Contributed by Lily Lowton for American Bedu blog
The modern people of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are descendants of ancient nomadic goat-herding tribes whose traditions have filtered down through the centuries but are becoming diluted by western culture and influenced by rapid economic development. The traditional diet in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabiaconsists mainly of food readily available in rural areas; unleavened bread made with barley flour, chicken, lamb, spices, yoghurt, milkand dates. Diet is strictly governed by Islamic tradition and it is forbidden to eat pork or consume alcohol in Saudi Arabia. Islamic principles are unlikely to be diluted by western culture but aspects of diet not related to religion are changing rapidly in the region and continue to do so. Meat is consumed in larger quantities than it is the western diet and must be prepared according to Islamic principles and tradition. Tea and coffee are the preferred drinks but this may change as western influences increase.
There are many different varieties of bread in the traditional diet, the most common being Fatir which is a barley-flour flatbread eaten with most meals. A traditional blend of spices known as Hawayij and consisting of peppercorns, caraway seed, cardamom seed, saffron & turmeric give Arabic cuisine its distinctive flavour and aroma. Chicken is widely consumed and makes up a large proportion of the traditional diet. Lamb is also popular but tends to be the meat of choice for special occasions and family celebrations. It is rare to find a vegetarian in Saudi society but, with the massive influx of westerners into the region, that fact is likely to change. Western influence and rapid economic development, especially in urban areas, will lead to a continued move away from traditional cuisine and the possibility of more Saudi citizens adopting western attitudes towards food. Rural areas tend to be more traditional and remain largely untainted by western culture but this is also likely to change.
Following the discovery of oil in the region in the late 1930s and the rapid growth and development of the Saudi economy since that time, the diet of the people has changed and continues to do so, mostly in urban areas, where populations have become more cosmopolitan and the influences of western cuisine are causal to a shift away from traditional foods for younger generations. Fast food restaurants are becoming common-place in the cities and the food they serve is dramatically different from traditional Saudi cuisine. Nutritionists are worried by this shift as disease related to the consumption of westernised foods is rapidly on the increase. In recent years the incidence obesity in Saudi adolescents had increased due to a shift away from traditional foods & an increase in the consumption of saturated fats, sugar and carbohydrates. The rapid development of the economy in the Kingdom has brought with it a more modern lifestyle in young Saudi Arabians who are increasingly following a more sedentary way of life than their ancestors were used to.
In 2006 a study carried out by The Saudi German Hospitals Group amongst adolescents in Jeddah discovered that almost half of those studied were overweight. The study concluded that this was due to a move towards western cuisine and a tendency towards a more sedentary lifestyle much like their western counterparts. The study recommended the promotion of a healthier lifestyle within the age group studied as a counter-measure against future incidences of diabetes and other diet-related diseases. There can be beneficial effects on health due to western influences; a possible increase in vegetarianism could result, however, extremes in diet, be it towards an unhealthy increase in consumption of carbohydrates and saturated fat, or towards extreme diets promoted in the western media can lead to problems. Balance is required in diet to promote a healthy population and less strain on health resources.
It is clear that the influence of western society upon Saudi Arabian lifestyle has had mixed effects, both detrimental and beneficial. Diet is one of the areas in which the effects on Saudi culture are marked and obvious. Younger generations in urban areas are affected most as their exposure to non-traditional influences is much greater. Globalisation will continue to dilute the differences between cultures the world over, however, there are some aspects of society, governed by strong tradition and religion, which will stand up to this apparent shrinking of the world and preserve the identities of countries such as The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.