The culture of Saudi Arabia is defined - some might say restricted - by an austere interpretation of Islam. The two holiest places of pilgrimage for Muslims, Mecca and Medina, are both located in the country, and it is one of the most devout countries in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932, and has been ruled as an absolute monarchy ever since. It is also almost unique in that the country's religious leaders, known as the ulema, also have a direct goal in governing the country.
Saudi Arabia has one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, which has led to rapid modernisation during its short existence as a unified state. It was inevitable that such a transformation from a loose collection of centuries-old desert tribes to one of the richest states in the world would conflict with the religious conservatism of the area. Saudi Arabia has therefore had a volatile relationship with culture and entertainment. Initially, there was some liberalisation in the middle of the 20th century which accompanied the country's economic growth. Newspapers and radio flourished in the 1950s. Cinemas were numerous in the 1970s. However, in response to violent Islamist activism, all cinemas and theatres were shut down in the 1980s as the government sought to appease both the religious authorities and the extremist elements of the populace. This has remained the case until 2005, when a small number of cinemas were re-opened. The threat of Islamic extremism has prevented any further relaxation.
The strict interpretation of Islamic law enforced throughout the county, known as Wahhabism, has generally limited artistic expression. Due to heavy censorship laws in the country, the works of some Saudi novelists have been published in Yemen and Lebanon.
Contemporary Saudi novelists that have faced censorship include: Abdelrahmane Munif, Turki al-Hamad and Ali al-Domaini. There is now a new generation of young female writers including Fawziyya Abu Khalid, Siba al Harez, and Rajaa Alsanea, notorious for her best-selling and highly controversial novel Girls of Riyadh. One interesting perspective on contemporary Saudi society is A Kingdom's Future: Saudi Arabia Through the Eyes of Its Twentysomethings by Caryle Murphy, which is published by the Wilson Center and is available as a free download here.
The movie industry of Saudi is incredibly small, with a handful of directors such as Abdullah Al-Eyaf and Haifaa al-Mansour who have tended to produce short films or documentaries. A film called Keif al-Hal (How are you?) launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 and was dubbed as the first Saudi Arabian feature-film... (although it was actually filmed in Dubai). Despite signs of increasing openness, there is still great restriction on the freedom of expression on Saudi novelists and artists in film and theatre.
One of Saudi's most interesting folk rituals is the Al Ardha, a sword dance based on ancient Bedouin traditions where drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder. Samri is another popular form of music and dance in which poetry is sung.
Tariq Abdulhakeem, the composer of hundreds of famous Saudi songs, is perhaps the most distinguished musician in recent Saudi history. Saraj Omar has become a very prominent composer after creating the music for the Saudi national anthem. Saudi rising pop stars include Mohamed Abdu and Abdul-Majeed Abdullah.