Blending Tradition and Progress in the Desert
To the uninitiated, the deserts of Saudi Arabia conjure up images of
barrenness devoid of life. But, in fact, life flourishes even in the harshest
deserts of the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia boasts a diversity of deserts and other habitats, each
supporting their indigenous plant and animal life. The rolling soft sand desert
known as the Rub Al-Khali, or the Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in
the world and extends over 250,000 square miles in southern Saudi Arabia. The
rocky deserts of the north and west are similar to some deserts in the western
United States, and support a diversity of life. Other areas of Saudi Arabia, such
as the highlands of the southwest, receive regular rainfall and are subtropical.
Bedouins have managed to lead full and productive lives in the deserts of Saudi Arabia for millennia.
Contrary to popular opinion, plants and animals thrive in the desert. Though
largely barren, vast stretches of the desert bloom with wildflowers and grasses
after periodic rains. Scrub and thorn bushes abound year-round supporting
insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, including gazelles, oryx, ibex, wildcats
In addition to the plant and animal life, man has thrived for millennia in
the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Known as Bedouin, these people are the
traditional pastoral-nomads whose migratory lifestyle is dictated by the grazing
needs of their herds, including camels, horses, sheep and goats. The word
"Bedouin" is the French version of the Arabic word badawi (plural, badu) meaning
one who lives in the desert. The term, used by settled people, has come to
represent all peoples who make their lives in the rocky desert. Referring to
themselves, they are simply "Arabs".
A small number of Bedouins still exist in modern-day Saudi Arabia. However,
camels have given way to pickup trucks and automobiles, water can now be
transported in large quantities by vehicles which can traverse the desert on new
roads and highways in a fraction of the time it once took, and the tribe is no
longer isolated and alone in its existence. Instead, Bedouins tend to stay in
touch with the urban centers to take advantage of medical care, educational
facilities and other amenities of modern civilization now available in the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Contrary to the Western conception of nomads wandering aimlessly in the
desert, the Bedouin lifestyle is quite logical and orderly. Seasonal changes, the
availability of grazing and the location of wells and oases all dictate the
Bedouin's nomadic cycle. Winter rains unroll a carpet of green grasses across
parts of the desert, allowing the animals to graze freely, but the summer heat
and drought force the Bedouin into the steppe-like areas where vegetation and
wells are available.
The traditional tents of the Bedouin have come to symbolize life in the
desert. These tents have to meet some basic requirements in order to protect the
Bedouin from the harsh and demanding environment. They have to be easy to erect
and dismantle, easy to maintain and repair, resistant to wind and rain and at the
same time provide insulation from the sun and protection against the cold. Hair
from black Arabian goats is used to make the wool for the tents which are known
as Bait Al-Sha'ar, or "House of Hair". Women of the tribe weave wool into long
strips that are then assembled to form the roof of the tent which is supported by
poles and secured to the ground by ropes. To ensure good ventilation, the cloth
is secured with loose stitches. Swelling with the rain, the fibers expand in
order to keep the tent waterproof. Curtains are hung as surrounding walls and
panels of material separate the interior space into different rooms: the majlis,
which is the public space for receiving visitors, and the mahram, the private
space for the family.
The Bedouin diet is restricted by the season of the year and the availability
of markets in oases and settled areas. Camel milk is a staple which is regularly
available, similar to cow's milk in taste, rich in protein and low in fat. Other
favorite drinks are tea and coffee which are drunk in even the hottest part of
the day. Bedouin love coffee, and the preparation alone is an intricate part of
the Bedouin culture. Green coffee beans are roasted lightly in a skillet and,
after being cooled, ground with fresh carda- mom in a mortar and pestle. The end
result is a light-colored coffee often enjoyed with sweet dates to complement the
bitter flavor. The fruit of the date palm tree is another traditional staple of
the Bedouin diet as it is small, easy to carry, nutritious and flavorful.
One large meal is usually served in the evening and eaten communally. Large
platters of food are placed on short wooden stands with eight to ten people
gathering around to enjoy the meal together. A typical meal is kapsa, a dish
prepared with lamb and rice. Acida is a common dish consisting of a dough made of
milk, flour and salt, formed into a ball and dipped into melted butter before
being eaten. For breakfast, one might eat a light meal of soft bread with
vegetables or dates.
Although nomadism dictates a lifestyle unencumbered by material goods, the
Bedouin have developed a rich culture incorporating necessity and art. Carpets,
designed and woven by the women, are used as floor coverings. Wool is naturally
dyed to provide brilliant colors for handicrafts, including camel bags and grain
bags adorned with decorative tassels, flowing sashes and beading. Saddles are
also ornately decorated with patterns of pounded silver and sheepskin pads. The
panels hung to divide the interior of the tent stand out as masterful creations.
Brightly colored and elaborately patterned, the curtains are designed to contrast
the drab colors of the desert.
Other examples of Bedouin handiwork can be seen in their jewelry, often made
out of beads, chains, stones, silver and glass. Women decorate their headscarves
with coins, embroidery and beads, and men proudly display ornate bridles and
The Bedouin turned to their imagination to develop a colorful tradition of
storytelling, songs and poetry. Poetry has long been considered one of the
highest expressions of literary art among the Arabs. Epic poems are passed down
through generations, celebrating themes of war, hunting, honor and love. The
group gathers around the poet who entertains them through his well-chosen words.
Today, Bedouins in Saudi Arabia have adopted other forms of entertainment, such
as the radio and television. Run on generators, they keep the Bedouin in contact
with the rest of the world.
Even in the
harshest desert environments, Bedouins have always cultivated an appreciation for poetry, crafts and culture.
Bedouin have adopted many modern innovations which enhance their lives. Tanks
of propane gas, binoculars and sunglasses are now common. Perhaps the most
significant change has occurred due to the introduction of the automobile. When
the tribe migrates to another area, instead of packing mules, horses and camels,
all the household goods are packed into large trucks. A caravan of trucks follow
the animals to the next campsite. Occasionally even the animals ride along in
pickups or on flat-bed trucks.
The demands of life in the desert shaped a code of values which has long been
associated with the Bedouin culture and which Saudis are proud to continue.
Generosity and hospitality are evident in the sincere warmth bestowed upon a
visitor. As no individual can survive on their own in the desert, all Bedouin
feel honor bound to care for a visitor's needs with shelter, food and water given
happily and without question. It is this close cooperation between individuals
which is the key to the Bedouin tradition. Organized into tribes, each tribe in
turn divides into many clans and sub-clans. This extended family works closely
together and shares the collective responsibility of family honor. The family
unit is a source of identity for Saudis, and they are proud of its long-rooted
traditions in their society.
The tribe is led by a Shaikh. Usually a wise elder, his authority derives
from the consent of the tribe. Social issues concerning the tribe are discussed
by members who give their advice to help guide the Shaikh in the decision-making
process. Consultation in the open majlis is a long-standing tradition that is
practiced throughout Saudi society, by the King, the Crown Prince, the Governors,
the Ministers, and all those who are in authority.
Ever since King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud founded the modern
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, great efforts have been taken to provide services to the
Bedouin in an attempt to enhance their lives. King Abdul Aziz himself implemented
a policy of easing their way of life, establishing schools and setting up
resources for cultivating land close to sources of water. In addition, numerous
roads were built in rural areas connecting various oases and wells so that
Bedouin migration would be easier. Water is readily available now due to the
generous assistance of the government. Older wells traditionally used by the
Bedouin which may have dried up have been replaced by cement cisterns and are
regularly filled by government water trucks, enabling the Bedouin to water their
herds at the same spots that their ancestors once used.
In addition to making Bedouin life more comfortable with roads and water, the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also provides extended services, including medical care
and education. Many Bedouin educate their children in the public schools, some
tribes moving in a set area, always close enough for the child to attend the same
classes every day. Other tribes actually have a teacher join the group so that
their children can benefit from a first-rate education.
Bedouin hospitality is reflected in
the coffee and
tea pots prepared
for guests at a gathering in
Even in the last years of the 20th Century, desert life and Bedouin culture
hold a special attraction for the people of Saudi Arabia. The attraction of the
desert is almost an unexplainable instinct for some Saudis who enjoy the beauty
and solitude of the unique environment. Camping expeditions are common, and large
groups will even set up small tent-cities of manufactured white canvas tents to
experience the desert much as their Bedouin ancestors did. An afternoon picnic
with family and friends in the desert is a common outing where it is possible to
relax and enjoy nature, and where children have the opportunity to explore and
learn about the unique environment firsthand.
Sitting in the desert, one cannot help but contemplate the harshness and
incredible beauty of the landscape and wonder at mankind's ability to lead a full
and productive life in such a demanding environment.