Saudi Arabian Culture

Family

Family is a central pillar of Saudi Arabian society. Family forms the basis of most people’s social circles (particularly for women), and also provides financial and emotional support. Saudis are expected to have the loyalty and willingness to do anything for one’s family, especially in the spirit of protecting one’s female family members (see 'Protectiveness (Gheera)' in Core Concepts). Individuals generally privilege their family’s wishes (especially their parents’) over their own, and are expected to forfeit certain interests if doing so will improve their family’s well-being and happiness.


Family Structure

Saudi Arabian families are generally patrilineal and patrilocal, meaning the bride moves into their husband’s house at marriage and the family lineage is carried through the father. Traditionally, the entire extended family lived together as a tribe or clan. This is still the case among some Saudi families living in rural areas, such as Bedouins (see Tribal Identity in Core Concepts). However, the nuclear family structure has become more common due to rapid urbanisation over the last few decades.1

 

Men hold the most authority and are responsible for the primary income, security and safety of the family. They are expected to work outside the home, earn money and to provide for their family. Women have traditionally taken responsibility for the domestic space as the nurturers and bedrocks of the family. They are expected to look after their husband and children, prepare food and provide love and warm-heartedness for the family. Today, it is common for men and women to share financial control of the household. Brothers and sisters may share some domestic duties, such as cleaning. Many Saudi families now also have domestic employees (usually an expatriate worker) that assist the family in daily domestic duties (e.g. cleaning, cooking, driving female family members), depending on the family’s financial capacity and size.

 

Family Dynamics

Throughout all sectors of Saudi society, parents and elders are highly respected. It is highly inappropriate for children to talk back to or disobey anyone who is older than themselves. The bond between child and parent is especially strong. Traditionally, adult children live in their parents’ house until they are married. If an adult child must move for study or a job, they will usually return to their parents’ home after the scholarship or contract is finished. Most people's decisions continue to be influenced by their parents’ advice in adulthood, especially for women (see Guardianship below).


Parents financially support their children into adulthood, depending on their financial capabilities. In return, elder family members are cared for by their children and grandchildren into their old age. Extended family members often play a large role assisting raising children, especially if both parents work. Some Saudi families have been known to specifically hire domestic workers with English skills so that their children grow up speaking English and absorbing some cultural cues.


Every day, the men of the family (including close and distant relatives) gather for a meeting known as ‘majalis’ at the house of the eldest male relative. This gathering can be very big in places where large extended families may constitute an entire neighbourhood. This time can be used to discuss anything, from trivial gossip to serious issues. Women may also gather at the house of the eldest female more casually on a weekly basis. Saudi expats often continue this tradition when living overseas, meeting on weekends with their male friends to talk over coffee at someone’s house.


Gender Roles

Gender roles are highly patriarchal in Saudi Arabian culture. Traditionally, females are secluded from most public decision-making and are expected to obey their fathers, brothers and husbands. They are considered to be the carrier of family honour and hence carry greater expectations of social compliance as particularly vulnerable targets that need to be protected (see Honour in Core Concepts). Therefore, shyness and modesty are considered positive qualities in a woman. A woman has more authority if she is the eldest member of a household.

 

Women are generally brought up with ‘intimidations’ and ‘warnings’ about sexual desires of men and the consequences of mixing with them.2 Meanwhile, fathers and husbands see it as their duty to be the guardians of family honour and keep their female family members free from scandal. The senior male of the family has the authority to make decisions about his female family members’ behaviour in order to preserve the family honour (see Guardianship System below). Therefore, male relatives’ attitudes towards women tend to be paternalistic. For example, if he is worried about her leaving the house for a certain reason, he may ensure another male relative accompanies her. A ‘mistake’ by a woman is sometimes interpreted as a failure of the men of the family to protect her from doing so.


The Guardianship System and Women’s Opportunity

A woman’s independence and freedom to make choices for herself varies on an individual basis, depending on the attitude of her closest male relative. Saudi Arabia has a legal guardianship system that means it is illegal for a woman to do certain things without the permission of a male guardian, regardless of her age. This includes travelling abroad, getting married, applying for passports and opening a bank account.3 Women are legally bound to the power of their closest male relative (husband, brother or father), who may or may not respect her choices. 


Some open-minded families may allow women to choose their own husband and pursue their own interests. Many Saudi women have the opportunity to study, travel and socialise. However, for others belonging to conservative families, the guardianship system can create serious obstacles. Younger male family members also have to respect the authority of a guardian; for example, if a brother wants to travel overseas with his sister, he would have to seek his father’s legal permission to take her. 


Gender norms and roles have been changing rapidly as industrialisation and economic growth have impacted ideas about men’s control and women’s public involvement.4 The government has issued a range of decisions in recent years to significantly increase women’s participation in the labor market and access to government services. An increasing number of women are gaining an education (often outperforming men at universities) and entering the professional workforce. As of October 2017, women make up 20% of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. In 2018, the government repealed a ban that prohibited females from driving. It is also becoming more common to see women wearing bright, colourful abayas and hijabs, rather than black (traditional). At the time of writing, social attitudes appear to be embracing these reforms quite quickly. However, while some legal obstacles may have been reduced, there are still many social and cultural obstacles for women to overcome. For example, it is harder for women to hold senior positions whilst maintaining cultural norms in mixed-gender workplaces.


Gender Separation

Some Saudi Muslim women may be fully veiled – usually by an abaya (long robe) and a niqab (hair and face veil) – whenever in the presence of a man that is ‘non-mahram’ (unrelated). While such women can usually associate freely, unveiled in the privacy of the home around family members, not all male relatives are mahram (e.g. relatives related by marriage are non-mahram). Therefore, wives are expected to cover their hair and faces in the presence of their male in-laws. Some families may be more relaxed about this. However, in more conservative families, men may not socialise with their female cousins and sisters-in law unless they are veiled. See the Core Concepts for more information on gender separation.


Relationships and Marriage Practices

‘Dating’ in Saudi Arabia generally involves getting to know someone with the prospect of marriage in mind. It is rare for men and women to show open affection in public, and many couples may not be permitted to see one another alone. Therefore, Saudi couples usually meet in neutral public places or online. Cell phones and the internet have provided a way for young people to covertly interact while maintaining their public separation. 


Marriages are often arranged in Saudi Arabia, either by relatives or a matchmaker. However, nowadays it is becoming more common for young people in cities to indicate someone they are interested in to their parents, who will then ‘arrange’ the marriage. For example, a Saudi may initially have less serious relationships that help them determine what kind of life partner they want. When they are ready to settle down, they may pass this information on to their parents to find someone compatible. Other couples may have already been secretly dating before telling their parents they would like to marry. The process generally varies depending on the region and the family’s attitudes. In more traditional families, couples may only meet for a couple of hours before an arranged engagement to see if both parties agree to the marriage. Usually, each member of the couple is allowed to have the final say as to whether they want to accept or decline the match made by their families. Chastity (particularly female virginity) is considered essential for marriage in Saudi Arabia. 

 

At engagement, the groom presents a ‘mahr’ (dowry) to the bride’s family. The price of mahr varies between families, but is limited to no more than 50,000 riyals (about US$13,300) by the government. The couple will then spend a lot of time together getting to know one another once they are engaged. Marriage usually occurs within a year of engagement. However, before the marriage, licenced persons will sit with the bride and groom separately to ascertain that neither is being forced into the marriage by their family. Legally, women must have the signature of a male guardian to get married.

 

Husbands are generally older than their wives as men are expected to be entirely self-sufficient and economically secure (i.e., able to pay the mahr) by the time they get engaged. Some young people may wish to finish their studies before marriage, while others get married quite early. It is common for Saudis to marry foreigners. However, marriage between people of different religion affiliations is very rare.

 

Endogamy

Endogamous cross-cousin marriage occurs in Saudi Arabia. Marrying a relative means the household's name, inheritance and honour is maintained within the family. It is sometimes believed that endogamous marriages are more successful as the couple has more familiarity with one another before marriage. However, cross-cousin marriages are decreasing in popularity as it is now mandatory for couples to do genetic tests before getting married to detect potential genetic risks that could be passed down to children.5 


Polygamy

Polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia, whereby a man may have up to four wives. However, a man is only allowed to take multiple wives if he can meet certain conditions under shari’a law. For example, he must have the financial capacity to afford another marriage and provide for another wife and her family. He must also treat each wife equally (e.g. if he buys one wife a car, he must buy a car for each of them). Each wife should have her own individual living quarters and kitchen. Polygamy may occur in cases where the first wife is unable to bear children. However, attitudes towards the practice have changed in recent decades. It is very rare to practice polygamy in 21st century Saudi Arabia.


Divorce

Men can initiative divorce by literally saying “I divorce you”. A period of reconciliation should follow this statement to attempt to salvage the marriage (e.g. through counselling). However, after the man has said “I divorce you” on three separate occasions, the divorce is official and he can then record it with the government. Meanwhile, women must go through the family court system if they want a divorce. In some cases, the husband may ask for the mahr (dowry) back. Divorced women may also face difficulty of transferring male guardianship from their ex-husband to another male (see Guardianship System above).6


1 Joseph, 2018

2 Alhazmi, 2010

3 BBC News, 2019

4 Joseph, 2018

5 BBC News, 2015

6 Human Rights Watch, 2016

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