CULTURE OF SAUDI ARABIA
Devoted to traditionalism, Saudi Arabia is a one-of-a-kind place when it comes to cultural identification. Learn about the proper attire, praying rituals and eating customs of the locals
Words: Aleksandra Georgieva
Photography: Mohammed Hassan, Sulthan Auliya
29 November 2020
A country of conservatism and centuries-long traditionalism, Saudi Arabia is irresistible for nomads. Having been inaccessible for nomads for so long, nowadays the Asian country is a travellers' hot spot. Famous for being one of the most religious places on Earth, Saudi has a lot of rules to follow when it comes to tourists visiting.
Each custom is interesting and unique in its own right. The traditions are highly valued and always respected. Religion is very important to the locals and sharing a religious point of view different to Islam is strictly illegal. Locals pray five times a day - during fajr, duhr, asr, maghrib and isha. During prayers time every place from supermarkets to restaurants and coffee shops close down for as long as fifteen to thirty minutes.
Appropriate clothes attire is expected by locals and travellers alike so make sure to brig along loose-fitting clothes that are comfortable and conservative. Although not requested by law anymore, it is a good idea for women to purchase a headscarf and an abaya as alternatively you might be the only woman dressed differently and this in turn will attract some negative attention your way.
Saudi Arabians don't speak English freely. Various Arabic dialects are spoken across different parts of the country. However, the country is aiming to inspire more tourists to visit so at certain popular spots you might occasionally hear English being spoken. We recommend bringing an Arabic phrasebook along with you to make the most of your travels and learn as much as possible about the culture of the country.
There are different rules that men and women need to follow. For instance, men have more freedom, whilst women are required to sit at a different table in restaurant, exercise at gyms dedicated only to women and even and make as little eye contact as possible. However, unlike at some other destinations like Iraqi and Iran, Saudi men are respectful and polite to women. Although until a couple of years ago women were not allowed to vote, drive and even book a stay at hotels without a man's approval, things have started to change and this is no longer the case. Progress is slow but it is noticeable, even in areas like the ban on cinema being lifted after over three decades.
The food in Saudi Arabia is also exceptionally distinctive. It is known as a crossroad of cultures and this is reflected in the cuisine Different dishes have been influenced by travellers who came to the country either by land riding camels or by sea arriving through ships. The food has similarities to the dishes in various different countries as Mecca and Medina have been intriguing travellers for centuries. Expect to taste chicken, rice, yogurt and a lot of herbs and spices. From jareesh (wheat porridge) to laban (yogurt drink) and murtabak (stuffed pancake), the menu goes on and on. After a meal you can enjoy an Arabic coffee or sweet tea - what better way to experience the culture of a country than to taste it!
Of course, here is an etiquette when it comes to eating too. Mostly, traditional meals are consumed whilst sitting on a mat on the ground and shared with family and friends. A central plate is places so that everyone can share the meal. Forget about cutlery - Saudi eat with their hands as food is expected to taste better that way. Use your right hand only to pass and consume food and don't be shy to refill your drink when your cup is empty. Saudi also sit cross legged or with their knees bent as extending one's feet is considered rude.
With centuries old traditions and exceptional culture, Saudi Arabia is one of the most intriguing places in the Arabic world. Since you now know what is acceptable and required by etiquette, explore the country in more depth and get inspired to plan your own visit there.