Culture of Saudi Arabia

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Saudis welcome their guests by serving traditional Arabic coffee

The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Islam, and features many elements from historical ritual and folk culture such as dance and music. Traditional values and cultural mores are adapted into legal prohibitions, even for non-Muslims who are forbidden by law from publicly practicing their faith inside the kingdom, although they are free to do so in the privacy of their own homes. For example, Christmas decorations are sold in supermarkets, but you will not find Christmas parties advertised. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited as are pork products.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocratic monarchy in which Islam is the official religion; the law requires that all Saudi citizens be Muslims. Religious freedom is non-existent. The Government does not provide legal recognition or protection for freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice. Moreover, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited.[1] The Saudi Mutaween (Arabic: مطوعين), or Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (i.e., the religious police), enforces the prohibition on the public practice of non-Muslim religions.

For this reason, Saudi culture lacks the diversity of religious expression, buildings, annual festivals and public events that is seen in countries where religious freedom is permitted.[2]

News media[edit]

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. 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.

Civil society[edit]

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. The government has created a national Consultative Council, and given permission for certain "societies" to exist; and limited non-partisan municipal elections were held in 2005. Yet, the Consultative Council is an appointed body with limited powers, and the legal societies have little ability to influence government policy. Labor unions are prohibited, as are political parties, although a few underground political parties do exist.[3]

Music and dance[edit]

One of Saudi Arabia's most compelling folk rituals is the Al Ardha, the country's national dance. This sword dance is based on ancient Bedouin traditions: drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder. 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.


The religion and customs of Saudi Arabia dictate not only conservative dress, but uniform dress for both men and women. All women are required to wear an black abaya in public which is a long black cloak that covers all but the hands and face. Saudi women also normally wear a full face veil. Foreign women are not required to wear an abaya but must cover their hair.

Saudi men, whatever their job or social status, wear the traditional dress called a thobe. 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. Some men may choose not to wear the igal. The gutra is usually made of cotton and traditionally Saudis wear either a white one or a red and white checked one. The gutra is worn folded into a triangle and centred on the head.


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:

Bedouin poetry is a cultural tradition in Saudi Arabia. Sandra Mackey, author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, said "the role that formal poetry, prose, and oratory play in Saudi culture is totally alien to Western culture."[4] Mackey explained that the Bedouin poet was the origin of Saudi society's traditionally strong attachment to the concept of language.[4] She said that poetry "can arise in the most curious of situations" due to the role of poetry in Saudi culture.[4]


Main article: Sport in Saudi Arabia

Soccer is the national sport in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, some Saudi players currently 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. Some sports are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. That includes sports that involve killing.

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

In 2012 Saudi Arabia included women in its Olympic team for the first time. Two female athletes -- a runner and judoka -- participated. The inclusion was controversial in the kingdom, winning support from many of its citizens but also "prompted some to abuse the morals" of the athletes on social media.[5] As of April 2014, Saudi authorities in the 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.</ref name=McDowall>

Entertainment and art[edit]

During the 1970s, cinemas were numerous in the Kingdom although they were seen as contrary to tribal norms.[6] During the Islamic revival movement in the 1980s, and as a political response to an increase in Islamist activism including the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the government closed all cinemas and theaters. However, with King Abdullah's reforms from 2005, some cinemas have re-opened.[7]

From the 18th century onward, Wahhabi fundamentalism discouraged artistic development inconsistent with its teaching. In addition, Sunni Islamic prohibition of creating representations of people have limited the visual arts, which tend to be dominated by geometric, floral, and abstract designs and by calligraphy. With the advent of oil-wealth in the 20th century came exposure to outside influences, such as Western housing styles, furnishings, and clothes. Music and dance have always been part of Saudi life. 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). Of the native dances, the most popular is a martial line dance known as the ʿarḍah, which includes lines of men, frequently armed with swords or rifles, dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines. Bedouin poetry, known as nabaṭī, is still very popular.[8]


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. Islamic dietary laws are enforced: pork is not consumed and other animals are slaughtered in accordance with halal. A dish consisting of a stuffed lamb, known as khūzī, is the traditional national dish. Kebabs are popular, as is shāwarmā (shawarma), a marinated grilled meat dish of lamb, mutton, or chicken. 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 Turkish style, is the traditional beverage.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ International Religious Freedom Report 2007: Saudi Arabia, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor ., September 14, 2007, retrieved 2008-04-29 
  2. ^ Saudi Arabia: International Religious Freedom Report 2008
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Mackey, p. 180.
  5. ^ McDowall, Angus. "Saudi authorities asked to allow school sport for girls: agency". Reuters. Retrieved 22 October 2014. 
  6. ^ World Focus 5 January 2009
  7. ^ "Babylon & Beyond". Los Angeles Times. 23 December 2008. 
  8. ^ a b "Encyclopaedia Britannica Online: Saudi Arabia". Retrieved 28 April 2011. 

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