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Parts of what is now eastern Saudi Arabia were first settled in the fourth or fifth millenium BC by migrants from what is now southern Iraq. The Nabateans had the biggest of the early empires, stretching as far as Damascus around the first century BC.

In the early 18th century the Al-Saud, the ruling family of modern Saudi Arabia, were the ruling shaikhs of the oasis village of Dir'aiyah, near modern Riyadh. When they formed an alliance, in the mid-18th century, with Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, the result was Wahhabism, the back-to-basics religious movement which is still Saudi Arabia's official form of Islam. By 1806, the converting armies of Wahhabism had conquered most of modern Saudi Arabia as well as a large part of southern Iraq.

None of this went down well in Constantinople, as western Arabia was, at least in theory, part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1812 the empire retook western Arabia, and by the end of the 19th century the Al-Saud had retreated to Kuwait, where they were given sanctuary. From here one of the great Al-Saud leaders, known as Ibn Saud, brewed up an irresistible combination of piety, strategy and diplomacy and retook Riyadh and then, in 1925, Jeddah.

In 1938, Chevron found commercial quantities of oil in Saudi Arabia, and when WWII started oil production really took off. By 1950 the kingdom's royalties were running at about US$1 million a week, and by 1960, 80% of the government's revenues came from oil. The Arab oil embargo, in 1973-74, increased the price of oil fourfold and Saudi Arabia became something of a world power. As the government raked in the cash, a building boom began and Saudi Arabia became one immense construction site. But the oil boom attracted a lot of interest from outside the country, and Saudi Arabia's relations with its neighbours became increasingly strained. The massacre of 400 Iranian pilgrims at the 1987

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Saudis started getting nervous, and asked the USA to send troops to defend the kingdom. Although Saudi Arabia was not invaded, the crisis stirred up demands for political change, and in 1993 the king set up a Consultative Council - members are appointed by the king and can comment on proposed laws.

The days of easy oil money are just a fond memory and the country's population is growing rapidly (the average Saudi woman bears six children), presenting the Saudi Arabia and the aging King Fahd with an impressive challenge. Two generations of generous public assistance haven't inculcated the country's youth with the strongest work ethic, either. In 1999, the first high-end tour groups entered the difficult-to-visit nation, but visas remain officially restricted to business travellers, Muslims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and those few lucky folk able to convince a Saudi national to sponsor their visit.


Saudi Arabian culture revolves almost entirely around Islam - two of Islam's holiest sites are in the country, and it considers itself the birthplace of the religion. A monotheistic religion, Islam's holy book is the Qur'an, and Friday is its sabbath day. Every day, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques which dot the country. Islam derives from the same monotheistic roots as Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims generally regard Christians and Jews with respect - in Islam, Jesus is regarded as one of the Prophets of Allah, and Jews and Christians are considered fellow 'people of the Book'. Mohammed was the last Prophet, and it was to him that Allah dictated the Qur'an. The Qur'an is Saudi Arabia's constitution, and Shari'ah (Islamic law) is the foundation of its legal system.

One of Saudi Arabia's most compelling folk rituals is the Ardha, the country's national dance. This sword dance is based on ancient Bedouin traditions: drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder. Al-sihba folk music, from the Hijaz, has its origins in Arab Andalusia, a region of medieval Spain. In Mecca, Medina and Jedda, dance and song incorporate the sound of the al-mizmar, an oboe-like woodwind instrument.

Saudi Arabian dress is strongly symbolic, representing the people's ties to the land, the past and to Islam. The predominantly loose, flowing garments reflect the practicalities of life in a desert country as well as Islam's emphasis on keeping it all covered up. Traditionally, men usually wear an ankle-length shirt woven from wool or cotton (known as a thawb), with a ghutra (a large square of cotton held in place by a cord coil) worn on the head. For those rare days when it gets a bit chilly, Saudi men chuck a camel-hair cloak (bisht) over the top. Women's clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread and appliques. Unfortunately, only their family gets to see them in all their glory, as Saudi women must wear a black cloak and veil (abaya) when they leave the house, to protect their modesty.

Islamic law forbids eating pig and drinking alcohol, and this law is followed pretty strictly throughout Saudi Arabia. Arabic unleavened bread, or khobz, is eaten with almost everything. The other staples are grilled chicken, felafel (deep-fried chickpea balls), shwarma (spit-cooked sliced lamb), and fuul (a paste of fava beans, garlic and lemon). Traditional coffee houses (where everyone drinks tea) used to be ubiquitous, but they're now being displaced by food-hall style cafes.

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