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Ethnicity, Language, & Religion of Saudi Arabia

WARNING: Terrorist threats linger in Saudi Arabia, please read this travel warning before going!

Ethnicity

Nearly the entire population of Saudi Arabia is ethnically Arab. This ethnicity is a general term for the people from the Arabian Peninsula and their descendants; in Saudi Arabia this consists of numerous groups. The core of the word and the original bearers of the title "Arab" are the Bedouin people, a term that today generally only refers to the nomadic Arabs. Despite this distinguishment, the Bedouin and Arabs of Saudi Arabia are nearly identical on an ethnic level, although every part of the country has various genetic variations and introductions. There is also a significant African and Asian minority in Saudi Arabia, nearly all of whom are religiously Islamic.

Language

Arabic is the only official language in Saudi Arabia. The written form of the language is called Modern Standard Arabic (written in the Arabic script), which gives the language consistency across countries from a written perspective. The spoken dialects of Arabic are so drastic from location to location that Arabic speakers in Saudi Arabia may not even understand Arabic speakers from a country further away, like Morocco. Obviously the dialect of Arabic in Saudi Arabia is most closely related to the dialects spoken in nearby countries like Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

Arabic is a Semitic language; other closely related Semitic languages include Amharic (Ethiopia) and Hebrew. More distantly related are languages like Berber (North Africa) as well as historic languages including Phoenician and ancient Egyptian.

English is the most commonly taught second language in the country and most college educated people speak at least some English. Some industries are heavily reliant on international trade, or are taught in English so English is again stressed and fluency within these industries is common.

Religion

As the center of the Muslim world, it is not a surprise that Muslim is the official religion of Saudi Arabia and all citizens must be Muslim. Although foreigners may live in the country temporarily, if a non-Muslim dies in the country, their body must be removed for burial. By law, every citizen of Saudi Arabia is Muslim.

Islam (the name of the religion, whose followers are called Muslims) is a monotheistic religion, whose holy book is called the Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed to be the word of God spoken through the prophet Muhammad from 609-632 CE (Common Era is preferred over AD (Anno Domini or "year of the Lord") since the Islamic world doesn't believe Jesus was the messiah). Islam believes Muhammad was the last prophet sent to earth by God, the last in a long line of prophets, which includes Moses, Abraham, and Jesus among others.

Muslims follow five pillars of their faith: testimony, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. These pillars, and other tenants of their faith, can give great structure to their lives as some foods, like pork, are forbidden and every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day. However, the level of participation in each of these pillars and to what degree Islam influences an individual's life varies from person to person and community to community. Generally speaking, Saudi Arabia is very conservative in how they practice Islam.

Most Muslims, including nearly everyone in Saudi Arabia, are Sunni, which is the branch of Islam that closely follows the teachings of Muhammad and accepts Abu Bakr as the first Caliph (a ruler of an Islamic community); the Sunni Muslims are sometimes referred to Orthodox. Shia Muslims believe only God can chose who heads the Islamic community and believed it was Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law who was first chosen; Ali became the first Imam (according to Shia Muslims, this term only refers to the leaders of the faith, to Sunni Muslims Imam is often times used in reference to the prayer leader in mosques).

This page was last updated: May, 2014