The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The name evokes a potpourri of iconic portraits; the unfathomable monetary value in the rivers of black blood flowing deep below the sand, an entire nation of people clothed in black or white flowing robes and the pervasive scents of musk and oud. These and so much more, comprise a country where the separation between culture and spirituality is non-existent and the belief in Allah supersedes all else.

A fascinating dichotomy of tradition and modernity lies within its borders, from the endless miles of craggy landscapes to the unlimited samples of sleek and stunning architecture located in Riyadh and Jeddah, the two fastest growing cities in the world. With a history rooted in its Islamic faith, its people governed by Shri’ah (Islamic) law and a climate that defies comprehension, this country is in possession of some of the most unique, fascinating and challenging elements imaginable.

Encompassing 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is bordered circumferentially by Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. Flanked by the Red Sea on the west coast and the Persian Gulf on the east, the land is composed of a series of conjoined deserts including the largest in the world, known as the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter. Despite the commonly held belief that the terrain of Saudi Arabia consists of interminable sand dunes; in reality the deserts often resemble the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon, as evidenced by Mount Sawda standing at over 3000 meters (10,279 ft.) in the southwest province of Asir.

The winter and summer seasons coincide with those of North America and experience as wide a range of temperatures, reaching heights of 55 degrees Celsius (130 Fahrenheit) in the summer and less than 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) in the winter months.

The city of Riyadh, which in Arabic means ‘the Garden’ was named thus with good reason. Centrally located within the country, it is built at the intersection of several ‘wadis’ or riverbeds on a sedimentary plateau about 600 meters (1,800 feet) above sea level. Although the annual rainfall is minimal, the underground water supply is plentiful and has created one of the most fertile areas within the Kingdom. Prior to Riyadh’s inauguration as the capital city in 1932, the 500 year-old city of Al Diriyah held that distinction. Following his defeat of the Al Rashid family, King Abdullaziz Ibn Saud founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and established Riyadh as its capital.

In 1938, the discovery of petroleum in the eastern province transformed this relatively small centre for trade into the youthful version of the thriving, modern metropolis it is today. Currently, approximately 6 million people reside in this cosmopolitan capital, which contains 17 municipalities connected by an intricate network of roadways. Literally thousands of restaurants featuring a cornucopia of global cuisine line the streets and as the personification of a high-end shopping utopia, Riyadh’s Olaya Street is listed as some of the most expensive commercial space in the world.

Two iconic architectural landmarks: Al Faisaliah and Al Mamlakah (Kingdom Tower) mark the epicenter of the city and contain many renowned restaurants and malls. For those seeking a more traditional shopping experience, the souks (markets) of Dirrah and Bha’ta offer stalls redolent with the scent of cloves and cardamom, stunning carpets from an array of Middle Eastern countries and the infinite attraction of the ‘Gold Souk,’ where one can purchase beautiful jewelry at very competitive prices.

A more cultured excursion means a tour through the distinguished National Museum where one can literally spend hours enthralled by the exhibits showcased in the eight galleries within. As of 2010, the population of Saudi Arabia was estimated at 28 million, with approximately 6 million of these being non-nationals. Most are centered in the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and Madina. The predominantly spoken language is Arabic, with the various expatriate communities utilizing their own native tongue and with English being the working language of many commercial businesses and organizations.

As with so many other facets of this intriguing country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is home to a wide and varied people. The still-existent tribes of Bedouins, living a simple, nomadic life in the desert are in sharp contrast to a large number of sophisticated, erudite citizens, many of whom received their education abroad. Over the last fifty years, vast resources have been applied to the construction of massive, contemporary universities in an effort to educate its people locally and Riyadh lays claim to the largest women’s educational facility in the world, the Princess Nora bin Abdulrahman University.

Inordinately proud of their national soccer program, intensely loyal Saudi fans gather at the glorious King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh to cheer as their teams do battle on the international and national stages. In the cooler month of February, athletes at the stadium doff their soccer cleats in favor of jockey garb as the annual camel races are held. Traditionally held in the desert with many leggy participants, these beloved animals now race around an oval stadium track. Camels are not only prized for their speed; annual competitions where they are judged for their appearance can net their owner literally millions of dollars.

In the year 610 CE, the genesis of Islamic faith occurred when Allah spoke to the prophet Mohammed, by way of an angel named Gabriel. Mohammed, from the town of Mecca, continued to receive many more messages instructing him to spread the word of Allah’s omnipotence to the people of the land. Hearing of a plan to have him assassinated, Mohammed and his followers fled to the city of Madina and their migration or ‘hijrah,’ marked the inception of the Hijri calendar. This moon-based almanac consists of 12 months spread over either 354 or 355 days, making it eleven days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Each lunar month begins on a different date each year and it takes a 33-year cycle before they rotate completely and occur during the same season. As opposed to the solar-based Gregorian calendar, the Hijri calendar is not related to the four seasons and therefore, sacred Muslim celebrations can take place in either the winter or summer depending on the lunar cycle.

The year 2014 is known as 1435 AH or anno Hegirae (in the year of the Hijrah) and began on November 3, 2013, ending on October 23, 2014. In 631, Mohammed led his group back to Mecca and replications of his pilgrimage have become one of the largest in the world, with almost two million people participating annually. All Muslims in good health and with the financial ability to make this sacred journey are required to do so at least once in their lifetime as stipulated by one of the five pillars of Islam. Steeped in ritual and tradition, many followers of Islam consider this to be the ultimate spiritual experience of their lives.

Today, Islam, or ‘submission to Allah’ is the second largest monotheistic religion in the world and is practiced by over 1.5 billion Muslims or ‘those who submit.’ The fundamental tenets of the faith are the ‘oneness’ or incomparability of Allah (God) and that all purpose in life is to love and serve him. The Qur’an or “Recitation” is considered to be the singular most significant piece of Arabic literature and the precise word of Allah, which was revealed to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel over 23 years. In Saudi Arabia, the Qur’an is the source of its system of law, Shri’ah and the guiding force behind all levels of authority, cultural norms and social practices.

This adherence to faith and spirituality is reflected in the institution of prayer or salah, which is an inherent aspect of life in Saudi Arabia. Adhan; the call to prayer, rings out five times daily from incredible loudspeakers housed in the minarets of innumerable mosques; as ubiquitous as McDonald’s golden arches in any mid-western American city. At Fajar, just before sunrise, Dhuru at mid-day, Asir in the mid-afternoon, Magrib at sunset and Isha between then and midnight; the devout kneel down facing Mecca and pay homage to Allah. To the uninitiated non-Muslim, this unerring dedication to spirituality can be an alternating source of admiration and frustration as almost all commercial enterprises close their doors and suspend business for approximately one-half hour during these times. Woe betide those who simply need a loaf of bread or a some petrol for their car…

Having now lived in the magical Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for four years, my perceptions and insights have deepened in accordance with my love for this complex, compelling country. There are some very amusing aspects to life here that are as unique as they are perplexing to the average westerner fresh off the boat or a desert caravan, as it were.

Shortly after arriving from Canada, my friend Joyce and I took a taxi to the sumptuous Kingdom Mall in search of a party-dress for an embassy function she was to attend the next weekend. Strangely, despite the fact that the latest attire from almost every major fashion designer in the world can be obtained in Riyadh, none of the showrooms have changing areas where one can try them on prior to purchase. The deliberate omission of this very essential component of a ladies shop is in order to protect the arguably more essential modesty of Saudi ladies. However, anyone having spent any time at all buying jeans or a bathing suit from a Gap outlet in North America is painfully aware of the necessity of trying on multiple styles of these garments before deciding on the perfect specimen. Nevertheless, in this corner of the world, clothes are chosen from the rack, purchased, tried on at home and unless one has a very accurate sense of the synergy between their sartorial taste and their actual morphology, are subsequently returned to the shop. Consequently, line-ups at the till invariably consist of equal numbers of people returning undesired clothes and optimistic shoppers buying new ones.

Joyce and I arrived at the mall immediately after our shift at the hospital ended; full of energy and enthusiastic about our quest for the perfect frock. Fifteen minutes into our search, an announcement heralded the onset of Magrib and all shoppers were instructed to move immediately to the till to finalize their purchases or to exit the store. We quickly headed to the nearest Starbuck’s and ordered lattes with which to pass the half-hour break from browsing. Sipping our warm drinks, we wandered up and down the mall, checking out the window displays in an attempt to refine our search once the doors opened again.

Salah over, we resumed our efforts and almost immediately found a dress that looked promising. Joyce paid for it and we moved on to the next shop, where she was excited to see two more pretty possibilities. While we were waiting in line to pay for these, the insistent summons to pray rang out through the mall and the unmistakable grinding sound of a hundred metal shop-doors closing, began yet again.

We decided that we would use our time constructively and headed directly to the ladies washroom, where in the hope of circumventing the shop-home-shop cycle, Joyce intended to try on her choices. In a tiny cubicle that provided her some privacy albeit very little wiggle-room, she removed her abaya and in-situ clothing, whereupon I passed her the dresses one by one. She gazed critically at her reflection in the half-length mirror of the washroom and I helpfully provided my assessment of her rear view. We both agreed on the merits of a lovely knee-length dress with a fresh, floral pattern and promptly made our way back to the first shop in order to return its rejected outfit. The young man at the till dutifully cancelled the payment on Joyce’s credit card and we moved on to the next boutique, where I patiently waited in line to return the second unsuccessful candidate while Joyce scrambled to find the perfect accessories to complete her ensemble.

Mission finally accomplished, we recanted our unconventional shopping experience to Ahmed, our driver and shaking my head ruefully, I laughingly uttered what would soon become an oft-used phrase immediately understood by any and all expatriates living in the Kingdom, ‘Only in Saudi…’

Read also the part two: