The culture of Saudi Arabia is a rich one that has been shaped by its Islamic heritage, its historical role as an ancient trade center, and its Bedouin traditions.
Saudi society has experienced tremendous development over the past several decades. The Saudi people have taken their values and traditions - their customs, hospitality and even their style of dress - and adapted them to the modern world.
The Crossroads of the WorldLocated at the center of important ancient trade routes, the Arabian people were enriched by many different civilizations. As early as 3,000 BC, Arabian merchants were part of a far-reaching trade network that extended to south Asia, the Mediterranean and Egypt. They served as a vital link between India and the Far East on one side, and Byzantium and the Mediterranean lands on the other.
The introduction of Islam in the 7th century AD further defined the region’s culture. Within a century of its birth in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam had spread west to the Atlantic Ocean and east to India and China. It fostered a dynamic period of great learning in culture, science, philosophy and the arts known as the Islamic “Golden Age.”
And every year for the past 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims from around the world travel to holy sites in Makkah and Madinah, further enriching the region’s culture. The pilgrims brought ivory from Africa and carpets from the East, and took local goods back to their homelands.
When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932, the Founder King Abdulaziz dedicated himself to preserving Arab traditions and culture, and his sons and successors have done the same.
Arab and Islamic TraditionsSaudi traditions are rooted in Islamic teachings and Arab customs, which Saudis learn about at an early age from their families and in schools.
The highlights of the year are the holy month of Ramadan and the Hajj (pilgrimage) season, and the national holidays that follow them. The holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, culminates with the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday, in which it is customary to buy presents and clothes for children and visit friends and relatives.
The other highlight is the Hajj season, during which millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world come to Makkah. The Hajj season concludes with the Eid Al-Adha holiday, in which it is traditional for families to slaughter a sheep in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
Arab traditions also play an important role in Saudi life. These age-old traditions have evolved over the millennia and are highly regarded. They include generosity and hospitality, which every Saudi family offers to strangers, friends, and family. The simplest expression of hospitality is coffee - its preparation alone is an intricate cultural tradition, and it is often served in small cups along with dates and sweets. Another gesture of hospitality is the burning of incense to welcome guests.
CalligraphyDating back 1,400 years to the first century of Islam, calligraphy is a revered art in Saudi Arabia.
Because its primary subject matter has historically been the Holy Qur’an, calligraphy is considered to be the quintessential Islamic art form.
Saudi museums collect and display rare manuscripts. Other organizations commission works of calligraphy, provide training in the art form, and hold competitions to encourage new generations of young artists.
Today, calligraphy is a dominant theme in metalwork, ceramics, glass textiles, painting and sculpture throughout Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. Inscriptions often adorn the interior walls of mosques, as well as public and private offices and homes.
Folk Music & DanceA living piece of the country’s history, Saudi folk music has been shaped by the nomadic Bedouins and the pilgrims who brought musical influences from around the world.
The music varies from region to region - for example, in the Hijaz, the music of al-sihba combines poetry and songs of Arab Andalusia, while the folk music of Makkah and Madinah reflects these two cities’ influences from throughout the Islamic world.
Dance is also popular among Saudis. The national dance is the men’s sword dance known as the ardha. An ancient tradition with its roots in the country’s central area known as the Najd, the ardha is a combination of singers, dancers carrying swords and a poet or narrator. Men carrying swords stand in two lines or a circle, with a poet singing in their midst, and perform the traditional dance.
PoetryPoetry is especially important to Arab cultural life, and has long been considered one of the highest expressions of literary art.
In the days when the Bedouin were constantly traveling, poetry was primarily an oral tradition. People would gather around a storyteller, who would spin tales of love, bravery, chivalry, war and historic events. This was both entertainment and an oral preservation of history, traditions and social values.
The Holy Qur’an took the Arab love of language and poetry to new levels. It exemplifies the perfect use of the Arabic language, and is considered to be the ultimate literary model.
Poetry remains popular among Saudis today. They gather at cultural events, most notably the Jenadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival, and avidly read the works of established poets that are printed in Saudi Arabia every year. There is also a popular televised poetry competition.
Traditional Dress & Jewelry
Saudis prefer traditional clothes to Western styles of dress, and generally wear modern adaptations of age-old designs. The loose, flowing traditional garments are practical for the Kingdom’s hot, windswept climate, and in keeping with the Islamic ideal of modesty.
MenMen wear an ankle-length shirt of wool or cotton known as a thawb. On their heads, they wear a large square of cotton (ghutra) that is folded diagonally over a skullcap (kufiyyah), and held in place with a cord circlet (igaal). The flowing, full-length outer cloak (bisht), generally made of wool or camel hair, completes the outfit. In the old days, the bisht was also used as a blanket while traveling.
WomenWomen customarily wear a black outer cloak (abaya) over their dress, which may well be modern in style. On their heads, Saudi women traditionally wear a shayla - a black, gauzy scarf that is wrapped around the head and secured with circlets, hats or jewelry. Traditional dress is often richly decorated with coins, sequins or brightly colored fabric appliques.
Some Saudi women wear veils made of sheer material. The practice of wearing a veil is an ancient one that dates back at least two millennia, before the advent of Islam. In a harsh desert environment, a thin veil provides protection from constant exposure to the sun, which can damage the skin and eyes. Today, a veil is also a sign of modesty and virtue.
JewelryJewelry has been an essential part of Arabian dress for thousands of years. More than just personal decoration, jewelry symbolized social and economic status. For the migrant Bedouins, it was also an easily transportable form of wealth and security.
Traditional jewelry was mostly made of silver, although gold was also used. Jewelers used stones such as turquoise, garnets and amber from the Kingdom’s rich mines, and pearls and coral from the coastal areas. Tiny bells, coins and chains were also used for decoration. Designs primarily evolved from Islamic calligraphy and motifs, and featured intricate patterns of geometric shapes, leaves, crescents and flowers.
Today, Saudi women still receive gifts of jewelry from their husbands when they marry or have children. Unlike their ancestors, who received large amounts of bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces as part of their dowry, modern Saudi women wear jewelry in traditional and contemporary designs with diamonds and a variety of precious metals. Solid gold bracelets remain a traditional gift for girls.