Life in
Saudi Arabia

Regardless of their racial origins, the people of Saudi Arabia have two common characteristics: they speak Arabic and are of the Moslem faith. They are intensely proud people and have a deep respect for personal dignity and country, whilst their customs of generous hospitality are well known.

The People

Much of the industrial enterprise in the country is intent on progressing Saudi Arabia towards industrial independence. Many other nationalities live in Saudi Arabia (apart from Europeans and Americans) and these people, for the most part, come from neighbouring countries such as the Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon.


The religion of Saudi Arabia is Islam, which means 'submission to the will of God'. There are five primary duties known as the 'five pillars' of the faith that are required of a Moslem.
The first is the profession of faith: 'There is no God but God, Mohammed is the Prophet of God', which is said repeatedly during prayer.
The second is prayer itself, and Moslems are required to pray five times a day: before dawn, at midday, the middle of the afternoon, at sunset, and in the evening. During prayer, Moslems face towards the Ka'bah, the House of God, in Makkah.
The third is the giving of alms, both in the form of a religious tax (Zakat) and voluntary alms to the needy.
The fourth is fasting, which takes place during the holy month of Ramadan. In this month, Moslems are not allowed to smoke, eat or drink during the hours from dawn to sunset and the firing of a cannon usually signifies these times.
The fifth is the 'Haj', or pilgrimage to Makkah, that takes place during the last month of the Moslem year. During this time, the Government provides enormous health, immigration, accommodation and travel facilities for millions of pilgrims from Islamic countries. The Haj is required of a Moslem only if he has the means, but there is great merit for those who manage to make it.
Mosques are sanctified places of prayer, and at prayer times the call to prayer is made from the tower of the Mosque (usually by a recording through loudspeakers; in the old days, the 'Muezzin' used voice power alone). The act of prayer is an individual one between the person and God and congregational prayers, usually held on Fridays, simply mean that one person from the congregation leads the prayers. There are many prohibitions that apply to Moslems, and some impinge on foreigners residing in Saudi Arabia, e.g. the eating of pig products, such as pork, and drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Social Customs

The precepts of Islam, together with deep-rooted traditions founded on centuries old customs, give to the Arab a deep respect for social dignity and courtesy. It is a matter of habit rather than ostentation and it is, therefore, important for foreigners to familiarise themselves with local custom. In particular, every personal contact, in all spheres of life (casual or not, including telephone calls, entering shops and so on) begins with some form of courteous greeting. It is always much appreciated if foreigners take the trouble to learn the Arabic forms of greetings and responses, which are, for this purpose, fairly standardised.
Light social conversation generally centres on health (the weather is unremarkable conversationally!). It is generally safer at first to avoid asking after wife and family. Arabs understand if a foreigner unwittingly commits a social blunder and make considerable allowances for shortcomings. At the same time, efforts to follow custom are highly regarded.
The Arabs are justifiably famous for their hospitality and, while the standards are set by custom, the Arab applies them with a warmth that reflects his enjoyment in entertaining his guest. The most usual gesture for the entertainment of an individual or small group is the serving of coffee (usually unsweetened and heavily flavoured with cardamom seed - for the foreigner, a taste to be acquired).
It is also common to serve tea (sweetened and without milk) or soft drinks in offices and shops when the occasion arises. It is impolite to refuse these important tokens of hospitality. If the group is large and the guests important, a more elaborate form of entertaining might be the Arab feast where the main dish may be camel but is more likely to be sheep, with many side dishes.
The host frequently will not eat with his guests but spends his time making sure that they are amply served. Food is taken and eaten with the right hand only. Some skill is required when eating rice in this way, but guests are not expected to eat tidily and the host always provides them with the means to wash and clean up after the meal. The eating of food with gusto indicates to the host how much a guest is enjoying the meal. It is normal for a guest to take his leave immediately after he has finished the meal.