Sunday, June 3, 2018


As a kid, I was really into these two atlases my mother had. One covered US states and territories and the other was for the world. I remember a photo of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East section that was of the Rub’ al Khali desert, a vast desert that covers roughly the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. It literally means “Empty Quarter.” The starkness and the emptiness really got me, yet there are animals and certain plants that have learned to live there somehow. Remind me of a few jobs I’ve had. 

Looks like one of those generic computer backgrounds that come pre-installed.
The country is named after the Al Saud, the royal family. The term Arab or Arabian is thought to have been derived from words meaning “nomadic” or “desert,” but there are other theories of its origin as well. 

Saudi Arabia takes up most of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s surrounded by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north; Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to the east; and Oman and Yemen to the south. The Persian Gulf is off to the east (by Bahrain and Qatar) while the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba separate the Arabian Peninsula from Africa to the west. A number of small islands dot the coastlines on both sides. And amazingly, it’s the largest country that doesn’t have any rivers. No surprise here, but Saudi Arabia has a desert climate. They’re known for their high daytime temperatures in the summer, which are typically between 113-129ºF! Um, no thanks.

It’s thought by many historians that the first people here arrived from eastern Africa at the Horn of Africa roughly 75,000 years ago. There were several civilizations and kingdoms that thrived in this area before the advent of Islam, including Al-Magar, Dilmun, Thamud, Nabatean, Lihyan, and Kindah. When the prophet Muhammad was born, much of this area was nomadic societies with a few cities on the coasts and edges of the deserts. But Muhammad had unified some of these nomadic tribes and converted them to Islam. After his death, they spread his religion beyond the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula. At one point, the Umayyad Caliphate spread from modern-day Portugal to Pakistan, making it one of the largest empires in history. Mecca and Medina became important cities in Islam. However, much of what is now Saudi Arabia was still pretty much tribally run at this point and opened itself up for larger civilizations to move in to take over. The Ottomans entered the picture in the early 16th century. What started as a means of keeping the Portuguese out, opened itself up to staying around for the next four centuries (gotta make sure the job’s done, I guess). The Saud family established their place in 1744 when Muhammad bin Saud joined together with the religious leader Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab to create a super conservative form of Sunni Islam. Set up near Riyadh, they quickly expanded and took control over most of their present-day boundaries. Previous tribal leaders didn’t take too kindly to the Saud family’s rule and there were conflicts and revolts over it. Finally in 1932, the kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz united and became known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Not long afterwards, oil was discovered, and of course the US smelled it and started salivating and got involved (not to mention, just trying to control all of Aramco, their main oil company, themselves). Foreign workers flooded the country to work, setting off the local’s xenophobia. During the 1970s, oil wars over who controlled the pricing and profits (along with Saudi Arabia’s dislike of Israel and the West) caused prices to quadruple. A growth of more (conservative) religious radicalization is a cause for concern. Human rights groups are concerned about the lack of rights and treatment of women. It was only last year when women were allowed to get a driver’s license.

Riyadh is the most populous city and national capital. Roughly located in the center of the county, it was originally called Hajr during the pre-Islamic days. It really expanded and adopted the grid-like city planning during the 1940s and 1950s. The old parts of the city aren’t that large, but one of the most historic buildings includes the Masmak Fort. Today, it’s a modern city and serves as the center of government, finance, media, transportation, and sports and culture.

Saudi Arabia’s economy is –no surprise here– mainly supported by petroleum. However, it’s also highly dependent on foreign workers in this industry as well. It’s estimated that Saudi Arabia has roughly one-fifth of the world’s petroleum reserves. There is also a small mining industry, mostly in gold and some other minerals. A few areas in the country are able to support its small agricultural endeavors. Saudi Arabia does struggle with creating enough drinkable water and food variety as well as inequality and hiring its own people over foreign workers.

Officially, all Saudi citizens are Muslim. There are several estimates, but most would put the Sunni Muslim population between 75-90% and the Shia as the remaining 10-25%. The version of Sunni mainly practiced here is actually Wahhabism (also called Salafism), which is an ultra-conservative form of Islam. There is a significant number of Christians in the country, but they are mostly foreign workers. Atheists and agnostics are considered terrorists (I should probably stay away then). To leave Islam (called apostasy), either by converting to another religion or becoming an atheist, is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

Yeah, this seems a little crazy to me. Not exactly sure what's so secret down this road.
The official language is Arabic, although there are several dialects spoken throughout the country: Najdi Arabic, Hejazi Arabic, and Gulf Arabic. There’s also a Saudi Sign Language for their deaf community. Because of the large number of foreign workers in the country, there are large pockets of Tagalog, Urdu, Rohingya, and Egyptian Arabic speakers as well.

I came across this sport that’s popular in Saudi Arabia called Sidewalk Skiing. Its name doesn’t really describe what they’re actually doing, however. What it is, is taking a car and getting it to ride on the two tires on one side of the car while it’s in motion. And while they’re in motion, the passengers will sit on the outside or do tricks on the car. I actually saw this in the M.I.A. video for “Bad Girls” a few years ago. I thought it was crazy then, and still think it’s crazy.

Up next: art and literature

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