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Saudi Arabia Country Profile

Geography

Saudi Arabia covers approximately four fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping downhill to the east until reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.

The main topographical features are:

The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range running parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As you move further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as 'Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Mecca, and approximately 400km north of Mecca in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Medina.

West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country's second largest city, Jidda, is located.

East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow plateau running 800km from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criss-crossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.

Further east from the Tuwaig plataeu and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100km) corridor of red sand dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the "Central Region" or "Najd" from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large "seas" of sand dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior, and the southern is known as "the Empty Quarter," so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three "seas of sand" make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin almost never attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.

North of the Nufud desert lies a vast desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins with the exception of a few oasis such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.

The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.

The highest point is Jabal Sawda' at an elevation of 3,133m (10,279 ft). As well as petroleum and natural gas, natural resources include iron ore, gold and copper.

Climate

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. 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.

Religion

Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law specifically requires Saudi citizens or passport holders to be Muslim, public observance and proselytism of religions other than Islam are forbidden under punishment of death.

There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia of any kind. However, some Filipino workers report the presence of churches inside some gated communities. The small number of Saudi Arabian Christians meet in Internet chat rooms, and foreign Christians may meet at church meetings held at one of several embassies after registering and showing their passport, to prove foreign nationality, or by private assemblies in school gyms located in gated communities on Aramco grounds. They can also hold services in each others houses. Getting caught practicing your religion even in private risks getting raided by the Muttaween and punished with severe penalties.

Prayer times

Everything in Saudi is regulated by the five daily prayers. All shops and offices close during each prayer for a period of at least 20-30 minutes, and the religious police patrol the streets and pack loiterers off to the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports do stay open (but with all shops inside the shopping malls closed) and taxis and other public transport continue to run normally.

The first prayer is fajr, early in the morning before the first glint of light at dawn, and the call to prayer for fajr will be your wake-up call in the Kingdom. After fajr, some people eat breakfast and head to work, with shops opening up.

The second prayer is dhuhr, held after true noon in the middle of the day. The Friday noon prayer (jummah) is the most important one of the week, when even less observant Muslims usually make the effort to go to the mosque. After dhuhr, people head for lunch, while many shops choose to stay closed and snooze away the heat of the day.

Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (1:30-2 hours before sunset), with many shops opening again afterward. Maghrib prayers are held at sunset and mark the end of the work day in much of the private sector. The last prayer is isha'a, held around 45 minutes to 1 hour after sunset, after which locals head for dinner. Expats refer to the time between maghrib and isha'a as the "prayer window", during which you can hit the supermarket and buy your groceries if you time it right.

Prayer times change daily according to the seasons and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the day's times in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a handy online prayer time service.

Holidays

There are only two Islamic holidays that Saudis celebrate. Saudis do not celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas, or New Years, Valentine's Day or Halloween. Public holidays are granted only for Eid ul-Fitr, the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, some 70 days after Ramadan.

There is also one secular holiday: Unification of the Kingdom Day, on 23 September. Strictly speaking, it's not a public holiday or a festival, but it's treated rather like one anyway.

During Ramadan itself, visitors are required to abide by the restrictions of the fasting month, at least in public: no eating, drinking or smoking during the daylight hours. Some better hotels will be able to quietly supply room service during the day, but otherwise you'll have to do your preparations. Offices and restaurants stay open with limited hours, but the pace of business slows down to a torpor. After evening prayer, though, all the restaurants in the bazaar open up and do a roaring trade until the small hours of the morning. Most of the shops are open as well, and the cool of the evening makes it a pleasant time to shop. A visitor can have a fine time joining in on these evenings, though having a stash in your hotel room for a quiet breakfast around ten will suit most visitor better than rising at four for a big pre-dawn Saudi breakfast.

On 29 June 2013, Saudi Arabia changed their official weekend from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday.