Saudi Arabia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Saudi Arabia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, monarchy in southwestern Asia, occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is a land of vast deserts and little rainfall. Huge deposits of oil and natural gas lie beneath the country’s surface. Saudi Arabia was a relatively poor nation before the discovery and exploitation of oil, but since the 1950s income from oil has made the country wealthy. The religion of Islam developed in the 7th century in what is now Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and it has been ruled by his descendants ever since.

Saudi Arabia is bounded on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait; on the east by the Persian Gulf and Qatar; on the southeast by the United Arab Emirates and Oman; on the south by Yemen; and on the west by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The country’s border with the United Arab Emirates is not precisely defined. Saudi Arabia has an area of about 2,240,000 sq km (about 864,900 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Riyadh.


The Arabian Peninsula is essentially a huge, tilted block of rock, highest in the west and sloping gradually down to the east. Most of this slab of rock is covered with the sand of several large deserts. Saudi Arabia’s landscape also contains mountain ranges, flat coastal plains, and the rocky remains of hardened lava flows. The country’s climate is hot and dry, and there are no permanent rivers or lakes.

Natural Regions in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia can be divided into four natural regions. These are the mountainous western highlands; the rocky central plateau; the more fertile, eastern low-lying coastal plain; and the sandy desert areas of the north, east, and south.

Highlands of Al Ḩijāz and ‘Asīr

A string of mountain ranges stretches along the western edge of Saudi Arabia. The northern segment of these highlands, known as Al Ḩijāz (Hejaz), has a general elevation of 600 to 900 m (2,000 to 3,000 ft), with some mountains exceeding 2,000 m (6,500 ft). Rainfall here is infrequent, but streams flowing down the west side of the highlands allow limited agriculture in valleys and on the narrow coastal plain. On the eastern slopes of the highlands, prehistoric lava flows solidified to form vast, barren fields of dark-colored, broken basaltic stone known as harras. South of Al Ḩijāz the highlands continue into the region known as ‘Asīr. Here, the highlands are rugged and reach considerably higher elevations than in Al Ḩijāz: Much of ‘Asīr lies between 1,500 and 2,000 m (5,000 and 7,000 ft). The highest point in Saudi Arabia, Jabal Sawdā’ (3,207 m/10,522 ft), is located in this region, near the border with Yemen. ‘Asīr receives more rainfall than Al Ḩijāz, allowing more widespread farming.


An arid, rocky plateau known as Najd occupies the interior of Saudi Arabia. The western half of the plateau is a desolate tableland of broken volcanic rock crossed by wadis (watercourses that flow only after rains). In the eastern half numerous rocky ridges run north to south. Bordered on its north, east, and south by desert areas, Najd itself also contains several deserts, including Nafūd ad Daḩy, a series of sandhills and ridges that divide western Najd from eastern Najd.

Al Aḩsā’

In the east, along the Persian Gulf, is the low-lying region of Al Aḩsā’, known for its vast petroleum deposits, farms, and gulf ports. Here, natural springs made agriculture and large-scale settlement possible long before the discovery of the region’s rich oil reserves. The agricultural oasis of Al Qaţīf is noted for its large plantations of date palms. The coast consists of salt flats (called sabkhas), marshes, lagoons, and sandy or rocky beaches. Offshore coral reefs, mud islands, and sand bars made navigation difficult before channels to ports were dredged in the 20th century.


Considerably more than half the area of Saudi Arabia is desert. Some desert areas are covered with shifting sand dunes, while others are more stable flat or rippled expanses of sand. Shaped and moved by winds, sand dunes take the form of long ridges or tall hills. Sand, gravel, or bare rock basins lie between the dunes. Few plants grow in these arid deserts, except in scattered oases supported by springs or wells. Three large deserts lie on three sides of the country’s central plateau: An Nafūd to the north, the Rub‘ al Khali to the south, and the narrow Ad Dahnā’ connecting these two on the east. The Rub‘ al Khali, one of the largest deserts in the world, has an area of about 650,000 sq km (about 250,000 sq mi), nearly as large as the U.S. state of Texas.

An Nafūd is characterized by parallel sand ridges, most 6 to 15 m (20 to 50 ft) high, but some sand hills rise as high as 30 m (100 ft). In some areas, wind has stripped the bedrock surface clean of loose material. North of An Nafūd are the southern fringes of the Syrian Desert.

A belt of sand hills and ridges known as Ad Dahnā’ extends in an arc south from An Nafūd, separating Najd and Al Aḩsā’. Ad Dahnā’, varying in width from 24 to 80 km (15 to 50 mi), connects the northern desert regions with the Rub‘ al Khali in the south. A similar but discontinuous band of sand ridges lies on the western edge of Najd, also connecting An Nafūd and the Rub‘ al Khali.

Rub‘ al Khali means “Empty Quarter” in Arabic, reflecting the barren and forbidding nature of the southern Arabian desert. It is much larger and drier than the other Saudi deserts, contains no oases, and can only be inhabited temporarily, in the cooler winter months, by camel-herding nomads called Bedouins. The Rub‘ al Khali extends over much of southeastern Saudi Arabia and beyond the southern frontier into Yemen and Oman. Like An Nafūd, the Rub‘ al Khali is a sea of sand ridges and hills, some of which are as high as 150 m (500 ft). One of the world’s best-preserved meteor impact sites is located in the middle of the Rub‘ al Khali, at a site called Wabar.

Climate in Saudi Arabia

Extreme heat and aridity are characteristic of most of Saudi Arabia. It is one of the few places in the world where summer temperatures above 50°C (120°F) are common, while in winter frost or snow can occur in the interior and the higher mountains. The average temperature range in January is 8° to 20°C (47° to 68°F) in Riyadh and 19° to 29°C (66° to 83°F) in Jiddah. The average range in July is 27° to 43°C (81° to 109°F) in Riyadh and 27° to 38°C (80° to 100°F) in Jiddah. Precipitation is usually sparse, although sudden downpours can lead to violent flash floods in wadis. Annual rainfall in Riyadh averages 100 mm (4 in) and falls almost exclusively between January and May; the average in Jiddah is 54 mm (2.1 in) and occurs between November and January.

Natural Resources of Saudi Arabia

Some of the world’s largest oil and natural gas fields lie beneath Saudi Arabia and its offshore waters, representing the country’s most economically important natural resource. In 2007 Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves were estimated at 264 billion barrels. Before the discovery and exploitation of these reserves in the mid-20th century, Saudi Arabia was one of the poorest countries in the world. Its relatively small population subsisted in a harsh environment with little agricultural land and limited water resources. Saudi Arabia lacks permanent lakes and rivers, but considerable reserves of underground water have been discovered across the country. These have been used to increase agricultural production and provide water for the growing population. Desalination plants on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coasts provide important, if expensive, sources of water. In addition, a number of dams built across wadis capture seasonal rainwater temporarily.

Plants and Animals in Saudi Arabia

Various fruit trees, notably the date palm, and a wide variety of grains and vegetables thrive in desert oases and in irrigated areas. Outside these areas, only sparse desert shrubs and trees survive. Large animals such as ostriches, oryxes, mountain goats, gazelles, and leopards were once numerous. However, hunters equipped with modern weapons and transportation have wiped out most or all of these prized game animals. Among other local wild mammals are foxes, hyenas, ibexes, panthers, wildcats, hedgehogs, sand rats, jerboas, hares, and wolves. Flamingos and pelicans are common on Saudi shores, and bustards, pigeons, and quails are found across most of the country. Lizards and snakes thrive in the arid desert and tableland, and the coastal waters are home to a wide variety of marine life. In particular, the coral reefs of the Red Sea are home to a dazzling array of brightly colored fish and other marine animals.

Environmental Issues in Saudi Arabia

The Persian Gulf oil industry has polluted the gulf for decades through unintentional oil spillage—from tanker accidents and pipeline leaks—and through dumping of oil-processing waste. Spilled oil and dumped waste have ruined bird habitats on the Saudi Arabian coast and killed countless fish and marine mammals. The situation worsened dramatically during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the Iraqi assault on Kuwait resulted in the release of 910 million liters (240 million gallons) of oil into the gulf. Kuwaiti oil wells set ablaze in the war also caused severe air pollution in Saudi Arabia. Beyond pollution caused by the oil industry, Saudi Arabia’s rapidly growing population has outpaced the provision of sewage services, resulting in the contamination of underground water near urban areas. The country has made some efforts to protect native species and preserve habitats. There is an extensive system of protected areas, including a national park and a number of nature reserves. Some protection has also been extended to sensitive marine habitats off the coasts.

Saudi Arabia participates in international environmental agreements pertaining to climate change, hazardous wastes, and ozone layer protection. Regionally, the country has committed itself to the cooperative protection of shared marine environments in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden.


In 2009 Saudi Arabia had an estimated population of 28.7 million and a population density of 13.3 persons per sq km (34.4 persons per sq mi). About 23 percent of the population (amounting to about 5.4 million people) is made up of foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia. The country’s population growth rate is one of the fastest in the world, at 1.85 percent (2009). The rapid rate of population growth and the large percentage of foreign workers and their dependents have significant political, social, and economic implications on Saudi Arabia. Foreign workers play an important role in the country, making up a large portion of the labor force and the consumer base. However, due mainly to a series of economic downturns, the government has pursued a policy of Saudi-ization to reduce its reliance on expatriates in the workforce. For more information, see the Labor section of this article.

Riyadh, in the central Najd region, is Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city, followed by Jiddah, in Al Ḩijāz. Also located in Al Ḩijāz are the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca and first gained a large following in Medina in the early 7th century. Once a year, close to 2 million Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious duty known as the hajj. Other major cities include the ports of Ad Dammām and Al Jubayl on the Persian Gulf; Al Hufūf, in the oasis of Al Hasa in eastern Saudi Arabia; and Aţ Ţā’if, close to Mecca.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Saudi Arabia

The Arabian Peninsula is the heartland of the Arab people and the Arabic language. The vast majority of Saudi residents are Arabs, and many claim descent from ancient Bedouin tribes native to the peninsula. However, there is some regional diversity. For centuries, the hajj has attracted Muslims from around the world to western Arabia. Those who settled permanently and intermarried with the local population have given rise to a diverse Muslim population in Al Ḩijāz. Some Saudi communities have African roots, a legacy of the days when slave trading was permitted in the region. The large foreign-born population of the kingdom consists mainly of Arabs from countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. In addition, many people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines live and work in Saudi Arabia.

Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia and is used by most of the native population. English is an important second language, used in government, commerce, the media, and among the non-Arab expatriate community.

Religion in Saudi Arabia

Islam is the country’s official religion. An estimated 89 percent of Saudis are Sunni Muslims (see Sunni Islam), and about 5 percent are Shia Muslims (see Shia Islam). The government employs the Sharia (Islamic law) as a guiding principle of rule. Consequently, Islamic tenets not only govern spirituality and religious practice, but also guide practices of law, business, taxation, and government.

The form of Islam supported by the government is socially and theologically conservative. While Saudis and foreigners may behave as they wish behind closed doors, they must observe many strict religious requirements while in public. These include conservative dress for men and women, segregation of the sexes, mandatory daily prayers for Muslim men, and the closing of offices and businesses during the five daily prayer times. A government agency called the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue sends out official enforcers called mutawwa’in to ensure observance of these rules. Punishments for transgressions can be summary and harsh, including public flogging.

Saudi Arabia’s conservative form of Islam is strongly influenced by a puritanical Islamic movement formed in the 18th century. This movement is often referred to by Westerners and other non-Saudis as Wahhabism, after its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (see Wahhabis). However, the movement’s adherents have never referred to themselves as Wahhabis, and within Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi is often used by non-Saudis or reform-minded Saudis in reproach to refer to conservative Muslims. In modern-day Saudi Arabia, strong adherents of the movement may call themselves muwahhidun (unitarians, from al-muwahhid, Arabic for “those who proclaim the unity of God”) or ahl al-tawhid (people of unity). Less strident followers—a significant portion of the population, including some members of the royal family—may simply say they are part of the harakat al-salafiyya, roughly translated as “the movement following the ways of the Prophet.”

The country’s Shia Muslims are concentrated around the oases of Al Hasa and Al Qaţīf in eastern Saudi Arabia. Strict muwahhidun do not recognize the Shias as true Muslims. Therefore, historically, Saudi authorities have subjected them to discrimination and oppression, arousing resentment and opposition to the regime among the Shias. Other religions are represented among the expatriate population. However, the government does not allow public practice of non-Islamic religions and prohibits missionary activity.

Education in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government has built an education system that provides free schooling at all levels to a large portion of the population. School is not compulsory, but 67 percent of primary school-age children are enrolled in school (2002–2003), as well as 67 percent of secondary school-age children. A dramatic increase in literacy over the last decades of the 20th century is one indicator of the success of the government’s efforts. According to a 1970 estimate, Saudis had one of the lowest literacy rates in the Middle East: 15 percent for men and 2 percent for women. In 2007, 89 percent of all men and 79 percent of all women were literate. The government operates most primary and secondary schools, but also permits privately owned schools. The Saudi curriculum heavily emphasizes the study of Islam.

Saudi Arabia has several universities and teacher training colleges, and a large number of other higher education institutions. Major universities include King Saud University (1957) and the Islamic University of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud (1953), in Riyadh; the Islamic University at Medina (1961); King Faisal University (1975), with colleges in both Ad Dammām and Al Hufūf King Abdul Aziz University (1967), in Jiddah; King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (1963), in Ad Dammām; and Umm Al-Qura University (1979), in Mecca. The government funds university and graduate education abroad, and many Saudi students attend educational institutions in the United States and United Kingdom. This has helped create an English-speaking technocratic elite, some of whom are advocates of political reform and social liberalization.

The government extended public education to girls in 1960, despite opposition from some conservative religious leaders. Female education, now widely popular, is helping to transform the traditional role of women in Saudi society. Nonetheless, the education system is segregated by gender. In the past, women who wished to attend college were largely limited to the study of education or nursing (as these were the principal types of work deemed acceptable for women). However, economic and social pressures have forced universities to broaden the range of educational opportunities for women.

Way of Life in Saudi Arabia

As in other Middle Eastern societies, the family is the focal point of identity, loyalty, social status, and economic prospects in Saudi Arabia. Households tend to be large; Saudi women bear 3.8 children on average, according to 2009 statistics. The roles of men and women are sharply divided in many respects, a reflection of conservative Islamic practice and local custom. Men are expected to lead the household and provide for its financial well-being. Women are expected to marry, have children, and raise them according to Islamic principles. Therefore, few Saudi women work outside the home. In 2007 women made up only 15 percent of the labor force, and most of these were expatriate workers. Saudi women are not permitted to drive or to travel abroad without a male relative’s approval. Some women and men have expressed opposition to these restrictions, and the government has on occasion expressed a willingness to gradually provide more rights for women. However, opposition from religious authorities, a lack of strong support from the ruling family, and the basic conservatism of broad sectors of the Saudi population have made change very slow.

Influenced by the dictates of Islamic custom and the need for protection from a hot, dusty climate, traditional Saudi clothing is designed to cover and conceal the body. Although there are regional variations in the styles, colors, and materials used in traditional clothing, the customary garb of the Najd region has come to predominate throughout Saudi Arabia as a result of government and social pressure. Younger generations of Saudis, favoring blue jeans and baseball caps, are moving away from wearing traditional garb.

Women traditionally use veils to cover their hair in public and a mask (called a burka or batula) to cover their faces. At home, women usually wear a caftan (full-length, loose robe with long sleeves), which may be ornamented with embroidery. When going outside the house, women add an outer garment called an abaya, which is often made of dark, gauzy material that also can help cover the head. For men, the most common garment is the thob, similar to the caftan in that it reaches the ground and has long sleeves. It is typically made of white cotton, but men may wear thobs of dark wool in the cooler months. Over the thob men may wear an aba or bisht, a coarser robe usually of brown wool. Men also tend to cover their heads, first with a small skullcap, then with a large square kerchief called a ghoutra. The ghoutra is often white but is also found in red or black checked patterns. It is held in place with an igal, two intertwined black cords formed into rings.

A typical meal in Saudi Arabia could include mutton, chicken, or fish, with rice, bread, and vegetables. Dates are a local delicacy. Coffee, tea, and fruit juices are the most popular beverages among all segments of the population. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited. Food, especially sweets, takes on special significance during the holy month of Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast (go without food or drink) until the sun sets.


Bedouin society and Islam have shaped Saudi cultural expression. As in many parts of the Middle East, Saudis view the nomadic Bedouin as the embodiment of core social and cultural values, including honor, valor, chivalry, and hospitality. In pre-Islamic times called jahiliyya (Arabic for “time of ignorance”), Bedouin poetry was one of the most developed and influential forms of cultural expression on the Arabian Peninsula. Among these nomadic people, poetry was an oral tradition: Poets recited or sang their works, and listeners memorized the poems and retold them to others. The Bedouin poetical tradition influenced subsequent Arabian literature, and survives to the present day.

Islam developed in Arabia in the 7th century and soon came to influence nearly all aspects of Arabian cultural life, including the arts, architecture, the Arabic language, and literature. Today, the kingdom’s conservative religious authorities attempt to control cultural expression strictly, forbidding movie theaters, and singing or dancing at religious observances.

Literature in Saudi Arabia

Poetry was the first form of Arabic literature to attain a high degree of refinement, and the poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia is still admired and influential. The most notable type of poem was the qasida, an ode that could have a number of often-complex rhyming patterns. These odes dealt with themes such as love, beauty, courage in battle, and praise for noble leaders. The most influential poet of the pre-Islamic period was Imru al-Qays. The Qur’an, revealed to Muhammad and recorded in Arabic, has had a profound influence on Arabian literature and society. Not only a guide for living life according to God’s will, the Qur’an is also considered by many to exemplify the perfect use of the Arabic language and provide an ultimate literary model.

Art and Architecture of Saudi Arabia

A relatively poor region until the exploitation of oil began in the mid-20th century, Arabia’s artistic and architectural heritage is small, particularly in comparison to centers of Islamic culture elsewhere in the Middle East (see Islamic Art and Architecture). Because of Islamic prohibitions against idolatry (idol worship), religious art has focused more on nonhuman subjects. Islamic artists in Arabia have explored the artistic possibilities of geometric shapes and calligraphy (artistic writing) in pottery decoration, mosaics, weavings, and illustrated manuscripts. Since the 19th century puritanical Muslims have been responsible for the destruction of many historic structures, such as funerary monuments, associated with figures from early Islam. They have viewed these structures as examples of idolatry or as encouraging worship of saints, deviations from Islam considered unacceptable.

Few architectural artifacts survive from pre-oil times. Most buildings were made using local materials: mud brick, stone, wood, trunks and fronds of palm trees, and plaster. Simple mud-brick structures of one or two stories were the most common dwellings throughout the country. Nomads lived in tents woven from sheep’s wool and goat hair. Since the mid-20th century, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth has enabled the construction of a number of significant buildings that have artistically married local styles, materials, and influences with modern concepts of design. For example, the Hajj Terminal of King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jiddah consists of numerous conical fabric structures reminiscent of the tents of hajj pilgrims.

Music and Dance in Saudi Arabia

Traditional Bedouin song styles and melodies are enjoyed throughout Saudi Arabia. Saudi singers are among the most popular in the Arab world, and their works fuel a vibrant recording industry. The recordings of popular Saudi singers such as Mohammad Abdo and Abdul Majid Abdullah are commonly played in many Arab countries. The Jenadriyyah, an annual two-week cultural festival held near Riyadh, features performances of traditional music and dance from around the country, as well as crafts such as weaving and woodworking.

Museums, Libraries, and Cultural Organizations in Saudi Arabia

Oil revenues have funded the development of Saudi cultural institutions. The King Abdul-Aziz Historical Center, which opened in Riyadh in 1999, contains facilities for research as well as the National Museum, which houses exhibits depicting the history of Saudi Arabia, the rise of Islam, and the hajj. Local museums are found in towns and cities across the country.

The King Fahd Library in Riyadh, one of the Middle East’s premier research facilities, has one of the largest collections of rare manuscripts on Arabic and Islamic literature and arts. The King Abdul-Aziz Public Library is another major library in Riyadh. Bookstores and libraries can be found in all major Saudi cities. However, religious and political sensitivities govern what texts can be sold or read.

The Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, founded in 1972, sponsors Saudi artists and provides sites to present their works. The society has also established a library, information center, and cultural center in Riyadh. The King Faisal Foundation, founded in 1976, promotes Arab and Islamic culture within the country and abroad. The Riyadh-based organization awards the annual King Faisal International Prizes in the categories of service to Islam, Islamic studies, Arabic literature, medicine, and science. These prizes are among the most prestigious in the Arab world.


When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 its economy was fragmented and small. People in the Al Ḩijāz cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jiddah derived most of their income from the annual influx of thousands of hajj pilgrims. Coastal settlements on the Red Sea relied on trade and fishing, while those on the Persian Gulf grew dates and other produce. In the central Najd region, economic activity revolved around trade between nomads—who raised camels, sheep, goats, and horses—and settled groups, who grew crops and produced handicrafts. Principal Saudi exports were dates and livestock, and imports included textiles, grains, other foodstuffs, and various manufactured products.

Oil revenue transformed the Saudi economy in the mid-20th century. In addition to bringing tremendous personal wealth to the royal family and their merchant friends, oil money was eventually channeled by government development programs into areas such as transportation, housing, health, education, and defense.

Labor in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government has used oil revenues to expand social services and build roads, schools, telecommunications, and other infrastructural facilities. To carry out these improvements the government hired large numbers of workers and professionals from abroad. Saudis occupy all middle- and upper-level government-service positions, while nearly all clerical workers, laborers, and lower-level service industry workers come from other countries. Professional and technical jobs are split roughly evenly between Saudi citizens and expatriates. According to a 2007 World Bank estimate, the Saudi labor force consisted of 8.7 million workers. In 2002 agriculture employed about 5 percent of the labor force, industry about 21 percent, and services, 74 percent. Women made up only 15 percent of the labor force in 2007, with Saudi women representing a tiny, but growing, portion of this percentage.

As the boom years of oil revenues came to an end in the 1980s, it became clear that the growing foreign labor force was economically unsustainable. The Saudi government began making efforts to reduce the country’s reliance on non-Saudi labor and to increase the number of Saudis in private sector jobs, a policy referred to as Saudi-ization. During this period of Saudi-ization the government cracked down on illegal immigrant labor, threatening to fine employers of illegal immigrants and forcing about 100,000 illegal workers to leave the country. It also began encouraging the private sector to reserve categories of occupations for Saudis and to hire Saudis for existing positions, establishing quotas for employment of Saudis. Despite these efforts, by 2002 the expatriate labor force had reached 5.4 million. Unions and collective bargaining are not permitted in Saudi Arabia.

Oil, Natural Gas, and Mining in Saudi Arabia

The oil industry is the most important sector of the Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia’s proven petroleum reserves amount to one-fourth of the world total. The major oil fields are in the eastern part of the country and offshore in the Persian Gulf. Because the country has relatively small internal demand for oil, it exports most of its production. It is the largest exporter of petroleum in the world—in 2002 Saudi Arabia exported about 6 million barrels per day—and has the power to influence world oil prices.

Commercial quantities of oil were discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, but World War II (1939-1945) delayed large-scale exports until the 1950s. Initial exploration and drilling were carried out by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), the operating company of Standard Oil of California (Socal). Several other U.S. oil companies acquired shares in Aramco in 1948. The Saudi government bought a 25 percent share of the company in 1973, then took complete control in 1980, after which the company was called Saudi Aramco. Production rose steadily from about 1.3 million barrels per day in 1960 to 3.8 million barrels per day in 1970. The increased production coupled with rising oil prices, especially in 1973 and 1974, brought huge revenues to the Saudi government. Another rapid increase in revenues followed the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1978-1979), when Saudi Arabia increased production to compensate for the drop in Iranian production, and prices rose due to the uncertain market. Oil prices declined along with world demand for oil during the worldwide economic recession of the early 1980s. In 2004 Saudi Arabia produced 8.8 million barrels of oil per day.

Saudi Arabia began producing natural gas liquids in 1962. In 1982 the first phase of the so-called Master Gas System was put in place. This system was built to capture the natural gas that was released as a by-product of oil production and distribute it to power petrochemical plants, steel factories, and other manufacturing enterprises. By the late 1990s plans were put forward to exploit the kingdom’s other gas fields. In June 2001 Saudi Arabia awarded concessions for the projects to several foreign companies, marking the return of foreign companies for the first time since 1975. In 2003 Saudi Arabia produced 60 billion cu m (2.1 trillion cu ft) of natural gas.

The state-owned Saudi Arabian Mining Company controls Saudi Arabia’s significant nonpetrochemical mineral resources. These other mineral products include limestone, gypsum, marble, clay, and salt. In addition, smaller mining operations extract gold, silver, bauxite, copper, zinc, and iron ore.

Services in Saudi Arabia

About 74 percent of the Saudi labor force works in service industries such as education, health care, transportation, communications, and commercial and financial services. The government employs most of these workers. In addition to providing services for residents, the Saudi service sector is also geared toward dealing with large numbers of travelers from abroad. These include the annual influx of hajj pilgrims from around the world, as well as the guests and dependents of foreign workers. As a result, there is a well-developed hospitality industry in Saudi Arabia, offering accommodations, food, and transportation services. The Mecca-Medina region has accommodated some 2 million pilgrims (including pilgrims from within the country) in recent hajj seasons. In 1996 Saudi Arabia constructed several large coastal resorts and recreation facilities in an effort to promote internal tourism. Services accounted for 31.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007.

Manufacturing in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s initial manufacturing industries involved the refining and processing of crude oil and natural gas. In recent decades, the Saudi government has sought to diversify its industrial sector, recognizing that the country’s economy would be more stable and secure in the long term if its reliance on oil were balanced by other forms of production. Consequently, the nation has developed its nonoil manufacturing sector, producing goods for domestic and export markets. The state-owned Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic), founded in 1976, has focused on building a petrochemical industry and on steel production. In 1997 Sabic companies marketed 9.2 million tons of petrochemicals, 2.85 million tons of steel, 2.8 million tons of plastics, 1.1 million tons of industrial gases, and 140,000 tons of polyester products.

The government established the Saudi Industrial Development Fund in 1974 to provide loans to private investors. To encourage private sector involvement further, in 1984 the government sold 30 percent of Sabic’s holdings to private investors. As a result, Saudi Arabia now has a flourishing private industrial sector, producing products such as cement, electrical equipment, synthetic rubber, plastics, processed food, and soft drinks.

Agriculture of Saudi Arabia

Before the influx of oil money in the mid-20th century, agriculture was carried out in very few locations in Saudi Arabia. The largest cultivated areas were in the eastern oases of Al Hasa and Al Qaţīf, and these farms grew dates (in sufficient quantities for export), other fruits, vegetables, and grains. With increased oil revenues, the Saudi government attempted to make Saudi Arabia more self-sufficient in food production. At great expense, irrigation rapidly increased the amount of farmland available for cultivating a wider variety of crops. While agricultural production temporarily rose, economic realities eventually forced the government to cut back many farm subsidies.

Livestock products—mainly sheep, goats, and camels—have been important in the local economy for centuries. Large poultry and beef and dairy cattle farm industries were established in the 20th century to supply mainly domestic requirements. Nonetheless, domestic meat production has not kept pace with demand, and the country imports a significant amount of meat.

Fishing in Saudi Arabia

Fishing was an important source of food along Saudi Arabia’s coasts before the oil era. However, other food sources have supplanted fish due to the rapid rise of population and the contamination of Persian Gulf fisheries (especially during the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Saudi fishers caught 81,057 metric tons of fish in 2007.

Energy in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s abundant supplies of oil and natural gas amply meet its energy requirements. In 2006 the country’s oil- or gas-burning power plants produced 169 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. The government heavily subsidized utilities such as electricity until the 1990s, when tighter budgets led to rate increases. In 2000 the country’s ten regional electric companies merged to form the Saudi Electricity Company. The state-owned General Electricity Corporation funds the provision of electricity to remote rural areas.

Transportation and Communications in Saudi Arabia

Historically, road networks have been centered in Al Ḩijāz, connecting the pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina with the port of Jiddah. Since the dawn of the oil era, the rest of Saudi Arabia has benefited from transportation developments. As of 2000 there were 152,044 km (94,476 mi) of roads in the kingdom, and 30 percent were paved. Motor vehicle use is widespread, and buses and taxis travel the country’s intercity highways. The region’s only railway line connects Riyadh with the Persian Gulf port of Ad Dammām, by way of Al Hufūf. Major port facilities are located in Jiddah, Ad Dammām, and Al Jubayl. Commercial airports are found across the country, and those in Jiddah, Dhahran, and Riyadh are the busiest. The national airline, Saudi Arabian Airlines, schedules regular domestic and international flights.

Saudis have a variety of media options, including several television and radio stations, and numerous newspapers and magazines. However, media outlets must conform to the vision of Islam held by the religious authorities, and to the range of political views deemed acceptable by the government.

Foreign Trade in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s exports—dominated by petroleum products—easily outweigh its imports of items such as foods, machinery, vehicles, textiles, and raw materials including plastics, chemicals, and rubber. In 2007 Saudi Arabia exported commodities amounting to $231 billion, while imports amounted to only $89.2 billion. The United States is the country’s largest trading partner, followed by Japan, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Currency and Banking of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia probably has the most developed banking sector in the Middle East. The unit of currency is the Saudi riyal (SR), consisting of 100 halalah (3.70 Saudi riyals equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency issues currency, stabilizes the exchange rate, administers monetary reserves, and regulates the banking system. There are a number of private Saudi-owned banks and banks with joint Saudi-foreign ownership.


Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. Governmental and legal systems are based on the Sharia, the sacred law of Islam, which is interpreted according to the strict Hanbali rite by the learned religious elders, or ulama. Beginning in March 1992, the king issued several decrees that established new political structures and promulgated procedures for government. Known as the Basic Law of Government, the decrees defined Saudi Arabia as a sovereign Arab, Islamic state whose constitution is the Qur’an and the Sunna (traditions) of the prophet Muhammad. The law also stipulated that the country would be ruled by the male descendants of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom. The principles of government were stated to be justice, equality, and consultation, in accordance with the Sharia. The law also states that the duties of the state are to protect Islam, protect human rights, and provide public services and security for all citizens according to the Sharia. It also called for an independent judiciary and provided for the establishment of the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), to be chosen every four years by the king.

Executive and Legislature of Saudi Arabia

The chief government and religious official of Saudi Arabia is the king. Various rules of succession have been developed since the founding of the kingdom in 1932. In 1992 King Fahd decreed that the king could designate or remove the crown prince. Furthermore, the crown prince would not automatically rise to the throne upon the death of the king, but would serve only as provisional ruler until fully confirmed by religious and government leaders. The king is advised by a cabinet of ministers and usually also serves as prime minister. The royal family and a few other prominent families provide most higher government officials. The king’s power is absolute in theory. In practice, however, it has been modified by factors such as the king’s personal political skills (or lack thereof) and the actions of members of the royal family, influential ulama, and others with close links to the royal family, including major merchant families and tribal leaders.

Saudi Arabia has no separate legislature and no political parties. Laws are issued by the king and his ministers. In 1992 Fahd called for the creation of a Consultative Council, whose members would be selected by him. The council was officially inaugurated in 1993 with a membership of 60. The council’s membership was increased to 90 in 1997, and to 120 in 2001. The council has no legislative powers, but it has the right to summon and question ministers, and to offer recommendations to the king.

Judiciary in Saudi Arabia

The laws of Saudi Arabia are based on the Sharia, which is derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna (see Sunni Islam). The Ministry of Justice is charged with operating the country’s Sharia courts, and the minister of justice is the country’s chief judge. In October 2007 a royal decree completely overhauled Saudi Arabia’s court system, creating two new supreme courts to replace the functions of the Supreme Council of Justice. One supreme court was to be created to oversee general courts and a second supreme court to oversee administrative courts. The effect of the decree was to strengthen the system of appeals by having higher courts review the rulings of lower courts.

Human rights groups welcomed the reforms, saying they would make Saudi Arabia’s judicial system less arbitrary. The head of each supreme court was to be appointed by the king. The Supreme Council of Justice remained in existence but its powers were greatly reduced so that it only reviews administrative issues, such as salaries of judges and their appointments. The decree also set up specialized court circuits dealing with commercial and labor law.

Local Government of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 provinces, or emirates. Each is headed by a governor, or emir, who is appointed by the king. In 1993 a royal decree defined the provincial system of government, setting out the rights and responsibilities of governors. It provided for the establishment of provincial councils (composed of citizens and officials) that would meet quarterly and provide supervision and advice. Governors have historically tended to be members of the royal family. In keeping with traditional norms, their form of rule included holding a regular majlis (council or petitioning session) where citizens would come in person and present their problems to the governor. Large cities elect their own municipal governments. Towns and villages are governed by councils of elders.

Defense of Saudi Arabia

Since the mid-1960s Saudi Arabia’s defense expenditures have increased dramatically. The country maintains two separate armies. The first is the national guard, or the white guard, which is a conglomeration of traditional tribal armies and has about 77,000 active members. In 2006 the regular armed forces included an army of 75,000 soldiers, an air force of 18,000, a navy of 15,500, and an air defense force. These forces, trained in part with U.S. assistance, are equipped with modern weapons and advanced aircraft.

Political Expression in Saudi Arabia

Despite the absence of political parties and other representative groups, Saudi officials contend that a wide range of opinions and interests are heard because the government operates by consulting with a broad segment of the population. However, not all segments of the population have access to these consultations, and some of those who are consulted feel that the government ignores or downplays their legitimate demands. As a result, several forms of political dissent have appeared.

First is the religious, or Islamist, opposition. The Saudi state arose in part as a result of an agreement between the ruling family and the ulama, but the interests of the two groups frequently have been at odds. Historically, the ruling Saudi family has found ways to keep high-ranking religious officials compliant. During some periods, however, Saudi rulers have felt compelled to succumb to the demands of the ulama. In addition, conservative Muslim critics outside the religious establishment have used the rhetoric of Islam to voice their opposition to the government. Another group at odds with the Saudi government has been the Shia population in the eastern part of the country. Pushed to the margins of Saudi society, Shia groups in Saudi Arabia point to a long history of oppression and neglect as part of their grievances. Both radical Islamists and Shia groups have at times expressed their opposition through the use of violence. Western-educated technocrats and women have attempted to pressure the government for change in nonviolent ways. Many of them feel constrained by the restrictions and limitations imposed by the country’s adherence to conservative Islamic practices, and they chafe at the slow pace of political, economic, and social reforms.


Fossil remains of elephants, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and other large animals found in parts of the Arabian Peninsula indicate that the climate could support much more vegetation between 11 million and 4 million years ago than it can today. The region’s arid climate, however, seems to date back at least 5,000 years. Prehistoric flint tools and rock drawings in various parts of the peninsula provide evidence of scattered habitation by Stone Age peoples.

Ancient Arabia

Arabia served as a crossroads between the major ancient civilizations that rose and fell nearby: Babylonia, in what is now Iraq; the Nile Valley kingdoms of Ancient Egypt and Kush; and the early states of Yemen. By 4000 BC an advanced trading culture known as Dilmun developed on the Persian Gulf islands of Bahrain and the nearby Arabian coast. Dilmun provided an important stop on trade routes linking Mesopotamia to Oman and the Indus Valley civilizations of South Asia. Dilmun reached the height of its power in about 2000 BC. It was occupied by the Kassites of Mesopotamia in about 1600 BC, and declined in importance over the next 1,000 years.

The next major Arabian power to develop was the Minaean kingdom, which was well established by 1000 BC in ‘Asīr and southern Al Ḩijāz along the Red Sea coast. Its capital was at Karna, also spelled Qarnah (present-day Şa‘dah, Yemen). The Minaeans were nomads and herders who came to dominate the Al Ḩijāz trade in incense—substances that were burned to honor gods in many of the region’s pre-Islamic religions. The Minaeans withdrew from their trading post at Dedān (now Al ‘Ulá, in northern Al Ḩijāz) in the 1st century BC; afterward the Nabataeans founded a commercial center nearby at Madā’in Şāliḩ. The buildings of Madā’in Şāliḩ are carved from rock in the same manner as those of the Nabataean capital of Petra, in present-day Jordan. In the 6th century AD the Lakhmid dynasty of Hira, centered in southern Iraq, began to replace the Minaeans as the regional power of central Arabia.

By the 6th century Mecca was already an important city. It was a major stop on the main trade route between Yemen and the civilizations of the Mediterranean, and was also a pilgrimage destination for many Arab peoples who practiced polytheism (worship of multiple gods).

Coming of Islam

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in about 570 to a family belonging to a branch of the Quraysh, the dominant tribe of Mecca. His first attempts to preach the oneness of God met with only partial success, gaining him both followers and opponents in his home city. Muhammad had more success with tribes in nearby Medina, and he moved there in 622. Muhammad’s emigration, known as the Hegira (hijrah in Arabic) marks the first year of the Islamic calendar. In 630 he returned with his followers and conquered Mecca.

After Muhammad’s death in 632, the Islamic community (ummah) was guided by caliphs (khalifah, Arabic for “successor”), who succeeded Muhammad in his role as Islam’s political leader. The first four caliphs ruled from Mecca and Medina, overseeing the rapid expansion of an Islamic empire through conversion and military conquest (see Spread of Islam). By 650 an organized Islamic state ruled a newly unified Arabian Peninsula as well as the entire Fertile Crescent (what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) and Egypt. The Umayyad dynasty of caliphs moved the seat of the caliphate to Damascus in 661. The political center of the great Islamic empire would remain outside the peninsula from this point onward, pushing Arabia to the fringes of Islamic culture and power until modern times.

After 1269 most of Al Ḩijāz was ruled by the Egyptian Mamluks. The Ottoman Empire gained control of Al Ḩijāz when it conquered Egypt in 1517. Neither the Mamluks nor the Ottomans extended their authority into the central Arabian Najd region, which remained the domain of Bedouin tribal chiefs.

Abd al-Wahhab and the Rise of the Saudis

In the mid-18th century the Muslim leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab attempted to gain religious influence in Najd. Abd al-Wahhab aggressively propagated an Islamic doctrine that he felt was as pure and true as the one preached originally by Muhammad. His view of Islam emphasized the oneness of God and forbade practices such as the worship of saints and holy men. In 1744 Abd al-Wahhab found an ally in Muhammad ibn Saud, the leader of the tiny settlement of Ad Dir‘īyah in the central Najd region. Thanks to Abd al-Wahhab’s strident religious convictions and Muhammad ibn Saud’s political and military prowess, a powerful movement was born. Adherents, who called themselves muwahhidun (referred to as Wahhabis by outsiders), quickly spread far and wide. Villagers and nomads joined the movement out of either conviction or fear—the muwahhidun spread their message using soldiers as well as preachers.

In the first years of the 19th century, muwahhidun forces conquered the main cities and towns of Al Ḩijāz, including Mecca and Medina. In these cities, Abd al-Wahhab’s representatives attempted to destroy the tombs of Muhammad and the caliphs, believing such edifices encouraged idolatrous worship. The forces then advanced northward, plundering the Shia holy city of Karbalā’ and disrupting the major Ottoman trade routes in what is now Iraq and Syria. Faced with this growing threat, the Ottomans sent a force from Egypt to invade Arabia. Warfare raged across the peninsula from 1811 to 1818, when Egyptian forces defeated the muwahhidun and razed Ad Dir‘īyah.

After the Egyptian armies withdrew in 1824, the remaining forces of the Saudi family regrouped in the town of Riyadh, near Ad Dir‘īyah, and began reclaiming the Najd lands they had lost. Throughout most of the 19th century the Saudis and their followers faced opposition from several quarters: rival emirates ruled by the Rashidis of Ḩā’il, to the north; the sharifs (descendants of the Prophet), who ruled parts of Al Ḩijāz; and an Ottoman presence in Al Hasa, in the east. The Rashidis grew more powerful than the Saudis over the course of the second half of the 19th century. In 1891 the Rashidis seized Riyadh, took control of Najd, and drove the Saudi family into exile in Kuwait.

At the dawn of the 20th century, young Abdul Aziz ibn Saud began a campaign of reconquest, starting in 1902 with the recapture of Riyadh. From there, his forces captured the region of Al Aḩsā’ in 1913, the Jebel Shammar in 1921, Mecca in 1924, Medina in 1925, and ‘Asīr in 1926. The core of Ibn Saud’s military forces was made up of townsmen from Najd as well as a zealous force called the Ikhwan (brotherhood). The Ikhwan, former Bedouins who had taken up Abd al-Wahhab’s cause, had a keen thirst for plunder and fought with a blazing ferocity. Ibn Saud proclaimed himself king of Al Ḩijāz in 1926, and in 1932, after unifying the conquered territories, he renamed his vast realm Saudi Arabia.

Ibn Saud’s Reign

Saudi Arabia faced daunting challenges in the first years of Ibn Saud’s reign: chronic lack of finances, political fragmentation, a tenuous security situation, little administrative capability, and a primitive economic base. Ibn Saud solidified his control by taking away the power and autonomy of Bedouin tribes, promoting members of his immediate family to positions of power, and marrying women from several different political constituencies to bring them into his family. Oil was discovered in eastern Saudi Arabia in 1938, but World War II disrupted trade and limited revenues from oil through the 1940s. Nevertheless, the gradual increase in funds from the 1950s onward permitted the initial development of the country’s infrastructure and basic social services (as well as lavish expenditures on palaces and other luxuries for the royal family).

In foreign affairs, Ibn Saud strengthened relations with other states of the Middle East and adopted a friendly policy toward the United States and the United Kingdom. A supporter of the Allied cause in World War II (1939-1945), he permitted construction of a U.S. air base in Dhahran but remained officially neutral until March 1945, when he declared war on Germany and Japan. In 1945 Saudi Arabia joined the United Nations (UN) and the newly founded Arab League, an association with the goal of promoting the interests of Arabic-speaking nations. Saudi Arabia opposed the creation of Israel but took only a minor part in the league’s war against the Jewish state in 1948 and 1949. In December 1950 a new agreement with the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) provided that 50 percent of the company’s net earnings should be paid to Saudi Arabia. Under this new agreement, Saudi oil revenues increased dramatically, and wealth poured into the kingdom’s coffers. In June 1951 Saudi Arabia agreed to allow the United States to continue using the Dhahran air base in return for U.S. technical aid and permission to purchase arms under the Mutual Defense Assistance Act.

Turmoil at Home and Abroad

The death of Ibn Saud in 1953 ushered in a period of serious internal political strife. Saud, the designated crown prince, took the throne, but his authority was challenged by Faisal and Talal, two of Ibn Saud’s other sons. During his reign, Saud was criticized for fiscal irresponsibility and for episodes of labor unrest in the oil industry. Meanwhile, Faisal was largely responsible for the development of the government’s bureaucracy. Also during Saud’s reign, the first generation of Saudi technocrats who had been educated in the West returned to Saudi Arabia. They played an important part in the country’s subsequent development.

In foreign affairs, Saud advocated Arab neutrality in the Cold War (ideological and geopolitical struggle between Western and Communist nations) and opposed the Middle Eastern Treaty Organization (METO), formed in 1955 by Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. Representatives from Saudi Arabia attended the Bandung Conference held by nonaligned nations—those nations not allied with major world powers—in April 1955, in Bandung, Indonesia. In October 1955 Saudi Arabia signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt. A joint Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt followed Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (see Suez Crisis). Saudi Arabia then severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom and France, and cut off oil supplies to their tankers.

King Saud visited the United States in 1957. Shortly afterward it was announced that the United States would sell arms and supply other aid to Saudi Arabia in exchange for permission to use the Dhahran air base for another five years. Financial mismanagement brought on a crisis in 1958 in which Saud was forced to transfer legislative and executive powers, formerly included among his own absolute powers, to his brother Crown Prince Faisal, the prime minister. Saud reserved for himself the right of veto. A royal decree in 1958 established a cabinet system. Although Saud reclaimed control of the government in 1960, a family council supported by the ulama declared Faisal king in 1964. The Saudi government declined to renew the Dhahran lease in 1962, and U.S. requests for reestablishing military presence there were repeatedly turned aside until 1990.

At a conference held in September 1960 in Baghdād, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Kuwait founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to coordinate their policies and help sustain oil prices. A steady increase in oil revenues during Faisal’s reign permitted him to fund long-delayed projects of economic and social development. These were implemented through five-year plans, the first of which covered the period from 1970 to 1975. During this time, the government poured money into the improvement of transportation, utilities, education, and health care.

Saudi relations with Egypt deteriorated during the 1960s. In 1962 a revolution in Yemen overthrew Yemen’s imam. Saudi Arabia supported Yemen’s deposed leader in his efforts to regain his throne, while Egypt gave military support to Yemen’s new republican government.

Arab-Israeli Conflicts

In 1967, as the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified prior to the Six-Day War, King Faisal expressed full support for Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and dispatched 20,000 troops to Jordan to face Israeli forces. In June all Saudi oil exports to Britain and the United States were suspended, but diplomatic ties were not broken; oil trade was resumed after the Arab defeat. An Arab summit conference later in the year resulted in Egyptian withdrawal from Yemen, and the Saudis extended large-scale aid to Egypt to compensate for the loss of revenue caused by the closing of the Suez Canal during the war. King Faisal continued to call for pan-Islamic action against Israel and, under internal pressures, criticized alleged United States involvement on Israel’s side. He remained unwilling, however, to articulate a militant anti-Western position, and in 1971 Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states concluded a five-year pact with 23 Western oil companies, including 17 U.S. firms. In July 1970 Saudi Arabia formally recognized the republican government of Yemen after seven years of intermittent border fighting.

Saudi Arabia sent a small number of troops and weapons (notably aircraft) to aid the Arab states in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. In the aftermath of this conflict, the government played a leading role in organizing a short-term oil embargo against countries that had supported Israel and in quadrupling the international price of petroleum. The latter development, along with Saudi Arabia’s 1974 takeover of controlling interest in the huge oil company Aramco, greatly increased government revenue, thus providing funds for another massive economic development plan.

Financial Strength and Military Preparedness

In March 1975 King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew and was succeeded by his half brother Prince Khalid ibn Abdul Aziz. Khalid, however, was in poor health and his half brother, Crown Prince Fahd, became the power behind the throne. The country remained conservative, and its influence kept OPEC from raising its prices to the extent most member countries wanted. In 1980 it was announced that the Saudi government had taken full control of Aramco’s assets retroactively from January 1976. Much of the petroleum money that poured into the country was reinvested in the West or spent on arms, but domestic inflation and a barely manageable pace of development presented ongoing problems.

Saudi Arabia took a dim view of the conciliatory overtures by Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat to Israel in 1977, and after the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries in 1979, Saudi Arabia cut off financial aid to Egypt and severed diplomatic relations. The Islamic revolution in Iran that year and the subsequent seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by some 250 armed Islamists jolted the Saudi government, heightening awareness of its vulnerability to external and internal threats. The kingdom joined five other Arab Gulf states in 1981 to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which focused on economic and collective security measures. Shared concerns about regional stability helped warm relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. In 1981 the United States agreed to sell several Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to the Saudis, an arrangement that provoked heavy opposition from Israel, which feared an upset of the military balance in the Middle East.

King Khalid died in June 1982 and was succeeded by Fahd. As king, Fahd sought to maintain Saudi Arabia’s traditional Islamic values, while continuing the process of rapid modernization made possible by the nation’s abundant oil resources. In 1986 he assumed the religious title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in an effort to safeguard the Western-friendly Saudi regime from opposition by Islamic militants. Nevertheless, King Fahd faced difficulties within and beyond his country. In July 1987 at least 400 people were killed in Mecca when Iranian Shia pilgrims clashed with Saudi police. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia became increasingly hostile. Iran expressed its displeasure at Saudi restrictions on Iranian pilgrims by boycotting the hajj for several years. Relations between the countries began to thaw gradually in the 1990s.

Persian Gulf War and Developments in the 1990s

Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait in August 1990 had significant military, political, and economic consequences for Saudi Arabia. Despite opposition from some religious leaders and their followers, the Saudi government provided for temporary deployment on its own territory of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied troops. It also contributed forces to the multinational coalition that fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf War in early 1991. In order to allay some of the domestic opposition to non-Muslim forces stationed in Islam’s holy land, the Saudi government emphasized that several other Islamic countries had also sent forces to fight Iraq. Through the late 1990s Saudi Arabia allowed some U.S. forces to remain in the country, mainly to enforce so-called no-fly zones over southern Iraq. Religious opposition groups viewed the continued U.S. presence as a major point of contention with the government.

After the Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia increased its oil output to compensate for the loss of petroleum supplies from Iraq and Kuwait. Economic problems became evident, however, in 1993. The United States had insisted that Saudi Arabia pay for the costs of U.S. military protection during the war, costing the country $51 billion. Meanwhile, the Saudi economy was feeling the effects of a budget operating under deficit since 1983. War payments and declining oil prices forced the Saudi government to cut social and defense spending and take out loans from international banks. Despite these problems, in 1994 Saudi Arabia helped defeat a campaign by Iran and other OPEC member countries to lower OPEC’s overall production ceiling so that limited supply would prompt a rise in prices. As oil prices continued to fall in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia reversed its position and led an initiative for OPEC to reduce production in order to raise the price of oil. In March 1999 OPEC, along with four independent oil-producing nations, approved a yearlong production cutback. Saudi Arabia committed to the largest cutback, reducing production by 7 percent.

Political reforms decreed by King Fahd in 1992 established a consultative council to serve in an advisory capacity, provided for a bill of rights, and changed the rules of succession. The Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) was convened for the first time in December 1993. Social reforms were less evident, however. Saudi men and women still were not permitted to attend public events together, and workplaces remained segregated. Government officials in the United States voiced continuing concern about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, particularly the abuse of prisoners by guards and police.

King Fahd remained an active sponsor of Islamic causes worldwide in his second decade as Saudi leader. In 1992 he conducted an extensive campaign to end the bloodshed in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The same year, Fahd’s government established diplomatic links with the Muslim republics formerly included in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In 1994 Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat visited Riyadh to discuss with King Fahd the prospects for peace in the Middle East. The meeting represented a significant rapprochement between the two leaders, whose relations had been strained since the Persian Gulf War.

In 1995 the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen agreed to negotiate a settlement to a long-standing dispute over their shared border; the agreement followed several months of small-scale fighting in the border region. Five years later, in 2000, the two countries finally announced an agreement settling the border dispute. Meanwhile, in 1998 Saudi Arabia began production in an oil field lying in the disputed region of its border with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Saudi Arabia failed to meet the UAE’s demand for a share of the oil and gas produced from the field. In 1999 the UAE protested by boycotting an oil ministers’ meeting in Saudi Arabia that was to formally inaugurate the field.

Meanwhile, after suffering a stroke in November 1995, Fahd gave control of the country to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, in January 1996. Fahd reclaimed his authority the following month, but actual power continued to shift to the crown prince because of the king’s overall poor health.

Islamist Opposition and Reform

Expressions of opposition to government policies and to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia continued through the 1990s and beyond, creating tension in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Saudi government clamped down on Islamist militants but at the same time was forced to make some concessions to their demands. Islamist opposition stemmed from government-appointed religious leaders and from Islamic groups or individuals inside and outside the kingdom. In September 1994 the government arrested a large number of people—some of whom were religious officials or academics—for demonstrating against the arrest of two conservative clerics. In October the government created the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, headed by a member of the ruling family, as part of an effort to dampen radicalism among the ulama. Later, the government removed several university chancellors and members of the Council of Ulama, replacing them with people deemed more moderate.

In November 1995 a car bomb killed seven people (including five Americans) at the offices of the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh. In June 1996 terrorists set off a bomb attached to a petroleum tanker truck at a housing center for U.S. military personnel in Al Khubar (Al Khobar), near Dhahran. The attack killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded more than 300 people (including many Saudis and Bangladeshis, as well as Americans). Severe shortcomings in the Saudi law enforcement and criminal justice systems came to light in the wake of these two episodes. United States officials expressed frustration with the quality of the investigations, the lack of cooperation with their Saudi counterparts, and the Saudis’ use of torture to extract confessions.

One of the most visible and strident opponents of the Saudi government was Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman. Exiled from Saudi Arabia in 1992 (and stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994), bin Laden promoted violent opposition to the Saudi regime and to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. The aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 further complicated Saudi-U.S. relations. Of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attack, 15 were Saudi citizens, and all were connected to bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. While Crown Prince Abdullah quickly and firmly condemned the attacks, he refused to allow the United States to use facilities in the kingdom in its subsequent war on terrorism. In 2002 the United States began transferring many military facilities from Saudi Arabia to the neighboring country of Qatar.

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