Saudi Arabia's African roots traced to annual Hajj pilgrimage and British colonization

In this file photo, African pilgrims are seen in Mina, in the holy city of Makkah. Through the centuries, many African Muslims who have come to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj have opted to remain in the Makkah or Madinah. (AN file photo)
Updated 01 March 2018

Saudi Arabia's African roots traced to annual Hajj pilgrimage and British colonization

JEDDAH: An estimated 10 percent of the Saudi population is of African descent, living mainly in the Western Region, and particularly in Makkah. Their roots lie in the annual Hajj pilgrimage and the British colonization of Africa in the 19th century.
For hundreds of years, pilgrims and oppressed Muslims from that continent traveled to Makkah and Madinah, and chose to make those cities their home. They came mainly from Chad, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Senegal and especially Nigeria.
“My family arrived in Hijaz in 1903, from Nigeria. The main reason for their emigration was British colonization,” Dr. Mohammed Faheem, 70, professor of comparative education at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, told Arab News.
The British colonized Africa to exploit its natural resources, bringing with them Western education, the English language and Christianity. There was resistance, particularly among Muslims in the north, but with no organized army or modern weapons they were no match for the might of the British Empire.
Many chose to journey east, where they knew they could feel safe in lands that would be forever Muslim. “They passed through Chad and Sudan, and then the final destination was the Hijazi lands of the Arabian peninsula,” Dr. Faheem said.
“Some of the immigrants already had knowledge of the Arabic languages, and Islamic studies, and they worked as judges, scholars and teachers in the holy mosque. My grandfather was one of those. Others were laborers.
“Western education, or modern education, arrived in Nigeria with British colonization. For that reason, Nigerians believed that modern education should be forbidden from a religious perspective. That idea remained with many of them, even when they came to Hijaz. Very few people would accept sending their children to modern schools, even in Saudi Arabia. They would only send their children to traditional Islamic schools.”
There is a legacy of that mistrust in Nigeria to this day. The literal meaning of Boko Haram, the Nigerian extremist militia, is “Western education is forbidden.”
The best known Saudi families of African descent are Fallatah, Hausawi and Barnawi. They all used to live in one area near to each other in Makkah.
“Each tribe has its own language named after them,” Dr. Faheem said. “There are the Hausa, Fallata, and Borno languages, and they were spoken in that area of Makkah.
“I myself speak the Fallatah language, and when I traveled to the US to study, I was keen to improve my African language and I chose it as the second mandatory language to maintain my higher education.
“When I was younger, we used to speak our own language at home and switch to Arabic when we went outside, but younger generations no longer have that bond with their origins.
“They did not have the life we had, we lived closer to our roots because we lived among those who moved from West Africa to live here.”
Not all black Saudis, however, trace their origins to West Africa. While there has been no official survey of the country’s ethnic diversity, many Saudis are Afro-Arabs who came from places such as Sudan and Djibouti.
But whatever your origins, Dr. Faheem said, respect for your roots does not conflict with your loyalty to your country and your people.

Saudis recall history’s greatest TV event: Apollo moon landing

Updated 20 July 2019

Saudis recall history’s greatest TV event: Apollo moon landing

  • The TV images beamed from 320,000km away in space left viewers astounded but happy
  • The TV coverage influenced thinking and attitudes in the Kingdom just like everywhere else

DUBAI: It was a sleepy afternoon in Saudi Arabia, just days before the end of the school vacation, and Saudis had their eyes glued to their TV sets as they waited for live coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Before July 20, 1969, the idea of a human walking on the moon was the stuff of science fiction. However, almost overnight, sci-fi had turned into reality with a live broadcast showing American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s dramatic descent onto the empty lunar landscape.

Between science fiction and science fact, the live coverage of the lunar landing amounted to an unusual fusion of news and entertainment.

Saudi TV technicians bring the first live images of Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing to
viewers around the Kingdom. (Supplied photo)

The historic images — beamed back to Earth more than 320,000 km away — left Saudi viewers astounded and confused, but mostly elated to be witnessing such an epoch-making event.

The event was covered live on television and radio stations in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis and residents living in the Kingdom watched it on Saudi channels 1 and 3, owned by Saudi Aramco.

Hessah Al-Sobaie, a housewife from Al-Dawadmi, recalled watching the moon landing from her grandparents’ backyard as an 11-year-old.

“It felt weird watching a human walk on the moon,” she told Arab News. “I remember the endless questions I asked as a child.”

While most people were aware that going to the moon was risky, many Saudis believed that such a journey was impossible and all but unthinkable.


1. NASA’s Apollo 11 mission control room in Houston has been restored to its 1969 condition and regular tours
will be conducted by the Johnson Space Center.

2. NASA ‘Science Live’ will have a special edition on July 23 on board the aircraft carrier that recovered the Apollo 11 capsule.

3. A summer moon festival and family street fair will be held in Wapakoneta, Ohio, from July 17-20.

4. Downtown Houston’s Discovery green will host a free public screening of the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary, with an appearance by NASA astronaut Steve Bowen.

5. Amateur radio operators will host a series of events on July 20-21.

6. The US Space and Rocket Center is staging a special ‘Rockets on Parade’ exhibition.

The Apollo 11 mission prompted discussions across the Middle East over the reality of what people saw on their TV screens. Some Saudi scholars found it hard to believe their eyes.

“I watched it, and I clearly remember each and every detail of the coverage,” Hayat Al-Bokhari, 68, a retired school principal in Jeddah, said.

“My father, Abdul, was 56 at the time. He said the landing was faked. He couldn’t believe or accept that a human could go to the moon.”

Khaled Almasud, 70, a retired university lecturer, was a student in the US state of Oregon at the time of the mission. “Americans were stunned and over the moon, happy with their national achievement. But many Saudis like me were either in denial or insisting on more proof.”

Since the beginning of the 1960s, King Faisal had been rapidly transforming Saudi Arabia, inviting foreign-trained experts to help build a modern country with world-class infrastructure.

Billie Tanner, now 90, lived in the Kingdom for many years with her husband, Larry, and their two children, Laurie and Scott, aged six and four. The family had just arrived in Saudi Arabia and headed to the Aramco compound in Ras Tanura in the Eastern Province.

A screengrab of video of the first lunar landing beamed toward Earth and shown on television worldwide. 

“We were going through a culture shock,” she told Arab News. “I wasn’t thinking of the moon landing, but we heard about it on the news from Dhahran.

“My kids tried to see the astronauts on the moon with their binoculars and said they could see them walking around.”

The Apollo 11 spaceflight has become a milestone in the annals of human history and science. Since 1969 space exploration has greatly expanded man’s knowledge of the universe, far beyond Earth’s limits.

The captivating live coverage of the moon landing inspired millions of people around the world, profoundly influencing their thinking and attitudes.

The people of Saudi Arabia were no exception.