Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is a sovereign Arab state in Western Asia constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula. With a land area of approximately 2,150,000 km2 (830,000 sq mi), Saudi Arabia is geographically the fifth-largest state in Asia and second-largest state in the Arab world after Algeria. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the northeast, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, Oman to the southeast and Yemen to the south. It is separated from Israel and Egypt by the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the only nation with both a Red Sea coast and a Persian Gulf coast and most of its terrain consists of arid desert and mountains.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud. Saudi Arabia is sometimes called “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam. The state has a total population of 28.7 million, of which 20 million are Saudi nationals and 8 million are foreigners. The state’s official language is Arabic.
Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, controlling the world’s second largest oil reserves and the sixth largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy with a high Human Development Index and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies. However, the economy of Saudi Arabia is the least diversified in the Gulf Cooperation Council, lacking any significant service or production sector (apart from the extraction of resources). Saudi Arabia is a monarchical autocracy, has the fourth highest military expenditure in the world and SIPRI found that Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2010–2014. Saudi Arabia is considered a regional and middle power. In addition to the GCC, it is an active member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and OPEC.
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 do so, 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 and the northern desert. 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.
The national Saudi Arabian dish is the Kabsa and Mandi. It is similar to the Indian Briyani but not quite the same.
The Middle Eastern staple of shwarma (doner kebab) is widely available in dedicated little joints, with SAR3-4 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 very difficult. Although many larger hotels have Arabic restaurants, they are usually of lower quality. 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.
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 favourite 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 jewellery markets are prominent in all major cities, especially in Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. Gold prices are cheap in Saudi Arabia, and bargaining is a norm in most small to medium sized stores. Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah offer a lot of trading and variety in terms of luggage, clothing, jewellery, kick-knacks, souvenirs, toys, food, perfume, incense, and religious literature, audio, and paraphernalia. The Jeddah old town (Al-Balad) is internationally well known for its authentic, bazaar style, Arabic souk atmosphere, along with the Hijazi old building architecture. There you will find a lot of local and international products, from jewellery, perfume and incense to cloths, toys and food. Along with with many international people and cultures mixing, which gives you a sense of belonging to the world and a real feel to business and product trading. Although to a new visitor the place might look unsafe, Jeddah’s Al-Balad is very safe, with police cars and officers patrolling the street and standing in every corner.
Large, well maintained air-conditioned malls and grocery stores (i.e. Al-Danub, Geant, Carrefour) are scattered throughout the kingdom.