Flying in Saudi airspace should offer few surprises for newcomers, but operating on the ground poses surprises and challenges.
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Arabia: land of enduring mystery. Nomadic Bedouins mastering a hostile desert. Camels (“ships of the desert”) and prancing black stallions. The Prophet. Mecca. The Caliphates and the Ummah. Saladin. Sheiks. The veil. T.E. Lawrence. And oil. Lots and lots of oil.
If you fly internationally in the service of business, chances are you will eventually touch down in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Aloft, the visiting operator will encounter one of the most modern air traffic control systems in the world, en route and terminal radar everywhere, straightforward ICAO procedures, standard instrument approaches, and huge, modern airports equipped with runways 2 mi. long.
On the ground, though, it's another world in which bustling 21st century cities serve a population that embraces Islam and where rigid sharia law dominates, all activity pauses five times daily for prayers, and women cannot venture outside unless covered in black over-garments. Saudi Arabia welcomes business, but only on its terms, and those who refuse to respect its customs can face imprisonment or be asked to leave and never return. Thus, it behooves the visitor unacquainted with the kingdom's mores and religious traditions to be properly prepared before venturing within its metaphorical gates.
“You need to keep in mind the huge cultural differences between the West and Saudi Arabia,” observed Daniel Warnick, a U.S. citizen who captains aGlobal Express business jet based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's largest city. Your first indication that “you aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Warnick said, “is when your [female] flight attendant needs to don her abaya black robe before getting off the plane.”
Arabia was the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed (570-632), founder of Islam - currently the world's largest religion - and is the location of Islam's two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. Formerly a region of loosely organized desert tribes, the modern Arabian state was founded in 1932 by Sultan Abdul Aziz al Saud (pronounced Sao-UHD), who unified the peninsula following a 30-year campaign and was subsequently designated king by royal decree. Today, his fourth descendant, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of the House of Saud, for which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is named, rules as the current monarch, vested with maintenance and protection of the Mecca and Medina shrines on behalf of the Ummah, the extended worldwide Islamic community.
Since his time as a royal prince, King Abdullah has developed a reputation as a reformer of sorts, having allowed elections for a portion of municipal council members in 2005 and in September this year promising to confer the vote to Saudi women and even allowing them to serve on municipal councils by 2015 (although women are still prevented from driving automobiles and must remain covered when on the street). Abdullah also called for global religious tolerance in 2008 and reshuffled his cabinet the following year by appointing moderate ministers and judges, naming the first woman ever to serve at the cabinet level. The country, however, remains an absolute monarchy ruled by the al Saud dynasty. The royal family, constituting princes, princesses and sultans has grown quite large, numbering in the hundreds.
If there's anything that defines Saudi Arabia more than Islam, it's oil. Discovered by the British in the 1920s, oil drives the economy, and the money derived from selling it abroad is what has built Saudi Arabia's world-class cities and amazing airports. Saudi Arabia's 2,149,690-sq.-km (830,000-sq.-mi.) territory is said to hold as much as 20% of the world's known oil reserves - believed to be the planet's largest single source (although Brazil's recently discovered offshore deposits may exceed this) - representing 90% of the country's exports and 75% of government revenues.
Only 1.67% of Saudi Arabia's land is arable; nevertheless, the country grows wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates and citrus fruits for domestic consumption. With natural sources of water declining due to Saudi Arabia's growing population - currently estimated at 26.1 million people - the Saudis have advanced desalination and built several highly expensive desalination plants along its coasts.
But crude oil, natural gas, petrochemicals, ammonia, and some services (like aircraft repair) and locally manufactured products continue to dominate Saudi Arabia's economy. And while the rest of the world saw declining fortunes between 2008 and 2010, Saudi Arabia's GDP grew during that period from $596 billion to $622 billion.