Saudi Arabia

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Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
المملكة العربية السعودية
al-Mamlaka al-ʻArabiyya as-Suʻūdiyya
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Motto"لا إله إلا الله , محمد رسول الله "
"There is no God but Allah: Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" (Shahada)[1]
Anthem"Aash Al Maleek"
"Long live the King"

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(and largest city)
24°39′N 46°46′E / 24.650°N 46.767°E / 24.650; 46.767
Official language(s) Arabic
Spoken languages Arabic, English
Demonym Saudi, Saudi Arabian
Government Islamic absolute monarchy
 -  King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz
 -  Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz
Legislature None - legislation by royal decree. (Consultative Assembly has no legislative powers.)
 -  Kingdom founded 23 September 
 -  Total 2,149,690 km2 (14th)
830,000 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 0.7
 -  estimate 27,136,977 (46th)
 -  Density 12/km2 (215th)
31/sq mi
GDP (PPP) estimate
 -  Total $618.744 billion[2] 
 -  Per capita $23,701.260[2] 
GDP (nominal) estimate
 -  Total $438.009 billion[2] 
 -  Per capita $16,778.112[2] 
HDI  increase 0.752[3] (high) (55th)
Currency Saudi Riyal (SR) (SAR)
Time zone AST (UTC+3)
 -  Summer (DST) (not observed) (UTC+3)
Drives on the Right
Internet TLD .sa, السعودية.
Calling code +966

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Arabic: المملكة العربية السعوديةAl Mamlaka al Ê»Arabiyya as Suʻūdiyya), commonly known as Saudi Arabia/[unsupported input][unsupported input]s[unsupported input]di [unsupported input][unsupported input]r[unsupported input]bi[unsupported input]/ or /[unsupported input][unsupported input]s[unsupported input]di [unsupported input][unsupported input]r[unsupported input]bi[unsupported input]/, Arabic: العربية السعودية‎Al Ê»Arabiyya as Suʻūdiyya) is the third-largest country in the Middle East by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the third-largest Arab country. It is bordered by Jordan and Iraq on the north and northeast, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on the east, Oman on the southeast, and Yemen on the south. It is also connected to Bahrain by the King Fahd Causeway. The Persian Gulf lies to the northeast and the Red Sea to its west. Saudi Arabia has an estimated population of 25.7 million of which 5.5 million are non-Saudis,[4] and its size is approximately 2,149,690 square kilometres (830,000 sq mi).

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud (known in the West as Ibn Saud) in 1932, although the conquests which eventually led to the creation of the Kingdom began in when he captured Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the Al Saud. Saudi Arabia's government takes the form of an Islamic absolute monarchy. The kingdom is sometimes called "The Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam. The two mosques are Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Masjid Al-Nabawi (in Medina).

Saudi Arabia has the world's largest oil reserves and is the world's largest oil exporter. Oil accounts for more than 90% of exports and nearly 75% of government revenues, facilitating the creation of a welfare state.[5][6] However, human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of human rights in the country.


Following the unification of the Kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd, the new country was named المملكة العربية السعودية (transliterated as "al-Mamlaka al-ʻArabiyya as-Suʻūdiyya") by royal decree on 23 September by its founder, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. This is normally translated as "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" in English,[7] although it literally means "the Saudi Arab Kingdom".[8]

The word "Saudi" is derived from the element "as-Suʻūdiyya" in the Arabic name of the country, which is a type of adjective known as a nisba, formed from the King's dynastic name of Al Saud (آل سعود) . Its inclusion indicated that the Kingdom was to be considered the possession of the royal family.[9] "Al Saud" is a type of Arabic name, known as a nisbat, formed by adding the word "Al" (not to be confused with the definite article "al-") 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).[7]

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

In pre-Islamic Arabia, apart from a small number of urban trading settlements, such as Mecca and Medina, located in the Hejaz in the west of the peninsula, most of what was to become Saudi Arabia was populated by nomadic tribal societies or uninhabitable desert.[10] The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was born in Mecca in about 570. 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 to India) in a matter of decades. In so doing, Arabia soon became a politically peripheral region of the Islamic world as the focus shifted to the more developed conquered lands.[11][12] 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.[13][14]

In the 16th century, the Ottomans added the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts (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.[15] 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 ibn Saud, founder of the dynasty, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab,[16] the founder of the Wahhabi movement.[17] This alliance formed in the 18th century provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion and remains the basis of Saudi Arabian dynastic rule today.[13][18] 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,[19] but was destroyed by 1818 by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha.[13][18] 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.[13][13][18][20]

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 (including the Al Saud who had returned from exile in 1902) with the Sharif of Mecca having pre-eminence and ruling the Hejaz.[13][15][21] In 1916, with the encouragement and support of Britain (which was fighting the Ottomans in the First World War), the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire to create a united Arab state.[13][22] Although the Arab Revolt of to failed in its objective, Arabia was freed from Ottoman suzerainty and control by the latter's defeat in the First World War.[22]

File:Arabië kaart.gif
Arabia about 1923. Expandable map: Abdul Aziz's domain is in blue with dates of conquest. The Kingdom of the 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 Al 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. The main weapon for achieving these conquests was the Ikhwan, the Wahhabist-Bedouin tribal army led by Sultan Bin Najad Al Otaibi and Faisal al-Dwaish.[20][23][24] From the Saudi core in Nejd, and aided by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the Ikhwan had completed the conquest of the territory that was to become Saudi Arabia by the end of 1925. On 10 January Abdul-Aziz declared himself King of the Hejaz and, then, on 27 January he took the title of King of Nejd (his previous title having been 'Sultan'). 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, performing several Ikhwan raids. 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.[25]

In 1932, the two kingdoms of the Hejaz and Nejd were united as the 'Kingdom of Saudi Arabia'.[20][23]

From the foundation of the State to the present

Abdul Aziz bin Saud first king of Saudi Arabia

Abdul Aziz's military and political successes were not mirrored economically until vast reserves of oil were discovered in in the Al-Hasa region along the coast of the Persian Gulf. Development began in and by production was in full swing. Oil has provided Saudi Arabia with economic prosperity and a great deal of political leverage in the international community. The sudden wealth from increased production was a mixed blessing. Cultural life rapidly developed, primarily in the Hejaz, which was the centre for newspapers and radio, but the large influx of foreigners increased the pre-existing propensity for xenophobia. At the same time, the government became increasingly wasteful and lavish. Despite the new wealth, extravagant spending led to governmental deficits and excessive foreign borrowing in the 1950s.[14][26][27]

King Saud succeeded to the throne on his father's death in 1953. However, by the early 1960s 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. Faisal was assassinated in by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musa'id.[14]

Faisal was succeeded by his half-brother King Khalid during whose reign economic and social development continued at an extremely rapid rate, revolutionizing the infrastructure and educational system of the country; in foreign policy, close ties with the US were developed. In 1979, two events occurred which the Al Saud perceived as threatening the regime, 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 riots in the region in 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. Part of the response of the royal family was to enforce a much stricter observance of Islamic and traditional Saudi norms in the country (for example, the closure of cinemas) and to give the Ulema a greater role in government. Neither entirely succeeded as Islamism continued to grow in strength.[14][26][27][28]

Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait, was launched from Saudi territory and Saudi forces participated in the operation

Khalid was succeeded by his brother King Fahd in 1982, who maintained Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy of close cooperation with the United States and increased purchases of sophisticated military equipment from the United States and Britain. In the 1970s and ’80s, the country had become the largest oil producer in the world. Oil revenues were crucial to Saudi society as its economy was changed by the extraordinary wealth it generated and which was channeled through the government. Urbanization, mass public education, the presence of numerous foreign workers, and access to new media all affected the Saudi population and their values. While society changed profoundly, political processes did not. Real power continued to be held almost exclusively by the royal family, leading to discontent among many Saudis who began to look for wider participation in government.[14]

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Saudi Arabia joined the anti-Iraq Coalition and King Fahd, fearing an attack from Iraq, invited American and Coalition soldiers to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. This action was one of the issues that has 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. But also many Saudis who did not support the Islamist terrorists were deeply unhappy with the government stance.[29]

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 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 dilemma 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].”[14]

In 1995, Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke and the Crown Prince, Prince Abdullah assumed day-to-day responsibility for the government, albeit his authority was hindered by conflict with Fahd's full brothers, the Sudairi 'clan'. Abdullah continued the policy of mild reform and greater openness, but in addition, adopted a foreign policy distancing the kingdom from the US. In Saudi Arabia refused to support the US and its allies in the invasion of Iraq.[14] However, terrorist activity increased dramatically in with the Riyadh compound bombings and other attacks, which prompted the government to take much more stringent action against terrorism.[28]

In King Fahd died and his half-brother, Abdullah ascended to the throne. The king subsequently introduced a new program of moderate reform. The country’s continued reliance on oil revenue was of particular concern, and among the economic reforms he introduced were limited deregulation, 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 Abdullah introduced a series of governmental changes to the judiciary, armed forces, and various ministries to modernize these institutions. Notable among his decisions were the replacement of senior individuals within the judiciary and the Mutaween (religious police) with more moderate candidates and the appointment of the country’s first female deputy minister.[14][30]

In early 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.[31] Saudi Arabia has also been affected by its own protests.[32] 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 the writing off 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.[33]


Government and political process

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, although, according to the Basic Law of Government adopted by royal decree in 1992, the king must comply with Sharia (that is, Islamic law) and the Qur'an. No political parties or national elections are permitted and according to The Economist's Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated.[9][34]

The monarchy and the royal family

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The Basic Law specifies that the king must be chosen from among the sons and grandsons of the first king, Abdul Aziz Al Saud and the succession to the throne is determined by the royal family, with the subsequent approval of religious leaders (the ulema). In an "Allegiance Commission", comprising Abdul Aziz's surviving sons plus grandsons or great-grandsons representing each branch of his descendants, was established as the representative body of the royal family to choose the heir apparent (the Crown Prince).[9]

The king combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions and royal decrees form the basis of the country's legislation. 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 ministers (usually the first and second in line to the throne respectively) and 22 ministers with portfolio and seven ministers of state, two of whom have special responsibilities. The king makes appointments to and dismissals from the Council, which is responsible for such executive and administrative matters as foreign and domestic policy, defense, finance, health, and education, administered through numerous separate agencies. A 150-member Consultative Assembly, appointed by the King, although not a legislature can propose legislation to the King.[9][35][36][37]

Although, in theory, the country is an absolute monarchy, in practice major policy decisions are made outside these formal governmental structures and not solely by the king. Decisions are made by establishing a consensus within the royal family (comprising the numerous descendants of the kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz). In addition, the views of important members of the Ulema (religious scholars), leading tribal sheikhs, and heads of prominent commercial families are considered. Participation in the political process is, therefore, restricted to a relatively small number of individuals and the Saudi public as a whole is not permitted to participate, nor is it reported by the Saudi media. However, all males of full age have the theoretical right to petition the King directly through the traditional tribal meeting known as a 'diwan'. In many ways the approach to government differs little from the traditional system of tribal rule.[9]

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former ambassador to the US, and son of Crown Prince Sultan. Commenting on allegations of royal corruption, Prince Bandar said : "If you tell me that building this whole country ... out of $400bn, that we misused, or got, $50bn, I'll tell you, 'Yes. So what?'."[38]

The royal family dominates government and politics in Saudi Arabia. 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.[39][40] Though some have put the family's numbers as high as 25,000,[41] most estimates place their numbers in the region of 7,000,[42] with most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of King Abdul Aziz.[43] The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal family, as are most of the thirteen regional governorships. Long term political and government appointments, such as those of King Abdullah, who had been Commander of the National Guard since (until when he appointed his son to replace him), Crown Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence & Aviation since 1962, Prince Nayef who has been the Minister of Interior since 1975, Prince Saud who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since and Prince Salman, who has been Governor of the Riyadh Region since 1962, have resulted in the creation of fiefdoms where senior princes have, it is reported, often co-mingled their personal wealth with that of their respective domains.[7][44][44][45][45][46][47]

The government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi royal family have been subject over many years to frequent allegations of extensive and systemic corruption originating, in part, from a lack of distinction between the personal interests and wealth of the royal family and that of the Saudi state. In large part, the Al Saud have regarded the state as 'family property' - 'Saudi Arabia', after all, having been named for the family.[46][47][48][49][50][51][52][53][54] Transparency International in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 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").[55]

The most widely reported example of Saudi royal family corruption relates to the Al-Yamamah arms deal. In and the British newspaper The Guardian and the BBC respectively claimed that BAE Systems had engaged in the payment of bribes to members of the Saudi royal family in relation to its 'Al-Yamamah' contract.[56][57] These allegations ultimately led to separate investigations by the UK's Serious Fraud Office and the United States Department of Justice.[58][59] Although the UK investigation was halted following Saudi political pressure,[60][61][62] the US investigation resulted in BAE Systems being fined $400 million under a plea bargain arrangement in March.[63]

King Abdullah, since his accession in has attempted to modernise and reform the Saudi government by making significant personnel changes in government (including making the first appointment of a woman to a ministerial post[64]) and seemingly adopting a more open approach.[30] This has, reportedly, been opposed by the Sudairi faction in the royal family.[65][66] However, the changes have been criticized as being too slow or merely cosmetic.[67] The question of reform remains a significant issue within the royal family and it is reported that it continues to play a major part in the internal politics of the succession.[66]

The political role of the Ulema and the Al ash-Sheikh

According to the Saudi Ministry of Information, because Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, "it is ... inevitable that the Ulema should play a key role within the Kingdom. They play an influential part in [a number of] fields of government". These include the judicial system (the Ulema being the interpreters and dispensers of Sharia law), education and scientific research (through control of the education system and the Ministry of Education).[68]

The ulema, the religious and clerical leadership, are led by the Al ash-Sheikh, who are the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab founder of the dominant Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. The alliance between the Al-Saud (the royal family) and the Al ash-Sheikh has existed since the First Saudi State and is based on a power-sharing understanding whereby the Al-Saud have political predominance but will support and propagate the Al ash-Sheikh's Wahhabism while the Al ash-Sheikh have predominance in religious matters but will support the Al-Saud's rule.[69][70][71]

Despite this long-standing balance of power, the ash-Sheikh family, and the Ulema as a whole, have in recent years exercised influence beyond purely religious matters and have had decisive involvement in key political decisions, for example the imposition of the oil embargo in 1973 or the invitation to foreign troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990.[69] Prior to the 1980s, the influence of the Ulema had shown signs of diminishing as Saudi society gradually began to liberalize. However, following the shock of the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamist radicals, the royal family decided to co-opt their radical religious critics by greatly increasing the power and authority of the Ulema - although it has been reported that King Abdullah since his accession in has taken steps to reduce the influence of the Ulema.[72]

The current leader of the Al ash-Sheikh is Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia[73]

Politics, opposition to the regime and Islamist terrorism

As noted above, there are no recognized political parties or national elections, except for one local election, which was held in when participation was reserved for male citizens only. Participation in the political process is limited to a relatively small segment of the population and the political process is centred on the royal family, and to some extent, the traditional tribal structure. The extensive royal family is the main forum for politics in the country as it is divided by political factions and clan loyalties - the most prominent faction being the Al Fahd, previously known as the 'Sudairi Seven' (members of which include the late King Fahd and the current Crown Prince) It is reported that, with the current generation of senior princes of the royal family likely to die out in the next few years, there is on-going faction-fighting over the succession to the crown amongst the next generation of the family. Tribal identity remains strong and, outside of the royal family, political influence is frequently determined by tribal affiliation. Tribal sheikhs maintain a considerable degree of influence over local and national events. The tribal hierarchy in the country is complex, made up of a handful of very influential major tribes and a number of smaller, less-influential ones.[9][74][75][76][77]

Additionally, outside of this polity, the rule of the Al Saud faces political opposition from four sources: Sunni Islamist activism; liberal pro-democracy critics; the Shi'ite minority – particularly in the Eastern Province; and long-standing tribal and regional particularistic opponents (for example in the Hejaz).[78] 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.[28] However, open protest against the government, even if peaceful, is not tolerated. On 29 January 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.[79] Police stopped the demonstration after about 15 minutes and arrested 30 to 50 people.[80]

As part of the wave of protests and revolutions affecting the Middle East and North Africa in early a number of incidents and protests occurred in Saudi Arabia. See Saudi Arabian protests for further details.


The Basic Law, in 1992, declared that Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the progeny of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. It also declared the Qur'an as the constitution of the country, governed on the basis of Islamic law.[81]

As part of his broader reforms of the Saudi government, King Abdullah initiated a number of reforms of the Saudi Court system in the Law of the Judiciary with the aim of making it more efficient and independent.[82] Saudi administration of justice has been criticized as 'slow and arcane' and 'one of the most frustrating barriers to doing business effectively in Saudi Arabia'.[83]

Criminal cases are tried under Sharia courts in the country. These courts exercise authority over the entire population. Cases involving small penalties are tried in Shari'a summary courts. More serious crimes are adjudicated in Shari'a courts of common pleas. Courts of appeal handle appeals from Shari'a courts.[81]

Civil cases may also be tried under Sharia courts with one exception: Shiites may try such cases in their own courts. Other civil proceedings, including those involving claims against the Government and enforcement of foreign judgments, are held before specialized administrative tribunals, such as the Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and the Board of Grievances.[81]

The king acts as the highest court of appeal and has the power to pardon.[cn]

Main sources of Saudi law are Hanbali fiqh as set out in a number of specified scholarly treatises by authoritative jurists, other schools of law, state regulations and royal decrees (where these are relevant), and custom and practice.[84]

The Saudi legal system prescribes capital punishment or corporal punishment.Theft is punishable by amputation of the hand, although it is rarely prescribed for a first offense. The courts may impose other harsh punishments, such as floggings, for less serious crimes against public morality such as drunkenness.[85] Murder, accidental death and bodily harm are open to punishment from the victim's family. Retribution may be sought in kind or through blood money. The blood money payable for a woman's accidental death is half as much as that for a Muslim male.[86] This is mainly because Islamic law requires men to be providers for their families, and therefore to earn more money in their lifetimes. The blood money for a man would be expected to sustain his family, at least for a short time.

Money payable for the death of a Christian or Jewish male is also half that for a Muslim male; all others (e.g. Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs) are valued at 1/16.[cn]

Slavery was legal in Saudi Arabia until it was abolished in 1962.[87][88]

The freedom of women is seriously restricted in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to travel without the permission of their closest male relative, who may be a son or a younger brother. Women who are divorced, return under their father's authority and like any other adult woman is denied the right to live on her own and to marry of her free will.[89] Furthermore, the Saudi government considers filial "disobedience" as a crime for which women have been imprisoned or have lost custody of their child.[89] Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving in major cities and towns, although they may drive in small towns and villages or in private housing compounds—some of which extend to many square miles.[90] The Saudi Shura Council recommended in that the ban be relaxed, allowing young women to drive subject to some restrictive conditions.[91]

In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by a range of penalties, including corporal punishment and the death penalty.[92]

The Government views its interpretation of Islamic law as its sole source of guidance on human rights. In the Government approved the October legislation, which the Government claimed would address some of its obligations under the Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.[81]

The first independent human rights organization, the National Society for Human Rights was established in. The Saudi Government is an active censor of Internet communication within its borders.[93] A Saudi blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, was jailed for five months in solitary confinement in December, without charges, after criticizing Saudi religious, business and media figures.[94]

Foreign relations

According to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi foreign policy is focused on co-operation with the Persian Gulf states, the unity of the Arab world, solidarity with Muslim countries, and support for the UN.[95] In practice, the main concerns in recent years have been relations with the US, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Iraq, the threat from Iran, the effect of oil pricing, and increasing the influence in the Muslim world of the Wahhabi form of Islam through overseas donations. Additionally, relations with the West have been complicated by the perception that Saudi Arabia is a source of Islamist terrorism.[9][37]

Saudi Arabia joined the UN in and is a founder member of the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, Muslim World League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It plays a prominent role in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in joined the World Trade Organisation. As announced at the Arab League summit, Saudi Arabia is intending to participate in the Arab Customs Union to be established in and an Arab common market to be established by.[37][96]

As a founding member of OPEC, its oil pricing policy is generally to stabilize the world oil market and try to moderate sharp price movements. Saudi Arabia's long-term policy direction has been to preserve a stable and long-term market for its vast oil reserves so as to not jeopardise the Western economies. These are seen as protecting the value of the country's financial assets as well as providing political and military support for the Saudi government.[37] The major exception to this occurred during the 1973 oil crisis when Saudi Arabia, with the other Arab oil states, used an embargo on oil supplies to pressure the US to stop supporting Israel.[97]

Finsbury Park Mosque, London, built with Saudi government money from the overseas aid program; headquarters of Islamist extremist cleric Abu Hamza until[98]

Saudi Arabia is one of the largest contributors of development aid, both in volume of aid and in the ratio of aid volume to GDP. As of the country has donated £49 billion in aid in the previous three decades, but exclusively to Muslims (except for one donation amounting to the equivalent of £250,000)[99][100][101] This aid has contributed to the spreading of Islam of the sort found in Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism) rather than fostering the traditions of the receiving ethnic groups. The effect has been the erosion of regional Islamic cultures. Examples of the acculturizing effect of Saudi aid can be seen among the Minangkabau and the Acehnese in Indonesia, as well as among the people of the Maldives.[102][103][104][105] The Wahhabi form of Islam is also perceived in the West as being a source of Islamist extremism[106] – see below.

With regard to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia believes it is "an Arab and Islamic duty" to support the Palestinian cause and it "has issued numerous statements condemning Israeli aggressions against the Palestinian people and against the holy sites".[95] The main plank of Saudi policy on the issue remains the Arab Peace Initiative, first launched by King Abdullah, as the then Crown Prince, in: Arab governments would offer "normal relations and the security of Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the return of Palestinian refugees."[37]

Saudi Arabia has long been seen as the most pro-Western of the Arab States and a close ally of the US, particularly under King Fahd. In 1990-91, Saudi Arabia, fearing attack from Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait, played an important role supporting military action by the US and its allies. Relations with those countries in the Arab world which opposed the war became very strained. Likewise, the policy prompted the development internally of an Islamist extremist response. Saudi Arabia repaid the debt it owed the countries whose forces had defeated Iraq, particularly the United States, in cash (for example, $15 billion to the US alone) and by purchasing large quantities of weapons from American companies and by supporting the U.S.-led peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It also followed the US lead in its attitude towards Iran, which was, in any event, seen as trying to export its Islamic revolution to other countries in the region with significant Shiite populations, including Saudi Arabia.[9][37]

Following King Fahd's stroke in 1995, Abdullah, then Crown Prince, assumed responsibility for foreign policy. A marked change in US-Saudi relations occurred, as Abdullah sought to put distance between his policies and the unpopular pro-Western policies of King Fahd. Abdullah took a more independent line from the US and concentrated on improving regional relations, particularly with Iran. Several long-standing border disputes were resolved, including significantly reshaping the border with Yemen. The new approach resulted in increasingly strained relations with the US.[9]

Osama bin Laden (right) with a journalist (Hamid Mir) in 1997

In Abdullah's new policy was reflected in the Saudi government's refusal to support or to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Some US critics saw this as an attempt by the royal family to placate the kingdom’s Islamist radicals. That same year Saudi and U.S. government officials agreed to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Saudi soil. Since ascending to the throne in King Abdullah has followed a more activist foreign policy and has continued to push-back on US policies which are unpopular in Saudi Arabia (for example, refusing to provide material assistance to support the new Iraqi government).[9][72] However, increasingly, in common with the US, fear and mistrust of Iran is becoming a significant factor in Saudi policy. In the whistle blowing website Wikileaks disclosed various confidential documents revealing that King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran in order to "cut off the head of the snake".[107]

Relations with the US and other Western countries have been further strained by the perception that Saudi Arabia has been a source of Islamist terrorist activity, not just internally, but also world-wide. Osama bin Laden and 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals[108] and former CIA director James Woolsey described Saudi Arabian Wahhabism as "the soil in which Al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing."[106] The US perception has been that the royal family, through its long and close relations with Wahhabi clerics, had laid the groundwork for the growth of militant groups like al-Qaeda and that after the attacks had done little to help track the militants or prevent future atrocities.[9]

Following the wave of protests and revolutions affecting the Arab world in early 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.[31]


The Saudi military consists of the Saudi Army, the Royal Saudi Air Force, the Royal Saudi Navy, the Royal Saudi Air Defense, the Saudi Arabian National Guard - the 'SANG' (an independent military force), and paramilitary forces, totaling nearly 200,000 active-duty personnel. In the armed forces had the following personnel: the army, 75,000; Royal Saudi Air Force, 18,000; air defense, 16,000; Royal Saudi Navy, 15,500 (including 3,000 marines); and the SANG had 75,000 active soldiers and 25,000 tribal levies.[109] In addition, there is a 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 counter-balance 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.[110]

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. 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. 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.[109]

The United States sold more than $80 billion in military hardware between and to the Saudi military.[111] In comparison, the Israel Defense Forces received $53.6 billion in US military grants between and.[112] On 20 October 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.[113] The U.S. was keen to point out that the arms transfer would increase "interoperability" with U.S. forces. In the 1990-1991 Gulf War, having U.S.-trained Saudi forces, along with military installations built to U.S. specifications, allowed the American armed forces to deploy in a comfortable and familiar battle environment. This new deal would increase these capabilities, as an advanced American military infrastructure is about to be built.[114] The US government is also in talks with Saudi Arabia about the potential sale of advanced naval and missile-defense upgrades worth up to tens of billions of dollars.[115]

The UK has also been a major supplier of military equipment to Saudi Arabia since 1965.[116] 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 and thought to be worth a further £40billion.[117]


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The Kingdom occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian peninsula, lying between latitudes 16° and 33° N, and longitudes 34° and 56° E. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen signed an agreement to settle their long-running border dispute.[118] A significant length of the country's southern borders with the United Arab Emirates and Oman are not precisely defined or marked, so the exact size of the country remains unknown. The Saudi government's estimate is 2,217,949 km2 (856,355 sq mi). Other reputable estimates vary between 1,960,582 km2 (756,985 sq mi)[119] and 2,240,000 km2 (864,869 sq mi). The kingdom is commonly listed as the world's 14th largest state.

The Arabian Desert. Ecoregions as delineated by the WWF. Satellite image from NASA. The yellow line encloses the ecoregion called "Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands",[120] and two smaller, closely related ecoregions called "Persian Gulf desert and semi-desert"[121] and "Red Sea Nubo-Sindian tropical desert and semi-desert".[122] National boundaries are shown in black.

Saudi Arabia's geography is dominated by the Arabian Desert and associated semi-desert and shrubland – see satellite image to right – which is, in fact, a number of linked deserts. Among them is the world’s largest sand area, the Rub' al Khali (“Empty Quarter”), which dominates the southern part of the country and covers more than 250,000 square miles (647,500 square km). It slopes from above 2,600 feet (800 metres) near the border with Yemen northeastward down almost to sea level near the Persian Gulf. A smaller sand area of about 22,000 square miles (57,000 square km), called Al-NafÅ«d, is in the north-central part of the country. A great arc of sand, Al Dahna, almost 900 miles (1,450 km) long but in places only 30 miles (50 km) wide, joins Al-NafÅ«d with the RubÊ¿ al-Khali. There are virtually no permanent rivers or lakes in the country, but wadis are numerous. The soil generally is poorly developed and there are large areas covered with pebbles of varying sizes. The few fertile areas are to be found in the alluvial deposits in wadis, basins, and oases.[9]

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. The plateau's elevation is about 4,500 feet (1,370 metres) in the west and about 2,500 feet (760 metres) in the east. As the plateau slopes down to the Persian Gulf, there are numerous salt flats (sabkhahs) and marshes. In the north, the western highlands are upward of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) above sea level, decreasing slightly to 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) in the vicinity of Medina and increasing southeastward to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). On the Red Sea coast, the narrow coastal plain, known as the Tihamah is virtually nonexistent in the north and widens slightly toward the south. An imposing escarpment runs parallel to the Red Sea but is interrupted by a gap northwest of Mecca. The southwest province of Asir is mountainous, and contains Mount Sawda, which is generally considered the highest point in the country. Estimates of its elevation range from 10,279 to 10,522 feet (3,133 to 3,207 metres).[9]

The Nejd landscape: desert and the Tuwaiq Escarpment near Riyadh

Climate and bio-diversity

Except for the south western 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 45°C, but can be as high as 54°C. In the winter the temperature rarely drops below 0°C. In the spring and autumn the heat is temperate, temperatures average around 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 300 millimetres of rainfall occurs during this period, that is about 60 percent of the annual precipitation.[123]

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 poisonous, 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.[9]


Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 provinces[124] (manatiq, – singular mintaqah). The provinces are further divided into governorates.

Province Capital Map
Al Bahah (or Baha) Al Bahah city
Provinces of Saudi Arabia
Northern Border 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 Mecca
Jizan Jizan city


Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of petroleum in the world

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 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.[125]

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.

File:Ghawar Field.jpg
The Ghawar Oil Field in the Eastern Province, the largest oil field in the world

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 to $6,300 in 1998.[126] Recent oil price increases have helped boost per capita GDP to $17,000 in dollars, or about $7,400 adjusted for inflation.[127]

Oil price increases of have triggered a second oil boom, pushing Saudi Arabia's budget surplus to $28 billion (110SR billion) in. Tadawul (the Saudi stock market index) finished 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.[cn] 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 and 1988.[128] Matthew Simmons has suggested that Saudi Arabia is greatly exaggerating its reserves and may soon show production declines (see peak oil).[129]

Saudi Arabia is one of only a few fast-growing countries in the world with a relatively high per capita income of $20,700. Saudi Arabia will be launching six "economic cities" (e.g. King Abdullah Economic City)[130] which are planned to be completed by. 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 to $33,500 in.[131] 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.[132]


Population and language

Demographics of Saudi Arabia, FAO data,; Number of inhabitants in thousands
Saudi Arabia population density (person per Km2).

Saudi Arabia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Its population as of July is estimated to be 25,731,776 including 5,576,076 non-nationals[4] 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.[133] Slavery was officially abolished in 1962.[87][88] The birth rate is 29.56 births per 1,000 people and the death rate is 2.62 deaths per 1,000 people. Some cities and oases have densities of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer (2,600/sq mi).

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 Gulf Arabic (about 200,000 speakers). The large expatriate communities also speak their own languages, the most numerous being Tagalog (700,000), Urdu (380,000), and Egyptian Arabic (300,000).[134]

About 31% of the population is made up of foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia.[135] A large portion of the expatriate population is South Asian or of South Asian ancestry, including Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. In addition, there are some non-Arab citizens and of mixed ancestry A reference would be appreciated. According to a random survey, most would-be Saudis come from the Subcontinent and Arab countries.[136] Many Arabs from nearby countries are employed in the kingdom. The government estimated there were 6.5 million legal workers in the country, accompanied by approximately 1.5 million family members.[137] Indian: 1.3 million, Pakistani: 900,000, Bangladeshi: 400,000, Filipino: 500,000, Egyptian: 900,000, Yemeni: 800,000, Indonesian: 250,000, Sri Lankan: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrian: 100,000 and Turkish: 80,000.[138] 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 and 1991.[139] 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 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.[140] The Articles 12.4 and 14.1 of the Executive Regulation of Saudi Citizenship System can be interpreted as requiring applicants to be Muslim.[141]


Largest cities of Saudi Arabia
Rank City name Province Pop.
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1 Riyadh Riyadh 6,500,000
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2 Jeddah Makkah 3,900,000
3 Mecca Makkah 1,800,000
4 Medina Al Madinah 1,600,000
5 Dammam Eastern 1,300,000
6 Tabuk, Saudi Arabia Tabuk 800,000
7 Buraidah Al-Qassim 700,000
8 Khamis Mushait 'Asir 600,000
9 Abha 'Asir 500,000
10 Al-Khobar Eastern 400,000

Social issues

Saudi society has a number of issues and tensions. A rare independent opinion poll published in indicated that Saudis’ main social concerns were unemployment (at 10% in[142]), corruption and religious extremism[143][144] Crime is not a significant problem.[109] However, Saudi Arabia’s objective of being both a modern and Islamic country, coupled with economic difficulties, has created deep social tensions, including the following. 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 West pose 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.[28][145][146] 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.[145]

According to a 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) "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide".[147] Part of this funding arises through the zakat (or religious tax) required to be 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.[28][106]

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 is abused in Saudi Arabia.[148] The National Society for Human Rights reports that almost 45% of the country's children are facing some sort of abuse and domestic violence.[149] 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.[150]

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.[151][152]


There are about 25 million people who are Muslim, or 97% of the total population.[153] 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.[153] About 85-90% of Saudis are Sunni, while Shias represent around 10-15% of the Muslim population.[154] Most follow the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, though there are significant numbers of followers among the Shafi`i school, and the Maliki school. On 14 February the king reorganized the Council of Senior Scholars to include scholars from all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Since the 1920s, the government had officially adhered to the Hanbali school by declaring two Hanbali sources as the only acceptable references for Saudi judges. The reorganization of the council is the first official recognition of the other three schools in the country since that time. Most scholars and judges, however, are still Hanbali.[137]

The tomb of Muhammad in Medina

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).[155] Wahhabism, founded in the Arabian peninsular 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[156]

As noted earlier (see Politics) Saudi Arabia is a source of Sunni Islamist activity, including violent or terrorist Islamist activity[28] and "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide".[157]

Religious freedom is virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia. The Government does not provide legal recognition or protection for freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice. As a matter of policy, the Government guarantees and protects the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious practice; however, this right is not always respected in practice and is not defined in law.[158] Moreover, the public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited.[137] The Saudi Mutaween or Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), i.e. the religious police, enforces the prohibition on the public practice of non-Muslim religions. There are no churches or other non-Muslim houses of worship permitted in the country, even within embassies, but non-Muslim religious items are legal even though they are sometimes confiscated by the CPVPV. Practitioners of other religions must only worship in private. The Catholic Church is currently trying to negotiate to have an unmarked church in Saudi Arabia to minister to the over 1 million Roman Catholics mainly of Fillipino origin who are in the country as foreign workers.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal, and 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.[137]

Women in Saudi society

A Saudi woman wearing a traditional niqab

The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity. It was the only country to score a zero in the category of political empowerment.[159]

Gender roles in Saudi society originate from Sharia (Islamic law) and tribal culture. Women's social and legal position in Saudi Arabia differs substantially from that of men. For example, all women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian.[160] As a consequence, women of any age need the permission of their guardian (or 'mahram' in Arabic, who could be their son or brother) for a wide range of activities including marriage and divorce, travel, education, employment, opening a bank account, and surgery and this has led Human Rights Watch to describe Saudi women as permanently having the status of children.[161][160][162][163][164][165][166]

Female literacy is estimated to be around 70% compared to male literacy of around 85%.[167] Men can marry girls as young as ten in Saudi Arabia[168] and, quite apart from the other considerable damage to the children involved,[169] 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–2006, women had a 60% dropout rate.[170]

In most of the country, women in public wear the niqab (veil), as well as a hijab (head covering), and full black cloak called an abaya, and there is considerable pressure on them to follow this dress code.[171][172][173]

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."[174]

Although many Saudis would like more freedom in Saudi Arabia, there is evidence that many women do not want radical change.[175] Even many advocates of reform reject foreign critics, for "failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society."[162][176]

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[177] 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.[178]


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. Classes are segregated by gender. Higher education has expanded rapidly, with large numbers of Universities and colleges being founded particularly since. 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.[9]

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.[179] As a consequence, Saudi youth "generally lacks the education and technical skills the private sector needs" according to the CIA.[167] Similarly, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in 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."[180]

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 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"[181][182] 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’.[183]

The approach taken in the Saudi education system has been accused of encouraging Islamic terrorism, leading to reform efforts.[184] 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.[184] 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.[185][180]


Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country with centuries-old attitudes and traditions, often derived from Arab tribal culture. This conservative tendency 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. 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.[9][186] 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 September 23, which commemorates the unification of the kingdom.[9]

Islamic heritage sites

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The Kaaba in Mecca overlooked by the Abraj Al Bait Towers hotel complex under construction (for which the historic Ajyad Fortress was demolished).

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.[187] 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 Masjid Al-Nabawi in Medina which contains Muhammad's tomb.[188][189]

File:Mecca 18.JPG
Construction in Mecca

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.[190] 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).[191] Other historic buildings that have been destroyed include the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, demolished to make way for public lavatories; 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.[192]

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.[193] It has been reported that there now are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad.[192]


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 shirt 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.
  • Abayah (Arabic: عباية‎) is a women's garment. It is a black cloak which loosely covers the entire body except the head. Usually, the sleeves are decorated with stitched embroidery and different bright colors or even crystals, and the rest of the cloak is plain.Some women choose to cover their faces with the Niqab and some do not. Recently, there's a move towards Abaya colors other than black especially in the Makkah Province in the west of the Kingdom.
  • Kameez/Kurta Salwar is a men's and women's garment. It is worn by Indian and Pakistani people in Saudi Arabia.

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.[194] During the Islamic revival movement in the 1980s, and as a political response to an increase in Islamist activism including the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the government closed all cinemas and theaters. However, with King Abdullah's reforms from some cinemas have re-opened.[195][72]

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.[9]

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[196][197][198]

Football (soccer) is extremely popular, as is scuba diving, windsurfing, and sailing. More traditional sports such as camel racing became more poular 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.[9]

Cuisine in Saudi Arabia 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 the countries of the Gulf, machbūs (kabsa), a rice dish with fish or shrimp, is popular. Flat, unleavened bread is a staple of virtually every meal, as is dates and fresh fruit. Coffee, served in the Turkish style, is the traditional beverage.[9]

See also



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Further reading

  • Al Farsy, Fouad Modernity and Tradition: The Saudi Equation: Panarc International Ltd: ISBN 0 9548740 1 3
  • Gardner, Andrew 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. ISBN 0-9790436-0-3
  • Lippman, Thomas W. "Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia" (Westview) 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, ISBN 0-471-73876-X
  • Ménoret, Pascal, The Saudi Enigma: A History (Zed Books) ISBN 1-84277-605-3
  • al-Rasheed, Madawi, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press) ISBN 0-521-64335-X
  • Robert Lacey, THE KINGDOM: Arabia & The House of Sa'ud, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, (Hard Cover) and Avon Books, (Soft Cover). Library of Congress: 81-83741 ISBN 0-380-61762-5
  • Roger Owen, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, 3rd Edition (Routledge) ISBN 0-415-29713-3
  • T R McHale, A Prospect of Saudi Arabia, International Affairs Vol. 56 No 4 Autumn pp622–647
  • Turchin, P.. Scientific Prediction in Historical Sociology: Ibn Khaldun meets Al Saud. History & Mathematics: Historical Dynamics and Development of Complex Societies. Moscow: KomKniga. ISBN 5-484-01002-0
  • Carmen Bin Laden, Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia, Grand Central Publishing, SBN 0446694886
  • Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom, Hutchinson.
  • Weston, Mark, "Prophets and Princes," Wiley.
  • Haghshenas, Seyyed Ali, Saudi Arabia social and political structure and religious minorities.Iran, Tehran, Ettelaat newspaper, June.

External links

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