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Features: International Spotlight: Saudi Arabia

Desert Culture
Traditional Bedouins are slowly being settled but the desert remains an integral part of Saudi life.

By Marco Venditti

"I went to Saudi Arabia only just in time. Others will go there to study geology and archaeology...but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs".

With these words Wilfred Thesiger, the famous English explorer, described the process of transformation that was occurring to the nomadic Bedouin of Saudi Arabia in his book Arabian Sands. He made his journey to the Empty Quarter — the half million square miles containing one of the cruelest deserts in the world — between 1945 and 1950.

Woman in desert
Photo by Marco Venditti
At that time Bedouin society constituted about a quarter of the population of the Arabian peninsula. Today the number is steadily decreasing as the Bedouins are absorbed into settled society. In Saudi Arabia, the widespread discovery of oil and the subsequent exploitation of the desert interior has made areas which have been the dominion of the Bedouin for thousands of years accessible to the government and multinational companies.

Khalid Al-Hallaf is a former Bedouin from the Shammari tribe of the Hail region, in the north of Saudi Arabia. Like most old Bedouin he is not sure of his age, but he remembers the fighting between the tribes of Al Rashid and Al Saud in the early 1930s, before the establishment of the modern Saudi Arabian state. Ten years ago he decided to abandon nomadic life and he lives now in a small settlement 100 miles north of Hail, where he built a brick house for his family and his seven children.

"My sons go to school now," he begins explaining as he lights the fire for coffee, which will be flavored with cardamon and ginger, "I want them one day to work for the National Guard." Four of his children study at a nearby valley, where the government has built a school which gathers students from the several settlements scattered around.

The word Bedouin or Bedu comes from "Bedawi", meaning the ones who live in the desert. Bedouin are traditionally proud and fiercely independent people who for centuries lived with the conviction that their existence, even if poverty-stricken, was far superior to the one of the settled people. They survived in conditions of extreme hardship and valued their freedom above anything else.

"We have a lot of comfort nowadays, but something has changed inside our hearts," says Khalid. Khalid takes his children to school every day in his jeep, provided by the government as part of the incentives to exchange the never-ending battle for survival among the sand dunes for modern comforts. He knows that in his jeep he can take his son to school in 30 minutes, whereas in the old days it would have taken him half a day to cover the same distance on a camel.

For Khalid the decision to abandon the desert came when he realized that he couldn't keep his herd of camels any longer. With children in school he would have had to employ help to care for the camels, which would have been too expensive.

Until the Bedouin adopted motor vehicles, their entire lifestyle depended on the camels, but the automobile has largely replaced their role as a means of transportation, not only for the Bedouin themselves, but also for the traders who once relied on them to transport their goods. At the beginning of the last century, for instance, the pilgrimage to Makkah was impossible without the Bedouin and their large herds. Today a modern airport at Medinah or a short bus ride from Jeddah are a much more comfortable choice.

The Saudi government is not blind to the special needs of their nomadic or semi-nomadic people, but to find an alternative form of development that will leave their culture unchanged is not easy. Jobs need to be found that take advantage of their unique skills, so that the Bedouin do not drift even further away from their customs. Not only is this heritage a valuable tourist draw but given the Saudi's fondness for escaping the cities to be with their falcons and pet camels, the desert is an indissoluble element of the national soul.

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