The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab country in the Middle East, bordered by Jordan on the northwest; Iraq on the northeast; Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on the east; Oman on the southeast; and Yemen on the southwest. The Persian Gulf is to the northeast and the Red Sea to the west.
It’s ruled by the Saudi dynasty, which emerged from central Arabia in the mid-1700s. The kingdom occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula, but some of the borders between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates remain undefined, so the exact size of the country cannot be determined. The Saudi government estimates it to be between 750,000 and 865,000 square miles. It’s usually ranked as the world’s 14th-largest country.
Saudi Arabia’s geography is widely varied. The west coast on the Red Sea is hot and humid. A mountain range runs the length of the west coast, with peaks rising to nearly 10,000 feet. The center of the country is the plateau of Nejd. The southwestern corner of the country, where the mountains are highest, is known as the greenest, most pleasant part of the country and the home of many resorts. The desert at the southern border of the country, known as Rub' al Khali, or “empty quarter,” is desolate and hosts little life of any kind.
The vast country has many major cities, including six that have populations of more than 1 million. The largest is Riyadh, with 6.5 million. It’s economy is based on rich oil reserves, which make up 90 percent of export income and 45 percent of gross domestic product.
The country is strictly Muslim. Practice of other religions is prohibited. Dress follows hijab, the Muslim customs of modesty, so women, even visiting women, are required to wear Muslim-style head coverings. Saudi Arabia is the site of Islam’s two most holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Muslims around the world pray five times a day facing Mecca. Friday is the holiest day of Islam, so the weekend begins on Thursday. The country has many more historical and religious sites. Social customs of Saudi Arabia are a mix of Muslim orthodoxy and tribal customs. Folk music and dance rituals with deep roots can be seen.
Saudi Arabia has many world-class hotels, including chains such as Movenpick, Sheraton, Golden Tulip, Marriott and Hyatt. Air connections are plentiful to the major cities by major carriers.
Tourism to Saudi Arabia presents unique challenges. Because of its strict Muslim law, Westerners have to be careful to operate within a system of rules that is quite foreign to their way of life. It’s a destination best visited with competent professional guidance. Tour operators who offer trips to Saudi Arabia are few, and the demand is understandably low. The San Francisco-based Caravan Serai is one of the few reliable American tour operators who can take Americans safely and comfortably into Saudi Arabia and provide a well-rounded experience of the country.