Saudi Arabia: The Effects of Westernisation on Dietary Habits in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

saudi diet


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.

Changing diet

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.

Health considerations

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.


8 Responses

  1. I think the word industrialization would have been a more correct word than Westernization. Westernization implies a cultural change, but the real change is from industrialization and urbanization in Saudi Arabia. How many people are herders today?

  2. Actually the word Westernization is appropriate because it is a cultural aspect that was adopted into the Saudi/Eastern lifestyle. In the contemporary age of glabalization, more and more Western goods including food have been incorporated in the our market. It used to be that the Saudi cooking is influenced by the rules of hospitality. Made with careful consideration and thorough preparation before being served to the family. Fastfood has eliminated this aspect. I too am guilty of eating out at fast food outlets, my favorite being Nando’s and Popeye’s. however, i am not saying the westernization of food is a negative thing.

  3. Since moving here I have noticed that Khobar at least seems to have more fast food outlets than Columbus OH where I grew up. This place appears to combine US & European fast food restaurants. I have seen many overweight children who are not even teenagers yet. For example in our compound(no Saudis live here by the way) 8 out of 10 kids my son’s age(11) are fat period. At the mall we always comment on children 5 & under who are just massive & we usually see them munching on sweets or potato chips. I’m not sure it’s only a Saudi phenomenon. Sugar is highly consumed in Middle Eastern culture as well as oil/butter.
    The UK is catching up with America too.

  4. i dont see westernization as a bad thing, the western diet has good stuff in it too. however what i rue most is the addiction to fats and sugars, which int he olden days were limited .
    take for example the burger, if it’s to be made as a mixture of vegetables / legumes with spices or meat and spices and lightly sauteed and served with fresh veggies adn a flatbread again baked, i think it’s a good meal. the problem i have is that every region/country/culture has specific spicesand herbs it uses that are good and are especially tuned for the climatic/living conditionsinthat area. this gets lost when all you add to your fod is salt and pepper then the benefit of those spices is lost., this is goodness lost to your body.
    As for fat kids, there is nearly no necessity to eat the amount of food people stuff themselves with nowadays and stuff their kids too.

    Moderation seems to be a lost art. I was recently in a party where i saw moms and dads stuffing a little kid with 2 whole slices of pizza and sugaraed juice , he was 5 with no physical activity, yes it’s v cold outside and i agree that he cant be bycycling outside but they forget to take tthat into account, why does a kid need so much calories that too pretty empty for such a sedentary life. he could have done with a thinn slice of pizza, some fruits, some salad , water and plenty of running around.
    it’s the mindset. lack of control and poor dietary choices learnt. not westernization to blame.

  5. I have never seen such a consumption of extremely sugary (much more sugar than in North American drinks) sodas and juices. Even jams made in ME countries contain way more sugar than in Europe and North America. There is far too much white bread eaten as well as deep fried meats and appetizers. Vegetables and salads seem to be an afterthought. It is the same in Sudan. A three ounce glass of tea can have 4 or more spoons of sugar in it. My family can’t understand why I don’t add sugar to my tea or why I don’t drink soft drinks. I talk to them about diabetes. Some have it. Some know it’s the sweets and white bread but just shrug. Sad. Very, very sad.

  6. I agree with Jerry, one should say ”industrialized food”, or ”artifact food”. refined sugar and refined flour are pure poison for your body. Any food which ”keeps” (except rice and beans etc.) is só adulterated that it is now artifact.

    There is a lecturer who walks around with a macDonald’s lunchbox for years and the ”food” inside has dried up a bit but is still in pristine condition. It is not rotting away because no fungi or bacteria can live on it, therefore it just slowly dries out.
    Is it in any way rational to think that your body can live on something even bacteria and fungi cannot digest?
    From the point of your body, and giving it the nutrition it needs, you can just as well eat the cardboard box it comes in.

    I find it extremely depressing that instead of the richly varied and healthy food which is also Europe’s legacy, people around the world get the crap industrial fast food instead.
    And that also goes for culture: American reality shows instead of real theater, good movies, literature, poetry, etc.

  7. In urban areas, population have become more cosmopolitan and the influences of western cuisine are causal to a shift away from traditional foods for younger generations.

  8. […] The Effects of Westernisation on Dietary Habits in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia […]

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