Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia is a Middle Eastern country that occupies most of the Arabian peninsula and has coastlines on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Neighbouring countries include Jordan to the northwest, Iraq and Kuwait to the northeast, Bahrain and Qatar to the east, the United Arab Emirates to the southeast, and Oman and Yemen to the south. Saudi Arabia contains the Muslim holy cities of Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (Madinah), to which all physically and financially able Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage at least once if possible (see Hajj). (less...) (more...)

Population: 26,939,583 people
Area: 2,149,690 km2
Highest point: 3,133 m
Coastline: 2,640 km
Life expectancy: 74.58 years
GDP per capita: $31,800
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About Saudi Arabia

History

Saudi Arabia is one of two countries named after their royal families, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The family were sheikhs of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, but were driven out by a neighbouring dynasty, hiding with their relatives, the emirs of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and a few dozen lads rode out to raid their home territory. As it turned out, the invaders had been ruling badly, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured Riyadh, but much of the surrounding territory.

After that, Abdul Aziz set out on a 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.

In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia accepted the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its sand for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.

Climate

People tend to think of Saudi Arabia as an expanse of scorchingly hot desert punctuated with oil wells, and for most of the time in most of the country, they would be absolutely right. From May to September, the country (basically everything except the southwestern mountains) bakes in temperatures that average 42°C and regularly exceed 50°C in the shade. In July and August, in particular, all who can flee the country and work slows down to a crawl. The coasts are only slightly moderated by the sea, which usually keeps temperatures below 38°C — but at the price of extreme humidity (85-100%), which many find even more uncomfortable than the dry heat of the interior, especially at night. Only the elevated mountainous regions stay cool(er), with the summer resort city of Taif rarely topping 35°C and the mountainous Asir region cooler yet.

In winter, though, it's a surprisingly different story. Daytime highs in Riyadh in December average only 21°C, and temperatures can easily fall below zero at night, occasionally even resulting in a sprinkling of snow in the southern mountains. The winter can also bring rains to all or most of the country, although in many years this is limited to one or two torrential outbursts. The end of spring (April and May) is also a rainy season for much of the country. In the south, though, this pattern is reversed, with most rain falling during the Indian Ocean's monsoon season between May and October.

Geography

Saudi Arabia covers approximately four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping eastwards till reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.

The main topographical features are as follows:

The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range runs parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As one moves further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as 'Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Makkah, and approximately 400 km north of Makkah in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Madinah.

West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country's second largest city, Jidda, is located.

East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow platau running 800 km from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criscrossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.

Further east from the Tuwaig plataeu and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100 km) corridor of red sand dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the "Central Region" or "Najd" from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large "seas" of sand dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior, and the southern is known as "the Empty Quarter," so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three "seas of sand" make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin almost never attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.

North of the Nufud desert lies a vaste desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins with the exception of a few oasis such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.

The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.

Activities

Entertainment in Saudi Arabia is very family-oriented. There are few activities for just couples or singles. Single men are not allowed in family areas: family beaches are partitioned from the bachelor beaches, for example. Women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative in public, although single women may be admitted into family areas.

Desert excursions are particularly popular with the native Arabs. There are few desert dune bashing tour operators, if any, but ATV rentals are often found along the roadside on the outskirts of major cities and expats often arrange convoy trips into the desert. The Empty Quarter has the most awesome scenery — and requires the most preparation.

Scuba diving is popular on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast. Jeddah has a number of dive operators.

Amusement parks (many of them indoor) are often found near malls or beaches. Many large cities have public parks and small zoos. Horseback riding, camel riding, etc. are also available at horse-racing tracks and some popular beaches. Many upscale hotels provide light activities (especially hotels located along the beaches).

Movie theatres are banned in the Kingdom, but DVD shops abound, although the selections are often tame and/or censored. DVDs in Saudi Arabia are invariably Region 2, though bootleg DVDs (which are widely available in smaller video shops) are usually region-free, and often uncensored as well. Satellite TV and downloading entertainment from the Internet is thus very popular.

Video games are an eternal obsession of Saudi youth, and one which is capitalized upon rather well by local retailers. Video game shops are ubiquitous in all of the major cities. Authentic games are offered by most of the larger stores, as US or European imports for an average of ~270SR (~$70), while the smaller ones usually only offer bootlegs (which are illegal, but still lucrative enough that almost all sell them) at very low prices of 10-15SR ($2.5-$4). Wii and Xbox 360 bootlegs reign supreme, but certain stores offer Nintendo DS and PSP games as well, downloaded to a customer's removable media on request.

Food

Eating is one of the few pleasures permitted in Saudi Arabia, and the obesity statistics show that most Saudis indulge as much as they can. Unlike other businesses which kick out their customers at prayer time, most restaurants will let diners hang around and eat behind closed doors through the prayer period. New customers are generally not allowed to enter until after prayer is over.

Fast food

Fast food is a huge business in Saudi Arabia, with all the usual suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) and not a few chains that rarely venture outside America elsewhere (e.g. Hardee's, Little Caesars). Meals invariably served with fries and Coke cost SR10-20. Some local imitators worth checking out include:

  • Al-Baik - fried chicken- in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Taif but not Riyadh
  • Baak - Pizza (thin crust and quite good), fried chicken, lasagna, sandwiches
  • Kudu. Saudi sandwich chain
  • Herfy Burger. Biggest fast food chain in the country, 100% Saudi owned
  • House of Donuts - "The Finest American Pastries" - a chain started by Saudi students who studied in America

Cheaper yet are the countless curry shops run by and for Saudi Arabia's large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, which serve up large thali platters of subcontinental fare for under SR10. Just don't expect frills like air-conditioning.

Local cuisine

The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SR 3-4 being the standard price for a sandwich. The Egyptian mashed fava bean stew foul is another cheap staple, and these shops usually also offer felafel (chickpea balls) and a range of salads and dips like hummus (chickpea paste) and tabbouleh (parsley salad).

Finding restaurants that serve actual Saudi cuisine is surprisingly difficult, although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants. Your local Saudi or expatriate host may be able to show you some places or, if you're really lucky, an invitation to dinner at home.

  • Mandi — Chicken or mutton cooked with rice in a pot suspended above a fire.

Drinks

With alcohol, nightclubs, playing music in public and mingling with unrelated people of the opposite sex all banned, it's fair to say that nobody comes to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife.

Coffee shops

Pretty much the only form of entertainment for bachelors is the ubiquitous coffee shop, which serve not only coffee and tea, but water pipes (shisha) with flavoured tobacco. These are strictly a male domain. In a government effort to minimize smoking in major cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, establishments that offer shisha are either banished to the outskirts of town, or offer exclusive outdoor seating arrangements.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for a hazelnut frappucino, Starbucks and its legion competitors have established a firm foothold in the Kingdom's malls. These usually welcome women, although 2008 saw several arrests of unmarried couples "mingling".

As for the coffee (kahwa) itself, try mirra, made in the Bedouin style. Sometimes spiced with cardamom, it's strong and tastes great, particularly drunk with fresh dates. Tea (chai) usually comes with dollops of sugar and perhaps a few mint leaves (na'ana).

Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden throughout the country, although the police generally turn a blind eye to goings-on inside compounds for foreign expats, where homebrew wine is common. However, if they catch people involved in smuggling or distilling booze in quantity, then expat or not, Saudi law applies. A foreigner may not get the sentence a local would, but can expect a few days or weeks jail, public flogging, and deportation.

There is a local white lightning known among foreigners as "siddiqui" (Arabic for friend) or just as "sid". This is generally horrible-tasting and very potent. In addition to the obvious legal risk, there is a risk of inexpert distilling making it downright poisonous. The stuff is emphatically to be avoided.

Do not drink and drive! is good advice anywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia. If you have an accident, or otherwise attract police attention, the consequences might be serious indeed.

Soft drinks

As elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudis are big fans of various fruit juices, ranging from the ordinary (apple, orange) to the downright bizarre (banana-lemon-milk-walnut, anyone?).

Non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks are popular. Two of the most common are Saudi champagne, basically apple juice and Sprite or soda water, and malt beverages, i.e. non-alcoholic beer, always sweet and often strongly flavored with mango, strawberry, apple, lemon etc. essences. You can even get apple-flavored Budweiser!

Tap water

Tap water in the major cities is generally considered safe, although it's not always particularly tasty, and in the summer can be very hot. That said, in winter floodwater can seep into tanks, with an estimated 70% of storage in Jeddah affected by major flooding in January 2011 and some cases of dysentery reported.

Bottled water is readily available and cheap at SR2 or less for a 1.5L bottle, so many visitors and residents choose to play it safe. Many residents prefer to buy drinking water from purification stations.

Shopping

The Saudi currency is the 'Saudi riyal (ريال, SAR), which trades at a fixed 3.75 to the US dollar since 1986. The riyal is divided into 100 halalas, which are used to mark some prices, but, in practice, all payments are rounded to the nearest riyal and odds are you probably will never see any halala coins. Bills come in values of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500 riyals, with two series in circulation.

The riyal is also pegged to the Bahraini dinar at a 10:1 ratio. If you are considering travelling to Bahrain, virtually all businesses in Bahrain will accept riyals, but the dinar is not as easily convertible in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society, and credit card acceptance is surprisingly poor outside luxury hotels and malls. ATMs are ubiquitous, although those of many smaller banks do not accept foreign cards; Samba, SABB and ANB are probably your best bets. Moneychangers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere. Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by merchants.

Costs

Prices are generally fairly expensive: figure on USD50/100/200 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs.

Tipping is generally not expected, although service staff are always happy to receive them and taxi fares are often rounded up (or, not uncommonly, down). Expensive restaurants often slap on a 10% service charge, although due to lax regulation many employers simply usurp it (ask your waiters if they receive any of it or not if you would like to tip them). There are no sales taxes in Saudi, and for that matter, there aren't any income taxes either!

What to buy

Few local products are of interest to tourists. Locally grown dates are of high quality, and religious paraphernalia is widely available, but almost exclusively imported. Copies of the Qur'an are produced in a wide range of editions and sold at very low prices. Zam zam water is available throughout the Western Region and at all airports.

Carpets are a favorite purchase, most of these coming from nearby Iran. Jeddah in particular has lots of carpets, many brought by pilgrims who sell them there to help finance their trip to Makkah.

Large gold and jewelry markets are prominent in all major cities. Bargaining is a norm in most small to medium sized stores. Makkah and Madinah offer a lot of variety in terms of luggage, clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense, and religious literature, audio, and paraphernalia.

Large, well maintained air-conditioned malls and grocery stores (i.e. Safeway, Geant, Carrefour [2]) are scattered throughout the kingdom.

This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Saudi Arabia on Wikivoyage.

Cities in Saudi Arabia

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Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, located slightly east of the center of the country in the heart of the Tuwaig escarpment.

Interesting places:

  • Kingdom Centre
  • Al Faisaliyah Tower
  • King Abdulaziz Historical Center
  • Al Watan Park
  • Al Zal Market
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Mecca or Makkah (Arabic: مكة المكرمة Makkah al-Mukarramah), located in western Saudi Arabia, is the holiest city in Islam. It is strictly forbidden for Non-Muslims to enter the city and this is strongly enforced.

Interesting places:

  • Kaaba
  • Masjid al-Haram
  • Abraj Al Bait Towers
  • King Fahad Gate
  • Mount Arafat
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Dhahran is in Eastern Saudi Arabia.

Interesting places:

  • King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals
  • Scitech Museum
  • Al Khobar Water Tower
  • Khobar Corniche
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Medina is a city in Saudi Arabia, to the north of Mecca.

Interesting places:

  • Al-Masjid al-Nabawi
  • Baqi Al Gharqad
  • Quba Mosque
  • Islamic University of Madinah
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Jeddah is on the Red Sea in western Saudi Arabia. It the kingdom's second largest city, with a population of approximately 3,400,000, and a major commercial center in the country. Jeddah is also the main entry point, either by air or sea, for pilgrims making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the two ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Souk Al Alawi
  • Nasseef House
  • Floating Mosque
  • Makkah Gate
  • King Fahd\'s Fountain
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Dammam is the largest city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and the 3rd largest city in the kingdom after Riyadh and Jeddah .

Interesting places:

  • Al Shatea Mall
  • Al Danah Mall
  • Al Waha Mall
  • King Fahd Park
  • Al Rashed Mall
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Interesting places:

  • Turkish Castle
  • Jazan Port
  • Rashid Mall
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Taif is a city in western Saudi Arabia. It is in the mountains near Mecca and was once used as the summer capital, letting the royal family get out of the much hotter Riyadh.

Interesting places:

  • Taif Cable Car
  • King Fahd Garden
  • Al Kar Tourist Village
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Interesting places:

  • Yanbu Industrial College
  • Fish Market
  • Al Fairouz Park
  • Happy Land
  • Yanbu University
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Interesting places:

  • Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu
  • Deffi Park
  • Aqua Park
  • Al Nakheel Beach Park
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Interesting places:

  • Boudl Land Amusement Park
  • Abu Musa Park
  • Algati Mosque
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Hofuf is a city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The city is located within the oasis of al-Ahsa , and the names are often used interchangeably.

Interesting places:

  • Luna Park
  • Fawars Mall
  • King Faisal University
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Abha is a city in Saudi Arabia. The capital of Asir province, its high altitude makes it a popular summer getaway for Saudis.

Interesting places:

  • Prince Mohammed bin Abdul Aziz Stadium
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Ha'il is an oasis city in Nejd in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

Interesting places:

  • Qishlah Palace
  • A\'airif Fort
  • Garden Mall
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Onizah is a city in the Nejd region of Saudi Arabia. It is the second city in Qassim (Gassim) province.

Interesting places:

  • Dreamland
  • King Fahd Cultural Center
  • Roman Theater
  • Unaizah Mall
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Buraydah is a city in the Nejd region of Saudi Arabia. It is the capital of Qassim (Gassim) province, and the names are often used interchangeably on timetables and signage.

panoramio Photos are copyrighted by their owners

Points of Interest in Saudi Arabia

  • The best known sites in Saudi Arabia are likely the two holy cities of Islam; Mecca and Medina. However it's prohibited for non-Muslims to enter these cities.
  • There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, both inscribed in 2008. These are the Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih) in Hejaz and the At-Turaif District in Diriyah.
  • The old town of Jeddah.
  • Old and ultra-modern architecture in the capital of Riyadh.
  • A whole lot of desert - the Arabian Desert makes up most of the country.

Masjid al-Haram - Mecca

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi - Medina

Kingdom Centre - Riyadh

Souk Al Alawi - Jeddah

Al Shatea Mall - Dammam

Taif Cable Car - Taif

King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals - Al Khobar

Yanbu Industrial College - Yanbo

Mada\'in Saleh - Al Ula

Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu - Al Jubayl

Boudl Land Amusement Park - Hafr Albatin

Kaaba - Mecca

Abraj Al Bait Towers - Mecca

King Fahad Gate - Mecca

Baqi Al Gharqad - Medina

Al Faisaliyah Tower - Riyadh

Quba Mosque - Medina

Mount Arafat - Mecca

Jabal Al Noor - Mecca

King Abdulaziz Historical Center - Riyadh

panoramio Photos are copyrighted by their owners
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