After a while in Saudi Arabia, most visitors realize what a unique country it is: a kingdom fusing tradition with progress. In just 80 years it has progressed from being a loose confederation of Bedouin tribes, to an oil-rich, post-industrial nation.
Saudi Arabia is a conservative, predominantly Sunni Muslim state, and development must emanate from and reflect the kingdom’s traditions and Muslim faith. Shariah law is strictly enforced and religion is widely practiced. Islam is intertwined with everyday affairs, from politics and business dealings to family and personal relationships.
|“LET OUR DIALOGUE BE A TRIUMPH OF BELIEF OVER DISBELIEF, OF VIRTUE OVER VICE, OF JUSTICE OVER INIQUITY, OF PEACE OVER CONFLICTS AND WARS, AND OF HUMAN BROTHERHOOD OVER RACISM.”|
KING ABDULLAH BIN ABDULAZIZ AL SAUD,
Custodian of the two Holy Mosques
Culture and traditions from the distant past still abound, and most Saudis happily practice them day-to-day. This respect for the old ways has helped the country avoid the turmoil which has recently spread through much of the Arab world. Yet at the same time, the country has embarked on a path of unprecedented growth, social development, and modernization that has been particularly encouraged and accelerated under the leadership of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. He has laid out an ambitious reform agenda that includes the privatization of key industries, economic diversification away from the kingdom’s heavy reliance on oil revenues, educational and legal changes, and landmark social reforms, particularly regarding the role of Arab women.
Yet it is this clash of the modern with the traditional that makes the desert kingdom all the more fascinating. It has also led to the local belief that “future modernization must take place within the framework of ‘social cohesion’ to avoid shattering the essence of Saudi culture.”
Traditional values and cultural mores are adapted into legal prohibitions, even for non-Muslims, of alcoholic products and pork products. Saudi Arabian dress strictly follows the principles of hijab, the Islamic principle of modesty, and historical rituals and folk culture permeate the country’s dance and music.
Contrary to popular belief, Saudi Arabia is geographically diverse, with forests, grasslands, mountain ranges and deserts. The climate varies from region to region. Temperatures can reach over 110ºF in the desert in the summer, while in the winter temperatures in the north and central parts of the country will often drop below freezing.
On a global level, the King has been a central figure in the country’s modernization process, encouraging the efforts of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) to stimulate domestic and foreign investment, streamlining privatization moves and acceding to the World Trade Organization. At the same time the kingdom is gradually opening up sectors for investors, including telecommunications, airlines and insurance, and is continuing to support the main engines of economic growth by encouraging local and foreign private sectors to contribute to development of Saudi Arabia’s new economic cities.
Nevertheless, there are challenges ahead. A recent report by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum (WEF) says that the kingdom needs is to ensure that its education system is adequate to support the developing private sector as a means of assisting economic diversification, and reducing reliance on state-run industries and oil revenues. More skills are also needed to reduce unemployment and to lessen the current dependency on foreign labor, which still comprises about a third of the population.