Saudi Arabia has a unique architectural heritage that has developed over the centuries in response to the needs of its people and their physical environment. This heritage is protected through the preservation of ancient structures by both the government and the private sector, and its influence is readily visible in the contemporary architecture of the Kingdom.
Traditional architecture in Saudi Arabia can be broadly grouped into styles developed in the central Najd Plateau, the Arabian Gulf coastal region, the Hijaz region along the Red Sea coast and the Asir region in the southwest. Although starkly different, these various styles are all functional and simple, and each evolved to take advantage of the available building materials to create a comfortable living environment for the inhabitants, whether they lived in the hot and dry deserts in the central parts of the Kingdom or the cool and wet regions of the southwest.
The people living in the land along the Arabian Gulf coast had to deal with an extremely humid and hot climate. In response, they constructed buildings using the limestone that is abundant in the region for the walls. Tree trunks fitted between buttresses formed the roof, which was covered with palm fronds and earth. A unique feature of the local architectural style is the ventilation tower that is incorporated into the roofs of many of these buildings. Carefully aligned to face the prevailing winds that sweep through the region, these towers directed air into the inner recesses of the buildings, creating an airy and comfortable living environment in the hot summer months.
In the central Najd Plateau, the architectural style that emerged was based on the unique demands of life in this hot and dry region. Unlike the Gulf coastal region, limestone was not available here and the most abundant building material was soil or silt collected from the wadis (dry riverbeds) after the seasonal rains.
With water, straw and other fibers, the mixture was used to make unfired mud bricks that were laid along horizontal layers for walls, which were made thick for added structural integrity. Tree trunks, most often those of the date palm, and palm fronds covered with mud formed the roofs. Windows were small both for privacy and to keep out the elements. The mud plaster used to cover the buildings contained decorative elements for aesthetic purposes. The result was a structure with excellent insulation characteristics, remaining cool in summer and warm in winter.
The Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia developed its own unique architectural style. The coastal region sits on a vast layer of coral rock left over from the era when the entire region was below sea level. Coral cut into blocks and mud bricks were the main building materials.
The people of this region have been in constant contact with pilgrims from Islamic lands, and therefore developed an indigenous architectural style that blended local and foreign elements. Their homes, such as those in Jeddah and Makkah, were several-story structures and featured decorative elements rendered in plaster both inside and out.
Having access to wood imported from India and other sources, the buildings in the Hijaz featured elaborately decorated doors and windows, which were carved into screens called roushan that allowed the passage of air for ventilation while at the same time ensuring the privacy of their occupants.
The Asir region of southwestern Saudi Arabia sits astride the coastal mountains that trap the clouds that scud off the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Of necessity, builders in this wet climate could not use mud brick and consequently most of the structures in this region are made of stone, with different colored blocks used for ornamentation.
Today, residents and visitors can appreciate the different local building styles of Saudi Arabia by visiting the historic structures that have undergone preservation and whose architectural elements are echoed in modern buildings.