Saudi Arabia factfile
Bedouin – footsteps in the sand
'I went to 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.' Wilfred
Thesiger, Arabian Sands
The people of the desert are known as Bedouin,
or Bedu, from the Arabic word Bedawi, meaning ‘the ones who
live in the desert’.
Like the Inuit in the Arctic, the Bedouin
live their lives on the edge of human existence, in an environment
of great hardship and challenge. Both groups have seen their lives
undergo a period of rapid change in recent decades, since the discovery
of oil, and the arrival of the internal combustion engine.
Traditional Bedouin life
Traditionally, the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia roamed freely, searching for good grazing for their camels, living
in large tents made of goat hair and sheep wool. It was a simple existence. Animals provided them with their
living – wool for weaving, meat, milk and butter, a method of drawing water from wells, and transport.
To protect the camps at night from wolves and raiders, and to hunt animals such as hares and gazelle, it was
common for the Bedouin to keep Saluki dogs. Most dogs are considered unclean, but the Saluki were so useful
that they were allowed inside the tents, and given special treatment. Able to outrun a gazelle, and with excellent
eyesight, the Saluki has been used for hunting in Arabia for thousands of years. To catch additional food, the
Bedouin needed to trap migrating falcons and train them to hunt bustards and smaller prey.
As their animals were so vital to everyday life, the Bedouin cared
well for them, travelling great distances to seek good grazing provided
by the erratic and unreliable rains. Money was made from offering
camels and protection to the thousands of pilgrims who had to cross
the interior of the Kingdom on long journeys to Mecca – at
the time such a journey was simply not possible without the large
camel caravans provided by the Bedouin. Today, modern airports and
air-conditioned coaches offer shorter and more comfortable modes
of transport for pilgrims.
is estimated that, fifty years ago, nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s
population led a nomadic existence. Whilst small, settled communities
existed on the coast, and around the major oases, the harsh desert
interior was the home of the Bedouin. Today, the figure of truly
nomadic people is estimated to be less than 10%, and rapidly decreasing,
as many, particularly the young, have left their tents in the desert,
and moved to the city where they have settled. Many have chosen
to cling on to their traditional customs by becoming semi-nomadic,
herding their animals close to the city edges.
camel was viewed as a gift from God, the very spirit of the desert,
and life revolved around it. Prior to the arrival of the car, the
Bedouin depended on the camel for milk and meat, and as an essential
mode of transport. On a camel it was possible to travel up to forty
kilometres in one day. Today, in a car, travelling across trackless
desert, distances of 150 kilometres are achievable, with journeys
of over 300 kilometres possible on graded tracks. This has signalled
a period of great change. Many of the young people have left to
seek their fortune in the city, and it is often the elderly who
choose to stay put. Those who remain have become more sedentary,
using vehicles to bring supplies of water, and fodder, to their
animals, rather than moving. The ability to keep larger herds of
animals in one area has led to problems of overgrazing, with the
desert losing much of its precious vegetation cover.
Whilst for many Bedouin life has been transformed in recent decades, their traditional qualities of hospitality
and nobility remain an integral part of life in Saudi Arabia today. Urban dwellers speak proudly of their Bedouin
roots, and the mass exodus from the cities into the deserts at weekends shows that, despite the rapid technological
advances in the Kingdom, the desert remains a key part of the national soul, and a lasting trace of a nomadic
To find out more
about the Bedouin, take a look at:
Last of the Bedu
Michael Asher, Motivate Publishing, ISBN 0-670-83770-9
of the Desert
Alan Keohane, ISBN 1-85626-545-5
From 'The Washington
Photographs courtesy of Galen Frysinger and Encore Editions.