International Religious Freedom Report 2010
  • Consular Information Sheet
  • Saudi Arabia a cultural profile
  • Fashion show women's heritage Arabia
  • Saudi Women Shatter the Lingerie Ceiling
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