Understand Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is one of two countries named for their royal families, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The family were sheikhs of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, but were driven out by a neighbouring dynasty, hiding with their relatives, the emirs of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and a few dozen lads rode out to raid their home territory. As it turned out, the invaders had been ruling badly, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured Riyadh, but much of the surrounding territory.
After that, Abdul Aziz set out on a 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.
In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its sand for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.
Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves of petroleum in the world (26% of the proven reserves), ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 25% of GDP comes from the private sector.
Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy – for example, in the oil and service sectors.
The government in 1999 announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies, which follows the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. The government is expected to continue calling for private sector growth to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil and increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. Shortages of water and rapid population growth will constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.
Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. While part of this can be explained by Saudi reluctance to take many types of work, it is also true that Saudi citizens are forced to compete with multitudes of imported labor, which is often much cheaper than that of the locals.
Saudi Arabia covers approximately four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping eastwards till reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.
The main topographical features are as follows:
The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range runs parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As one moves further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as ‘Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Makkah, and approximately 400 km north of Makkah in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Madinah.
West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country’s second largest city, Jidda, is located.
East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow platau running 800 kms from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criscrossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.
Further east from the Tuwaig plataeu and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100 km) corridor of red sand dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the “Central Region” or “Najd” from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large “seas” of sand dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior, and the southern is known as “the Empty Quarter,” so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three “seas of sand” make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin almost never attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.
North of the Nufud desert lies a vaste desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins with the exception of a few oasis such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.
The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.
lowest point: Persian Gulf 0 m (0 ft)
highest point: Jabal Sawda’ 3,133 m (10,279 ft)
petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, copper
arable land: 1.72%
permanent crops: 0.06%
other: 98.22% (1998 est.)
People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an expanse of scorchingly hot desert punctuated with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country, they would be absolutely right. From May to September, the country (basically everything except the southwestern mountains) bakes in temperatures that average 42°C and regularly exceed 50°C in the shade. In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country and work slows down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38°C — but at the price of extreme humidity (85-100%), which many find even more uncomfortable than the dry heat of the interior, especially at night. Only the elevated mountainous regions stay cool(er), with the summer resort city of Taif rarely topping 35°C and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet.
In winter, though, it’s a surprisingly different story. Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 21°C, and temperatures can easily fall below zero at night, occasionally even resulting in a sprinkling of snow in the southern mountains. The winter can also bring rains to all or most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two torrential outbursts. The end of spring (April and May) is also a rainy season for much of the country. In the south, though, this pattern is reversed, with most rain falling during the Indian Ocean’s monsoon season between May and October.
Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law specifically requires Saudi citizens or passport holders to be Muslim, public observance and proselytism of religions other than Islam are forbidden. There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia of any kind. However, some Fillipino workers report the presence of churches inside some gated communities. The small number of Saudi Arabian Christians meet in Internet chat rooms, and foreign Christians may meet at church meetings held at one of several embassies after registering and showing their passport, to prove foreign nationality, or by private assemblies in school gyms located in gated communities on Aramco grounds. They can also hold services in each others houses.
Everything in Saudi is regulated by the five daily prayers. All shops and offices close during each prayer for a period of at least 20-30 minutes, and the religious police patrol the streets and pack loiterers off to the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports do stay open (but with all shops inside the shopping malls closed) and taxis and other public transport continue to run normally.
The first prayer is fajr, early in the morning before the first glint of light at dawn, and the call to prayer for fajr will be your wake-up call in the Kingdom. After fajr, some people eat breakfast and head to work, with shops opening up.
The second prayer is dhuhr, held after true noon in the middle of the day. The Friday noon prayer (jummah) is the most important one of the week, when even less observant Muslims usually make the effort to go to the mosque. After dhuhr, people head for lunch, while many shops choose to stay closed and snooze away the heat of the day.
Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (1:30-2 hours before sunset), with many shops opening again afterward. Maghrib prayers are held at sunset and mark the end of the work day in much of the private sector. The last prayer is isha’a, held around 45 minutes to 1 hour after sunset, after which locals head for dinner. Expats refer to the time between maghrib and isha’a as the “prayer window”, during which you can hit the supermarket and buy your groceries if you time it right.
Prayer times change daily according to the seasons and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the day’s times in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a handy online prayer time service .
2013 CE (1434 AH): 9 July – 7 August
2014 CE (1435 AH): 28 June – 27 July
2015 CE (1436 AH): 18 June – 16 July
The festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Exact dates depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.
The Saudi interpretation of Islam views all non-Muslim holidays as smacking of idolatry, and the public observance of Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, Halloween etc is prohibited. Public holidays are granted only for Eid ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, some 70 days after Ramadan.
There is also one secular holiday: Unification of the Kingdom Day, on September 23rd. Strictly speaking, it’s not a public holiday or a festival, but it’s treated rather like one anyway.
During Ramadan itself, visitors are required to abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during the daylight hours. Some better hotels will be able to quietly supply room service during the day, but otherwise you’ll have to do your preparations. All restaurants in the Kingdom are closed during the day, and while some offices stay open with limited hours, the pace of business slows down to a torpor. After evening prayer, though, all the restaurants in the bazaar open up and do a roaring trade until the small hours of the morning. Most of the shops are open as well, and the cool of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop. A visitor can have a fine time joining in on these evenings, though having a stash in your hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten will suit most visitors better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast.