Africa/Middle East - Issue 34 - Magazine | Monocle

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Heart thawb

Saudi Arabia [KING ABDULLAH]

Despite being one of the world’s oldest heads of state, the 86-year-old Saudi King Abdullah is also a bit of a reformer. In his time, the nation has seen its first democratic local council elections and the first woman has made it onto the council of ministers.

But his desert land is still a country with deep traditions, where women are not allowed to drive and where Wahhabism, a strict version of Islam, is the dominant religion. Saudi kings draw some of their legitimacy from their role as protectors of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, so their good relations with the religious establishment are fundamental.

In this complex web of forces and interests, Abdullah’s modest appearance and traditional clothing are a great asset. “He doesn’t dress all that differently from what other men in his country typically wear,” says Ahmed Al-Omran, who writes the blog Saudi Jeans.

This man-in-the-street style helps him in dealing with the conservative side of society, which did not appreciate the flamboyance of his predecessor King Fahd, who would spend millions of dollars a day during his long European vacations. Abdullah never dresses in western suits. Instead, this “man of the desert” – he’s a keen horseman – wears robes (thawb). And according to tradition, his coat (bisht) is worn with only one arm sleeved.

Abdullah may stick to tradition but he is also encouraging adventurous Saudi fashion designers and has even hired one of them, Yahya Al Bishri, to join the team of royal tailors. Al Bishri’s small boutique in Jeddah was raided ­repeatedly in the 1990s by the Saudi religious police for “promoting homosexuality”.

The chain-smoking leader, who led the world’s biggest oil exporter through one of its most difficult periods in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, is now facing a huge challenge – ensuring a peaceful succession of power. Saudi Arabia has no system of primogeniture and the kingdom’s rulers were until now brothers and half-brothers, all of them the sons of Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state. Indeed, the question of whether Crown Prince Sultan (84) or second-to-the-throne Prince Naif (77) would keep up reforms may resonate far beyond the world of Saudi politics.

All the king’s robes

  1. Headwear:
    The ghotra (called keffiyeh in other Arab countries) can be arranged in at least a dozen ways, each reflecting the status of the wearer. Abdullah wears his headdress (white in summer and red checked in winter) VIP style, which means letting it down on his chest. His black agal (the cord that secures the ghotra to the head) reflects a much more modest choice than the staggering double golden version of his predecessors, King Faisal and King Halid.

  2. Beard:
    Sporting a precisely trimmed goatee, the octogenarian’s facial hair reflects his desire to be perceived as a strong and age-defying masculine leader.

  3. Robes:
    The king’s wardrobe consists of traditional thawbs worn with long coats (called bisht or mishla). Thawbs are made of white cotton and silk for his summer collection and dark colours are chosen for winter. Coats are woven with English Cotswold wool.

  4. Shoes:
    Although considered the world’s fourth richest royal (worth $17bn/€12.7bn), Abdullah still prefers humble footwear: journalists arriving for a press conference in his garden even spotted him once wearing trainers.

What the puck?


Ice hockey has always been the domain of cold, northern countries, such as Finland and Canada. But this year, a new player has appeared in the rink: the United Arab Emirates. A national hockey league with five teams (the UAE national team is pictured) played its first season this year. And a youth hockey programme faced off too.

Tanked up

Saudi Arabia

After years of low military imports (it ranked 28th in the world between 2005 and 2009), Saudi Arabia’s arsenal is set to soar. It’s ordered 724 Piranha armoured vehicles from Canada, 373 tanks from the US and 72 combat aircraft from the UK.

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