Arabic is the official language of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it is in all Middle Eastern and Arab league countries. However, with a population of over 33 million people, it is only natural that there exist multiple dialects representing the country’s regional variety and diversity. There are 13 states in the kingdom and citizens in each state have their unique slang that other states won’t understand fully. Someone from Northern Saudi Arabia, for example, will struggle to maintain a steady conversation with a southerner, in the same way an Iranian might not understand a native Moroccan, despite the fact that Arabic is their common denominator.
A significant chunk of the Saudi population use an Arabic version called Classic Arabic or Fus-ha, a dialect that linguistic and religious scholars term as the foundations of the Arabic language. Muslims all over the world use Fus-ha for worship mainly because the Holy Quran is written in the dialect. However, this dialect is more of a written than a spoken language, perhaps due to its complexity and technicality. Fus-ha is not taught in Saudi schools, except for colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning.
Saudi Arabia citizens try to go around the complexity of Fus-ha by using the much-simplified Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in their informal, day-to-day conversations. MSA has grown in significance over time to become the main language in Saudi Arabia’s written press, television, and radio. It is now the most understood form of the Arabic language even beyond Saudi borders. Interestingly, the dialect is taught in schools as a second language to young Saudis in elementary through high school, mainly in the form of Modern Arabic literature. It is like the dialect that harmonizes all other Arabic dialects in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has been revamping its tourism industry for the last 3 years with the hope of making the kingdom a leading Middle Eastern tourist destination by 2030. You can now visit and tour almost every corner of the country with a Saudi Arabia tourist visa, except for the holy sites that are reserved for Muslims only. If you wish to learn a language while in Saudi Arabia, it is best that you learn the MSA because it is the widely used Arabic version. The dialects we will discuss in this article might not be necessary for a visitor, but it is good to know they exist.
Other Languages Used in Saudi Arabia:
There are 3 distinct dialects within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but English is also gaining popularity in the kingdom. Most Saudis speak their local dialects as the first language, MSA as the second language, and English as the third language. The 3 main local dialects are:
- Najdi Arabic
Najdi Arabic is spoken by about a quarter of all Arabic speakers in Saudi Arabia; it is the first language for people living in the central region of the kingdom. With over 9 million speakers, the dialect is further subdivided into four major sub-dialects:
- Badawi Najdi which is popular in the Najd region, the home to Saudi Arabia’s nomadic community, the Najd.
- Northern Najdi which is spoken by communities around Qaseem and Jabal Shamaar, although it is also significantly popular in the Zufi region.
- Southern Najdi which is an urban slang spoken by the residents of the city of Kharj and the communities around it. Kharj is a small city in the kingdom’s south-central region.
- Central Najdi which is also an urban dialect that is mainly spoken in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia.
Note that all Najdi Arabic speakers understand each other sufficiently well, only that each region chooses not to use another region’s Najdi slang.
- Hejazi Propper Arabic
Also known as the Western Arabian Arabic, Hejazi Propper Arabic is the first language for the Saudi people who hail from the kingdom’s western region. Hejazi speakers in Saudi Arabia are approximately 8 million, which is slightly below 23% of Saudi’s total population. The dialect is subdivided into two main dialects:
- Bedouin Hejazi Arabic that is predominantly spoken by people living in the rural Bedouin region.
- The urban dialect that is predominantly spoken in the holy city of Mecca, Jeddah, and Medina, among other cities of Saudi.
- Arabic (gulf Arabic)
This dialect is not as popular as the two dialects above. It is spoken by around 200,000 Saudis who live along the Persian Gulf and, for that reason, it is called e-Allah-eel-kalijiyya (meaning the dialect of the gulf). The dialect is, however, very popular in the Gulf areas of the UAE, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. Gulf Arabic was brought to Saudi Arabia by the people who work in the oil industry.
There are many minority languages in the kingdom that have developed from expatriate communities living in Saudi Arabia mixing their mother tongue with Arabic. If you are crazy about linguistics and heritage, it is important that you know about these 3 minority languages used in Saudi Arabia because they play a key role in showcasing the kingdom’s diversity:
- Southern Arabic which is also known as the Egyptian Arabic. This dialect was brought to Saudi Arabia by the country’s Egyptian expatriate community and is particularly popular in the kingdom’s Southern region. Egyptians and other Arabs from Northern Africa have a population of about 300,000 within Saudi Arabia.
- Rohingya which is spoken by people who migrated to Saudi Arabia from Myanmar. There are about 400,000 Rohingya speakers in the world.
- Tagalog, an Austronesian language spoken by Saudis of Philippine origin; Filipinos who moved to Saudi Arabia in search of informal employment. Tagalog is spoken by around 17 million people around the world.
- Urdu which is used as a first language by about 400,000 Pakistani people living and working in Saudi Arabia. The grammar of Urdu combines components from different Asian languages, notably Farsi, Hindu, and Arabic.
Arabic dialects have been largely influenced by western languages, particularly English. Most words have fallen out of favor amongst youthful Arabic speakers, and that has precipitated the creation of a unique slang of the MSA. At the same time, native dialects such as Zahrani Spoken Arabic and Faifi Spoken Arabic are almost extinct, save for the southern region of Saudi Arabia where they dominated centuries back. As tourism takes shape in the country, it is possible that most of the small dialects we’ve discussed will go extinct.