Islamic rules and Arab customs in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia boasts of a great cultural heritage and the most sacred mosques. The 33 million Saudi Arabs are composed mainly of various ethnic groups who are native to the Arabian Peninsula and share a common general Saudi culture. According to the 2010 census, Saudi nationals represent 74.1% of the total population. While the official language is Arabic, English is quite widespread due to the presence of a large community of foreigners. 80% of Saudis live in the major urban centers Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

The House of Saud is the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia. It is estimated to comprise 15,000 members, but the majority of the power and wealth is possessed by a group of about 2,000. The King of Saudi Arabia is head of state with almost absolute political power, while his appointed cabinet includes many relatives.

Sunni Muslim, then Arab

Being the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is known as the holy land. Many Muslims from around the world travel here for pilgrimage. Saudis define themselves first by being a Sunni Muslim, living according to the strict Wahhabism doctrine, and then as an Arab. They observe the Islamic law, while many traditions are centuries-old and derive from Arab civilization. Five times each day they are called to prayer from the minarets throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.

The Saudi customs dictate a uniformity of dress: Women wear an abaya in public, a long black cloak that covers all, but the hands and face. A face veil, such as a niqāb, is optional or is required in certain regions only. Underneath the abaya many women wear modest Western style clothes. Saudi Arabic men wear a white thobe or thawb during hot weather, or wool thobes in dark colors during the colder months. At special occasions, men often wear a bisht or mishlah over the thobe, long cloaks trimmed in gold. A Saudi’s headdress consists of a tagia, a small white cap, a gutra, which is a large square of cloth and an igal, a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place. More recently, Western T-shirts and jeans have become quite common leisure wear, particularly in Jeddah.

Islamic rules

Islamic law is strictly enforced in Saudi Arabia, so please be aware that there are many rules to respect. Drinking alcohol as well as eating pork are prohibited and you should under no circumstances try to import any pork products or alcohol when travelling to Saudi Arabia. Don’t even bring mouthwash as it contains alcohol.

During Ramadan there are many more rules to be followed. Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink at all during the day. As a foreigner you are not expected to fast that strictly, but you must not eat or drink in public. In some shopping malls there might be one food court open but it will have blinds that block the view. You also should not speak with a raised voice, listen to loud music or show strong emotions.

However, in Saudi Arabia you will also find Saudis who have lived abroad and are a little more open or are really modern and not very religious at all. Some will do anything that they are not supposed to do. Thus, Islam is everywhere in daily life, but it depends on you how you interpret it individually.

Furthermore, there is a massive difference between public and private life. For example, you can’t buy alcohol anywhere in Saudi Arabia and there are certainly no public places where to go and have a drink. However, many Saudis and foreigners alike produce their own alcohol in their houses. This is not officially encouraged, but quietly tolerated since a home is considered as a private place.

How strict Islamic rules are interpreted, also depends on where you live – Jeddah is not as strict as Riyadh for example – and in an expat compound everything is a lot more easy-going than in a Saudi neighborhood. So always be aware of where you are and once you are leaving one of the grey zones, be careful that you play by the rules again.

No freedom of speech

There is no freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia, so be very careful about what topics you are talking about in public.

Don’t criticize the royal family in any way. It is also not allowed to take any pictures of government buildings or palaces.

You also must not refer to Israel as a country. In the Muslim world, that land is Palestine. Don’t ever mention anything like “These people deserve their own country”.

Equally taboo is to talk about the civil war with Yemen. Iran is also a difficult subject due to the different schools of Islam: Iranians are overwhelmingly Shia while Saudis are Sunni. And there is currently a diplomatic standoff with Qatar.

Some Saudis might try to convert you to Islam by showing you videos on their smartphone and talk about it. While they will respect it, when you say that you are Christian, you still should be very gentle and respectful. Show some interest because it’s so important to them. Don’t discuss Islam or argue why you disagree with Islamic law.

When using the internet, you better should not look at any site that might contain controversial content. Most sites will be already blocked by the government, but to be on the safe side avoid critical news sites, sites about human rights or porn sites. Anything that you think might be controversial to Islamic rules or Saudi politics you should not look at more than once. Social media is open to use, but still be careful about what you post.

Gender rules

In an Islamic country like Saudi Arabia women have to have to look modest and cover themselves in public. The law requires them to seek male permission for various decisions and actions. Polygamy still exists, so there are men who have several wives and lots of children.

But this doesn’t prevent all Saudi women from performing everyday activities, such as studying, working, and going out on their own. Saudi Arabia has changed a lot over recent years and there are increasing numbers of well-educated women who are working in highly regarded professions. Women can also hire a private driver or take a taxi by themselves to travel, if they don’t belong to the younger generation who is now able to take driving lessons and drive on their own.

Nevertheless, the strict Wahhabism doctrine of Islam is known for its gender segregation rules. Men and women in Saudi Arabia live separate public lives.
When you go to a restaurant in a group, for example, there is usually an area for men and one for women to eat. Even if things are different in some places, women still might want to eat separately. Also when queueing, you will have a women‘s line and a men‘s line. In clothing stores, there will be no changing rooms for women though. Since they are not allowed to undress in public, they will have to try on shop bought clothes at home first. If something doesn’t fit, they will return it to the shop.

Women are also not allowed to walk around with a man they are not married to. Thus, as a married couple you should always carry your marriage certificate with you when going out. Cars with a man and a woman on the backseat might be stopped at a checkpoint and asked for their marriage certificate. Once a woman is married, it’s written on her ID card – or in case of foreigners it is written on the resident’s permit – whom she is married to.

So as a woman going to lunch with a male colleague is a risky thing should you get stopped by police. To avoid any mishaps, always go in a group. It’s much better if there are for example two men and two women. If you really need to share a ride with a male colleague, the best thing is to take a taxi. The man should be sitting in the front next to the driver and the woman in the back. This is all about being careful, most times everything will be fine, but depending on the circumstances you might get into a difficult situation.

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