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Saudi Arabia - Overview

Capital: Riyadh

Population: 26,417,599 (includes 5,576,076 non-nationals. July 2005 est.)

Languages: Arabic

Religions: Muslim

Currency: Saudi riyal (SAR)

Timezone: GMT+3

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, popularly known within the country as 'the Kingdom', occupies around four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by the countries of Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, and has a coastline of 2,640 metres bordering the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Much of the country consists of uninhabited desert, but there are also areas of mountain and lowland. Most of the population lives either in the coastal areas, or the oasis towns and cities of the interior. The economy is oil-based.

Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, and the Holy Qur'an forms the country's constitution. As the home of Islam's holiest city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia receives thousands of Muslim pilgrims each year. The government of Saudi Arabia consists of its monarchy and there are no political parties or elections, although the King has to govern strictly by Islamic law (Sharia) and other Saudi customs. The king appoints judges to the religious courts which administer justice according to Islamic law, commonly in the form of corporal punishment including floggings or even amputations and beheadings for serious crimes. Unsurprisingly, the crime rate in Saudi Arabia is extremely low.

Daily life in Saudi Arabia is also governed by the laws of Islam and the religious police, or Mutaween, are responsible for enforcing the law and preventing non-Islamic activities. Their power includes the right to report to the courts unrelated males and females who are socializing, to apprehend any Saudi women who are not covered from head to toe in a long cloak (abaya) and veil (niqab) in public, and to confiscate any inappropriate consumer goods or media products. They also have to ensure that all shops and businesses stop work during the five daily prayer times. Drinking alcohol and eating pork are against Islam and are completely forbidden in Saudi Arabia, as is any form of pornography or homosexual practice. It is an offence to criticize the regime or Islam, or to violate any of the country's laws, even unknowingly, and no exception is made for expatriates, who may be imprisoned, deported or even executed if they do so. The death penalty is strictly enforced for drug trafficking.

There are a large number of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, the biggest groups of these being low-skilled workers from South and South East Asia. There are also significant numbers of Western expatriates working in the country on temporary contracts, many of whom have been attracted by the high salaries and other benefits on offer, and are prepared to tolerate the necessary restrictions on their lifestyle for a few years or so. The largest groups of Western expatriates live in Riyadh in the interior of the country, or Jeddah on the west coast.

Life for Western women is particularly restrictive in Saudi Arabia. They are expected to wear a black abaya and to cover their hair when in public, and they are not allowed to drive. Men are also expected to dress modestly, and to wear jackets or long-sleeved shirts and long trousers when in public. Outside expatriate compounds, there are no entertainment facilities to speak of, although there are many local and western restaurants, and a large number of shopping malls. The religious police do not enter the expatriate compounds, where a wide variety of social activities can often be found, and where people also commonly brew their own alcoholic beverages.

Recently, there has been a continuing high threat of terrorism in Saudi Arabia. Many countries require nationals to register with their embassies in Saudi Arabia. Even if this is not a requirement, it is advisable to do so.

It should be noted that in Saudi Arabia a lunar calendar is in operation and each month has 29 or 30 days.

Added 2/11/05 by Tex - You mentioned high numbers of expats in Riyadh and Jeddah, when in fact the most expats can be found in and around Dhahran. Also, there is the fact that all local employees are available to police for the purpose of knowing what happens inside the compounds. The police can and do enter compounds, if suspected drugs are there, after asking permission from the managers.

Read more about this country

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