Capital city: Riyadh
Population: 30.0 million (CDSI)
Government: Unitary Islamic absolute monarchy
Currency: Saudi Riyal (SAR)
Main language: Arabic
Main religion: Islam
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies the majority of the Arabian Peninsula. Sharing land borders with Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, it also has extensive coastline on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Much of the landscape is desert, and most of the population either lives in large cities or coastal towns. Since its unification into a single kingdom in 1932, the country has been governed by an absolute monarchy, with the current ruler King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz taking power in 2005.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state and since 1992 the monarchy has been legally obliged to govern the country in accordance with Sharia law. Religious observance is part of everyday life for Saudis, who pray five times a day. Compared to most western countries and some of the more liberal nations of the Middle East, Saudi society can be restrictive, particularly for women who lack many freedoms allowed to their male counterparts. Men and women are also segregated in many situations. However, with a generous tax system making the financial rewards potentially lucrative, an increasing number of people have decided to accept these restrictions and work in Saudi Arabia.
As Saudi Arabia does not have bars or nightclubs, eating out is a great way to socialise and there is a thriving restaurant scene. Shopping is also a popular pastime – the Saudis are said to have perfected the art of the shopping mall, adding entertainment complexes such as ice rinks or sea life centres. Cinema is making something of a comeback after being banned for many years, although tickets remain limited and expensive. The national sport is football, with basketball also a popular spectator sport. The Red Sea coast is a hotspot for watersports, which Saudis and expats alike enjoy along with more traditional pursuits like horse racing, camel racing, falconry and hunting. Remember that access to spectator events may be restricted for women. However, expat community compounds often provide excellent leisure facilities which are accessible to all.
Food and drink
With its origins in the Bedouin nomadic tradition, Saudi Arabia’s cuisine centres on locally-sourced seasonal food. Similar in style to the cuisine of neighbouring Gulf states, the staple meats include chicken and lamb, while local produce like dates, beans, rice and yoghurt also feature heavily. International gastronomy is increasing in popularity, with large hotels usually offering the best choice. In line with Muslim culture, pork is not allowed and other meats must be halal. Alcohol is also illegal in Saudi Arabia. Although the police tend to turn a blind eye to alcohol consumption amongst expats in residential compounds, drinking is still illegal and being caught drunk outside the compound can land you in trouble.
Saudi Arabia’s official language is Arabic. The vast majority of Saudis speak either Hejazi Arabic or Nejdi Arabic, reflecting the pre-unification divisions of the country. Gulf Arabic, which is spoken in nearby countries like Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, is less common in Saudi Arabia. English is taught in schools and is widely used as an international business language.
The desert climate of Saudi Arabia is typically hot and dry with low humidity. However, as with most desert climates in the region, extremes of temperature are possible. Summers in the central regions of the country can often exceed 40°C (≈104°F). During the winter, temperatures can plummet and sometimes reach freezing point at night. Coastal areas are more temperate, with the cities like Jeddah usually remaining between 20°C (≈68°F) and 30°C (≈86°F) all year round. Rainfall is infrequent but can be heavy, and the south-west of the country sometimes experiences monsoons.
Safety and security
With the severe penalties issued under Sharia law, crime rates remain fairly low in Saudi Arabia, although people should be alert to the potential for petty crime. The fluid political situation in the Middle East does mean the country is at an elevated risk of terrorist activity, so visitors are encouraged to be vigilant, particularly in areas near the Yemeni border.
Although the strict regime serves as a deterrent against crime, the contrary side is that foreign nationals can unwittingly find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Alcohol and drugs are banned and drug smuggling carries the death penalty. Adultery and homosexual activity are both prohibited and can be harshly punished. Publicly practicing a religion other than Islam or failing to adhere to conservative dress codes are also illegal. The rights of suspected criminals are limited, so to avoid falling foul of the law, do your homework and try to live within local laws and customs.