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Saudi Arabia

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Location of Saudi Arabia within the continent of Asia
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Map of Saudi Arabia
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Flag Description of Saudi Arabia:The flag of Saudi Arabia was officially adopted in 1973.

Saudi Arabia's flag uses green to honor the country's puritanical Muslim Wahabi sect, and also because green is widely believed to be the prophet Muhammad's favorite color. The white, centered script, the shahada, is the Muslim Statement of Faith, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God". The sword represents Abd-al-Aziz.

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Official name Al-Mamlakah al-ʿArabiyyah al-Suʿūdiyyah (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)
Form of government monarchy1
Head of state and government King: Salman
Capital Riyadh
Official language Arabic
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit Saudi riyal (SR)
Population (2014 est.) 30,955,000COLLAPSE
Total area (sq mi) 830,000
Total area (sq km) 2,149,690
Urban-rural population

Urban: (2012) 82.5%
Rural: (2012) 17.5%

Life expectancy at birth

Male: (2011) 73 years
Female: (2011) 75.2 years

Literacy: percentage of population age 15 and over literate

Male: (2008) 89.5%
Female: (2008) 80.2%

GNI per capita (U.S.$) (2013) 26,200

1Additionally, the Consultative Council (consisting of 151 appointed members) acts as an advisory body.

Background of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, arid, sparsely populated kingdom of the Middle East.

Extending across most of the northern and central Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia is a young country that is heir to a rich history. In its western highlands, along the Red Sea, lies the Hejaz, which is the cradle of Islam and the site of that religion’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. In the country’s geographic heartland is a region known as Najd (“Highland”), a vast arid zone that until recent times was a rich pastiche of warring and feuding Bedouin tribes and clans. To the east, along the Persian Gulf, are the country’s abundant oil fields that, since the 1960s, have made Saudi Arabia synonymous with petroleum wealth. Those three elements—religion, tribalism, and untold wealth—have fueled the country’s subsequent history.

It was only with the rise of the Saʿūd family (Āl Saʿūd)—a Najdi group for which the country is named—and its eventual consolidation of power in the early 20th century that Saudi Arabia began to take on the characteristics of a modern country. The success of the Saʿūds was due, in no small part, to the motivating ideology of Wahhābism, an austere form of Islam that was embraced by early family leaders and that became the state creed. This deep religious conservatism has been accompanied by a ubiquitous tribalism—in which competing family groups vie for resources and status—that often has made Saudi society difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Enormous oil wealth has fueled huge and rapid investment in Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Many citizens have benefited from this growth, but it also has supported lavish lifestyles for the scions of the ruling family, and religious conservatives and liberal democrats alike have accused the family of squandering and mishandling the country’s wealth. In addition, civil discontent increased after the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) over the country’s close ties to the West, symbolized notably by the U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia until 2005.

In the mid-20th century, most of Saudi Arabia still embraced a traditional lifestyle that had changed little over thousands of years. Since then, the pace of life in Saudi Arabia has accelerated rapidly. The constant flow of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina (vast throngs arrive for the annual hajj, and more pilgrims visit throughout the year for the lesser pilgrimage, the ʿumrah) had always provided the country with outside contacts, but interaction with the outside world has expanded with innovations in transportation, technology, and organization. More recently, petroleum has wrought irreversible domestic changes—educational and social as well as economic. Modern methods of production have been superimposed on a traditional society by the introduction of millions of foreign workers and by the employment of hundreds of thousands of Saudis in nontraditional jobs. In addition, tens of thousands of Saudi students have studied abroad, most in the United States. Television, radio, and the Internet have become common media of communication and education, and highways and airways have replaced traditional means of transportation.

Saudi Arabia, once a country of small cities and towns, has become increasingly urban; traditional centres such as Jiddah, Mecca, and Medina have grown into large cities, and the capital, Riyadh, a former oasis town, has grown into a modern metropolis. Many of the region’s traditional nomads, the Bedouin, have been settled in cities or agrarian communities. The sedentary population of the country views those few Bedouin who maintain the traditional desert lifestyle with deep ambivalence. They are, at the same time, the link to the country’s past and its solid foundation. In the words of Sandra Mackey, an American writer and traveler:

Psychologically, the Bedouin represents to the present-day Saudi what the Western cowboy folk hero represents to an American. And like Americans, the Saudis have created from the Bedouin, idealized as a desert warrior, a powerful prototype that influences their value system and their patterns of behavior. No matter how much the various geographic regions of Saudi Arabia may differ or how far a Saudi is removed from the desert, the Bedouin ethos is the bedrock of the culture.

Geography of Saudi Arabia

The Land

The country occupies about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north; by the Persian Gulf, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman to the east; by a portion of Oman to the southeast; by Yemen to the south and southwest; and by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba to the west. Long-running border disputes were nearly resolved with Yemen (2000) and Qatar (2001); the border with the United Arab Emirates remains undefined. A territory of 2,200 square miles (5,700 square km) along the gulf coast was shared by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as a neutral zone until 1969, when a political boundary was agreed upon. Each of the two countries administers one-half of the territory, but they equally share oil production in the entire area. The controversy over the Saudi-Iraqi Neutral Zone was legally settled in 1981 by partition, yet conflict between the two countries persisted and prevented final demarcation on the ground.

  • Relief

The Arabian Peninsula is dominated by a plateau that rises abruptly from the Red Sea and dips gently toward the Persian Gulf. In the north, the western highlands are upward of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) above sea level, decreasing slightly to 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) in the vicinity of Medina and increasing southeastward to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Mount Sawdāʾ, which is situated near Abhā in the south, is generally considered the highest point in the country. Estimates of its elevation range from 10,279 to 10,522 feet (3,133 to 3,207 metres). The watershed of the peninsula is only 25 miles (40 km) from the Red Sea in the north and recedes to 80 miles (130 km) near the Yemen border. The coastal plain, known as the Tihāmah, is virtually nonexistent in the north, except for occasional wadi deltas, but it widens slightly toward the south. The imposing escarpment that runs parallel to the Red Sea is somewhat interrupted by a gap northwest of Mecca but becomes more clearly continuous to the south.

Toward the interior, the surface gradually descends into the broad plateau area of the Najd, which is covered with lava flows and volcanic debris as well as with occasional sand accumulations; it slopes down from an elevation of about 4,500 feet (1,370 metres) in the west to about 2,500 feet (760 metres) in the east. There the drainage is more clearly dendritic (i.e., branching) and is much more extensive than that flowing toward the Red Sea. To the east, this region is bounded by a series of long, low ridges, with steep slopes on the west and gentle slopes on the east; the area is 750 miles (1,200 km) long and curves eastward from north to south. The most prominent of the ridges are the Ṭuwayq Mountains (Jibāl Ṭuwayq), which rise from the plateau at an elevation of some 2,800 feet (850 metres) above sea level and reach more than 3,500 feet (1,100 metres) southwest of Riyadh, overlooking the plateau’s surface to the west by 800 feet (250 metres) and more.

The interior of the Arabian Peninsula contains extensive sand surfaces. Among them is the world’s largest sand area, the Rubʿ al-Khali (“Empty Quarter”), which dominates the southern part of the country and covers more than 250,000 square miles (647,500 square km). It slopes from above 2,600 feet (800 metres) near the border with Yemen northeastward down almost to sea level near the Persian Gulf; individual sand mountains reach elevations of 800 feet (250 metres), especially in the eastern part. A smaller sand area of about 22,000 square miles (57,000 square km), called Al-Nafūd (nafūd designating a sandy area or desert), is in the north-central part of the country. A great arc of sand, Al-Dahnāʾ, almost 900 miles (1,450 km) long but in places only 30 miles (50 km) wide, joins Al-Nafūd with the Rubʿ al-Khali. Eastward, as the plateau surface slopes very gradually down to the gulf, there are numerous salt flats (sabkhahs) and marshes. The gulf coastline is irregular, and the coastal waters are very shallow.

  • Drainage and soils

There are virtually no permanent surface streams in the country, but wadis are numerous. Those leading to the Red Sea are short and steep, though one unusually long extension is made by Wadi Al-Ḥamḍ, which rises near Medina and flows inland to the northwest for 100 miles (160 km) before turning westward; those draining eastward are longer and more developed except in Al-Nafūd and the Rubʿ al-Khali. Soils are poorly developed. Large areas are covered with pebbles of varying sizes. Alluvial deposits are found in wadis, basins, and oases. Salt flats are especially common in the east.

  • Climate

There are three climatic zones in the kingdom: (1) desert almost everywhere, (2) steppe along the western highlands, forming a strip less than 100 miles (160 km) wide in the north but becoming almost 300 miles (480 km) wide at the latitude of Mecca, and (3) a small area of humid and mild temperature conditions, with long summers, in the highlands just north of Yemen.

In winter, cyclonic weather systems generally skirt north of the Arabian Peninsula, moving eastward from the Mediterranean Sea, though sometimes they reach eastern and central Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Some weather systems move southward along the Red Sea trough and provide winter precipitation as far south as Mecca and sometimes as far as Yemen. In March and April, some precipitation, normally torrential, falls. In summer, the highlands of Asir (ʿAsīr), southeast of Mecca, receive enough precipitation from the monsoonal winds to support a steppelike strip of land. Winters, from December to February, are cool, and frost and snow may occur in the southern highlands. Average temperatures for the coolest months, December through February, are 74 °F (23 °C) at Jiddah, 58 °F (14 °C) at Riyadh, and 63 °F (17 °C) at Al-Dammām. Summers, from June to August, are hot, with daytime temperatures in the shade exceeding 100 °F (38 °C) in almost all of the country. Temperatures in the desert frequently rise as high as 130 °F (55 °C) in the summer. Humidity is low, except along the coasts, where it can be high and very oppressive. The level of precipitation is also low throughout the country, amounting to about 2.5 inches (65 mm) at Jiddah, a little more than 3 inches (75 mm) at Riyadh, and 3 inches at Al-Dammām. These figures, however, represent mean annual precipitation, and large variations are normal. In the highlands of Asir, more than 19 inches (480 mm) a year may be received, falling mostly between May and October when the summer monsoon winds prevail. In the Rubʿ al-Khali, a decade may pass with no precipitation at all.

  • Plant and animal life

Much of Saudi Arabia’s vegetation belongs to the North African–Indian desert region. Plants are xerophytic (requiring little water) and are mostly small herbs and shrubs that are useful as forage. There are a few small areas of grass and trees in southern Asir. Although the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is widespread, about one-third of the date palms grown are in Al-Sharqiyyah province. Animal life includes wolves, hyenas, foxes, honey badgers, mongooses, porcupines, baboons, hedgehogs, hares, sand rats, and jerboas. Larger animals such as gazelles, oryx, leopards, and mountain goats were relatively numerous until about 1950, when hunting from motor vehicles reduced these animals almost to extinction. Birds include falcons (which are caught and trained for hunting), eagles, hawks, vultures, owls, ravens, flamingos, egrets, pelicans, doves, and quail, as well as sand grouse and bulbuls. There are several species of snakes, many of which are poisonous, and numerous types of lizards. There is a wide variety of marine life in the gulf. Domesticated animals include camels, fat-tailed sheep, long-eared goats, salukis, donkeys, and chickens.

Demography of Saudi Arabia

The People

  • Ethnic groups

Although the country’s tribes are often considered “pure” Arabs—certainly they are the descendants of the peninsula’s original ethnic stock—a certain degree of ethnic heterogeneity is evident among both the sedentary and nomadic populations of Saudi Arabia. Variations have developed because of a long history of regionalism and tribal autonomy and because some localities have been subjected to important outside influences. Thus, the proximity of sub-Saharan Africa along the Red Sea littoral and the constant historical influx of peoples from Iran, Pakistan, and India along the Persian Gulf coast have left traces of the physical types characteristic of those peoples among the native population. Likewise, the hajj to Mecca has long brought hundreds of thousands of people annually from various ethnic groups to the country. About half of all pilgrims travel from Arab countries and half from African and Asian countries. A small number of such visitors have settled in and around the holy cities throughout the years, either out of religious devotion or because penury prevented their return home.

Since the 1960s, an increasing number of outsiders have entered and left Saudi Arabia. By the early 21st century, the estimated number of foreign workers was between one-fourth and one-fifth of the country’s total population, despite efforts by the Saudi authorities to encourage citizens to occupy positions typically held by foreigners. At first, most expatriated workers were Arab, such as Yemenis, Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians, and Iraqis. Increasing numbers of non-Arab Muslims such as Pakistanis have been employed, as have large numbers of non-Muslim Koreans and Filipinos, who have been hired under group contracts for specified periods. Most specialized technical workers are Europeans and Americans.

  • Languages

Arabic is a Semitic language of numerous vernacular dialects that originated on the Arabian Peninsula. There are three main dialect groups in Saudi Arabia—in the eastern, central, and western parts of the country—though these are not always clearly discernible from one another because of the pervasiveness of local variations. There are various degrees of mutual intelligibility among dialect groups, but some differences are quiet pronounced. The written language, Modern Standard Arabic, is derived from Classical Arabic, the language of the Qurʾān, and is used as a literary koine within the kingdom and throughout the broader Arab world. Various dialects of Arabic from other regions are also spoken by expatriate workers, as are numerous other non-Arabic languages such as Persian, Urdu, Pashto, Tagalog, and Korean. English is widely understood.

  • Religion

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, and most of its natives are adherents of the majority Sunni branch. In modern times, the Wahhābī interpretation of Sunni Islam has been especially influential, and Muslim scholars espousing that sect’s views have been a major social and political force. Wahhābism, as it is called in the West (members refer to themselves as muwaḥḥidūn, “unitarians”), is a strict interpretation of the Ḥanbalī school of Islamic jurisprudence and is named for Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–92), a religious scholar whose alliance with Ibn Saʿūd led to the establishment of the first Saʿūdī state. The current government of Saudi Arabia (i.e., the Saʿūd family) has largely relied on religion—including its close and continuing ties to Wahhābism and its status as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities of Islam—to establish its political legitimacy. The king is supposed to uphold Islam and apply its precepts and, in turn, is subject to its constraints. But at times he and the royal family have come under criticism for failing to do so.

Shīʿites, adherents of the second major branch of Islam, make up a small portion of the population and are found mostly in the oases of Al-Hasa and Al-Qaṭīf in the eastern part of the country. Most are Ithnā ʿAsharī, although there remain small numbers of Ismāʿīlīs. The only Christians are foreign workers and businessmen. The country’s once small Jewish population is now apparently extinct. Other religions are practiced among foreign workers. Public worship and display by non-Muslim faiths is prohibited. Public displays by non-Wahhābī Muslim groups, including by other Sunni sects, have been limited and even banned by the government. Sufism, for instance, is not openly practiced, nor is celebration of the Prophet’s birthday (mawlid). Shīʿites have suffered the greatest persecution.

  • Settlement patterns

Four traditional regions stand out—the Hejaz, Asir, Najd, and Al-Hasa (transliterated more precisely as Al-Ḥijāz, ʿAsīr, Najd, and Al-Aḥsāʾ, respectively). The Hejaz, in the northwest, contains Mecca and Medina, as well as one of the kingdom’s primary ports, Jiddah. Asir is the highland region south of the Hejaz; its capital, Abhā, lies at an elevation of about 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). Subregions in Asir are formed by the oasis cluster of Najrān—a highland area north of Yemen—and by the coastal plain, the Tihāmah. Najd occupies a large part of the interior and includes the capital, Riyadh. Al-Hasa, in the east along the Persian Gulf, includes the principal petroleum-producing areas.

Nomadism, the form of land use with which the kingdom is traditionally associated, has become virtually nonexistent, and the pattern of extensive land use traditionally practiced by the nomadic Bedouin has been supplanted by the highly intensive patterns of urban land use. More than four-fifths of Saudi Arabia’s total population live in cities, and almost all of the rest live in government-supported agricultural enterprises.

The major areas of population are in the central Hejaz, in Asir, in central Najd, and near the Persian Gulf.

The largest towns are cosmopolitan in character, and some are associated with dominant functions: Mecca and Medina are religious, Riyadh is political and administrative, and Jiddah is commercial. Dhahran (Al-Ẓahrān), near the Persian Gulf coast in Al-Sharqiyyah province, is the administrative centre of Saudi Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company), and nearby Al-Khubar and Al-Dammām are important commercial coastal towns. Al-Jubayl on the Gulf and Yanbuʿ on the Red Sea are the terminus points of oil and gas pipelines, and large petrochemical industrial complexes are located in both. Other large cities include Al-Ṭāʾif, Al-Hufūf, Tabūk, Buraydah, Al-Mubarraz, Khamīs Mushayṭ, Najrān, Ḥāʾil, Jīzān, and Abhā.

  • Demographic trends

A major demographic theme since the early 20th century has been the government’s policy of settling the Bedouin. This practice has largely been successful, though sedentary Bedouin remain strongly attached to their tribal affiliation. A second major theme has been an influx of foreign workers (first foreign Arabs and later workers from other regions) since the 1950s; no exact numbers are available, but it is generally agreed that these foreign workers have numbered in the millions. Some Arabs, particularly early arrivals, have been naturalized, but most are temporary, albeit often long-term, residents. Moreover, most of these are unaccompanied males who have left their families in their native land; this situation is particularly true for lower-paid workers. Although large numbers of Saudi citizens travel abroad for school or holiday, the number of those settling abroad is relatively small.

Thanks partly to the government’s policies promoting large families and partly to its large investment in health care, the country’s birth rate is well above the world average. The national death rate is markedly below the world standard. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s overall rate of natural increase is more than twice the world average, and its population is extremely young, with roughly two-thirds under 30 years old and about two-fifths younger than 15. Life expectancy averages about 75 years.

Economy of Saudi Arabia

Fueled by enormous revenues from oil exports, the economy boomed during the 1970s and ’80s. Unlike most developing countries, Saudi Arabia had an abundance of capital, and vast development projects sprung up that turned the once underdeveloped country into a modern state. During that time, unemployment was all but nonexistent—large numbers of foreign workers were imported to do the most menial and the most highly technical tasks—and per capita income and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita were among the highest in the non-Western world.

Long-range economic development has been directed through a series of five-year plans. The first two five-year plans (1970–75 and 1976–80) established most of the country’s basic transport and communications facilities. Subsequent plans sought to diversify the economy; to increase domestic food production; to improve education, vocational training, and health services; and to further improve communications routes between the different regions of the country. But the economic boom was not without a price. As world oil prices stagnated in the 1990s, government policies encouraging larger families led to a marked increase in population. GDP per capita actually began to fall in real terms, and the kingdom’s young, highly educated workforce began to face high rates of unemployment and underemployment for the first time. However, those trends reversed as oil prices again rose. In addition, five-year plans were directed toward increasing the share of private enterprise in the economy in an effort to move away from dependence on oil exports and to generate jobs.

  • Agriculture

At its founding, the kingdom inherited the simple, tribal economy of Arabia. Many of the people were nomads, engaged in raising camels, sheep, and goats. Agricultural production was localized and subsistent. The kingdom’s development plans have given domestic food production special attention, and the government has made subsidies and generous incentives available to the agriculture sector. Agriculture now contributes only a small fraction of the Saudi GDP and employs a comparable proportion of the workforce.

Less than 2 percent of the total land area is used for crops. Of the cultivated land, about half consists of rain-fed dry farming (mostly in Asir), two-fifths is in tree crops, and the remainder is irrigated. Most of the irrigated areas—in the districts of Riyadh and Al-Qaṣīm, for example, and near Al-Hufūf in Al-Sharqiyyah province—utilize underground water.

The kingdom has achieved self-sufficiency in the production of wheat, eggs, and milk, among other commodities, though it still imports the bulk of its food needs. Wheat is the primary cultivated grain, followed by sorghum and barley. Dates, melons, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash are also important crops.

Two major constraints on cultivation are poor water supply and poor soil. Concrete and earth-filled dams have been built, primarily in the southwest, to store water for irrigation and as a means of flood control. Agricultural expansion has been great in irrigated areas, while the amount of land given to rain-fed farming has decreased. Substantial resources of subterranean water have been discovered in the central and eastern parts of the country and exploited for agriculture; however, these underground aquifers are difficult to renew.

  • Resources and power

The economy of Saudi Arabia is dominated by petroleum and its associated industries. In terms of oil reserves, Saudi Arabia ranks first internationally, with about one-fifth of the world’s known reserves. Oil deposits are located in the east, southward from Iraq and Kuwait into the Rubʿ al-Khali and under the waters of the Persian Gulf.

The discovery of oil changed the entire economic situation of Saudi Arabia. As early as 1923, Ibn Saʿūd granted an oil-prospecting concession to a British company, but this concession was never exploited. Although oil was discovered in 1938, World War II curtailed oil-producing activities until near its end. The Ras Tanura refinery was opened in 1945, and rapid expansion of the oil industry followed to meet increasing postwar demand.

In 1951 the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) discovered the first offshore field in the Middle East, at Raʾs Al-Saffāniyyah, just south of the former Saudi Arabia–Kuwait neutral zone, and oil was discovered in the zone itself in 1953. Al-Ghawār, just south of Dhahran and west of Al-Hufūf, is one of the world’s largest oil fields. The first portion of the Al-Ghawār oil field was discovered at ʿAyn Dār in 1948. Intensive exploration of the Rubʿ al-Khali began in 1950, and oil fields were finally discovered in the area in the 1970s.

In 1950 Aramco put into operation the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (Tapline), which ran from Al-Qayṣūmah in Saudi Arabia across Jordan and Syria to its Mediterranean terminal at Sidon, Lebanon. The line was in operation only sporadically during the 1970s, and in 1983 it ceased to function beyond supplying a refinery in Jordan. In 1981 Petroline, built to carry crude oil, was completed from Al-Jubayl on the Persian Gulf to Yanbuʿ on the Red Sea, and this greatly shortened the distance to Europe and obviated navigation through the gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Petroline was built by the General Petroleum and Mineral Organization (Petromin), a government-owned corporation. Aramco constructed a massive gas-gathering system and, parallel to Petroline, a pipeline for transporting natural-gas liquids, which reached Yanbuʿ in 1981.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, Saudi Arabia gradually acquired complete ownership of Aramco, and in 1984 Aramco had its first Saudi president. In 1988 the company was renamed Saudi Aramco.


Other mineral resources are known to exist, and the government has pursued a policy of exploration and production in order to diversify the economic base. Geologic reconnaissance mapping of the Precambrian shield in the west has revealed deposits of gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, iron, titanium, pyrite, magnesite, platinum, and cadmium. There are also nonmetallic resources such as limestone, silica, gypsum, and phosphorite.

Scarcity of water is a perennial problem in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has the largest single desalination program in the world, which meets most domestic and industrial needs. Underwater aquifers provide a limited amount of potable water, and a great deal of energy has been committed to constructing dams for water storage and to developing water-recycling plants.

The kingdom has relied increasingly on electricity, and electrical production has grown rapidly since the 1970s. Originally highly decentralized, electrical production was slowly centralized under state control during the latter half of the 20th century. In 2000 electrical production was consolidated under a single corporation in an effort to develop a comprehensive national grid. Most of the kingdom’s generators are powered by natural gas and diesel fuel.

  • Manufacturing

The manufacturing sector has expanded widely since 1976, when the government established the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) in order to diversify the economy. Its initial goal was to expand the manufacturing potential of sectors of the economy related to petroleum. Since then manufactures, many associated with Sabic, have included rolled steel, petrochemicals, fertilizers, pipes, copper wire and cable, truck assembly, refrigeration, plastics, aluminum products, metal products, and cement. Small-scale enterprises have included baking, printing, and furniture manufacturing.

  • Finance

The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) was established in 1952 as the kingdom’s central money and banking authority. It regulates commercial and development banks and other financial institutions. Its functions include issuing, regulating, and stabilizing the value of the national currency, the riyal; acting as banker for the government; and managing foreign reserves and investments. As an Islamic institution, it has a nonprofit status. Under Islamic law, banks cannot charge interest, but they do charge fees for lending and pay commission on deposits. Money supply and the tempo of business are dominated by government economic activity, though the government has increasingly favoured expansion of the private sector.

A number of commercial banks operate in the country, some of which are joint ventures between Saudi citizens and foreign banks. (Like all enterprises, banks doing business in the country require a Saudi partner.) Others, however, are wholly owned by Saudis. Banking regulations traditionally have not been stringently enforced, and private banks have shown great flexibility and creativity in interpreting Islamic banking regulations. Moreover, despite the ubiquity of banks in the country, large numbers of citizens and expatriates continue to rely on money changers, both for their convenience and for the anonymity that they provide.

  • Trade

Exports consist almost entirely of petroleum and petroleum products. Major imports are machinery and transport equipment, foodstuffs and animals, and chemicals and chemical products. The principal trading partners are the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China. The principal sources of imports are the United States, Japan, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan.

  • Services

The service sector grew dramatically in the second half of the 20th century with the influx of revenue derived from petroleum sales and because of large levels of government spending. Nearly three-fifths of workers are engaged in service-related occupations, including civil administration, defense, wholesale and retail sales, and hospitality and tourism. These sectors of the economy account for roughly one-fourth of GDP.

The hospitality industry has traditionally been strong only in and around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, with the annual influx of pilgrims. However, in the 1960s, large numbers of expatriates—some with their dependents—began to arrive in the country, and facilities began to spring up to meet their needs. Only in the late 20th century did the government actively seek to attract tourists to Saudi Arabia with the construction of a number of coastal resorts and a relaxation of visa requirements for entering the country. Tourism unassociated with religious observance, however, remains an extremely small part of GDP.

  • Labour and taxation

The kingdom has traditionally relied on large numbers of foreign labourers, who, at the height of their influx, accounted for roughly two-thirds of the labour force. Most of these have been unskilled or semiskilled workers from other parts of the Middle East and from South Asia, while Westerners, particularly Americans, have filled the most highly skilled positions in the country. Workers in Saudi Arabia have few legal rights, and they are not permitted to organize and do not have the right to strike.

Rapid population growth since the late 20th century has increased the number of native Saudis entering the labour force. Beginning in the 1990s, the government responded by encouraging a policy of “Saudi-ization” (in which employers were required to hire fewer migrant workers), but highly educated young Saudis seemed unwilling to engage in occupations that had been traditionally filled by expatriates and were therefore considered menial. Female citizens traditionally have had limited employment opportunities outside the home, with most occupations being restricted to men. Many foreign women have been employed as domestic servants.

Roughly three-fourths of government revenues are derived from the proceeds of oil exports. Remaining revenues are raised through tariffs, licensing fees, and the proceeds of government investments. Foreign companies are required to pay an income tax, but exemptions are often granted. Saudi citizens are required to pay the zakāt, an obligatory tax on Muslims that is used to help the less fortunate in society.

Transportation and telecommunications The country’s roads are all paved, and the automobile is a common form of transport. Taxis are found in cities and most large towns. Women are not permitted to drive. The first coast-to-coast road connection, from Al-Dammām on the gulf to Jiddah on the Red Sea, by way of Riyadh, was opened in 1967; it includes a spectacular descent of the western escarpment from Al-Ṭāʾif to Mecca. A causeway, opened in 1986, connects the kingdom with the island nation of Bahrain. A railroad passing through Al-Hufūf connects Riyadh and Al-Dammām.

Seaport capacity has been greatly expanded. Major cargo ports are Jiddah, Yanbuʿ, Ḍibā, and Jīzān on the Red Sea and Al-Dammām and Al-Jubayl on the gulf. The country has many small airports and airfields. The national airline, Saudi Arabian Airlines (formerly Saudia; founded 1945), provides both domestic and international service. The chief international airports are at Dhahran, Riyadh, and Jiddah.

Radio broadcasts began in the kingdom in 1948, and the first television station was established in 1965. All broadcasts are operated by the state, and programming focuses on religious and cultural affairs, news, and other topics that are viewed as edifying by the government. Radio and television services are widely accessible, as is telephone service. The government has invested significant resources in updating and expanding the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, and large portions of the telephone grid have been digitized. Cellular telephone service is widespread, and access to the Internet is available in all major population centres.

Government and Society of Saudi Arabia

  • Constitutional framework

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the Āl Saʿūd, a family whose status was established by its close ties with and support for the Wahhābī religious establishment. Islamic law, the Sharīʿah, is the primary source of legislation, but the actual promulgation of legislation and implementation of policy is often mitigated by more mundane factors, such as political expediency, the inner politics of the ruling family, and the influence of intertribal politics, which remain strong in the modern kingdom.

The kingdom has never had a written constitution, although in 1992 the king issued a document known as the Basic Law of Government (Al-Niẓām al-Asāsī lī al-Ḥukm), which provides guidelines for how the government is to be run and sets forth the rights and responsibilities of citizens. The king combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions. As prime minister, he presides over the Council of Ministers (Majlis al-Wuzarāʾ). The council is responsible for such executive and administrative matters as foreign and domestic policy, defense, finance, health, and education, which it administers through numerous separate agencies. Appointment to and dismissal from the council are prerogatives of the king. The Basic Law of Government paved the way in 1993 for the establishment of a new quasi-legislative body, the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shūrā), which includes many technical experts; all members are appointed by the king. The Consultative Council has the power to draft legislation and, along with the Council of Ministers, promote it for the king’s approval.

In the end, however, all major policy decisions are made outside these formal apparatuses. Decisions are made through a consensus of opinion that is sought primarily within the royal family (comprising the numerous descendants of the kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saʿūd), many of whom hold sensitive government posts. Likewise, the views of important members of the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars), leading tribal sheikhs, and heads of prominent commercial families are considered.

  • Local government

The kingdom is divided into 13 administrative regions (manāṭiq), which in turn are divided into numerous districts. Regional governors are appointed, usually from the royal family, and preside over one or more municipal councils, half of whose members are appointed and half elected. With their councils, the governors are responsible for such functions as finance, health, education, agriculture, and municipalities. The consultative principle operates at all levels of government, including the government of villages and tribes.

  • Justice

The Sharīʿah is the basis of justice. Judgment usually is according to the Ḥanbalī tradition of Islam; the law tends to be conservative and punishment severe, including amputation for crimes such as theft and execution for crimes that are deemed more severe (e.g., drug trafficking and practicing witchcraft).

In 1970 the Ministry of Justice was established; its work is assisted by a Supreme Judicial Council consisting of leading members of the ʿulamāʾ. There are more than 300 Sharīʿah courts across the country. Rapid changes since the mid-20th century have produced circumstances—such as traffic violations and industrial accidents—not encompassed by traditional law, and these have been handled by the issuance of royal decrees. These decrees have evolved into a body of administrative law that is not directly drawn from Islamic precepts. Avenues of appeal are available, and the monarch is both the final court of appeal and the dispenser of pardon.

  • Political process

Participation in the political process is limited to a relatively small portion of the population. There are no elections for national bodies, and political parties are outlawed. Women’s participation in politics is very limited, although in 2011 the government announced plans to allow women to vote and run for office in municipal elections beginning in 2015. Power rests largely in the hands of the royal family, which governs through a process that—despite the political and economic changes since the late 20th century—differs little from the traditional system of tribal rule. Tribal identity remains strong and is still an important pillar of social control. Despite the existence of a modern state bureaucracy, political influence is frequently determined by tribal affiliation. Tribal sheikhs, therefore, maintain a high degree of authority within the tribe and a considerable degree of influence over local and national events.

The tribal hierarchy in the country is complex. There are a number of smaller, less-influential tribes and a handful of very influential major tribes. The Saʿūd family, although not a tribe strictly speaking, behaves like one in many respects. Although the ruling family came to power largely through its martial skill and religious ties, its continued hegemony has been based on the traditional view in Arabian society that leaders owe their positions to their ability to manage affairs. Just as the tribal sheikh leads the tribe, so has the Saʿūd family ruled the country—by placating rival factions, building a broad consensus, and squelching extreme voices. (Early Orientalists used the Latin phrase primus inter pares, “first among equals,” to refer to such an arrangement.) The medium for this process is the traditional dīwān, an informal council in which the senior male (whether he is a sheikh at the tribal level or the king at the national level) hears outstanding grievances and dispenses justice and largess. In theory, any male citizen may make his voice heard in the dīwān.

In this system succession to the throne is not directly hereditary, though under the Basic Law of Government the king must be a son or grandson of Ibn Saʿūd. Traditionally, the heir apparent, who is also deputy prime minister, has been determined by a consensus of the royal family, but since 1992 he has been appointed by the king (confirmation by the family occurring only after the monarch’s death). In 2006 the Allegiance Commission, a council comprising 35 members of the royal family, was formed to participate in the selection of the crown prince. The royal family may also decide by consensus to depose the monarch, as was seen in King Saʿūd’s deposition in 1964.

The family has also relied heavily on its long relationship with the Wahhābī religious hierarchy to maintain social and political control. The crown appoints all major religious functionaries, who are almost exclusively selected from Wahhābī ʿulamāʾ; in turn it is supported by that sect. Most major threats to the political status quo have come either from dissident factions within the religious community or from groups that appeal in some way to Islamic values. Many of these groups have operated abroad, and a number have been involved in political violence.

  • Security

Military service is voluntary. The army accounts for about three-fifths of the total military force. It experienced rapid modernization especially after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The air force was equipped largely by the British until the 1970s, when the kingdom began to buy aircraft from the United States. It is now one of the best-equipped forces in the region, with several hundred high-performance aircraft; likewise, ground forces have large numbers of state-of-the-art main battle tanks. Army officers are trained at King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Military Academy just north of Riyadh. Major air bases are at Riyadh, Dhahran, Ḥafar al-Bāṭin (part of the King Khālid Military City) near the border with Iraq and Kuwait, Tabūk in the northwest near Jordan, and Khamīs Mushayṭ in the southwest near Yemen. All three armed services—army, air force, and navy—are directed by the defense minister, who is also the second deputy prime minister.

The National Guard, which has roughly the same troop strength as the army, is essentially an internal security force, though it can support the regular forces for national defense. One of its primary peacetime tasks is to guard the country’s oil fields. It is administered separately, and its commander reports to the crown prince. The armed forces employ expatriate personnel in support and training positions.

The kingdom has several internal security organs, including the Coast Guard, Frontier Force, and a centralized national police force. All of these organizations report to the Ministry of the Interior, which also supervises the country’s intelligence and counterintelligence bodies. Police interaction with civilians, particularly with foreigners, has often been described as heavy-handed, but reports of human rights abuses are far less numerous and severe than those reported in other countries of the region. There is also a religious police force attached to the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Known as the Muṭawwaʿūn (colloquially, Muṭawwaʿīn), this force operates in plain clothes and enforces such Islamic precepts as ensuring that women are properly veiled, that shops close during prayer, and that the fast is kept during Ramadan. Imposing impromptu corporal punishment for infractions is an accepted part of their duty.

  • Health and welfare

A great deal of attention has been given to health care, and the numbers of hospital beds, physicians, and nurses have increased greatly. In addition to numerous health institutes, hospitals, and health centres, a network of dispensaries serving communities of 10,000 or more people has been set up, complemented by a system of mobile health services reaching small communities and the remaining nomadic populations. The government has also begun to train Saudis to replace foreign medical personnel. Of serious concern are a high rate of trachoma and occasional outbreaks of malaria, bilharzia (schistosomiasis), and cholera. Outbreaks of serious diseases such as meningitis have occurred during the hajj.

  • Housing

Because of the kingdom’s geographic diversity, a wide variety of traditional housing types were embraced. These ranged from the conventional black tents of the Bedouin and mud-brick dwellings of agrarian villages to the lofty, ornate townhouses found in urban centres along the coast. Since the advent of oil wealth, the government has invested heavily in housing construction. It provides low-interest or interest-free loans to citizens wishing to purchase or build homes. Homes in newer areas are equipped with standard utilities (such as water, sewerage, and electricity) as well as many technical conveniences, such as Internet access and cable and satellite television. Towns in some rural areas, however, remain far removed from power and water networks.

  • Education

Education is free at all levels and is given high priority by the government. The school system consists of elementary (grades 1–6), intermediate (7–9), and secondary (10–12) schools. A significant portion of the curriculum at all levels is devoted to religious subjects, and, at the secondary level, students are able to follow either a religious or a technical track. Girls are able to attend school (all courses are segregated by gender), but fewer girls attend than boys. This disproportion is reflected in the rate of literacy, which exceeds 85 percent among males and is about 70 percent among females.

Higher education has expanded at a remarkable pace. Institutions of higher education include the King Saʿūd University (formerly the University of Riyadh, founded in 1957), the Islamic University (1961) at Medina, and the King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz University (1967) in Jiddah. Other colleges and universities emphasize curricula in sciences and technology, military studies, religion, and medicine. Institutes devoted to Islamic studies in particular abound, and schools for religious pedagogy are located in several towns. Women typically receive college instruction in segregated institutions. Many foreign teachers are employed, especially in technical and medical schools. Large numbers of students travel abroad for university study.

In an effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s status as a regional scientific hub and to help it compete in the sciences on an international level, in September 2009 the King ʿAbd Allāh University of Science and Technology was opened near Jiddah. The campus hosted state-of-the-art laboratories, virtual reality facilities, and one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. The coed university—many of whose students were drawn from abroad—strove to provide a comparatively liberal environment relative to the rest of Saudi society: women were permitted to drive on campus and were free to veil or unveil at their discretion.

Culture Life of Saudi Arabia

History of Saudi Arabia

Origins of Saudi Arabia

As a political unit, Saudi Arabia is of relatively recent creation. Its origins lay with the puritanical Wahhabi movement (18th cent.), which gained the allegiance of the powerful Saud family of the Nejd, in central Arabia. Supported by a large Bedouin following, the Sauds brought most of the peninsula under their control, except for Yemen and the Hadhramaut in the extreme south. The Wahhabi movement was crushed (1811–18) by an Egyptian expedition under the sons of Muhammad Ali. After reviving in the mid-19th cent., the Wahhabis were defeated in 1891 by the Rashid dynasty, which gained effective control of central Arabia.

It was Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, known as Ibn Saud, a descendant of the first Wahhabi rulers, who laid the basis of the present Saudi Arabian state. Beginning the Wahhabi reconquest at the turn of the century, Ibn Saud took Riyadh in 1902 and was master of the Nejd by 1906. On the eve of World War I he conquered the Al-Hasa region from the Ottoman Turks and soon extended his control over other areas. He was then ready for the conquest of the Hejaz, ruled since 1916 by Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca. The Hejaz fell to Saud in 1924–25 and in 1932 was combined with the Nejd to form the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, ruled under Islamic law. In much of the country, King Ibn Saud compelled the Bedouins to abandon traditional ways and encouraged their settlement as farmers.

  • Development of the Modern State

Oil was discovered in 1936 by the U.S.-owned Arabian Standard Oil Company, which later became the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). Commercial production began in 1938. Saudi Arabia is a charter member of the United Nations. It joined the Arab League in 1945, but it played only a minor role in the Arab wars with Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. An agreement with the United States in 1951 provided for an American air base at Dhahran, which was maintained until 1962. Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud, who soon came to rely on his brother, Crown Prince Faisal (Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud), to administer financial and foreign affairs.

King Saud at first supported the Nasser regime in Egypt, but in 1956, in opposition to Nasser, he entered into close relations with the Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq, until then the traditional enemies of the Saudis. He opposed the union in 1958 of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic and became a bitter foe of Nasser's pan-Arabism and reform program. When, in Sept., 1962, pro-Nasser revolutionaries in neighboring Yemen deposed the new imam and declared a republic, King Saud, together with King Hussein of Jordan, dispatched aid to the royalist troops. The Saudi family deposed Saud, and Prince Faisal became king in Nov., 1964.

Relations with Egypt were severed in 1962, but after the defeat of Egypt by Israel in June, 1967, an agreement was concluded between King Faisal and President Nasser. According to the agreement, the Egyptian army was to withdraw from Yemen and Saudi Arabia was to cease aiding the Yemeni royalists. By 1970, Saudi Arabia had withdrawn all its troops, and relations with Yemen were resumed. Saudi Arabia also agreed to give $140 million a year to Egypt and Jordan, which had been devastated in the 1967 war with Israel. In view of Britain's withdrawal from the Persian Gulf area, King Faisal pursued a policy of friendship with Iran, while encouraging the Arab sheikhdoms that had been under British rule to form the United Arab Emirates. King Faisal, however, maintained claims to the Buraimi oases, which were also claimed by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi.

In 1972 the government of Saudi Arabia demanded tighter rein on its oil industry as well as participation in the oil concessions of foreign companies. Aramco (a conglomerate of several American oil companies) and the government reached an agreement in June, 1974, whereby the Saudis would take a 60% majority ownership of the company's concessions and assets. The concept of participation was developed by the Saudi Arabian government as an alternative to nationalization. King Faisal played an active role in organizing the Arab oil embargo of 1973, directed against the United States and other nations that supported Israel; as U.S. oil prices soared, Saudi revenues increased. Relations with the United States improved with the signing (1974) of cease-fire agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria (both mediated by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and by the visit (June, 1974) of President Richard M. Nixon to Jidda.

  • Contemporary Saudi Arabia

As a result of Saudi Arabia's increased wealth, its quest for stability, and its improved relations with Western nations, the country began an extensive military build-up in the 1970s. On Mar. 25, 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew Prince Faisal. Crown Prince Khalid (Khalid ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Saud) then became the new king, stressing Islamic orthodoxy and conservatism while expanding the country's economy, its social programs, and its educational structures. Saudi Arabia denounced the 1979 agreement between Israel and Egypt and terminated diplomatic relations with Egypt (since renewed). Saudi leaders opposed both the leftist and radical movements that were growing throughout the Arab world, and in the 1970s sent troops to help quell leftist revolutions in Yemen and Oman.

Saudi religious interests were threatened by the fall of Iran's shah in 1979 and by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. In Nov., 1979, Muslim fundamentalists calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca. After two weeks of fighting the siege ended, leaving a total of 27 Saudi soldiers and over 100 rebels dead. Sixty-three more rebels were later publicly beheaded. In 1980, Shiite Muslims led a series of riots that were put down by the government, which promised to reform the distribution of Saudi wealth. Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War throughout the 1980s. In May, 1981, it joined Persian Gulf nations in the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to promote economic cooperation between the participating countries. Khalid died in June, 1982, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Prince Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz.

By the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia had gained full ownership of Aramco. Saudi support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War became increasingly problematic in the mid-1980s as Iran's threats, especially regarding oil interests, nearly led to Saudi entanglement in the war. Iranian pilgrims rioted in Mecca during the hajj in 1987, causing clashes with Saudi security troops. More than 400 people were killed. This incident, along with Iranian naval attacks on Saudi ships in the Persian Gulf, caused Saudi Arabia to break diplomatic relations with Iran.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in Aug., 1990, King Fahd agreed to the stationing of U.S. and international coalition troops on Saudi soil. Thousands of Saudi troops participated in the Persian Gulf War (1991) against Iraq. The country took in Kuwait's royal family and more than 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees. Though little ground fighting occurred in Saudi Arabia, the cities of Riyadh, Dhahran, and outlying areas were bombed by Iraqi missiles. Coalition troops largely left Saudi Arabia in late 1991; several thousand U.S. troops remained. In 1995 and 1996 terrorist bombings in Riyadh and Dharan killed several American servicemen.

Following the Gulf War, King Fahd returned to a conservative Arab stance, wary of greater Western cooperation. Reforms instituted in the wake of the Gulf War included the creation of a Shura (advisory council), with rights to review but not overrule government acts, promulgation of a bill of rights, and a revision in the procedures for choosing the king. However, these measures left the royal family's power basically undiminished. In 1995 the king created a Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, composed of royal family members and other appointees, in an apparent effort to establish a counterweight to the Ulemas Council, an advisory body of highly conservative Muslim theologians.

In the late 1990s, Crown Prince Abdullah, the king's half-brother and heir to the throne since 1982, effectively became the country's ruler because of King Fahd's poor health. Under the crown prince, the country has been more openly frustrated with and critical of U.S. support for Israel. A treaty with Yemen that ended border disputes dating to the 1930s was signed in 2000, and early the next year both nations withdrew their troops from the border area in compliance with the pact.

The Saudi government restricted the use of American bases in the country during the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and by Sept., 2003, all U.S. combat forces were withdrawn from the country. Also in 2003, the king issued a decree giving the Shura the authority to propose new laws without first seeking his permission. The move was perhaps prompted in part by rare protests in favor of government reform; the kingdom also was shaken by violent incidents, including a massive car bomb attack against a residential compound in Riyadh, involving Islamic militants. Such terror attacks continued into 2005.

The country held elections for municipal councils in Feb.—Apr., 2005, permitting voters (men only) to choose half the council members; the rest of the members were still appointed. King Fahd died in Aug., 2005, and was succeeded by Abdullah. In Nov., 2009, fighting in N Yemen spilled over into Saudi Arabia when Yemeni Shiite rebels crossed the border. Saudi forces fought the rebels and sought to drive them back into Yemen and away from the border; the conflict ended by Feb., 2010, with the rebels withdrawn into Yemen (and a truce established there).

In early 2011 Saudi Arabia experienced relatively small-scale antigovernment protests compared to other Arab nations, and those were at times harshly suppressed; many demonstrations involved Shiites. Protests and confrontations continued to a limited degree into 2012. Saudi forces also helped suppress antigovernment demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain. At the same time, the government lavished funds on government employee bonuses, low-income housing, and religious organizations. Later in the year, the king announced that women, who have had limited civil rights in the country, would be allowed to participate in municipal elections after 2011 and would serve on the Consultative Council; in 2012 women were appointed to a fifth of the Council seats.


This is not the official site of this country. Most of the information in this site were taken from the U.S. Department of State, The Central Intelligence Agency, The United Nations, [1],[2], [3], [4], [5],[6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14],[15], [16], [17], [18], [19], [20], [21], [22], [23], [24],[25], [26], [27], [28], [29], [30],[31], [32], [33], [34], and the [35].

Other sources of information will be mentioned as they are posted.