People

Saudi Arabia's population has always been something of a paradox: the romantic Bedouin of the interior juxtaposed with the multicultural populace of coastal towns (the result of trade and pilgrimage traffic). This paradox has deepened further in the modern era as expat numbers, both from the East and West, have continued to rise. Given the insular nature of the country and its peculiar gender segregation, understanding its people is essential to understanding the Kingdom.

Population

Around 80% of Saudi Arabia’s population is concentrated in urban areas, with more than one-third of the country's people living in the megacities sprawling around Riyadh, Jeddah and Mecca.

Saudi Arabia’s population is very young (almost 47% are aged under 25 years), with an annual population growth rate of 1.5% – meaning it doubles around every 30 years. Saudi authorities are confronted with the dilemma of providing for a disaffected, young, Islamicised demographic with not enough jobs to go around.

The Lives of Women

Until recently, a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia was more controlled than in anywhere else in the industrialised world, particularly with regard to freedom of movement. This is now beginning to shift, and the tidal wave of these developments stands in contrast to the historically glacial pace of such changes here. Perhaps this is nothing short of a feminist revolution for Saudi women, but the picture is still not entirely rosy.

Since Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's takeover of the kingdom's reins beneath the shadow of his watchful father, women have been granted the right to drive, a woman has become the chair of the Saudi Stock Exchange, and you will meet more women in public-facing roles in cities across the country than at any other time in the Kingdom's history.

In 2017 and 2018, women performed publicly in musical concerts in the Kingdom, and they were allowed into football stadiums (where they'd previously been banned from). Most significantly, in moves seen as the start of doing away with the male guardianship system that restricts Saudi women, in early 2017 women were given the right to run their own businesses without requiring male permission, and at around the same time a ruling was passed that meant a divorced woman no longer had to appeal to the courts to gain custody of her children.

However, huge barriers remain in place concerning matters such as travelling without a male chaperone and obtaining a passport. The plight of Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teenager who was detained in Thailand in January 2019 as she tried to flee from her family, was widely publicised on social media, as she tweeted her request for asylum that was eventually granted by Canada.

A number of women's rights activists who were campaigning for the right to drive and an end to the male guardianship system were arrested in May 2018 and remain in detention, even though some of their desired reforms have been passed. International rights groups claim that some of these activists have been tortured and sexually harassed in prison.

Multiculturalism

Apparently one-third of all Saudi Arabia's inhabitants are expats (although even this is widely believed to be a gross underestimate), and the large cities can feel distinctly Asian rather than Arab because of the huge amount of cheap labour that has been brought in, from parts of the Indian subcontinent in particular.

Westerners often work in highly skilled and technical jobs for which Saudis do not yet have qualifications or experience – something the country's educational reforms are yet to fully address. Non-Western expats (primarily Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and Filipinos) work in mostly unskilled jobs, such as taxi-driving, construction work and domestic help. A substantial and growing cadre of medical professionals and information-technology specialists from the Indian subcontinent has begun to alter negative Saudi perceptions of migrant workers from this part of the world. In the meantime, however, many unskilled labourers continue to complain about ill treatment, exploitation and abuse.

As the location of Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has always received millions of hajj and umrah (non-hajj) pilgrims from poor Islamic countries, and many of these stay on in the Kingdom to work illegally. The local media often attribute crime to illegal immigrants, which tends to stoke age-old racial prejudices.

Feature: The Bedouin

Bedouin represent 15% of the Saudi population and, although they're looked down upon by many city-dwelling Saudis, they still represent the essence of traditional Saudi identity. The traits historically associated with the Bedouin are legendary, and include a refusal to surrender to outside authority; a fierce loyalty to one's family and tribe; the primacy of courage and honour; the purity of language and dialect as preserved in poetry and desert legends; a belief in the desert codes of hospitality, blood feuds and mutual obligations; and the tradition of razzia (raiding travellers or members of other tribes).

Some 1.8 million Bedouin still claim to have a seminomadic lifestyle in Saudi Arabia, living for at least part of the year in movable encampments of black goat-hair tents, searching for water sources and fields for their livestock to graze on.

Feature: Creative Cruising

If you think it might be difficult to live in cities with the most restricted entertainment scenes in the world, spare a thought for young Saudis. In a country where singles are kept strictly separated from the opposite sex, young Saudis have resorted to novel means of making contact.

The least subtle of these are the shebab (teenage boys) with little else to do but ‘impress’ other drivers with their speed. Cars cruise past girls’ schools, and the shebab sometimes throw pieces of paper with their phone numbers written on them, in the hope of receiving a call on their mobile.

The shebab try a similar gambit while cruising on foot in the shopping malls of Riyadh (particularly in Al Faisaliah and Kingdom Towers). Called ‘numbering’, phone numbers are written on pieces of paper and casually dropped near the opposite sex. Bluetooth technology has facilitated things further still, by allowing total strangers to communicate without initially knowing each others' telephone number.

Sidebar: Saudi Lifestyle

Saudi society is still strictly segregated between the public (male) and private (female) domain. Family and Islam form the twin pillars of Saudi society, with male members of a family only mixing with other male friends in social circumstances, with women doing the same.

Religion

Islam is not just the religion of Saudi citizens; it’s the religion of Saudi society and the Saudi state, and it's all-encompassing. Officially, all Saudi citizens are Muslim; 15% are Shiites, who live mainly in the Eastern Province. The practice of other religions is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Non-Muslims cannot even be buried within the borders of the Kingdom.

Wahhabi Islam

Islamic orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabi Islam (an offshoot of Hanbali or the ‘literalist’ school of Islamic interpretation). Named after the 18th-century cleric Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab, Wahhabi doctrine calls for a return to the Arab purity of Islam and all rejection of Sufism, Turkish and especially Persian influences on Islamic thought and practice.

At the heart of Wahhabi Islam is a denunciation of all forms of mediation between Allah and believers, and a puritanical reassertion of tawhid (the oneness of God). Under the Wahhabis, only the Quran, the Sunnah (the words and deeds of Muhammad) and the Hadith (Muhammad's sayings) are acceptable sources of Islamic knowledge. Under Wahhabi doctrine, communal prayers are a religious duty and rulings on personal matters are interpreted according to Sharia law.

The Hajj

An experience of profound spiritual significance, the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – is a lifetime's ambition for many Muslims. All able-bodied Muslims of sufficient means are expected to undertake the hajj at least once in their lives, as it is seen to be fulfilling one of the five key pillars of mainstream Islam. The hajj is an extraordinary spectacle, where millions of people from all over the world, rich and poor, able-bodied and otherwise, are unified by their state of ihram, which creates a sea of white as men donning two simple white cotton sheets, alongside women dressed equally simply, perform ancient rites over the course of five days, following in the footsteps of the prophets of the past.

The Hajj Experience

Performed at the Grand Mosque of Mecca and its immediate surrounds – Mina, Muzdalifah and Mt Arafat – hajj takes place each year from the eighth to 12th day of the Islamic month of Dhu Al Hijjah, and commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim's acts of surrender and devotion to God. As the Islamic year is based on the lunar calendar, the dates appear to advance by 10 days every year when compared to the Gregorian calendar.

Before the Pilgrimage

Most pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia by air, landing at the hajj terminal of Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport. Come prepared for the fact that more than two million pilgrims flood through this terminal – waiting times for buses to Mecca can last up to 12 long, hot and humid hours. Drinking water is provided, but bring snacks. You can buy food at the airport but inevitably queues will be long.

Before arriving in Mecca, local pilgrims stop at miqats (areas designated by the Prophet) to shower and change into their ihram outfit, which is the distinct two-piece, unstitched white cotton garment for men. International pilgrims landing at Jeddah airport will have already crossed this area and therefore be in a state of ihram already. Women are not permitted to wear the niqab or burka during the hajj. There is no gender segregation during rituals, as a sign that all pilgrims are equal.

An invocation in Arabic is performed – aloud, under one's breath or privately in one's head – at certain points on the way to Mecca, depending on which direction pilgrims are coming from. This invocation is given as pilgrims reach the miqat near Mecca:

Here I am, oh God, at Your command! Here I am at Your command! You are without associate! Here I am at Your command! To You are all praise, grace and dominion! You are without associate!

The First Day

Arriving at Mecca's Grand Mosque, worshippers perform the Tawaf Al Qudum (tawaf of arrival). Tawaf is the act of circling counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba. Then comes the saee, which involves walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah (which are within the Grand Mosque grounds) seven times to simulate the desperate search for water by Hajar, the wife of the Prophet Ibrahim.

The next stop is the 'tent city' of Mina, a short distance from Mecca. It’s a time for rest, reflection, reading the Quran and praying. Depending on the tour package, worshippers sleep in tents that accommodate up to 12 people each.

The Second Day

This is the most significant day of the hajj. The 'Day of Arafat' begins after sunrise, as worshippers leave Mina to travel to the Plain of Arafat. The time here is spent standing or sitting at the Mount of Mercy, asking God for forgiveness and making supplications. Some pilgrims rest in their tents. After sunset, everyone moves on to the Muzdalifah Plain to spend the whole night praying and collecting pebbles for the stoning ritual the next day.

The Third to Fifth Days

The third day begins shortly before sunrise in Mina, where worshippers once threw their pebbles at three jamrah (pillars) that represented the devil. In 2004, because of the many injuries caused by the fervour of the stone throwing, Saudi authorities replaced the pillars with long walls and stone basins designed to catch ricocheting rocks. The stoning can continue for three days and represents a rejection of Satan and an affirmation of Ibrahim’s faith in God.

The stoning ritual is perhaps when pilgrims are most vulnerable to danger as worshippers crowd the Jamarat pedestrian bridge on their way to the pillars. Deadly stampedes have occurred here in the past, so it’s important to pay close attention to instructions from guides and security personnel and to follow the multilingual signs along the route with care.

This is the first day of the three-day Eid Al Adha (feast of sacrifice), and pilgrims spend the remaining days carrying out these three rites after their first round of stoning. A sheep, cow or camel is sacrificed to show God a willingness to offer up something precious, and the meat is distributed to the poor. Men shave their heads, or trim their hair evenly, and women cut off a lock of their hair to bring them out of ihram. The final formal rite of hajj is the Tawaf Al Ifadah/Ziyarah, when pilgrims return to Mecca to circle the Kaaba again, pray at the Station of Ibrahim and perform another saee.

The Final Day

While the formal part of hajj is now over, many pilgrims choose to spend another day in Mina until sunset, to undertake more stoning and reflection; others return to Mecca. Before leaving Mecca and starting on their journeys back home, all pilgrims perform the ‘farewell’ Tawaf Al Wada.

Hajj Practicalities

With so many hajj pilgrims attending each year – some estimates put the number at 2.5 million or more – Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj has streamlined the process to obtain a visa and perform the rituals. It’s still complicated, but Muslims cannot be denied the right to perform the fifth pillar of Islam, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite and regardless of their personal history.

Hajj Eligibility

The first step is to determine whether you are eligible to perform hajj. Muslims who have performed the ritual are not allowed to perform it again until five years have passed. An exception will be made for those acting as a mahram (guardian) to accompany a wife or family member who plans to go. All women under the age of 45 must be accompanied by a mahram, who must be a close male relative.

Visas & Tour Operators

The Saudi Ministry of Hajj website (www.haj.gov.sa) lists its requirements, which should be followed to the letter. The Ministry requires that all pilgrims go through one of the approved, licensed travel agencies (listed on the website) that operate tours for the hajj and umrah (the shorter pilgrimage outside of hajj season).

Travel-agency prices can be as low as SR6500 per person but can run as high as SR30,000 or more depending on the amenities offered. All tour companies offer meals, air-conditioned buses, transportation to Medina and side tours to significant religious sites. It is essential that you stick to the approved list of travel agencies.

These agencies handle everything, including obtaining a hajj visa (free and valid for 30 days) and permits, processing immunisation records (meningitis and hepatitis A and B are required jabs), and arranging accommodation and transportation. If the applicant is a convert to Islam, a letter from the applicant’s mosque stating that he or she performed the shahada (statement of faith) must be produced.

Tour companies keep strict tabs on their clients once they arrive in Saudi Arabia. Pilgrims give up their passport for the duration of their stay and are issued with an identity card and wristband. It is important that pilgrims keep a copy of their passport (including all pages and visas), and travel documents with them at all times. Once in the Kingdom, travel for pilgrims is strictly limited to visiting Mecca and Medina and the cities and villages between the two cities.

Hajj Health & Safety

Hajj rituals can be difficult to perform for the very young and the very old. Depending on the time of year, temperatures can reach more than 40°C, and the crowds can be stifling.

Common sense and caution are the foundation of a safe trip. Eat and sleep when you can, drink plenty of fluids, wear a surgical/face mask – to protect against the small risk of MERS (coronavirus) – and sanitise your hands often.

Make sure you have the requisite immunisations, although heat exhaustion is the most common enemy of the pilgrim. If you feel sweating chills, nausea or dizziness, find shade and seek medical attention from one of the hundreds of emergency personnel stations throughout the pilgrimage route.

One of the greatest risks to pilgrims comes from the massive crowds and the danger of stampede. Always pay close attention to your surroundings and follow the instructions of officials; it's wise to keep to the outer limits of moving crowds wherever possible.

What to Bring

Label everything and attach a coloured ribbon to your belongings to help identify them.

  • two to three ihram outfits (for men, two cotton sheets; for women, a modest outfit)
  • towels
  • indoor scarf (for women)
  • surgical/face mask (when in crowds)
  • non-stitched comfortable sandals
  • pyjamas
  • plasters
  • hand sanitiser
  • travel belt
  • pillow
  • umbrella
  • sunscreen
  • water-bottle carrier
  • toiletries (non-perfumed)
  • medications
  • camp stool
  • Quran
  • shoulder bag
  • pocket notebook and pen to record thoughts
Hajj Calendar

8-12 Dhul Hijja 1440H

Estimated Equivalent in Western Calendar

10-14 August 2019

8-12 Dhul Hijja 1441H

Estimated Equivalent in Western Calendar

30 July-3 August 2020

8-12 Dhul Hijja 1442H

Estimated Equivalent in Western Calendar

19-23 July 2021

8-12 Dhul Hijja 1443H

Estimated Equivalent in Western Calendar

8-12 July 2022

Feature: Umrah: The Little Hajj

Umrah is a shortened version of hajj in which rituals can be carried out within the vicinity of the Grand Mosque at any time of year (except during hajj itself), and at any time of day and night. Many pilgrims say umrah is a quiet, peaceful and contemplative experience.

The visa process is similar to applying for a hajj visa. Like the hajj visa, umrah visas are free, but they are only valid for 15 days; overstaying can have serious legal consequences. Applicants must make their booking through a Saudi-approved tour operator and provide the same required documentation as they would for hajj.

Environment

With at least half the country officially given over to desert, Saudi Arabia is often reduced to the image of sand dunes beneath an unforgiving sun. While this is clearly true for much of the Kingdom, it is also home to a wonderful array of natural features, including vast oases, stunning wildlife (both land and sea), and in the south, spectacular forest-covered mountain ranges that represent a completely different Saudi Arabia.

The Land

Saudi Arabia takes up 80% of the Arabian Peninsula. More than 95% of Saudi Arabia is desert or semidesert, and the country is home to some of the largest desert areas in the world, including Al Nafud Desert in the north and the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali) in the south.

Just 1.5% of Saudi territory is considered suitable for agriculture and just 0.5% of the land is covered by forest.

Wildlife

Illegal hunting is still a major problem in Saudi Arabia, and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the list of endangered mammals in Saudi Arabia includes the rare dugong, Arabian oryx, Arabian leopard and Nubian ibex. Successful captive breeding and reintroduction programs for species including the Arabian oryx, Arabian leopard and houbara bustard are at the forefront of the government’s work to arrest the threat to these animals.

The waters of Saudi’s Red Sea are teeming with wildlife, and include five species of marine turtle. Whales, whale sharks and dolphins are also present in the Red Sea and the Gulf.

Environmental Issues

Saudi Arabia’s environmental problems are legion and include desertification, pollution, deforestation, critical depletion of underground water and lack of local education and awareness. Illegal hunting – even of endangered species – is a particular problem. Once a Bedouin survival strategy, hunting is now a sport for many Saudis, and the Kingdom is still a popular hunting destination for wealthy Gulf Arabs.

The Kingdom’s water shortages are especially worrying for the ruling family. Expensive seawater-desalination plants are all over the country, but the depletion of underground aquifers continues at an alarming rate.

Feature: The Return of the Arabian Oryx

Just 200 years ago, the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), with its distinctive white coat and curved horns, roamed across much of the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Al Nafud Desert in northern Arabia and the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) in the south. Hunting devastated the population, which retreated deeper into the desert, pursued by those armed with automatic weapons and motorised vehicles. The species was wiped out in the northern Nafud in the 1950s, and the last wild oryx was killed in the Dhofar foothills of Oman in 1972.

But all was not lost, and it wasn't long before an ambitious program of reintroducing the Arabian oryx to its former territories was launched. A captive breeding program had begun in the early 1960s when four wild oryx (three males and a female) were caught in southeastern Saudi Arabia. In 1964, nine Arabian oryx (gifts from Gulf sheikhs) were taken to Phoenix Zoo in the US. By 1977, the 'World Oryx Herd' in America had grown to almost 100. Between 1978 and 1992, members of the herd were transported back to the Middle East, including 55 oryx to Saudi Arabia and smaller populations to Jordan, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In Saudi Arabia, Arabian oryx from the breeding program of the National Wildlife Research Center (www.nwrc.gov.sa) in Taif were released into the fenced, 2244-sq-km Mahazat As Sayd protected area. Since 1995, 149 oryx have been released into the Uruq Bani Maarid protected area in the northwestern part of the Rub Al Khali near Sulayyil. Oryx territory now measures 12,000 sq km and, despite the challenges of poaching and drought, the remaining herd (estimated to number more than 500 animals) is the only viable population of Arabian oryx in the wild.