(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Saudi Arabia

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East. It occupies four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is bordered on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait; on the west by the Red Sea; on the south by Yemen and Oman; and on the east by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the Persian Gulf.

The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in A.D. 570; his faith, Islam, soon swept the Middle East and North Africa. Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, are located in Saudi Arabia. The modern Saudi state was formed by a series of conquests by Ibn Saud between 1902 and 1932.

The economy of Saudi Arabia is based on its vast petroleum reserves. The country is a leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Land and Resources

Saudi Arabia may be divided into four zones: the Red Sea coastal plain and adjacent mountains; the central plateau, including the Nafud and Dahna deserts; the coastal plain of the Persian Gulf; and the Rub al-Khali desert in the south.

The western coastal plain extends for about 1,450 km (900 mi) along the Red Sea coast. In the north, near the Gulf of Aqaba, mountains reaching 610 m (2,000 ft) separate the coastal plain from the interior highlands. In the south the Asir highlands, rising from the coastal plain, contain the country's highest elevation at Jebel Sawda (3,133 m/10,279 ft).

The central plateau varies in elevation from 1,065 to 1,370 m (3,500 to 4,500 ft); it is about 485 km (300 mi) wide. The plateau is ringed by the Nafud, a red-sand desert to the north; the Dahna, a long narrow belt of sand to the east; and the Tuwayq Mountains to the south.

The eastern coastline extends along the Persian Gulf coast for about 565 km (350 mi) from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates. It is an area of low relief, sedimentary rocks, gravel and sand, and salt flats and mudflats. This area contains the nation's petroleum reserves. The southern desert, the Rub al-Khali ("Empty Quarter"), is the largest continuous sand body in the world. It covers more than 647,000 km2 (250,000 mi2).


The climate is to a large extent determined by the southerly shift in wind patterns during winter months. This brings cyclonic systems and thus rain and cooler weather. Most areas receive less than 100 mm (4 in) of rain per year. In the Rub al-Khali, ten years may pass without precipitation. On the west coast, cyclones provide some additional rainfall. The Asir highlands receive monsoonal rainfall that may exceed 255 mm (10 in) per year. Summers are hot throughout the country, with daytime temperatures often exceeding 49° C (120° F). Winter is cooler, with average temperatures of 23° C (74° F) at Jidda and 14° C (58° F) at Riyadh.

Drainage, Plant and Animal Life, and Resources. 

The country has no permanent rivers, but wadis, or intermittent streams that flow following periods of rainfall, are numerous. Vegetation is scant. It consists mostly of xerophytic (adapted to arid conditions) herbs and shrubs. Animal life includes ibex, wildcats, baboons, wolves, and hyenas in the highlands. Since the 1980s, in an effort to preserve its rapidly-vanishing wildlife, the government has established numerous protected areas. Many species have been rescued from near-extinction through state-of-the-art captive breeding programs. Small birds are found in the oases. Tropical fish inhabit offshore waters. Only about 1% of the land is under cultivation.

Mineral resources are abundant. Saudi Arabia is the Middle East's largest oil producer. It contains more than 25% of the world's known reserves. It also has the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas, after Russia, Iran, and Qatar. Numerous other minerals exist, including gold, silver, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, tungsten, lead, sulfur, phosphate, soapstone, asbestos, and feldspar. Little exploitation has occurred, however. Much of the country's water comes from desalinization plants.


The vast majority of Saudi Arabians are Arabs; they are descendants of the indigenous tribes and still tribally affiliated. Some Iranians live along the Persian Gulf coast. The economy is dependent on foreign labor. In 2003 about 40% of the population consisted of foreigners. Faced with rising Saudi unemployment, the government announced plans to reduce the foreign population by closing additional professions to foreigners and limiting any one country to no more than 10% of the total foreign population. The new regulations were likely to have the most significant effect on the large number of workers from India.

Arabic, the official language, is spoken by all; various dialects exist. English is understood by some residents of the eastern oil-producing areas, Riyadh, and Jidda. About 85% of the population are Sunnite Muslims. Most Sunnites are of the strict Wahhabi sect. About 15% are Shiite Muslims; they are found in the east. Because of the strict adherence to Islam, the sexes are strictly segregated in public. Nevertheless, educational and job opportunities for women are increasing.

The population is highly urbanized. Riyadh (the capital), Jidda, Mecca, al-Taif, Medina, Dhahran, al-Damman, and Hofuf are the major cities. Many rural residents are nomadic Bedouin rather than settled cultivators. The Rub al-Khali and Nafud are virtually uninhabited; most other areas have low population densities. Densities are somewhat higher on the west coast, around Riyadh, and in the eastern oil fields.

The public educational system has expanded greatly in recent years. Schooling is free at all levels. Up to one-third of the public-school curriculum is devoted to religious topics. Students who fail to pass their religious courses are not allowed to advance to the next grade. In recent years, religious schooling has taken an increasingly anti-Western tone. By 2004, however, the education ministry had removed material offensive to Christians and Jews and that which glorified the concept of holy war from Saudi textbooks. It also said that extremists would not be allowed to teach in Saudi schools. The Islamic University (1961) at Medina is one of three universities stressing Islamic studies. Secular universities include King Saud University (formerly Riyadh University, 1957); the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (1963) at Dhahran; and King Abdul-Aziz University (1967) in Jidda. Medical care is free for all citizens, but rural health facilities remain limited.

The Arabian peninsula has a tradition of formal poetry that goes back to the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., before the time of Muhammad. Poetry and storytelling are common folk traditions. The Koran limits public performances of music and dance and prohibits the making of graven images by artists. Hand-lettered Korans are produced with illustrations based on complex geometric and floral designs.

Economic Activity

Prior to the discovery of petroleum in 1936, the economy depended on pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina and on date exports. Saudi Arabia is still among the world's leading producers of dates, but today oil dominates the economy. The government used petroleum profits to create the infrastructure needed to transform Saudi Arabia into a diversified industrial state. Much of this infrastructure—such as water, power, and communications systems—is now aging. Also, the country has not yet been successful in building an economy that will provide enough jobs once the oil runs out.

As oil revenues have declined, emphasis has shifted from construction to production. Between 1981 and 2001, as a result of falling world oil prices, the huge price tag for the Persian Gulf War (estimated at $55 billion), and a rate of population growth that is one of the world's highest, the nation's per-capita income decreased by an estimated 75% in real terms. This posed a threat to political stability in a country where lavish government handouts have been used to guarantee support for the regime. Subsidies for electricity, gasoline, and other services were reduced; the waiting list for an interest-free housing loan increased to 10 years; and military spending and foreign aid were cut in an effort to curb persistent budget deficits. Although Saudi Arabia was still relatively prosperous by world standards, in November 2002 the government announced plans to sell off parts of 20 large state-owned industries in an attempt to reduce its debts.

The situation subsequently improved significantly with a spike in world oil prices, but per-capita oil revenues in 2005 were still about 70% less than they had been in 1980. This was due primarily to population growth. The government has increased spending on health, education, and infrastructure. In 2005 it passed the first across-the-board increase in pay for civil servants in more than two decades.

Because roughly half of the population are under the age of 18, the potential Saudi labor force will increase rapidly in the coming years. The government is trying to create new jobs for Saudi citizens, in part by reducing the foreign labor force and increasing foreign investment. But most industries are capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive. New jobs in the public and private sectors are being created for only about half of the young men currently entering the workforce. The unemployment rate in 2004 was approximately 25%. Many young Saudis, once accustomed to virtually guaranteed lifetime government employment with lavish benefits, remain reluctant to take less-desirable private-sector jobs traditionally performed by foreigners. With questions being raised about when Saudi oil output will peak and begin to decline, the country's long-term outlook remains in question despite its current oil wealth.

Mining and Industry. 

Crude oil and petroleum products provide approximately 75% of government revenue. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest petroleum producer and exporter. It generates more than 9 billion barrels of oil per day (2004), most of which is exported. The Saudi share of ARAMCO (now the Saudi Arabian Oil Company), which produces most of the nation's petroleum, increased from 25% in 1973 to 60% in 1974 to 100% in 1980. In 1993, foreign companies were excluded from drilling and exploration efforts. In 2000, however, the government decided to allow foreign oil companies to invest in developing its oil and natural-gas reserves as part of a general effort to open up the economy. Foreigners are also now permitted to own property outside the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Major industrial centers have been constructed at Jubail on the Persian Gulf and Yanbu on the Red Sea. They are powered by natural gas piped in from the oil fields. In addition to hydrocarbon-based industries such as oil refining, petrochemicals, and fertilizer, manufactures include iron and steel, cement, electrical equipment, and processed foodstuffs.


Despite the lack of water, the government has financed agricultural development to reduce the dependence on imported foods and raise standards of living in rural areas. But many of the country's farms have had to be abandoned when the aquifers beneath them ran dry or became so laden with minerals that they stunted plant growth. Between 1984 and 2003 it was estimated that more than half of the country's nonrenewable fossil water reserves had probably been depleted. The fishing industry is being expanded.

Transportation, Tourism, and Trade. 

Overland transportation has long been hampered by great distances and the hot and arid climate. In recent years the highway network has been greatly expanded. A causeway linking Saudi Arabia to Bahrain was opened in 1986. Air transport and port facilities have also been modernized. When opened in 1983, King Khalid Airport in Riyadh was the largest airport in the world. Threats to oil shipments on the Gulf led to the construction of pipelines linking oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia and Iraq to the Red Sea port of Yanbu. Iraqi oil exports via Saudi Arabia were cut off after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The main border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Iraq was reopened to trade in mid-2002, but this trade was once again disrupted during and after the 2003 Iraq War. In 2005, Saudi Arabia became the 149th member of the World Trade Organization.

Owing to its enormous petroleum reserves, Saudi Arabia plays a pivotal role in the global oil market. Crude oil and petroleum products account for roughly 90% of all Saudi exports. Most go to Japan, the United States (which imports about 18% of its oil from Saudi Arabia), South Korea, and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands of devout Muslim pilgrims have long been another source of foreign exchange. A fledgling tourist industry is now being developed. Saudi Arabia has long provided aid to many poorer Muslim nations in Asia and Africa. In an effort to appease its own religious right and prevent social unrest at home, it aided extremist Muslim regimes abroad such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also allowed disaffected militant Saudi youths to travel abroad to wage "holy war" in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, and elsewhere.


Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. The laws of Islam (Sharia) form the constitution. The king has both executive and legislative power, although an appointed council of ministers performs some of these functions subject to royal veto. Almost all key government positions are held by members of the Saud family, the large, powerful ruling clan. There are no political parties or legislature. Any citizen can submit grievances or requests for aid directly to the king at regular audiences called majalis.

A set of royal decrees announced on Mar. 1, 1992, was intended to modernize and decentralize the political system. Among the announced changes was a new 60-person Consultative Council (inaugurated in December 1993 and expanded to 90 members in 1997 and to 120 members in 2001). A new constitution, a bill of rights, and a new system of selecting successors to the Saudi king were created. In addition, greater autonomy was given to regional and local administrative bodies. Women were allowed to attend meetings of the Consultative Council for the first time in 1999, although they were strictly segregated. A new council representing the major branches of the ruling family held its first meeting in 2000.

Saudi Arabia's judicial system is based on Sharia (Islamic law). In October 2007, King Abdullah announced an overhaul and modernization of the system. The Supreme Judicial Council, which previously had unchecked powers, would now deal only with administrative issues. New appeals courts and specialized general courts were created to bring the system more in line with generally accepted norms in matters of human rights and business.


A nomadic tribal structure has existed over most of the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years. The Minaean kingdom existed in southwestern Arabia during the 12th century B.C. The Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms were loose federations of city-states that lasted until the 6th century A.D. In the northwest, the Hejaz region grew in importance by the end of the 6th century; it served as a link in the trade route from Egypt and the Byzantine Empire to the east.

The birth (570) of Muhammad in Mecca ushered in a new era in world history. Muhammad began preaching in Mecca but by 622 was forced to move to Medina. In 630 he returned to conquer Mecca. Muhammad died in 632, but his followers quickly spread the faith across the Middle East and beyond. The capital of the Islamic caliphate was moved to the more centrally located Damascus by the ruling Umayyads, and by 692, Arabia lost its political importance and became disunited. The Ottoman Empire nominally ruled much of the peninsula from the 16th century until World War I.

Beginning in 1902, Ibn Saud, a follower of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam, conquered and unified the Nejd, Hasa, and Hejaz regions. In 1932 the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created, with Ibn Saud as king. Oil was discovered in 1936, but large-scale drilling did not begin until the end of World War II. Ibn Saud died in 1953. He was succeeded by his son Saud. Saud was deposed in 1964 by the Saudi family council. He was replaced by Faisal, who began modernizing the country. Faisal was assassinated by a nephew in 1975. His successor, Khalid, rejected the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty but followed a moderate policy in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Upon Khalid's death in 1982, Crown Prince Fahd assumed the throne.

Saudi security concerns increased after the Islamic revolution in Iran and the 1979 seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca by Sunni Muslim extremists. Saudi Arabia had supported Iraq against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), but the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was seen as a threat to Saudi security. Saudi Arabia became the base for the U.S.-led multinational force (including 45,000 Saudi troops) that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

In the post–Gulf War period Saudi Arabia faced a revived debate between a powerful elite seeking to preserve the status quo and a new generation of Saudis seeking the modernization and liberalization of Saudi politics and society. A series of royal decrees providing for some political participation by nonroyalty were announced in 1992. An appointed advisory 60-member Consultative Council was inaugurated in December 1993. Domestic discontent was fueled by an economic downturn and opposition to an increasing U.S. military presence. The kingdom's reputation for stability was rocked by terrorist bombing attacks on U.S. facilities in Riyadh (Nov. 13, 1995) and Dhahran (June 25, 1996). An ailing King Fahd handed over management of government affairs to his heir and half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, for six weeks in early 1996. Thereafter, the prince remained responsible for the day-to-day running of the government. The 1990s were also marked by persistent disputes with Yemen over the largely undemarcated border between the two nations. The two countries agreed to end their border dispute in 2000; they signed a contract with a German surveying firm to demarcate the disputed line the following year. In October 1999, as relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran improved, the two nations signed a friendship pact. Saudi Arabia criticized Israel's handling of the Palestinian Arab uprising that erupted in the fall of 2000 after the Israeli-Palestinian peace process broke down.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States were attributed to the Al Qaeda (al-Qaida) terrorist network headed by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden (who had earlier been stripped of his Saudi nationality). Subsequently, the Saudi government severed diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime continued to shelter bin Laden until it was driven from power by the U.S.-led war on terrorism later that year. In December 2001, King Fahd declared that terrorism was prohibited by Islam. At the same time, the Saudi government appealed to the United States to increase pressure on Israel to accept a Palestinian state; it maintained that U.S. support for Israel had helped to inflame anti-U.S. sentiments in the Muslim world prior to the September 11 attacks.

The Saudi government has long walked a tightrope between its country's religious conservatism and its support for the United States. The fact that 15 of the hijackers who carried out the attacks in the United States were Saudis, however, indicated the disastrous, if unintended, consequences of the Saudi government's attempts to appease or export religious extremists critical of both their own government and the United States. In October 2001, in what was seen as one of the most serious threats to the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy in its long history, several prominent Saudi Muslim clerics instructed their followers to wage war on Americans in Saudi Arabia and on the royal family for allowing U.S. troops on holy soil. While most Saudis are religious conservatives, the number of those seeking violent change are a small minority. Nevertheless, declining living standards and the excesses of some of the estimated 30,000 members of the extended royal family have fueled a resurgence of militant Islam and a desire for a more equitable distribution of wealth and a more open political system.

In March 2002, Crown Prince Abdullah put forth a controversial new peace plan proposing that all Arab nations agree in advance to normalize relations with Israel if it withdrew from the territories it had seized in 1967. This plan garnered a great deal of attention as Palestinian-Israeli violence continued to mount and was unanimously approved late in March at an Arab League summit in Beirut. It was significant in that it marked the first time that the Arab world had agreed on a framework for regional peace, although many of its provisions were unacceptable to Israel. The following month, massive demonstrations opposing Israel's reoccupation of a number of areas formerly under Palestinian control were staged in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world. When Abdullah visited the United States and met with U.S. president George W. Bush in late April, he warned that U.S. interests in the Middle East were likely to be severely damaged if the Bush administration did not alter a policy generally viewed as tilting excessively toward Israel. A leaked July Pentagon briefing highly critical of Saudi Arabia further strained relations between the two countries. So did the Saudi government's announcement that it would not allow the United States to use Saudi bases for an attack on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, the Bush administration continued to support the Saudi regime.

The Saudi government publicly opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq launched in March 2003. Although it said that its armed forces would not participate in military action against Iraq under any circumstances, it quietly allowed U.S. forces to use an important command center near Riyadh and coalition aircraft to fly over its long border into Iraq. This was because a U.S. victory would eliminate the need to have U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia to counteract an Iraqi threat. The war also led to a financial windfall for Saudi Arabia as world oil prices and Saudi production increased to make up for lost Iraqi production. After the military campaign in Iraq had largely ended, the United States announced that it would withdraw its forces and aircraft from Saudi Arabia and close its base there. The U.S. forces, whose presence in Saudi Arabia had been used by terrorists to justify attacks on U.S. targets, were transferred to Qatar.

Just before midnight local time on the evening of May 12–13, 2003, a series of coordinated explosions rocked Riyadh. They were the latest and most serious of a string of attacks on Western targets that had prompted the U.S. State Department to warn Americans against nonessential travel to Saudi Arabia. A month after the bombings, the Saudi government announced that it had fired several hundred clerics and suspended more than a thousand others for preaching intolerance. It also introduced regulations to reduce the flow of Saudi money to overseas terrorist groups as part of an extensive effort to distance itself from accusations that it was funding Islamic militants.

In January 2004 the Saudi government announced that it had discovered Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in the Saudi desert. This was the first official confirmation that Al Qaeda had infiltrated Saudi Arabia. A 25-hour terrorist attack in Khobar (the headquarters for many foreign oil companies) in which 22 civilians were killed took place in late May. On June 18, Islamic militants beheaded U.S. engineer Paul Johnson, escalating tensions and causing scores of expatriate workers to leave the country. At that time, it was estimated that 100,000 Westerners, including 20,000 to 30,000 Americans, were working in the petroleum and other industries in Saudi Arabia. Any large-scale exodus would cause severe damage to the Saudi economy.

In response to mounting pressure to introduce democratic reforms, three-stage elections for one-half of the members of municipal councils were held on Feb. 10, Mar. 3, and Apr. 21, 2005. The 2005 polls—the country's first-ever elections since the kingdom was created in 1932—were conducted in accordance with international standards, although women were not allowed to vote and turnout was low. Most seats went to Islamist candidates endorsed by popular conservative clerics, partly because overtly political gatherings were banned. Subsequently, however, the powerful bureaucracy failed to carry out many of the decisions made by the councils. Nationwide elections for 30% of the members of the Consultative Council were to be held within three years.

King Fahd died on Aug. 1, 2005. Crown Prince Abdullah, who had been de facto king for nearly a decade, formally assumed the monarchy. Another of Ibn Saud's many sons, conservative defense minister Sultan ibn Abd al-Aziz, was named crown prince.

The first attempt to launch a suicide bomb attack on a major Saudi oil production facility, which was foiled by security forces, took place on Feb. 24, 2006. If successful, it would have cut Saudi petroleum exports in half for as long as a year. The Saudi government blamed Hezbollah for starting the fighting that led to Israeli strikes against Lebanon in the summer of 2006. It also called for an end to the Israeli offensive, which caused many civilian casualties. That same year, the Saudi government announced that it would construct a fence along its entire border with Iraq to prevent terrorist infiltration from its chaotic neighbor. Saudi Arabia subsequently continued its more aggressive foreign policy, which was designed in part to counter Iran's growing regional influence. In 2007 it brokered a power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that did not require Hamas to abandon violence or recognize Israel; this agreement soon collapsed. U.S. officials also charged that the Saudi government was aiding Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

Ira M. Sheskin

Reviewed by Matthew S. Gordon


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