Saudi Arabia: Facts and History

Mosque in Saudi Arabia across a reflecting pond.

Doaa Shalaby / Getty Images

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy under the al-Saud family, which has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932. The current leader is King Salman, the seventh ruler of the country since its independence from the Ottoman empire. He replaced King Abdullah, Salman's half-brother, when Abdullah died in January 2015.

Saudi Arabia has no formal written constitution, although the king is bound by the Koran and sharia law. Elections and political parties are forbidden, so Saudi politics revolve mainly around different factions within the large Saudi royal family. There are an estimated 7,000 princes, but the oldest generation wields much greater political power than the younger ones. The princes head all the key government ministries.

Fast Facts: Saudi Arabia

Official Name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Capital: Riyadh

Population: 33,091,113 (2018)

Official Language: Arabic

Currency:  Riyals

Form of Government: Absolute monarchy

Climate: Harsh, dry desert with great temperature extremes

Total Area: 829,996 square miles (2,149,690 square kilometers)

Highest Point: Jabal Sawda at 10,279 feet (3,133 meters)

Lowest Point: Persian Gulf at 0 feet (0 meters)

Governance

As the absolute ruler, the king performs executive, legislative, and judicial functions for Saudi Arabia. Legislation takes the form of royal decree. The king receives advice and council, however, from an ulema, or council, of learned religious scholars headed by the Al ash-Sheikh family. The Al ash-Sheikhs are descended from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who founded the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam in the 18th century. The al-Saud and Al ash-Sheikh families have supported one another in power for more than two centuries, and members of the two groups have often intermarried.

Judges in Saudi Arabia are free to decide cases based upon their own interpretations of the Koran and of hadith, the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. In fields where religious tradition is silent, such as areas of corporate law, royal decrees serve as the basis for legal decisions. In addition, all appeals go directly to the king.

Compensation in legal cases is determined by religion. Muslim complainants receive the full amount awarded by the judge, Jewish or Christian complainants half, and people of other faiths one-sixteenth.

Population

Saudi Arabia has an estimated 33 million inhabitants as of 2018, 6 million of whom are non-citizen guest workers. The Saudi population is 90% Arab, including city dwellers and Bedouins, while the remaining 10% are of mixed African and Arab descent.

The guest worker population, which makes up about 20% of Saudi Arabia's inhabitants, includes large numbers from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. In 2011, Indonesia banned its citizens from working in the kingdom due to alleged mistreatment and the beheading of Indonesian guest workers. Approximately 100,000 westerners work in Saudi Arabia as well, mostly in education and technical advisory roles.

Languages

Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia. There are three major regional dialects: Nejdi Arabic, spoken in the center of the country; Hejazi Arabic, common in the western part of the nation; and Gulf Arabic, which is centered along the Persian Gulf coast.

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia speak a vast array of native languages, including Urdu, Tagalog, and English.

Religion

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, so it is no surprise that Islam is the national religion. Approximately 97% of the population is Muslim, with around 85% adhering to forms of Sunnism and 10% following Shiism. The official religion is Wahhabism, also known as Salafism, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.

The Shiite minority faces harsh discrimination in education, hiring, and the application of justice. Foreign workers of different faiths, such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, also have to be careful not to be seen as proselytizing. Any Saudi citizen who converts from Islam faces the death penalty, while proselytizers face jail and expulsion from the country. Churches and temples of non-Muslim faiths are forbidden on Saudi soil.

Geography

Saudi Arabia extends over the central Arabian Peninsula, covering 829,996 square miles (2,149,690 square kilometers). Its southern borders are not firmly defined. This expanse includes the world's largest sand desert, the Ruhb al Khali or "Empty Quarter."

Saudi Arabia borders on Yemen and Oman to the south, the United Arab Emirates to the east, Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan to the north, and the Red Sea to the west. The highest point in the country is Jabal (Mount) Sawda at 10,279 feet (3,133 meters) in elevation.

Climate

Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with extremely hot days and steep temperature dips at night. Rainfall is slight, with the highest rains along the Persian Gulf coast, which receives 12 inches (300 millimeters) of rain per year. Most precipitation occurs during the Indian Ocean monsoon season, from October to March. Saudi Arabia also experiences large sandstorms.

The highest temperature recorded in Saudi Arabia was 129 F (54 C). The lowest temperature was 12 F (-11 C) in Turaif.

Economy

Saudi Arabia's economy comes down to just one word: oil. Petroleum makes up 80% of the kingdom's revenue and 90% of its total export earnings. That's unlikely to change soon; about 20% of the world's known petroleum reserves are in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom's per capita income is about $54,000 (2019). Unemployment estimates range from about 10% to as high as 25%, although that includes only males. The Saudi government forbids the publication of poverty figures.

Saudi Arabia's currency is the riyal. It is pegged to the US dollar at $1 = 3.75 riyals.

Early History

For centuries, the small population of what is now Saudi Arabia consisted mostly of tribal, nomadic people who relied on the camel for transportation. They interacted with the settled people of cities such as Mecca and Medina, which lay along the major caravan trading routes that brought goods from the Indian Ocean overland to the Mediterranean world.

Around the year 571, the Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca. By the time he died in 632, his new religion was poised to explode onto the world stage. However, as Islam spread under the early caliphates from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the borders of China in the east, political power rested in the caliphs' capital cities: Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul. 

Because of the requirement of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Arabia never lost its significance as the heart of the Islamic world. Politically, however, it remained a backwater under tribal rule, loosely controlled by the far-off caliphs. This was true during the Umayyad, Abbasid, and into Ottoman times.

New Alliance

In 1744, a new political alliance arose in Arabia between Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the al-Saud dynasty, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement. Together, the two families established political power in the Riyadh region and then rapidly conquered most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Alarmed, the Ottoman Empire's viceroy for the region, Mohammad Ali Pasha, launched an invasion from Egypt that turned into the Ottoman-Saudi War, lasting from 1811 to 1818.

The al-Saud family lost most of its holdings for the time being but was allowed to remain in power in the Nejd. The Ottomans treated the fundamentalist Wahhabi religious leaders much more harshly, executing many of them for their extremist beliefs.

In 1891, the al-Saud's rivals, the al-Rashid, prevailed in a war over control of the central Arabian Peninsula. The al-Saud family fled into a brief exile in Kuwait. By 1902, the al-Sauds were back in control of Riyadh and the Nejd region. Their conflict with the al-Rashid continued.

World War I

Meanwhile, World War I broke out. The sharif of Mecca allied with the British, who were fighting the Ottomans, and led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. When the war ended in Allied victory, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, but the sharif's plan for a unified Arab state did not come to pass. Instead, much of the former Ottoman territory in the Middle East came under a League of Nations mandate, to be ruled by the French and British. 

Ibn Saud, who had stayed out of the Arab revolt, consolidated his power over Saudi Arabia during the 1920s. By 1932, he ruled the Hejaz and the Nejd, which he combined into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Oil Discovered

The new kingdom was cripplingly poor, reliant on income from the hajj and scant agricultural produce. In 1938, however, Saudi Arabia's fortunes changed with the discovery of oil along the Persian Gulf coast. Within three years, the U.S.-owned Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) was developing massive oil fields and selling Saudi petroleum in the United States. The Saudi government did not get a share of Aramco until 1972 when it acquired 20% of the company's stock.

Although Saudi Arabia did not directly participate in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Ramadan War), it led the Arab oil boycott against Israel's western allies that sent oil prices skyrocketing. The Saudi government faced a serious challenge in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution in Iran inspired unrest among Saudi Shiites in the oil-rich eastern part of the country. 

In November 1979, Islamist extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca during the hajj, declaring one of their leaders the Mahdi, a messiah who will usher in the golden age. The Saudi Army and National Guard took two weeks to recapture the mosque, using tear gas and live ammunition. Thousands of pilgrims were taken hostage, and officially 255 people died in the fighting, including pilgrims, Islamists, and soldiers. Sixty-three militants were captured, tried in a secret court, and publicly beheaded in cities around the country.

Saudi Arabia took a 100% stake in Aramco in 1980. Nonetheless, its ties with the United States remained strong through the 1980s.

The Gulf War

Both countries supported Saddam Hussein's regime in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia called for the U.S. to respond. The Saudi government allowed U.S. and coalition troops to be based in Saudi Arabia and welcomed the Kuwaiti government in exile during the First Gulf War. These deep ties with the Americans troubled Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, as well as many ordinary Saudis.

King Fahd died in 2005. King Abdullah succeeded him, introducing economic reforms intended to diversify the Saudi economy as well as limited social reforms. Following Abdullah's death, King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, began instituting additional social reforms, including allowing women to drive as of 2018. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive nations on earth for women and religious minorities.

Sources