The words “grand,” “majestic” and “glitter” come to mind when describing an Arabian wedding. Weddings in Saudi are lavish, beautifully planned celebrations of unity and the joining of families.
“Our weddings are like sparkling glitter everywhere,” says Tasneem Alsultan, a Riyadh-based photographer who arguably knows better than almost anyone. She’s seen it all. Alsultan has shot more than 200 weddings in 21 countries. “I love how our Saudi weddings are so different than anything else you would see.”
The guest list for a Saudi wedding numbers in the hundreds and sometimes can include more than 1,000 people. Given the size and enormity of weddings in Saudi, these events take some planning. “The wedding process initially starts with the couple’s vision of their dream wedding,” says Dounia Eldorra, a wedding specialist at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Centre. Her job is to deliver this dream in a “carefree” and “fairy-tale-like” way. Eldorra says that wedding specialists can assist with other wedding-related events, too, even if they are outside of the big day. For example, some brides take part in a traditional henna party, called ghumra, which takes place a few nights before the big ceremony. Alsultan says these parties are more popular on the coasts of Saudi.
“So Jeddah, Medina, and south of Saudi on the West Coast and also where I come from, the Eastern Province, we have a lot of henna,” she says, noting that it’s because coastal towns had more frequent contact with India due to trade routes. “So we brought a lot of the henna traditions and the colorful garments — not saris, but it’s the same fabric basically that we wear — and we just made it more customized to Arabs.”
For centuries, henna has been considered a sign of good luck in Arabia. During the pre-wedding party that’s organized by friends of the bride and attended by female friends and family, intricate henna designs are applied with a dark henna paste to the bride’s hands, wrists and feet. Once the paste dries and falls off the skin, it leaves behind an orange stain that gradually turns brown, resulting in a beautiful work of temporary body art meant to invite blessings.
Wedding ceremonies in Saudi tend to be grand affairs, held in glamorously decorated ballrooms or hotels. “It’s very opulent [and] beautiful. Visually it’s the biggest celebration that you would have in your lifetime,” Alsultan says. “When it’s a wedding, you’re celebrating, yes, the two people getting married, but it’s like the whole tribe is also celebrating those two families getting together.”
On the evening of the reception, men and women gather in separate halls, which are filled with tables laden with food and drinks. Bands play live music, and the guests dance the night away, often until dawn. The celebrations tend to start late in the evening, and the bride will likely not make her appearance before midnight.
Alsultan says she tries to stay with the bride as much as possible because the most important people will be around her. She photographs the family — from the kids fluttering around in puffy dresses to the mother of the bride “being a bit stressed out about everything being perfect” — and the staff members, which Alsultan says are an important part of the event. This includes the people setting up the stage and the women (Alsultan says at least 50) who are making coffee and passing out dates. “They are not regular waiters. These women are just there to serve you dates and Arabic coffee and make sure that there’s incense all over the ballroom,” she says. “I love that.”
The biggest event of the night is when the bride makes her entrance. Typically the bride spends a lot of time picking out the perfect backdrop for her entrance. Alsultan says these backdrops are adorned with a variety of decorations like flowers or crystals. “Only one bride gets to use this backdrop; it’s been created just for her,” she says.
When it comes time for the bride to make her entrance, the lights are usually turned off and there’s one big spotlight. “Then, the music starts to become very theatrical,” says Alsultan, who describes this moment as truly grand and also like a fashion runway show. The bride will make her entrance in front of anywhere from 300 to 1,500 women, depending on the size of the wedding. And everything, the decor, backdrop and music, has been customized just for her.
“When I’m looking at the bride, I know that she feels that this is a very intense moment ... but at the same time, I love how the bride feels that this is her moment,” Alsultan says.
After the bride enters, she’ll often sit on the stage. Sometimes the groom has already entered the room and meets her; other times he joins her after her entrance. Following this, and depending on the cultural traditions of each family, the bride will dance with her friends, or the guests will dance in front of the couple. In Saudi, there are several wedding planners known for their theatrics, and Alsultan says she’s seen everything from female dancers swinging from the ceiling in a circus-like way to violinists and ballerinas performing inside of bubbles.
"I remember that we had a wedding that took three days to set up,” says Dareen Alzaabi, catering and conference manager at The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh. “It was like walking into a fairy tale. We even created a special menu to match the theme of the decoration.”
While the women are dancing and celebrating in a nearby ballroom, the men attending the wedding are dancing as well, but in a much more traditional way. They dance in a style called Ardah, which is performed with two rows of men standing shoulder to shoulder facing one another while holding long, thin swords and moving to the beat of drums and chanted poetry. The men raise and lower the swords with the rhythm of the drums. Once performed to energize warriors before battle, Ardah is now staged for all kinds of ceremonial events, including religious holidays, births and graduations. This type of folkloric dance is so important in Saudi culture that in 2015, UNESCO inscribed it on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Alsultan noted that one of her favorite Saudi weddings to photograph was in Abha, and that the groom’s celebration started earlier in the day with the two families celebrating separately. As the day progressed, they moved closer together to celebrate in one space.
“And the way they celebrate is not just by dancing, it’s by reciting poetry about how happy they are to start the marriage between the two families,” she says. “It was very endearing because, personally, I love when tradition comes in and it’s not just a regular party. I want to see something that’s part of who you are and where you’ve come from.”
While many aspects of weddings in Saudi are traditional, brides often wear a white Western-style wedding dress adorned with lace. Men often wear a white thobe, a long-sleeved, ankle-length robe, covered with a black, green and brown bisht, a long cloak that’s trimmed with gold. A bisht is only worn for special occasions and festivals, or by royalty and the elderly.
Alsultan says it’s not just the bride and groom who get dressed up, but that the attendees, specifically the women, get very creative with their attire. “These women will wear haute couture from Paris and all these big brand names,” she says. “They’ll wear beautiful, elaborate, detailed sequined dresses to attend.”
No one will go hungry at a Saudi wedding. The dinner, which is frequently served buffet-style, is only served after the bride walks in, and it often signifies the end of the night. At The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, an international buffet is usually served, but most couples request a traditional food corner made by the hotel’s Saudi chefs, according to Alzaabi. “I think what's special is that a lot of times they have food that’s traditional Saudi food,” Alsultan says. Though Alsultan says many weddings have everything — a salad corner, a sushi corner and so forth, her favorite is when there’s a Saudi corner. “It’s the kind of rare food that you wouldn’t get at any restaurants,” Alsultan says. A Saudi corner, or buffet station, might include traditional rices, sambosas, a baby camel — a tender delicacy, which stems from tribal traditions, only served for special occasions — or whole roasted sheep with rice and flatbread. A huge spread of salads and side dishes is served buffet-style. Guests can also enjoy free-flowing fruit mocktails and traditional Arabic coffee. Desserts can include gooey dates, pastries and chocolates.
Though dinner might be the last main event, it doesn’t mean the celebration necessarily ends. Alsultan says that frequently the women will continue dancing until 4 or 5 a.m. And while Saudis enjoy the party, weddings are unique because they’re a celebration of love, and Alsultan says she “loves stories of love.”
—Lauren Keith and Lisa Zimmermann