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Saudia Arabia on Edge On Assignment

Saudi Arabia on Edge On Assignment

Saudi Arabia on Edge
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Land of Sand, Sea of Oil

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By Frank VivianoPhotographs by Reza

Tribal traditions and modern wealth clash in the birthplace of Islam—a kingdom in the political hot seat since 9/11.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

At 3 a.m. miles of freeways and boulevards are locked in a traffic jam of gas-guzzling, mostly American, cars headed for shopping malls that remain open until sunup. Macho sport utility vehicles are the ride of choice among affluent young men, Lincolns and Chevys among their parents. In the malls, store aisles throb with music videos blasting out techno and rap as salesmen hawk subscriptions to satellite television—technically illegal in Saudi Arabia—with a success rate that has made satellite dishes ubiquitous on the rooftops of Saudi cities. If not for the neon signs in Arabic, the streets of Jeddah tonight could pass for downtown Los Angeles or Dallas or Houston.

Up and down chic Tahliyah Street, carloads of teenage boys, with baseball caps worn rakishly backward and their ankle-length robes tossed aside in favor of baggy, low-slung pants, idle alongside cars full of teenage girls driven by chauffeurs.

As I take in the scene with "Hassan" (not his real name), my 18-year-old guide, a green Chevy slowly passes a silver Jeep Cherokee, and a blizzard of paper flies between their vehicles.

"What was that all about?" I ask.

"They're 'numbering,' " Hassan explains. "A girl writes her cell phone number on a piece of paper, rolls it into a ball, and throws it at a boy. Then she waits for a call."

But the flirting, with its paper-wad blizzards and cell phone dates, has a distinctive Saudi twist: The girls are still covered from head-to-foot in the black gown known as the abaya, their faces hidden behind veils.

"Otherwise the mutawaeen might go after them," Hassan says, referring to the state religious police, the agents of a theocratic law-and-order system that dates back more than a thousand years.

Jeddah, in the middle of the night, is the paradox of contemporary Saudi Arabia writ large. "We are being carried in two directions at once, backward and forward," says Suad al-Yamani, a Saudi neurologist who sees, in her patients, the disorienting effects of changes that have rocketed a deeply conservative society from the 7th to the 21st century in the span of a few decades.

The stakes are beyond exaggeration, for Saudi Arabia is not simply another traditional country coping with change. As keeper of the Muslim holy cities, Mecca and Medina, it serves as the chief custodian of Islam and the spiritual home of 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Despite the friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the two nations are very different: One is a democracy. The other follows strict theocratic law that has come under international scrutiny since 9/11. What do you see in the future for U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations? Join the discussion.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The world's largest integrated dairy farm, Al Safi,  is located in the Saudi Arabian desert, 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Riyadh. The dairy is a result of the 1973 Arab oil embargo against Western nations. During the embargo, the Saudi royal family realized their nation couldn't rely on food imports from other countries. Vowing the kingdom would become self-sufficient, the royal family set out to revolutionize agriculture in the mostly arid country.

Through government subsidies, Saudi farmers were able to import irrigation equipment to grow grain. They also imported dairy cattle from Europe, Canada, and the United States. Al Safi, which is owned by the royal family, quickly became the largest dairy in the country and then the world.

Al Safi has more than 29,000 head of Holstein-Friesian cows, which produce 122,000 gallons (462, 000 liters) of milk a day, supplying 33 percent of the kingdom's dairy market. These cows survive in temperatures that drop to freezing in the winter and soar to 115º Fahrenheit (46º Celsius) in the summer. There's no grass in the desert for them to eat, so all their food is grown on the farm. The cows' water is pumped from 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) underground. Each cow uses about 30 gallons (100 liters) a day for drinking (and cooling off) via sprinkler systems in the shed.

—Marisa Larson

Did You Know?

Related Links
Arab News
Read about world and regional affairs from the Arab viewpoint. Arab News is one of the leading Middle Eastern newspapers in English.

Saudi Arabia Enters the 21st Century
The Center for Strategic and International Studies is undertaking a new project to examine the trends shaping the future of Saudi Arabia and its impact on the stability of the Persian Gulf. Read reports on Saudi Arabia's government, economy, military, and foreign affairs.

Saudi Arabia Information Resource
Created by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information, the Saudi Arabian Information Resource contains more than 2,000 pages of information on every aspect of the kingdom.

Saudi Aramco
Learn how the oil industry started in Saudi Arabia and how it is being managed today. Visit the website of the government-run company, which controls a quarter of the world's oil supply.


Esposito, John. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kechichian, Joseph. Succession in Saudi Arabia. Palgrave, 2001.

Lippman, Thomas. Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World. Penguin Putnam, 2002.

Long, David. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. University Press of Florida, 1997.

Vassiliev, Alexei. The History of Saudi Arabia. New York University Press, 2000.

Wolfe, Michael. One Thousand Roads to Mecca. Grove Press, 1997.


NGS Resources
Belt, Don. "In Focus: The World of Islam," National Geographic (January 2002), 76-85.

Szulc, Tad. "Abraham: Journey of Faith," National Geographic (December 2001), 90-129.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers," National Geographic (December 1991), 2-49.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "The Persian Gulf—Living in Harm's Way," National Geographic (May 1988), 648-71.

Alireza, Marianne. "Women of Saudi Arabia," National Geographic (October 1987), 422-43.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Arabia's Frankincense Trail," National Geographic  (October 1985), 474-513.

Azzi, Robert. "Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom and Its Power," National Geographic (September 1980), 286-333.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Islam's Heartland, Up in Arms," National Geographic  (September 1980), 334-45.

Abdul-Rauf, Muhammad. "Pilgrimage to Mecca," National Geographic (November 1978), 578-607.

Putman, John J. "The Arab World, Inc.: Who Are Those Oil-Rich Arabs, and What Are They Doing With All that Money?" National Geographic (October 1975), 494-533.

Grove, Noel. "Oil, the Dwindling Treasure," National Geographic (June 1974), 792-825.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "The Sword and the Sermon," National Geographic (July 1972), 2-45.

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Saudi Arabia: Beyond the Sands of Mecca," National Geographic (January 1966), 1-53.

Eller, Ernest. "Troubled Waters East of Suez: Our Navy Keeps Watch in the Strategic Middle East, Which Holds Two-thirds the World's Oil and a Quarter of Its People." National Geographic (April 1954), 483-522.

Sheikh, Abdul Ghafur. "From America to Mecca on Airborne Pilgrimage: A Moslem Student at Harvard Business School Records Islam's Sacred Rites in Color in the Interest of World Understanding," National Geographic (July 1953), 1-60.

Cornwall, Peter Bruce. "In Search of Arabia's Past," National Geographic (April 1948), 492-522.

Williams, Maynard Owen. "Guest in Saudi Arabia," National Geographic (October 1945), 462-87.

Marcus, Oscar. "Pilgrims' Progress to Mecca," National Geographic (November 1937), 627-42.

Tweedy, Owen. "An Unbeliever Joins the Hadj: On the Age-Old Pilgrimage to Mecca, Babies Are Born, Elders Die, and Families May Halt a Year to Earn Funds in Distant Lands," National Geographic (June 1934), 760-89.

Wood, Junius B. "A Visit to Three Arab Kingdoms: Transjordania, Iraq, and the Hedjaz Present Many Problems to European Powers," National Geographic (May 1923), 535-68.

Simpich, Frederick. "The Rise of the New Arab Nation," National Geographic (November 1919), 369-93.

Zwemer, S. M. "Mecca the Mystic: A New Kingdom Within Arabia," National Geographic (August 1917), 157-72.

Simpich, Frederick. "Mystic Nedjef, the Shia Mecca: A Visit to One of the Strangest Cities in the World," National Geographic (December 1914), 589-98.

Forder, Archibald. "Arabia, the Desert of the Sea," National Geographic (December 1909), 1039-1062.

Maunsell, F. R."One Thousand Miles of Railway Built for Pilgrims and Not for Dividends," National Geographic (February 1909), 156-72.

"Damascus and Mecca Railway: Geographic Notes," National Geographic (November 1901), 408.


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