The Middle Eastern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies four fifths of the Arabian Peninsula and is named after the ruling Al Saud family. The country is a major repository for oil with more than a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves being located there. The official language is Arabic but English is widely spoken. A visit on a Middle East cruise is a great way to see highlights of the region and get taste of the culture!
The holy cities of Mecca and Medina are the destination for millions of Muslims each year who are making Haji or Umrah pilgrimages. All Muslims who are physically and financially able are obliged according to Islam to make the Haji once in a lifetime. Umrah is a smaller pilgrimage which is considered important, but less essential. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina are off limits to non Muslims.
Early settlement of the Arabian Peninsula was limited by the harsh desert conditions. Scattered tribes gathered around oases and coastal dwelling people were able to take advantage of being favorably positioned for trade. In around 1000 BC the Arab people saddled camels and hence were able to use their strength and stamina to carry large loads for long distances. This extended the reach of trade and gave rise to cities which provided refreshment for traveling trains of camels and traders. One of these cities was Mecca which, on account of it’s shrines, was visited by people from all over the peninsula.
Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570. He united the nomadic tribes as one Islamic people who occupied the majority of the area which was to become Saudi Arabia. After Muhammad’s death in 632 the spread of Muslim territories shifted focus away from Arabia itself and reinstated it within the newly conquered lands. Despite the political centre of Islam shifting away from Arabia the cities of Medina and Mecca still retained their importance as holy centers of Islam with the Kaabaa located in Mecca and the tomb of Muhammad in Medina.
After the major Muslim conquests the previous tribal state of Saudi Arabia reemerged. The exception to this state of affairs was that from the tenth century through into the twentieth century Mecca and Medina were under the control of the Sharifs of Mecca who in turn answered to one of the main Islamic empires.
Saudi Arabia is an inherently Islamic culture founded on the Quran. Saudis adhere to the Muslim principles of modesty in dress which is also known as hijab. (The word hijab can also be used to refer to a woman’s headscarf.)
Saudi men usually wear a traditional dress or thobe and headdress. Saudi women wear a long black robe called an abayah, a scarf to cover her head and hair and a full face veil.
The level of attentiveness to detail in terms of hijab is not required to be as high when it comes to tourists but it is still important to respect the conservative values of this devout country by dressing appropriately.
Men on a Middle East cruise visiting the area should wear trousers rather than shorts and cover their torso and arms. For women the requirements are to keep hem lines well below the knee and sleeves below the elbow. Ladies should not reveal neckline and should choose loose garments which do not show physical form. Wearing an abayah is a good way for women to ensure a respectful form of dress. This garment can also be worn over the top of your own choice of clothes and removed easily when in private. Some areas of the country are more strict than others, for example the capital, Riyadh, is know for being very strict on correct forms of dress and the Red Sea resorts are know for being more relaxed.
The soles of the feet should not be shown by either gender. Men should avoid wearing jewelry and both genders should not wear symbols of religions other than Islam openly. Bibles are forbidden in the country.
Saudi Arabian cities have an abundance of restaurants serving world class dishes as well as a multitude of familiar fast food chains. Traditional Arabic staples include khobz; a flat bread which is eaten at most meals and used to scoop up other dishes. It is important to remember to use your right hand for eating when not using a knife and fork.
Saudi Arabia has the largest consumption per capita of chickens in the world. Lamb is also popular but seen more as a dish for special occasions or to be served to guests. Kabsa is regarded as a national dish; a mix of spices, rice, meat and vegetables. Camel and goat meat are also widely available and seafood flourishes along the coast.
Pork is forbidden as is the consumption of alcohol but non alcoholic wines and champagnes are sold in some hotels. Arabic tea is consumed black and comes in a variety of different herbal flavorings.
Gender segregation is common in Saudi Arabia since unrelated males and females are not supposed to mingle with one another. Restaurants have separate seating areas for men and women although some establishments are less rigorous about this than others.
Muslim men are called to prayer five times a day and during these half hour intervals most public services will be on hiatus. During the month of Ramadan visitors should not eat in public during the day and need to be aware that finding a restaurant which is serving food at meal times will not be easy.
Saudi Arabia is situated in the center of the Arabian Peninsula and is bounded by the Red Sea to the west and the Persian Gulf to the East. The neighboring countries are Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the north-east, Qatar, the island state of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, to the south-east lies Oman and to the south-west is Yemen.
The majority of Saudi Arabia is desert. The country has no rivers and all lakes and pools are artificial. Agricultural oases depend upon aquifers to irrigate crops. The Rub Al-Khali in the south of the country is the largest desert in the world and the mountain ranges of Asir Province rise to twelve thousand feet.
Saudi Arabia is divided into four main regions; the central Najd where the capital Riyadh is located, the Hejaz which stretches along the Red Sea and contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Asir which borders Yemen to the south and the Eastern Province which stretches along the Persian Gulf. The large oasis of Al-Hasa is located in the Eastern province.
In the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire began rapidly expanding and claimed Hejaz as well as other landmark territories in the Islamic world. Despite their presence in the country the interior was still ruled by the small tribes as it had been for centuries previously.
In the eighteenth century a tribal leader named Muhammad ibn Saud joined forces with a religious leader named Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab who developed the Wahhabism form of Islam still dominant in Saudi Arabia today. Over the next one hundred and fifty years Al Saud would wrestle various forces for dominance in Saudi Arabia. In 1891 the Al Saud were driven into exile in Kuwait by the Al Rashid family.
In 1902 the late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud retook Riyadh and began reclaiming other areas until in 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was declared as a unified entity.
Prior to this unification the Ottoman Empire still retained suzerainty over the peninsula. In 1916 Britain encouraged a pan-Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire. This was pivotal in the Ottoman defeat in the 1918 World War. After the Arab Revolt Britain and France backed out of their agreement to support a pan-Arab state. The discovery of oil reserves in 1934 began the process of transforming Saudi Arabia into a wealthy nation. King Abdul died in 1953 and was succeeded by his son Saud. In 2005 Crown Prince Abdullah assumed the throne. He had played a pivotal role in government from the late nineties when his predecessor King Fahd suffered a stroke.
These days the traditional Bedouin way of life has become less common because many desert dwelling farmers and nomadic peoples have moved to cities in pursuit of better lives. Despite the fact that this way of life is no longer common it has contributed significantly to the national identity.
Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia and the Al Saud dynasty rule without opposition, parliament is not elected and any opposition is organized abroad. The King of Saudi Arabia is both the head of state and the head of government. This structure has been the subject of debate over the years. It has been suggested that the lack of opposition has created an ideal environment for extremism to flourish.
Municipal elections take place on an infrequent basis and as yet have not included votes for women or the opportunity for women to stand as candidates. King Abdullah has announced that this will change in the next round of municipal elections.
The status of women in the strict Saudi culture has drawn worldwide attention. The first co-ed university, King Abdullah University of Science and technology, was founded in 2009. This institution caused controversy due to the fact that not only is the student population mixed but women are allowed to forgo the abayah and wear western clothes, walk around by themselves and drive while on the campus.
The rolling plateau of the Arabian Peninsula has very low levels of rainfall which results in a dry and hot climate. Rainfall is greater in higher regions such as the mountains and this makes for cooler temperatures. Lower temperatures also prevail in the coastal regions. Snow is rare in Saudi Arabia but can fall in the northern areas and mountains of the country during winter.
From May to October the average daily temperature is above 45C and beyond. Cooler temperatures prevail between November and February. Temperatures do not rise as high on the coast as they do in the interior but the humidity is more pronounced, often in the high eighties and sometimes reaching one hundred percent.
Six to eight hours of daylight can be expected in winter and twelve to thirteen in summer. Adequate precautions against the heat and sunlight should be taken and temperatures can drop sharply at night.
Saudi Arabia has over 33, 000 square miles of land which is protected by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. A wide variety of exotic animals can be seen in these areas including baboons, Arabian wolves, sand cats, caracals, ibex, leopards, gazelles, wild camels and reptiles.
Of the many wildlife parks the Asir National Park is perhaps the most famous as it has seashore, mountain and desert within its boundaries. Since Saudi Arabia is located on migratory pathways there can be millions of birds in the country during the migrations.
Examples of desert adapted flora and fauna are cacti and acacias while date and palm trees flourish in the more water rich oases. Off the coastal areas of Saudi Arabia marine life such as sea turtles and coral reefs can be experienced through diving. Fossils are in abundance in Saudi Arabia and many sites are open to curious foragers.