Saudi Arabia Geography and Culture
Saudi Arabia covers over 70% of the area of the Arabian Peninsula. The mountains rise steeply in the west from the Tihama coastal plain on the Red Sea up to a maximum of 3,133 m above sea level (Jabal as-Sawda) and slowly descend to the east to the inner-Arab highlands, which mainly consist of crystalline hilly lands and young lava layers (Harras). In the center is the north-south-trending Arabian layered plain with Jurassic limestone and leaning sand dunes, which merges in the east into the gently undulating sand and gravel surfaces of the Arabian Shelf up to the extremely flat east coast. Inaccessible sandy deserts extend to the north (Nefud) and southeast (Rub al-Khali ; around a quarter of the national territory).
Climate and vegetation
Saudi Arabia lies in the center of the ancient dry belt. Large parts of the hot summer interior often remain completely free of precipitation for years. In the north, the low rainfall (national average 60 mm per year) falls mainly in winter, in the south in summer. The humid summer climate on the coasts (humidity up to 95%, temperature up to 45 ° C) contrasts with the hot and dry interior. The Asir Mountains in the southwest with tree vegetation and rain- fed agriculture are moderately warm and humid (up to a maximum of 600 mm of precipitation per year). Deserts and desert steppes take up 99% of the state’s territory; in the area of the dry valleys (Wadis) and on the mountain slopes, the sparse vegetation of herds of small animals is used and local groundwater reserves can be developed. Perennial waters are absent.
The Sunni Islam of the Wahhabi form, represented by the royal family, forms the basis of the understanding of the state. The practice of religion by foreigners living in Saudi Arabia who belong to other religions (Christians and Hindus) is tolerated, but is strictly limited to private rooms, and any missionary activities are prohibited. The most important holy places of Islam are located in Saudi Arabia. The king bears the title “Guardian of the two holy places” (Mecca and Medina).
All Saudi citizens and the Arabs living in Saudi Arabia profess Islam: 85–90% of citizens are Sunnis from the Hanbali school of law (predominantly Wahhabis), 10–15% Shiites (Imamites and Saidites).
The education system is strictly Islamic. According to topschoolsintheusa, a state school system has existed since 1953, since 2002 girls’ education, for which a separate authority was responsible until then, has been subordinate to the Ministry of Education. There is no compulsory school attendance, school attendance is free of charge. The school system comprises six-year primary schools with an attached three-year middle school and three-year secondary schools. There is strict gender segregation in the school system. In the higher education sector, there are over 20 state universities, including King Saud University (opened in 1957) in Riyadh and King Abdulaziz University (founded in 1967) in Jeddah. In 2009, the King Abdallah University of Science and Technology was founded in Thuwal, where women and men can study together for the first time.
In pre-Islamic times, today’s Saudi Arabia on the coast of the Persian Gulf played a part in the Mesopotamian Gulf culture (ancient Arabic art) of antiquity. The north was under the influence of the Nabatean Empire at the turn of the times. The monumental rock tombs of the ancient trading metropolis Hegra (Al-Hijr, today Madaʾin Salih) are evidence of Nabatean art. The Arabic script developed from the Nabataean script. Only a few buildings of Arab clay architecture have survived, for example in Najran (Asir Mountains) and in the Ad Dirʾiyah district of Riyadh.
The Islamic art in Saudi Arabia is particularly evident in the Sacred architecture and in arts and crafts, especially the textile art and silverware. The large buildings, often built by international architects, especially in Riyadh, are inspired by local traditions. The merchant houses with their ornate bay windows in the trading metropolis of Djidda date from the Ottoman period. The major mosques in Mecca and Medina, which are closed to non-Muslims, have been redesigned and expanded since the 1950s to accommodate the huge annual streams of pilgrims to the holy sites of Islam. The Arab Bedouin culture is mainly expressed in poetry (Arabic literature) and vocal art (Arabic music).
Contemporary art is based on Western models. Modern cultural life finds narrow limits in the strict rules of Wahhabi Islam as well as through censorship, state control and gender segregation. The Islamic ban on images prevented the development of the visual and performing arts as well as photography. The two to three-week Al-Djanadriyah Festival offers a forum for traditional Arab culture.
The most popular sport in Saudi Arabia is soccer. The »Vision 2030« suggests a gentle liberalization of the cultural sector: in 2018 the first cinema was opened after 35 years and women have been allowed to visit sports stadiums since the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There is an active underground scene that hosts rock and pop concerts.
World Heritage Sites in Saudi Arabia
- Mada’in Salih Archaeological Site (2008)
- At-Turaif historical area in Ad Dir’iyah, a suburb of Riyadh (2010)
- Old town of Jeddah (2014)
- Hasa oasis area (2018)