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Books You Should Read Before Visiting Saudi Arabia

Picture of Yasmin Helal
Updated: 27 April 2018
Now that Saudi Arabia is finally open for tourism, there is no better time to gear yourself up for a visit by picking up a local book. Though often published abroad due to strict censorship in the kingdom, our selection of books provides a mix of Saudi narratives, novels, and records of key events that will help give you a genuine sense of the local culture.

Cities of Salt, by Abdul Rahman Munif

Published in 1984 in Beirut, Cities of Salt consists of five volumes depicting the drastic shift that the discovery of oil has caused on local lives. The fact that it is written by a local author, Abdul Rahman Munif, makes it one of the most interesting narratives about this period in the Gulf. This popular book has been described by noted Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said as “the only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country.”

Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa al-Sanea

Published in Lebanon in 2005, Girls of Riyadh offers a sneak peak into the secret lives of Saudi locals, describing what really goes on in a kingdom where everything from media to internet access are censored. Through this novel, Saudi author Rajaa al-Sanea showcases an alternative view of the city in which she lived for the majority of her life, revealing everything from illicit drinking and women posing as men in order to drive, through to homosexuality and premarital sex.

Explore the social fabric of Saudi Arabia in literature
Explore the social fabric of Saudi Arabia in literature | © 12019 / Pixabay

The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East, by Andrew Scott Cooper

Nothing has shaped Saudi Arabia’s modern history more than two main events: the discovery of oil and the kingdom’s hostile relationship with Iran. The Oil Kings narrates how oil started dominating the United States’ domestic and foreign policy during the Cold War, including the shift in its allegiance in the region from Iran to Saudi Arabia.

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, by Manal al-Sharif

In an autobiographical account, Daring to Drive author Manal al-Sharif writes about the struggle that Saudi women have undertaken in order to be able to drive. Soon, women will be allowed to drive cars, motorcycles, and trucks across Saudi Arabia, but this was not always the case. It was just several months ago that the Crown Prince lifted the ban on women driving in a move that surprised the local as well as the international circuit. The struggle that Saudi women had to go through has been long and hard, and has become part and parcel of every woman’s life.

The Belt, by Ahmed Abodehman

Growing up in a Saudi mountainous village, The Belt author Ahmed Abodehman narrates this memoir, which depicts the struggle between modernity and traditionalism in Saudi Arabia, offering a rare glimpse inside the country’s religious, social, and intellectual forces. He also discusses his younger years, which he spent surrounded by traditions, family ties, tribal songs, and stories of local legends.

Mountains in the desert, Tabuk Province
Mountains in the desert, Tabuk Province | © OxfordLaw / WikiCommons

Where Pigeons Don’t Fly, by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

Censorship can have a negative effect on many young Saudis, one such victim being the main character of Where Pigeons Don’t Fly, Fahd. After being caught sitting with his girlfriend in a café – which goes against gender segregation in public – he leaves Saudi Arabia indefinitely. Even long after his self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom, he remains haunted by the unpleasant memories of his life in Saudi.

East of the Mediterranean, by Abdul Rahman Munif

East of the Meditteranean is another novel written by Abdul Rahman Munif. Like the rest of his work, this fiction narrates a political story. The main character is a prisoner who is tortured in a political prison located in Saudi Arabia. Published in 1975, the novel highlights many themes, the most prominent of which is freedom.