Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

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Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Type of Government

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy ruled by a royal dynasty known as the House of Saud. Its king serves as both head of state and head of government, and he exercises control over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Since 1932 the Sauds have maintained tight control over this oil-rich desert land of the Arabian Peninsula, but their power is shared in an unwritten agreement with the powerful Islamic clerics who are the guardians of Wahhābism, a branch of Sunni Islam. One of the most repressive regimes in the world, Saudi Arabia is also a generous welfare state, providing its twenty-two million citizens with free medical care and university education as well as generous housing subsidies.


Saudi Arabia’s people are of Arab ethnic origins. The western part of the country, an area known as Hejaz, was the birthplace of both Islam and the prophet Muḥammad (c. 570–632), whose religious teachings spread from the city of Mecca throughout southwest Asia, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. A millennium later, a conservative sect of Islam called Wahhābism arose in the central Saudi Arabian area of Nejd in the 1740s. A tribal chief of the Saud family allied himself with the sect’s founder, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–1792), and began conquering other parts of the peninsula. They were defeated twice in the nineteenth century by the forces of the Ottoman Empire. From their exile in Kuwait, the Sauds returned with an army led by Prince ʿAbd al-ʿAziz ibn ʿAbd ar-Raḥman (1880–1953), known as Ibn Saʿūd, and seized the city of Riyadh in 1902. Ibn Saʿūd installed Wahhābi followers in conquered villages, and the regime declared that anyone who opposed their policies was an apostate—Islam’s most serious offense. Under Ibn Saʿūd’s leadership a large part of the Arabian peninsula was reconquered by 1926, at which point he declared himself “King of al-Hejaz and Sultan of Nejd.” In 1932 the official name for the country came into use, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and decades later it remains the only country in the world to derive its name from its ruling family.

Government Structure

Saudi Arabia has no written constitution, but a series of reforms enacted by King Fahd (c. 1923–2005) in 1992 comprise what is known as its Basic System of Government. These eighty-three articles spell out the roles and duties of the king and ministers of government, and deems the word of Islam’s holy book, the Koran, its guiding principle. All decisions are required to conform to Islamic principles as well as tribal customs. The tribal customs are reflected in consensus-based decisions, for which the king summons several top advisers (who are often family members as well) for their input on major issues.

Saudi Arabia’s king serves as prime minister, and names several deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers to his Council of Ministers, an advisory body that dates back to 1953. Most ministers are members of the royal family. The king also appoints his crown prince, who is the heir-apparent but does not automatically ascend to the Saudi throne upon the death of a king. Instead the crown prince becomes acting ruler until confirmation by senior family members. In 2006 a new system was introduced by King Abdullah (1924–), whereby a Bayah Council made up of the surviving grandsons of Ibn Saʿūd will vote by secret ballot from among three names selected by the king as heirs-apparent. This system will begin after the accession of Abdullah’s crown prince, his brother Sultan (1928–), and is believed to have been implemented in order to quell problems of royal succession among the estimated six thousand Saudi royal princes.

Under the new Basic Law, a legislative body was created for the first time, the Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, whose members are selected by the king to serve four-year terms. It began as a body of 60 members in 1993, but that number had more than doubled to 150 members by 2006, and included members of the royal family and a few other leading clans as well as religious leaders. During its first decade in operation, the Consultative Council had no real power except the ability to summon and interrogate government ministers, but in 2003 it was granted the power to initiate legislation on its own without the sovereign’s approval. All laws, of course, must be approved by the king and are also subject to scrutiny by Islamic clerics and scholars to ensure that they are in compliance with the tenets of Wahhābism.

Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law advocates an independent judiciary based on sharia, or Islamic law. A twelve-member Supreme Judicial Council issues recommendations to the king for the appointment of judges, who also serve as the highest court of appeal in the land. The Wahhābist tenets that are the backbone of the Saudi legal system are draconian and some of the harshest in the world. Alcohol consumption, drug possession, and homosexual acts are punishable by public floggings, and bringing illegal drugs into the country is a capital crime, as is adultery. Executions are carried out publicly, either by stoning or beheading by sword. Theft is punishable by the amputation of a hand.

Civil liberties in Saudi Arabia are severely restricted. There is no freedom of religion, and the press is carefully monitored. Public demonstrations are illegal, and participation by ordinary citizens in the political process is nonexistent, although Saudis are permitted to appear before their local Majlis and voice complaints or request government help in a matter. A significant change came in 2005, however, when King Abdullah permitted the first elections ever held in the country for city councils, but the decisions of those elected officials are nonbinding. Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween, or religious police, enforce compliance with Islamic codes, including dietary laws and the decree of modest dress for women; all females in the country, including foreign visitors, must wear an abaya, or head-to-toe covering.

Saudi Arabia is divided into fourteen provinces, each governed by an emir who is appointed by the king and in many instances are members of the House of Saud. The emirs each have a deputy plus their own Majlis.

Political Parties and Factions

There are no political parties in Saudi Arabia. The country is dominated by members of the House of Saud, though a few other clans, such as the Al-Wahhāb family, are given positions of prominence. The ulama class of Islamic scholars plays a large role in formulating government policy and oppose nearly all reform measures. These scholars and clerics hold positions on the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, which advises the king, and among the senior ranks of two cabinet departments, the Ministry of Pilgrimage and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance.

Major Events

In 1933, a year after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed, Ibn Saʿūd signed a contract with Standard Oil of California (later Chevron) to begin oil exploration efforts in the country. Five years later the world’s largest oil field, discovered near Dhahran, began producing some 1,500 barrels per day. In 1950 Ibn Saʿūd threatened to nationalize the country’s oil fields and secured a much better financial arrangement with the company to share profits equally. By then the U.S. firm was known as the Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. In 1973 the Saudi government acquired a stake in it, eventually purchasing it completely in 1980. This state-run entity is called Saudi Aramco, headquartered in Dhahran, and is the world’s largest crude-oil producer, at an average of eight million barrels per day. Its annual revenues, which fluctuate according to the price of oil on the world market, are estimated at between $150 and $350 billion annually.

Ibn Saʿūd died in 1953, and was succeeded by his sons Saud (1902–1969) in 1953; Faisal (c. 1906–1975) in 1964; and then Khālid (1913–1982), after Faisal’s 1975 assassination by a family member associated with Islamic extremists. Khālid was succeeded by a half-brother, Fahd, who became incapacitated by a series of strokes in the 1990s; Crown Prince Abdullah took over many of the executive duties and formally ascended to the Saudi throne in 2005 with the death of Fahd.

Technically, Saudi Arabia has been at war with Israel since the day after the Jewish state’s creation in 1948. A cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is the eradication of Israel and the liberation of Palestine, and the Saudis have gone to war on several occasions toward this goal. In October 1973 Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel on one of its holy days, which gave the three-week conflict the name “Yom Kippur War.” Other Arab nations, also members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), pressured Saudi Arabia (OPEC’s largest producer) to enact an embargo, or the halting of shipments, to nations that supported Israel. The six-month oil embargo incited a minor panic in the oil-dependent parts of the Western world, particularly in the United States, when the price of gasoline rose precipitously.

Despite the 1973 oil embargo, Saudi Arabia enjoys an unusually cordial relationship with the United States, unlike other Arab states. In 1991, when the Iraqi government defied United Nations resolutions to exit Kuwait, which it had invaded several months earlier, Saudi military bases became crucial staging areas for the U.S. military effort. The decision by the House of Saud to support the United States generated deep resentment in the Arab world toward the ruling family. As the birthplace of Islam and the site of its two holy cities—Mecca and Medina—Saudi Arabia considers itself the temporal guardian of the faith, and one long-honored tenet of that guardianship is the assertion that the land of Saudi Arabia belongs to Muslims and Muslims alone. To permit an ally of Israel—the United States—to launch an attack on another Arab state as well as on fellow Muslims was considered a deep betrayal of the faith by many Muslims.

Twenty-First Century

In 2003, at the start of the second U.S.-led military effort against Iraq, the Saudi government declined the Bush Administration’s request to use its air bases once again. The 1991 decision had stoked anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments in both Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world and fueled the ideologies promulgated by Islamic extremist groups. The most famous of those groups, al Qaeda, was founded by Osama bin Laden (1957–), the scion of a wealthy family of Yemeni extraction that had made a fortune in Saudi Arabia building highways. Al Qaeda’s deadliest attack was carried out on September 11, 2001, against U.S. targets, and of the nineteen hijackers who commandeered U.S. flights that day, fifteen were Saudi nationals. Political analysts point to this fact as evidence that a younger generation of Saudis is deeply unhappy with the House of Saud’s rule and are drawn to the fundamentalist movement. They warn that Saudi Arabia is a fertile breeding ground for twenty-first century terrorism.

Bradley, John R. Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Mackey, Sandra. The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Rasheed, Madawi Al-. A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.