Photos show how Saudi Arabia has changed over time

National Geographic photographers have been documenting daily life in Saudi Arabia for more than a century.

The oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a challenging country for photographers and reporters to chronicle, is now under intense scrutiny in the October 2nd disappearance of a Saudi journalist.

The arc of Saudi history held in the National Geographic image archives spans from early 20th-century Islamic pilgrims visiting Mecca to a culture transformed by the discovery of vast oil reserves in the 1930s and beyond. Recent additions include portraits of Saudi women navigating the slow reforms of a society that only recently granted them the right to vote and drive—and that the West has long considered authoritarian and repressive.

A view from above of the Great Mosque of Mecca in 1917.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SAMUEL M. ZWEMER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION

The earlier photographs show a quieter country, one where camels are unloaded from ships in slings, where men ride horses and there are no cars (and very few women) in sight; the newer photos show Saudi women taking celebratory selfies.

Known for her work covering gender and social issues, Saudi-American photographer Tasneem Alsultan credits her Saudi roots–and being a woman—with helping her open doors to the reclusive society. “It’s about trust. It’s about having human access to stories that might not be told otherwise”.

Those stories can be challenging for reporters and photographers to capture, adds Alsultan. “Photography for me is amazing and it’s beautiful, because you can tell in one photo things you cannot write”.

Photographic archives. Some of the dates for these archived photos are unknown.

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