Saudi Arabia is a vast kingdom in the Middle East, about one-third the size of the continental United States. Its population, however, is relatively small, for much of Saudi Arabia is desert, poorly suited to human habitation.
Saudi Arabia occupies most of the boot-shaped Arabian Peninsula in southwestern Asia. For much of its history, Arabia was isolated from the rest of the world. It was largely the home of nomadic Bedouin, who crossed the deserts searching for grazing land and water for their herds of camels, goats, and sheep. But two events, many centuries apart, greatly changed the character and fortunes of the region.
In A.D. 610 the prophet Mohammed began to preach the new faith of Islam. Soon an Islamic civilization spread across much of Asia, Africa, and into Europe, where it was halted by Christian armies. The second major event occurred in the 1930’s, when enormous deposits of oil were discovered beneath Arabia’s barren soil. Today the wealth from its vast oil reserves has helped transform Saudi Arabia from a desert kingdom into a modern state.
Back to Top
Saudi Arabia has a population of about 22 million, but about 25 percent of its residents are workers from
foreign countries, known as expatriates. Of the total native population, 90 percent is Arab and 10 percent
Arabic, a member of the Semitic family of languages, is the official language of Saudi Arabia. Its significance
comes from the belief that the Koran (Quran) was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in the Arabic language.
All native Saudi Arabians are Muslims, and 90 percent of them belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. A significant
number of Sunni Muslims conform to Wahhabism, a reform sect that follows strict interpretation of all the laws
of Islam. Ten percent of Saudi Arabians belong to the Shiite branch of Islam.
Islams two major holy sitesMecca and Medinaare situated in Saudi Arabia. Mecca draws about 3 million
Muslim pilgrims from all over the world for the hajj (pilgrimage) to the Kaaba (cube-shaped holy site in Mecca)
each year during the twelfth month in the Islamic calendar. Muslims are required to make this pilgrimage once
during the course of their lives given that they are adult, able-bodied, and have the financial means to do so.
The second holiest Islamic city is Medina. It is the city where the first Islamic state was established. The
Prophet Mohammeds mosque and tomb are located there.
The government of Saudi Arabia provides free schooling from the primary through the university level. Girls and
boys attend separate schools. Universities for men and colleges for women are located in Riyadh, the capital,
and in other major cities such as Jidda, Medina, and Dhahran. An Islamic university in Medina trains religious
scholars and leaders. The College of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran trains technicians and managers for
industry. Many students attend colleges and universities abroad.
Way of Life.
Until fairly recently, most of Saudi Arabias people were nomadic or seminomadic. But the impact of modern
economic, social, and political changes has led to the rapid growth of urban areas. By the year 2000,
approximately 80 percent of the population lived in cities. Many former nomads, who once rode animals for
transportation and lived in tents, now drive cars and live in modern apartments or houses subsidized by
Those who still follow nomadic traditions travel through the desert during the autumn, winter, and spring
months. In the summer, when grass and water are scarce, they may camp near an oasis, wellspring, or other
permanent water source. They visit the towns and villages to sell their livestock, buy supplies, and visit
friends. In late autumn, they resume the cycle.
Traditional village life in Saudi Arabia centers around a marketplace, a mosque (the Muslim house of worship),
and a coffeehouse, where men gather to talk. Houses are usually one or two stories high and are constructed of
sun-dried bricks, stone, or concrete blocks. They are often built around an open courtyard.
Religion and family relationships have always played important roles in Saudi Arabian life, and the people
are proud of their ancestral traditions and codes of honor. A household is typically made up of a husband
and wife, their unmarried sons and daughters, and in some cases married sons with their wives and children.
In the past, parents arranged their childrens marriages, and men often had more than one wife. These
practices, however, are now in decline.
In Saudi Arabia, the most socially conservative of the Arab countries, women are not allowed to drive cars
or travel alone. But educated Saudi Arabian women are gradually moving into public life.
Traditional clothing for men consists of an ankle-length gown called a thobe or jellaba, over
which may be worn an aba, or dark-colored cloak. The head covering is a large square cotton cloth
called a ghutra. It is held in place by a black ropelike hoop called an agal.
In public, Saudi Arabian women cover their faces and wear long dark-colored garments that cloak their bodies
from head to foot. However, at home they often wear western-style clothing.
Back to Top
Saudi Arabia has several distinct geographical regions: the Western Highlands, the Central Plateau, the Northern
Deserts, the Rub
al-Khali, and the Eastern Lowlands.
The Western Highlands lie along the Red Sea. The northern portion is called the Hejaz, and the southern portion
is called the Asir. A narrow coastal plain called the Tihama separates parts of both regions from mountains that
rise to the east. Jabal Sawda, the countrys highest peak, rises 10,279 feet (3,133 meters) in the Asir.
The Central Plateau, called the Nejd, extends eastward from the mountains. This is a relatively level area,
occasionally interrupted by low ranges and cut by wadis, or desert valleys. A chain of fertile oases extends
down the plateau.
About one-third of Saudi Arabia is desert. The Northern Deserts are also known as the An
Southern Saudi Arabia encompasses the Rub
al-Khalior Empty Quarter. Because of the sweltering heat and lack of water, this vast area of continuous
sand is one of the most inhospitable and least known deserts in the world. The An
deserts are connected by the Ad Dahn,
a long, narrow belt of sand ridges.
The Eastern Lowlands, along the Persian Gulf, make up the lowest part of country.
River, Lakes, and Coastal Waters.
Saudi Arabia is bordered by the Red Sea to the west and the Persian Gulf to the east. It has no permanent rivers
or lakes. The many wadis are formed by temporary streams that carry water only after the infrequent rains.
Most of Saudi Arabia has a harsh desert climate, with frequent dust and sand storms and little rainfall. From May
to September, the weather is very hot and dry. Temperatures drop rapidly after sunset, and the nights are relatively
cool. Temperatures are lower along the coasts, but the humidity is higher. Temperatures are less extreme from
October to May.
Saudi Arabia has about one-quarter of the worlds known reserves of oil and natural gas. It also has deposits of
iron ore, gold, and copper.
Back to Top
Saudi Arabia is the worlds leading producer and exporter of petroleum and natural gas. Because petroleum provides
almost all of the countrys income, the economy fluctuates with the rise and fall of world oil prices. In recent
years, to diversify their investments, Saudi Arabians have put much of their wealth into foreign products and
The development of the oil industry and rapid economic growth has drawn many foreigners to Saudi Arabia. Many of
these expatriates are employed by banks, restaurants, hotels, airlines, hospitals, schools, and other service
Most Saudi industries are related to oil, such as the refining of crude petroleum and the manufacture of petrochemicals,
fertilizer, and plastics. The expanding construction industry employs large numbers of workers. Steel mills and
aluminum refineries are also being built. Other notable products include leather goods, clothing, and processed foods.
Only a fraction of Saudi Arabias land is suitable for the cultivation of crops. Because there is a shortage of
fresh water for drinking and irrigation, one of the most important industries is desalinizationthe process
by which seawater is transformed into drinking water and table salt.
Wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, and citrus are the most important crops. As domestic production cannot
meet the needs of the growing population, most foods must be imported.
Back to Top
the capital and largest city, has a population of about 3 million. In the older part of the city, the streets are
narrow. The newer portion of Riyadh is a city of wide avenues lined with modern government buildings and royal palaces.
Saudi Arabias second largest city, has a population of approximately 2 million people. Located on the Red Sea,
Jidda is the countrys center of commerce, cultural activity, and a port of entry for millions of Muslim pilgrims
and other visitors.
the holiest site in all of Islam, is the countrys third largest city, with a population approaching 1 million.
Back to Top
Poetry and storytelling are common Arabian folk traditions, dating back as far as the A.D.
500s, before the time of Mohammed. The Koran limits public performances of music and dance and prohibits artists
from the making of graven images (objects of worship). However, hand-lettered Korans are produced, usually with
illustrations based on complex geometric and floral designs.
Back to Top
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, ruled by a king under the laws of Sharia (Islam). Ulema (Muslim
religious leaders) advise the king, and ministers run the various departments, but major decisions are made by
the king and his Council of Ministers. In 1992, King Fahd created a new governmental body, Shura (the
Consultative Council), which advises the ministers and reviews laws. The chief court is the Supreme Council of
Justice, and the countrys legal system is based on Islamic law.
Back to Top
By the time the prophet Mohammed died in 632, most of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula had embraced Islam.
Within the next 100 years, Islam and Arab political control extended from India to Spain. But Arabia lost its
place as the center of Islam. Its capital shifted to Damascus, located in present-day Syria, and later to
Baghdad, in present-day Iraq. Arabia became a subordinate province, although it remained important as the site
of the holy cities.
After Mohammeds death, no ruler was able to control the entire peninsula. In the 1500s, the coastal regions
acknowledged the authority of the Ottoman Turks, who had established an empire centered in Constantinople (now
Istanbul). The interior of the peninsula remained isolated and under the rule of several tribal leaders.
In the 1700s, the Wahhabi movement, which sought to restore the original teachings of Islam, gained many
Arabian followers. Early in the 1800s this movement came under the leadership of the Saudis, one of the ruling
tribes of region. As Wahhabism increased, the Saudis gained control of central and eastern Arabia. But their
power diminished when the family split into rival factions. The Turks, seeing an opportunity, took over large
areas of Arabia, and the Saudi leaders were forced to flee.
In 1902, Ibn Saud, one of the exiled Saudi leaders, recaptured Riyadh, the tribal seat. By 1926, Ibn Sauds
power extended over almost all of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed,
with Ibn Saud as king. Ibn Saud was succeeded by his sons Saud (in 1953), Faisal (in 1964), Khalid (in 1975),
and Fahd (in 1982).
Saudi Arabias enormous petroleum reserves have made it of vital importance to many industrialized nations,
whose economies depend on oil. When Iraq, Saudi Arabias neighbor to the north, invaded neighboring Kuwait
in 1990, Saudi Arabia became the springboard for the campaign by allied forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Its land border with defeated Iraq remains closed, except to the export of food, medicine, and other
Reviewed by Alam Payind
Middle East Studies Center
The Ohio State University
Back to top
Copyright © 2003 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.