Saudi Arabia (Arabic pronunciation: Al-Mamlakah Al-??rab?yah As-Sa??d?yah) is a large country 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 sq km 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.
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 much 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 who 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 orArabia, 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 experience in other areas of the empire, such as Germany and North Africa, but it 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 in the 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 and 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 who wanted control.
Modern day Saudi Arabia was founded by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud 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 became king and his family has continued to rule Saudi Arabia since.
Beginning in 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). Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 80, is the current King of Saudi Arabia, 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. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, 56, has been largely inactive while his deputy, the defense minister and King Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 30, has been a dominant player on multiple fronts, from military campaigns to national development. The Kingdom 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.
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 already initiated. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is spearheading the roadmap, 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.
History & Government Resources
Saudi Arabia is a major economic, religious, geological, and political player in the Middle East and it should come as no surprise that differences can arise between the kingdom and its neighbors on occasion. As of fall 2016, Saudi Arabia is involved in a protracted conflict in Yemen, which has links to its 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 formerly 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, and now some experts are warning of the possibility of an armed conflict. 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.
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 second World War, 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.
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.
International & Regional Issues Resources
PEOPLE & LANGUAGES
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the most recent population estimate is 27,752,316 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.
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. 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 Faisal University, King Fahd University and King Abd al Aziz University. 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 active 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. Citizens and expatriates are eligible for health benefits in Saudi Arabia.
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.
Saudi Arabian culture is rooted in Islam. Music and dress guidelines have been prescribed by the ruling family’s interpretation of Islamic law. Until recently, movies and theater were illegal. 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.
One of the intriguing types of art found in Saudi Arabia is 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.
Each of the cities listed below offer a variety of historical/cultural places of interest in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has many places of historical and cultural interest that are important not only to its own history, but also to Islam. The two holy cites of Mecca and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia.
There are several types of music and dance in Saudi Arabia representative of a strong cultural tradition. The most popular folk music/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, in Saudi Arabia; Al-Namrood, Breeze of the Dying, Creative Waste, Crescent Light and Cribcaged are a few of the bands that have been influential.
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 popular— camel racing, horse racing and falconry. Camel racing is the most unique and people who participate endure long rides across the desert. Winners are given camels or positions as camel trainers.
SAUDI ARABIAN NEWS OUTLETS
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.