LOCATION: Saudi Arabia
POPULATION: 28,161,417 (July 2008 estimate; includes 5,576,076 non-nationals)
Modern-day Saudis are descended from ancient nomadic tribal peoples of the desert who were fiercely independent. One tribal family, the Al-Saud, finally rose to dominance. By the early 1800s, they ruled much of the Arabian Peninsula from their base in the city of Diriyah. When the Ottoman Empire captured Diriyah in 1818, the reign of the Al-Saud family was ended, but only for a few years. By 1824, they had regained control of central Arabia and ruled again, this time from the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's modern-day capital. In 1891, the Al-Saud family was forced into exile in the Empty Quarter (Rub Al-Khali) by the Al-Rashid family with the support of the Ottoman Turks. The Al-Saud family then moved to Kuwait. In 1901, Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud left Kuwait, at the age of 21, to recapture the Arabian Peninsula. Retaking Riyadh in 1902, Abdul 'Aziz-Saud used it as his headquarters from which to unite the different regions of the peninsula into one nation.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was officially declared on 23 September 1932, with Arabic as its official language and the Islamic holy book, the Quran (or Koran), as its constitution. When King 'Abdul 'Aziz died in 1953, his son Saud Bin 'Abdul 'Aziz took the throne, followed by Faisal Bin 'Abdul 'Aziz in 1964, Khalid Bin 'Abdul 'Aziz in 1975, and Fahd Bin 'Abdul 'Aziz in 1982. A major trade route that has been used extensively since 3000 bc lies across the western part of Saudi Arabia, generating significant wealth for Arabians in that part of the country. The discovery of oil in the 1930s led to rapid economic growth and development for the entire nation. Saudi Arabia is a founding and principal member and largest supplier of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), established in 1960. With months of strong sunlight each year, Saudi Arabia is also developing the technology of solar energy. The land receives 105 trillion kilowatt hours of sunlight per day, the energy equivalent of 10 billion barrels of crude oil.
King Fahd ruled from 1982 until 2005, when he was replaced by his son, Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz. Fahd devoted much of his energy in the 1980s and mid-1990s to establishing himself as well as his kingdom as a leading player in the Arab and Islamic world. His initiatives included the Middle East plan in 1982 and the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended a long-running civil war in Lebanon. He also founded the World Muslim League and declared himself the custodian of Islam's most holy places, specifically the cities of Mecca (or Makkah), which is where Islam was founded around ad 610, and Medina, which the Prophet Muhammad established as the first Islamic capital. Mecca continues to be the spiritual center of Islam, and Saudi Arabia plays host each year to millions of Muslims who make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Saudi Arabia's leaders remain powerful politically in the Arab world, but the nation faces threats from militants and the leaders of other Middle Eastern nations. These threats were heightened first during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and intensified during the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The nation depends on the United States for military protection, and the United States has used bases in Riyadh as staging grounds for military personnel since the 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks. King Abdullah has initiated democratic reforms, and the first nationwide municipal elections took place in 2005. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia remains tightly controlled by the ruling family.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia makes up almost four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudi government estimates the size of the country to be 2,217,949 sq km (856,350 sq mi). Other estimates vary from 2,149,690 to 2,240,000 sq km (829,995 to 864,864 sq mi). It appears about one-third the size of the United States, yet the population is less than that of New York State. Most of the land is barren and harsh, unable to support large numbers of people; less than 1% of the land is suitable for cultivation. The national average for rainfall is four inches per year, with as much as 20 inches per year falling in the mountains of the southwest, and as little as none for 10 years or more in the Empty Quarter (Rub al-Khali), the largest contiguous sand desert in the world. Most rain falls in the winter, between October and April. There are only a few permanent streams and natural lakes in Saudi Arabia. In the desert, summer temperatures can reach as high as 44-50°c (111-122°f), with winter temperatures in the northern and central regions dropping to below freezing. Along the coast, humidity can approach 100%. In the midwinter and early summer, the shamal—a north wind carrying sand and dust—blows fiercely. The kaus—a southeast wind—blows less frequently.
Saudi Arabia is surrounded on three sides by water: the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the east, the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden to the south, and the Red Sea to the west. Lying at the junction of three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—Saudi Arabia has a wide variety of plants and animals, despite its vast areas of desert. The earliest human settlements in Saudi Arabia discovered so far date back to 5000 bc, on the Persian Gulf coast. Modern-day Saudi Arabia is bordered on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, on the south by Yemen and Oman, on the east by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain, and on the west by the Red Sea.
The official language of Saudi Arabia, spoken by virtually all Saudis, is Arabic. Arabic, spoken by 100 million people worldwide, has many distinctive dialects, so that people living as little as 500 km (310 mi) apart may not be able to understand one another. Written Arabic, on the other hand, is classical Arabic and is the same for Arabic writers the world over. It is written and read from right to left.
"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum ("Peace be with you") with the reply of Walaykum assalam ("and to you peace"). Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan. "Yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sita, sab'a, thamanya, tis'a, and 'ashara.
Saudis generally speak English in business dealings. About 5.6 million foreign workers also reside in Saudi Arabia and generally speak Arabic as well as their native languages.
The Arabs of Saudi Arabia, being Muslim, have much folklore in common with the rest of the Islamic world. Of particular significance to the Saudis, however, is that much of the common folklore glorifies the city of Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. The myths and legends concerning pre-Islamic Mecca were recorded during the early years of Islam. One such story tells the tale of the creation of Mecca and, following this, the creation of Adam and Eve. According to the tale, in creating the earth, Allah (God) first shaped the area around Mecca, laying the rest of the earth around Mecca to make this sacred city the center of the world. He then made the angels from light and the jinn from fire. The angels remained in heaven, circling Allah's Sacred House, and the jinn were sent to the earth. When Allah decided to create Adam as His vicegerent over the earth, the angels objected, making Allah angry. To gain His favor, the angels built on earth an imitation of Allah's Sacred House in heaven. This replica was the Ka'ba in Mecca, to which all Muslims should go for pilgrimage. Allah then created Adam from dry clay, molded him from black loam, and breathed His spirit into him, giving him life. When Allah ordered the angels to prostrate themselves to Adam, all but one angel, Iblis (Satan), did so. Iblis was then banished from paradise because of his defiance. Allah created Hawwa (Eve) for Adam and allowed the couple to enjoy all the fruits of paradise except the fruit of one tree, which was forbidden. The resentful Iblis made his way back to paradise and tempted Adam and Hawwa to eat the fruit that Allah had warned them against. Both Adam and Hawwa ate from the fruit, and in return for disobeying Allah He ordered them to descend to the earth, where they and their descendants must remain until the Day of Judgment. Adam and his people worshiped Allah at the Ka'ba, and when the Ka'ba began to fall apart, Adam built a permanent House of Allah in the same spot. Centuries after the prophet Nuh's (Noah) flood, the prophet Ibrahim rebuilt the House of Allah.
There are many such legends illustrating the importance of the Saudi city of Mecca to the Islamic world. The Arab world also has thousands of proverbs and fables, many originating in ancient Arabia. Some are attributed to an ancient wise man known as Lukman, "the Aesop of the Arabs." According to Lukman: "He who does good has good done unto him"; "Walk quietly, lower your voice, for the voice of the jackass is the loudest and most ugly of voices"; and "A woman once owned a hen that laid a silver egg every morning. The woman thought, 'If I give her more food, she will surely lay more eggs.' She doubled the amount of food, but the hen, unable to take it, died of overfeeding."
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state and no other religious practices are allowed by law. About 90% of Saudis are Sunni Muslims, and the remainder is Shia Muslim. Non-Muslim religious services were tolerated in Saudi Arabia for a long time. Although they were discouraged, they were not prohibited outright until after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Christian prayer services used to be held in the country, including in the palace of King 'Abdul 'Aziz in the 1920s. From the 1960s until the 1980s, Christian services were held in private homes and foreign housing compounds. Since 1991, however, Christian services have been broken up by police, perhaps in response to the protests against the overwhelming Western presence in the country during and after the Gulf War.
The Al-Saud family supported the Islamic preacher Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab in the 18th century, who advocated for the return of Islamic practices to their original "pure" state. The Wahhabi form of Islam is still followed in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis have been called the "Muslim Calvinists," for their literal interpretations of the Quran and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). The Wahhabis decreed that the commands of the Quran must be enforced. For example, men are required to pray in a ritual manner, music and dancing are at times forbidden, and the type of clothing women wear is specified. This differs from Islam in other countries in that choices are not left up to the individual Muslim, but must follow the rules as they are interpreted by Wahhabis. In other countries (e.g., Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, etc.), the nature and extent of religious observance is more an individual matter.
Islam is the youngest of the world's Abrahamic religions, having begun in the early 7th century ad when the prophet Muhammad received his revelations from Allah, the one true God (according to Islam). Within just a few years of Muhammad's death in ad 632, Islam had spread through the entire Middle East, gaining converts at a dynamic rate.
Born into the Koreish tribe of Mecca (c. ad 570) in what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was later driven from the city because of his outspoken denunciation of the pagan idols worshiped there (idols who attracted a lucrative pilgrim trade). The year of Muhammad's flight from Mecca, ad 622, called the Hijra, or Hegira, is counted as Year One in the Muslim calendar. Muhammad fled to the city now known as Medina, another of the holy sites of modern-day Saudi Arabia. Eventually Muhammad returned to Mecca as a triumphant religious and political leader, destroyed the idols (saving the Black Stone, an ancient meteorite housed in the Ka'ba, or Cube, building, which has become a focal point of Muslim worship), and established Mecca as the spiritual center of Islam. All prayers are said facing Mecca, and each Muslim is expected, and greatly desires, to make a pilgrimage there (called a Haj or Hadj) at least once in his or her lifetime. A central religious holiday is Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which Muhammad received his first revelations—celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk each day of the entire month.
Islam is a simple, straightforward faith with clear rules for correct living. It is a total way of life, inseparable from the rest of one's daily concerns. Therefore, religion, politics, faith, and culture, are one and the same for Muslims. There is no such thing as the separation of church and state or any distinction between private religious values and public cultural norms in Saudi Arabia.
The one official secular holiday in Saudi Arabia is National Day (September 23), commemorating the founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The rest of the official holidays are Muslim. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by 11 days each year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar. The main Muslim holidays are: 'Id al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; 'Id al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Haj)—families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawlid An-Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and 'Id al-Isra' wa al-Mi'raj, a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven from Jerusalem. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are also closed during 'Id al-Fitr and 'Id al-Adha.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Saudis traditionally have had their marriages arranged and often marry within their extended families. Although the practice of arranged marriage is changing among some Saudis in urban areas, dating remains unacceptable. A Saudi marriage contract must be signed by witnesses. The contract specifies an amount of money known as mahr (dowry) that the bridegroom pays to the bride. It might also specify a second amount of money known as muta'akhir (a postponed dowry), to be paid to the wife in case of divorce. In some cases, the requirement of an advanced dowry (which can range between 25,000 to over 40,000 riyals) makes it difficult for many young men to afford marriage. Some couples, however, stipulate only a token amount of mahr to fulfill the legal requirements. In case of divorce, the woman not only receives the postponed dowry, but also her father and brothers are responsible for her well-being.
A Saudi woman does not take her husband's last name. She keeps her own family name because she is legally considered to belong to her own family for life. Chastity is regarded as the most important thing that a woman can bring to a marriage. Despite the fact that Saudi society is patriarchal, many Saudis interpret the retention of a woman's maiden name as an indication of her independence from her husband's control.
Upon the death of a parent or spouse, Islamic inheritance laws go into effect. A brother receives twice the share of his sister. Males are considered to be responsible for their families and thus need the larger inheritance, but a woman's inheritance, as with any personal property she owns, is hers to keep and do with as she wishes.
Arab hospitality reigns in Saudi Arabia. An Arab will never ask personal questions, as that is considered rude. A person is expected to say what he or she wishes without being asked. A direct refusal is also considered rude, so one must learn to read indirect signals. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand because the left hand is used for "unclean" purposes, such as wiping oneself after using the toilet.
The most widely used greeting in Saudi Arabia is as-salamu 'alaykum ("peace be with you"), to which one responds wa 'alaykum as-salam ("and peace be with you"). Men either shake hands or kiss on the cheeks during a salutation. Women do the same. However, a man and woman who are unrelated do neither.
Chastity and sexual modesty are highly valued, and many of the social restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia are said to be for the purpose of protecting a woman's honor and virtue. For example, the practice of preventing women from driving cars is not considered a restriction but is rather a means of protecting women from the indignity of driving.
Saudi values emphasize generosity and hospitality and helping those in need. Saudi society is tribal in nature, with a tribe consisting of groups of relatives traced through males. Members of the tribe take an interest in one another's well-being, and the more wealthy come to the aid of the indigent if the need arises. Each tribe has a leader known as a shaykh, who serves as a mediator in conflicts between tribal members. The shaykhs and their tribes give allegiance to the royal family—Al Saud—as a matter of loyalty.
It is very important to Saudis that they be hospitable to their guests. Respectability is maintained by extending generosity during a dinner party. Throughout dinner and dessert, (indeed, until the guests leave), the host or hostess acts as a server, continuously refilling plates and urging the guests to eat more. Serving the guests is known as al-mubashara. Even if the host or hostess has a domestic staff, it is his/her place to perform this service for guests.
Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, money has been available for modernization and technological development, resulting in dramatic improvements in the Saudi standard of living. An extensive network of roadways makes almost every corner of Saudi Arabia accessible, and most families own at least one car. Camels are still used for transport in some desert areas. Bus services link cities and towns and provide public transport within cities. Saudi Arabia has the only rail system on the Arabian Peninsula. The national airline, Saudia, was established in 1945 and is now the largest in the Middle East, with domestic and international flights to many destinations. In addition, two other Saudi airlines, Sama and Nas, operate in the country.
The Hajj Terminal at the King 'Abdul 'Aziz International Airport in Jeddah was built exclusively to handle Muslim pilgrims making their way to Mecca. (More than 2 million Muslims make the pilgrimage annually.) Saudi Arabia has many modern ports, the five largest being at Jeddah, Dammam, Yanbu, Jizan, and Jubail. The communications network is quite modern, with one of the world's best telephone systems. Telex, pager, and cellular phone services are also available. In 1985, Saudi Arabia launched the first- and second-ever Arab communications satellites. A well-developed postal system relies on post office boxes, rather than door-to-door delivery.
Modern health care and education are available free of charge to all Saudi citizens and pilgrims. Social services provide for workers and families in case of disability, retirement, or death. There are also provisions for social security pensions; elderly, orphans, or widows without incomes; home health care; rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents; nursing homes for the elderly; and orphanages for children. Low-income housing is available for public employees and students. The government also offers no-interest, long-term loans for the construction of homes. All adult Saudis, if not independently wealthy, are entitled to a plot of land and a loan to build a home.
Saudi homes traditionally were built for extended families, and this practice continues in rural areas. However, in cities, more married couples are living separately from their families. Houses are quite large and usually have separate quarters for men and women. Saudi architecture tends to use traditional Islamic designs. Adobe is common in Riyadh, the Nadj region, and the eastern province. Stone and red brick are generally used in the western districts. In Jeddah, corals from the Red Sea make for colorful buildings and homes.
There are at least 10 privately owned newspapers published in Saudi Arabia, 7 in Arabic and 3 in English. Ar-Riyadh and al-Jazirah have the highest circulation. Editors exercise self-censorship over their newspapers, in keeping with an unwritten press censorship code that restricts articles expressing opposition to the government. Foreign newspapers are heavily censored before entering the country, both to restrict politically sensitive material and to remove morally offensive items. There are millions of televisions and radios in the kingdom, hundreds of television stations, and dozens of radio stations. Internet access has been available in the country since 1999 and, as of 2006, approximately 26% of Saudi households had Internet access.
The family is central to Saudis. Extended families often live together in the same house. Marriages are usually arranged by families. A man is allowed up to four wives by Islamic law, if he can treat and love them all equally, but men rarely marry more than one woman at a time. Divorce is easy for men and possible for women and, since 1993, it has become commonplace. Women may write their own provisions into the marriage contract, and they may own and dispose of property freely.
Socially, women are very restricted. They must not mingle with men who are not close family members, at any time, in any way. They must wear a black veil over their heads, faces, and clothing whenever they are in public. Traditionally, women do not drive cars, and they are forbidden to travel alone. A woman may not attend a university lecture given by a man, but she may watch it on closed-circuit television; in this way, women may now earn advanced degrees at universities formerly closed to them.
Saudis generally wear traditional clothing. Men wear a thob, a simple ankle-length robe of wool or cotton, usually in white or earth tones. On their heads they wear a ghutra, a large, diagonally folded cotton square worn over a kufiyyah (skull-cap) and held in place with an i'gal, a double-coiled cord circlet. Sometimes men wear a flowing floor-length outer cloak called a bisht over their thob; the bisht is made of wool or camel hair in black, beige, brown, or cream colors.
Women's traditional dress varies by region, but it always covers the body from head to toe. It is often embellished with coins, sequins, metallic thread, or brightly colored fabric appliqués. Some women wear a shayla, a black gauzy scarf wrapped around the head and held in place by a variety of hats, head circlets, or jewelry. In public, women sometimes wear a black outer cloak called an ' abaya over their dress. In the southwest district known as the Asir, women wear brightly colored, long-waisted dresses and no veils.
Traditionally, dates were the staple food of the Saudis. Dates form an integral part of many Saudi (and other Middle Eastern) sweets. To celebrate 'Id (or 'Eid) al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, Saudis cook a sweet dish called dubyaza, which consists of cooked dates, dried apricots, dried figs, sultanas, and almonds. For 'Id al-Adha, commemorating the end of the Haj, Saudis make a pastry known as ma'mul. Smeed, a semolina-like flour, is mixed thoroughly in butter to make a granular pastry. This is then shaped into small balls and filled with either dates or almonds. The ma'mul is baked until golden in color and, after cooling, dusted with powdered sugar.
Although dates are still a supplement to the Saudi diet, with the modernization of agriculture and expanded trading opportunities, a wider variety of food is now available. A typical Saudi dish is lamb (or chicken) on a bed of seasoned rice. Pork is forbidden by Islamic law, as is alcohol. The possession of harmful drugs can actually carry the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Tea and coffee are served at all gatherings, large or small. Buttermilk, camel's milk, and laban—a yogurt drink—are favorite beverages. Dessert generally consists of one or more types of seasonal fruit. A unique Saudi food is arikah, a bread from the southwest region (the Asir) that is broken off and formed into a spoon shape to be dipped into a dish of honey. Locusts, although terribly destructive when swarming, are considered a delicacy in the Saudi diet.
Meals that commemorate religious events, such as the birth of the prophet Muhammad, are served on a white tablecloth on the floor. Forks and knives are not used at these meals; either the right hand or a spoon is used on religious occasions. Everyday meals are served at tables and forks and knives are commonplace.
Education is highly valued by the Saudis. It is a central aspect of family and community life, and parents are very involved in their children's education. Public education—from preschool through university— is free to all citizens. Government scholarships are also available for study abroad; most students go to the United States. Primary schooling begins at age six and continues for six years. Intermediate schooling begins at age 12 and lasts for three years. High school lasts from age 15 to 18 and is geared toward either the arts and sciences or vocational training.
Despite the importance placed on education, recent reports show that Saudi enrollment in schools lags that of other Arab nations. In 2004, for instance, the UN Development Program Human Development Report found that only 59% of Saudi children were enrolled in primary schools and only 52% in secondary schools. Nevertheless, the report also found that Saudi children had a literacy rate of 95.9%, which indicates that some children might be schooled at home or at private institutions.
Islamic studies are at the core of Saudi public education, but modern studies are also pursued. Formal primary education began in the 1930s, and the first university (now known as King Saud University) was founded in 1957 in Riyadh. A growth in the population of young Saudis and a need to equip Saudi youth with marketable skills prompted the government to increase the number of universities in Saudi Arabia from seven in the late 1970s to twelve as of 2008. Saudi Arabia also has 113 technical and vocational colleges and more than 18,000 schools. Boys and girls are educated separately; the first school for girls was built in 1960 under Crown Prince Faisal. About 58% of the 603,757 Saudis attending colleges or universities in 2005 were female.
Most Saudi Arabian schools are run by the government, which provides free tuition, books, and health services. There are a few private elementary schools. Government schools are also available for children and adults who are blind, deaf, or physically or mentally challenged. The Saudi Arabian government wants to eradicate illiteracy and has adult literacy programs in place across the country. As of 2003, literacy rates among men had reached 84.7%, compared with 73% in 1990. Among women, the literacy rate in 2003 had reached 70.8% compared with 48% in 1990.
The national dance of Saudi Arabia is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder, and a poet among them sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm. The dance consists of a ceremonial procession and symbolizes the unity of the kingdom. Al-mizmar is the name of both a folk dance involving skillful stick movements and a musical instrument resembling an oboe. Other traditional instruments are the oud, or lute, and the rebaba, a one-stringed instrument.
Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Saudi Arabian art focuses on geometric and abstract shapes. Calligraphy is a sacred art, with the Quran (Koran) being the primary subject matter. The Islamic reverence for poetry and the poetic richness of the Arabic language inform much of Saudi Arabia's cultural heritage.
The Saudi work week runs from Saturday through Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday as the weekend. Working hours are usually 8:00 am to 7:00 or 8:00 pm, with a long break in the afternoon. Government offices are open from 7:30 am to 2:30 pm, and banks are open from 8:00 to 11:30 am or 8:30 am to noon, and again from 4:00 to 6:00 pm or 5:00 to 7:00 pm.
As part of the economic development plan, new industrial cities have been built near sources of raw materials and easy access to domestic and international markets. Eight such cities have been built so far, with the two major ones at Jubail on the Arabian Gulf, and at Yanbu on the Red Sea. Jubail is the largest industrial city, accommodating 30,000 workers at 15 large factories and other industrial facilities. It also has a desalination plant, a vocational training institute, and a college. All industrial cities are constructed with an emphasis on environmental and wildlife conservation.
The government offers many incentives to private businesses, including no-interest loans (with a 25-year repayment plan) to start up new businesses. Many jobs are not open to women because women are not allowed to mingle with men who are not close family members, even in the workplace, according to Wahhabi Islamic tradition. However, this is slowly changing, and women are beginning to enter all ranks of employment, from skilled labor to professional positions.
Soccer is the national sport of Saudi Arabia. Volleyball, basketball, and tennis are also popular modern sports. The traditional sports of horse- and camel-racing are still enjoyed as well. The annual King's Camel Race that began in 1974 draws 2,000 competitors and 20,000-30,000 spectators each year. Many other horse and camel races are also held throughout the country. Hunting with guns has been banned for the sake of wildlife conservation, but traditional hunting, with dogs or falcons, is still avidly pursued. The Saluki hound used for hunting is probably one of the world's oldest breeds of domesticated dogs.
Sports training programs are available to all Saudis in a wide range of activities. The government promotes sports through physical education in the public schools and the establishment of huge Sports Cities in large urban centers, smaller neighborhood Sports Centers, and Sports Clubs in rural areas. Fifteen Sports Cities already exist, and more are being built. Each contains a multipurpose stadium that seats between 10,000 and 60,000 people, a 5,000-seat indoor stadium, Olympic-size swimming pools, indoor and outdoor courts and playgrounds, cafeterias, conference facilities, and sports-medicine clinics. Exceptional athletes go to sports camps for serious training, and the best of the camp trainees enter international competitions such as the Olympic Games.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Entertainment is largely a private matter—there are no public cinemas, for example. Camping is very popular, and there is an extensive network of local and national parks and campgrounds across Saudi Arabia. Water sports are enjoyed in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea. Many Saudis watch movies on video in their homes.
Saudi Arabia has more than 5 million radio receivers and 4.5 million television sets. There are more than 112 television stations and dozens of radio stations. The Saudi Arabian Broadcasting Service transmits programs to other countries in Arabic, Farsi, French, Indonesian, Somali, Swahili, and Urdu. Many of the domestic broadcast stations transmit English-language programs; the rest are Arabic-language. The strict Saudi moral standard restricts what can be broadcast, and programs are screened for scenes that contradict the codes of sexual chastity and religious observance.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Saudi Arabia is famous for gold and silver handicrafts, particularly jewelry fashioned as both a decorative art and as a status symbol. Jewelry is treasured both for its beauty and for the monetary value it bears. Because jewelry can be traded in or sold for currency, it is regarded as insurance against hard times. One of the finest examples of gold and silver handicrafts is on the kiswah, a black cloth embroidered in gold and silver with verses from the Quran. The kiswah measures approximately 28,500 sq ft and covers the four sides of the Ka'bah (cube building). The kiswah is replaced every year and made in Mecca.
Pottery making is another Saudi craft. Using a pottery wheel, craftsmen fabricate beautiful storage and water urns. Urns are made with narrow necks to prevent the evaporation of water. Brass and copper crafts are also abundant. In the city of Riyadh, craftsmen can be seen making brass coffeepots over open flames. Since ancient times, Saudis have crafted goods from leather, including handbags, saddlebags, sandals, and shoes. Wood carving is another prized art. Geometric designs and religious inscriptions are carved with sharp knives to create both artwork and fixtures such as wooden plates and engraved panels for doors. Straw is also used in artwork, with straw hats, mats, containers, and cooking lids available at the souk, or market.
Crime rates have risen in Saudi Arabia with the presence of foreign workers and ongoing hostilities in the Middle East following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Amnesty International reported in its 2008 human rights report that the Saudi government arrested hundreds of people suspected of terrorism in 2007 as well as activists pressing for political reforms. At least 158 people were executed in 2007 and many others received punishments of flogging or amputation.
In the past, Saudi Arabia's severe penalties helped prevent severe crimes from occurring. Repeated theft is punishable by amputation of the right hand, and drunkenness and gambling are punishable by flogging with a cane. Many sentences are delivered in secrecy and information about individuals detained in Saudi prisons often goes unreported to the public. Saudi Arabia has been criticized by Amnesty International for its human rights record concerning prison conditions, and asked permission to visit the country in 2007 to discuss human rights. The government has initiated some reforms in its justice system and has indicated a willingness to discuss its human rights records. However, the government had not agreed to a date for an Amnesty International visit as of late 2007.
Women in Saudi Arabia suffer extreme legal discrimination. Women cannot study, work, travel, marry, testify in court, file a legal complaint, or even undergo medical treatment without the consent of a male guardian, such as a husband, father, grandfather, brother, or son. Saudis justify these restrictions on the basis of Islamic principles. However, women are beginning to protest the discrimination and human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are bringing the plight of Saudi women to international attention.
The lack of legal rights has caused many Saudi women to suffer violence and abusive treatment from husbands, and has led to a rise in beatings, rapes, and non-payment of wages to foreign female workers in the kingdom. The government has signed international charters supporting women's rights, but has not significantly modified its laws. Although more than half of all college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, few women enter the workforce or have the opportunity to use their education outside of the home.
Women's rights groups have formed in Saudi Arabia. One such organization petitioned King Abdullah in September 2007 for the right to drive vehicles and to compete in international sporting events. The government has indicated a willingness to allow women more rights, but has not put policies to end discrimination into place.
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—revised by Himanee Gupta-Carlson.