Saudi Arabian Culture

Core Concepts

  • Tradition
  • Conservatism
  • Modernisation
  • Industrialisation
  • Community interdependence
  • Honour (Sharaf)
  • Protectiveness (Gheera)
  • Modesty


Saudi Arabia is a kingdom covering most of the Arabian Peninsula. The majority of the population is ethnically Arab, mostly descending from nomadic tribes that have traditionally lived throughout the region. Saudi culture is fundamentally traditional and conservative. Islam has an extensive influence on society, guiding people’s social, familial, political and legal lives. The Saudi people generally share a strong moral code and cultural values, such as hospitality, loyalty and a sense of duty to support their community. They are often highly aware of their personal honour and integrity. However, the country is also highly modernised and industrialised. At the time of writing, social norms and rules of behaviour are being transformed rapidly as the people balance their cultural traditions with the modern age. Customs and attitudes can also vary significantly between different regions, minorities and tribes. Therefore, it is important to recognise that all descriptions of a mainstream ‘Saudi culture’ in this profile are subject to variances depending on people’s age, social status, religious belief, tribe or region of origin. 


International Reputation

Saudi Arabia has been one of the most globally influential countries in the Middle East over the past century. Its strong economy has made it strategically important to the international community. Home to the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, Saudi Arabia has also become the de facto leader of the Sunni branch of Islam. The country has a crucial influence on the rest of the Gulf and beyond into the wider Muslim world.1

 

Saudi Arabia’s dominant and powerful position in global politics means that opinions of the country and its people are often formed before encountering them. The country is typically explained through a Western lens that sees it as an oppressive and regressive society (particularly regarding its treatment of women and political dissidents), and describes it by its differences to the Western world. As a result, Saudis regularly find themselves in a defensive position when confronted with negative foreign assumptions. Many can feel compelled to emphasise the positive aspects of their culture in order to prove that they belong to an ethical society and are good people. Some may feel uncomfortably pressured by foreigners to denounce their own culture. However, such criticism does not always reflect a deeper understanding of the country’s cultural configuration. For example, some Saudis argue that critics lack an awareness of the challenges they face as a tribal society adapting to a fast-changing global environment. It is important to understand the origins of the kingdom that inform the culture today.


National Formation and Identity

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed out of an alliance between Ibn Saud (a tribal ruler of the central region) and Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (an Islamic cleric). The two shared a goal of uniting the different Arab tribes of the peninsula and returning them back to an earlier interpretation of the principles of Islam. This religious revivalist movement birthed the Saudi state and popularised the Wahhabi ideology (see Religion). Ibn Saud gained power over multiple regions through a series of conquests over the 1920s, eventually declaring himself king in 1932. Saudi Arabia has been ruled under an absolute monarchy since, and the alliance between religious clerics and the Al Saud family continues today.2 State leadership is passed down to Ibn Saud’s descendants through the male line of the Al Saud family. 


Saudi Arabians were traditionally tribal nomads, villagers and townspeople. However, the discovery of oil has transformed society through rapid economic development. The country controls the second largest oil reserves, is the second largest oil producer and is the biggest oil exporter in the world.3 The national wealth produced from the industry has accelerated industrialisation and urbanisation throughout Saudi Arabia. Most of the country’s infrastructure has been built since the 1970s. Today, the Saudi population is highly cosmopolitan, with over 80% living in the five biggest cities.4


The social atmosphere of Saudi Arabia remains highly conservative and reserved. Religion is a strong source of legitimacy for the Saudi government and the ‘ulamā’ (council of religious clerics) have a lot of influence and authority over domestic matters.5 Conservative interpretations of Islam are a major social force that dictate much of what Saudi Arabians can and cannot do (see Religion). Everyday customs and activities serve as a reminder for the importance of Islam, Arab culture and tradition. The culture emphasises the importance of personal ethics and morality. One commonly finds Saudis have a strong sense of conviction regarding their moral code and the righteousness of their faith. This is reinforced by the education system and the country’s laws. 


Modernisation and Cultural Shifts

The increased technological and economic advancement of Saudi Arabia has created a tension between modernisation and conservatism.6 The country is undergoing a massive cultural shift as more Saudis have been questioning the level of conservatism of their society in recent years. Religious clerics and citizens have had to make judgement calls about the morality of certain behaviours in light of the modern age and a noticeable rise in materialism. For example, cameras (now widely used) were once thought to represent a risk to the norms and values of the culture as they take pictures of the human form, and hence could be seen as simulating God’s creations (see Other Considerations).7 Western music and stand-up comedy is also widely enjoyed, despite it being traditionally unacceptable. 


This can be partly attributed to the influence of the internet providing a platform for people to be more opinionated (particularly YouTube and social media platforms).8 At the time of writing, the government has been making efforts to reform and soften rules of behaviour in reflection of this cultural and political shift. This has included granting women the right to drive, reintroducing cinemas and reducing the powers of the religious police (see Governance and Laws in Religion).9 Social attitudes appear to be embracing these reforms quite quickly, especially among younger Saudis. However, it is important to recognise that levels of social conservatism still differ between regions, tribes and minorities in Saudi Arabia. For example, rural areas and the central regions (surrounding the capital of Riyadh) may be somewhat more socially conservative than cities with heavy international exposure (e.g. Jeddah). 


Gender Separation

There is a broad gender separation throughout Saudi Arabian society that influences and determines different ideas of privacy and space. According to the religiously based view, most Saudi Muslim women choose to wear a head or hair covering whenever in the presence of a man that is ‘non-mahram’. It is also a cultural norm for some women to veil their face – usually by an abaya (long robe) and a niqab (hair and face veil). This means many Saudi women are veiled whenever in public, as this is a domain where they mix with men. The tradition has been changing recently as more women are choosing to reveal their faces or not to wear a hijab at all (mostly younger women in cities). However, people are usually very sensitive to what belongs to the public and what belongs to the private domains. For example, if a Saudi man was working on a roof and could see into a neighbour’s courtyard, they would inform the head of the household so his female family members could be forewarned not to go into the garden/courtyard unless veiled. 


Unrelated men and women generally avoid communicating socially in person.10 There is a difference between ‘ikhtilat’ (men and women together in an open space – permissible) and ‘khilwa’ (unrelated men and women together in an enclosed space – not permissible). To avoid the latter, there are many female-only and men-only buildings in Saudi Arabia (e.g. most schools and universities). Banks, universities and government institutions have separate entrances for men and women; some restaurants are segregated; and there are also “families only” spaces (such as malls) that exclude single males.11 However, while physical cross-gender friendships between Saudis are largely prevented, gender mixing now also occurs in the online space. Internet discussion forums offer opportunities for cross-gender communication that do not necessarily violate Saudi Arabian rules for behaviour. 

 

It is important to note that these rules of gender separation are not strict laws, but rather social norms. There are exceptions in contexts that are unavoidable, such as in hospitals or ride-sharing. Non-Saudis are not usually held to the same standards and generally have more ability to mix across the genders. For example, male foreign domestic workers may be allowed in some family-only spaces. Female Saudi expatriates may also choose not to wear the abaya, niqab or hijab. However, inter-gender exchanges are expected to be kept to a minimum in all situations out of modesty.  

 

Social Stratification

Social stratification is quite noticeable in Saudi Arabia. There is a general societal acceptance that power and wealth is distributed unequally, with many seeing it as an inevitable fact of Saudi Arabian society.12 A distinct class system is particularly obvious between Saudi locals and foreign workers. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of people born overseas, with 37% of residents being non-Saudis (as of 2018).13 Saudi Arabia has been described as a country without a national working class as the majority of the manual and domestic labour force is made up of foreigners. Many Saudi families have a personal maid and/or driver, usually of Asian or South Asian descent. Such migrants tend to comprise the lowest social class. Many arrive from countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, Egypt, Palestine and Sri Lanka.


There are also subtle divisions between Saudi citizens themselves, sometimes based on tribal affiliations, levels of education, religious affiliation (i.e. Sunni or Shi’a) and location (i.e. rural or urban). Most Saudi nationals generally belong to the middle or upper classes. Members of the elite class are often distinguishable by conspicuous displays of wealth (such as owning luxury cars) or by their family name. They may be more religious, educated, wealthy or hold positions of power in industries such as oil. Generally, anyone with links to the royal family also has more power and influence. However, being rich or well-educated does not earn a person automatic respect. A person’s integrity, honour and treatment of others is thought to be more important than their affluence or privilege in Saudi Arabia (see Honour (Sharaf) below).

 

Community Interdependence

There is a very strong community focus embedded in Saudi culture and the patrilineal kinship system remains pervasive throughout society. People are often mutually reliant on their relatives and neighbours. This is due to the collectivistic nature of the culture, as well as people’s sense of duty (al-wajib). Indeed, the charitable sector is one of the largest areas of activity for groups and associations throughout Saudi Arabia. There is a general understanding that with privilege comes a greater responsibility to care for the community. Therefore, those in more fortunate circumstances often feel an obligation to help those that are struggling. Community involvement is especially important in times of sadness. For example, when a family goes through a particular hardship (such as the death of a family member), it is customary for the entire community to visit every day and help lighten the burden. 

 

Honour (Sharaf)

The notion of honour (sharaf) is a central concept that guides behaviour and significantly influences interactions in Saudi culture. It is deeply intertwined with ideas about one’s personal dignity (karama). Preservation of honour and community opinion is often at the forefront of Saudi’s minds. There is often a strong cultural pressure on individuals to protect their reputation. Therefore, conservative conduct is the norm; people tend to avoid drawing attention to themselves or risk doing something perceived to be dishonourable (such as diverging from the social expectations). Saudis often seek maintain dignity through compromise, patience and self-control. One may find that criticism is rarely given directly and praise is expected to be generously offered. For example, people may gloss over things or downplay their flaws to make them seem more positive (see Communication).

 

A person’s behaviour or honour is generally considered to reflect their family/upbringing. Thus, Saudis can be wary of the fact that they need to give a public impression of dignity and integrity to protect the honour of their household. If a person is perceived to be dishonourable, their whole family shares the shame. Public disgrace can have serious consequences, affecting people’s social lives and future opportunities. In some cases, a family may feel obliged to shun the member of the household that brought shame upon them in order to clear their family name.


The senior male of a family is considered to be responsible for protecting the honour of the family. They are often particularly concerned with the behaviour of female relatives, as women have more social expectations to comply with (see Gender Roles). These relate to their moral code, dress, social interactions, education, economic activity and public involvement (see more in the Family section). A breach of social compliance by a woman may be perceived as a failure on the man’s behalf (her father, husband or brother) to protect her from doing so.


Protectiveness (Gheera)

Gheera (or ghayrah) is a pervasive feeling in Saudi culture and extends especially to family and personal honour. It is an Arabic word that describes an intense emotion of honourable protectiveness. In this cultural context, it most commonly refers to a man’s protectiveness and jealousy over his female family members. This kind of jealousy is seen as necessary, as it is the uneasiness in a man’s heart that motivates him to protect women from indecency. Most Saudis interpret gheera as a love and willingness to do anything for one’s female family members. 


Tribal Identity and Bedouins

One’s personal tribal identity can be a deep source of pride for people, especially among Sunni Muslims in the centre of Saudi Arabia. Many aspects of Saudi culture are derived from traditional tribal Arab culture. For centuries, nomadic tribespeople, known as ‘Bedouins’, have made the Saudi Arabian desert their home. Traditionally, Bedouins live in extended family groups, moving when they need new pasture or water. Some continue to live in the desert or among the mountains, while most have moved to towns or cities. 


Bedouins are renowned for their generosity and courage. It is traditional for them to host any visitor from another town, city or region for three days, regardless of the resources they have to accommodate the person. This almost always involves a feast for the guest – even if that means sacrificing their last goat or camel for the occasion. Today, traditional Bedouins do not necessarily have a high social status, and may even be somewhat looked down upon by many urban Saudis.14 Nevertheless, they still represent the essence of traditional Saudi identity. The Bedouin ethos of hospitality and honour continues to inform Saudi culture, regardless of how far removed many people are from the desert now.15


Warburton, 2019

North & Tripp, 2009

U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2018

Al Lily, 2018

5 Nevo, 1998

Gannon & Pillai, 2010

Al Lily, 2018

Fahmy, 2018

Fahmy, 2018

10 Madini & de Nooy, 2016

11 Joseph, 2018

12 Hofstede, 2019

13 General Authority for Statistics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2018

14 Lonely Planet, 2019

15 Gannon & Pillai, 2010

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