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Saudi Arabia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Saudi Arabia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

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Saudi Arabia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

195 pagine
3 ore
Jun 1, 2008


Culture Smart! provides essential information on attitudes, beliefs and behavior in different countries, ensuring that you arrive at your destination aware of basic manners, common courtesies, and sensitive issues. These concise guides tell you what to expect, how to behave, and how to establish a rapport with your hosts. This inside knowledge will enable you to steer clear of embarrassing gaffes and mistakes, feel confident in unfamiliar situations, and develop trust, friendships, and successful business relationships. Culture Smart! offers illuminating insights into the culture and society of a particular country. It will help you to turn your visit-whether on business or for pleasure-into a memorable and enriching experience. Contents include: * customs, values, and traditions * historical, religious, and political background * life at home * leisure, social, and cultural life * eating and drinking * do's, don'ts, and taboos * business practices * communication, spoken and unspoken
Jun 1, 2008

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Saudi Arabia - Culture Smart! - Nicolas Buchele


Map of Saudi Arabia


There is no such thing as society, Margaret Thatcher famously said. There are individual men and women and there are families. As nonsensical as this might have been in the context of Britain, it is true of Saudi Arabia—perhaps with the added proviso, There are tribes.

It would be hard to think of another nation of 22 million so singularly free of the myriad social interconnections Westerners take for granted: neighborliness; public space; debate about the ephemera of pop culture, the pretensions of high culture, and the political issues of the day; and a media representing the full spectrum of opinion.

Yet to the outside world at least, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia presents a uniform appearance: the traditional robes of the men and the black overgarments and veils of the women, at first glance, make the former difficult and the latter sometimes impossible to distinguish from one another; and the official religion pervading every aspect of people’s lives can make it seem as if all Saudis have everything in common.

That is only the greatest of the paradoxes of Saudi Arabia, a country where stark opposites coexist without ever resolving themselves into a synthesis. This people, wrote T. E. Lawrence of the Arabs he lived among, was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing; black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice.

Divided by region, creed, and background but united in Islam, insular yet forever traveling abroad, and living with a foreign contingent that makes up nearly one-fifth of the population: the list goes on. So what do Saudis have in common beyond their national dress? Perhaps the key characteristic is that Saudis are intensely private people. Getting to know them can be a challenge—their reticence is often masked by loud voices and what can seem an arrogant attitude—but it is a challenge worth taking up. Those who make the effort will encounter charismatic people capable of enormous charm, with great storytelling verve, and a sharp sense of humor that thrives on exaggeration. They will also encounter enormously gracious hosts.

In his own home or company, every Saudi is king. Many Saudi men have a regal demeanor, reflecting the unchallenged supremacy they enjoy within their own realm. Perhaps that is why they need to claim as much separate space as possible.

Saudi Arabia is a young nation. People under twenty-five make up as much as two-thirds of the population, and Riyadh will be the peninsula’s first megacity by about 2020. For anyone interested in how a society in transition adjusts, by trial and frequent error, to new realities, it is a fascinating place to visit.

Key Facts

chapter one



Saudi Arabia is a desert country about one-fifth the size of the United States, covering some 864,869 square miles (2,240,000 sq. km) of overwhelmingly arid land. And while the landscape can look much the same across the kingdom, the features that stand out do so spectacularly.

Only about 37 miles (60 km) south of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, an escarpment suddenly rises sheer some 1,640 feet (500 m) out of the flat land, and from there the mountains, including the 10,827-foot (3,300-m) Jabal Sawda, stretch ruggedly all the way into Yemen in the south.

The central rocky plateau of the Najd with the capital Riyadh is traversed by a number of wadis, or dry river beds, and isolated by three great deserts from north, east, and south. In the north, the An Nafud covers about 21,236 square miles (55,000 sq. km) at an elevation of some 3,280 feet (1,000 m), mostly with longitudinal dunes scores of miles long, as much as 295 feet (90 m) high and separated by valleys as much as 10 miles (16 km) wide, given a reddish tinge at sundown by the iron ore in the sand. To the east runs the Ad Dahna, a narrow band of sand mountains also known as the River of Sand.

To the south of the Najd lies the mother of all deserts, the Rub al-Khali or Empty Quarter, which covers more than 212,356 square miles (550,000 sq. km) of wandering dunes at higher elevations and sandy flatlands and salt flats lower down. In its far southeast are the fabled quicksands said to have swallowed whole caravans. Most of it is totally without water and uninhabited—hence the name—except for a handful of wandering Bedouin and a minimal number of plant and animal species.

To the east of the Ad Dahna lies al-Hasa, the country’s largest oasis, which in fact consists of two neighboring oases including the town of al-Hofuf. It is on these fertile islands in the desert that the best of the kingdom’s dates are grown.

Saudi Arabia is bordered by Yemen and Oman in the south, the Red Sea in the west, Jordan and Iraq in the north, and Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the east. Across a causeway in the Gulf lies the island kingdom of Bahrain, which offers many Saudis a little weekend respite from the restrictions of their own country.


Most of the country has a desert climate, which means extreme dry heat during the day and abrupt temperature drops at night. In the Najd, temperatures rise commonly to 113°F (45°C) and can go as high as 129.2°F (54°C). This contrasts with the coastal areas of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, where the temperature only rises above 100.4°F (38°C) in the summer but humidity is usually more than 85 percent and often 100 percent. The winter is brief, seeing a few drops of rain on the coast and even some rare snowfalls in the interior. Asir in the deep south experiences Indian Ocean monsoons, usually between October and March.

Overall, rainfall is low and erratic: it may consist of one or two torrential downpours for the entire year that flood the wadis and then rapidly disappear into the soil. While average rainfall is 3.937 inches (100 mm) per year, whole regions may not see any rain at all for several years. For much of the country, water comes from huge desalination plants on the coast or from deep wells in the interior that are forever in danger of drying up.


Due to the nature of the terrain and the erratic ways of government, all population figures are rough estimates, in some areas arrived at simply by over-flying the territory. According to the latest estimates (2007), there were some 27.6 million people living in the kingdom, of whom about 5.6 million, or nearly one-fifth, were foreigners. One million each are estimated to come from India and Egypt, and they also include people as diverse as Filipinos, Americans, Sri Lankans, and Somalis. This leads to the paradoxical situation in which one of the world’s most closed societies has one of the world’s highest percentages of aliens living in its midst—the percentage is probably higher than the official figures since many of the foreigners there are no longer (or never were) legal residents.

Saudis themselves may at first glance seem an extraordinarily uniform people: the white thobe or ankle-length robe worn by men, topped by a checkered keffiyeh or ghutra, and the all-over black of the women’s abaya and hijab make the men difficult and the women sometimes impossible to distinguish. Yet in reality they are very diverse. Essentially, the kingdom consists of four distinct regions and populations. Each region has some nomadic and seminomadic elements: as recently as 1950, at least half the population were nomads. Tribal identities remain hugely important.

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