Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the largest Arab state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab world.

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Saudi Arabia (i/ˌsaʊdi əˈreɪbi.ə/ or i/ˌsɔːdiː əˈreɪbi.ə/; Arabic: السعودية‎ as-Su‘ūdiyyah or as-Sa‘ūdiyyah), officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Arabic: المملكة العربية السعودية‎ al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyyah as-Su‘ūdiyyah Arabic pronunciation), is the largest Arab state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab world (after Algeria). It is bordered by Jordan and Iraq on the north and northeast, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on the east, Oman on the southeast, and Yemen on the south. The Red Sea lies to its west, and the Persian Gulf lies to the east. Saudi Arabia has an area of approximately 2,250,000 km2 (870,000 sq mi), and it has an estimated population of 27 million, of which 9 million are registered foreign expatriates and an estimated 2 million are illegal immigrants. Saudi nationals comprise an estimated 16 million people.[7]

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud (known for most of his career as Ibn Saud) in 1932, although the conquests which eventually led to the creation of the Kingdom began in 1902 when he captured Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the House of Saud, referred to in Arabic as Al Saud. The Saudi Arabian government, which has been an absolute monarchy since its inception, refers to its system of government as being Islamic, though this is contested by many due to its strong basis in Wahhabism and Salafism, which are minority schools of thought in Islam. The kingdom is sometimes called "The Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca), and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam.

Saudi Arabia has the world's second largest oil reserves which are concentrated largely in the Eastern Province[8][9] and oil accounts for more than 95% of exports and 70% of government revenue. This facilitates the creation of a welfare state[10] although the share of the non-oil economy is growing recently. It has also the world's sixth largest natural gas reserves.


Following the unification of the Kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd, the new state was named al-Mamlakah al-ʻArabīyah as-Suʻūdīyah (a transliteration of المملكة العربية السعودية in Arabic) by royal decree on 23 September 1932 by its founder, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. This is normally translated as "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" in English,[11] although it literally means "the Saudi Arab Kingdom".[12]

The word "Saudi" is derived from the element as-Suʻūdīyah in the Arabic name of the country, which is a type of adjective known as a nisba, formed from the dynastic name of Al Saud (آل سعود). Its inclusion indicated that the country's ruler viewed it as the personal possession of the royal family.[13][14] Al Saud is an Arabic name formed by adding the word Al, meaning "family of" or "House of",[15] to the personal name of an ancestor. In the case of the Al Saud, this is the father of the dynasty's 18th century founder, Muhammad bin Saud (Muhammad, son of Saud).[16] For the etymology of Arabia, see Arabian Peninsula and Arab (etymology).


From the earliest times to the foundation of Saudi Arabia

The Ottoman Empire in 1914, including nominal and vassal Ottoman territories – the position in Arabia had largely been the same for the previous 400 years

Apart from a small number of urban trading settlements, such as Mecca and Medina, located in the Hejaz in the west of the Arabian Peninsula, most of what was to become Saudi Arabia was populated by nomadic tribal societies in the inhospitable desert.[17] The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was born in Mecca in about 571. In the early 7th century, Muhammad united the various tribes of the peninsula and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in west to modern day Pakistan in east) in a matter of decades. In so doing, Arabia soon became a politically peripheral region of the Muslim world as the focus shifted to the more developed conquered lands.[18] From the 10th century to the early 20th century Mecca and Medina were under the control of a local Arab ruler known as the Sharif of Mecca, but at most times the Sharif owed allegiance to the ruler of one of the major Islamic empires based in Baghdad, Cairo or Istanbul. Most of the remainder of what became Saudi Arabia reverted to traditional tribal rule.[19][20]

In the 16th century, the Ottomans added the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coast (the Hejaz, Asir and Al-Hasa) to their Empire and claimed suzerainty over the interior. The degree of control over these lands varied over the next four centuries with the fluctuating strength or weakness of the Empire's central authority.[21][22] The emergence of what was to become the Saudi royal family, known as the Al Saud, began in Nejd in central Arabia in 1744, when Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the dynasty, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab,[23] founder of the Wahhabi movement, a strict puritanical form of Sunni Islam.[24] This alliance formed in the 18th century provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion and remains the basis of Saudi Arabian dynastic rule today.[25] The first 'Saudi State' established in 1744 in the area around Riyadh, rapidly expanded and briefly controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia,[26] but was destroyed by 1818 by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha.[27] A much smaller second 'Saudi state', located mainly in Nejd, was established in 1824. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the Al Saud contested control of the interior of what was to become Saudi Arabia with another Arabian ruling family, the Al Rashid. By 1891, the Al Rashid were victorious and the Al Saud were driven into exile.[19]

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire continued to control or have suzerainty (albeit nominal) over most of the peninsula. Subject to this suzerainty, Arabia was ruled by a patchwork of tribal rulers[28][29] (including the House of Saud who had returned from exile in 1902[19]) with the Sharif of Mecca having pre-eminence and ruling the Hejaz.[30] In 1916, with the encouragement and support of Britain (which was fighting the Ottomans in World War I), the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire to create a united Arab state.[31] Although the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918 failed in its objective, the Allied victory in World War I resulted in the end of Ottoman suzerainty and control in Arabia.[32]

Arabia about 1923. Expandable map: Abdul Aziz's domain is in blue with dates of conquest. The Kingdom of Hejaz, conquered in 1925, is in light green. (The other Hashemite kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan are also in shades of green)

In 1902, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, leader of the House of Saud, had seized Riyadh in Nejd from the Al Rashid – the first of a series of conquests ultimately leading to the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia in 1932.[19] The main weapon for achieving these conquests was the Ikhwan, the Wahhabist-Bedouin tribal army led by Sultan ibn Bijad and Faisal Al-Dawish.[33] From the Saudi core in Nejd, and aided by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Ikhwan had completed the conquest of the territory that was to become Saudi Arabia by the end of 1925.[34] On 10 January 1926 Abdul-Aziz declared himself King of the Hejaz and, then, on 27 January 1927 he took the title of King of Nejd (his previous title having been 'Sultan').[19] After the conquest of the Hejaz, the Ikhwan leaders wanted to continue the expansion of the Wahhabist realm into the British protectorates of Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait, and began raiding those territories. Abdul-Aziz, however, refused to agree to this, recognizing the danger of a direct conflict with the British. The Ikhwan therefore revolted but were defeated in the Battle of Sabilla in 1930, where the Ikhwan leadership were massacred.[35]

In 1932, the two kingdoms of the Hejaz and Nejd were united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.[19]

From the foundation of the State to the present

The new kingdom was one of the poorest countries in the world, reliant on limited agriculture and pilgrimage revenues.[36] However, in 1938 vast reserves of oil were discovered in the Al-Hasa region along the coast of the Persian Gulf and full-scale development of the oil fields began in 1941. Oil provided Saudi Arabia with economic prosperity and substantial political leverage internationally. Cultural life rapidly developed, primarily in the Hejaz, which was the center for newspapers and radio. But the large influx of foreigners to work in the oil industry increased the pre-existing propensity for xenophobia. At the same time, the government became increasingly wasteful and extravagant. By the 1950s this had led to large governmental deficits and excessive foreign borrowing.[19]

Abdul Aziz bin Saud, first king of Saudi Arabia

King Saud succeeded to the throne on his father's death in 1953. However, an intense rivalry between the King and his half-brother, Prince Faisal emerged, fueled by doubts in the royal family over Saud's competence. As a consequence, Saud was deposed in favor of Faisal in 1964. The major event of King Faisal's reign was the 1973 oil crisis, when Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab oil producers, tried to put pressure on the US to withdraw support from Israel through an oil embargo.[19] Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaid.[37]

Faisal was succeeded by his half-brother King Khalid during whose reign economic and social development progressed at an extremely rapid rate, transforming the infrastructure and educational system of the country;[19] in foreign policy, close ties with the US were developed.[37] In 1979, two events occurred which greatly concerned the Al Saud regime,[38] and had a long-term influence on Saudi foreign and domestic policy. The first was the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It was feared that the country's Shi'ite minority in the Eastern Province (which is also the location of the oil fields) might rebel under the influence of their Iranian co-religionists. In fact, there were several anti-government uprisings in the region in 1979 and 1980. The second event, was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists. The militants involved were in part angered by what they considered to be the corruption and un-Islamic nature of the Saudi regime.[39] Part of the response of the royal family was to enforce a much stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms in the country (for example, the closure of cinemas) and to give the Ulema a greater role in government.[40] Neither entirely succeeded as Islamism continued to grow in strength.[41]

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after unification in 1932

Khalid was succeeded by his brother King Fahd in 1982 who continued the close relationship with the United States and increased the purchase of American and British military equipment.[19] From 1976 Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil producer in the world.[42] The Saudi regime spent $25 billion in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War.[43] The vast wealth generated by oil revenues and channeled through the government had a profound impact on Saudi society. It led to urbanization, mass public education, and the creation of new media. This and the presence of large numbers of foreign workers greatly affected traditional Saudi norms and values. Although there was dramatic change in the social and economic life of the country, political power continued to be monopolized by the royal family[19] leading to discontent among many Saudis who began to look for wider participation in government.[44]

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Saudi Arabia joined the anti-Iraq Coalition. King Fahd, fearing an attack from Iraq, invited American and coalition soldiers to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.[19] This action concerned some of the ulema and students of sharia law and was one of the issues that led to an increase in Islamic terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamic terrorist attacks in Western countries by Saudi nationals, the 9/11 attacks in New York being the most prominent example.[45] Many Saudis who did not necessarily support the Islamist terrorists were deeply unhappy with the government stance.[46]

Islamism was not the only source of hostility to the regime. Although now extremely wealthy, the country's economy was near stagnant, which, combined with high taxes and a growth in unemployment, contributed to disquiet in the country, and was reflected in a subsequent rise in civil unrest, and discontent with the royal family. In response, a number of limited 'reforms' were initiated (such as the Basic Law). However, the royal family's intent was to respond to dissent while making as few actual changes in the status quo as possible. Fahd made it clear that he did not have democracy in mind: "A system based on elections is not consistent with our Islamic creed, which [approves of] government by consultation [shūrā]."[19]

In 1995, Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke and the Crown Prince, Prince Abdullah assumed the role of acting King, although his authority was hindered by conflict with Fahd's full brothers (known, with Fahd, as the "Sudairi Seven").[47] Abdullah continued the policy of mild reform and greater openness,[48] but in addition, adopted a foreign policy distancing the kingdom from the US. In 2003, Saudi Arabia refused to support the US and its allies in the invasion of Iraq.[19] However, terrorist activity increased dramatically in 2003, with the Riyadh compound bombings and other attacks, which prompted the government to take much more stringent action against terrorism.[49]

In 2005, King Fahd died and his half-brother Abdullah ascended to the throne. The king subsequently introduced a new program of moderate reform which included a number of economic reforms aimed at reducing the country's reliance on oil revenue: limited deregulation, encouragement of foreign investment, and privatization. He has taken much more vigorous action to deal with the origins of Islamic terrorism, and has ordered the use of force for the first time by the security services against some extremists. In February 2009, Abdullah announced a series of governmental changes to the judiciary, armed forces, and various ministries to modernize these institutions including the replacement of senior appointees in the judiciary and the Mutaween (religious police) with more moderate individuals and the appointment of the country’s first female deputy minister.[19]

In early 2011, King Abdullah indicated his opposition to the protests and revolutions affecting the Arab world by giving asylum to deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and by telephoning President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (prior to his deposition) to offer his support.[50] Saudi Arabia has also been affected by its own protests.[51] In response, King Abdullah announced a series of benefits for citizens amounting to $10.7 billion. These included funding to offset high inflation and to aid young unemployed people and Saudi citizens studying abroad, as well as the writing off of some loans. State employees will see their incomes increase by 15 per cent, and additional cash has also been made available for housing loans. No political reforms were announced as part of the package, though some prisoners indicted for financial crimes were pardoned.[52]


Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy,[53] although, according to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia adopted by royal decree in 1992, the king must comply with Sharia (that is, Islamic law) and the Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah (the traditions of Muhammad) are declared to be the country's constitution, but no written modern constitution has ever been written for Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia remains the only Arab Nation where no national elections have ever taken place, since its creation.[54] No political parties or national elections are permitted[53] and according to The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated.[55]

On 25 September 2011, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has announced that women will have the right to stand and vote in future local elections and join the advisory Shura council as full members.[56]

Monarchy and royal family

The king combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions[57] and royal decrees to form the basis of the country's legislation.[58] The king is also the prime minister, and presides over the Council of Ministers (Majlis al-Wuzarāʾ), which comprises the first and second deputy prime.

The royal family dominates the political system. The family’s vast numbers allow it to control most of the kingdom’s important posts and to have an involvement and presence at all levels of government.[59] The number of princes is estimated to be at least 7,000, with most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of King Abdul Aziz.[60] The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal family,[53] as are the thirteen regional governorships.[61] Long term political and government appointments, such as those of King Abdullah, who had been Commander of the National Guard since 1963 (until 2010, when he appointed his son to replace him)[62]), former Crown Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence and Aviation from 1962 to his death in 2011, former crown prince Prince Nayef who was the Minister of Interior from 1975 to his death in 2012, Prince Saud who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975[63] and current Minister of Defence and Aviation Prince Salman, who was Governor of the Riyadh Province from 1962 to 2011,[64] have resulted in the creation of "power fiefdoms" for senior princes.[65]

The Saudi government and the royal family have often, over many years, been accused of corruption.[66] In a country that is said to "belong" to the royal family and is named for them,[14] the lines between state assets and the personal wealth of senior princes are blurred.[60] The extent of corruption has been described as systemic[67] and endemic,[68] and its existence was acknowledged[69] and defended[70] by Prince Bandar bin Sultan (a senior member of the royal family[71]) in an interview in 2001.[72] Although corruption allegations have often been limited to broad undocumented accusations,[73] specific allegations were made in 2007, when it was claimed that the British defence contractor BAE Systems had paid Prince Bandar US$2 billion in bribes relating to the Al-Yamamah arms deal.[74] Prince Bandar denied the allegations.[75] Investigations by both US and UK authorities resulted, in 2010, in plea bargain agreements with the company, by which it paid $447 million in fines but did not admit to bribery.[76] Transparency International in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010 gave Saudi Arabia a score of 4.7 (on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is "highly corrupt" and 10 is "highly clean").[77]

There has been mounting pressure to reform and modernize the royal family's rule, an agenda championed by King Abdullah both before and after his accession in 2005. The creation of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s did not satisfy demands for political participation, and, in 2003, an annual National Dialogue Forum was announced that would allow selected professionals and intellectuals to publicly debate current national issues, within certain prescribed parameters. In 2005, the first municipal elections were held. In 2007, the Allegiance Council was created to regulate the succession.[78] In 2009, the king made significant personnel changes to the government by appointing reformers to key positions and the first woman to a ministerial post.[79] However, the changes have been criticized as being too slow or merely cosmetic,[80] and the royal family is reportedly divided on the speed and direction of reform.[81]

Al ash-Sheikh and role of the ulema

Saudi Arabia is almost unique in giving the ulema (the body of Islamic religious leaders and jurists) a direct role in government,[82] the only other example being Iran.[83] The ulema have also been a key influence in major government decisions, for example the imposition of the oil embargo in 1973 and the invitation to foreign troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990.[84] In addition, they have had a major role in the judicial and education systems[85] and a monopoly of authority in the sphere of religious and social morals.[86]

By the 1970s, as a result of oil wealth and the modernization of the country initiated by King Faisal, important changes to Saudi society were under way and the power of the ulema was in decline.[87] However, this changed following the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamist radicals.[88] The government's response to the crisis included strengthening the ulema's powers and increasing their financial support:[40] in particular, they were given greater control over the education system[88] and allowed to enforce stricter observance of Wahhabi rules of moral and social behaviour.[40] Since his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has taken steps to rein back the powers of the ulema, for instance transferring their control over girls' education to the Ministry of Education.[89]

The ulema have historically been led by the Al ash-Sheikh,[90] the country's leading religious family.[86] The Al ash-Sheikh are the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam which is today dominant in Saudi Arabia.[91] The family is second in prestige only to the Al Saud (the royal family)[92] with whom they formed a "mutual support pact"[93] and power-sharing arrangement nearly 300 years ago.[84] The pact, which persists to this day,[93] is based on the Al Saud maintaining the Al ash-Sheikh's authority in religious matters and upholding and propagating Wahhabi doctrine. In return, the Al ash-Sheikh support the Al Saud's political authority[94] thereby using its religious-moral authority to legitimize the royal family's rule.[95] Although the Al ash-Sheikh's domination of the ulema has diminished in recent decades,[96] they still hold the most important religious posts and are closely linked to the Al Saud by a high degree of intermarriage.[86]

Political process and opposition

In the absence of national elections and political parties,[53] politics in Saudi Arabia takes place in two distinct arenas: within the royal family, the Al Saud, and between the royal family and the rest of Saudi society.[97] The royal family is politically divided by factions based on clan loyalties, personal ambitions and ideological differences.[97] The most powerful clan faction is known as the 'Sudairi Seven', comprising the late King Fahd and his full brothers and their descendants.[98] Ideological divisions include issues over the speed and direction of reform,[81] and whether the role of the ulema should be increased or reduced. There were divisions within the family over who should succeed to the throne after the accession or earlier death of Prince Sultan.[98][99] When prince Sultan died before ascending to the throne on 21 October 2011, King Abdullah appointed Prince Nayef as crown prince.[100] Price Nayef also died before ascending to the throne in 2012.[101]

Outside of the Al-Saud, participation in the political process is limited to a relatively small segment of the population and takes the form of the royal family consulting with the ulema, tribal sheikhs and members of important commercial families on major decisions.[57] This process is not reported by the Saudi media.[102] In theory, all males of full age have a right to petition the king directly through the traditional tribal meeting known as the majlis.[103] In many ways the approach to government differs little from the traditional system of tribal rule. Tribal identity remains strong and, outside of the royal family, political influence is frequently determined by tribal affiliation, with tribal sheikhs maintaining a considerable degree of influence over local and national events.[57] As mentioned earlier, in recent years there have been limited steps to widen political participation such as the establishment of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s and the National Dialogue Forum in 2003.[78]

The rule of the Al Saud faces political opposition from four sources: Sunni Islamist activism; liberal critics; the Shi'ite minority – particularly in the Eastern Province; and long-standing tribal and regional particularistic opponents (for example in the Hejaz).[104] Of these, the Islamic activists have been the most prominent threat to the regime and have in recent years perpetrated a number of violent or terrorist acts in the country.[49] However, open protest against the government, even if peaceful, is not tolerated. On 29 January 2011, hundreds of protesters gathered in the city of Jeddah in a rare display of criticism against the city's poor infrastructure after deadly floods swept through the city, killing eleven people.[105] Police stopped the demonstration after about 15 minutes and arrested 30 to 50 people.[106] As part of the wave of protests and revolutions affecting the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, a number of incidents and protests occurred in Saudi Arabia.

Law and human rights

Verses from the Quran. The Quran is the official constitution of the country and a primary source of law. Arabia is unique in enshrining a religious text as a political document[107]

The primary source of law is the Islamic Sharia derived from the teachings of the Qu'ran and the Sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet).[58] Sharia is not codified and there is no system of judicial precedent. Saudi judges tend to follow the principles of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence (or fiqh) found in pre-modern texts[108] and noted for its literalist interpretation of the Qu'ran and hadith.[109] Nevertheless, because the judge is empowered to disregard previous judgments (either his own or of other judges) and will apply his personal interpretation of Sharia to any particular case, divergent judgements arise even in apparently identical cases.[110] Royal decrees are the other main source of law but are referred to as regulations rather than laws because they are subordinate to the Sharia.[58] Royal decrees supplement Sharia in areas such as labor, commercial and corporate law. Additionally, traditional tribal law and custom remain significant.[111]

The Sharia court system constitutes the basic judiciary of Saudi Arabia and its judges and lawyers form part of the ulema, the country's religious leadership. However, there are also extra-Sharia government tribunals which handle disputes relating to specific royal decrees.[112] Final appeal from both Sharia courts and government tribunals is to the King and all courts and tribunals follow Sharia rules of evidence and procedure.[113] The Saudi system of justice has been criticized for being slow, arcane,[114] lacking in some of the safeguards of justice and unable to deal with the modern world.[115] In 2007, King Abdullah issued royal decrees reforming the judiciary and creating a new court system, although the reforms have yet to be implemented.[110] The capabilities and reactionary nature of the judges have, in particular, been criticized[116] and, in 2009, the King made a number of significant changes to the judiciary's personnel at the most senior level by bringing in a younger generation.[114] Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for its human rights record, with Western-based organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemning both the criminal justice system and its severe punishments. However, most Saudis reportedly support the system and say that it maintains a low crime rate.[117] There are no jury trials in Saudi Arabia and courts observe few formalities.[118] Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 report, noted that a criminal procedure code had been introduced for the first time in 2002, but it lacked some basic protections and, in any case, had been routinely ignored by judges. Those arrested are often not informed of the crime of which they are accused or given access to a lawyer and are subject to abusive treatment and torture if they do not confess. At trial, there is a presumption of guilt and the accused is often unable to examine witnesses and evidence or present a legal defense. Most trials are held in secret.[119]

Deera Square, central Riyadh. Known locally as "Chop-chop square", it is the location of public beheadings.[120]

A road sign for a bypass used to restrict non-Muslims from Mecca

The physical punishments imposed by Saudi courts, such as beheading, stoning, amputation and lashing, and the number of executions have been strongly criticized.[121] The death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences including murder, rape, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery and can be carried out by beheading with a sword, stoning or firing squad, followed by crucifixion.[122][123] The 345 reported executions between 2007 and 2010 were all carried out by public beheading. The last reported execution for sorcery took place in June 2012[124] and three recent convictions for witchcraft did not result in execution. Although repeated theft can be punishable by amputation of the right hand, only one instance of judicial amputation was reported between 2007 and 2010. Gay rights are not recognised. Homosexual acts are punishable by flogging or death.[122][125] Lashings are a common form of punishment[126] and are often imposed for offences against religion and public morality such as drinking alcohol and neglect of prayer and fasting obligations.[122] Retaliatory punishments, or Qisas, are practised: for instance, an eye can be surgically removed at the insistence of a victim who lost his own eye.[116] Families of someone unlawfully killed can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator.[127] Other human rights issues that have attracted strong criticism include the extremely disadvantaged position of women (see Women in Saudi society below), religious discrimination, the lack of religious freedom and the activities of the religious police (see Religion below).[121] Between 1996 and 2000, Saudi Arabia acceded to four UN human rights conventions and, in 2004, the government approved the establishment of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), staffed by government employees, to monitor their implementation. To date, the activities of the NSHR have been limited and doubts remain over its neutrality and independence.[128] Saudi Arabia remains one of the very few countries in the world not to accept the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to the continuing criticism of its human rights record, the Saudi government points to the special Islamic character of the country, and asserts that this justifies a different social and political order.[129]

Foreign relations

Saudi Arabia joined the UN in 1945[11][130] and is a founder member of the Arab League, Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, Muslim World League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).[131] It plays a prominent role in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in 2005 joined the World Trade Organization.[11] Saudi Arabia supports the intended formation of the Arab Customs Union in 2015 and an Arab common market[132] by 2020, as announced at the 2009 Arab League summit.[133] As a founding member of OPEC, its oil pricing policy has been generally to stabilize the world oil market and try to moderate sharp price movements so as to not jeopardise the Western economies.[11]

King Abdullah with former US President George W. Bush.

Between the mid-1970s and 2002 Saudi Arabia expended over $70 billion in "overseas development aid".[134] However, there is evidence that the vast majority was, in fact, spent on propagating and extending the influence of Wahhabism at the expense of other forms of Islam.[135] There has been an intense debate over whether Saudi aid and Wahhabism has fomented extremism in recipient countries.[136] The two main allegations are that, by its nature, Wahhabism encourages intolerance and promotes terrorism.[137] Former CIA director James Woolsey described it as "the soil in which Al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing."[138] However, the Saudi government strenuously denies these claims or that it exports religious or cultural extremism.[139]

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, Saudi Arabia is considered to be pro-Western and pro-American,[140] and it is certainly a long-term ally of the United States.[141] However, this[142] and Saudi Arabia's role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, particularly the stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil from 1991, prompted the development of a hostile Islamist response internally .[143] As a result, Saudi Arabia has, to some extent, distanced itself from the U.S. and, for example, refused to support or to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.[57] Relations with the United States became strained following 9/11.[144] American politicians and media accused the Saudi government of supporting terrorism and tolerating a jihadist culture.[145] Indeed, Osama bin Laden and fifteen out of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.[146] According to the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups... Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."[147]

Saudi Arabia's increasing alarm at the rise of Iran is reflected in the reported private comments of King Abdullah[148] urging the US to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake".[149] Saudi Arabia has been seen as a moderating influence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, periodically putting forward a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians and condemning Hezbollah.[150] Following the Arab Spring Saudi Arabia offered asylum to deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and King Abdullah telephoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (prior to his deposition) to offer his support.[50]


Royal Saudi Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon.

The Saudi military consists of the Royal Saudi Land Forces, the Royal Saudi Air Force, the Royal Saudi Navy, the Royal Saudi Air Defense, the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG, an independent military force), and paramilitary forces, totaling nearly 200,000 active-duty personnel. In 2005 the armed forces had the following personnel: the army, 75,000; the air force, 18,000; air defense, 16,000; the navy, 15,500 (including 3,000 marines); and the SANG had 75,000 active soldiers and 25,000 tribal levies. [151] In addition, there is a Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah military intelligence service.

The SANG is not a reserve but a fully operational front-line force, and originated out of Abdul Aziz’s tribal military-religious force, the Ikhwan. Its modern existence, however, is attributable to it being effectively Abdullah’s private army since the 1960s and, unlike the rest of the armed forces, is independent of the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The SANG has been a counterbalance to the Sudairi faction in the royal family: Prince Sultan, the Minister of Defense and Aviation, is one of the so-called 'Sudairi Seven' and controls the remainder of the armed forces.[152]

HMS Makkah, an Al Riyadh class frigate.

Spending on defense and security has increased significantly since the mid-'90s and was about US$25.4 billion in 2005. Saudi Arabia ranks among the top 10 in the world in government spending for its military, representing about 7 percent of gross domestic product in 2005. Its modern high-technology arsenal makes Saudi Arabia among the world’s most densely armed nations, with its military equipment being supplied primarily by the US, France and Britain.[151] The United States sold more than $80 billion in military hardware between 1951 and 2006 to the Saudi military.[153] On 20 October 2010, the U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The package represents a considerable improvement in the offensive capability of the Saudi armed forces.[154] The UK has also been a major supplier of military equipment to Saudi Arabia since 1965.[155] Since 1985, the UK has supplied military aircraft – notably the Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft – and other equipment as part of the long-term Al-Yamamah arms deal estimated to have been worth £43 billion by 2006 and thought to be worth a further £40 billion.[156]

In May 2012, British defence giant BAE signed a £1.9bn ($3bn) deal to supply Hawk trainer jets to Saudi Arabia.[157]


Ecoregions as delineated by the WWF. The yellow line encloses the ecoregions Arabian Desert, East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands and two other smaller desert areas.[158]

Saudi Arabia occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian peninsula,[159] lying between latitudes 16° and 33° N, and longitudes 34° and 56° E. Because the country's southern borders with the United Arab Emirates and Oman are not precisely defined or marked, the exact size of the country remains unknown.[159] The CIA World Factbook's estimate is 2,250,000 km2 (868,730 sq mi) and lists Saudi Arabia as the world's 13th largest state.[160]

Saudi Arabia's geography is dominated by the Arabian Desert and associated semi-desert and shrubland (see satellite image to right). It is, in fact, a number of linked deserts and includes the 647,500 km2 (250,001 sq mi) Rub' al Khali (“Empty Quarter”) in the southern part of the country, the world’s largest contiguous sand desert.[57][161] There are virtually no rivers or lakes in the country, but wadis are numerous. The few fertile areas are to be found in the alluvial deposits in wadis, basins, and oases.[57] The main topographical feature is the central plateau which rises abruptly from the Red Sea and gradually descends into the Nejd and toward the Persian Gulf. On the Red Sea coast, there is a narrow coastal plain, known as the Tihamah parallel to which runs an imposing escarpment. The southwest province of Asir is mountainous, and contains the 3,133 m (10,279 ft) Mount Sawda, which is the highest point in the country.[57]

The Nejd landscape: desert and the Tuwaiq Escarpment near Riyadh

Except for the southwestern province of Asir, Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with extremely high day-time temperatures and a sharp temperature drop at night. Average summer temperatures are around 113 °F (45 °C), but can be as high as 129 °F (54 °C). In the winter the temperature rarely drops below 32 °F (0 °C). In the spring and autumn the heat is temperate, temperatures average around 84 °F (29 °C). Annual rainfall is extremely low. The Asir region differs in that it is influenced by the Indian Ocean monsoons, usually occurring between October and March. An average of 12 in (300 mm) of rainfall occurs during this period, that is about 60% of the annual precipitation.[162]

Animal life includes wolves, hyenas, mongooses, baboons, hares, sand rats, and jerboas. Larger animals such as gazelles, oryx, and leopards were relatively numerous until the 1950s, when hunting from motor vehicles reduced these animals almost to extinction. Birds include falcons (which are caught and trained for hunting), eagles, hawks, vultures, sand grouse and bulbuls. There are several species of snakes, many of which are venomous, and numerous types of lizards. There is a wide variety of marine life in the Persian Gulf. Domesticated animals include camels, sheep, goats, donkeys, and chickens. Reflecting the country's desert conditions, Saudi Arabia’s plant life mostly consists of small herbs and shrubs requiring little water. There are a few small areas of grass and trees in southern Asir. The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is widespread.[57]

Administrative divisions

Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 provinces[163] (manatiq idāriyya, – singular mintaqah idariyya). The provinces are further divided into 118 governorates (Arabic: manatiq idāriyya, منطقةإدارية, ). This number includes the 13 provincial capitals, which have a different status as municipalities (amanah) headed by mayors (amin). The governorates are further sudivided into sub-governorates (marakiz, sing. markaz).

Province Capital
Provinces of Saudi Arabia
Al Bahah (or Baha) Al Bahah city
Northern Borders Arar
Al Jawf (or Jouf) Sakaka city
Al Madinah Medina
Al Qasim Buraidah
Ha'il Ha'il city
Asir Abha
Eastern Province Dammam
Al Riyadh Riyadh city
Tabuk Tabuk city
Najran Najran city
Makkah Makkah
Jizan Jizan city


Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of petroleum in the world

Skyline of Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia's command economy is petroleum-based; roughly 75% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from the oil industry. The oil industry comprises about 45% of Saudi Arabia's nominal gross domestic product, compared with 40% from the private sector (see below). Saudi Arabia officially has about 260 billion barrels (4.1×1010 m3) of oil reserves, comprising about one-fifth of the world's proven total petroleum reserves.[164]

The government is attempting to promote growth in the private sector by privatizing industries such as power and telecommunications. Saudi Arabia announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies in 1999, which followed the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. Shortages of water and rapid population growth may constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.

In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia experienced a significant contraction of oil revenues combined with a high rate of population growth. Per capita income fell from a high of $11,700 at the height of the oil boom in 1981 to $6,300 in 1998.[165] Increases in oil prices since 2000 have helped boost per capita GDP to $17,000 in 2007 dollars, or about $7,400 adjusted for inflation.[166] Taking into account the impact of the real oil price changes on the Kingdom's real gross domestic income, the real command-basis GDP was computed to be 330.381 billion 1999 USD in 2010.[167]

Oil price increases of 2008–2009 have triggered a second oil boom, pushing Saudi Arabia's budget surplus to $28 billion (110SR billion) in 2005. Tadawul (the Saudi stock market index) finished 2004 with a massive 76.23% to close at 4437.58 points. Market capitalization was up 110.14% from a year earlier to stand at $157.3 billion (589.93SR billion), which makes it the biggest stock market in the Middle East.‏

OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) limits its members' oil production based on their "proven reserves." The higher their reserves, the more OPEC allows them to produce.[citation needed] Saudi Arabia's published reserves have shown little change since 1980, with the main exception being an increase of about 100 billion barrels (1.6×1010 m3) between 1987 and 1988.[168] Matthew Simmons has suggested that Saudi Arabia is greatly exaggerating its reserves and may soon show production declines (see peak oil).[169]

Saudi Arabia is one of only a few fast-growing countries in the world with a relatively high per capita income of $24,200 (2010). Saudi Arabia will be launching six "economic cities" (e.g. King Abdullah Economic City)[170] which are planned to be completed by 2020. These six new industrialized cities are intended to diversify the economy of Saudi Arabia, and are expected to increase the per capita income. The King of Saudi Arabia has announced that the per capita income is forecast to rise from $15,000 in 2006 to $33,500 in 2020.[171] The cities will be spread around Saudi Arabia to promote diversification for each region and their economy, and the cities are projected to contribute $150 billion to the GDP.

However the urban areas of Riyadh and Jeddah are expected to contribute $287 billion dollars by the year 2020.[172]


Largest cities

Population and language

Saudi Arabia population density (person per km2)

The population of Saudi Arabia as of July 2010 is estimated to be 25,731,776 including 5,576,076 non-nationals[2] In 1950, Saudi Arabia had a population of 3 million.[173] The ethnic composition of Saudi nationals is 90% Arab and 10% Afro-Arab.[174] Until the 1960s, a majority of the population was nomadic; but presently more than 95% of the population is settled, due to rapid economic and urban growth. As recently as the early 1960s, the Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 300,000.[175] Slavery was officially abolished in 1962.[176][177] The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic. The three main regional variants spoken by Saudis are Hejazi Arabic (about 6 million speakers), Nejdi Arabic (about 8 million speakers) and Persian Gulf (about 1.5 million speakers). The large expatriate communities also speak their own languages, the most numerous being Malayalam (1 million), Tagalog (700,000), Urdu (380,000), and Egyptian Arabic (300,000).[178]

About 31% of the population is made up of foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia.[179] Indian: 1.3 million, Pakistani: 900,000, Egyptian: 900,000, Yemeni: 800,000, Bangladeshi: 500,000, Filipino: 500,000, Jordanian/Palestinian: 260,000, Indonesian: 250,000, Sri Lankan: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrian: 100,000 and Turkish: 100,000.[180] There are around 100,000 Westerners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom live in compounds or gated communities.

Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991.[181] An estimated 240,000 Palestinians are living in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to hold or even apply for Saudi citizenship, because of Arab League instructions barring the Arab states from granting them citizenship. Palestinians are the sole foreign group that cannot benefit from a 2004 law passed by Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers, which entitles expatriates of all nationalities who have resided in the kingdom for ten years to apply for citizenship with priority being given to holders of degrees in various scientific fields.[182] The Articles 12.4 and 14.1 of the Executive Regulation of Saudi Citizenship System can be interpreted as requiring applicants to be Muslim.[183]

In a 2011 news story, Arab News reported, "Nearly three million expatriate workers will have to leave the Kingdom in the next few years as the Labor Ministry has put a 20 percent ceiling on the country’s guest workers."[184]

Social issues

Saudi society has a number of issues and tensions. A rare independent opinion poll published in 2010 indicated that Saudis’ main social concerns were unemployment (at 10% in 2010[185]), corruption and religious extremism.[186][187] Crime is not a significant problem.[151] However, Saudi Arabia’s objective of being both a modern and Islamic country, coupled with economic difficulties, has created deep social tensions. Connections to the West have caused some Saudis to desire the overthrow of the Al Saud. Others want a reformed and more open government and to have more influence in the political process. On the other hand, juvenile delinquency, drug-use and use of alcohol are getting worse. High unemployment and a generation of young males filled with contempt toward the Royal Family is a significant threat to Saudi social stability. Some Saudis feel they are entitled to well-paid government jobs, and the failure of the government to satisfy this sense of entitlement has led to considerable dissatisfaction.[188][189][190] Additionally, the Shiite minority, located primarily in the Eastern Province, and who often complain of institutionalized inequality and repression, have created civil disturbances in the past. Terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia have made it clear that Saudi Arabia does harbor indigenous terrorists.[189]

According to a 2009 U.S. State Department communication by Hillary Clinton, United States Secretary of State, (disclosed as part of the Wikileaks U.S. 'cables leaks' controversy in 2010) "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide".[191] Part of this funding arises through the zakat (an act of charity dictated by Islam) paid by all Saudis to charities, and amounting to at least 2.5 percent of their income. Although many charities are genuine, others, it is alleged, serve as fronts for money laundering and terrorist financing operations. While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money goes toward good causes, it has been alleged that others know full well the terrorist purposes to which their money will be applied.[138]

According to a study conducted by Dr. Nura Al-Suwaiyan, director of the family safety program at the National Guard Hospital, one in four children are abused in Saudi Arabia.[192] The National Society for Human Rights reports that almost 45% of the country's children are facing some sort of abuse and domestic violence.[193] It has also been claimed that trafficking of women is a particular problem in Saudi Arabia as the country's large number of female foreign domestic workers, and loopholes in the system cause many to fall victim to abuse and torture.[194]

Widespread inbreeding in Saudi Arabia, resulting from the traditional practice of encouraging marriage between close relatives, has produced high levels of several genetic disorders including thalassemia, sickle cell anemia, spinal muscular atrophy, deafness and muteness.[195][196]

Reporting of poverty remains a state taboo. In December 2011, days after the Arab Spring uprisings, the Saudi interior ministry detained reporter Feros Boqna and two colleagues and held them for almost two weeks for questioning after they uploaded a video on the topic to YouTube.[197][198] Statistics on the issue are not available through the UN resources because the Saudi government does not issue poverty figures.[199] Observers researching the issue prefer to stay anonymous[200] because of the risk of being arrested. Three journalists: Feras Boqna, Hussam al-Drewesh and Khaled al-Rasheed were detained after posting 10-minute film 'Mal3ob 3alena', or 'We are being cheated'[201] on Saudis living in poverty to YouTube.[202] Authors of the video claim that 22% of Saudis are considered to be poor (2009) and 70% of Saudis do not own their houses.[203]


The "Mosque of the Prophet" in Medina containing the tomb of Muhammad.

There are about 25 million people who are Muslim, or 97% of the total population.[204] Data for Saudi Arabia comes primarily from general population surveys, which are less reliable than censuses or large-scale demographic and health surveys for estimating minority-majority ratios.[204] About 85–90% of Saudis are Sunni, while Shias represent around 10–15% of the Muslim population.[205] The official and dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is commonly known as Wahhabism (a name which some of its proponents consider derogatory, preferring the term Salafism[206]), founded in the Arabian Peninsula by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century, is often described as 'puritanical', 'intolerant' or 'ultra-conservative'. However, proponents consider that its teachings seek to purify the practise of Islam of any innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and his companions[207]

In 2010, the U.S. State Department stated that in Saudi Arabia "freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice" and that "government policies continued to place severe restrictions on religious freedom".[208] No faith other than Islam is permitted to be practised, although there are nearly a million Christians – nearly all foreign workers – in Saudi Arabia.[209] There are no churches or other non-Muslim houses of worship permitted in the country.[208] Even private prayer services are forbidden in practice and the Saudi religious police reportedly regularly search the homes of Christians.[209] Foreign workers have to observe Ramadan but are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter.[209] Conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) carries the death penalty, although there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years.[208] Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal,[208] and the last Christian priest was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1985.[209] There are some Hindus and Buddhists in Saudi Arabia. Compensation in court cases discriminates against non-Muslims: once fault is determined, a Muslim receives all of the amount of compensation determined, a Jew or Christian half, and all others a sixteenth.[209]

According to Human Rights Watch, the Shia minority face systematic discrimination from the Saudi government in education, the justice system and especially religious freedom.[210] Restrictions are imposed on the public celebration of Shia festivals such as Ashura and on the Shia taking part in communal public worship.[211] According to a 2012 poll, 5% of Saudis are atheists.[212]

Women in Saudi society

A woman wearing a niqāb

The U.S. State department considers that “discrimination against women is a significant problem” in Saudi Arabia and that women have few political or social rights.[213] After her 2008 visit, the UN special reporter on violence against women noted the lack of women's autonomy and the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women.[213] The World Economic Forum 2010 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity.[214]

Every adult woman has to have a close male relative as her "guardian".[213] As a result, Human Rights Watch has described the position of Saudi women as like that of a minor, with little authority over their own lives.[215] The guardian is entitled to make a number of critical decisions on a woman's behalf.[215] These include giving approval for the woman to travel, to hold some types of business licenses, to study at a university or college and to work if the type of business is not "deemed appropriate for a woman."[213] Even where a guardian’s approval is not legally required, some officials will still ask for it.[216]

Women also face discrimination in the courts, where the testimony of one man equals that of two women, and in family and inheritance law.[213] Polygamy is permitted for men,[217] and men have a unilateral right to divorce their wives (talaq) without needing any legal justification.[218] A woman can only obtain a divorce with the consent of her husband or judicially if her husband has harmed her.[219] In practice, it is very difficult for a Saudi woman to obtain a judicial divorce.[219] With regard to the law of inheritance, the Quran specifies that fixed portions of the deceased's estate must be left to the Qu'ranic heirs.[220] Generally, female heirs receive half the portion of male heirs.[220] A Sunni Muslim can bequeath a maximum of a third of his property to non-Qu'ranic heirs. The residue is divided between agnatic heirs.[220]

Cultural norms impose restrictions on women when in public,[213] and these are enforced by the religious police, the mutawa.[221] They include requiring women to sit in separate specially designated family sections in restaurants, to wear an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length black cloak covering the entire body) and to conceal their hair.[213] There is also effectively a ban on women driving.[222]

Men marry girls as young as ten in Saudi Arabia[223][224] Child marriage is believed to hinder the cause of women's education. The drop-out rate of girls increases around puberty, as they exchange education for marriage. Roughly 25% of college-aged young women do not attend college, and in 2005–2006, women had a 60% dropout rate.[225] Female literacy is estimated to be around 70% compared to male literacy of around 85%.[2]

Leading Saudi feminist and journalist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, has said "Saudi women are weak, no matter how high their status, even the 'pampered' ones among them, because they have no law to protect them from attack by anyone. The oppression of women and the effacement of their selfhood is a flaw affecting most homes in Saudi Arabia."[226]

Although many Saudis would like more freedom in Saudi Arabia, there is evidence that many women do not want radical change.[227] Even many advocates of reform reject foreign critics, for "failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society."[228][229] A number of Saudi women have risen to the top of some professions or otherwise achieved prominence, for example Dr. Ghada Al-Mutairi, heads a medical research center in California[230] and Dr. Salwa Al-Hazzaa, head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh and was the late King Fahad’s personal ophthalmologist.[231] On 25 September 2011, King Abdullah announced that Saudi women would gain the right to vote (and to be candidates) in municipal elections, following the next round of these elections. However, a male guardian's permission is required in order to vote.[232][233]


Education is free at all levels. The school system is composed of elementary, intermediate, and secondary schools. A large part of the curriculum at all levels is devoted to Islam, and, at the secondary level, students are able to follow either a religious or a technical track. Girls are able to attend school, 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.[2] Classes are segregated by gender. Higher education has expanded rapidly, with large numbers of Universities and colleges being founded particularly since 2000. Institutions of higher education include the country's first University, King Saud University founded in 1957, the Islamic University at Medina founded in 1961, and the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah founded in 1967. Other colleges and universities emphasize curricula in sciences and technology, military studies, religion, and medicine. Institutes devoted to Islamic studies, in particular, abound. Women typically receive college instruction in segregated institutions.[57]

The study of Islam dominates the Saudi educational system. In particular, the memorization by rote of large parts of the Qu'ran, its interpretation and understanding (Tafsir) and the application of Islamic tradition to everyday life is at the core of the curriculum. Religion taught in this manner is also a compulsory subject for all University students.[234] As a consequence, Saudi youth "generally lacks the education and technical skills the private sector needs" according to the CIA.[2] Similarly, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in 2010 that "the country needs educated young Saudis with marketable skills and a capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship. That's not generally what Saudi Arabia's educational system delivers, steeped as it is in rote learning and religious instruction."[235]

A further criticism of the religious focus of the Saudi education system is the nature of the Wahhabi-controlled curriculum. The Islamic aspect of the Saudi national curriculum was examined in a 2006 report by Freedom House which concluded that "the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the “unbeliever,” that is, Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others"[236][237] The Saudi religious studies curriculum is taught outside the Kingdom in madrasah throughout the world. Critics have described the education system as ‘medieval’ and that its primary goal ‘is to maintain the rule of absolute monarchy by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures’.[238]

The approach taken in the Saudi education system has been accused of encouraging Islamic terrorism, leading to reform efforts.[239] To tackle the twin problems of encouraging extremism and the inadequacy of the country's university education for a modern economy, the government is aiming to slowly modernise the education system through the ‘Tatweer’ reform program.[239] The Tatweer program is reported to have a budget of approximately US$2 billion and focuses on moving teaching away from the traditional Saudi methods of memorization and rote learning towards encouraging students to analyze and problem-solve. It also aims to create an education system which will provide a more secular and vocationally based training.[235][240]


Saudi Arabia has centuries-old attitudes and traditions, often derived from Arab tribal civilization. This culture has been bolstered by the austerely puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam, which arose in the eighteenth century and now predominates in the country. The many limitations on behaviour and dress are strictly enforced both legally and socially. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, for example, and there is no theatre or public exhibition of films. Nevertheless, as reported by the UK Mail, within the Saudi royal family homosexuality is permitted so long as it is not the subject of public attention (Daily Mail: "A gay Saudi prince has been jailed for beating and strangling his servant.").[241] However, the Daily Mail and Wikileaks indicate that the Saudi Royal family applies a different moral code to itself ("WikiLeaks cables: Saudi princes throw parties boasting drink, drugs and sex. Royals flout puritanical laws to throw parties for young elite while religious police are forced to turn a blind eye.")[242] Public expression of opinion about domestic political or social matters is discouraged. There are no organizations such as political parties or labour unions to provide public forums.

Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Five times each day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques scattered throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend begins on Thursday.[57][243] In accordance with Wahhabi doctrine, only two religious holidays are publicly recognized, ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā. Celebration of other Islamic holidays, such as the Prophet’s birthday and ʿĀshūrāʾ (an important holiday for Shīʿites), are tolerated only when celebrated locally and on a small scale. Public observance of non-Islamic religious holidays is prohibited, with the exception of 23 September, which commemorates the unification of the kingdom.[57]

Islamic heritage sites

Supplicating Pilgrim at Masjid Al Haram, Mecca

Saudi Arabia, and specifically the Hejaz, as the cradle of Islam, has many of the most significant historic Muslim sites including the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina.[244] One of the King's titles is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the two mosques being Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, which contains Islam's most sacred place, the Kaaba, and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina which contains Muhammad's tomb.[245][246]

However, Saudi Wahhabism is hostile to any reverence given to historical or religious places of significance for fear that it may give rise to 'shirk' (that is, idolatry). As a consequence, under Saudi rule, the Hejaz cities have suffered from considerable destruction of their physical heritage and, for example, it has been estimated that about 95% of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished.[247] These include the mosque originally built by Muhammad's daughter Fatima, and other mosques founded by Abu Bakr (Muhammad's father-in-law and the first Caliph), Umar (the second Caliph), Ali (Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth Caliph), and Salman al-Farsi (another of Muhammad's companions).[248] Other historic buildings that have been destroyed include the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, the house of Abu Bakr, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.[249]

Critics have described this as "Saudi vandalism" and claim that over the last 50 years 300 historic sites linked to Muhammad, his family or companions have been lost.[250] It has been reported that there now are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad.[249]


Saudi Arabian dress strictly follows the principles of hijab (the Islamic principle of modesty, especially in dress). The predominantly loose and flowing, but covering, garments are suited to Saudi Arabia's desert climate. Traditionally, men usually wear an ankle length garment woven from wool or cotton (known as a thawb), with a keffiyeh (a large checkered square of cotton held in place by a cord coil) or a ghutra (a plain white square made of finer cotton, also held in place by a cord coil) worn on the head. For rare chilly days, Saudi men wear a camel-hair cloak (bisht) over the top. Women's clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliques. Women are required to wear an abaya or modest clothing when in public.

  • Ghutrah (Arabic: غتره‎) is a traditional headdress typically worn by Arab men. It is made of a square of cloth ("scarf"), usually cotton, folded and wrapped in various styles around the head. It is commonly worn in areas with an arid climate, to provide protection from direct sun exposure, and also protection of the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand.
  • Agal (Arabic: عقال‎) is an Arab headdress constructed of cord which is fastened around the Ghutrah to hold it in place. The agal is usually black in colour.
  • Thawb (Arabic: ثوب‎) is the standard Arabic word for garment. It is ankle length, usually with long sleeves similar to a robe.
  • Bisht (Arabic: بشت‎) is a traditional Arabic men’s cloak usually only worn for prestige on special occasions such as weddings.
  • Abaya (Arabic: عباية‎) is a women's garment. It is a black cloak which loosely covers the entire body except the head. Some women choose to cover their faces with a niqāb and some do not.

Entertainment, the arts, sport and cuisine

During the 1970s, cinemas were numerous in the Kingdom and were not considered un-Islamic, although they were seen as contrary to Arab tribal norms.[251] During the Islamic revival movement in the 1980s, and as a political response to an increase in Islamist activism including the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the government closed all cinemas and theaters. However, with King Abdullah's reforms from 2005, some cinemas have re-opened.[252]

From the 18th century onward, Wahhabi fundamentalism discouraged artistic development inconsistent with its teaching. In addition, Sunni Islamic prohibition of creating representations of people have limited the visual arts, which tend to be dominated by geometric, floral, and abstract designs and by calligraphy. With the advent of oil-wealth in the 20th century came exposure to outside influences, such as Western housing styles, furnishings, and clothes. Music and dance have always been part of Saudi life. Traditional music is generally associated with poetry and is sung collectively. Instruments include the rabābah, an instrument not unlike a three-string fiddle, and various types of percussion instruments, such as the ṭabl (drum) and the ṭār (tambourine). Of the native dances, the most popular is a martial line dance known as the ʿarḍah, which includes lines of men, frequently armed with swords or rifles, dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines. Bedouin poetry, known as nabaṭī, is still very popular.[57]

Censorship has limited the development of Saudi literature, although several Saudi novelists and poets have achieved critical and popular acclaim in the Arab world – albeit generating official hostility in their home country. These include Ghazi Algosaibi, Abdelrahman Munif, Turki al-Hamad and Rajaa al-Sanea.[253][254][255]

Football (soccer) is the national sport in Saudi Arabia.[citation needed] Scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing and basketball are also popular, played by both men and women, with the Saudi Arabian national basketball team winning bronze at the 1999 Asian Championship.[256][257][258] More traditional sports such as camel racing became more popular in the 1970s. A stadium in Riyadh holds races in the winter. The annual King's Camel Race, begun in 1974, is one of the sport’s most important contests and attracts animals and riders from throughout the region. Falconry, another traditional pursuit, is still practiced.[57]

Saudi Arabian cuisine is similar to that of the surrounding Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, and has been heavily influenced by Turkish, Persian, and African food. Islamic dietary laws are enforced: pork is not consumed and other animals are slaughtered in accordance with halal. A dish consisting of a stuffed lamb, known as khūzī, is the traditional national dish. Kebabs are popular, as is shāwarmā (shawarma), a marinated grilled meat dish of lamb, mutton, or chicken. As in other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, machbūs (kabsa), a rice dish with fish or shrimp, is popular. Flat, unleavened bread is a staple of virtually every meal, as are dates and fresh fruit. Coffee, served in the Turkish style, is the traditional beverage.[57]

Further reading

  • Al Farsy, Fouad (2004) Modernity and Tradition: The Saudi Equation: Panarc International Ltd: ISBN 0-9548740-1-3
  • Gardner, Andrew (2004) The Political Ecology of Bedouin Pastoralism in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Political Ecology Across Spaces, Scales, and Social Groups, Lisa Gezon and Susan Paulson, eds. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press.
  • Jones, John Paul. If Olaya Street Could Talk: Saudi Arabia- The Heartland of Oil and Islam. The Taza Press (2007). ISBN 0-9790436-0-3
  • Lippman, Thomas W. "Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia" (Westview 2004) ISBN 0-8133-4052-7
  • Mackey, Sandra, The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) ISBN 0-395-41165-3
  • Matthew R. Simmons, Twilight in the Desert The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, ISBN 0-471-73876-X
  • Ménoret, Pascal, The Saudi Enigma: A History (Zed Books, 2005) ISBN 1-84277-605-3
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More information

Airports216 (2012)
Borders WithIraq
Borders WithJordan
Borders WithKuwait
Borders WithOman
Borders WithQatar
Borders WithUnited Arab Emirates
Borders WithYemen
Coastline2,640 km
Coordinates25 00 N, 45 00 E
Ethnic GroupArab 90%
Ethnic GroupAfro-Asian 10%
Female Life Expectancy76.42 years (2012 est.)
Female Median Age24.4 years (2012 est.)
Fertility Rate2.26 children born/woman (2012 est.)
GDP$687.7 billion (2011 est.)
GDP$642.3 billion (2010 est.)
GDP$611.1 billion (2009 est.)
GDP Growth7.1% (2011 est.)
GDP Growth5.1% (2010 est.)
GDP Growth0.1% (2009 est.)
Government typemonarchy
Highest PointJabal Sawda' 3,133 m
Land Area2,149,690 sq km
Land boundary4,431 km
LocationMiddle East, bordering the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, north of Yemen
Lowest PointPersian Gulf 0 m
Male Life Expectancy72.37 years
Male Median Age26.7 years
Population Growth1.523% (2012 est.)
Railways1,378 km
Roadways221,372 km
Terrainmostly uninhabited, sandy desert
Total Area2,149,690 sq km
Total Life Expectancy74.35 years
Total Median Age25.7 years
Water Area0 sq km


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Neighboring countries

Important people