How Saudi Arabia’s new Bisht Rules blend Tradition with Modernity

Clock Icon Jul 3, 2024
The Bisht, a traditional garment, is now required for officials, showcasing pride in national identity.

The Bisht, a traditional garment, is now required for officials, showcasing pride in national identity. (Source: Pexels)

Everyone can remember Messi being draped in a bisht by the Emir of Qatar upon receiving the World Cup. The bisht symbolized hospitality, honour and respect, uniting local traditions with the global community in one single act. Today, Saudi Arabia ensures that it incorporates these principles in its reforms, reflecting a commitment to blend tradition with modernity.


This year, Saudi Arabia announced that officials, both men and women, should be wearing official Saudi clothes while performing their duties. For men, this includes wearing the bisht/mishlah, and for women the abaya, at formal events and workplaces. This announcement came as a surprise, as I had thought it was already a requirement for all officials to wear the bisht.

Typically, officials are seen wearing them at official occasions. However, the necessity for such an announcement suggests that not everyone adhered to this practice, hence the introduction of this new rule.

The word bisht means cloak in Arabic. Traditionally, the it was worn by Bedouin to keep warm in the winter. One can still find these heavy garments, often lined with a fleece, in desert regions and in the northern cities where is gets cold in the winter.

However, in modern times the bisht has become a light garment that is more ceremonial than practical, and is worn by men on official occasions.

It is long, worn over the thobe, with wide sleeves designed for one arm to be inserted while the other hand folds it across the front side of the body.

Sometimes, it is worn completely open. It comes in various colours - usually black, brown, grey, beige, or white - and is the most traditional of Saudi outfits, prestigious and associated with wealth and ceremony, akin to the black-tie tuxedo in the West.

Initially worn by men, over time it is predominantly worn by men, while women wear abayas. Nowadays, with the many designs and styles of abayas, they are worn similarly to bishts.


Weaving the Bisht

Three types of embroidery are used in making the bisht: gold stitch, silver stitch, and silk stitch, with the thread known as Zari. Gold and silver are very common. “Black bishts with gold stitching are the most popular, followed by cream and white,” said Abu Salem, a bisht tailor from the Al-Hasa region.

“In the early ‘90s, new colours were introduced to the bisht market. Blue, grey, and maroon are mostly worn by the younger generation, while the older generation sticks to the traditional black, brown, and cream,” he added.

A bisht is made from camel and goat wool spun into a textile that can be mixed with cotton or silk threads. bishts, like any other type of clothing, come in different qualities. There are three main bisht designs: Darbeyah, Measure, and Turkey.

From the generally cheaper Syrian and Emirati bishts to the widely regarded best in the world, Hasawi bishts, made in Al-Ahsa, the quality of the garment can significantly impact its appearance.

One of the most renowned bisht makers in Al-Ahsa, Abdullah Jafar Al-Qattan, began working on bishts at the age of seven. Coming from a family of several generations of bisht makers (the name Al-Qattan means cotton manufacturer), he credits his father with his love for the garment.

In an interview with Arab News, he said: “Bishts were first tailored in Persia. Saudis were introduced to them when bisht vendors came here for Hajj or Umrah.” The Al-Hasa region in Saudi Arabia has been the best place for finding bishts for over 200 years. Some families inherited their forefathers’ skills and continue to make bishts in their family name, like Al-Kahras, Al Mahdi, etc.

Prices vary from $20 to $4000, depending on the fabric, stitching, and style. The expensive ones are always handmade. Few people realize the amount of work that goes into creating a bisht, or that it can take as many as eight people to create one bisht by hand. “A machine can make 12 bishts a day, but a handmade bisht will take 15 days to make,” he said.


Preserving Tradition and Identity

The idea behind the government’s order underscores the cloak’s symbolic importance of respect and authority, reinforcing the value of traditional attire. This initiative not only aims to standardize the appearance of officials, enhancing formal aesthetics and unity but also demonstrates the kingdom’s dedication to upholding tradition across various levels of governance and judiciary.

The directive’s inclusivity, extending to emirs, ministers, judges, and legal professionals, shows a comprehensive approach to maintaining cultural heritage as they are the official representatives of Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, by acknowledging gender-specific dress codes, it reflects an effort to balance tradition with contemporary roles, indicating a nuanced understanding of gender dynamics in formal attire.

The involvement of the Ministry of Media and Nazaha in enforcement suggests a structured commitment to these guidelines, with mechanisms for addressing violations and ensuring compliance.

Moreover, the directive is designed to complement existing regulations and professional requirements, clarifying its scope to avoid conflicts that may arise in the wave of reform and changes Saudi Arabian society may be facing.

This careful integration of tradition with modern governance highlights Saudi Arabia’s commitment to preserving its cultural identity while adapting to contemporary governance challenges, illustrating a thoughtful approach to blending heritage with the practicalities of state function and public representation.

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