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The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Wahabi Islam, and features many elements from historical ritual and folk culture such as dance and music. Traditional values and cultural mores are adapted into legal prohibitions, even for non-Muslims who are forbidden by law from practicing their faith inside the kingdom. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited as is pork products. Women may not ride a bicycle, drive a car, or even sell make-up to other women. Saudi Arabia is well known for its unique way of life which in its own way preserve its centuries old heritage.
In the 1980s, movie theaters were banned, and this ban has only recently begun to be liberalized for special holidays, and to encourage the development of Saudi cinema. Certain films and television shows on VHS, and more recently DVD, are prohibited, while other films and television shows are permitted with censorship. Other forms of popular entertainment, music cassettes and CDs, novels, magazines, comic books, computer software, and video games are generally permitted, if they can be officially censored for immorality, or causing political offense to the government, especially the royal family.
Educated Saudis are well informed of issues of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the world at large, but freedom of the press and public expression of opinion are not recognized by the government. News stories, public speeches and other acts of personal expression cannot conflict with traditional Islamic values, or dissent from government policy, insult government officials, especially the royal family, and cannot delve too deeply into certain sensitive and taboo subject matters that might embarrass the government or spread dissent, i.e. the role of women in Saudi society, the treatment of Shiite Muslims, damage caused by natural disasters, or social problems such as AIDS-HIV pandemic and human trafficking.
Informal public discussion of public policy is not actively encouraged, although it is not expressly illegal per se, unless it is deemed to be promoting immorality, dissent or disloyalty. The government has created a national Consultative Council, and given permission for certain "societies" to exist; and limited non-partisan municipal elections were held in 2005. Yet, the Consultative Council is an appointed body with limited powers, and the legal societies have little ability to influence government policy. Labor unions are prohibited, as are political parties, although a few underground political parties do exist.
One of Saudi Arabia's most compelling folk rituals is the Al 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 Hejaz, has its origins in al-Andalus. In Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, dance and song incorporate the sound of the mizmar, an oboe-like woodwind instrument in the performance of the mizmar dance. The drum is also an important instrument according to traditional and tribal customs. Samri is a popular traditional form of music and dance in which poetry is sung. There is also the Dabka dance in the north, and belly dance for ladies with many styles, such as khaleeji style in the east, and saedi style in Hijaz. One other popular dance in the Arabian world is called the Dabka, a traditional form of unisex line dancing found in the Eastern Arab World. The dance is based on rhythmic stomping, stepping and jumping, completely synchronized to the drummer. This dance is usually danced in weddings and engagements by everyone of all ages. Guitars are also prohibited, as they also do not fit with Islam. Songs (words sung with musical instruments) are also not allowed; instead nasheeds are sung, which are basically a cappella, songs without instruments. Nasheeds are usually religiously based, but not all are sung about religion.
The religion and customs of Saudi Arabia dictate conservative dress for both men and women. Foreigners are given some leeway in the matter of dress, but they are expected to follow local customs, particularly in public places. As a general rule, foreign men should wear long trousers and shirts that cover the upper torso. Foreign women should wear loose fitting skirts with hemlines well below the knee. Sleeves should be at least elbow length and the neckline modest.
The best fashion guideline is "conceal rather than reveal". Teenagers are also required to dress modestly in public places. Jeans should not be tight fitting and low necks and tank tops are not recommended. Shorts and bathing suits should not be worn in public. Whatever their job or social status, Saudi men wear the traditional dress called a thobe. Wearing the thobe expresses equality and is also perfectly suited to the hot Saudi climate. During warm and hot weather, white thobes are worn by Saudi men and boys. During the cool weather, wool thobes in dark colours are not uncommon. At special times, men often wear a bisht or mishlah over the thobe. These are long white, brown or black cloaks trimmed in gold.
A man's headdress consists of three things: the tagia, a small white cap that keeps the gutra from slipping off the head; the gutra itself, which is a large square of cloth; and the igal, a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place. Some men may choose not to wear the igal. The gutra is usually made of cotton and traditionally Saudis wear either a white one or a red and white checked one. The gutra is worn folded into a triangle and centred on the head. When a Saudi women appears in public, she normally wears a voluminous black cloak called an abayah, a scarf covering her hair and a full face veil. There are varying opinions regarding the wearing of the abayah and the veil; however, Saudi women cover themselves in public and in the presence of men who are not close relatives.
Women's fashions do not stop with the abayah though if you are a male, that is all you are likely to see. Beneath the black cloak, Saudi women enjoy fashionable clothing and take great pride in their appearance. They enjoy bright colours and lavish material. Non-Muslim women living in Saudi Arabia often wear the abayah to avoid being sexually harassed or arrested by the Saudi religious police.
Some Saudi novelists have had their books published in Aden, Yemen, because of censorship in Saudi Arabia. Despite signs of increasing openness, Saudi novelists and artists in film, theatre, and the visual arts face greater restrictions on their freedom of expression than in the West. Contemporary Saudi novelists include:
Football is the national sport in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, some Saudi players currently play in Europe. The Saudi Arabian national football team is governed by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SFF). The national team competed in the FIFA World Cup four times, and the AFC Asian Cup 12 times. Some sports are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. That includes sports that involve killing.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocratic monarchy in which Islam is the official religion; the law requires that all Saudi citizens be Muslims. Religious freedom is non-existent. The Government does not provide legal recognition or protection for freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice. Moreover, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited. The Saudi Mutaween (Arabic: مطوعين), or Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (i.e., the religious police), enforces the prohibition on the public practice of non-Muslim religions.
For this reason, Saudi culture lacks the diversity of religious expression, buildings, annual festivals and public events that is seen in countries where religious freedom is permitted.