From the Library of Congress Country Study on Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Cultural Homogeneity and Values

The population was characterized by a high degree of cultural homogeneity. This homogeneity was reflected in a common Arabic language and in adherence to Sunni (see Glossary) Wahhabi Islam, which has been fostered within the political culture promoted by the Saudi monarchy (see Wahhabi Theology , this ch.). Above all, the cultural homogeneity of the kingdom rested in the diffusion of values and attitudes exemplified in the family and in Arabian tribal society, in particular the values and attitudes regarding relations within the family and relations of the family with the rest of society.

The family was the most important social institution in Saudi Arabia. For Saudis generally, the family was the primary basis of identity and status for the individual and the immediate focus of individual loyalty, just as it was among those who recognized a tribal affiliation. Families formed alignments with other families sharing common interests and life-styles, and individuals tended to socialize within the circle of these family alliances. Usually, a family business was open to participation by sons, uncles, and male cousins, and functioned as the social welfare safety net for all members of the extended family.

The structure of the family in Saudi Arabia was generally compatible with the structure of tribal lineage. Families were patrilineal, the boundaries of family membership being drawn around lines of descent through males. Relations with maternal relatives were important, but family identity was tied to the father, and children were considered to belong to him and not to the mother. At its narrowest, a family might therefore be defined as comprising a man, his children, and his children's children through patrilineal descent.

Islamic laws of personal status remained in force in Saudi Arabia without modification, and the patrilineal character of the family was compatible with and supported by these Islamic family laws. Marriage was not a sacrament but a civil contract, which had to be signed by witnesses and which specified an amount of money (mehr) to be paid by the husband to the wife. It might further include an agreement for an additional amount to be paid in the event of divorce. The amount of the mehr averaged between 25,000 and 40,000 Saudi riyals (for value of the riyal--see Glossary) in the early 1990s, although some couples rejected the mehr altogether, stipulating only a token amount to satisfy the legal requirement necessary to validate the marriage contract. The contract might also add other stipulations, such as assuring the wife the right of divorce if the husband should take a second wife. Divorce could usually only be instigated by the husband, and because by law children belonged to the father, who could take custody of them after a certain age (the age varied with the Islamic legal school, but was usually seven for boys and puberty for girls), legally a wife and mother could be detached from her children at the wish of her husband.

When women married, they might become incorporated into the household of the husband but not into his family. A woman did not take her husband's name but kept the name of her father, because legally women were considered to belong to the family of their birth throughout their lives. Many in Saudi Arabia interpreted the retention of a woman's maiden name, as well as her retention of control over personal property as allowed under Islamic law, as an indication of women's essential independence from a husband's control under the Islamic system. Legally, a woman's closest male relative, such as a father or brother, was obligated to support her if she were divorced or widowed. Divorce was common.

According to Islamic law, men are permitted to marry as many as four wives. Among the adult generation of educated, Western- oriented elites, polygyny was not practiced. Polygyny was common, however, among some groups, such as the religiously conservative and the older generation of the royal family. In the cities, polygynous households were seen among recent migrants from rural areas. For a family of means, a polygynous housing arrangement usually entailed a separate dwelling unit for each wife and her children. These units might be completely separate houses or houses within a walled family compound, in which case the compound might include a separate house that the men of the family shared and used for male gatherings, such as meals with guests or business meetings.

Because the prerogatives of divorce, polygyny, and child custody lay with the husband, women in Saudi Arabia appeared to be at a considerable disadvantage in marriage. However, these disadvantages were partially offset by a number of factors. The first was that children were attached to mothers, and when children were grown, especially sons, their ties to the mother secured her a place of permanence in the husband's family. Second, marriages were most often contracted by agreement between families, uniting cousins, or individuals from families seeking to expand their circle of alliances and enhance their prestige, so that a successful marriage was in the interest of, and the desire of, both husband and wife. In addition, Islamic inheritance laws guaranteed a share of inheritance to daughters and wives, so that many women in Saudi Arabia personally held considerable wealth. Because women by law were entitled to full use of their own money and property, they had economic independence to cushion the impact of divorce, should it occur. Most important, custody of children was in practice a matter for family discussion, not an absolute regulated by religion. Furthermore, judges of the sharia courts, according to informal observations, responded with sympathy and reason when women attempted to initiate divorce proceedings or request the support of the court in family-related disputes.

Families in Saudi Arabia, like families throughout the Middle East, tended to be patriarchal, the father in the family appearing as an authoritarian figure at the top of a hierarchy based on age and sex. Undergirding the patriarchal family were cultural and religious values that permeated the society as a whole, and that found their clearest expression in tribal values and practices. Families shared a sense of corporate identity, and the esteem of the family was measured by the individual's capacity to live up to socially prescribed ideals of honor.

The values and practices inherent in these ideals as well as adherence to Islam, were at the heart of the cultural homogeneity among the diverse peoples--tribal and nontribal--of the kingdom. The society as a whole valued behavior displaying generosity, selflessness, and hospitality; deference to those above in the hierarchy of the family; freedom from dependence on others and mastery over one's emotions; and a willingness to support other family members and assume responsibility for their errors as well. An example of the sense of corporate responsibility binding Arabian families may be seen in an incident that occurred in the 1970s in a Hijazi village. Although this incident occurred among beduin who were recently settled, the group solidarity illustrated was applicable to the Arabian family in general as well as to those united by tribal affiliation. An automobile accident took the life of a young boy, and the driver of the car was obligated to pay compensation to the boy's father. The family of the driver, although indigent, was able to borrow the money from a local merchant and present it to the boy's father in a ceremony "to forgive." Afterward, delegated members of the tribe assumed the responsibility of collecting money toward repayment of the compensation from all the people in the tribe, who happened to include close relatives of the boy who was killed. In this way, all parties to the tragedy were satisfied that the best interests of the extended family/tribal group had been served in serving the interests of an individual member.

Chastity and sexual modesty were also very highly valued. Applied primarily to women, these values were not only tied to family honor but were held to be a religious obligation as well. Specific Quranic verses enjoin modesty upon women and, to a lesser degree, upon men; and women are viewed as being responsible for sexual temptation (fitna). Although this attitude is ancient in the Middle East and found to some degree throughout the area in modern times, it has taken on religious significance in Islam through interpretations of Muslim theologians.

The veiling and separation of women were considered mechanisms to ensure sexual modesty and avoid fitna. In practice, the effect of veiling and separation also ensured the continuing dependence of women on men. Some families adopted more liberal standards than others in defining the extent of veiling and separation, but the underlying value of sexual modesty was almost universal. Because the separation of women from unrelated men was accepted as a moral imperative, most activities of a woman outside her home required the mediation of a servant or a man; for example, if a woman should not be seen, how could she apply for a government housing loan in an office staffed by men? In fact, how could she get to the government office without a servant or a man to take her, because women were not allowed to drive. The continuing dependence of women on men, in effect, perpetuated the family as a patriarchal unit. Control of women ensured female chastity and thus family honor as well as the patrilineal character of the family. In Saudi society in general, the role of women was basic to maintaining the structure of the family and therefore of society.

Data as of December 1992