How did Saudi Arabia get its name?
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world named after a family. The Al-Sauds have traced their origins back to the 1700s, when Saud bin Mohammad ruled as a local sheikh on the central Arabian peninsula. The official name is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Where is Saudi Arabia Located?
Saudi Arabia is located in the Middle East. It is a desert country that encompasses most of Arabian peninsula. It is large, about 830,000 square miles, and is the 13th largest country in the world. It has two coastlines, with a total length of 1640 miles; the Red Sea and the Persian or (Arabian) gulf coastlines.
It has many neighbors: Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the northeast, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, Oman to the southeast and Yemen to the south. It is separated from Israel and Egypt by the Gulf of Aqaba.
Despite most of the land being an uninhabited desert, which includes the world’s largest contiguous sand desert, called the Empty Quarter, it also has hills and mountains in the west and southwest along the Red Sea. The highest peak is Jabal Sawda which rises 9,843 feet above sea level. The country has no natural lakes or rivers.
Riyadh is the capital and home to more than 8 million people, making it the most populous city in the country. It is located in the center of the Arabian peninsula on a large plateau.
A Brief History of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia can trace its roots back to the earliest civilizations of the Arabian peninsula. Over the centuries, it played an important role in trade but it is best known as the birthplace of Islam; the world’s second largest religion after Christianity. Prior to the 7th century, most of Saudi Arabia was inhabited by nomadic tribes. It was Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who was born in Mecca that united many of these tribes. After his death in 632, his Arab followers began to expand the area of Muslim rule well beyond Arabia.
In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire took over, taking control of both coasts along the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It was in the 18th century when the House of Saud began to emerge as a power. Muhammad bin Saud started the dynasty along with Muhammad ibn Adb-dl-Wahhad, a religious leader and the founder of the Wahhabi movement. They stayed in power until the Ottomans regained control in 1818. This alliance, formed in the 18th century, provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion and remains the basis of the dynastic rule today. At this time, another family, the Al Rashid, also came into power. In 1902, Abul-Aziz bin Saud returned from exile in Kuwait and seized Riyadh, ousting the Al Rashid and uniting the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia became an independent nation after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I. Abdul-Aziz bin Saud regained power. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established with Abdul-Aziz as king. He set up Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy and has remained in power with six of his sons in succession, poised to reign over the kingdom. The king of Saudi Arabia is also known as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca; one where the prophet Muhammad was born and Medina, where he was buried.
Saudi Arabia struck oil in 1938 and by 1949 was in full production. This began under the US-controlled Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company.) The discovery of oil reserves made Saudi Arabia one of the richest nations in the world. They are the world’s largest oil producer and exporter of oil, controlling the world’s second largest oil reserves, and the sixth largest gas reserves.
In February 1945, King Abdul Aziz met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. A historic handshake, agreeing to supply the US with oil in exchange for guaranteed protection to the Saudi regime, is still in force to this day. This agreement has survived seven Saudi Kings and twelve US presidents.
In 1960 Saudi Arabia became a founding member of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.) In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against western countries that supported Israel during the October, Yom Kipur War with Egypt and Syria. Oil prices quadrupled. In 1980, Saudi Arabia took full control of Aramco from the US.
In 1994 the Islamic dissident, Osama Bin Laden, was stripped of his Saudi nationality and started the terror group known as Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001 they staged the worst terror attack ever committed on US soil. Planes were purposely flown into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the attack were Saudi nationals.
In 2011, the whole area in the Middle East was dealing with unrest, known as the Arab Spring. In an effort to keep the unrest at bay, King Abdullah announced increased welfare spending and more rights for women, including the right to vote and to run in municipal elections. This made Saudi Arabia the last country in the world to give women the right to vote.
The current leader is King Salman, however, his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is next in line to the throne, is believed to be the driving force behind Saudi reforms. He has recently allowed women the right to get a driver’s license, and has allowed the return of public cinema. However, the world was recently horrified over the killing and dismemberment of a reporter named Jamal Khashoggi, that occurred in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. There has been an international outcry as a result and we are waiting to see what happens next.
The Saudis have also been funding a war in nearby Yemen. Saudi Arabia is supporting the coalition (which is also supported by other nations, including the United States of America,) in fighting the Houthi rebels, which, since 2015, has resulted in a horrific civil war. Yemen remains in the middle of a humanitarian catastrophe, yet it has been dubbed the forgotten war.
Saudi Arabian Culture
Saudi Arabia has a population of about 33 million people. Its primary ethnic group is Arab and the main religion is Sunni Islam. The country’s currency is the Riyal, which is tied to the US dollar. The official language is Arabic.
The rich culture of Saudi Arabia takes its cues from its Islamic heritage. Its historical role is as an ancient trade center and it upholds its Bedouin traditions. The country is run by Sharia law and all of its holidays are based on the Islamic religion.
The highlights of the year are the holy month of Ramadan, a time in which they fast from dusk till dawn and which ends with the Eid-Al-Fitr, a holiday where families and friends exchange gifts. Additionally, the hajj (pilgrimage) season, culminates with Eid-Al-Adha, when families slaughter a sheep in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and then they share the meat with the poor. The hajj is a mandatory, religious duty for all Muslims to visit the holiest city of Mecca. This must be carried out once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage is considered to be one of the five pillars of Islam.
The country is 100% Muslim, except for the foreigners who are brought there for work, which accounts for some 9 million people. There is no freedom of religion. The Islamic teachings and Arab customs are taught in schools at an early age.
As the birthplace of Islam, the Kingdom places a special emphasis on preserving its Islamic archeological heritage. The two most important sites are the Holy Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Minarets are the most visible, man-made, structures in Saudi Arabia. They jut from the skyline of every urban center. The minarets are meant to be a Muslim society’s bond with God. The reason they rise above all other structures is to allow the call to prayer to be heard, which occurs five times per day.
Poetry, folk music and dancing are a living piece of the country’s history, which has been shaped by the nomadic Bedouins for centuries. The national dance is the men’s sword dance, known as the Ardha. Men carrying swords stand in two lines or in a circle, with a poet singing in their midst, while they perform the traditional dance.
Saudis prefer traditional clothes to western styles. The loose flowing, traditional garments are practical for the Kingdom’s hot and windy climate, as well as in keeping with the Islamic ideal of modesty. Men wear a typical white, ankle length shirt called a thawb. On their heads they wear a large square of cotton that is folded over a skull cap and held in place with a cord. Women customarily wear a black outer cloak, called an abaya, over their dress, which very likely is modern. On their heads they wear a black, gauzy scarf that is wrapped around the head and called a shayla. Some women wear veils made of sheer material, which has been a tradition even before the advent of Islam. The thin veil provides protection from constant exposure to the sun. Today, a veil is also a sign of modesty and virtue. Jewelry has also been part of the Arabian dress for thousands of years.
Saudi Arabian Cuisine
Nearly all types of cuisines, including fast foods, are available in this wealthy nation, but the Saudis prefer traditional foods. Also, despite the area only receiving about 4 inches of rain per year, they have managed to become food independent, and have developed a strong agriculture sector, producing all their own dairy and vegetables. They have built very deep wells and desalinization plants to provide for an ample water supply.
As Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, pork and alcohol are forbidden. Animals must be butchered according to Islamic law and blessed before they are eaten. Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of live sheep and ranks as the highest consumer of broiler chickens. Lamb is traditionally served to honored guests and for special occasions. Camel is also consumed, as is its milk, which has long been a staple of the Bedouin diet. The largest camel market in the world, selling a 100 head of camel a day, can be found in the capital city of Riyadh. Yogurt is used in sauces, eaten alone and made into a drink called lassi.
The main ingredients in their diet are fava beans, wheat, rice, yogurt and of course dates. Saudi Arabia has over 18 million date palms that produce 600 million pounds of dates each year. Flat breads, called fatir or kimaje, which are similar to a pita, are used as utensils to scoop up their meal. Thick soups are popular, as are stuffed vegetables, bean salads and tabbouleh, a salad made with bulgur wheat.
Often times, dates, dried fruits and nuts, along with sweet tea, are served as appetizers or snacks and sweet desserts are enjoyed at the end of meal. Coffee, called gawha, is a centuries old tradition and served in tiny coffee cups. It is considered very rude to refuse a cup of coffee and it should always be enjoyed in odd numbers. Coffee houses are gathering spots for many Saudi men.
Spices such as cardamom, saffron, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cloves are all prevalent in Saudi cuisine. They also enjoy eating foods with a serving of a super spicy sauce, called shattah.
So let’s enjoy a Saudi Arabian meal:
We set the scene by placing a rug on the floor, as it is tradition to eat on the floor in a cross-legged position. To decorate, we added palm fronds, dates and a sword, to represent the fight of Abd-al-Aziz. A traditional coffee pot, along with a calligraphy pen was added, as calligraphy is a beloved art form there that dates back some 1400 years, to the first century of Islam. Because its primary subject matter has been the Holy Qur’an, calligraphy is considered to be the quintessential Islamic art form. An Arabian horse figurine was also placed, as they have a long history of breeding horses there.
We began the meal with a hand washing ritual, which is customary. We then said, “Sahtain” which basically means, “Bon appetite” and “Bismillah,” which means, “In the name of God.” Our first course was a scrumptious little cheese bread. It was made with a flat bread and a salty cheese called akkawi. The cheese comes in a brine and is rinsed to remove the salt before serving. It was topped with nigella seeds and baked in a hot oven, similar to a pizza. I also made another version that was topped with a spice mixture called za-atar. We loved them both! We ate the bread with just our right hand, which is the socially acceptable tradition there.
For the main course, we savored the national dish called Al Kabsa. It was reminiscent of other rice dishes I have made previously from the region; such as machboos, from Bahrain or murabyan, from Kuwait. This was a spiced rice, with chicken dish but what made this one special, was the very, spicy sauce called shittah. The sauce was served on the side. To me, it truly elevated the dish and I will make that spicy sauce accompaniment often.
For dessert we had a very popular Arabic cookie, called Ma’amul. It is a bit dry, like a short biscuit, but with a lovely nut and date interior. They were baked in a ma’amul mold, which makes a lovely decoration for the cookie. They were then covered with powdered sugar and rose petals. The cookies went great with a robust, little cup of Arabic coffee.
When we finished our meal, we said “Diamah,” which means “May there always be plenty at your table.” The Saudis are known for their generous hospitality to guests and strangers. If you ever get the opportunity to experience this hospitality, you should definitely take part.
Until next time,