Saudi Arabia

GEOGRAPHY

Saudi Arabia is a large country located between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Because of its large size, Saudi Arabia borders a number of other countries in the Middle East: Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain (accessible by bridge). It has an area of approximately 1,960,582 square kilometers and occupies an area about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Saudi Arabia’s geography is diverse, with forests, grasslands, mountain ranges and deserts. The climate in Saudi Arabia varies from region to region; temperatures can reach over 110 degrees in the desert during the summer, while in the winter, temperatures in the north and central parts of the country can drop below freezing. The majority of Saudi Arabia is uninhabited due to its extensive harsh, dry desert that experiences wide temperature ranges.

Less than 2% of the land in Saudi Arabia is arable and the percentage is dropping.  Saudi Arabia gets very little rain, averaging only about four inches a year. There are frequent dust and sand storms. Underground water resources are quickly becoming depleted, so the Saudi government is experimenting with desalination plants off its coasts.  There is also a pollution problem due to oil spills.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

The major cities along the coasts and oases inland have been some of the only civilizations in Saudi Arabia for centuries because of the extreme climate and geography of other parts of the country. The major empires throughout time traded with these cities, but few ventured to establish new settlements. In its pre-Islamic history, Arabia was home to distinct nomadic groupings that became more unified when trade routes were established in the province of Hijaz during the Roman Empire in 106 CE. Arabia Petraea, also known as Provincia Arabia or Arabia, was a frontier province of the Roman Empire consisting of the former Nabataean kingdom in Jordan, the southern Levant, the Sinai Peninsula, and the northwestern Arabian peninsula, whose capital was Petra in modern day Jordan. Arabia Petraea did not face the harsh incursions experienced in other areas of the empire, such as Germany and North Africa, but parts of the territory were transferred to the Byzantine Empire in 390 CE (where it was known as Palaestina Salutaris), and later to the Persian Sassanid empire, both of which would be defeated by the spread of Islam thereafter.

In 610 CE, Muhammad, a native of Mecca in western Saudi Arabia, began receiving messages from Allah (“god” in Arabic) through the angel Gabriel in 610 CE. Thus began the third monotheistic faith, Islam, which would have a profound effect on geopolitics not only in Arabia but from Africa to large parts of Europe and Asia. For the next several centuries, Arabia was governed by Islamic rulers and experienced prosperity beginning with the Rashidun Caliphate following Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. The traditional overland trade routes and cities languished as sea-based trade routes flourished. Following the Muslim conquests, an era known as the Golden Islamic Age from the 8th-13th centuries brought major, influential advancements in science, math, philosophy, culture, physics, medicine, language and other areas.

The first Saudi state was founded in 1750 by Muhammad bin Saud, a political leader and Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab, an Islamic leader. The next 150 years was a turbulent time as Saudi Arabia dealt with invasions by the Egyptians and Ottomans and internal conflict with other Arab families vying for control of the land.

The First Saudi State. Credit: Ameen Mohammad. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10683945

Modern day Saudi Arabia was founded by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud (below left in grid) when he recaptured the capital of Riyadh in 1902 from the Al Rashid family, bitter rivals of the House of Saud and rulers of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar in the Najd region. Over the next 30 years he united all the provinces of Saudi Arabia under the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officially became a nation in 1932. While uniting the provinces, Al-Saud also made a series of treaties to establish borders with Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. Border conflicts with Qatar and Yemen were resolved in the early 2000s.  When King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud died in 1953, his son Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became king and his descendants have continued to rule Saudi Arabia since.

Since 1962, the king has also taken on the role of prime minister. The Saudi Arabian people have been instrumental in bringing together allies that formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Current King Salman (below middle in grid) was born on December 31, 1935, and is reported to be the 25th son of King Abdulaziz; Salman and his six brothers make up the Sudairi Seven, the commonly used name for a powerful alliance of brothers who share the same parents (King Abduzaziz and his Hussa Sudairi).   Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud also holds the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the head of the House of Saud. He ascended the throne in January 2015 after his predecessor and half-brother, King Abdullah, passed away. Salman’s nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, 56, was largely inactive as his  deputy and in June 2017, was replaced by the defense minister and King Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32 (below right in grid). MBS, as he is known, has been a dominant player on multiple fronts, from military campaigns to national development. He has openly expressed his support for reform in the kingdom particularly on social issues. In September 2017, an end of the prohibition of women driving in the country was announced. In addition, girls are now able to participate in school sports and there are also plans to allow movies to screen in the country. The crown prince and his brother, the 28-year-old Saudi ambassador to the United States, represent a distinct departure from the more conservative and traditional old guard. With an understanding of the impact decreasing oil reserves will have on the country, the new generation is making changes in order to sustain the country’s economy and influence. Though his father is officially recognized as the king, MBS is generally considered to be the de facto leader of the country.

In April 2016 , Saudi Arabia released its “Vision 2030” development plan, a comprehensive roadmap that includes various economic and social reforms. The vision is set to prepare the kingdom for an era in which it does not rely heavily on oil, which many of its GCC  partners have already initiated. MBS is  spearheading the project  and has indicated that the focus of the National Transformation Plan (NTP) includes asset sales, tax increases, spending cuts, changes to the way the state manages its financial reserves, an efficiency drive, and a much bigger role for the private sector.

The kingdom is an absolute monarchy that uses an Islamic rule of law (Sharia) with some elements of Egyptian, French, and customary law. There are secular codes in use and commercial disputes are handled by special committees. An important element of the government is its consultative assembly, also known as the Majlis Al-Shura, that acts as a formal advisory board to the king. The majlis has limited powers in government but is able to propose laws to the king and the cabinet, and acts as an intermediary between the king and the people. Its 150 members, all of whom are appointed by the king, include approximately 30 women. Women make up 19.9% of the majlis which is slightly higher than the percentage of women (19.5) in the United States Congress.  In addition to the consultative council, Saudi Arabia has a council of ministers known as the Majlis Al-Wezara Al-Saudi., The council of ministers, also called the cabinet, advises the king and facilitates the country’s development. It represents 22 different government ministries and is presided over each week by the king or his deputy. The cabinet is responsible for drafting and overseeing implementation of the internal, external, financial, economic, education and defense policies as well as the general affairs of the state. The cabinet consists of the prime minister (the king), the deputy prime minister (the crown prince), 21 other ministers with portfolios and seven ministers of state.

History & Government Resources

INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES

Saudi Arabia is a major economic, religious and political player in the Middle East, so it should come as no surprise that differences can arise between the kingdom and its neighbors on occasion. Since March 2015  Saudi Arabia has led a military operation in Yemen, a conflict that is tied to the kingdom’s long-term feud with Iran. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has aided the Sunni Yemeni government in airstrikes against the Shi’a Houthi rebels. The Saudi government was especially close to Ali Abdullah Saleh, who served as the Yemeni president for 22 years until he was forced to step down in 2011. There are several reasons why Saudi Arabia has an interest in strengthening Yemen: first, Yemen’s porous border with Saudi Arabia means that members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi’s biggest terrorist threat, can cross the border into the kingdom. Second, the Houthi rebels are backed by Iran, an alliance which is a direct threat to the security of Saudi Arabia.  The kingdom’s long-standing rivalry with Iran would surely gain momentum if Iran had members of its military stationed so close to Saudi land.

Though the Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship has been beset by mutual ambitions for regional dominance, Saudi-Iranian ties were formally severed in January of 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric important to Iran and outspoken about his disapproval of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Shia minorities. This intensified the cold war stance between the two states.. Iran sends arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, fueling the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each country accuses the other of meddling in their country’s internal affairs, which violates a tacit agreement they have held for years. Iran’s involvement in the crises in Syria and Iraq has also been a source of constant frustration to the Saudis because it foments sectarianism and instability.

The United States has been an ally of Saudi Arabia for close to 7 decades despite stark differences in values. Americans are involved in Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism efforts and export of oil. Since the World War II, the United States has aided Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf countries in their defense efforts. Saudi and American armies worked together during the 1991 Gulf War to defeat Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and the US has a long-standing military presence in Saudi Arabia. The attacks on the World Trade Centers on 11 September 2001, in which 15 of the 19 attackers were of Saudi origin, put a significant strain on US-Saudi relations. A bill that would allow families of the victims of the terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi government for any perceived involvement passed through congress on 9 September 2016, bringing harsh rebuke from other Gulf States. Because of the vulnerability of US-Saudi ties, the kingdom has sought with other countries and regions.

Saudi Arabia displays leadership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose aim is “to confront [the Gulf States’] security challenges collectively.” The Kingdom funds the intervention force codenamed the “Peninsula Shield Force,” and is extremely influential in the decisions made in the council because of its large financial stake. OPEC, or the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is another multi-lateral organization in which Saudi Arabia is heavily involved. Due to its vast oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has greatly impacted oil prices in the past. Leaders in the Saudi oil industry believe there should be an output ceiling on the amount of oil all OPEC member states produce, which is at odds with the ideology some other OPEC member states, namely Iran, who believes each country should have a quota system.

As of June 2017, Saudi Arabia along with Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain have severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar over its alleged support of Islamist groups. and irresponsible use of its media platforms.. It remains to be seen how hard-hitting the withdrawal of diplomats and Qatari-owned businesses, the suspension of flights to and from Qatar and the imposition of sanctions will be on the country. The anti-Qatar bloc issued Qatar with a list of demands that the latter rejected as threats to its sovereignty. Attempts to mediate the crisis have been fruitless.

International & Regional Issues Resources

ECONOMY

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PEOPLE & LANGUAGES

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the most recent population estimate is 32,742,664 million. 90% of the population is of Arab descent and the remaining 10% are from Africa or Asia. 30% of the Saudi Arabian population is immigrants. The foreign population typically works domestically and in the oil and service industries. Part of the Arab population is nomadic, while the majority of the population lives in the major cities. Arabic is the official language; however, English is often used in business transactions and taught in secondary school. The human development index ranking for Saudi Arabia is 38. The Human Development Index is a composite statistic that ranks countries into four tiers of human development. A country scores higher HDI when the lifespan is higher, the education level is higher, and the GDP per capita is higher. Saudi Arabia is a relatively young country with a median age of 28.6.

Arab 90%
Africa and Asia 10%

There is a public education system through high school that is available for students to attend. Education is not mandatory, however. There has been a push in the last years to improve the education system and keep children, especially girls, in school. The male literacy rate still exceeds the female, at 97% to 91% respectively. In school, the primary focus is on religious instruction but math, science and other courses are offered. Saudi Arabia has several universities—King Saud University,  King Fahd University of Petrolem and Minerals and King Abd al Aziz University were named the top three universities in the Arab world in 2017. Institutes of higher education for women have multiplied over the last several years and women now exceed men in terms of enrollment and graduation rates throughout the country.

The first mixed-gender university campus in Saudi Arabia, the graduate level King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was established in 2009. The professional world is gradually opening up more opportunities for women, though they currently are inactive in many fields.

Saudi Arabians can receive healthcare from government agencies around the country, as well as with the growing number of private healthcare providers.  The Ministry of Health oversees the public health system, which encompasses almost 2,000 facilities.  They also provide referrals for specialty center like the King Khalid Eye Specialist Hospital. Both citizens and expatriates are eligible for health benefits in Saudi Arabia.

RELIGION

Islam is the official religion in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Most people follow Sunni Islam as interpreted by Muhammed ibn Abd Al Wahhab, a form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. There is a small sect of Shiite Muslims in Northeast Saudi Arabia. There is not a law that states that all people must be Muslim; however, proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal and apostasy (leaving the Islamic faith) is punishable by death. Public practice of any religion other than Islam is illegal and there is no government protection of religious rights. Non-Muslims may not acquire Saudi citizenship. The government discourages celebrations that are not linked to a religious holiday.

Religion Resources

CULTURE

Saudi Arabian culture is rooted in Islam. Music and dress guidelines are prescribed by the ruling family’s interpretation of Islamic law. Because of the pervasiveness of the conservative Wahhabi influence, movies and theater were illegal up until recently. Still, theaters remain officially banned, and only one exists in all of Saudi Arabia. Literature is subject to censorship so it is often printed outside the country. Saudi cultural expression is not as diverse as some other countries due to religious principles. Although women will be able to drive in June 2018, they remain subject to strict guardianship laws that require permission from male relatives for many aspects of daily life.  It is forbidden for unwed or unrelated men and women to interact in public, but many attempt to supersede this rule by claiming relations. Strict codes of conduct are routinely enforced by government-authorized religious police though they were stripped of their arrest powers in 2016.

Food

Saudis enjoy a wide variety of traditional Middle Eastern food items, like rice, tabbouleh, dates, hummus, and Arabic coffee. Saudi Arabian cuisine has a handful of flatbreads unique to its cultural tradition, like hawayij–a spiced bread that includes black peppercorns and turmeric. The country’s reputation for being closed-off belies its cosmopolitan nature; the oil and service industries have long brought a plurality of cultures to the kingdom, and this is also reflected in its cuisine and culture.

Clothing

Saudi men often wear the traditional shumagh (headscarf) and dishdasha or thobe. Women must wear the abaya and hijab in public though some choose to wear the face-covering niqab and gloves to increase modesty.

Art

Saudi Arabia is recognized for its unique rock art.  This ancient art form can be seen on the huge rocks southwest of Riyadh. Little is known about who created these works, or when they were made. Other Saudi Arabian art has been influenced by Bedouin tradition and Islam. Painting and calligraphy are popular art forms. In recent years, painting has grown in popularity. In fact, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of the Asir Province, is an avid painter. Art and design are growing in popularity as fields of study and sources of income for women. Sculptures and fountains are common displays of creativity, particularly in the coastal city of Jeddah. In addition, there are attempts to preserve historical architectural styles that can be seen in the old city sections of urban areas. Another important project has been the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Al-Turaif, a district in the historic city of Ad-Dariyah, and the first capital of the Saudi Dynasty, dating back to the 15th century. In the 18th century, Ad-Dariyah became the capital of an independent Arab State. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Turaif, and other parts of Ad-Dariyah, will be renovated to ensure the public has continued access to its country’s rich heritage.

Art Resources

The Gulf Art Guide focuses on contemporary art throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The site has profiles on art scenes, including galleries and museums, in both Riyadh and Jeddah.

Music

There are several types of music and dance in Saudi Arabia representative of a strong cultural tradition.  The most popular folk music and dance are Al Ardha and Al-Sibha. There has been an emergence of a contemporary music scene, particularly in the rock and heavy metal genres; Al-Namrood, Breeze of the Dying, Creative Waste, Crescent Light and Cribcaged are a few of the more notable bands.

Music Resources

Sites

The two holy sites of Mecca and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia. Each year, Muslims from around the world embark on hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able-Muslims (those not barred by health, money, or other extenuating circumstances) to complete at least once in their lifetime. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, and thus an important life experience for Muslims. Hajj refers to the annual pilgrimage set during a certain time frame, whereas Umrah is the term used for pilgrimage made to Mecca at any time of the year.

Sites Resources

Sports

As in many other countries, football (soccer) is extremely popular. Volleyball is also growing in popularity in Saudi Arabia.  There are also several traditional sports that are still practiced including camel racing, horse racing and falconry. Camel races involve long rides across the desert. Winners are given camels or positions as camel trainers.

Sports Resources

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON SAUDI ARABIA

Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

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The New York Times

News about Saudi Arabia, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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SAUDI ARABIAN NEWS OUTLETS

Al Majalla

Touted as the “Leading Arab Magazine,” the Majalla is managed by the Saudi Research and Publishing Company based in London. English version.

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Al Sharq Al Awsat

Like Al Majalla, Al Sharq Al Awset is a leading English language Arab world newspaper operated by the London-based Saudi Research and Publishing Company.

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Ar Riyadh

This is an initiative maintained by the Saudi Arabian High Commission for the Development of Arriyadh. It is a Riyadh-specific news site. English version.

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Arab News Newspaper

This is an English-language publication with news, current events, and editorials on events in Saudi Arabia, the greater Middle East, and across the globe. Sports, economic developments, lifestyle stories, Islam, and opinions are included in their coverage. Articles can be somewhat dramatized but the stories provide insight into a misunderstood country.

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Saudi Gazette

One of the most widely-read English newspapers in Saudi Arabia, this publication and its respective website offer national and international news stories.

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Saudi In Focus

Current events are covered in a blog-format in both English and Arabic.

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SPA Saudi Press Agency

English version of the official state news service.

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Middle East Eye

Profile: What is the GCC?