Saudi Arabia | Facts and History

Mosque in Saudi Arabia across a reflecting pond.

Doaa Shalaby / EyeEm / Getty Images

Capital and Major Cities

Capital: Riyadh, population 5.3 million

Major cities:

Jeddah, 3.5 million

Mecca, 1.7 million

Medina, 1.2 million

Al-Ahsa, 1.1 million


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, under the al-Saud family. The current ruler is King Abdullah, the sixth ruler of the country since its independence from the Ottoman Empire. 

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 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 of the key government ministries.

As the absolute ruler, the king performs executive, legislative, and judicial functions for Saudi Arabia. Legislation takes the form of royal decrees. The king receives advise 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-Wahhad, who founded the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam in the eighteenth 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.


Saudi Arabia has approximately 27 million inhabitants, but 5.5 million of that total are non-citizen guest workers. The Saudi population is 90% Arab, including both 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 mistreatment and the beheading of Indonesian guest workers in Saudi Arabia. Approximately 100,000 westerners work in Saudi Arabia as well, mostly in education and technical advisory roles.


Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia. There are three major regional dialects: Nejdi Arabic, with about 8 million speakers in the center of the country; Hejazi Arabic, spoken by 6 million people in the western part of the country; and Gulf Arabic, with about 200,000 speakers centered along the Persian Gulf coast.

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


Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, and includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, so it comes as 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 Shi'ism. The official religion is Wahhabism, also known as Salafism, an ultra-conservative (some would say "puritanical") form of Sunni Islam.

The Shi'ite 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 away 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.


Saudi Arabia extends over the central Arabian Peninsula, covering an estimated 2,250,000 square kilometers (868,730 square miles). 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 Mount Sawda at 3,133 meters (10,279 feet) in elevation.


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 Gulf coast, which receives some 300 mm (12 inches) 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 54°C (129°F). The lowest temperature was -11°C (12°F) in Turaif in 1973.


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 $31,800 (2012). Unemployment estimates range from about 10% to as high as 25%, although that includes only males. The Saudi government forbids publication of poverty figures.

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


For centuries, the small population of what is now Saudi Arabia consisted mostly of tribal nomadic peoples 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 trade routes 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, Istanbul. 

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

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 conquering 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 their holdings for the time being, but were 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. 

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.

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 discover of oil along the Persian Gulf coast. Within three years, the US-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 Shi'ites in the oil-rich eastern part of the country. 

In November of 1979, Islamist extremists also seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca during the hajj, declaring one of their leaders the Mahdi. 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 of the militants were captured alive, tried in a secret court, and publicly beheaded in different 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. Both countries supported Saddam Hussein's regime in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia called for the US to respond. The Saudi government allowed US 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. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive nations on earth for women and religious minorities.