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About Saudi Arabia

Geography

Area: 1,960,582 million sq. km. (784,233 sq. mi.), slightly more than one-fifth the size of the continental United States.
Cities (2006 est.): Capital--Riyadh (pop. 4.3 million). Other cities--Jeddah (3.4 million), Makkah, (1.6 million), Dammam/Khobar/Dhahran, (1.6 million).
Terrain: Primarily desert with rugged mountains in the southwest.
Climate: Arid, with great extremes of temperature in the interior; humidity and temperature are both high along the coast.


People

Nationality: Noun--Saudi(s). Adjective--Saudi Arabian or Saudi.
Population (July 2008 est.): 28 million (22.6 million Saudis, 5.6 million foreign nationals).
Annual growth rate: (2008 est.): 1.9%.
Ethnic groups: Arab (90% of native pop.), Afro-Asian (10% of native pop.).
Religion: Islam.
Language: Arabic (official).
Education: Literacy--total 78.8% (male 84.7%, female 70.8%).
Health: Infant mortality rate (2008 est.)--12.01 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy--male 74 years, female 78 years.
Work force: 6.49 million, about 35% foreign workers (2005 est.); industry--25%; services (including government)--63%; agriculture--12%.
Saudi Arabia's 2008 population was estimated to be about 28 million, including about 5.6 million resident foreigners. Until the 1960s, most of the population was nomadic or seminomadic; due to rapid economic and urban growth, more than 95% of the population now is settled. Some cities and oases have densities of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer (2,600 per sq. mi).
Saudi Arabia is known as the birthplace of Islam, which in the century following the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 A.D. spread west to Spain and east to India. Islam obliges all Muslims to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah, at least once during their lifetime if they are able to do so. The cultural environment in Saudi Arabia is highly conservative; the country officially adheres to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic religious law (Shari'a). Cultural presentations must conform to narrowly defined standards of ethics. Men and women are not permitted to attend public events together and are segregated in the work place.
Most Saudis are ethnically Arab. Some are of mixed ethnic origin and are descended from Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Indians, Africans, and others, most of whom immigrated as pilgrims and reside in the Hijaz region along the Red Sea coast. Many Arabs from nearby countries are employed in the kingdom. There also are significant numbers of Asian expatriates mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Westerners in Saudi Arabia number under 100,000.


Government

Type: Monarchy with Council of Ministers and Consultative Council.
Unification: September 23, 1932.
Constitution: The Holy Qur'an (governed according to Islamic Law), Shari'a, and the Basic Law.
Branches: Executive--King (chief of state and head of government; rules under the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques). Legislative--a Consultative Council with advisory powers was formed September 1993. Judicial--Supreme Council of Justice, Islamic Courts of First Instance and Appeals.
Administrative divisions: 13 provinces.
Political parties: None.


Economy

GDP (2008 est.): $527 billion.
Annual growth rate (2008 est.): 6.1%.
Per capita GDP (2008): $21,062.
Natural resources: Hydrocarbons, gold, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron, phosphate, tungsten, zinc, silver, copper.
Agriculture: Products--dates, grains, livestock, vegetables. Arable land--1.76%.
Industry: Types--petroleum, petrochemicals, cement, fertilizer, light industry.
Trade (2008 est.): Exports--$364 billion: petroleum and petroleum products. Imports--$103 billion: manufactured goods, transportation equipment, clothing and textiles, processed food products. Major trading partners--China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, U.K., U.S. (2006).


HISTORY

Except for a few major cities and oases, the harsh climate historically prevented much settlement of the Arabian Peninsula. People of various cultures have lived in the peninsula over a span of more than 5,000 years. The Dilmun culture, along the Gulf coast, was contemporaneous with the Sumerians and ancient Egyptians, and most of the empires of the ancient world traded with the states that existed on the peninsula, which lay along important trade routes.
The Saudi state began in central Arabia in about 1750. A local ruler, Muhammad bin Saud, joined forces with an Islamic reformer, Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab, to create a new political entity. Over the next 150 years, the fortunes of the Saud family rose and fell several times as Saudi rulers contended with Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and other Arabian families for control on the peninsula. The modern Saudi kingdom was founded by the late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (known internationally as Ibn Saud, or "Son of Saud"). In 1902, Abdul Aziz recaptured Riyadh, the Al Saud dynasty's ancestral capital, from the rival Al-Rashid family. Continuing his conquests, Abdul Aziz subdued Al-Hasa in the east, the rest of the central Nejd region, and the Hijaz along the Red Sea coast between 1913 and 1926. In 1932, Abdul Aziz declared these regions unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Boundaries with Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait were established by a series of treaties negotiated in the 1920s, with two "neutral zones"--one with Iraq and the other with Kuwait--created. The Saudi-Kuwaiti neutral zone was administratively partitioned in 1971, with each state continuing to share the petroleum resources of the former zone equally. Tentative agreement on the partition of the Saudi-Iraqi neutral zone was reached in 1981, and partition was finalized by 1983. The country's southern boundary with Yemen was partially defined by the 1934 Treaty of Taif, which ended a brief border war between the two states. A June 2000 treaty further delineated portions of the boundary with Yemen. The location and status of Saudi Arabia's boundary with the United Arab Emirates is not final; a de facto boundary reflects a 1974 agreement. The border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was resolved in March 2001. The border with Oman also is not demarcated.
King Abdul Aziz died in 1953 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud, who reigned for 11 years. In 1964, Saud abdicated in favor of his half-brother, Faisal, who had served as Foreign Minister. Because of fiscal difficulties, King Saud had been persuaded in 1958 to delegate direct conduct of Saudi Government affairs to Faisal as Prime Minister; Saud briefly regained control of the government in 1960-62. In October 1962, Faisal outlined a broad reform program, stressing economic development. Proclaimed King in 1964 by senior royal family members and religious leaders, Faisal also continued to serve as Prime Minister. This practice has been followed by subsequent kings.
The mid-1960s saw external pressures generated by Saudi-Egyptian differences over Yemen. When civil war broke out in 1962 between Yemeni royalists and republicans, Egyptian forces entered Yemen to support the new republican government, while Saudi Arabia backed the royalists. Tensions subsided only after 1967, when Egypt withdrew its troops from Yemen.
Saudi forces did not participate in the Six-Day (Arab-Israeli) War of June 1967, but the government later provided annual subsidies to Egypt, Jordan, and Syria to support their economies. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Saudi Arabia participated in the Arab oil boycott of the United States and Netherlands. A founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Saudi Arabia had joined other member countries in moderate oil price increases beginning in 1971. After the 1973 war, the price of oil rose substantially, dramatically increasing Saudi Arabia's wealth and political influence.
In 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew, who was executed after an extensive investigation concluded that he acted alone. Faisal was succeeded by his half-brother Khalid as King and Prime Minister; their half-brother Prince Fahd was named Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister. King Khalid empowered Crown Prince Fahd to oversee many aspects of the government's international and domestic affairs. Economic development continued rapidly under King Khalid, and the kingdom assumed a more influential role in regional politics and international economic and financial matters.
In June 1982, King Khalid died, and Fahd became King and Prime Minister in a smooth transition. Another half-brother, Prince Abdallah, Commander of the Saudi National Guard, was named Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister. King Fahd's full brother, Prince Sultan, the Minister of Defense and Aviation, became Second Deputy Prime Minister. Under King Fahd, the Saudi economy adjusted to sharply lower oil revenues resulting from declining global oil prices. Saudi Arabia supported neutral shipping in the Gulf during periods of the Iran-Iraq war and aided Iraq's war-strained economy. King Fahd played a major part in bringing about the August 1988 cease-fire between Iraq and Iran and in organizing and strengthening the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of six Arabian Gulf states dedicated to fostering regional economic cooperation and peaceful development.
In 1990-91, King Fahd played a key role before and during the Gulf war, helping consolidate the coalition of forces against Iraq and define the tone of the operation as a multilateral effort to reestablish the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kuwait. Acting as a rallying point and personal spokesman for the coalition, King Fahd helped bring together his nation's GCC, Western, and Arab allies, as well as nonaligned nations from Africa and the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. He used his influence as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to persuade other Arab and Islamic nations to join the coalition.
King Fahd suffered a stroke in November 1995. From 1997, Crown Prince Abdallah took on much of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the government. Upon King Fahd's death on August 1, 2005, Abdallah assumed the throne as King. Prince Sultan, Minister of Defense and Aviation, became Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister. Since ascending to the throne, King Abdallah has continued to pursue an incremental program of social, economic, and political reforms.


GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS

The central institution of Saudi Arabian Government is the monarchy. The Basic Law adopted in 1992 declared that Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the sons and grandsons of King Abd Al Aziz Al Saud, and that the Holy Qur'an is the constitution of the country, which is governed on the basis of Islamic law (Shari'a). There are no political parties or national elections; however, the country held its first municipal elections in 2005. The king's powers are limited because he must observe the Shari'a and other Saudi traditions. He also must retain a consensus of the Saudi royal family, religious leaders (ulema), and other important elements in Saudi society. In the past the leading members of the royal family chose the king from among themselves with the subsequent approval of the ulema. In November 2006, King Abdallah established an Allegiance Commission that will select future crown princes, a step designed to help formalize the selection process.
Saudi kings gradually have developed a central government. Since 1953, the Council of Ministers, appointed by and responsible to the king, has advised on the formulation of general policy and directed the activities of the growing bureaucracy. This council consists of a prime minister, the first and second deputy prime ministers, 20 ministers, two ministers of state, and a small number of advisers and heads of major autonomous organizations.
Legislation is by resolution of the Council of Ministers and the Shura Council, ratified by royal decree, and must be compatible with Shari'a. Justice is administered according to Shari'a by a system of religious courts whose judges are appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council, composed of 12 senior jurists. The independence of the judiciary is protected by law. The king acts as the highest court of appeal and has the power to pardon in cases where the punishment is not ordained in the Qur'an. Access to high officials (usually at a majlis, or public audience) and the right to petition them directly are well-established traditions.
The kingdom is divided into 13 provinces governed by princes or close relatives of the royal family. All governors are appointed by the King.
In March 1992, King Fahd issued several decrees outlining the basic statutes of government and codifying for the first time procedures concerning the royal succession. Fahd's political reform program also provided for the establishment of a national Consultative Council, with appointed members having advisory powers to review and give advice on issues of public interest. It also outlined a framework for councils at the provincial level.
In September 1993, King Fahd issued additional reform decrees, appointing the members of the national Consultative Council and spelling out procedures for the new council's operations. He announced reforms regarding the Council of Ministers, including term limitations of 4 years and regulations to prohibit conflict of interest for ministers and other high-level officials. The members of 13 provincial councils and the councils' operating regulations also were announced in September 1993. In February, March, and April 2005, Saudis voted in the country's first municipal elections in more than 50 years. Women and male members of the military were not permitted to vote.
In July 1997, the membership of the Consultative Council was expanded from 60 to 90 members, and again in May 2001 from 90 to 120 members. In 2005, membership was expanded to 150 members. Membership has changed significantly during expansions of the council as many members have not been reappointed. The role of the Council is gradually expanding as it gains experience.
In November 2006, King Abdallah announced the formation of an Allegiance Commission which, in the future, will select crown princes upon the death or incapacitation of the king or crown prince. A December 2007 royal decree named the initial members of the Commission, all of whom are sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons representing each branch of the descendants of the Kingdoms' founder, King Abdul Aziz. Only direct male descendants of Abdul Aziz are eligible to become crown prince or king.


Principal Government Officials

King, Prime Minister, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques--King Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud.
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Ambassador to the U.S.--Adel al-Jubeir The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is located at 601 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20037; tel. 202-342-3800.


FOREIGN RELATIONS

Saudi foreign policy objectives are to maintain its security and its paramount position on the Arabian Peninsula, defend general Arab and Islamic interests, promote solidarity among Islamic governments, and maintain cooperative relations with other oil-producing and major oil-consuming countries.
Saudi Arabia signed the UN Charter in 1945. The country plays a prominent and constructive role in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and Arab and Islamic financial and development assistance institutions. One of the largest aid donors in the world, it still gives some aid to a number of Arab, African, and Asian countries. Jeddah is the headquarters of the Secretariat of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its subsidiary organization, the Islamic Development Bank, founded in 1969.
Membership in the 11-member OPEC and in the technically and economically oriented Arab producer group--the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries--facilitates coordination of Saudi oil policies with other oil-exporting governments. As the world's leading exporter of petroleum, Saudi Arabia has a special interest in preserving a stable and long-term market for its vast oil resources by allying itself with healthy Western economies which can protect the value of Saudi financial assets. It generally has acted to stabilize the world oil market and tried to moderate sharp price movements.
The Saudi Government frequently helps mediate regional crises and supports the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. A charter member of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia supports the position that Israel must withdraw from the territories which it occupied in June 1967, as called for in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. Saudi Arabia supports a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict but rejected the Camp David accords, claiming that they would be unable to achieve a comprehensive political solution that would ensure Palestinian rights and adequately address the status of Jerusalem. Although Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with and suspended aid to Egypt in the wake of Camp David, the two countries renewed formal ties in 1987. In March 2002, then-Crown Prince Abdallah offered a Middle East peace plan, now known as the Arab Peace Initiative, at the annual summit of the Arab League in which 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." In March 2007 the Arab League reiterated its support for the Arab Peace Initiative by emphasizing that it could be the foundation for a broad Arab-Israeli peace. In November 2007, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal attended the Annapolis Conference, along with more than 50 representatives of concerned countries and international organizations. The Conference was convened to express the broad support of the international community for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders' courageous efforts and was a launching point for negotiations designed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Saudi Arabia supports the establishment of a unified, independent and sovereign Iraq. The Kingdom is a charter member of the International Compact with Iraq and participates in the Expanded Iraq Neighbors process. In January 2008, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal reiterated Saudi Arabia's intention to open a diplomatic mission in Baghdad and appoint an ambassador.
In 1990-91, Saudi Arabia played an important role in the Gulf War, developing new allies and improving existing relationships between Saudi Arabia and some other countries, but also suffering diplomatic and financial costs. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya deteriorated. Each country had remained silent following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait but called for an end to violence once the deployment of coalition troops began. Relations between these countries and Saudi Arabia have returned to their pre-war status. Saudi Arabia's relations with those countries which expressed support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait--Yemen, Jordan, and Sudan--were severely strained during and immediately after the war. For example, several hundred thousand Yemenis were expelled from Saudi Arabia after the Government of Yemen announced its position, thus exacerbating an existing border dispute. Saudi-Yemeni relations, especially in the wake of the 1994 Yemen civil war, remain fragile and of significant concern to the Saudi Government. The Palestine Liberation Organization's support for Iraq cost it financial aid as well as good relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Recently, though, Saudi Arabia's relations with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have improved, with the Saudi Government providing assistance for the Palestinian Authority.
During and after the Gulf War, the Government of Saudi Arabia provided water, food, shelter, and fuel for coalition forces in the region, and also made monetary payments to some coalition partners. Saudi Arabia's combined costs in payments, foregone revenues, and donated supplies were $55 billion. More than $15 billion went toward reimbursing the United States alone.
Since ascending to the throne, King Abdallah has followed a more activist foreign policy, offering Saudi assistance and support in efforts to resolve regional crises in Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia; fostering Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts; and increasing Saudi diplomatic engagement around the world. In particular, he has pursued an Interfaith Dialogue Initiative to encourage religious tolerance on a global level, which was endorsed in a session of the UN General Assembly in November 2008.