Part of the fun of traveling is bringing things home that help you recall your trip — or gifting them to others! Here are five souvenirs that unmistakably say “Saudi.” Note to shoppers: Be sure to check prayer times, during which most stores are closed for half an hour. And although shopping can be enjoyed throughout the day, if you prefer to shop when it’s quieter, go in the morning. If you enjoy a bit more hustle and bustle, go in the afternoon.
Not only are dates plentiful in Saudi, but they also occupy significant spots in a Saudi’s life. “Dates are vital to the culture of hospitality,” or hafawah, explains Felicia Campbell, a cookbook author who specializes in food of the Arabian Gulf. In fact, dates are routinely offered to guests entering a home or office. Ajwa dates are unique because they are dry on the outside but soft and very sweet on the inside. They are among the most widely distributed dates in the world and — because of their religious significance — one of the most expensive. (Muslims eat Ajwa dates because they are thought to have healing properties.) While Ajwa dates are cultivated in Medina, they’re ubiquitous throughout the kingdom.
If you’ve ever stepped foot in the kingdom, you’ve smelled oud. Oud is derived from the heartwood of the aquilaria tree, whose resin may be distilled into oil, blended into perfume or simply burned as incense. Like dates, oud products are a symbol of Saudi hospitality. Oud wood may be burned in the home during Eid when receiving visitors—this is called Bukhoor—or given as a gift in oil or perfume form. During the Hajj, pilgrims to Makkah and Medina will also encounter the scent of oud, which is burned in the Great Mosque. Hence, nearby vendors sell small packets of oud chips as souvenirs. The scent of oud varies considerably depending on the tree it came from and how it was cultivated (as well as who is wearing it). But generally, it’s described as warm and woody or smoky and sweet. It can be quite potent, so a little goes a long way, which is good since it can be quite pricey depending on the form.
Rugs rich in geometric patterns and color fill the alleys of many souqs, including the Dirah souq in Riyadh and the Souq Al Zal in old Riyadh. The quality of the rugs in the souqs can vary, so be sure to compare a couple of them rather than buying the first one that catches your eye. Most of the rugs in souqs are made in Saudi, but you’ll also find imports from Afghanistan and Kashmir; a skilled merchant should be able to tell you which is which. Saudi rugs are generally made from wool, while offerings from other countries may feature silk or a silk-wool blend. Prices may start around SAR600 (about US$160) and increase with quality and size. Here’s a fun idea: If you can’t fit an entire rug into your suitcase, consider bringing home rug coasters instead.