The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is steeped in history. It’s the birthplace of Islam, with an economy built on oil and foreign investments, thousands of square miles of desert, two coasts, and a seemingly endless stream of controversy. Saudi Arabia is run by the Saudi Monarchy, which are the sons and grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abd Al Aziz Al Saud. The government, laws, and cultural rules are all directly tied to the Qur’an, which is the Muslim holy book. This means that the country is run by Shari’a law, a word which has had negative connotations in the west, due to places like Afghanistan under the Taliban and Somalia. This system of laws and government has also raised the ire of several human rights groups, which appose punishments such as public amputations and floggings. For example, homosexuality is illegal, and can be punishable by hand or leg amputation under certain circumstances.
Understanding this is a key factor in moving to Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone. However, if you feel you can fit in with the culture, or at least respect it, you’ll find that it can be a good experience. Foreigners who relocate to Saudi Arabia tend to do it for short periods of time, unless they are military who are stationed there. The oil industry accounts for 75% of the country’s total revenue and 90% of its total exports, therefore it attracts foreigners from the oil/energy sector. Western women, though not held as strictly to Sharia law as locals women, tend to be less keen on the idea of living in the kingdom, due to many restricted freedoms and cultural practices. Arabic is the official language of the country, although English can be found in tourist areas or city centers.
Because of the abundance of oil wealth and a recent budget surplus, the government of Saudi Arabia is currently investing billions of dollars to modernize their major cities, improve education, and repair general infrastructure problems. Riyadh, the country’s biggest city, has a world-renowned zoo, as well as an emerging restaurant and shopping scene. Alcohol is forbidden throughout the kingdom, and is strictly enforced. You can, however drink in designated compounds designed for foreign workers. Muslims are prohibited entirely from this practice. These compounds are also the only places where non-Muslims can practice their religion. Under national law, practicing any religion in public, other than Islam is strictly prohibited.
Saudi Arabia has one of the hottest climates on earth, with temperatures in the summer reaching as high as 150 F in some of the more arid regions of the interior. Winters are not as hot, but the country still retains its heat for the majority of the year. Saudis dress to accomodate the heat. It is customary for men to wear an ankle-length shirt woven from wool or cotton, with a keffiyeh (a large checkered square of cotton held in place by a cord coil) or a ghutra (a plain white square made of finer cotton, also held in place by a cord coil) worn on the head. For rare chilly days, Saudi men wear a camel-hair cloak (bisht) over the top. Women’s clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliques. Women are required to wear an abaya or modest clothing when in public. Although non-muslim foreigners are not required to dress this way, it can be a good way to beat the heat and blend in.
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