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Saudi Arabia



Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia

Al-Mamlakah al-'Arabiyah as-Sa'udiyah

CAPITAL: Riyadh (Ar-Riyad)

FLAG: The national flag bears in white on a green field the inscription, in Arabic, "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is the messenger of Allah." There is a long white sword beneath the inscription; the sword handle is toward the fly.

ANTHEM: The National Anthem is a short instrumental selection.

MONETARY UNIT: The Saudi riyal (sr) is divided into 20 qursh (piasters), in turn divided into 5 halalah. There are coins of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 halalah and notes of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 riyals. sr1 = $0.26667 (or $1 = sr3.75) as of 2005.

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES: The metric system has been officially adopted.

HOLIDAYS: Muslim religious holidays include 1st of Muharram (Muslim New Year), 'Id al-Fitr, and 'Id al'Adha'.

TIME: 3 pm = noon GMT.


Saudi Arabia constitutes about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula in Southwest Asia. Although Saudi Arabia is known to be the third-largest country in Asia, after China and India, its precise area is difficult to specify because several of its borders are incompletely demarcated. According to the United Nations (UN), the nation has an area of 1,960,582 sq km (756,985 sq mi); it extends 2,295 km (1,426 mi) esewnw and 1,423 km (884 mi) nnessw. Comparatively, the area occupied by Saudi Arabia is slightly less than one-fourth the size of the United States. Saudi Arabia is bounded on the n by Jordan and Iraq; on the ne by Kuwait; on the e by the Persian Gulf, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); on the se by Oman; on the s and sw by Yemen; and on the w by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, with a total estimated land boundary length of 4,431 km (2,753 mi) and a coastline of 2,640 km (1,640 mi).

The Farasãn Islands, belonging to Saudi Arabia, include about 120 islands in the Red Sea, the largest of which is Farasãn al Kabir, with an area of about 395 sq km (152 sq mi).

An agreement was reached in 1965 whereby the neutral zone separating Saudi Arabia from Kuwait was divided administratively between the two countries; however, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia continue to debate the maritime boundary with Iran. A dispute between Saudi Arabia and the newly formed UAE over control of the Buraymi oasis was settled in 1974, when they reached an accord fixing their common border; however, the details of this treaty had not been made public by late 2005.

Saudi Arabia's capital city, Riyadh, is located in the east-central part of the country.


A narrow plain, the Tihamat ash-Sham, parallels the Red Sea coast, as do, farther north, the Hijaz Mountains (with elevations of 9102,740 m/3,0009,000 ft), which rise sharply from the sea. The highest mountains (over 2,740 m/9,000 ft) are in 'Asir in the south. 'Asir is a region extending about 370 km (230 mi) along the Red Sea and perhaps 290320 km (180200 mi) inland. East of the Hijaz, the slope is more gentle, and the mountains give way to the central uplands (Najd), a large plateau ranging in elevation from about 1,520 m (5,000 ft) in the west to about 610 m (2,000 ft) in the east. The Dahna, a desert with an average width of 56 km (35 mi) and an average altitude of 460 m (1,500 ft), separates Najd from the low plateau (Hasa) to the east (average width, 160 km/100 mi; average altitude, 240 m/800 ft). This, in turn, gives way to the low-lying Gulf region.

At least one-third of the total area is sandy desert. The largest of the deserts is the famed Ar-Rub' al-Khali in the south, with an area of roughly 647,500 sq km (250,000 sq mi). An-Nafud, its northern counterpart, has an area of about 57,000 sq km (22,000 sq mi). There are no lakes, and except for artesian wells in the eastern oases, there is no perennially flowing water.


The climate is generally very dry and very hot; dust storms and sandstorms are frequent. Day and night temperatures vary greatly. From May to September, the hottest period, daytime temperatures reach 54°c (129°f) in the interior and are among the highest recorded anywhere in the world. Temperatures are slightly lower along the coasts, but humidity reaches 90%, especially in the east, which is noted for heavy fogs. From October through April, the climate is more moderate, with evening temperatures between 16° and 21°c (61° and 70°f). Average annual rainfall is 9 cm (3.5 in), with most rain falling from November to May. Between 25 and 50 cm (10 and 20 in) of rain falls in the mountainous 'Asir area, where there is a summer monsoon. In late spring and early summer, a strong northwesterly wind known as the shamal produces sometimes severe sand and dust storms.


Vegetation is sparse, owing to aridity and soil salinity. The date palm, mangrove, tamarisk, and acacia are prevalent. Wild mammals include the oryx, jerboa, fox, lynx, wildcat, monkey, panther, and jackal. The favorite game bird is the bustard. The camel and Arab stallion are renowned, as is the white donkey of Al-Ahsa. Fish abound in the coastal waters and insects, scorpions, lizards, and snakes are numerous. Some beaches of the Farasãn Islands are nesting grounds for turtles. An annual gathering of harid parrotfish takes place on these islands, and the waters surrounding them are home to several types of dolphins, whales, and dugong (an aquatic mammal related to the manatee). As of 2002, there were at least 77 species of mammals, 125 species of birds, and over 2,000 species of plants throughout the country.


The Saudi government has traditionally not given priority to environmental protection, but in recent years it has become concerned about the continuing encroachment of sand dunes on agricultural land, the preservation and development of water resources, and pollution and sanitation problems. Legislation enacted in May 1978 forbade the felling of trees and regulated the protection of forestland. In 2000, less than 1% of the total land area was forested.

Saudi Arabia's natural environment was threatened by the Persian Gulf War. The dumping of up to six million barrels of oil in the surrounding waters and the destruction of Kuwait's oil wells by fire polluted the nation's air and water. Saudi Arabia has about 2 cu km of renewable water resources, with 90% of annual withdrawals used for farming and 1% used for industrial purposes. Only about 64% of the nation's rural population has access to safe drinking water. At current rates of consumption, it has been estimated that the nation's water supply may be exhausted in 1020 years. Saudi Arabia's cities produce an average of 4.8 million tons of solid waste per year.

The Directorate General for Environmental Protection is responsible for environmental protection measures and preservation of natural resources. In the late 1970s, the 'Asir Kingdom Park, in the southwest, was created to preserve the landforms, flora, and fauna of the 'Asir region, which forms part of the Great Rift Valley. Drakensberg Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), threatened species included 9 types of mammals, 17 species of birds, 2 types of reptiles, 9 species of fish, 1 species of invertebrate, and 3 species of plants. Threatened species in Saudi Arabia include the Asiatic cheetah (possibly extinct), South Arabian leopard, northern bald ibis, and two species of turtle (green sea and hawksbill). The Arabian gazelle, Queen of Sheba's gazelle, Saudi gazelle, and the Syrian wild ass have become extinct.


The population of Saudi Arabia in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 24,573,000, which placed it at number 46 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 3% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 37% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 117 males for every 100 females in the country. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 200510 was expected to be 2.7%, a rate the government viewed as satisfactory. The projected population for the year 2025 was 37,160,000. The overall population density was 12 per sq km (30 per sq mi), but much of the population is concentrated on the coasts or internal oases; desert regions are largely uninhabited.

The UN estimated that 86% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005 and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 2.95%. The capital city, Riyadh (Ar-Riyad), had a population of 5,126,000 in that year. Estimates of the population in other major metropolitan areas were as follows: Jeddah, the principal port, 3,807,000; and Mecca (Makkah), containing Islam's holiest shrine, 1,529,000. Other major cities include Medina (Al-Madinah), the second-holiest city of Islam, 1,044,000; Ad Dammām, 920,000; Aţ Tā'if, 416,121; and Al Hufūf, 225,847.


Emigration is limited. Immigration of professionals, technicians, and others from the surrounding Arab states and growing numbers from outside the region have been spurred by the development of the oil industry and by the lack of adequately trained and educated Saudi personnel. Palestinian Arabs, displaced by the establishment of the state of Israel, are the chief immigrant group. In the early 1990s, there were significant numbers of expatriate workers from the United States, European countries, Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia reacted by expelling workers from Jordan, Yemen, and Palestine, for their countries' support of Iraq. The foreign population was 4,624,459 in 1992 (27% of the total population). After the Gulf War, 93,000 Iraqis were granted temporary asylum. Since then, 60,000 Iraqis have been returned under the prisoner of war exchange. By April 1997, 20,800 had resettled in 33 different countries, 3,010 had voluntarily repatriated, and 9,000 were still in camps in Saudi Arabia. The total number of noncitizens living in the country in 2000 was 5,255,000. In 2004, Human Rights Watch, concerned with the treatment of foreign workers, estimated that there were 11.5 million people each from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan; another 900,000 each from Egypt, Sudan, and the Philippines; 500,000 workers from Indonesia; and another 350,000 from Sri Lanka. In 2005, the labor force was 6.76 million, with estimates that more than 35% of the population in the 1564 age group is nonnational.

By the end of 2004, there were 240,722 refugees and asylum seekers in Saudi Arabia. With 170 asylum seekers that year, the primary origin of this groundswell of refugees was Palestine, a trend following the beginning of the Iraq War. In 2005, the net migration rate was an estimated -3.5 migrants per 1,000 population, down from a net migration rate in 2000 of 4.3 migrants per 1,000 population.


At least 90% of Saudis have a common Arabian ancestry, making the population fairly homogeneous in ethnicity, religion, and language. Divisions are based mainly on tribal affiliation or descent; the primary distinction is between groups with a tradition of being sedentary agriculturalists or traders, and the Bedouins, who have a tradition of nomadic pastoralism. The two groups traditionally have been antagonistic. There has been some loosening of tribal ties, however, caused by rapid economic development. Afro-Asians account for the remaining 10% of the population. Admixtures of Turks, Iranians, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Indians, various African groups, and other non-Arab Muslim peoples appear in the Hijaz, mostly descendants of pilgrims to Mecca. The foreign population stands between six and seven million, including Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Sri Lankans, Eritreans, and Americans.


Arabic, the native language of the indigenous population, is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic. Local variations in pronunciation do not prevent oral communication between people from opposite sections of the Arabian Peninsula. The language is written in a cursive script from right to left. The 28 letters of the alphabet have initial, medial, and terminal forms; short vowels are seldom indicated. Most businesspeople and merchants in oil-producing areas and commercial centers understand English. Government correspondence must be written in Arabic.


Islam is the state religion and all citizens must be Muslims. About 85% of the people of Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims; the dominant form is Wahhabism, a fundamentalist Muslim reform movement first preached by the 18th-century religious leader Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab. Most other Saudis are Shia Muslims. The holy city of Mecca is the center of Islam and the site of the sacred Ka'bah sanctuary, toward which all Muslims face at prayer. A pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five basic obligations of Islam and is incumbent upon every Muslim who is physically and financially able to perform it.

There are several thousand foreign Christian employeesArab, US, and European. Jews have not been allowed to enter the country since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, except under special circumstances.

There is no religious freedom within the country. The government claims that the Holy Koran (Quran) and the Sunna (tradition) of the Prophet are the country's constitution. As such, the government strictly controls all religious activities. The public worship of non-Muslim faiths is prohibited. While non-Muslim foreigners are theoretically permitted to worship privately, the guidelines that distinguish between public and private worship are ambiguous, leading to severe restrictions on non-Muslim worship. Proselytizing of non-Muslim religions is illegal and conversion of Muslims to other faiths is a capital offense.


Until recent decades, the camel was the chief means of transportation in Saudi Arabia, but enormous strides have been made since the early 1970s. By 2002, there were 146,524 km (91,050 mi) of highway, of which 44,104 km (27,406 mi) were paved. Modern roads link Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Aţ Tā'if, and Riyadh. A new highway connects Saudi Arabia with Jordan, and a causeway completed in 1986 offers a direct connection with Bahrain. In 2003, there were 2,889,384 passenger cars and 1,720,910 commercial vehicles registered for use. Most within-country freight is hauled by truck. The Saudi Government Railroad, which operates between Ad Dammām and Riyadh over a length of 575 km (357 mi), was built by the Arabian American Oil Co. (ARAMCO) during the 1950s. As of 2004, railroad lines totaled 1,392 km (865 mi) of standard-gauge track.

In 2004, there were an estimated 201 airports. As of 2005, a total of 73 had paved runways, and there were also six heliports. Major airports include Dhahran International at Dhahran, King Abdul Aziz at Jeddah, and King Khaled International at Riyadh. The government-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) operates regular domestic and foreign flights to major cities. Because of the large distances that separate the main cities, air travel is preferred within the kingdom. In 2003, about 13.882 million passengers were carried on scheduled domestic and international flights.

Jeddah, on the Red Sea, is the chief port of entry for Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca. Saudi Arabia has the largest seaport network in the Near East, with eight major ports with 183 piers and three smaller ports. Ports include Ad Dammām, Yanbu' al-Bahr, Jizan, Duba, Jeddah, Jizan, Rabigh, Ra's al Khafji, Mishab, Ras Tanura, Madinat Yanbu' al Sinaiyah, and Jubail (Al-Jubayl). In 2005, there were 64 ships of 1,000 GRT or more, totaling 1,306,706 GRT in the merchant fleet. The traditional dhow is still used for coastal trade.


For several thousand years, Arabia has been inhabited by nomadic Semitic tribes. Towns were established at various oases and along caravan routes. During the 7th century ad, followers of Muhammad expanded beyond the Mecca-Medina region and within a century had conquered most of the Mediterranean region between Persia in the east and Spain in the west. Although Arabs were dominant in many parts of the Muslim world and there was a great medieval flowering of Arab civilization, the peninsula itself (except for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) declined in importance and remained virtually isolated for almost a thousand years. Throughout this period, Arabia was barely more than a province of successive Islamic caliphates that established their capitals in Damascus, Baghdād, Cairo, and Constantinople (now Istanbul).

The foundations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were laid in the 18th century by the fusion of the military power of the Sa'ud family and Wahhabism, an Islamic puritan doctrine preached by Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab. Muhammad ibn-Sa'ud (r.174465) and his son, 'Abd al-'Aziz (r.17651803), gave the religious reformer refuge at Ad-Dar'iyah, in central Arabia, and together they embarked on a program of religious reform and territorial expansion. By 1801, Najd and Al-Ahsa were occupied. 'Abd al-'Aziz's son and successor, Sa'ud (r.180314), brought the Hijaz under Saudi control and took the holy city of Mecca. The Ottoman Turks called on their governor of Egypt, Muhammad 'Ali, to put down the Saudis. A long struggle (181118) finally resulted in Saudi defeat. During that time, Sa'ud died, and his son, 'Abdallah (r.181418), was captured and beheaded.

When international conditions forced Muhammad 'Ali to withdraw his occupation forces in 1840, the Saudis embarked upon a policy of reconquest. Under Faisal (Faysal, r.184367), Wahhabi control was reasserted over Najd, Al-Ahsa, and Oman, with Riyadh as the new capital. (Hijaz remained under the control of the sharifs of Mecca until 1925.) After Faisal's death, conflict between his sons led to a decline in the family's fortunes. Taking advantage of these quarrels, the Ibn-Rashids, a former Saudi vassal family, gained control of Najd and conquered Riyadh. The Saudi family fled to Kuwait in 1891.

In January 1902, 'Abd al-'Aziz, a grandson of Faisal, who was to gain fame under the name Ibn-Sa'ud, succeeded in driving the Ibn-Rashid garrison out of Riyadh. At a decisive battle in 1906, the Rashidi power was broken. In 1913, the Saudis again brought Al-Ahsa under their control, and in December 1915, Ibn-Sa'ud signed a treaty with the British that placed Saudi foreign relations under British control in return for a sizable subsidy.

Warfare broke out again in Arabia in 1919, when Hussein ibn'Ali (Husayn ibn-'Ali), the sharif of Mecca, who had become an independent king, attacked the Saudis. Hussein was defeated, and Ibn-Sa'ud annexed 'Asir. In 1921, he finally rid Arabia of the Rashids, and by 1923, he had consolidated his kingdom by occupying the districts west and north of Ha'il. Hussein of Mecca provoked another conflict with Ibn-Sa'ud in March 1924 by proclaiming himself caliph. War broke out, and the Saudis captured Aţ Tā'if, Mecca, and Medina (December 1925). 'Ali ibn-Hussein ('Ali ibn-Husayn), who had replaced his father as king of Hijaz, then abdicated, and in November 1925, Ibn-Sa'ud entered Jeddah. This increase in Ibn-Sa'ud's territory was acknowledged by the British in a treaty of 20 May 1927 that annulled the 1915 agreement and recognized his independence. On 22 September 1932, the various parts of the realm were amalgamated into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with much the same boundaries that exist today.

With the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the history of Saudi Arabia was irrevocably altered. Reserves have proved vastabout one-fourth of the world's totaland production, begun in earnest after World War II, has provided a huge income, much of it expended on infrastructure and social services. Saudi Arabia's petroleum derived wealth has considerably enhanced the country's influence in world economic and political forums. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Saudi government undertook a vast aid program in support of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Saudi Arabia joined the 1973 Arab boycott against the United States and the Netherlands and, as a key member of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), lent its support to the huge rise in oil prices during the 1970s. This move had stunning consequences for the world economy and also caused a dramatic upsurge in Saudi Arabia's wealth and power. Since the 1980s, the government has regulated its petroleum production to stabilize the international oil market and has used its influence as the most powerful moderate member of OPEC to restrain the more radical members.

Political life in Saudi Arabia remained basically stable in the last third of the 20th century, despite several abrupt changes of leadership. In November 1964, Crown Prince Faisal (Faysal ibn 'Abd al'Aziz as-Sa'ud), a son of Ibn-Sa'ud, became king and prime minister following the forced abdication of his brother, King Sa'ud. His first act as prime minister was to announce a sweeping reorganization of the government, and his major social reform was the abolition of slavery. In March 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew in an apparently isolated act of revenge. Faisal was succeeded by Crown Prince Khaled (Khalid ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz as-Sa'ud), who embarked on an expanded development program. King Khaled died of a heart attack in June 1982, and his half-brother, Crown Prince Fahd ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz as-Sa'ud, ascended the throne. King Fahd encouraged continuing modernization while seeking to preserve the nation's social stability and Islamic heritage. King Fahd, who had been frail since suffering a debilitating stroke in 1995, died at the age of 82 on 1 August 2005. He had delegated the daily affairs of state to Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Sa'ud, his half-brother, since his stroke. Upon Fahd's death, Abdullah became king.

As the custodian of the holy Muslim shrines at Mecca and Medina, the monarchy has been deeply embarrassed by several incidents: the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by about 500 Islamic militants in 1979, which led to the deaths of more than 160; a riot by Iranian pilgrims during the 1987 pilgrimage, which cost 400 lives; and the suffocation of over 1,400 pilgrims in a tunnel at the Grand Mosque in 1990. Misfortune continued in 1994, when a stampede in Mecca killed 270 pilgrims rushing toward a cavern for a symbolic stoning ritual, and in 1997, when as many as 300 pilgrims were killed in a fire at a campsite outside the holy city. In 2004, a stampede during the Hajj pilgrimage left 251 dead.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia, fearing Iraqi aggression, radically altered its traditional policy to permit the stationing of foreign troops on its soil. (The government was criticized by senior Saudi religious scholars for taking this step.) Riyadh made substantial contributions of arms, oil, and funds to the allied victory. It also expelled workers from Jordan, Yemen, and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for giving support to Iraq in the period after the invasion. Saudi Arabia's wealth and selective generosity has given it great political influence throughout the world and especially in the Middle East. It suspended aid to Egypt after that country's peace talks with Israel at Camp David, Maryland, but renewed relations in 1987. It secretly made substantial funds available to US president Ronald Reagan's administration for combating Marxist regimes in Central America. The kingdom played a key role in creating the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in working for an end to the civil strife in Lebanon. It actively supported Iraq during the war with Iran and tried, in vain, to prevent the conflict with Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia and the United States consult closely on political, economic, commercial, and security matters. The United States, with the United Kingdom, is a major supplier of arms and offers training and other support to the kingdom's defenses. These supports grew more visible following the Gulf War and continued Iraqi intransigence in the face of increased US and international pressure to disarm. The increased US military presence in Saudi Arabia in 199394 caused considerable irritation among conservative elements of Saudi society, who felt that the US military presence was blasphemous to Islam. In 1995, seven people, including five Americans, were killed in a terrorist attack on a Saudi National Guard Training Center in Riyadh. In June 1996, a car bomb detonated in front of a housing complex for US military personnel, killing 19 US servicemen, causing considerable uproar in the United States, and leading military planners to relocate US military bases to remote desert areas.

By the end of the 1990s, the Islamist backlash that followed Saudi-US cooperation in the Gulf War had been contained through the (mostly) temporary detention of hundreds of Islamic radicals and the long-term detention of their most prominent leaders. At the turn of the 21st century, much of the Saudis' attention was focused on unaccustomed economic pressures resulting from a 40% drop in oil prices in 1998. With almost half its GDP coming from oil, the country's budget deficit had soared as export revenues plummeted. Crown Prince Abdullah was instrumental in pushing through the production cutbacks agreed to by the OPEC countries in March 1999.

At a summit held in Beirut in March 2002, the Arab League accepted a Saudi proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah. Known as the "Beirut Declaration," the plan offered Israel normalized relations with the Arab states and a guarantee of peace and security in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem," and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state with its capital at East Jerusalem. The proposal was introduced against the backdrop of an escalation in violence in Israel and the occupied territories in spring 2002. In April, Crown Prince Abdullah met with US president George W. Bush, and presented him with an eight-point list of proposed agreements for immediate peace in the Middle East. After the peace plan was put forward, however, the violence in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza increased.

Because 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were Saudis, in addition to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the United States placed pressure on Saudi Arabia to undertake counterterrorism measures. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Saudi Arabia debated what degree of support it would offer the United States in the event of a war with Iraq. On 26 February 2003, Saudi Arabia stated that it would allow the use of the Prince Sultan Air Base, where most of the 5,000 US troops based in the kingdom were located, only for the enforcement of a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq. It stated that it would not agree to allow US troops and planes based in the country to undertake a war with Iraq. The war began on 19 March 2003. In April, the United States announced it would pull nearly all of its military forces out of Saudi Arabia. Both countries stressed that they would remain allies.

Saudi Arabia's stability began to be seriously rocked in the early 2000s, with a series of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks aimed at Western and local targets. In May 2003, suicide bombers killed 35 people at housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh. In November 2003, another suicide attack on a residential compound in Riyadh left 17 dead. During April 2004, four police officers and a security officer were killed in attacks near Riyadh, and a car bomb at a security forces' headquarters left four dead and 148 wounded. A group linked to the terrorist organization al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the act. Al-Qaeda has long demanded that the Saudi regime sever its ties to the West and to America in particular. It also holds that the Saudi regime is corrupt. In May 2004, an attack at a petrochemical site in Yanbu killed five foreigners. That month, an attack and hostage taking at an oil company compound in Khobar left 22 people dead. In June 2004, three gun attacks in Riyadh resulted in the deaths of two Americans and a British cameraman. The same week, an American engineer was abducted and beheaded; his death, which was filmed, caused revulsion in the United States. Shortly thereafter, security forces killed a local al-Qaeda leader, Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin. An amnesty program for militants that followed had only a limited effect on the increasingly violent climate. In December 2004, an attack on the US consulate in Jeddah resulted in the deaths of five staff and four attackers. That month, two car bombs exploded in central Riyadh, and security forces killed seven suspects in a subsequent raid.

While the Saudi regime was being destabilized by terrorist attacks, calls for political reform caused concern among the rulers and pointed to a need to respond to such demands for change. In September 2003, 300 intellectuals, both men and women, signed a petition calling for far-reaching political reforms. In October, the police broke up an unprecedented rally for political reform in the center of Riyadh; more than 270 people were arrested. In November 2003, King Fahd granted wider powers to the Majlis al Shura (Consultative Council), enabling it to propose legislation without his permission. From February to April 2005, the firstever nationwide municipal elections were held, although women were not permitted to take part in the vote.


Saudi Arabia is a religiously based monarchy in which the sovereign's dominant powers are regulated according to Muslim law (Shariah), tribal law, and custom.

There is no written constitution; laws must be compatible with Islamic law. In a decree of March 1992, the king was granted exclusive power to name the crown prince his successor. The Council of Ministers, first set up in 1953, is appointed by the king to advise on policy, originate legislation, and supervise the growing bureaucracy. The post of prime minister is reserved for the king and the crown prince is appointed first deputy prime minister. Most other important posts in the cabinet are reserved for members of the royal family.

In 1992, King Fahd announced the creation of the Majlis al Shura, or Consultative Council, an advisory body that would provide a forum for public debate. The king appointed 60 male citizens not belonging to the royal family to four-year terms on this body, which held its first meeting on 29 December 1992. In 1997, King Fahd increased the size of the Majlis to 90 members. In 2001, membership was increased to 120. In 2003, King Fahd expanded the powers of the Majlis al Shura. In 2005, nationwide municipal elections were held, although women did not participate.


Although there are no political parties in Saudi Arabia, various groups do function as blocs, contending for influence. Important among these groups are the conservative 'ulama (religious scholars) and the members of the royal family. Other alliancesamong merchants, businessmen, professionals, and leading familiesare concerned with economic matters. There is also a small but growing middle class that seems to want greater political participation and a less restrictive social environment. Each group brings its weight to bear on the policy-making bodies of the government and the king, whose leadership is upheld so long as he adheres to Islamic law, tradition, and the collective decisions of the 'ulama. In opposition to the royal family are small, strictly outlawed groups of prodemocracy activists and extremist Islamists, who have engaged in terrorist attacks, principally against signs of Western influence. Identified groups connected with Islamists include the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, the Reform Movement, and the Islamic Awakening.


The kingdom is divided into 13 emirates, each headed by a crown-appointed governor, often a prince or other member of the royal household or a member from an allied family. The provinces are subdivided into 103 governorates. Tribal and village leaders (sheikhs) report directly to provincial governors, giving the central government some control over outlying regions. Provincial governors, in turn, report to the minister of the interior. Each sheikh traditionally rules in consultation with a council. A large segment of the population remains tribally organized: tribes, headed by paramount sheikhs, are divided into subtribes, headed by local sheikhs. Decisions are made by tribal sheikhs, emirs, or other chiefs and their councils (majlis ).


The king acts as the highest court of appeal and has the power of pardon; access to the king and the right to petition him are well-established traditions. The judiciary consists of lower courts that handle misdemeanors and minor civil cases; high courts of Islamic law (Shariah); and courts of appeal. Islamic law of the Hanbali school prevails in Saudi Arabia, but justice is also based on tribal and customary law. Capital and corporal punishment are permitted; a 12-member Supreme Council of Justice reviews all sentences of execution, cutting, or stoning. A separate military justice system exercises jurisdiction over uniformed personnel and civilian government authorities.

There is no written constitution. The Justice Ministry is responsible for appointment and promotion of judges, who are confirmed by the Royal Court (Royal Diwan). Judges may be removed only by the Supreme Council of Justice or by royal decree. Although independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law, courts are subject to the influence of royal family members. At the provincial level, governors also reportedly exercise influence over local judges.

Shariah summary courts have jurisdiction over common criminal cases and civil suits regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. While summary courts try cases involving small penalties, more serious crimes go to the Shariah courts of common pleas. Appeals from both courts are heard by the appeals courts in Mecca and Riyadh. There is also a Court of Cassation, as well as administrative tribunals that deal with proceedings involving claims against the government and enforcement of foreign judgments.

The military tribunals have jurisdiction over military personnel and civil servants charged with violation of military regulations.


Saudi Arabia's armed forces totaled 199,500 active personnel in 2005, including the 75,000 members of the National Guard. The Army had 75,000 personnel and was equipped with 1,055 main battle tanks, 300 reconnaissance vehicles, over 970 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 3,190 armored personnel carriers, and 868 artillery pieces. The Army's aviation forces operated 12 attack helicopters. The Navy's active manpower totaled 15,500 personnel, including 3,000 Marines. The Navy was equipped with 7 frigates, 4 corvettes, 66 patrol/coastal craft, and 7 mine warfare vessels. The Navy's aviation wing operated 19 assault helicopters. The Air Force had 18,000 active personnel and was eqipped with 291 combat-capable aircraft, including 191 fighters and 85 fighter ground attack aircraft. The National Guard was used chiefly for internal security and is an elite strategic reserve loyal to the royal family. Saudi Arabia also had a 10,500-member frontier force, a 4,500-member Coast Guard, and a 500-member Special Security Force. The armed forces were equipped with the most advanced weaponry, including five Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft, which were sold to Saudi Arabia by the United States in 1981, over Israel's strenuous objections, as part of an $8.5 billion arms deal. In 2005, the defense budget for Saudi Arabia totaled $21.3 billion. The United States had a 300-member joint Army/Air Force training force in the country.


Saudi Arabia is a charter member of the United Nations (UN), having joined on 24 October 1945, and participates in ESCWA and several nonregional specialized agencies, such as the FAO, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNCTAD, the ILO, the World Bank, the IAEA, and the WHO. It is a founding member of the Arab League, OPEC, and OAPEC. Saudi Arabia is also a member of the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the African Development Bank, G-77, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the GCC. The nation has observer status with the OAS and the WTO.

Saudi Arabia has played a key role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Although supporting the Palestinian cause and the Arab League's boycott of Israel, the Saudi government in 1981 proposed that the Arab nations show willingness to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel in return for its withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 war (including the West Bank and East Jerusalem). Saudi Arabia supported international efforts against Iraq in the 199091 Gulf War and the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. In February 2005, the Saudi government sponsored the firstever Counterterrorism International Conference in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is part of the Nonaligned Movement.

In environmental cooperation, Saudi Arabia is part of the Basel Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES, the Kyoto Protocol, the Montréal Protocol, and the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea, Climate Change, and Desertification.


The economy is heavily dependent on oil production, which provides approximately 45% of gross domestic product (GDP), 90% of export value, and 75% of government revenues. The country has the largest reserves of petroleum in the world, 25% of the proven total, with its northern neighbor, Iraq, holding second place and two other Arab neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, third and fourth. Rapidly increasing oil income after the first oil shock, 197374, led by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel, was used to increase disposable income, defense expenditures, and economic development. OPEC was able to enforce a quadrupling of oil prices (from $2.50/bbl to $10/bbl) largely because of King Faisal's agreement to deploy the oil weapon in conjunction with the Yom Kippur War. Per capita income in current dollars peaked at $15,700 in 1980 after the second oil shock, in 197879, in conjunction with the Iranian Islamic revolution, sent oil prices to all-time highs, peaking at just over $40/bbl in September 1980 at the start of the Iran-Iraq War. From there, population growth (about 350% 1973 to 2003, from 6.76 million to 24.3 million, including an estimated 5 million nonnationals), a decreasing OPEC share of world oil production (from over 50% in 1973 to less than 30% in 1985 to about 40% in 2003), oil conservation efforts among consumers, and limited success in diversifying the economy combined to reduce per capita income to $10,462 by 2004 (equivalent to $11,804 in purchasing power parity terms). The contribution of the oil sector (crude oil and refined products) to overall GDP, nevertheless, has substantially decreased, from 70% in 1980 to an estimated 45% in 2006.

The government has always made economic diversification a top priority, seeking to develop industries using petroleum, such as petrochemicals, as well as to finance industrialization. By 1989, the massive Jubail and Yanbu'al-Bahr industrial complexes, combining petrochemicals and steel production, had been largely completed. In the capital-intensive oil industry, the Saudis have relied heavily on foreign workers, who make up about 20% of the population. The kingdom's intolerance of democratic processes, labor unions, women's participation in the workplace, and foreign influences are impediments to development.

There are, however, mounting pressures for economic reform, including falling per capita income, attendant social frustrations, the emergence of government deficits, and a sizeable, though still manageable, external debt. In 1998, the government, led by Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah, embarked on a privatization strategy as a means of restoring per capita growth. In 1998, the Saudi Telecommunications Co. (STC) and the Saudi Electricity Co. (SEC) began privatizing telecommunications and electric power services.

Real growth of GDP averaged about 2.6% between 1988 and 1998. The economy shrank by 11% in 1998 due to low world oil prices but posted a 1% gain in 1999. Real GDP growth averaged 3.6% over the period 200004. Driven by high oil prices and rising production, economic growth was forecast to stay strong in 2006 and 2007, as oil revenues, though declining, are predicted to remain firm. Real GDP growth was projected to reach 3.7% in 2007, as oil output is expected to rise more firmly that year.

The economy remains dominated by large state-owned monopolies. For 2005, the private sector accounted for about 40% of GDP. The government is considering privatizing the national airline, petrochemical industries, the telecommunication sector, and electricity companies to foster diversification. The government encourages growth in agriculture as a means of reducing Saudi Arabia's reliance on food imports, but dramatic reductions in farm subsidies have resulted in a continuing decline in agricultural output.


The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that in 2005 Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $340.5 billion. The CIA defines GDP as the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year and computed on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than value as measured on the basis of the rate of exchange based on current dollars. The per capita GDP was estimated at $12,900. The annual growth rate of GDP was estimated at 6.4%. The average inflation rate in 2005 was 0.6%. It was estimated that agriculture accounted for 3.3% of GDP, industry 74.7%, and services 21.9%.

Foreign aid receipts amounted to $22 million (about $1 per capita) and accounted for approximately 0.0% of the gross national income (GNI).

The World Bank reports that in 2003 household consumption in Saudi Arabia totaled $71.160 billion (about $3,163 per capita), based on a GDP of $212.6 billion, measured in current dollars rather than PPP. Household consumption includes expenditures of individuals, households, and nongovernmental organizations on goods and services, excluding purchases of dwellings.


The total labor force in Saudi Arabia as of 2005 was estimated at 6.76 million. In 2002, the services sector accounted for 74.2% of the workforce, with industry at 21%, agriculture at 4.7%, and 0.1% in undefined occupations. Approximately 35% of the Saudi labor force between the ages of 15 and 64 were foreigners, working mostly in the oil and construction sector. Estimates of the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia varied widely in 2004. Unemployment among males was estimated by a local bank at 13%, although other estimates go as high as 25%.

Labor unions are illegal and collective bargaining is forbidden as well. Workers have few protections against employers. This is especially true of foreign workers, who are often forced to work long hours and beyond the terms specified by their contracts. Foreign workers have little redress against Saudi employers, since the labor system usually sides with the latter and employers can delay cases until the workers have to return home. Saudi employers routinely prevent workers from obtaining exit visas. In 2001, the government allowed the formation of labor committees, which are permitted to make recommendations to employers.

By royal decree, an eight-hour day and 48-hour week are standard. It is reported that domestic workers labor up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Labor regulations require protection from hazard and disease for employees except farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, and family-operated business employees. Labor outdoors is prohibited when the temperature exceeds 50°c (122°f). Foreign workers report that these regulations are seldom enforced. With the consent of parents, children may work as young as 13, and children rarely work in Saudi Arabia outside of family businesses. There is no minimum wage.


Agriculture engages 10% of the economically active population and accounts for about 5% of GDP. Only about 1.8% of Saudi Arabia's land area is cultivated, although 40% is suitable for grazing. Small owner-operated farms characterize Saudi Arabia's land-tenure system. About 96% of the farm area is owned, and only 4% rented. Less than 3% of the agricultural holdings are of eight hectares (20 acres) or more, and 45% are 0.4 hectare (1 acre) or less in size. About two-thirds of the cropped land is used for cereals and the remainder for vegetables and fruit. Although Saudi Arabia has more than 18 million date palms and provides over 13% of the world's supply of dates (an estimated 900,500 tons in 2004), the growing of dates has declined in favor of wheat, corn, sorghum, tomatoes, onions, grapes, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Nevertheless, dates remain the only major staple food crop with production sufficient to meet local demand. Saudi Arabia is 85% self-sufficient for vegetables and 66% for fruit. Wheat output increased from an estimated 150,000 tons in the late 1970s to 1,700,000 tons in 1985, and the government claimed that it had met total domestic demand by 198687. Production of wheat totaled 2,358,000 tons in 2004; government subsidies have led to a recurring overproduction of wheat. In 1989, the government attempted to discourage production by cutting price supports, but production is still several times higher than domestic demand. Barley production amounted to 138,400 tons in 2004.

Aquifers supply 80% of agriculture's water requirements but are not renewable. As of 2003, 43% of the arable land was irrigated. Agricultural irrigation accounts for 90% of total water needs, with wheat production alone using about one-third of the country's annual water supply.


As of 2005, Saudi Arabia had an estimated 7,000,000 sheep, 2,200,000 goats, 260,000 camels, 350,000 head of cattle, 100,000 donkeys, and 3,000 horses. As imports of animal foodstuffs have increased and as greater varieties of agricultural products have been produced locally, camels have declined steadily in importance as a source of food. Arabia has long been famed for its horses, but the importance of the Arabian horse as an export item is now virtually nil. Donkeys and mules are still valued as pack animals, and the white donkeys of Al-Ahsa are well known. Sheep are found in all parts of Saudi Arabia where pasturage is available; they are raised for milk, as well as for meat and wool. Goats are kept for milk; their hair is used in rugs and tents, and the skins serve as water bags. Traditional farmers account for 80% of the kingdom's sheep production. Overall sheep production is expected to increase significantly in the next few years as a result of expansion in existing farms and establishment of new sheep breeding and fattening projects. About seven million head of live sheep are imported every year. The import level is expected to remain about the same in upcoming years, partly as a result of the increasing number of pilgrims who come to Mecca for the Hajj. Beef has not been a significant part of the Saudi diet, and most beef and veal is consumed by expatriates, as traditional Saudis prefer camel meat. Concern over BSE (the so-called Mad Cow disease) in 1996 led the government to ban beef imports from Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and Portugal.

The output of poultry and eggs doubled during 197580, and in 2005, Saudi Arabia had an estimated 141 million poultry. Saudi Arabia is self-sufficient in milk productionin 2005, 1,149,000 tons were produced. There is no hog raising, and importation of pork products is banned, as it is contrary to Islamic law.


Fishing provides employment and self-sufficiency to some communities on both Saudi coasts, although cash earnings are negligible. With rare exceptions, traditional fishing techniques are used. One of the few growth areas in this sector has been the export of Gulf shrimp. The fish catch was estimated at 64,753 tons in 2003.


The only forest growth is found in the mountainous area that extends from southern Hijaz to 'Asir, accounting for no more than 0.6% of the total area. The principal varietiesacacia, date, juniper, wild olive, sidr, tamarind, and tamariskare generally not useful for timber, but some wood from date palms is used for construction. The trade deficit in forestry products was $739 million in 2004.


Oil continues to dominate Saudi Arabia's mining sector. The country supplied 12.8% of the world's crude oil output in 2003. Petroleum and petroleum products accounted for 90% of the country's export earnings in 2002 and 70% of government revenues. Crude oil and natural gas accounted for 42% of GDP; other minerals contributed 0.4% of GDP. Saudi Arabia has nevertheless diversified by expanding its gold production, as well as production of cement, fertilizer, petrochemicals, and steel. Cement production, construction, and fertilizer manufacturing ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively, among the country's leading industries in 2002.

Production of ore concentrate and bullion (metal content) in 2003 included copper, 800 metric tons (estimated); gold, 8,769 kg, and silver, 13,000 kg (estimated). In 2003, the country also produced lead, zinc, barite, basalt clays phosphatic fertilizer, granite crude gypsum, lime, limestone marble, nitrogen, nitrogenous fertilizers, pozzolan, salt, sand and gravel, silica sand, scoria, and sulfur. Mining operations continue at the ancient gold and silver underground mine Mahd adh-Dhahab (literally, "cradle of gold"), which is located southeast of Medina and probably dates from the time of King Solomon (10th century bc). Other gold producers are the open-pit silver and gold Amar Mine, southwest of Riyadh, which began operations in 2000, and the Sukhaybirat surface mine, northwest of Riyadh.

Feasibility studies at the Balghah Mine estimated resources to be 40 million tons at a grade of 1 grams per ton of gold. The remote Zabirah bauxite deposit has minable resources of 102 million tons. About 3,000 showings for at least 50 metallic and nonmetallic minerals have been located. Substantial national reserves of gold, iron ore, silver, copper, zinc, lead, pyrites, phosphate, magnesite, barite, marble, and gypsum have been suspected. An intensive search was under way by Saudi and foreign companies.

All minerals, including petroleum and natural gas, are owned by the government. A modern mining code encourages foreign participation, although majority holdings by national interests have increasingly been stressed. The Foreign Investment Act of 2000 gave international investors the same rights and privileges as Saudi investors. The government was also considering a revised mineral policy to attract additional investment in the mining sector. In 2000, the government established the Supreme Council for Petroleum and Mineral Affairs. The state-owned Saudi Arabian Mining Co. (Ma'aden) was created in 1997 and participated actively in and promoted mineral exploration and mining activities throughout the kingdom. Several metal and industrial mineral mining projects were expected to come onstream within the next 10 years.


Saudi Arabia has one-fourth of the world's proven oil reserves and some of the lowest oil production costs. For the foreseeable future, Saudi Arabia will likely remain the largest net exporter of oil in the world. It is also a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

As of 1 January 2005, Saudi Arabia had proven oil reserves estimated at 261.9 billion barrels, which includes 2.5 billion barrels, or half of the oil reserves in the Saudi-Kuwaiti divided, or neutral, zone. About two-thirds of the country's reserves are graded as "light" or "extra light," with the remainder in the "medium" or "heavy" grades. Saudi Arabia has around 80 oil and gas fields and more than 1,000 wells. However, more than 50% of the country's oil reserves are in only eight fields. This includes the Ghawar and the Safaniya fields. The former has estimated reserves of 70 billion barrels and is the world's largest oil field, while the latter is the world's largest offshore oil field, with reserves estimated at 35 billion barrels. Oil production in 2004 (including the neutral zone) was estimated at 10.4 million barrels per day, of which 9.6 million barrels per day consisted of crude oil, and 1.2 million barrels per day were natural gas liquids. As a member of OPEC, Saudi Arabia is subject to OPEC's production quotas. As of July 1, 2005, the quota was set at 9.099 million barrels per day. As of July 2005, Saudi Arabia's crude oil production capacity stood at 10.5 to 11 million barrels per day. Domestic oil consumption in 2005 was estimated at 1.9 million barrels per day.

Saudi Arabia has eight oil refineries. As of 1 January 2005, Saudi Arabia's crude oil refining capacity was estimated at 1.745 million barrels per day.

In addition to its vast oil reserves, Saudi Arabia also has proven natural gas reserves estimated as of 1 January 2005 at 235.0 trillion cu ft (including the neutral zone), which places the country fourth in the world behind Russia, Iran, and Qatar, respectively. About 60% of the country's natural gas reserves are associated or produced along with oil, and come from the Ghawar, Safaniya, and Zuluf fields. One-third of the country's natural gas reserves are in the Ghawar field alone. In 2002, Saudi Arabia's gross production of natural gas was 2,119.61 billion cu ft of natural gas, of which 8.12 billion cu ft was vented or flared; 3.18 billion cu ft reinjected; and 2,108.31 billion cu ft marketed. Of the marketed amount, 2,002.36 billion cu ft was consumed domestically.

As of 2005, two major pipelines operated actively in Saudi Arabia: the five million barrel per day Petroline, used to transport crude oil to refineries in western Saudi Arabia and to the Red Sea for export, and the 290,000 barrel per day Abqaiq-Yanbu pipeline, which carries natural gas liquids to petrochemical plants in Yanbu. The IPSA pipeline had been closed indefinitely since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Saudi Arabia has limited waterpower resources, and oil-powered diesel engines generate most of its electric power. Electrical service, which reached 2.2 million people in 1975, was extended to 4.2 million in 1979 and, by 1990, reached 92% of the population. Total installed generating capacity was estimated at 26.6 GW in 2003. Production of electricity in 2003 amounted to an estimated 145.1 billion kWh, of which 100% was from fossil fuels. As of 2002, demand for power was growing about 5% annually, and it was estimated that capacity would need to be nearly doubled by 2020 to meet the country's needs. In 2002, demand for electric power came to 127.310 billion kWh. Solar energy is becoming increasingly important as an alternative to diesel power, particularly for use in the desalination of seawater.


Although the Saudi economy has been virtually synonymous with crude oil, the country is attempting to diversify its manufacturing. Industrial products include cement, steel, glass, metal manufactures, automotive parts, and building materials, along with petroleum refinery products and petrochemicals (primarily methanol, ethylene, and polypropylene).

Industries producing consumer goods for the local market rely for the most part on imported raw materials. The most notable growth has occurred in food processing, such as meat-packing plants, flour mills, ice cream, yogurt, other dairy processing plants, and vegetable canneries. Other companies produce canvas cloth, surgical supplies, paper products, plastic pipes, electric appliances, paints, detergents, and pharmaceuticals.


The government encourages importation of high technology, especially in the oil industry, but its own commitment to national technological development has been limited. The Industrial Studies and Development Center is located in Riyadh, and the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals, founded in 1963, is in Dhahran. Other institutions offering courses in basic and applied sciences include King Abdulaziz University, founded in 1967 at Jeddah; King Faisal University, founded in 1975 at Dammam and Al-Hassa; King Sa'ud University, founded in 1957 at Riyadh; and Yanbu Industrial College, founded in 1989 at Yanbu al-Sinaiyeh. In 198797, science and engineering students accounted for 17% of college and university enrollments. The King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology was founded in 1977 at Riyadh to formulate national policy for science and technology development and to draw up strategy and plans for its implementation.


Jeddah and Riyadh are the commercial and business centers of the country. Most major cities host large, modern supermarkets and specialty retail stores offering wide varieties of goods and services. Franchising has become popular with a wide range of goods and service-based establishments. Barter is the traditional means by which nomads and farmers obtain each other's products, and weekly markets are held in villages and small towns. However, the economy is being progressively monetized and is now completely so in the towns and cities. Newspapers, magazines, and billboards are the principal means of advertising.

Normal business hours vary in different provinces but are usually from 8 am to 12 noon and from 3 to 6 pm, Saturday through Wednesday. During the month of Ramadan, the workday is limited to six hours. Banks are generally open from 8 am to 12 noon, Saturday through Wednesday. Government offices and private businesses are closed Thursdays and Fridays. Markets and shops are open until 9 pm. Most businesses, including stores and restaurants, take breaks at the designated Muslim prayer times, which occur five times throughout the day. These breaks generally last about a half hour each.


Saudi Arabia's commodity exports are dominated by mineral fuels, which account for 13% of the world's mineral fuel exports. Crude petroleum (79% of total exports, 16.3% of world crude petroleum exports) and refined petroleum products (12% and 7.1%, respectively) are the largest exports. Other exports include polymers (1.2%) and industrial alcohols (1.4%, accounting for 8.1% of the world's industrial alcohol exports).

Saudi Arabia's leading markets in 2004 were: the United States (18.5% of all exports), Japan (15.2%), South Korea (10.1%), and China (5.7%). The leading suppliers were the United States (9.3% of all imports), Germany (6.6%), Japan (6.5%), and the United Kingdom (5.3%).

In 2004, exports were valued at $113 billion, and imports were valued at approximately $36 billion, for a trade surplus of $77 billion.


In 2000, foreign worker remittances, approximately $18 billion per year, continued to drain the current account. There are roughly six to seven million foreign workers and their families living in the country, and the remittances cause the currency to be subject to a mild devaluating pressure. Strong oil exports in the early 2000s, however, kept the current account in surplus.

In 2000, the current account recorded a $14.3 billion surplus, which declined (in line with oil revenue) to $9.4 billion in 2001, despite a significant fall in service debits. Higher oil prices and output in 2002 and 2003 saw the current account surplus widen again, to $11.9 billion and $28 billion, respectively. This surplus reached a record $51.5 billion in 2004. Due to projected higher oil prices and rising production, trade-driven current account surpluses were expected to widen further in 2005, 2006, and 2007.


Until the mid-20th century, Saudi Arabia had no formal money and banking system. To the degree that money was used, Saudis primarily used coins having a metallic content equal to their value

Current Account 29,701.0
     Balance on goods 61,546.0
         Imports -33,913.0
         Exports 95,369.0
     Balance on services -15,453.0
     Balance on income -1,285.0
     Current transfers -15,016.0
Capital Account
Financial Account -28,093.0
     Direct investment abroad
     Direct investment in Saudi Arabia -587.0
     Portfolio investment assets -18,765.0
     Portfolio investment liabilities
     Financial derivatives
     Other investment assets -7,957.0
     Other investment liabilities -784.0
Net Errors and Omissions
Reserves and Related Items -1,608.0
() data not available or not significant.

(full-bodied coins) for storing value and limited exchange transactions in urban areas. For centuries, foreign coins had served the local inhabitants' monetary needs. Development of banking was inhibited by the Quranic injunction against interest. A few banking functions existed, such as money changers (largely for pilgrims visiting Mecca), who had informal connections with international currency markets. A foreign bank was established in Jeddah in 1926, but its importance was minor. Foreign and domestic banks were formed as oil revenues began to increase. Their business consisted mostly of making short-term loans to finance imports, commercial trading, and businesses catering to pilgrims. Although lending at interest is prohibited by Islamic law, banking has flourished in Saudi Arabia as a conduit for the investment of oil money. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) was established by royal decree in 1952 to maintain the internal and external value of currency. The agency issues notes and coins with 100% cover in gold and convertible foreign exchange and regulates all banks and exchange dealers.

In 2002, there were 10 commercial banking houses, the largest of which was the National Commercial Bank. Cumulatively, the total size of the bank's balance sheets stood at over sr110 billion, with operating profits of sr2 billion in 2001. Eight of the 10 are joint-venture banks. The major foreign partners include Citibank, Arab Bank Ltd., Banque Indosuez, HSBC Holdings, and ABN Amro. The International Monetary Fund reports that in 2001, currency and demand depositsan aggregate commonly known as M1were equal to $48.0 billion. In that same year, M2an aggregate equal to M1 plus savings deposits, small time deposits, and money market mutual fundswas $88.4 billion.

SAMA runs a stock exchange in Saudi Arabia, created in 1990 as an over-the-counter market in which the commercial banks buy and sell shares by means of an electronic trading system. Although this system has facilitated easy access to transactions, the market remains relatively illiquid because of the small numbers of issuers and the narrow investor base. There are 76 companies listed on the exchange. The value of traded shares was $22.2 billion in 2001, a turnover ratio of 31.7%. Total market capitalization was just over $73 billion. The new IFCG Saudi Index closed up 7.4% in 2001, its fourth year of existence, after surging increases of 49% and 16.3% in 1999 and 2000, respectively. The market is closed to direct foreign investment, but foreigners can buy and trade shares of Saudi companies within a closed-end fund listed in the United Kingdom. As of 2004, a total of 73 companies were listed on the Tadwul Saudi Stock Market, which had a market capitalization of $306.248 billion. In that same year, the TASI Index rose 84.9% to 8,206.2.


There were at least 70 insurance firms operating in Saudi Arabia in 1998, offering all categories and classes of insurance. The National Company for Cooperative Insurance, founded by royal decree in 1985 and owned by three government agencies, has share capital of sr250 million. In all, insurance premiums amount to over $760 million. Premiums covering oil facilities, major projects, marine and aviation represent over 44% of total premiums, motor insurance accounts for 23%, medical 18%, and fire 14%. Insurance organizations in Saudi Arabia are regulated by the Ministry of Commerce. One insurer is officially licensed by the kingdom, the National Company for Cooperative Insurance, which is primarily owned by the government. Insurance companies operating in the country adhere to the tenets of Islam, which does not recognize insurance. For this reason, there are no insurance laws on the books, except those dealing with benefits for injured employees. In 2003, the value of all direct insurance premiums written totaled $941 million, of which nonlife premiums accounted for $902 million. There is no data available on the country's leading insurance companies.


Public expenditures typically have acted as the vanguard for economic growth and development since the early 1970s. After completing the infrastructure in the 1970s and early 1980s, the emphasis of development expenditures moved to education and training to encourage private enterprise. By 1987, 70% of non-oil GDP was coming from the private sector. Deficits have been common since 1983, as oil revenues have declined. Oil revenues typically account for nearly 75% of government revenues. Deep budget cuts over the past years; higher charges on energy, electricity, water, telephone, worker and visa fees; and reduced subsidies on fuels, utilities, and airline fares have combined to reduce the deficit. To finance the deficit, the government borrows from domestic financial markets. However, Saudi government finances are not transparent; a perennial uncertainty is the difference between the revenues received by the national oil company, Aramco, and what is turned over to the Ministry of Finance to fund government expenses. The difference goes to Aramco's operating expenses and numerous off-budget expenditures. Observers believe that one major use of the off-budget money has been to pay down arrears on contracts, amounting to an estimated $30 billion in 1995. Estimates are that such arrears had been reduced to $3 billion by 2000. With the exception of the year 2000, the Saudi government has run a deficit every year since 1982. Rising oil prices in 2000, recovering from near-record lows in 1999, helped produce a $12 billion surplus as oil revenues came in 60% higher than expected. The accumulated domestic debt in 2000, however, was an estimated 105% of GDP, which has been financed by government pension funds and bonds held by banks and some companies. External debt from transactions in the privatized portions of the economy had reached nearly $40 billion in 2001, but this represents a still manageable 21% of the annual GDP.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that in 2005 Saudi Arabia's central government took in revenues of approximately $143.7 billion and had expenditures of $89.6 billion. Revenues minus expenditures totaled approximately $54 billion. Public debt in 2005 amounted to 56.7% of GDP. Total external debt was $34.55 billion.


As of 30 July 2004, the corporate tax rate in Saudi Arabia for companies in the natural gas sector is 30%, with an 85% rate applied to businesses in the oil sector. Other companies are taxed at a flat rate of 20%. Generally, capital gains are treated as ordinary income and taxed the corporate rate of 20%. However, there is no capital gains tax if the shares sold by non-Saudi shareholders are traded on the Saudi stock exchange and were acquired after 30 July 2004. Gains derived from the sale of property, other than those assets used in business activity, are also exempt. Dividends and interest are subject to a 5% withholding tax. Royalties are subject to a 15% with-holding rate. Foreigners who are self-employed professionals or general partners in Saudi partnerships are subject to these taxes.

Saudi Arabia has a flat 20% individual income tax rate on income that is domestically sourced. However, this tax applies to foreign citizens. Citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members pay a religious tax called the Zakat, an Islamic tax derived from the Shariah, which is applied directly to equity, less fixed assets, at a rate of 2.5%. The income of members of the royal family is tax exempt. There is no value-added tax (VAT) or sales tax.


Saudi Arabia has increasingly used the tariff to protect local industries. The general tariff rate is 5%; new Saudi industries are protected by a 20% tariff rate. Importation of liquor, firearms, ammunition, narcotics, and certain other items is strictly forbidden, as are all imports from Israel and South Africa. No import taxes are levied beyond import tariffs.


A small group of upper-class Saudis have traditionally held substantial investments overseas. These Saudis hold large demand deposits in US and Western European banks and considerable investments in commercial ventures, especially real estate, in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Since the early 1970s, the Saudi government has vastly increased its overseas investments in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan.

The Saudi government generally encourages foreign direct investment, especially in the case of joint ventures with Saudi partners. The foreign capital investment code specifies that foreign investments (1) must be a "development project," (2) must generate technology transfer, and (3) must have a minimum of 25% Saudi-owned equity in the project. However, in 1999, the government began revising its laws on foreign investment in an effort to attract more overseas capital and to lure back the large private Saudi capital that is invested abroad. Principal foreign investors include the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, and Germany.

In 2000, the government approved a new Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Law, which allows 100% foreign ownership of investments, and established the General Investment Authority (SAGIA) to provide information and assistance for foreign investors. By the first quarter of 2005, SAGIA showed a dramatic increase in the number of licenses issued to international and domestic projects involving ventures valued at $6.4 billion. That was an 800% increase over the same period in 2004. Saudi Arabia considers privatization to be a pathway to increased foreign investment.

There are different tax systems for Saudis and non-Saudis. Non-Saudi businesses are subject to a corporation tax of up to a maximum of 20% (with the exception of profits in the hydrocarbons sector, which are taxed on a sliding scale between 30% and 85%). Joint ventures between Saudis and non-Saudis are liable to tax on the non-Saudi portion of the profits.


Saudi Arabia's first two development plans (197175 and 197680) stressed improvement of the country's economic infrastructure by expanding the highway system, port capacity, electric power output, water supply, and irrigated land. The third plan (198185), continuing the Saudi program of modernization without Westernization, aimed at diversifying and expanding the productive economic sectors of industry, mining, and agriculture. The government's long-term goal was to reduce the nation's dependence on oil exports and foreign labor. Expenditures for the 198185 plan were initially estimated (at current prices) at $235.8 billion, compared with $140 billion for the 197580 plan. At the end of the third development plan, most of the infrastructure had been put in place. The fourth development plan (198590) emphasized consolidation of the gains of the previous 15 years and rational planning of economic activity. From the plan's emphasis on cost reduction and improvement of economic performance, it was clear that it had been drawn up under the assumption that the days of huge surpluses in the oil sector were over. Planned expenditures for the fourth plan were reduced several times. The fifth plan (199095) followed the goals of the fourth plan closely. Stressing economic diversification, this plan supported industry, agriculture, finance, and business services. An important goal of the sixth plan (19952000) was to reduce water consumption by 2% annually over the plan's period. The seventh development plan (200005) was geared toward offering foreign investors opportunities to tap into sectors of the economy that had recently undergone privatization: health care, electrical power generation, and water desalination. In addition to privatization, the seventh development plan focused on diversification of national revenue resources, expansion of the production base, and the creation of more jobs for Saudis. During the five-year period, the government planned to create 817,000 new jobs for Saudi citizens (non-Saudi residents held 488,600 of those jobs at the time). The service sector was projected to realize the greatest increase in jobs. Funds were also devoted to the health care industry, including the construction of hospitals and medical colleges (some exclusively for women), and to education.

On 1 September 2005, the OPEC basket price of oil rose to $61.37/barrel. This increase in oil prices reflected a strong increase in demand from China and other markets. The higher oil prices were forecast to boost Saudi Arabia's trade surplus in 2005 and 2006, implying that the current account surplus would also widen.

In 1999, Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah revitalized efforts to secure Saudi Arabia's acceptance in the WTO. In 2003, Saudi Arabia hired a Texas law firm to lobby on its behalf for accession to the WTO. In 2005, Saudi Arabia formally joined the WTO, winding up a 12-year negotiation process.


Social insurance provides health care, disability, death, old-age pension, and survivor benefits for workers and the self-employed, with some exclusions. There is a special system in place for government workers. Retirement is allowed at age 60. This system is funded by 9% payroll deductions from workers, 9% payroll contributions from employers, and some government funds. Firms with 10 or more workers are required to provide 100% of wages for a month of sick leave and 75% of wages for two additional months.

The customs and regulations governing the behavior of women are strict even by the standards of the Islamic world. Despite the shortage of Saudi labor, the government is unsympathetic to the participation of women in the workplace: only 5% of the labor force is female. Extreme modesty of dress is required. Women wear the abaya, a long black garment, and they must also cover their face and hair. Women are not permitted to drive motor vehicles. Women must enter public buses through a rear door and sit in a segregated area. Women may not travel without a male member of the family. By law, women can only enter a hospital for treatment with the consent of a male relative. Domestic abuse is prevalent. As of 2004, there were no active women's rights groups.

The government does not recognize international standards on human rights. Rights of privacy, freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, and movement are strictly curtailed. Security forces commit human rights abuses with the acquiescence of the government, even though they are nominally illegal. Corporal punishment, including amputation of limbs, beheading, and stoning, are used. Executions are carried out for crimes including alcohol trafficking, armed robbery, adultery, and the practice of witchcraft. Most of those executed were foreigners.


The government budgeted sr63.9 billion for health and social services (of a total budget of sr497.6 billion). Targets included improving immunization coverage and achieving better regional coverage of health care provision (which remains inadequate). The public health care system is supplemented by a small but generally excellent private health sector. It is the government's intention to provide integrated health services free of charge, or at a nominal fee, to all citizens. The government also hopes to establish a local manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment and supplies. As of 2004, there were an estimated 140 physicians, 17 dentists, 24 pharmacists, and 304 nurses per 100,000 people.

Despite recent advances, Saudi Arabia still suffers from severe health problems. A major cause of disease is malnutrition, leading to widespread scurvy, rickets, night blindness, and anemia, as well as low resistance to tuberculosis. Immunization rates for children up to one year old were tuberculosis, 93%; diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, 97%; polio, 97%; and measles, 94%. The rates for DPT and measles were 96% and 91%, respectively. Dysentery attacks all ages and classes and trachoma is common. A government campaign was successful in eradicating malaria. Typhoid is endemic, but acquired immunity prevents serious outbreaks of this disease. Approximately 95% of the population had access to safe drinking water and 100% adequate sanitation. The HIV/AIDS prevalence was 0.01 per 100 adults in 2003.

In 1960, life expectancy at birth was 43 years, but it averaged 75.46 years in 2005. During the same time period, infant mortality fell from 185 to 13.24 per 1,000 live births. It is estimated that the Bedouin account for about one-third of all infant deaths. The maternal mortality rate was 22 per 100,000 live births. As of 2002, the crude birth rate and overall mortality rate were estimated at 37.2 and 5.9 per 1,000 people, respectively. Birth control was used by 21% of married women. Almost 97% of the population had acces to health care services. Total health care expenditures were estimated at 8% of GDP.


In 2000, there were about 3,427,670 occupied households in the country, serving about 20,846,884 people. About 32% of all occupied housing units were apartments, 29.8% were traditional single-family houses, and 20% were single-household villas. Most housing is constructed of concrete and brick. About 44.5% of all occupied housing is owner occupied.

The continuing influx of rural people to towns and cities, coupled with the rise in levels of expectation among the urban population, has created a serious housing problem; improvement in urban housing is one of Saudi Arabia's foremost economic needs. Some 506,800 dwelling units were built in the period 197485: 389,000 by the private sector, with the help of the Real Estate Development Fund, and 117,800 by the Deputy Ministry of Housing and other government agencies. In the oil districts, Aramco, through loans and other assistance, has encouraged construction of private homes and has built accommodations for its unmarried Saudi staff members. The Real Estate Development Fund, established in 1975, continues to provide interest-free loans for home construction to individuals as well as private companies.


Until the mid-1950s, Saudi Arabia's educational system was primarily oriented toward religious schooling that stressed knowledge of the Quran (Koran) and Hadith (sayings of Muhammad and his companions). Except for basic arithmetic, reading, and writing, secular subjects were not taught in the schools. There was a highly developed oral culture, however. Nearly all of the students were boys; education of girls was virtually nonexistent and took place in the home, if at all. The first school for girls was built in 1964, and now girls' schools exist around the country. Schools continue to be segregated by gender. The General Presidency for Girls' Education administers girls' schools and colleges. By 1999, females accounted for 48% of primary enrollment and 46% of secondary enrollment.

Education is free at all levels, including college and postgraduate study. Elementary school covers six years of study. This is followed by three years of basic intermediate school. Students may then choose to attend either a three-year general secondary school or a three-year technical school (junior college) that offers vocational, commercial, and agricultural studies. The academic year runs from October to July.

In 2001, about 5% of children between the ages of three and five were enrolled in some type of preschool program. Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 54% of age-eligible students. The same year, secondary school enrollment was about 53% of age-eligible students. It is estimated that about 74.8% of all students complete their primary education. The student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 12:1 in 2003; the ratio for secondary school was also about 12:1.

Higher education is offered in at least seven universities and 83 colleges. The principal universities are King Sa'ud University (formerly Riyadh University), founded in 1957, and King Abd al-'Aziz University of Jeddah, founded in 1967. In 2003, it was estimated that about 25% of the tertiary-age population was enrolled in tertiary education programs. The adult literacy rate for 2004 was estimated at about 79.4%, with 87.1% for men and 69.3% for women.

As of 2003, public expenditures on education were estimated at 8.3% of GDP.


The King Fahd National Library, founded in Riyadh in 1968, has 462,000 volumes. The largest library system is that of King Sa'ud University established in 1957, with 14 branches and a collection of more than 1.8 million volumes; the library at King 'Abd al-'Aziz University has 560,000 volumes. The library of the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, with almost 335,000 volumes, is the nation's largest specialized collection. The largest public library, at Riyadh, contains 275,000 volumes.

There are 10,150 documented monuments and about a dozen museums in Saudi Arabia. The National Museum, originally opened at Riyadh in 1978, focuses on archaeology and ethnography. Major renovations were completed in 1999. Many of the other historic and cultural sites are religious in nature and the high figures for attendance reflect the huge numbers of Muslim pilgrims who visit the kingdom each year. Riyadh is also home to a local museum, an archaeological museum at King Sa'ud University, and a geological museum.


Postal, telephone, cable, and wireless services are regulated by the Ministry of Communications. Saudi Arabia is directly connected by radiotelephone to the United States, other Arab countries, and Western Europe, and automatic internal lines connect most of the major cities. In 2003, there were an estimated 155 mainline telephones for every 1,000 people; about 73,600 people were on a waiting list for telephone service installation. The same year, there were approximately 321 mobile phones in use for every 1,000 people.

The Broadcasting Service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) is owned and operated by the state, sponsoring four television networks. Private broadcasters are not allowed in the country. However, there are millions of satellite dishes in the country receiving foreign broadcasts. The Ministry of Culture and Information oversees radio and television broadcasts, with the right to censor any references to religions other than Islam, politics, sex, alcohol, and pigs or pork. In 2003, there were an estimated 326 radios and 265 television sets for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were 130 personal computers for every 1,000 people and three of every 1,000 people had access to the Internet. There were 57 secure Internet servers in the country in 2004. All Internet servers are monitored by the government.

The first newspaper in what is now Saudi Arabia was Al-Qiblah, the official publication of King Hussein of Hijaz, founded in 1915. With the end of the short-lived Hijaz Kingdom in 1925, a Saudi-sponsored paper, called Umm al-Qura (The Mother of Towns, Mecca), was established. Newspapers are privately owned, but self-censorship is widely employed. The Ministry of Culture and Information appoints all editors-in-chief. Criticism of the fundamental principles of Islam and of basic national institutions, including the royal family, is not permitted. The largest Arabic daily papers (with 2002 circulations) are Al-Asharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East, 224,990); Al-Riyadh (150,000); Okaz (107,600); and Al-Jazirah (The Peninsula, 94,000). Leading English-language dailies are the Arab News (110,000) and Saudi Gazette (50,000).

The government is said to severely limit freedom of speech and the press, punishing any criticism of Islam, the ruling family, or the government with detention and arrest.


Saudi social tradition, which emphasizes the exclusiveness of family, clan, and tribe, generally militates against the formation of other social organizations. The absence of political and economic organizations is also a result of the prevalence of tradition. However, there are chambers of commerce in Ad Dammām, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh. The umbrella organization of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry is in Riyadh.

There are several professional associations, particularly in medical and health care fields. Many of these, such as the Saudi Pediatric Association, promote public education and research while also serving as a professional networking organization. The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies serves as a multinational cultural and educational organization.

National youth organizations include the Saudi Arabian Assembly of Muslim Youth and the Saudi Arabian Boy Scouts Association. The World Assembly of Muslim Youth, based in Riyadh, offers a variety of camping, recreational, and educational programs for youth. There are a number of national and multinational sports associations based in the country, representing such pastimes as cricket, tennis, tae kwon do, and horse racing. Several sports associations are affiliated with the national Olympic Committee,

The Muslim World League works for the welfare of women and children. The Red Crescent Society and UNICEF are active.


Saudi Arabia was once one of the hardest places in the world to visit due to heavy restrictions on tourism. In 2000, the government opened up the country and added tourist visas; the Tourism Higher Authority was also created to expand the tourism facilities. Every year, however, there is a great influx of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. In 2004, almost two million pilgrims traveled to Mecca.

All visitors, including pilgrims, are required to have a passport valid for at least six months and an onward/return ticket. Visitors in transit or from a Gulf Cooperation Council country are not required to have a visa. Women must have proof of accommodations for their stay, and if they arrive alone, their sponsor or husband must pick them up at the airport. Women visitors are also not allowed to drive cars. Pilgrims who travel to Mecca are required to have the meningococcal vaccine. Precautions against typhoid, malaria, hepatitis, and meningitis are recommended for all who travel to Saudi Arabia.

There were 7,332,233 visitors who arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2003, 53% from the Middle East. Hotel rooms numbered 81,197, with an occupancy rate of 42%. The average length of stay that year was three nights.

Traditional sports include hunting with salukis, falconry, and horse and camel racing. Modern sports facilities include the Riyadh Stadium, complete with Olympic-standard running tracks and football (soccer) fields.

In 2004, the US Department of State estimated the daily cost of staying in Riyadh at $250; in Jeddah, $175; and other areas, $186.


Although Saudi Arabia has a relatively short history as a nationstate, it is heir to an Islamic civilization that developed from the teachings of Muhammad (570632), born of the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca. The branch of Islam that claims most contemporary Saudis is that preached by Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703?91), a fundamentalist reformer.

The Saudi who has gained greatest renown outside the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia is 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman al-Faysal as-Sa'ud, better known as Ibn-Sa'ud (18801953), the father of his country. Forced into exile with his family at a young age, he reconquered his patrimony and left behind him the state of Saudi Arabia.

In 1964, Faisal (Faysal ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz as-Sa'ud, 190675) was proclaimed king. In his role as prime minister, Faisal instituted many economic and social reforms, including the abolition of slavery. Upon his assassination in March 1975, he was succeeded as king and prime minister by Khaled (Khalid ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz, 191382). Together with Crown Prince Fahd ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz (19232005), King Khaled broadened the country's development policies.

After Khaled's death, Fahd became king; he pursued the same cautious program of modernization as his two predecessors. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (b.1924), Fahd's half-brother and de facto ruler of the country since Fahd became incapacitated from a stroke in 1995, became king upon Fahd's death in 2005. Ahmad Zaki Yamani (b.1930), a former minister of petroleum and mineral resources, gained an international reputation as a spokesman for the oil-exporting countries.


Saudi Arabia has no territories or colonies.


Al Munajjed, Mona. Women in Sa'udi Arabia Today. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan, 1997.

Anscombe, Frederick F. The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Bahgat, Gawdat. The Gulf Monarchies: New Economic and Political Realities. London: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, 1997.

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

Champion, Daryl. The Paradoxical Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Momentum of Reform. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Harrison, Martin. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Policy: Relations with the Superpowers. Durham, N.C.: Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham Press, 1995.

Holden, David, and Richard Johns. The House of Saud. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Hourani, Albert Habib. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kostiner, Joseph. The Making of Sa'udi Arabia, 19161936: From Chieftancy to Monarchical State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Long, David E. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

The Middle East. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2005.

Peterson, J. E. Historical Dictionary of Saudi Arabia. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Seddon, David (ed.). A Political and Economic Dictionary of the Middle East. Philadelphia: Routledge/Taylor and Francis, 2004.

Vasil'ev, Aleksei M. The History of Saudi Arabia. London: Saqi Books, 1998.

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Saudi Arabia


Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Major Cities:
Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Makkah, Al-madinah

Other City:


This chapter was adapted from the Department of State Post Report dated May 1997. Supplemental material has been added to increase coverage of minor cities, facts have been updated, and some material has been condensed. Readers are encouraged to visit the Department of State's web site at for the most recent information available on travel to this country.


SAUDI ARABIA , a country of romance and legend, awakens memories from Lawrence of Arabia or scenes from some dimly remembered Hollywood epic. It has, indeed, a colorful past, an exciting present, and a bright future.

Saudi Arabia is about one-third the size of the U.S., comprised mostly of gravel and sand desert. Water from deep wells makes farming possible in some areas. Saudi Arabia has 25% of the Earth's proven oil resources and is the world's largest oil exporter. Islam, the only religion legally practiced in Saudi Arabia, plays a dominant part in the country's history and daily life. Because it is the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and the site of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is considered Islam's Holy Land. It is in this context that Islamic legal traditions take precedence over all other government regulations.

For thousands of years Arabs have roamed the desert tending their herds and flocks, tilling the soil where water was plentiful, and trading goods brought by camel caravan, but the unified nation of Saudi Arabia has been in existence for little more than 50 years. The landscape is one of contrastthe visitor to Saudi Arabia will be rewarded with a visually enriching experiencean interesting blending of old and new. Oil income has enabled the country to modernize rapidly, but many of its desert customs and traditions still play an important role in day-to-day business transactions.

Saudis are a cultivated people with an ancient and glorious heritage. If you adapt to their ways, slow down, and follow their customs, you will find that living in Saudi Arabia is a rich experience.



Riyadh, the capital city with a population of over four million and an annual growth rate of 8%, is near the geographic center of Saudi Arabia. It is about 770 miles east of Jeddah and 280 miles west of Dhahran. Riyadh is connected to both cities by good highways and frequently scheduled Saudia Airlines flights. An express train runs from Riyadh to Dammam daily.

Riyadh has definite seasons with a wide range of temperatures and low humidity. From May through October, temperatures can reach 120°F to 130°F. From November through April, temperatures are mild and pleasant during the day with night temperatures sometimes falling as low as 30°F to 40°F in January and February. Some winter clothing is essential. Rainfall is minimal, but when it does occur, it is usually a downpour and city streets are quickly flooded.

About 13,000 Americans have registered with the Consular Office in Riyadh. Those not with the U.S. Government are with private business concerns or on contract with the Saudi Government. They are scattered throughout the city and its environs in single villas or compounds.


Virtually all food items may be found in Saudi Arabia, except pork and alcohol products.

Several large supermarkets and a variety of specialty shops carry a full range of American and European food items as well as fresh produce and fish, frozen items, good meats, and fresh milk. There is a large open-air fruit and vegetable market where fresh produce, eggs, and chicken are reasonably priced.


Men: During the 5-month hot season most men wear lightweight suits with short-sleeved shirts to work. Sport jackets are popular for casual wear and evening social occasions. Formal wear is sometimes needed, but a dark suit is usually acceptable. Wool and heavier suits and jackets are worn in winter, and a lightweight jacket may be necessary for early morning and evening hours.

Men should dress in a conservative fashion when in public. Shorts, sleeveless shirts, or offensive T-shirts should not be worn downtown.

Men's clothing is available locally, but is expensive. Tailors will make suits for under $200, not including fabric which is available locally at fairly reasonable prices.

A good variety of shoes is available locally, but not always in larger sizes. If your feet are difficult to fit, you should bring plenty of shoes with you.

Women: Clothing made of natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk, and light weight wools in winter) are the most comfortable regardless of the time of year. Layered clothing is practical, especially in winter when morning temperatures are cool but rise rapidly during the day. Bring sandals, sun hats and/or head scarves.

Women should dress conservatively when in publiclong dresses below the knee, sleeves below the elbow, a modest neckline, and no trousers. Wearing tight or revealing clothing is unacceptable in public and risks unpleasant confrontation with the Saudi religious police, the Mutawa. Non-Muslim women are not required to wear an abaya, a black cloak that covers the wearer from head to foot, however, many western women, particularly in Riyadh, choose to wear an abaya and carry a head scarf in order to avoid harassment by the religious police. However, even with the abaya and scarf, harassment still occurs.

There are many women's clothing stores in Riyadh, ranging from the bargain variety to designer shops. Prices are high and there are no facilities for trying on items. Clothes can be returned, but only for an exchange, not a refund.

There are many dressmakers, but unless work is done in a private home, fittings are not permitted. If work is being done in a shop, you must take your measurements with you or an item to be duplicated. Dress patterns are not available locally, but most dressmakers can duplicate an existing item or copy a photograph or drawing quite easily. A wide range of fabrics is available in all price ranges.

Children: Children's clothing is available but expensive. Inexpensive clothing from the Far East can be found, but it is often of poor quality and sized to fit only smaller children.

The dress code for the Saudi Arabian International School (SAIS-R) Elementary School requires girls to wear blouses or dresses with sleeves. Boys should wear shirts with sleeves and appropriate pants. Through grade 3, boys and girls may wear loose-fitting short pants to school, provided the pants extend at least to the knee. In junior high, girls should wear blouses or dresses with sleeves or loose-fitting pants and tops. Boys should wear shirts with sleeves and long pants. Boys and girls may only wear sweat pants or shorts for physical education classes.

Supplies and Services

Riyadh has a wealth of shops and shopping malls. Almost everything is available from tropical fish and tanks to designer clothing. A full selection of American and European cosmetics, perfumes, and toiletries are available, but are more expensive than in the U.S. If you take long-term medication, bring a supply to last until you locate a local source. Most prescription medicines are in stock at local pharmacies. If bringing medication with you, have a copy of your prescription available for Saudi customs inspectors.

Adequate laundry and dry cleaning services are available. There is a dry-cleaning service available through one of the major hotels.

Barbershops and hair stylists for men are located throughout Riyadh. Prices compare with those in the U.S. Public beauty shops for women are not permitted in the Kingdom.

Basic shoe repair is available and adequate.

Religious Activities

Only Islamic services are permitted in Saudi Arabia. However, discreet Christian services are held in various private group meetings. No open advertisements or notices may be distributed regarding their existence.


The Saudi Arabian International School of Riyadh-American Section (SAISR-AM) for kindergarten through grade 9 has an enrollment of 1,800 students representing more than 50 nations. SAISR-AM is licensed by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education and is accredited by the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges. It is governed by a seven-member school board elected by the parents. The curriculum is American and instruction is in English. About 90% of the teachers and administrators are Americans or Canadians. The school term is from late August until the end of May with a 3-week Christmas vacation and about a 10-day spring break, not necessarily at Easter.

The school has three libraries with a total of 40,000 volumes, science labs, five fully-equipped computer laboratories, and a large, covered sports area. SAISR-AM offers art, band, music, typing, study skills, mechanical drawing, computer sciences, English as a Second Language (ESL), French, and Arabic. Sports include boys' and girls' basketball, volleyball, softball, and soccer.

Learning Strategies classes supplement the regular curriculum for students who need additional help with organizational skills in grades 2-5. After school study labs are also offered to students in grades 3-5 who require minimal levels of remediation. A variety of after school enrichment activities are offered in grades 1-9, and often include drama, cooking, space camp, and yearbook. The number of students per class varies between 13 and 20, depending on enrollment, and all students are tested to determine classroom placement prior to beginning classes.

The school does not offer a comprehensive special education program. Programs for students with special needs are severely limited in terms of facilities, material, staffing, and community services for referrals. Students who have physical, emotional, or learning problems that cannot be appropriately remediated given the school's limitations will not be allowed to attend SAISR-AM. The school reserves the right to discontinue a student's enrollment if problems beyond the scope of the school program are discovered after initial acceptance.

The Saudi Arabian International School-British Section, for children from kindergarten through grade 8, is an alternative to the SAISR-AM. The school year extends from late September through the end of June. There is generally a waiting list. Small French and German schools also operate in Riyadh.


Tennis, swimming, and camping are the most popular outdoor sports in Riyadh. Two tennis leagues sponsor tournaments throughout the year, and several tennis pros in the city give lessons.

Several bowling alleys are located in Riyadh and some have women's hours. Horseback riding lessons are available at the Equestrian Club.

Two 18-hole golf courses are located on the outskirts of the city and the Intercontinental Hotel has a course in town. Fairways are shaped from sand, and golfers carry an astroturf tee mat. The greens are oiled sand.

Most public spectator sports are open to men only. The horse racing season is from October through April, and the camel races take place in March and early April and are sometimes open to women.

All health clubs and/or sports facilities for women have been closed.

A bicycle is useful for both recreation and as a quick means of transportation. A limited selection of bicycles at high prices are available locally; therefore, it is recommended that you bring a bike.

Touring and Outdoor Activities

Camping and day trips in the desert are popular during the cooler weather, from November through March. You can buy tents and camping equipment locally.

Among the more popular sites within an hour's drive from Riyadh are Diriyah, Al-Kharj, and the camel trails. Diriyah is the ruined capital of the Al-Saud state established in 1726 and destroyed in 1818 by a punitive expedition of troops sent by the Ottoman Empire. Diriyah is currently being restored by the Ministry of Education's Department of Antiquities.

The Al-Kharj agricultural area, about one hour from Riyadh, is green with date palm groves and farms. The town itself is dominated by a castle built by Abdul Aziz. The camel trails are located along the escarpment southeast of Riyadh. Climbing the trails to the top of the escarpment is worth the beautiful view of the surrounding hills, sand dunes, and river beds.

Hunting for fossils and desert diamonds (quartz crystals formed by fusion of sand particles by lightning) is another weekend pastime. These activities require the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle. Persons interested in desert recreation should consult the book, Desert Treks from Riyadh, available locally. The book charts out day and weekend trips and more extensive excursions for the adventurous.

Social Activities

American Community Services (ACS), located on the U.S. Embassy annex in a wadi near the Diplomatic Quarter, is an organization offering a great variety of activities to American expatriates in Riyadh. It has tours, both in and out of the country, seminars, classes (cooking, square dancing, survival Arabic, computer skills and many others), and provides a base for many support groups. Family counseling is also available at ACS. ACS also shows movies on Thursday nights and runs a summer day camp for children.

The American Women of Riyadh (AWR) is open to all American women in Riyadh and meets monthly at the Embassy, featuring a guest speaker.

Musical and theatrical groups meet regularly and perform during the year. These events are not advertised publicly, but only by word of mouth. CLO usually has information about the Riyadh Choral Society, the Concert Band, Theater-Go-Round, and others.

Riyadh has several amusement parks and a zoo for children. Unfortunately, these are not open to women. Occasionally the school will organize a tour for the children and include the mothers.

There are many parks with playground equipment on the Diplomatic Quarter. They are not always well maintained and due to the number of picnicking Saudi families on weekends, are not generally available for use.

Various ethnic restaurants (Lebanese, Saudi, Thai, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Philippine, and Continental) abound in Riyadh as do many American fast-food restaurants: Hardees, McDonald's, Burger King, TCBY, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, and Baskin-Robbins. The major hotels also have restaurant facilities. However, only those establishments with a family section will allow women-and many have restrictions on women unescorted by a male family member.

There are no cinemas in the Kingdom.


Dhahran is situated on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, about 280 miles from Riyadh and about 1,000 miles from Jeddah. To the east in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, lies the independent island state of Bahrain, accessible by a 15-mile causeway.

The term Dhahran is an Arabic word meaning two hills. It originally referred to a geological formation sighted from Bahrain in 1932 by American geologists and which looked promising for oil exploration. At this formation, the first producing oil well, number 7, was drilled in 1938. The site is today part of the Base Camp for Saudi ARAMCO, now one of the world's largest oil companies.

Dhahran is not actually a town but rather a geographic location, which includes a scattered collection of self-contained compounds in the center of the Al-Khobar-Dammam metropolitan area. These include the American Consulate General, the Dhahran International Airport, the King Abdul Aziz Royal Saudi Air Force Base, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, and regional offices of the Ministry of Petroleum and of PETROMIN, the Saudi Government's petroleum distribution system.

Dhahran has over 50,000 people, most of them Saudi ARAMCO employees and their dependents living on the Base Camp or in the growing Doha Camp residential neighborhood. The Saudi ARAMCO Base Camp resembles, in many respects, a prosperous suburban community in the western U.S. with many of the facilities and standards of an American life style.

Al-Khobar, a thriving commercial center about 11 miles from Dammam, is the capital of the Eastern Province. Dammam has a population of about 130,000; Al-Khobar has a population of about 80,000. The two form a continuous metropolitan area. An estimated 1.6 million people reside in the Eastern Province, which is, in area, the largest of Saudi Arabia's 14 political subdivisions.

The resident American population of the Eastern Province was about 19,000 in mid-1996. Over half work for Saudi ARAMCO or for petrochemical joint ventures in Jubail, 75 miles north of Dhahran. Construction firms employ other Americans as contractors to the Saudi defense forces, the province's two universities, and various joint partnerships between Saudi and American companies. Most Americans live either on company compounds or on commercially operated housing compounds designed for foreigners. Others reside in individual homes scattered throughout the tri-city Dammam/Al-Khobar/Dhahran area, at Jubail, or in Saudi ARAMCO camps at Ras Tanoura and Abqaiq.


A wide variety of food is available locally, and fresh fish, lamb, chicken, eggs, milk products, and some vegetables are produced locally. Most foodstuffs are imported, however, and food costs are somewhat higher than in Washington, D.C. Several large U.S.-style supermarkets are located in Al-Khobar, and you can find American brands.


Merchants in both Al-Khobar and Dammam stock clothing from the U.S., Europe, and Asian countries. You can find shirts, lightweight suits, sweaters, and ties for men. Women can purchase stockings, lingerie, bathing suits, novelty, sports and lounging clothes, blouses, and dresses. Clothing supplies, however, for men and women are not constant or available in all sizes. Prices can be high and there are no facilities for women to try on clothes before purchasing.

Men: Lightweight clothing is suitable most of the year. Sportswear and business suits are acceptable at all times. In general, cotton or other natural fabrics are the most practical. Topcoats and overcoats are not required in Dhahran.

Standard summer wear for social occasions is a short-sleeved dress shirt, tie, and slacks with a blazer or summer weight suits. From November to April, medium-weight suits are generally worn Cool, lightweight walking shoes with rubber soles are necessary in Saudi Arabia; leather soles wear out quickly in the sand.

Women: Women should wear non-revealing, loose-fitting clothes in public places. Long caftans are available locally and comfortable in the climate. Natural-fiber fabrics are most practical. Bring plenty of sandals, head scarves, and/or sun hats.

Entertaining at home is usually casual, although there are occasional formal dances and dinner parties. Many Saudi women dress elegantly for home entertaining, wearing expensive Paris creations. Very few days, even in winter, are cool enough to wear wool fabrics comfortably all day. Heavy and dark cottons or lightweight knits are most suitable for daytime wear. It turns much cooler in the evening, and woolen dresses, cotton knits, and silks are appropriate. A winter coat is not essential, but an in-between season coat is useful, as are sweaters and cardigans.

Saudi Arabian religious and social customs prescribe that Muslim women cover themselves completely in public. Western women, therefore, should dress conservatively when shopping in downtown Al-Khobar or Dammam and suburban markets. At a minimum, dresses should have a high neckline, sleeves that cover the elbow, and should be well below the knee. Many western women wear long-sleeved, floor-length cotton, shirtwaist dresses while shopping. Alternatively, slacks with a long over-shirt can be worn. Tight-fitting slacks and dresses, miniskirts, and shorts should not be worn in public places. To do so risks attracting unpleasant public attention and even arrest or reprimand by the Saudi religious police.

Children: School-aged children dress much as do their U.S. counterparts. Adolescent girls should wear conservative clothing similar to their mothers' when going downtown to Al-Khobar or Dammam. Light-to-medium-heavy wool clothing for outdoor wear is needed when winter winds turn chilly and temperatures sometimes drop to near freezing at night. During the cool months children will need a medium-weight jacket or Wind-breaker, prices are high and children's sizes are particularly difficult to find locally.

Supplies and Services

Standard toiletries, cosmetics, cigarettes, and tobacco are sold in Al-Khobar. You can also buy detergents, packaged water softeners, household cleaning equipment, and supplies locally.

Fabrics for both men's and women's clothing is readily found in Al-Khobar and Dammam. Tailors in these cities and in Bahrain can make both men's and women's clothing. They are adept at copying garments, although you may have to wait 2-4 weeks.

Shoe repair is fair to good for men's shoes and reasonably priced but poor for women's shoes. Two commercial laundries provide adequate services as do local dry cleaners.

Barbershops are located in Al-Khobar, at Saudi ARAMCO, and at the USMTM/NCO Club. The latter also has a good beauty shop, as does Saudi ARAMCO.

Religious Activities

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country, and only Islam is allowed to be practiced. However, discreet arrangements exist to meet the needs of other religions.


The Dhahran Academy, managed by the Saudi Arabian International School system, is an American school recognized by the Department of State's Office of Overseas Schools. It provides schooling for children from kindergarten through grade 9. Present enrollment at the Academy exceeds 1,250 children of 37 nationalities, of whom 26% are American. Most of the teaching staff are recruited from the U.S. Two smaller private schools offer English-language, pre-kindergarten classes.

High school-aged children must be sent to boarding schools outside of Saudi Arabia. Numerous high school institutions are located in Europe, including those operated by the Defense Department's Division of Overseas Defense Dependents Schools (DODDS); DODDS also operates a high school in Bahrain, which has a boarding facility.


Swimming, boating, and picnicking are possible at three good beaches on Half Moon Bay. Fishing and snorkeling are generally good. Enthusiasts should bring skin diving, water-skiing, and fishing gear. Tennis rackets, bowling shoes, golf clubs (preferably old ones, as the sand will take its toll), and beach equipment are helpful. Camping in the desert is popular, so bring sleeping bags and other camping gear.

Tennis courts are open by invitation at Saudi ARAMCO. The King Fahd University also has tennis courts, but for men only. Saudi ARAMCO has facilities for racquetball, squash, and a bowling alley.

Some local hotels also have tennis or sports facilities open to the public for a fee, but men and women must use them at different times. Those seeking participation in team sports will find basketball and softball leagues. Saudi ARAMCO sponsors a world-class Little League softball team.

Usual sports attire is worn on the courts. Women should remember to dress modestly on the way to or from sports facilities or other compounds. Men are also discouraged from wearing shorts or bathing suits when not in a sports facility.

For children, Boy, Girl, and Cub Scouts, and Brownie troops are organized by the Dhahran Academy and by Saudi ARAMCO.

Special interest clubs exist at Saudi ARAMCO. These include art, cooking, computers, natural history, and photography. Photographers need to be alert to local sensitivities about what can be photographed. Seek guidance before setting out with your camera.

Touring and Outdoor Activities

Dhahran is situated in the middle of a modern high-speed highway network that permits easy travel to Riyadh and to other major towns in the Eastern province. Hofuf, an ancient Arab town in one of the world's largest oases, is only 2 hours away. There is a traditional mud-walled fort, a typical Arab market, a colorful Thursday camel market, and some unique caves. Qatif, another oasis about 20 miles away, has a bustling Thursday morning outdoor market and a 16th century Portuguese fort which is now a bath house.

In contrast, the new Jubail Industrial City, some 70 miles north of Dhahran, is a magnificent example of modern industrial planning. It contains 15 primary petrochemical industries, planned residential communities, and a large industrial port. Both the Royal Commission in Jubail and Saudi ARAMCO in Dhahran have modern, well-designed exhibition centers open to the public.

The Dhahran area also has two large amusement parks with rides and games for children. Bahrain, linked to Saudi Arabia by the 15-mile King Fahd Causeway, is about one hour away by car. Bahrain, with its nightclubs, museums, and beaches, offers a pleasant change of pace from Dhahran.


There are no public theaters, concert halls, or movie theaters in Dhahran. Saudi ARAMCO shows movies, and amateur dramatic groups present an occasional stage play or musical. A local group sponsors several performances each year by professional classical musicians brought from Europe.

As is the case in all of Saudi Arabia, no nightclubs or bars are located in the Eastern Province, but several local hotels and restaurants serve excellent Middle-Eastern, Oriental, and Continental cuisine. A growing number of American-style, fast-food eating places are located in Al-Khobar.

Hotels and restaurants that have family rooms allow men and women to eat together. If the restaurant has no family room, only men may patronize it. The Dining Hall/Snack Bar at Saudi ARAMCO is an American-style restaurant.

Shopping in Al-Khobar is a frequent diversion. Gold and silver jewelry in the traditional Bedouin styles, oriental carpets, and Middle-Eastern or south-Asian brass curios are popular buys. Two well-stocked toy stores exist in Al-Khobar. Several book stores exist, but English-language selections are limited. Tapes and video tapes exist, but are censored to remove scenes regarded as objectionable.

American TV sets receive only AFRTS broadcast, but European (PAL) system sets connected to a rotor antenna will receive English-language telecasts from stations at Saudi ARAMCO, Bahrain, Qatar, and sometimes Dubai. Most TV programming begins in the mid-afternoon and ends between 10 pm and midnight. Programming on these stations is of an international character with some U.S. and British programs included.

Saudi ARAMCO also operates four FM radio stations that play a variety of music.

Social Activities

You can make social life in Dhahran as active as you wish to make it. Besides the large American community, over 9,000 British, several hundred Canadians, and smaller communities of French and Germans live in the Dhahran area. Moreover, many Saudis and other Middle-Easterners speak English, and are comfortable with Americans.

Saudi hospitality is generous and expansive. An International Women's Group, as well as an American Airport Wives Club, meets monthly. By joining the American Businessmen's Association, male newcomers are able to meet their American counterparts. The Association holds periodic evening dinners to which wives are invited.


Located on the Red Sea, Jeddah is the country's chief port and is about the same latitude as Calcutta, Hong Kong, and Honolulu. What began as a little fishing village in ancient times grew into an important trading center as a result of its strategic position on the Spice Route, linking Southern Arabia with the lands to the North. The future of the settlement was assured in 641 A.D., when shortly after the advent of Islam, the Caliph Othman chose it as the principal port for Mecca. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 consolidated Jeddah's position as a major center of trade in the Middle East. Many of the great merchant houses seen today date from this period. The old city was surrounded by a wall from 1511 to 1947. Today, only replicas of the city gates remain.

With an estimated population of two million, Jeddah is a thriving commercial center. It becomes even busier during the Hajj, the last month of the Muslim year, when about one million Muslim pilgrims from all over the world arrive en route to Mecca, 45 miles away.

About 6,000 Americans live in the Jeddah district. Most work for American firms such as Raytheon, Litton, Daniel International, Lockheed, and Mobil under contract to the Saudi Government. Americans also work in international and Saudi companies. Many live in separate company or private housing compounds, although some live in houses and apartments scattered throughout the city.

Due to the huge expatriate work force in Saudi Arabia, the city has a cosmopolitan character. In addition to Americans and West Europeans, thousands of Lebanese, Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Filipinos provide the labor for the vast infrastructure, which has been built with oil revenues.


Modern, well-stocked supermarkets carry a complete assortment of Western and other imported goods as well as local products. Because of the national diversity of the labor force, you will find an unusually wide variety of food items. Fruit and vegetables are plentiful both locally produced and imported. Fresh milk and other dairy products are available.

Fresh fish and shrimp are widely available. Beef, lamb, veal, and chicken are plentiful and of good quality. Chicken is either locally raised or imported from France. Some U.S. frozen chicken and turkey can be found. Bread is excellent and inexpensive. Other items are more costly than in the U.S. Pork is not available locally.


Men: Men should dress modestly in public at all times. They should not wear clothing revealing bare arms or legs such as tank tops or shorts, nor should they wear visible gold jewelry or religious symbols. It is possible to wear summer clothes year round. Evenings in January and February may require a sweater.

Short-sleeved sport shirts and slacks are appropriate for casual wear. Tennis shoes are recommended for Red Sea swimming as protection against the sharp coral.

Suits and dress clothes in general are best purchased in the U.S., but sports clothes, shoes, and ties are available locally at reasonable prices.

Women: Women should wear clothing with sleeves at least to the elbows, reasonably high necklines, and skirts well below the knees. If pants are worn, a loose-fitting top should cover the hips. Professional, conservative, loose-fitting business attire is appropriate, although suits are not generally worn due to the climate. Hosiery is a matter of personal preference, but not generally worn to work. Bear in mind that offices and homes are well-cooled, although outside is warm and humid.

On the beaches of the Red Sea, women can wear beach attire only when well outside of the city or on private beaches.

Some boutiques feature European clothing, but choices are limited, prices are high, and there are no facilities for trying on articles. Fabric is plentiful, but mainly polyester in bright colors and bold prints. Cottons are harder to find.

Children: Most children's wear is available, but quality varies and prices fluctuate. Short shorts, midriff blouses, tank tops and sleeveless tops are not appropriate attire for school. Baby clothes and diapers are available.

Supplies and Services

Most personal and household needs can be met here. A full selection of perfumes, cosmetics, medicines, and toiletries are available. Many prescription medicines are stocked, but bring a supply of any prescribed medicine in case it is not sold here.

Dry cleaning is reasonable and dependable. Leather shoe heels wear out quickly and shoe repair is not of satisfactory quality.

Tailors in the city do a reasonable job of copying existing garments.

Religious Activities

Only Islamic services are permitted in Saudi Arabia.


The Saudia-Saudi Arabian International School (S-SAIS), owned by Saudia Airlines, offers an American curriculum. It spans pre-kindergarten through grade 9, although it is attempting to add year 10 for the school year 1996-97.

Teachers are mostly recruited in the U.S., but some American dependent teachers are hired locally. Special teachers are available for physical education, music, band and orchestra, art, and remedial reading; and English and math for advanced students. The school's administrative staff includes a superintendent, a curriculum coordinator, and counselors.

The school has a general science lab, combination auditorium-gymnasium, homemaking lab, computer rooms, a resource center for remedial math and English, and a media center. The library has a current collection of 14,500 volumes in the main campus school and 15,000 books in the primary school.

Extracurricular activities include softball, basketball, soccer, swim team (semiprivate), and intramurals twice a week. Varsity sports include track, volleyball, softball, and basketball. Other activities such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are also available.

The school term lasts from late August through early June, totaling the 180 school days required in most U.S. schools. In addition to winter and spring breaks, there is a post-Ramadan break and a Hajj break when these occur during the school year.

The Continental School follows a British system and accepts children from ages 3 to 16. The school year follows the British system, the first term being September through December, the second term January through March, and the third term from April through early July. Children are accepted on a space-available basis, and it is difficult to obtain space for students over age 13.

Another British school, Jeddah Prep, accepts children up to age 13. Small French and German schools are also in operation.

Arabic nursery schools are numerous but not acceptable for Americans. Some satisfactory American-and British-managed nursery schools are available. Costs are about $10 per morning.


Organized sports leagues for both adults and children include volleyball, softball, two running clubs, tennis, squash, basketball, little league baseball, bowling, cricket, and rugby. Except for these leagues and occasional soccer matches (open to men only), no regular spectator sports exist in Jeddah.

Touring and Outdoor Activities

The area around Jeddah offers many points of interestthe Red Sea with its beautiful coral reefs, the lonely desert vistas, nearby oases, and the foothills.

Taif, in the mountains, is only a 2-hour drive from Jeddah. Located 6,000 feet above sea level, its cooler climate offers welcome relief in summer. The King and his ministers maintain summer homes and offices there to escape the searing heat of Jeddah and Riyadh. An excellent paved road winds its way up the escarpment and provides a panorama of surrounding mountains. A weekend at the Sheraton or Intercontinental Hotel in Taif makes a pleasant change.

Coastal waters around Jeddah provide exceptional deep-sea fishing. Shark, amberjack, barracuda, tuna, grouper, red snapper, sea bass, and an occasional sailfish are caught in nearby waters. If you are interested in deep-sea fishing, bring a good rod and reel. You can rent boats in Jeddah harbor, although the cost is high. Some residents enjoy sailing and boating and own wind surfing or light sailing vessels. Jeddah has two sailing clubs.

A protected inlet known as The Creek (Abhor Creek), about 30 minutes north of the city, is a popular spot for boating, swimming, snorkeling, diving, shell collecting, and picnicking.

Underwater scenes of the Red Sea are among the most beautiful in the world, making snorkeling and skin diving popular. An extraordinary variety of fish, in a stunning background of coral formations, provides a glimpse of an entirely different world. Snorkeling requires only tennis shoes, fins, snorkel, and mask. You can buy these locally at prices slightly higher than in the U.S.

Scuba diving is also popular. You can dive in the Red Sea 9 months of the year without a wetsuit. Compressed air is readily available at a reasonable cost. Tanks, wet suits, regulators, and buoyancy compensators are available locally. If you are interested in scuba diving but not certified, instructors give lessons regularly at various locations around Jeddah. Rental diving equipment is also available, and a diving club is located in Jeddah.

Overnight desert camping trips, especially in winter, are popular. The desert provides a pleasant contrast to the bustling city and has a beauty of its own. Wadi Fatima and Wadi Khulays, oases not too far from Jeddah on the road to Mecca, offer scenic spots in the cooler months. Further away, Waba Crater, an explosion crater 1.8 miles across and 1,000 feet deep, is a unique destination for overnight camping.


Western forms of public entertainment do not exist in Jeddah. Since there are no cinemas, theaters, or operas, the Western community produces its own. It has two theater groupsa light opera group and a concert committee that features visiting artists and a choral society. The British Consulate General Cinema Club offers a weekly full length recent movie.

Dining out is a favorite pastime. The hotels have wonderful buffets at reasonable costs and international restaurants abound in Jeddah.

Shopping in the Jeddah souks (markets) for Arab handicrafts, old and new, is another favorite pastime. Oriental rugs, gold jewelry, and Bedouin silver are the most popular purchases.

Social Activities

Social activity in Jeddah revolves around the home, since no public entertainment or clubs exist. Buffet and sit-down dinners are typical forms of entertainment.

The American Ladies of Jeddah, a community-wide American Women's Club, meets monthly and sponsors recreational, social, and welfare projects. The group publishes a monthly newsletter. Additionally, the International Women's Group, a large organization open to all nationalities meets monthly.

Square dancing, Scottish dancing, and bridge are popular with the international community.

The Saudi Arabian Natural History Society meets monthly and features a speaker and a slide show on some aspect of Saudi Arabian natural history.


Makkah (Mecca, to the Western world), one of Islam's greatest shrines, is certainly counted among Saudi Arabia's major cities but, by its very nature, it defies exact classification in that non-Muslims are forbidden to enter. It lies in the western part of the country, the Hijaz (or Hejaz), about 50 miles from the Red Sea coast, in a narrow valley surrounded by low hills. It is a modern city of more than 900,000 residents, and is the capital and administrative center of the province which bears its name.

The major industry of this holy city is tourismbut of a religious nature. Each year during the Hajj (Dhu al-Hijja), in the final month of the lunar year, more than a million worshipers from all over the world pour into Makkah for the pilgrimage which every Muslim hopes to make once in his lifetime.

Muhammad (whose name is also seen written Mohammed, or Mohamet) was born in Makkah in 570. His spiritual experiences led him to preach as a prophet here, but he eventually was forced to go to what is now Al-Madinah (Medina) to establish an Islamic state; he died there in 632. It was Muhammad who originated the practice of praying toward Makkah.

Modern Makkah is the site of the Great Mosque with its black-draped Kaaba. Here, also, is Umm Al-Qura University, which houses the faculty of Islamic studies among its other departments. There are schools and hospitals and a number of large bazaars.


The second most sacred city of Islam after Mecca, Al-Madinah (also referred to as Medinah or Medina) is located in western Saudi Arabia's Hejaz Province, about 215 miles north of Makkah. Along with agricultural products, the city's economy thrives on the pilgrim traffic and the businesses associated with it.

The city is no longer contained within walls; today there are wide avenues with luxury shops, coffee-houses, and over 40 hotels. Al-Madinah's roughly 500,000 residents have access to an airport and several roads. The Islamic University is located here.

Al-Madinah, formerly known as Yathric, was the terminus of Muhammad's journey from Makkah. He lived here until his death in 632. In 1924-25 the Hejaz Province was conquered by Ibn Saud and became part of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


HOFUF (also called al-Hufuf), in eastern Saudi Arabia, is about 200 miles east of the nation's capital. Its residents, mostly Muslim Arabs, make up half of the al-Hasa oasis' population. In Hofuf, the old Qaisariya bazaar coexists with modern office buildings. Hofuf's Western look is the result of the destruction of the old town walls, and of town planning. The nearby oil industry has aided in the city's commercial expansion. Farm products of the oasis are marketed here. The House of Sa'ud initially occupied Hofuf in the late 1700s. The Ottoman Turks made it their headquarters in eastern Arabia in 1871, but were driven out by Ibn Saud in 1913. Hofuf's population is estimated at over 150,000.


Geography and Climate

Saudi Arabia lies in the area known as the Middle Eastthe meeting place of the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. It occupies much of the Arabian Peninsula and has a land area of about 830,000 square miles. The vast uninhabited Empty Quarter, al-Rub'al-Khali, is about the size of Texas and is the largest single body of sand in the world. The principal cultivated areas are in the Asir highlands in the Southwestern Province and in the Hasa Eastern Province along the Arabian Gulf.

The country is divided administratively into thirteen provinces, including the Hijaz, the Asir, the Nejd, the Al-Hasa, and the Northern Province, each headed by a governor or emir. The topography varies from vast stretches of sand to rugged mountain ranges. From the Gulf of Aqaba south to Yemen lies a dry, narrow, coastal plain bordering the Red Sea. East of the plain a narrow chain of mountains rises to 9,000 feet. This entire region, traditionally called the Hijaz, is now known as the Western Region. The same mountain chain rises to 12,000 feet and becomes more rugged in the south near Yemen. This portion, known as the Asir, has more rainfall than any other part of the country. Its dense population, villages, terraced farms, and green forests are more reminiscent of Africa than the Desert Kingdom.

The Nejd, the heartland of Saudi Arabia, is the ancestral home of the Al Sa'ud, the Kingdom's ruling family. This area contains the heaviest concentration of nomadic Bedouins who still lead their flocks of sheep, goats, and camels across the arid land in search of pastures. But the Bedouin are modernizing and water trucks are now common sights near their tent encampments.

The Eastern Province, Al-Hasa, although largely desert, contains most of the nation's oil fields. Besides oil, two large oases, Qatif and Hofuf, support substantial agricultural production. Most activity and population are centered around the market city of Al-Khobar; Dhahran, site of the Saudi ARAMCO complex; and the busy port of Dammam.

Riyadh's climate has a greater difference between winter-summer temperatures than elsewhere in the Kingdom. Riyadh has practically no humidity, making summers especially dry and dusty. Dust, the single most disagreeable factor in Riyadh's climate both for housekeeping and for allergy sufferers, is a year-round problem. Annual rainfall averages 2-4 inches, usually concentrated in a few torrential rainfalls in early spring. Winters produce moderate daytime temperatures from November through February. Evenings are sometimes cool enough to require residential heating.

Jeddah, the commercial center, has a tropical climatemild in winter and hot and very humid in summer. Summer lasts 8-10 months, with temperatures moderating in November. Relief from the heat often comes at sunset when sea breezes arrive. Except on the few occasions when it rains, the sun shines daily. Winter is comparable to the spring and summer seasons of resorts on the Mediterranean Sea.

Dhahran's climate, like that of Jeddah, is very humid, 60 to 90%, with summer lasting from April through October. The average maximum shade temperature in July and August is 110°F with "in sun" temperatures up to 150°F. From December to April, it is cooler and pleasant with indoor heating required at times, especially in the areas north of Dhahran.

Rainfall in both Jeddah and Dhahran is sparse, about 3-4 inches a year concentrated in a few heavy showers during fall and spring. Because of the high humidity, care should be taken in both Jeddah and Dhahran to store items in air-conditioned areas to prevent mildew.

Throughout Saudi Arabia, winds blow sand and dust into cars and homes, marring finishes and damaging unprotected equipment. Occasional full-fledged dust/sandstorms last 1-4 days and can aggravate respiratory problems.

Insect pests are not much of a problem, although flies can be bothersome during the cooler months, particularly in the desert. Mosquitoes are abundant at certain times of the year. Roaches, ants, and termites do invade the home, but insecticides control them well. Snakes are seldom seen but, along with scorpions, do exist and have been found on the compounds.


In 2000, Saudi Arabia's population was estimated to be over 22 million. Until the 1960s most of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic. Urbanization has advanced quite rapidly, and today about 95% of the population is settled.

Saudis are ethnic Arabs, but there has been some intermingling with Turkish, Iranian, Indonesian, Indian, and African peoples due mostly to pilgrims who immigrated and settled in the Hijaz along the coast of the Red Sea.

Many Arabs from nearby countries are employed in the Kingdom, as well as significant numbers of expatriate workers from North America, South Asia, Europe, and the Far East.

Arabic is, by royal decree, the official language of business. In the spoken language there are several regional variations in dialect. A knowledge of Arabic is helpful but not essential, since in urban areas and among middle-and upper-class Saudis, English is widely used and most shopkeepers speak and understand English. English is acknowledged as a second language and is taught in secondary schools. Despite the government's emphasis on English, many older people and policemen or taxi drivers do not speak or understand it.

Islam is the official religion, and the government considers it a sacred duty to safeguard the two greatest shrines of Islam, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Great Mosque of Mecca, with the cubed, black-draped Kaaba at its open-air center, is the major focal point of Islam. It is the Kaaba toward which all Muslims pray. Travel by non-Muslims into the cities of Mecca and Medina is prohibited.

Two Islamic religious observances during the year change the pace of daily life dramatically. Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year, is the period when Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and smoking from sunrise to sunset. Non-Muslims are also required to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public. At sunset each day, fasting ends as Muslim families gather to feast and to exchange greetings. Following Ramadan is Id Al-Fitr, a time of feasting, gift giving, and visits to homes of family members.

The second religious observance is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy cities prescribed as a religious duty for Muslims. Every Muslim who can bear the expense is required to make the Hajj once during his or her lifetime. Each year, as the holy days of Hajj approach, several million Muslims from many nations arrive in Jeddah by land, sea, and air en route to Mecca and the Plain of Arafat, where the religious rites take place. They are joined by Saudis and resident expatriate Muslims in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, making the Hajj the largest gathering of humanity at one time in the world. The last days of Hajj celebrate the feast of the sacrifice, Eid al-Adha.

Although many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia are becoming Westernized, traditional customs can make living in the Kingdom difficult. Flexibility and patience are necessary in dealing with everyday affairs as observance of local customs is usually of greater importance than one's diplomatic status.

Many social events are only for men, and, among the more conservative Saudi men, female family members are never mentioned in conversation. Although many Saudi women are educated in the West, and a great many of them are enterprising businesswomen or professionals, most of their social functions are for ladies only. Only occasionally will a Saudi woman attend a mixed function. However, it is useful to keep in mind that with over 70 diplomatic missions and many thousands of expatriates and Americans resident in the Kingdom, opportunities for socializing in a more western setting are numerous.

Saudi women appear veiled in public, wearing the "abaya," the traditional black cloak that covers the wearer from head to foot. Americans in Saudi Arabia should respect local traditions and customs and take care not to offend sensitivities. Women should wear long dresses, well below the knee, with long sleeves and avoid trousers. Non-Muslim women are not required to wear an abaya, but should dress conservatively (loose fitting dresses that cover well below the knee with long sleeves and a high neckline) when in public. However, some western women, particularly those living in the Riyadh area and in the more conservative central region, wear an abaya when in public places, and carry a head scarf in order to avoid harassment by the religious police known as the Mutawwa'in. However, even with the abaya and scarf, harassment still occurs.

The Mutawwa'in (members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), literally translated as "enforcers' and sometimes referred to as "religious police," comprise a special agency of the Saudi Government with specific powers to enforce religious stricture. Whatever may be written or whatever even a Mutawwa'in leader may say, individual Mutawwa attempt to enforce their own versions of modesty.

Under Saudi customs, it is prohibited for unmarried persons of the opposite sex to be together in public unless they are family members or close relatives. Public displays of affection, holding hands and kissing are also prohibited. Some Mutawwa'in try to enforce the rule that men and women who are beyond childhood years may not mingle in public, unless they are family or close relatives. Mutawwa'in may ask to see proof that a couple is married or related. Women who are not accompanied by a close male relative sometimes are not served at certain restaurants, particularly fast-food outlets. In addition, many restaurants no longer have a "family section" in which women are permitted to eat. Due to these restrictions, dating in the traditional sense can be problematic for single travelers.

Local custom prohibits photographing Arab women, and the Saudi Government requests that you not photograph poor areas or beggars. Excessive use of a camera may attract unfavorable attention, so take photographs discreetly. Photography of airports, ports, industrial, or military facilities is not permitted.

Except for American business representatives and official visitors, few Americans visit Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Government does not issue tourist visas and even business visit visas are difficult to obtain. Hajj visas (good for 30 days) are issued only to Muslims.

Public Institutions

The original area of Saudi Arabia ruled by the Al-Saud was the Nejd, the central and more tribal part of Saudi Arabia. During the first 30 years of the 20th century, the regions of the Hijaz, the Asir, and the oil-rich Eastern Province (the Al-Hasa) were brought under Saudi rule. Today, Saudi Arabia is a traditional Islamic monarchy ruled by a King chosen from the direct descendants of Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.

The Council of Ministers performs executive and legislative functions, examines proposed legislation, and makes recommendations to the King. It is composed of heads of ministries, separate agencies, and other advisers appointed by the King, who is also Prime Minister. Once a recommendation is made and a course of action is decided upon, the King issues a royal decree, turning the decision into law.

Saudi Arabia's legal system, the "Shari'ah," is the body of Islamic jurisprudence derived from the Koran and from traditions of the Prophet Mohammed. It governs both civil and criminal law. Interpretations of the law are made by the Ulema, men learned in traditional jurisprudence. In cases not covered by the Shari'ah, administrative decisions are made by civil officials. Local commercial councils issue decisions based on customary commercial law or practice. The Board of Grievances, which has some of the functions of a national appeals court, hears civil and commercial cases. Every Saudi citizen has the right to have grievances heard by the King.

Saudi Arabia is divided into 14 administrative districts. The governors, or emirs, of these subdivisions report to the Minister of the Interior and often directly to the King. Lesser emirs, who function at a district or city level, report to the Interior Ministry or provincial governor. Some communities, including Jeddah, have municipal councils whose members are appointed by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.

Commerce and Industry

Saudi Arabia's first producing oil well was completed in 1938, but full-scale commercial production did not begin until after World War II. Today, Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter. Most oil is shipped in tankers through the Arabian Gulf or through the Petroline pipeline to the Red Sea. The primary company developing the country's oil resources is the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi ARAMCO), formerly the Arabian-American Oil Company, now a wholly owned Saudi entity.

Oil accounts for 90% of export earnings, 75% of all government revenues, and 40% of the GNP. Income from the Hajj, once the mainstay of the government, continues to grow. Services provided to pilgrims now cost more than the income generated, but the pilgrimage is still a major stimulus to economic activity in the Hijaz or Western Province.

Saudi Arabia has no labor unions, but Saudi labor laws provide for worker protection. The supply of skilled Saudi workers is increasing due to improved technical education and training but still remains in short supply. Expatriates fill the gap with an estimated four-five million foreigners residing in Saudi Arabia. Most manual labor is performed by Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Indians, and Pakistanis. Middle-and upper-level technical and professional personnel, especially in commerce and construction, include Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians, and Jordanians as well as Filipinos and Pakistanis. Large numbers of Westerners occupy technical, professional, and managerial positions.

The government continues to develop new petrochemical industries such as paints, fertilizers, and plastics. Despite increased industrial and agricultural production, Saudi Arabia still relies heavily on imports. Increasingly high customs duties have been imposed to limit the flow of imported goods. Still, the Kingdom has achieved basic self-sufficiency in some agricultural staples, including wheat and dairy products.

The U.S. is Saudi Arabia's largest trade partner, barely edging out Japan, but European and other Asian countries are also becoming increasingly tough competitors. Major U.S. civilian exports are automobiles and parts, barley, telecommunications equipment, cigarettes, trucks, rice, air-conditioners, and aircraft.



The national bus company, Saudi Arabian Transport Company (SAPTCO), operates service within major cities. Buses have separate compartments for women and the bus stops are segregated by gender.

Taxis, also called limousines, are expensive and not always reliable. Taxi drivers may speak limited English.


Major airline carriers servicing the Kingdom are Saudia (the national airline), TWA, British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, and most other European and Middle Eastern airlines. Direct flights are available from most major European cities. Saudia flies between New York to Riyadh via Jeddah five times a week during the summer season and two times a week during the winter season. TWA has flights three times a week between New York City and Riyadh through Cairo. Only Saudia is permitted to make domestic flights. Numerous airlines service Bahrain, a one-hour drive from Dhahran.

Saudi Arabia has more than 5,000 miles of paved roads with modern highways linking major cities. Riyadh is a 10-hour drive from Jeddah and a 4-hour drive from Dhahran. Scattered service stations en route provide gasoline and repair service. These are not, however, the Western equivalent of rest stops.

A railroad operates between Dammam, on the Arabian Gulf, and Riyadh. The trip averages 4-5 hours with two stops en route. There are two trains daily on weekdays and one train daily on weekends. Private, air-conditioned compartments are available for groups of up to five people.


Telephone and Telegraph

A fax machine is very helpful for the transfer of information, especially for women who do not always have the mobility to which they are accustomed.

It is possible to have access to the popular communication bulletin board services and communication networks through a subsidiary of Saudi PTT. Charges are based on the time for which the line is used and the amount of data sent. Thus, if you are bringing a computer you may wish to consider including a modem for this or for using a computer fax program.

General phone directories are available in Arabic, but are not widely distributed. Telephone service between Riyadh, Taif, Dhahran, Jeddah, and other major cities in Saudi Arabia is good. Direct, long-distance international dialing is available. The cost to dial the U.S. via Saudi PTT is about U.S. $2.25 per minute. Connections are excellent, but it is much cheaper to have friends and relatives call you from the U.S. or to call using a calling service.

Commercial telegrams may be sent from any city in the Kingdom.

Radio and TV

In Riyadh and Jeddah, the English service of the Saudi Radio system broadcasts news, music, features, and talk shows 6 hours daily. The Saudi Radio Service in Dhahran does not broadcast in English, but Saudi ARAMCO has four FM stereo stations featuring country, easy listening, classical, and pop music as well as Associated Press news summaries. Neighboring Bahrain has English service on FM, offering 14 hours daily of music, news, and features.

Shortwave reception is not always good, but VOA and AFRTS provide music, news, sports commentary, and features. VOA broadcasts 11 hours daily in English to the Middle East. BBC reception is good 18 hours a day.

Saudi TV operates two channels: one in Arabic and the other in English, both broadcast on the European standard, ME/SECAM. The English-language channel shows many American and British programs as well as a variety of children's programs and cartoons. All programs are censored, and few current TV programs or movies are shown because of the Kingdom's strict moral codes.

Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) is available in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran and offers a variety of American sitcoms, sporting events, movies and news.

In Riyadh the United States Employees Recreation Association (USERA) offers a 5-channel cable TV service for a nominal yearly fee. Program broadcasting currently consists of two satellite feeds from Armed Forces Radio Television Service (AFRTS), CNN International, and two local Saudi channels. AFRTS offers a variety of American sitcoms, sports events, movies, and news. Satellite Cable service is also available for an additional monthly fee. Programs are broadcast in several different system formatsPAL, SECAM, and NTSC3. 58, limiting the utility of American standard TVs.

Dhahran has access to the Saudi ARAMCO TV system, which uses the PAL European system. American-standard TVs cannot receive this transmission. In addition to American movies, serials, and programs, Saudi ARAMCO TV carries a delayed version of Saudi TVs English newscast. Bahrain TV operates an all-English channel that can be clearly received all year round in Dhahran, offering 6-8 hours daily (longer on weekends) of American and European movies, shows, and serials as well as regular news. The U.A.E. and Qatar also have all-English channels that can be received in Dhahran much of the year. You can use a roof antenna to pick up telecasts from Kuwait and Oman.

A Saudi TV channel in English is received on SECAM. Multi-system TVs are available locally at a reasonable prices.

Newspapers, Magazines, and Technical Journals

International editions of magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and the Economist reach newsstands only a few days late. The International Herald Tribune, London Times, USA Today, and three locally published English newspapers (the Riyadh Daily, Arab News, and the Saudi Gazette ) are available in Riyadh. Foreign publications are always censored.

Health and Medicine

Medical Facilities

Good dental care is available in both Jeddah and Riyadh, although it is more expensive than in the U.S.

Pharmacies carry a wide selection of drugs. The drugs are generally European brands or American drugs listed by their European names and of a different dosage than that used in the U.S. If you are on a regularly prescribed medication (contraceptives, antihypertensives, cardiac drugs, medication for migraine headaches, etc.) or have a favorite brand, bring an adequate supply.

Saudi Arabia has strict penalties for violators of its narcotics laws. Prescription drugs in small quantities, clearly labeled, should cause no difficulties. Problems arise when they are in large quantities, unlabeled, or lack documentation, such as a copy of the prescription, or when they are deemed illicit by Saudi authorities. Many drugs sold in nearby countries without a prescription are considered illegal here. Individuals are arrested for possession of these drugs.

Preventive Measures

Meningococcal AC vaccine is required for travelers from the U.S. All persons who are arriving in Saudi Arabia should receive this immunization to avoid having to receive it at the port of entry. Certain other immunizations are required when arriving from surrounding countries. Typhoid, tetanus, oral polio, Hepatitis B, and DPT immunizations should be up to date. The incidence of Hepatitis A is low, and gamma globulin is no longer given regularly. However, Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for those who do not have antibodies. Malaria is only found in the southwestern section of the country and regular prophylaxis is not required.

Schistosomiasis is ever present, and all travelers should avoid swimming in freshwater lakes. Brucellosis is endemic; all dairy products consumed should be pasteurized. Although the city water in Riyadh is usually potable, bottled water is preferred for consumption. You need not soak fruits and vegetables, but thoroughly clean all produce. In the major cities, the restaurants patronized by Westerners are safe. Bottled water is readily available.


Passage, Customs & Duties

Travelers usually arrive in Saudi Arabia by plane at one of the three international airportsKing Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, or Dhahran International Airport in Dhahran. All three of the airports are serviced by a great number of airlines in addition to the state-owned airline Saudia.

Travel to Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, the cities where the two holiest mosques of Islam are located, is forbidden to non-Muslims. American Muslims who are not resident in Saudi Arabia but who plan to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina should pay close attention to the following:

All travel plans should be made through a travel agent in order to book accommodations in advance. Hajj visas are required and are valid only for travel to the two holy cities. Onward travel to Riyadh or other cities in Saudi Arabia is not permitted.

Foreign Muslim residents of the Kingdom may perform the Hajj once every five years. Advance approval must be obtained from an immigration office with the approval of the Saudi sponsor.

Passports valid for at least six months and visas are required for entry. Visas are issued for business and work, to visit close relatives, and for transit and religious visits. Visas for tourism are issued only for approved tour groups following organized itineraries. Airport and seaport visas are not available. All visas require a sponsor, can take several months to process, and must be obtained prior to arrival. Women visitors and residents are required to be met by their sponsor upon arrival. Women traveling alone, who are not met by sponsors, have experienced delays before being allowed to enter the country or to continue on to other flights.

Visitors to Saudi Arabia generally obtain a meningitis vaccination prior to arrival. A medical report or physical examination is required to obtain work and residence permits.

Residents working in Saudi Arabia generally must surrender their passports while in the Kingdom. The sponsor (normally the employer) obtains work and residence permits for the employee and for any family members. Family members of those working are not required by law to surrender their passports, though they often do. Residents carry a Saudi residence permit (Iqama) for identification in place of their passports. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General in Saudi Arabia cannot sponsor private American citizens for Saudi visas.

Foreign residents traveling within the Kingdom, even between towns in the same province, carry travel letters issued by employers and authenticated by an immigration official or a Chamber of Commerce office. Police at all airports and dozens of roadblocks routinely arrest and imprison violators.

Residents in Saudi Arabia who are departing the country must obtain an exit permit prior to leaving and an exit/reentry permit if they intend to return to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi sponsor's approval is required for exit permits. A married woman residing in Saudi Arabia with her husband must have her husband's approval to receive an exit permit. The father must approve the departure of any children. The U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulates General cannot sponsor private U.S. citizens for an exit permit under any circumstances. Temporary visitors normally do not need an exit permit but may be prevented from departing the country if they are involved in a legal dispute.

Saudi customs authorities enforce strict regulations concerning importation into Saudi Arabia of such banned items as alcohol products, weapons and any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam. This includes non-Islamic religious materials, pork products, and pornography. Saudi customs and postal officials broadly define what is contrary to Islam, and therefore prohibited. Christmas decorations, fashion magazines, and "suggestive" videos may be confiscated and the owner subject to penalties and fines. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington or one of Saudi Arabia's consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements.

Penalties for the import, manufacture, possession, and consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs are severe. Convicted offenders can expect jail sentences, fines, public flogging, and/or deportation. The penalty for drug trafficking in Saudi Arabia is death. Saudi officials make no exceptions. Customs inspections at ports of entry are thorough. The U.S. Embassy and Consulates General have no standing in Saudi courts to obtain leniency for an American convicted of alcohol or drug offenses.

Besides alcohol products and illicit drugs, Saudi Arabia also prohibits the import, use, or possession of any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam The private ownership of weapons is prohibited. Imported and domestic audiovisual media and reading matter are censored.

Americans living in or visiting Saudi Arabia are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the Consulates General in Dhahran and Jeddah. U.S. citizens who register at the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Consulates General may obtain updated information on travel and security within Saudi Arabia and can be included in the warden network.

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is located at Collector Road M, Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 94309, Riyadh 11693. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: U.S. Embassy, Unit 61307, APO AE 09803-1307. The Embassy telephone number is (966) (1) 488-3800, fax (966) (1) 488-7275.

The U.S. Consulate General in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is located between Aramco Headquarters and the old Dhahran Airport at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals highway exit. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 38955, Doha-Dhahran 31942. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: Unit 66803, APO AE 09858-6803. The telephone number is (966) (3) 330-3200, fax (966) (3) 330-0464.

The U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is located on Palestine Road, Ruwais. The international mailing address is P.O. Box 149, Jeddah. Mail may also be sent via the U.S. Postal Service to: Unit 62112, APO AE 09811-2112. The telephone number is (966) (2) 667-0080, fax (966) (2) 669-3078 or 669-3098.

Special Information

Saudi authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam, although private worship by non-Muslims generally is permitted. Non-Muslims suspects of violating these restrictions have been jailed.

Currency, Banking and Weights and Measures

The Saudi Arabian monetary unit is the riyal (SR), which is divided into 100 halalahs. Notes are issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500. Coins are in 5, 10, 25, and 50 halalah denominations but they are being phased out. The riyal is quoted in dollars but based on Special Drawing Rights (SDR). As the SDR/dollar rate varies, the official riyal/dollar rate is revalued at intervals to keep within a narrow range around US$1=SR 3.75.

The riyal is readily convertible and is one of the world's most stable currencies. Most foreign currencies can be converted against it.

Commercial banks are located in all the major cities. Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran have many banks that were formerly foreign-owned but have been converted into joint stock companies with majority ownership by Saudi interests; e.g., Citibank has a minority interest in the Saudi American Bank.

Saudi Arabia is still a cash-oriented society, although acceptance of checks and major credit cards is growing.

The metric system is the official standard of measurement, although Saudi Arabia still uses older Arab weights and measures. Saudis use the Muslim lunar calendar, which is about 12 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar used in most other countries. Consequently, exact dates of official local holidays change each year.


Id al-Adha*

Hijra New Year*


Mawlid an Nabi*

Lailat al Kadr*

Id al-Fitr*

*variable, based on the Islamic calendar


These titles are provided as a general indication of the material published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial publications.

Note : Saudi Arabia prohibits importation of some of these books.

Abdrabboph, B. Saudi Arabia: Forces of Modernization. Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1985.

Alireza, Marianne. At the Drop of a Veil. Houghton Mifflin Co.: Boston, 1971.

American University. Area Handbook for Saudi Arabia, 1984.

Arabian American Oil Company. ARAMCO and Its World. Library of Congress, 1980.

Armstrong, H.C. Lord of Arabia. Khayats: Beirut, 1966.

Beling, W.A. King Faisal and the Modernization of Saudi Arabia. London: Croom Helm, 1980.

Bligh, Alexander. From Prince to King: The Royal Succession in the House of Al-Saud in the 20th Century. New York University Press: New York, 1984.

Carter, J.R.L. Leading Merchant Families of Saudi Arabia. State Mutual: New York, 1980.

Field, Michael. The Merchants: Leading Big Business Families of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Wood-stock: New York, 1986.

Gaith, Abdul Hakim. The Marching Caravan, The Story of Modern Saudi Arabia. Jeddah, 1967.

deGaury, Gerald. Faisal, King of Saudi Arabia. Barker: London, 1966.

Goldberg, Jacob. The Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Gray, Seymour. Beyond the Veil. Harper & Row: New York, 1983.

Helms, Christine Moss. The Cohesion of Saudi Arabia. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Holden, David, and Richard Jones. The House of Saud. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Johany, Ali. The Saudi Arabian Economy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Lacey, Robert. The Kingdom: The House of Saud. Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: New York, 1981.

Lamb, David. The Arabs: Journey Beyond the Mirage. Houghton Mifflin Co.:New York, 1987.

Leading Merchant Families of Saudi Arabia. New York: State Mutual, latest edition.

Long, David. The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies. Westview Press: Boulder and Louder, 1985.

McGregor, J., and M. Nydell. Update Saudi Arabia. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1990.

Mackey, Sandra. The Saudis. Houghton Mifflin Co: New York, 1987.

Quandt, William. Saudi Arabia In the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security and Oil. Brookings Institute: New York, 1981.

Safran, Nadav. Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Vincent, Betty A. and F.W. Classey. Wild Flowers of Central Saudi Arabia. London, 1977.

Wahba, Shaikh Hafiz. Arabian Days. Barker: London, 1964.

Winder, R. Bayley. Saudi Arabia in the 19th Century. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1964.

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Saudi Arabia


Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia

Al-Mamlakah al-'Arabiyah as-Sa'udiyah



Saudi Arabia is located in the Middle East between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It borders Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north, Yemen to the south, and Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar to the east. The country, which is divided into 13 provinces, is composed primarily of desert. Each region has a governor appointed by the king. With a land area of about 1.96 million square kilometers (756,981 square miles), Saudi Arabia is about one-fourth the size of the continental United States. Riyadh, the capital, is located in the central eastern part of the country.


The population of Saudi Arabia was estimated at 22,023,506 in July of 2000, a figure growing at about 3.3 percent a year. Saudi nationals account for close to 75 percent of the population. The remaining residents, nearly 6 million people, are expatriates comprised primarily of foreign workers. About 90 percent of Saudi nationals are Arabs. The rest of the indigenous population, according to CIA statistics, are Afro-Asian.

In 2000, the birth rate stood at 37.47 per 1,000 population, compared with a death rate of 6.02 per 1,000. According to a Saudi census taken in the early 1990s, a little over 50 percent of the population is male. While men make up a majority of the population, due primarily to the high concentration of males among expatriate workers, women are expected to live longer. Women on average live 69 years in Saudi Arabia, while the men live 66.

An overwhelming majority of the Saudi population is young. In 1999, according to the Saudi Ministry of Planning, 46 percent of the population was under 15. Another 38 percent was under 40. Those over 40 accounted for only 16 percent of the population. Efforts to accommodate the rising numbers of young adults entering the workforce each year have been only partly successful, and the consequent rise in unemployment has begun to aggravate the underlying tensions between the country's richest and poorest citizens.

Up until the 1960s a majority of the Saudi population were either nomadic or semi-nomadic desert dwellers with no fixed homes. However, after petroleum was discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, state revenues quickly began to rise. As the oil industry matured, the economy quickly modernized and nomadic herding faded as an economic base. By 2000, 95 percent of the Saudi population was settled.

The Saudi royal family and a majority of the population are Sunni Muslim. About 5 percent of the population, around 1 million people, are Shia Muslim. Tensions between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority have been especially high since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Saudi Shiites rioted in parts of the Eastern Province. Shia Muslims routinely suffer from religious discrimination.


The Saudi Arabian economy is fueled almost entirely by the production and distribution of petroleum and its derivative products. Over the past decade oil sales have generated, on average, 90 percent of the country's yearly export earnings, 35 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP), and 75 percent of all budget revenues. High oil prices in the 1970s led to rapid economic expansion, with GDP growing over the course of the decade by 10 percent per year. As oil prices dropped in the 1980s, GDP growth slowed, averaging just 1.3 percent per year between 1980 and 1998. Rising oil prices beginning in 1999 again boded well for the economy.

Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia by American geologists in the 1930s, but high level production did not begin until after World War II (1939-45). In the 1960s, the Saudi oil industry began to mature, resulting in a massive accumulation of wealth, fast paced economic growth, and rapid urban development. However, it was not until the 1970s that Saudi Arabia emerged as one of the Middle East's preeminent political and economic powers.

Two events in the 1970s were crucial to Saudi Arabia's economic development. One was the Arab oil embargo of 1973, during which time Arab countries withheld oil from the world market, raising world oil prices dramatically. The other was the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Shiites overthrew the western-backed monarchy in Iran and assumed control of the country. Both events disrupted oil supplies, causing the commodity's cost to rise. Throughout the 1970s, Saudi Arabia was able to export oil at substantially elevated prices, leading it to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The massive inflow of revenue allowed the kingdom to increase import levels and still maintain a favorable balance of trade . Spending on defense and infrastructure rose, and Saudi Arabia became a benefactor nation to the rest of the Arab world, supplying large amounts of financial aid. (Aid has averaged 4 percent of GDP per year over the past 25 years, making Saudi Arabia's average aid-to-GDP ratio the highest in the world.) In a matter of decades, Saudi Arabia transformed itself from a desert kingdom populated by nomadic tribes to a modern economic entity which controls over a quarter of the world's oil.

While petroleum exports are indeed lucrative, Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil as its primary source of revenue is potentially problematic. In the near term, the Saudi economy is left vulnerable to shifts in the price of oil, lowered demand, or disrupted production due to any number of factors, including regional conflicts and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) shifting oil production quotas. In the long term there is the problem of dwindling supplies. While the Saudis maintain over a quarter of the world's known oil reserves (about 263 billion barrels at the end of 1999), these reserves, at the current rate of production, will last only 87.5 years. If, in that time, Saudi Arabia fails to sufficiently diversify its economy or discover new sources of oil, the country will be faced with a serious shortfall in revenues. And even if the kingdom does discover new reserves (as will likely be the casesome estimates put undiscovered reserves in Saudi Arabia at nearly a trillion barrels) the price of oil will probably steadily drop in the coming years as supplies and production efficiency increase.

The need to begin generating alternative sources of income was recognized as early as 1970, when the government issued the first in an ongoing series of 5 year plans aimed at expanding the non-oil sectors of the economy. While infrastructure expansion and urban develop-mentboth natural outgrowths of the oil industryhave proceeded at an impressive pace, attempts to diversify the economy have produced limited results. Similarly, efforts to decentralize the state run economy through broad privatization schemes have been largely unsuccessful.


The first 5-year plans, covering the 1970s, focused on developing the national infrastructure (see Infrastructure, Power, and Communications). The third plan (1980-85) focused less on infrastructure and more on education, health, and social services. It also included efforts to expand the productive sectors of the economy, namely industrya goal which was only partly achieved. While the building of 2 new industrial cities, Jubail and Yanbu, was completed, no broad industrial expansion occurred, leaving primary components of the plan unfulfilled.

The fourth plan, which covered the latter half of the 1980s, remained focused on education and training. It also sought to reduce government spending while generating growth in the private sector . Joint ventures were encouraged between foreign companies and Saudi state enterprises in the hope of increasing foreign investment. The role of the private sector grew during this time, rising to 70 percent of non-oil GDP by 1987.

Starting in 1990, the fifth 5-year plan concentrated on expanding the infrastructure and strengthening the Saudi national defense. The perceived need for a stronger military was reinforced by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a move which destabilized the region and precipitated the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Between 1990-94 34 percent of Saudi expenditures went toward national defense. The fifth plan also sought to increase private sector employment opportunities for Saudi citizens by limiting the number of foreign workers on Saudi soil. Efforts to "Saudiize" the workforceraise the percentage of Saudi workerscontinued through the sixth plan (1995-2000), which also focused on the diversification of economic activity through private sector growth, especially in the areas of industry and agriculture.

The Saudi government will continue in its efforts to create jobs for Saudi citizens over the next 5 years and beyond. Indeed, with 100,000 nationals entering the workforce each year, job creation will remain a priority for the foreseeable future.


High petroleum prices in the 1970s boosted Saudi revenues and allowed increased spending. A series of ambitious, high cost initiatives were launched to develop the nation's infrastructure, expand industry and agriculture, overhaul health and education, and modernize the military (as outlined above). These efforts eventually put a strain on the government budget, as spending began to outpace the flow of revenues. In the 1970s, the problem was mitigated by the high price of oil, but in the 1980s, when oil prices declined, revenues fell and the government deficit grew, reaching 19.6 percent of GDP by 1986. Financial resources were further strained in 1990 when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait prompted the Saudis to appropriate US$30 billion in emergency defense spending. Though the value of Saudi exports exceeds that of its imports, the trade surplus has historically been unable to offset the deficit, which is generally financed through domestic borrowing. Eighty percent of the debt is held by autonomous government institutions, such as pension funds and social security. The other 20 percent is held by commercial banks.

Over the past decade, measures have been taken to lower government spending and reduce the fiscal imbalances created in the 1980s. In 1996 and 1997, spending cuts coupled with rising oil prices helped lower domestic debt and ease the pressure on government finances. However, this trend was interrupted in 1998 when oil prices fell, prompting calls for additional austerity measures and general economic reform. In 1999, government spending was reduced by an additional 13 percent. That year, with financial pressure building, the government also implemented new revenue-generating measures, a move it had resisted in the past. It raised domestic gasoline prices by 50 percent, introduced airport taxes, and doubled work permit fees. In 2000, surging oil prices produced the first government surplus in 17 years. However, the surplus may be shortlived, as the Saudi government plans to increase spending in 2001, a decision based primarily on expectations of rising oil prices.

While spending in 2001 is expected to be higher than in 2000, total spending between 2000-04 is actually slated to go down. The seventh 5-year plan (2000-04) calls for spending no more than US$200 billion, down from US$258 billion over the previous 5 years.

The Saudi government has expressed an interest in decentralizing the economy and increasing private sector participation. Although a number of privatization schemes have been considered, the government has yet to relinquish control over most major industries. Plans to privatize telecommunications and electric companies have stalled, as have plans to privatize the state-owned Saudi Arabian airlines.

Privatization efforts will likely be revitalized as Saudi Arabia attempts to gain entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), an international regulatory body that sets standards for international trading practices and arbitrates disputes between member nations. (The WTO holds that free market, rules-based economies are more transparent than state-run economies and sees them as more fit for membership.) Joining the WTO will force Saudi Arabia to further liberalize its economy and would place its economic policies under international scrutiny, depriving Saudi policy makers of a certain degree of freedom. But once Saudi Arabia was admitted to the WTO it would have protection against the arbitrary exclusion of its imports by other members, a trade-off most Saudi officials find favorable. Among the measures the kingdom will have to take to gain entry into the organization are the removal of protectionist trade barriers, the lowering of import tariffs , and the opening of key service sectors to foreign participationall policies which remove protection for local producers from competition. Saudi Arabia will also have to improve its protections for intellectual property rights. These measures will likely improve the investment climate in Saudi Arabia, paving the way for greater inflows of foreign exchange and smaller outflows of remittances .

Many workers in Saudi Arabia are from other countries, and send home much of their earnings. These worker remittances amount to approximately US$16 billion a year. Opening the private sector up to greater foreign participationallowing, for instance, non-Saudis to buy homes and invest in local companies could provide a means for keeping more capital in local markets.


HISTORY OF THE RULING FAMILY. The foundations for a modern Saudi state were laid in 1744 when Muhammad bin Saud, the ruler of a local tribe, joined forces with a religious reformer, Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab, in an attempt to unify the Arabian peninsula under strict Islamic law. Within 60 years, the Al Saud family, through a mixture of religious proselytizing and military conquest, had taken control of a majority of what is now Saudi Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. (Mecca is where the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was born in 570 A.D. and Medina is where, in 633, he died.)

The success of the Al Saud attracted the attention of the Ottoman Turks, who held the Arabian peninsula as part of their empire. In 1816, employing an Egyptian force, the Ottomans launched a campaign to recapture areas under Saudi control. The Al Saud, outnumbered and overpowered, were driven back by Egyptian forces and by 1818 had lost a majority of their empire.

Over the course of the 19th century, the Al Saud made numerous attempts to regain their lost territory, but superior Ottoman forces, as well as resistance from rival clans, proved difficult to overcome. By 1890 the Al Saud had been driven into exile in Kuwait.

In 1902, the Saudi prince Abdul Aziz Al Saud (who was to become known internationally as Ibn Saud) was able to recapture Riyadh, his family's ancestral home, from the rival Al Rashid clan. From there, Ibn Saud launched his campaign to reunify the peninsula. By the end of the First World War, in 1918, the Ottoman empire had collapsed, paving the way for Arabian independence. In 1924, having established a foothold in central Arabia, Ibn Saud moved west into the hejaz region where his army of fanatically religious desert dwellers known as the "Ikhwan" (brethren), defeated Sherif Hussein and took possession of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. By 1932, Ibn Saud, with the support of the Ikhwan, had consolidated control over nearly the entire peninsula. That year he declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with himself as its king.

Over the next 30 years the Al Saud and Al Rashid, vying for control over the peninsula of Arabia, remained at war. In the end, the Saudis emerged victorious, primarily due to Ibn Saud's ability to gain the loyalty of the Ikhwan. Ibn Saud, upon his death in 1953, had 34 surviving sons, who continue to sit at the center of the nation's political apparatus. Ibn Saud was succeeded after his death by his eldest son Saud, who, in his first year of rule, established the Council of Ministers, a body formed to advise the king on state policy and direct the development of the rapidly growing Saudi bureaucracy. Despite ruling for a full 11 years, King Saud was perceived as an ineffective leader. In 1964, under heavy pressure from religious elites and members of the royal family, Saud stepped down in favor of his half brother, Faisal, who had previously served as foreign minister.

As king, Faisal attempted to address issues to which Saud, and even Abdul Aziz, had given little thought, such as how to effectively modernize the country in the face of its emerging wealth. He also struggled with how to maximize the benefits of the kingdom's bountiful petroleum resources. Decisions on oil policy were not always easy to make, especially when matters of Arab solidarity conflicted with the country's drive toward economic prosperity.

When Arab oil producers decided to cut petroleum sales to the United States in 1973, this conflict came into full view. That year, the ever-present tensions between Israel and its neighbors erupted as Israeli and Egyptian forces clashed in the Sinai desert. U.S. aid to Israel during the war led to fierce protests in the Arab world, culminating in an Arab boycott of oil sales to the United States and other western countries. Saudi Arabia, which participated in the boycott, learned a hard lesson as a result: it could not maintain its economy without doing business in the West, for even though the price of oil went up during the boycott due to the cut in supply, the price spikes were insufficient to cover the loss in sales. In 1974, despite opposition from other Arab oil producers, the Saudis froze oil prices and resumed sales to the United States. That year, in a series of negotiations, the United States and Saudi Arabia came to an agreement by which America would provide the kingdom with military support in exchange for an uninterrupted flow of oil. Over the remainder of the decade, Saudi Arabia sold vast quantities of oil at inflated prices, leading it to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

King Faisal, who presided over the oil boycott and the subsequent agreement with the United States, was assassinated in 1975 by a member the royal family. The alleged assassin was executed for the crime. Faisal was replaced by his half brother, Crown Prince Khalid. Fahd, another half brother who would later become king, was appointed as the new Crown Prince and first deputy prime minister, where he was given the responsibility of overseeing a wide range of the country's international and domestic affairs.

Economic development was rapid under King Khalid. Saudi Arabia's acquisition of national wealth enhanced its political influence in the Middle East and heightened its role in world economic affairs. At the same time, however, the kingdom's growing relationship with the West began to concern religious hard-liners who feared that Western influence would corrupt the nation's Islamic ideals. In November 1979, about 250 armed followers of Sunni Muslim cleric Juhaiman Ibn Seif al-Oteif took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. After a standoff, government troops ousted the militants by force. The incident was not without effect, as it alerted the royal family to the extent of the religious opposition it was fostering by failing to display a more overt commitment to the preservation of Islamic ideals. In response, a committee was established, chaired by interior minister Prince Nayef, to establish a set of societal rules based on Islamic principles. Still, opposition from Islamist religious forces continues to pose the greatest single threat to the royal family.

In June 1982, Khalid died and, in a smooth transition, Prince Fahd became king. Prince Abdullah, Fahd's half brother and commander of the Saudi National Guard, was appointed crown prince and deputy prime minister. The role of second deputy prime minister was filled by Fahd's brother, Prince Sultan, who also served as the minister of Defense and Aviation.

King Fahd, despite inheriting a weakening economy, quickly became a central figure in Middle East politics. In 1988, he played a key role in bringing about a cease fire in the Iran-Iraq war. He also helped reorganize and strengthen the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of 6 gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) formed to facilitate regional economic cooperation and peaceful development. Additionally, in the 1990-91 Gulf War, King Fahd used his influence as arbiter over Islam's holiest sites (Mecca and Medina) to help organize and hold together the U.S.-led war coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraq. King Fahd suffered a stroke in November of 1995. By 1997, Crown Prince Abdullah had taken effective control of the state.

Over the decades, tensions between the royal family and radical religious forces have persisted as various Saudi kings have sought to balance the nation's dependence on the West with efforts to preserve the kingdom's cultural and religious heritage. Currently, opposition from Islamist religious forces poses the greatest single threat to the Saudi government. The royal family tries to maintain close ties with the religious leaders, who, it is hoped, can keep the extremist members of the clergy in line. However, religious radicals have, especially over the past decade, attracted a growing number of followers. The reasons for this vary. The kingdom's uneven distribution of wealth is partly to blame, as it has led to rising discontent among the nation's poorest citizens. But more importantly, there is deep seeded resentment stemming from the presence of non-Muslim military forces on Saudi soil. U.S. troops and British soldiers have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War, a situation religious fundamentalists fiercely oppose. This opposition on more than one occasion has been expressed through violence. In November 1995, a car bomb exploded near a U.S. military installation, killing 7 people. In June 1996, there was another, more lethal attack in which a bomb blew up outside the Khobar Towers military barracks, killing 19 American servicemen. A Saudi dissident, Osama bin Laden, has been blamed for planning the attack. However, as of 2001, no arrests had been made.


Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where the king essentially rules by decree. That does not mean, however, that judicial structures are entirely absent, or that the king's powers are limitless. The Basic Law, the closest thing the Saudis have to a written constitution, was introduced in 1992 to be used in conjunction with Islamic Sharia law, whose dictates up to that point had been the sole source of legal guidelines. Neither the Basic Law nor the king's decrees are meant to violate Sharia law.

The Mutawaa'in, or religious police, constitute the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue. The semi-autonomous group enforces compliance with Islamic customs. Abuses by the Mutawaa'in are known to occur, especially in its treatment of Saudi Arabia's Shia minority.

The Council of Ministers, established in 1953, holds executive and legislative powers, but any of its decisions can be overruled by the king. The council is appointed by the king and is primarily made up of members of the royal family. There is also a Consultative Council, which was formed in 1993. Its members are also appointed by the king. Originally comprised of 60 members, the council was expanded to 90 members in 1997. Made up of tribal leaders, government officials, and educated elites, the council plays an advisory role to the king and has no governing power. Each of Saudi Arabia's 13 regions has its own council as well as a regional governor who is appointed by the king.


Saudi Arabia has a very limited tax regime, as it relies mostly on oil receipts, customs duties , and licensing fees to produce government revenue. Saudi nationals, rather than paying income or property taxes, pay what is called the zakat, an annual 2.5 percent assessment of a person's net personal wealth. Revenue from zakat collection helps pay for social services, such as health care and education. Foreign companies and self-employed foreigners in Saudi Arabia are not obliged to pay the zakat, but are, on the other hand, charged with income taxes , which range from 25 percent on income under US$26,667 to 45 percent on income over US$266,667.

Saudi Arabia also charges tariffs on imported goods which range from 12 percent to 20 percent. In order to gain entry into the WTO, the government will have to lower these tariffs to a maximum of 7.5 percent.


In the 1970s, in order to accommodate its burgeoning oil industry, the Saudi government took extensive measures to expand the kingdom's infrastructure. Roads and railways were built, airports were expanded, and seaports were enhanced to handle heavy volumes of traffic.

By the end of 1999, the kingdom had around 150,000 kilometers (93,210 miles) of roads, about a third of them paved. Major arteries provide passage between urban and industrial centers. Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina in the west are linked to Riyadh and to the Eastern Province oil fields

Country Newspapers Radios TV Sets a Cable subscribers a Mobile Phones a Fax Machines a Personal Computers a Internet Hosts b Internet Users b
1996 1997 1998 1998 1998 1998 1998 1999 1999
Saudi Arabia 57 321 262 N/A 31 N/A 49.8 1.17 300
United States 215 2,146 847 244.3 256 78.4 458.6 1,508.77 74,100
Egypt 40 324 122 N/A 1 0.5 9.1 0.28 200
Iran 28 265 157 0.0 6 N/A 31.9 0.05 100
aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.
bData are from the Internet Software Consortium ( and are per 10,000 people.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

by the trans-peninsular highway. The Tapline road provides a link between Damman, on the gulf coast, and the Jordanian border. The Red Sea road runs north-south, the length of the western shore.

Saudi Arabia's rail network is currently limited to a 571-kilometer (355-mile) single track line running between Damman and Riyadh, and a 322-kilometer (200-mile) line between Riyadh and Hufuf. As of 2000, new lines had been proposed to connect cities on the gulf coast in the east, such as Damman and Jubail, to mineral deposits in the northwest. A cross-peninsula line connecting the Red Sea port of Jeddah with the gulf port of Damman had also been proposed.

There are 6 major seaports in Saudi Arabia, along with 14 minor ones, sufficient to handle the country's importing and exporting needs. Four of the major ports Duba, Yanbu, Jeddah, and Jizanare on the Red Sea. The other 2, Damman and Jubail, are on the Persian Gulf. Yanbu and Jubail are industrial ports and together account for more than half of the country's import and export handling. As part of a larger effort to decentralize the economy, operation and maintenance of the seaports were turned over to the private sector in 1997.

Saudi Arabia has 3 international airports located at Jeddah, Damman, and Riyadh. These airports also act as the primary hubs for domestic flights. Other domestic airports include Medina, Jizan, Taif, Qassim, Tabuk, and Abha. Saudi Arabian Airlines, the national carrier, is owned and operated by the government. While privatizing the airline has been considered, as of 2000 no concrete moves had been made to that effect.

The expansion of the Saudi infrastructure was rapid in the 1970s, when oil revenues were at their peak. The completion of a number of major projects in the 1980s coincided with a downturn in the price of oil and a subsequent loss of revenues. As a result, spending on infrastructure declined. The growth in the transport sector, which between 1975 and 1979 reached 19.3 percent, had, by the early 1990s, dropped below 2 percent.

In 1998, despite a growth in investment, the telecommunications sector in Saudi Arabia was fairly limited. By 1999, the expansion of the industry had become a priority. The U.S. firm Lucent Technologies won a US$4 billion contract in 1994 to install fixed phone lines throughout the kingdom, but 4 years later the 2.9 million existing lines still represented under 15 lines per 100 inhabitants, according to the International Telecommunication Union. In an effort to bring the system in line with emerging East European economies, the government is seeking to increase the number of lines to at least 30 per 100 residents by 2002. Lucent, on top of its initial contract, was hired in 1998 to expand mobile phone service in a deal worth US$700 million. The government hopes the expansion will enable the kingdom to accommodate 5 million cell phone subscribers by the end of 2001.

In a bid to privatize the telecommunications industry, the government in April 1998 approved the creation of the Saudi Telecommunications Company, an entity which originally comprised the telecommunications arm of the Post, Telegraphs, and Telephone ministry (PTT). According to the initial plan, shares in the company were to be sold starting at the beginning of 2000, with the government stake in the company being eventually reduced to zero. However, when talks broke down over the transfer of a large bulk of shares to the American firm SBC (Southern Bell Communications), government withdrawal of operations was delayed. By 2001, a deadline for complete privatization had still not been set.

By the end of the 1990s, the demand for energy in Saudi Arabia had reached an all-time high, outstripping supply and, in some cities, causing frequent power out-ages during periods of high use. Short-term solutions, such as raising prices to curb demand, proved ineffective. For instance, in 2000, price increases totaling almost 78 percent were introduced for electricity. However, after 6 months, vehement public protests were launched in response to high electricity bills. As a result, the price hikes were rescinded before they could have any substantial effect. To meet growing energy needs over the long term, the government has set out to restructure the industry and increase investment from both the public and private sectors.

In November of 1998, it was announced that the 10 separate electricity companies in Saudi Arabia would be consolidated into a single company, the Saudi Electric Company. The government has expressed its intention to eventually relinquish its 85 percent stake in the sector. By consolidating the sector, the government hopes to streamline operations and improve efficiency, making the industry more dependable and more profitable, and in turn more attractive to outside investors. By 2020, the government's aim is to increase power generation capacity by over 3 times from where it stood in 1990, from 22,000 megawatts (MW) to 69,000 MW. Saudi Arabia, which imports no energy, is entirely dependent upon oil for the generation of its power.


Saudi Arabia, despite moves to diversify its economy, is still almost entirely dependent upon oil. Petroleum sales provide the kingdom with 90 percent of its export earnings and 75 percent of its annual budget revenues. Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which was founded in Baghdad, Iraq, in September of 1960 to unify and coordinate members' petroleum prices.

Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Kuwait were OPEC's other founding members. Qatar, Indonesia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Nigeria are also current members. OPEC countries are responsible for 40 percent of the world's oil production and 77 percent of its known reserves. Saudi Arabian oil exports make up nearly 30 percent of OPEC's yearly total exports. The government hopes to increase non-oil GDP by 4 percent between 2000 and 2004, with agriculture projected to expand by 3.1 percent per year, industry by 5.1 percent, and utilities (electricity, gas, and water) by 4.6 percent. Construction activity is expected to increase annually by over 6 percent.

And non-oil mining had been targeted for an expansion of 8.3 percent per year, which would make it the fastest growing sector of the economy. Despite all such efforts to increase non-petroleum related economic functions, it will be difficult to move the country away from dominance by the petroleum sector.

In 1998, industry, which included oil production, contributed 47 percent of GDP and employed 25 percent of the total workforce of 7 million. Agriculture contributed just 6 percent of GDP and employed 12 percent of the workforce, while the services sector contributed another 47 percent and employed 63 percent of the workforce.


In the 1980s, in moves to diversify the economy, the Saudi government sought to expand the agricultural sector. It was hoped that eventually the nation would become self sufficient for food. This was an ambitious goal considering a majority of Saudi Arabia is desert where the potential for crop cultivation is limited. Still, the Saudis had some success with their plan. Food cultivation expanded in the 1980s, and as oil revenues fell, agriculture's share of GDP rose, stabilizing in the 1990s between 6 and 7 percent. By 1998, agricultural jobs provided work for 12 percent of the labor force.

Less than 2 percent of Saudi Arabian land is used for cultivation. Crops are grown mainly in the southwest of the kingdom, where there is rainfall sufficient for farming, or in areas where oases provide enough ground water for irrigation. Desalinated sea water, which is used for some purposes in Saudi Arabia, is too saline, even after treatment, to be used for farming.

The Saudi government, in its push to increase food production, had by the mid-1990s turned over 2.8 million hectares of public land to the private sector for agricultural use. About a fifth of the land was turned over to individual farmers, while the rest was designated for agribusiness projects or turned over to agricultural companies.

Government involvement in agriculture peaked in the 1980s. With production heavily subsidized, the value added in agriculture grew by 70 percent between 1985 and 1991. (Value added is the increase in the market value of a product at a particular stage of production. It is calculated by subtracting the value of all inputs bought from other firms from the value of the firm's output. For example, the value added by the cotton textile industry is the value of the textiles when they leave the factory minus the value of raw cotton and other materials used in their manufacture.) In the 1991-92 crop year, wheat production rose to an all-time high of 4 million tons, with Saudi Arabia becoming the world's sixth largest wheat exporter. However, earnings from sales were nullified by the high costs of production. The government was spending 5 times the market price to produce a ton of grain.

With the outbreak of the Gulf War (1990-91), agricultural subsidies were reduced and, with funds needed for military expenditures, quotas were imposed on government purchases of grain from local farmers. By 1995-96, the land area devoted to grain production had fallen by over 65 percent. The harvest that year fell to 1.2 million tons. Meanwhile, domestic consumption stood at 1.8 million tons. Although the production of barley and grain had markedly declined by the late 1990s, fruit and vegetable production rose.



Due to vast petroleum reserves, low production costs, and high levels of distribution, the oil industry is the most vibrant sector in the Saudi economy, providing the country with the bulk of its capital. Oil revenues account for 35 percent to 40 percent of the Saudi GDP annually.

As of 2001, Saudi Arabia's proven oil reserves amounted to over 263 billion barrels, representing about a quarter of the world's known oil supply. Assuming production rates were to remain what they were in 2000, Saudi Arabia's reserves would last about 87.5 years. It is probable, however, that more reserves will be discovered in the future, extending the industry's viability. As of 2001, Saudi Arabia was the largest producer and exporter of oil in the world.

Sales of Saudi oil are highly profitable due to low production costs. The sheer abundance of oil in Saudi Arabia and its close proximity to the earth's surface makes it easy to find and cheap to extract. According to the kingdom's oil minister, Ali bin Ibrahim al-Nuaimi, the production of a barrel of oil in the kingdom costs about US$1.5 compared with an average cost of US$5/barrel elsewhere in the world. Discovery costs are also lowabout 10 U.S. cents per barrel as opposed to the worldwide average of US$4/barrel. Of the 400 billion barrels of recoverable oil discovered in the last 20 years, about a quarter was discovered in Saudi Arabia. The low discovery costs and high yields in Saudi Arabia are very attractive to foreign oil companies, who work in conjunction with the Saudi government to extract and deliver oil to world markets.

A majority of Saudi oil is produced from fields near Riyadh, in the Eastern Province, the largest of which are Ghawar, Safaniyah, Abqaiq, and Berri. Ghawar, with 70 billion barrels, is thought to be the largest oil field in the world. These 4 fields alone account for nearly half of the kingdom's reserves and 85 percent of its production capacity. Oil fields in the "Neutral Zone"lands shared between Saudi Arabia and Kuwaitcontain about 5 billion barrels.

Saudi Arabia exports a majority of its oil by tanker. Tankers loaded daily on the Persian Gulf coast have a full capacity of 14 million barrels a day (b/d). The other primary distribution route is through the 1,200-kilome-ter (746-mile) Trans-Arabian pipeline linking the Abqaiq oil field, near Riyadh, with Yanbu on the Red Sea. The pipeline has a capacity of 5 million b/d. Most of the oil arriving in Yanbu is loaded onto tankers for transport out of the Red Sea. Some of the oil continues on through the Sumed pipeline to Sidi Krier on Egypt's Mediterranean coast.

As of 2000 the most recently developed field in Saudi Arabia was the Shaybah oil field in the Empty Quarter, which holds reserves of up to 7 billion barrels. The Empty Quarter is the harsh desert region covering the southeastern part of the peninsula. Sand dunes in the Empty Quarter average 600 feet in height. In the summer, daytime temperatures reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit, then plummet to 32 degrees at night. Because of the harsh climate and terrain, much of the Empty Quarter remains unexplored. The field came on line in 1999 after the completion of a 635-kilometer (395-mile) pipeline linking it to distribution points in Abqaiq.

Practically all oil production in Saudi Arabia is controlled by the state-run Saudi Arabian oil company, Saudi Aramco. While foreign companies are contracted to build infrastructure and install equipment, the Saudi government maintains ownership of the facilities.

Saudi Arabia played a lead role in orchestrating the 1973-74 oil embargo against the United States. The resultant rise in oil prices was not enough to offset losses in sales, prompting the Saudis to soften their position and resume business in the West. Over the course of the next 25 years a stable partnership formed between Saudi Arabia and the United States, with the United States guaranteeing Saudi security in return for an uninterrupted flow of oil. Saudi Arabia now generally favors only moderate price increases, realizing it is in the country's long-term interests to keep demand steady by ensuring that oil remains competitive with other forms of energy. Out of a total workforce of 7.12 million people, 127,000 are employed in the oil and mining industry.

The kingdom is also planning to expand the production of natural gas, a venture that will involve the participation of a number of foreign companies. In 1991, natural gas reserves in Saudi Arabia were estimated at 6.1 trillion cubic meters, about 3.9 percent of the world's total. While most of this gas is acquired as a derivative of crude oil production, non-oil associated reservoirs are thought to exist in abundance. It is the mining of gas from these reservoirs that the government will focus on in the coming years, being that the use of oil-associated gas is constrained due to OPEC production quotas. It has been estimated that new foreign investment under the initiative could total tens of billions of dollars, more than the total level of foreign investment currently in the country.


Saudi Arabia is a country rich in minerals. Large deposits of gold, silver, iron ore, copper, bauxite, coal, tungsten, phosphates, lead, zinc, and uranium are known to exist, but have yet to be fully exploited. The reasons for this vary. For one, the kingdom's concentration on oil has led it to neglect other forms of mining. Furthermore, the mineral deposits are in remote areas where the lack of roads and water make extraction difficult. Still, the government views non-oil mining as a potentially lucrative industry, one that might help re-orient the economy away from its dependence on oil. Thus, despite the difficulties, the government has decided to move forward in its efforts to exploit the country's mineral resources. Working in conjunction with the private sector, the government hopes to see the non-oil mining sector grow, on average, by 8.3 percent per year between 2000-04.

The newly formed Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Maadin) is at the center of the government's plans. The state-owned company, in partnership with privately run firms, has taken over key government mining operations with a goal to improve efficiency and increase production. Maadin is already active at the Mahd al-Dahab mine, from which over 100,000 ounces of gold are produced a year. In 2001, plans were approved to begin operations at Al Hajjar, in Asir province, with an anticipated annual yield of 55,000 ounces of gold. Renewed interest in phosphate mining is also expected to have an impact on the country's economy. If the deposits in the northern and center part of the kingdom can be feasibly removed, a major new processing plant may be constructed in Jubail to refine the high level yields.

Maadin is also involved in zinc mining near Riyadh, where results have been promising. In order to stimulate growth in the industry, the government may move to further deregulate mining in the second half of 2001.


The Saudi government, in its bid to diversify the economy and increase employment opportunities, has encouraged growth in the non-oil industrial sector. However, results have been limited. The number of licenses issued and industries established did not grow by a significant margin in the last half of the 1990s. During this time, the sector's contribution to GDP remained steady at around 15 percent.

Although an informal manufacturing base (involving the production of such various items as textiles, soap, and furniture) has existed in Saudi Arabia for centuries, these small-scale private industries contribute relatively little to the GDP, and the government is doing little to promote their development. Primarily the government has focused on the growth of heavy industrypetrochemicals, fertilizer, and steelin its efforts to stimulate the economy.


The rapid growth of the Saudi oil industry has led to fast-paced urban development and an ever-expanding infrastructure. As a result, construction is one of the more active sectors of the non-oil economy. It provided jobs for 16 percent of the workforce in 1998 and, in 1999, accounted for almost 9 percent of GDP.

Despite the construction sector's importance to the economy, growth in the industry during the 1990s was slow, averaging just 1.5 percent. This was partly due to the decline in infrastructure work following the completion of a number of major projects in the 1980s. However, industry prospects look good for 2001, with the pace of urban development once again on the rise. In 2000, the government issued over 27,000 work permits, with the number of contracts awarded rising 49 percent in the first 9 months of the year. The heightened activity pushed up the sales of cement by 6 percent.



Hoping to capitalize on its Red Sea coastline, unspoiled desert landscapes, and a slew of archeological sites, the Saudi Arabian government has expressed an interest in expanding the country's tourism sector. However, this task will likely be complicated by the country's rigid social structures and its fear of outside influence. Visitors have little freedom of movement in Saudi Arabia. All tourist activities are controlled by a sponsor, or guide, who is responsible for ferrying tourists to and from points of interest. Outsiders are expected to adhere to Saudi conventions. Western women, for instance, are required to abide by the country's conservative dress codes, covering their heads, arms, and legs whenever they are in public. Pants for women are not permitted, nor are women allowed to drive. Furthermore, unmarried couples may not stay in the same hotel rooms. There have been reports of Saudi citizens harassing or assaulting foreigners who fail to comply with Saudi norms of behavior. These restrictive social rules could be off-putting to some western tourists. Nonetheless, steps are being taken to increase the kingdom's annual number of visitors.

New guidelines were recently approved for issuing tourist visas to foreigners, making it easier for travel companies in Saudi Arabia to arrange group tours. The king-dom's efforts to accommodate non-Muslim, recreational travelers only began in 1998, when a tour group visited the kingdom for the first time. It was an archeological tour limited to married couples and women over the age of 45. Expanding the tourism industry amid the country's restrictive social environment will not be easy. Still, the government hopes that between 2000 and 2004, it will grant some 3 million tourist visas to foreigners, generating revenues worth approximately US$2.67 billion.

A majority of the kingdom's tourism currently comes from Muslims performing the "haj," the pilgrimage to the country's holy sites. All Muslims are instructed to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives. In 1999, the government moved to expand the travel rights of foreign Muslims, allowing them to venture beyond Mecca and Medina. In March 2000, it is estimated that over 1 million foreigners and 700,000 Saudis made their way to the western region of Hejaz to visit the holy cities.


Ten commercial banks operate within Saudi Arabia. Seven of them are joint ventures with foreign banks which operate according to international norms. The other 3 banksthe National Commercial Bank (NCB), the Al Rajhi Banking and Investment Company, and the Riyadh Bankare state-owned and are run in accordance with Islamic law. This forbids them from charging interest on their loans. Any expansion of the banking system appears unlikely, at least in the near future, as the government considers the current number of banks to be sufficient to serve the economy.

Saudi Arabia has a viable over-the-counter stock market where investors, primarily the domestic commercial banks, trade equity in 75 Saudi companies, up from 70 companies in 1996. The number of shares traded and the value of those shares rose dramatically in the last half of the 1990s, gaining 43.6 percent in 1999 alone. In 2000, the market rose another 11 percent, making Saudi Arabia the only Arab country outside of Tunisia whose stock market posted overall gains for the year.

The Saudi Arabian stock market has traditionally been closed to non-Saudi investors. However, laws barring foreign participation were amended in 1997, and foreign nationals are now allowed to trade in the market, although on a limited scale (generally through investment in mutual funds).


Saudi Arabia has maintained a trade surplus since 1967 (when its trade statistics were first compiled in their current form). As the kingdom generates a majority of its revenue from petroleum exports, this surplus tends to rise and fall with the price and production of oil. After the oil embargo of 1973, when oil prices were high, the king-dom's trade surplus rose, increasing steadily until 1978. This trend continued after the Iranian revolution of 1979 when oil prices rose to new levels. Between 1978 and 1981 Saudi Arabia's trade surplus doubled, reaching a peak of US$82.5 billion.

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): Saudi Arabia
Exports Imports
1975 29.682 4.213
1980 109.083 30.166
1985 27.481 23.622
1990 44.417 24.069
1995 50.040 28.091
1998 N/A N/A
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.

The surplus declined steadily throughout the 1980s as export volume diminished and oil prices fell. By 1985, the balance of trade had fallen to just US$7 billion. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompting the United Nations to place an embargo on Iraqi oil. The cut in supply sent prices back up, and as Saudi Arabia heightened production to meet world demand (from 5.1 million b/d in 1989 to 8.2 million b/d in 1991), export revenues increased and the trade surplus rose once again. In 1996, export revenues exceeded import expenditures by US$35.3 billion.

In 1998, the world economy slowed. At the same time, oil production by both OPEC and non-OPEC members increased. The higher production levels coupled with lowered demand caused the price of oil to fall by almost US$7/barrel, from US$19.12/barrel in 1997 to US$12.76/barrel in 1998. In Saudi Arabia, oil receipts fell and the trade surplus dropped to US$11.2 billion. In 1999, oil producers worldwide lowered production, and the corresponding rise in prices helped boost Saudi Arabia's export revenues, pushing the trade surplus to US$25 billion. This upward trend continued throughout 2000 when the surplus rose to US$52.4 billion.

Saudi Arabia imported US$28 billion worth of goods in 1999. A majority of that expenditure went toward the purchase of machinery, electrical equipment, chemicals, foodstuffs, and transportation equipment (cars, trucks, buses). Agricultural imports accounted for 17 percent of the total in 1999, up 11 percent since 1992, reflecting cuts in farm subsidies and the consequent decline in domestic food production. Electrical equipment and machinery accounted for 24 percent of the kingdom's total imports in 1999.

Saudi Arabia's exports totaled US$48 billion in 1999. Over 90 percent of those earnings were derived from the export of oil.

A majority of Saudi Arabia's trade is conducted with the United States. U.S. goods in 1998 accounted for 21 percent of Saudi imports, over twice as much as the king-dom's next leading suppliers, the United Kingdom and Japan, whose imports to Saudi Arabia amounted to 9 percent each. Germany, France, and Italy were other major suppliers of goods.

Japan emerged as the leading buyer of Saudi goods in 1998, purchasing 17 percent of the kingdom's exports. The United States was close behind with 15 percent of Saudi exports. Saudi Arabia provides the United States with approximately 20 percent of its imported crude oil. The kingdom also is a major exporter to South Korea, Singapore, India, and France.

Saudi Arabia and its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Omanhave, over the past decade, been trying to promote higher levels of trade between themselves by removing barriers to the free exchange of goods, services, and capital between member states. One of these barriers, the lack of a common external tariff, has continued to complicate moves toward greater economic integration.

Saudi Arabia generally applies a 12 percent tax on imported goods, unless those goods compete with locally produced items, wherein the tax is issued at 20 percent. (Taxing certain imported items at higher rates raises the price at which the items are then sold. This helps keep local manufacturers competitive.) This is the highest import tax in the Middle East and is a point of contention between Saudi Arabia and other GCC members. In order to gain entry into the WTO, Saudi Arabia will be forced to lower tariffs to a maximum of 7.5 percent, bringing import taxes in line with other WTO member states. Imported medical goods, basic foodstuffs, and other items considered essential are exempt from the tax.

Some items, either for religious reasons or purposes of state security, are banned in Saudi Arabia. The import of non-medical drugs and alcohol is forbidden, as is any religious material which might be deemed offensive to the principles of Islam. Furthermore, the import of weapons and electronic equipment is tightly controlled.


The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) regulates the kingdom's money supply. Since June 1986, the Saudi riyal had been informally pegged to the U.S. dollar at SR3.745:US$1. The fixed rate cuts down on revenue volatility, being that a majority of Saudi oil exports are sold to America and denominated in U.S. dollars. Keeping the riyal consistent in its relation to the dollar also helps keep the currency stable, and this, in turn, makes Saudi Arabia a more attractive market for international investment capital. At the same time, the pegged rate provides a stable exchange rate with other GCC countries whose currencies are also generally pegged to the dollar.

Exchange rates: Saudi Arabia
Saudi riyals (SR) per US$1
2001 3.7450
2000 3.7450
1999 3.7450
1998 3.7450
1997 3.7450
1996 3.7450
Note: The rate of Saudi currency has been fixed since June 1986.
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].


Saudi Arabians generally enjoy a decent standard of living, due in large part to government programs designed to minimize poverty. Saudi citizens are given free education (although enrollment is not required and has historically been low, accounting for relatively high illiteracy rates) and health care, and all adult Saudis are entitled to a plot of land and a loan of US$80,000 with which to build a house.

The GDP per capita in Saudi Arabia reached its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when elevated oil prices were generating high levels of revenue. In 1981, GDP per head reached US$16,650. Slumping oil prices and declining production in the ensuing years caused the per capita GDP to fall. By the end of the decade the figure dropped to US$5,500. Rising oil prices following the Gulf War coupled with increased Saudi production helped raise the per capita GDP once again. In 1999 the figure stood at US$9,000.

Despite the extensive social safety net in Saudi Arabia, the unequal distribution of wealth in the country is fostering resentment among the country's poorest citizens. In 1999, the National Commercial Bank estimated that out of a population of 20 million, there were 120,000 millionaires controlling a combined fortune of over US$400 billion. Meanwhile, according to the Saudi American Bank, 20 percent of Saudi men between the

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Saudi Arabia 9,658 11,553 7,437 7,100 6,516
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
Egypt 516 731 890 971 1,146
Iran 1,611 1,129 1,208 1,056 1,275
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.

ages of 20 and 29 had no paid work. As a result, larger families were increasingly finding themselves under financial strain. The government, in recognition of the problem, began taking steps in 1995 to open more jobs to Saudi citizens. Two successive 5-year plans, from 1995 through 2004, have listed the Saudiization of the work-force as a primary objective. To this end, the government has passed laws requiring that at least 5 percent of the private sector be made up of Saudi citizens. Also, all firms have been ordered to increase the number of Saudi workers by 5 percent a year. At the same time, the government has attempted to limit the employment of foreign nationals by prohibiting the renewal of their work contracts and by raising the visa fees employers must pay to hire them.

Illiteracy rates are high in Saudi Arabia, hovering at around 20 percent in 1999. Consequently, the government in its development plans has placed heavy emphasis on improving education. Outside of defense expenditures, education spending accounts for the largest portion of the government budget (27 percent in 2000). Between 2000 and 2004 the government hopes to build over 1,000 primary schools, 819 middle schools, and over 900 high schools. During this time student enrollment is projected to rise from 3.9 million to 5.1 million. In efforts to create more highly skilled high school graduates, the government is also attempting to increase student enrollment in the kingdom's vocational schools and technical colleges. Efforts thus far have been successful, with vocational enrollment rising by over 20 percent between 1998 and 1999.

Health care also receives a great deal of government attention. Facilities are generally good. According to a 2001 report issued by the Ministry of Health, the 314 private hospitals provide 1 bed for every 461 people. The 2001 budget provided spending for the construction of 30 new hospitals.


The Saudi Arabian labor force is comprised of approximately 7.12 million workers. These workers enjoy few rights. The formation of unions is strictly prohibited, strikes are forbidden, and there is no collective bargaining. In the absence of a minimum wage, employers are free to pay their workers as they see fit.

While forced labor is against the law, abuses do occur, especially in remote areas and in the domestic service industry, where there have been reports of maids being forced to work up to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Employees have little freedom of movement, and cannot leave the country or even travel out of the region without their employer's permission.

According to labor regulations, the work week is 48 hours. Employers can require 12 additional hours of overtime at time-and-a-half pay. The law requires workers to be given a rest period of 24 hours, which is generally granted on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath. Labor laws, however, do not apply to domestic servants, who have little redress for any poor treatment they might receive. Those who run away are generally returned to their employers.

The International Labor Organization has cited Saudi Arabia for failing to adhere to conventions on equal pay, for continuing gender segregation in the work place, and for limiting vocational programs for women. Additionally, in 1995 Saudi Arabia was suspended from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance programs for its failure to guarantee the rights of its workers as recognized by international norms.

According to human rights reports, foreign workers run the risk of being exploited. Workers recruited in foreign countries may be pressured after arriving in Saudi Arabia to sign new contracts with less favorable terms, or they may be pressured to accept lower pay than originally promised. Once in Saudi Arabia, workers may also find their freedom of movement restricted. Employers may refuse to grant them exit visas, making it impossible for them to return home.

Saudi nationals in general receive higher pay than non-nationals, especially in the agricultural sector, where Saudi citizens can make up to 3 times that of their foreign counterparts. The Saudi government has taken steps to introduce minimum wage requirements for foreign workers, making it more costly for employers to hire them. In this way the government hopes to spur more employment opportunities for Saudi citizens.


1745. Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab, a religious reformer, allies with Muhammad bin Saud, a local ruler, and the 2 begin a religious/military campaign to unite the Arabian Peninsula under a new brand of strict Islamic law. They and their followers are known as Saudis.

1801. Saudi forces capture Mecca, an important religious site.

1805. Saudi forces capture Medina, another important religious site. The Ottoman Turkish government, which rules the region, launches a campaign to drive Saudi forces out of Arabia. By 1818 the Saudis have lost most of the territory previously captured and eventually take up exile in Kuwait.

1902. The Saudis renew their efforts to unify Arabia. King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (later known as Ibn Saud) recaptures Riyadh, the Al Saud ancestral home, from the Al Rashid, who are ruling in Arabia with Turkish support.

1932. Present-day Saudi Arabia is consolidated under Ibn Saud's rule. Ibn Saud declares himself king.

1953. Ibn Saud dies, leaving his kingdom to his surviving sons. His eldest son, Saud, becomes king and establishes the Council of Ministers, an advisory body made up of members of the royal family.

1962. Civil war breaks out in Yemen between Royalists and Republicans. Egypt backs the Republicans while Saudi Arabia backs the Royalists. Tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are high over the next 5 years until 1967, when Egyptian forces withdraw from Yemen.

1964. King Saud steps down in favor of his half brother Faisal bin Abdul Aziz.

1967. War breaks out between Israel and 4 Arab nations, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Saudi Arabia sits out the war, but later provides economic assistance to Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

1973. War erupts once again between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil producers boycott the sale of oil to the United States to protest American financial aid to Israel. The price of oil rises steeply, but Saudi Arabian earnings still suffer due to loss of sales to the West.

1974. Despite Arab opposition, Saudi Arabia abandons the 1973 boycott, negotiating an economic and military cooperation agreement with the United States whereby the United States provides the kingdom with military protection in return for the guaranteed flow of oil. Saudi wealth begins to grow rapidly, heightening its political and economic influence throughout the world.

1975. King Faisal is assassinated. He is succeeded by his half brother, Crown Prince Khalid. Another half brother, Fahd, is appointed crown prince and first deputy prime minister.

1979. Armed religious militants take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The 250 men, followers of the Sunni Muslim cleric Juhaiman Ibn Seif al-Oteibi, are removed by force. The incident alerts the royal family to growing dissatisfaction in the kingdom among religious conservatives. In response, the government establishes a committee to lay out a system of societal laws based on Islamic principles.

1982. King Khalid dies and is succeeded by Crown Prince Fahd. Fahd becomes a key player in Middle East politics.

1988. A Saudi-brokered cease fire is declared in the 8-year-old Iran-Iraq war, bringing stability to the Middle East.

1990. Iraq invades Kuwait, drawing international condemnation and starting the Gulf War. The UN places an embargo on Iraqi oil. The cut in world supply causes oil prices to rise. Saudi Arabia begins to increase production to help meet world demand. King Fahd helps organize and hold together the coalition of Arab military forces which, in conjunction with a large contingent of U.S. forces, drives Iraq from Kuwait.

1995. King Fahd suffers a stroke. Over the next 2 years, Crown Prince Abdullah emerges as the de facto head of state.

1996. A car bomb explodes outside U.S. military housing at the Al Khobar military base in Eastern Province, killing 19 American servicemen. Responsibility is linked to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident claiming to resent the Western presence on Saudi soil.

1999. Saudi Arabia cuts oil production by over 2 million barrels a day to boost prices.

2000. New laws are passed to facilitate foreign investment.

2001. Saudi Arabia and Iran sign a security pact pledging cooperation in combatting terrorism, drug trafficking, and money laundering .


Barring the discovery of a new energy supply that renders oil obsolete, Saudi Arabia will be able to maintain its economy through the production and distribution of oil for nearly another century. The discovery of new reserves, which appears likely, will extend the viability of the oil-based economy even further. However, as oil supplies rise and efficiency increases, prices will likely go down. To compensate for lower oil revenues, the Saudi government will continue to take steps toward economic diversification, expanding its agricultural, non-oil mining, and tourism sectors. The government will also continue to push for private sector growth as it loosens its grip on the economy.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia will continue to implement oil policies that are favorable to the West for 2 main reasons. One, Saudi Arabia is dependent on the West, primarily the United States, for trade and military protection. And two, it is in Saudi Arabia's own interests to maintain stable oil prices to keep the commodity competitive with other forms of energy.

Saudi Arabia will also further its efforts to attract foreign investment, especially in heavy industrial sectors where the government is encouraging the creation of public-private partnerships. Although the government has expressed interest in decentralizing the economy, full privatization in most industries has yet to occur.

Cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia should continue, at least into the near future. However, relations could become strained if the situation in Israel continues to deteriorate. Historically, U.S. support for Israel has generated hostility in the Arab world. If the violence in Israel escalates and the Palestinians are perceived as being grossly victimized, the Saudi population, for reasons of Muslim solidarity, may begin pushing for intervention. Any move in that direction would complicate U.S.-Saudi relations.

Young Saudis will continue to enter the labor market in growing numbers. As such, the so-called Saudiization of the workforce will remain a government priority for the foreseeable future. Hiring fees will be raised for foreign workers, and those workers with expired visas may be forbidden to renew them. The Saudi infrastructure will also expand in the coming decades as new oil fields are discovered and the non-oil mining sector grows. Saudi Arabia's push to gain entry into the World Trade Organization will accelerate the pace of economic reforms currently underway.


Saudi Arabia has no territories or colonies.


Asad, Muhammad. The Road to Mecca. 1954; Louisville, KY:Fons Vitae, 2001.

Commercial Office, Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. <>. Accessed September 2001.

Economist Intelligence Unit. Country Profile: Saudi Arabia. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2001.

Metz, Helen Chapin, editor. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, 1993.

The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the U.S.A. <>. Accessed September 2001.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2000. <http://>. Accessed August 2001.

U.S. Department of State. Background Notes: Saudi Arabia, September 1998. < notes/saudi_0998_bgn.html>. Accessed September 2001.

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 1999: Saudi Arabia. Released February 2000. <>. Accessed September 2001.

U.S. Department of State. FY 2001 Country Commercial Guide: Saudi Arabia. <>. Accessed September 2001.

John Mazor


Riyadh (Ar-Riyad).


Saudi Riyal (SR). One riyal equals 100 halalahs. There are coins of 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 halalahs, and notes of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 riyals. Since July 1986 the Saudi riyal has been pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of SR3.745:US$1.


Petroleum and petroleum products (90 percent).


Machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, motor vehicles, textiles.


US$191 billion (purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).


Exports: US$48 billion (f.o.b., 1999). Imports: US$28 billion (f.o.b., 1999).

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Basic Data
Official Country Name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Region: Middle East
Population: 22,023,506
Language(s): Arabic
Literacy Rate: 62.8%
Number of Primary Schools: 11,506
Compulsory Schooling: 6 years
Public Expenditure on Education: 7.5%
Foreign Students in National Universities: 5,361
Educational Enrollment: Primary: 2,256,185
  Secondary: 1,542,989
  Higher: 273,992
Educational Enrollment Rate: Primary: 76%
  Secondary: 58%
  Higher: 16%
Teachers: Primary: 175,458
  Secondary: 119,881
  Higher: 15,868
Student-Teacher Ratio: Primary: 13:1
  Secondary: 13:1
Female Enrollment Rate: Primary: 75%
  Secondary: 54%
  Higher: 15%

History & Background

Saudi Arabia was formed in September 1932, when representatives from the Kingdom of the Hijaz sent a petition to Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Faisal Al Saud (Ibn Saud), Sultan of the Nejd, requesting the union of the kingdom and sultanate as a single nation in faith, history, and traditions. King Ibn Saud issued a decree on September 18, 1932, proclaiming the new nation of Saudi (Saud's) Arabia. The Arabian Peninsula is the historic birthplace of the Islam religion. The Ottoman Turks from Constantinople ruled the Hijaz from the sixteenth century to 1918. The interior regions of desert and oases, known as the Nejd, were home to various tribal families competing against each other. The eighteenth century teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a Muslim reformer, who wanted a pure undistorted Islam rejecting the glorification of men, saints, and prophets, were incorporated into the Saud family's political ideology as it conquered the Nejd.

After World War I, Ibn Saud lay claim to the Hijaz kingdom ruled by the Hashemite family, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and Sharifs (Guardians) of the sacred cities Makkah and Madinah. The unpopularity of the King of the Hijaz, British indifference in the region, and the superior military skills of the Saud family and its allies led to their successful 1926 conquest of the Hijaz and Islam's holy cities. Ibn Saud, the first King of Saudi Arabia, consolidated his military control over the Arabian Peninsula by numerous marriages to the daughters of important Arab families and the fathering of 43 sons and at least 20 daughters. The nation's strategic geographic location astride the Red Sea and the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and its control of half of the world's oil supply made the kingdom an important ally for the United States during the Cold War and an economic ally in the global economy of the twenty-first century.

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

A family of princes numbering between 2,000 and 5,000 adult males rule the Saudi monarchy from the capital city of Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was an absolute monarchy during the reign of its first King, Ibn Saud (1932-1953). While there are plans to institute some political reforms, the structure of government has seen few changes. A royal council of majlis (ministers) is chaired by the king, includes selected members of the royal family, cabinet ministers, councilors, leading members of the ulama (theologians), provincial emirs, and tribal sheiks, and provides advice on the nation's governance. Saudi Arabia's government protects Islam and is governed by sharia law, which are Muslim values and laws outlined in the Qur'an, (Muslim's sacred text) and the Hadith (the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad).

The king appoints the nation's judicial authorities. The king appoints and relieves deputies of the prime minister, ministers, and members of the Council of Ministers by royal decree. The king has the right to dissolve and reorganize the Council of Ministers; is commander-in-chief of the armed forces; declares states of emergency, general mobilization, and war; and governs by royal decree. The king has final authority. The majlis al-shura is perceived as a first step toward the development of a national legislature. Succession to the throne of Saudi Arabia is from among the surviving sons of King Ibn Saud. One hundred princes from among several thousand are selected to determine who will become king and crown prince. The Royal Family of Saudi Arabia has displayed a remarkable unity since 1932, although internal conflict did arise between King Saud (1953-1964) and the brother who ultimately deposed him, Crown Prince Faisal. Faisal was himself assassinated by a disturbed nephew in 1975.

Educational SystemOverview

Saudi Arabia's first monarch, King Ibn Saud, regarded education as a means to foster national unity and to enlighten the Saudi people. In 1925, public education did not exist. There were only four private elementary schools in the entire country. Therefore, a centralized educational policy was entrusted to the newly established Directorate of Education. Although compulsory education was mandated for a six-year elementary education followed by a five-year secondary cycle, enforcement was difficult without an adequate number of schools. Saudi Arabia's first educational system was modeled on Egypt's system, which, in turn, was heavily influenced by the French educational model. Saudi Arabia's educational system was designed to observe the teachings of Islam, disseminate knowledge, and construct schools. The 1930s witnessed many changes in education: the first Religious Sciences School (1933); the issuance of rules for private schools (1934); and the first secondary school, Tahdeer Al-Baathat School, to prepare graduates for a university education (1935). In 1938, the General Directorate of Education was given full control over all education except for the military. Saudi Arabia's first technical secondary school and school of higher learning, the College of Sharia (now, Umm Al Qura University), were founded in 1949. During the decade of the 1950s, three more colleges were granted charters, the Teachers' College (1952), the College of Sharia in Riyadh (1953), and the College of Arabic Language in Riyadh (1954).

In 1952, the United Nations reported that Saudi Arabia had 306 elementary schools, but illiteracy was between 92 and 95 percent. To combat such dire statistics, a Ministry of Education was established in 1953 with Prince (later King) Fahd as the first minister of education entrusted with the task of expanding and modernizing educational resources. The kingdom was divided into school districts, each governed by a superintendent assisted by a technical staff. Within the Ministry of Education, a special department, Popular Culture, was created to combat adult illiteracy. In 1958, the Saudi kingdom adopted a uniform educational policy in cooperation with other Arab states that provided for a six-year compulsory elementary education, a three-year optional intermediate education, and a three-year optional secondary education for men only. In 1961, education for women was mandated, with the responsibility given to the newly created General Directorate of Girls Education. There was considerable resistance to female education within the kingdom, but it abated and during its first decade, 16 primary schools for girls were built with 148 staff members educating 5,200 females.

As relations with Egypt deteriorated during the 1960s, the Saudi government abandoned the Egyptian model, and proceeded to develop its own educational system. Under the leadership of Kings Faisal (1964-1975) and Khalid (1975-1982), Saudi Arabia established two five-year plans that promoted education to develop the needs of the people as a human resource through education and training and to facilitate the nation's economic infrastructure. The educational system was redesigned to accommodate an increasing number of elementary and intermediate school students. Only 50 percent of the students were permitted to enter into a general secondary education leading to a university degree. The other students were placed in teacher training and vocational and technical education programs. Girls' education enrollments were projected to reach 95 percent of the eligible population.

Under the rule of King Fahd (1982-), major changes occurred within the educational system. A Directorate General for Educational Technology was created consisting of the Departments of Design and Production. These departments are responsible for the development of educational materials, supplying classroom educational technology, and training senior staff at the Ministry of Education in educational technology. Standards for teacher certification were made more rigorous, while the examination system for elementary and intermediate schools was transferred from the central government to the individual schools. Programs of study were upgraded at the 17 teachers' colleges, which grant a bachelor's degree with the completion of 149 credit hours in academic study. A special education program developed for students with special needs included the construction of special educational facilities and a special education degree in teacher training granted by King Saud University.

Seeking knowledge is mandatory for each Muslim. Islam is both integral to and the essence of education. The principles of education formulated by the Higher Committee of Educational Policy include the responsibility to: (1) strengthen faith in God and Islam and in Mohammed; (2) foster a holistic, Islamic concept of the universe; (3) emphasize that life is a stage of work and production to invests full understanding of and faith in eternal life; (4) proclaim the message of Mohammed; (5) instill Islamic ideals; (6) engender faith in human dignity; (7) reinforce the duty of each Muslim to see education and the duty of the state to provide education in it various stages within the state's capacity and resources; (8) incorporate religious education and maintain Islamic culture at all educational levels; (9) integrate Islamic orientation in sciences and knowledge in the curricula and teaching; (10) stimulate human knowledge through Islam to raise the nation's standard of living; (11) foster fundamental beliefs; and (12) teach the importance of Saudi history and the preservation of the Islamic religion.

Education in Saudi Arabia has four special characteristics: an emphasis on Islam, a centralized educational system, separate education for men and women, and state financial support. Islam is the core of each Muslim's curriculum, with time each week devoted to the study of the Muslim sacred text, the Qur'an, Islamic tradition, jurisprudence, and theology from primary through higher education. Religion is not separate from but is a part of the disciplines of education, economics, sociology, psychology, medicine, and law. It is expected that the Qur'an will be memorized, interpreted, and applied to all aspects of daily life.

The centralized educational system for men is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education; and for women, under the General Presidency of Girls' Education. All schools at all levels utilize the same methods of instruction, textbooks, evaluation techniques, curricula, and educational policy. As stated in Article 155 of the Educational Policy of Saudi Arabia, there is strict separation of the sexes at all levels of education with the exception of kindergarten, nursery, and some private elementary schools, and in some medical schools. The separation of the sexes is related to the respected social status of women accorded them by Islam. With the exceptions of physical education and home economics, the curricula are the same. The Saudi government is committed to the development of education at all costs and maintains exclusive control. Education is free but not compulsory beyond the elementary level. The government provides free tuition, stipends, subsidies, and bonuses to students entering certain fields of study and to those continuing their education outside the country. Free transportation is provided for female students.

Educational Organization: There are four agencies given the responsibility for educational policy: the Ministry of Education, the General Presidency of Girls' Education, the Ministry of Higher Education, and the General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training. The Ministry of Education, founded in 1953, replaced the Directorate of Education. Its responsibilities include policy-making, planning, and budgetary staff to provide physical and teaching materials and supplies to elementary, intermediate, and male secondary schools. Adult and special education, teacher training programs, curriculum and teaching methods, the library system, and museums and archaeological research are departments within the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education represents the kingdom in international organizations and promotes cultural and foreign exchanges. Saudi Arabia is divided into school districts, which implement the policies adopted by the Ministry of Education while school principals administer the schools on a daily basis. Recent school reorganization has passed more policy authority to the local schools.

The General Presidency of Girls' Education, organized in 1960, is the educational counterpart to the Ministry of Education, but for women. Elementary education for girls was started in 1961, and by 1963 girls' education was available at both the intermediate and secondary levels. The General Presidency of Girls' Education is divided into the Directorate General for General Education for elementary, intermediate, and secondary education and the Deputy General of Girls' Colleges which oversees junior college, undergraduate and postgraduate levels and specialized training institutes and technical schools in the fields of nursing, teacher training, tailoring, and adult education.

The General Organization for Technical Education and Vocational Training (GOTEVT) was created in 1980, to accommodate the kingdom's increasing needs for specialized technical training. The educational department is divided into the Directorate General for Technical Education for industrial, commercial, and agricultural education and the Directorate General for Vocational Training for supervised vocational and on-the-job training programs, curricula development, program evaluation, trainee affairs, instructor training, and audio-visual aids. There are three levels of vocational training: prevocational training centers, vocational and commercial secondary schools and higher (postsecondary) technical institutes.

The Ministry of Higher Education, established in 1975, provides support for Saudi Arabia's seven universities and 78 colleges. It coordinates, supervises, and follows-up postsecondary programs with national development programs in a variety of fields. It reviews requests for study abroad and oversees 27 educational and cultural missions in other countries. The Minister of Higher Education heads the University Council for each university. The sole exception is the Islamic University headed by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, The King. Educational ministries exist separately for the military. They include the King Khalid Military College for National Guard training, the King Fahd Security College for security training, Staff Military Academy, three military academies, and four civil aviation junior colleges.

Specialized Education: Saudi Arabia offers educational opportunities for students with special needs. There are schools within the kingdom for special education, the blind, the deaf, the mentally retarded, and those needing physical therapy and training. Training for special education teachers is offered at King Saud University in the College of Education and at the College of Applied Medicine for the speech and hearing impaired. Additional special education teacher training needs are satisfied by study abroad at accredited institutions of higher learning. The Ministry of Education and the General Presidency of Girls' Education offer adult education programs that focus on the mastery reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic skills. Graduates receive a Literacy Certificate. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offers special training programs through the Institute of Public Administration in the fields of banking, electronic data processing, hospital administration, library science, personnel studies, secretary studies, and store administration. Each branch of the military has it own training academy or collegethe King Abdulaziz Military Academy in Riyadh (Army), King Fahd Naval College in Dammam, the King Faisal Air Force Academy in Riyadh, and the King Khalid Military Academy for the National Guard. Each military academy awards a bachelor of military Science degree. Additional specialized institutes include health care institutes and nursing schools to train nursing, x-ray, and laboratory technicians, health supervisors, surgical operations assistants, assistant pharmacists, assistant statisticians, and nutritional assistants. Three intermediate nursing schools offer women a three-year program of study for a Certificate of Technical Nursing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs administers the Institute of Diplomatic Studies (1979) whose responsibility is to raise the work standards for members of the Foreign Ministry; to conduct research and studies on international, Arab, and Islamic issues; and to organize conferences and seminars on diplomatic, political, and international affairs.

Preprimary & Primary Education

Kindergarten is available but not compulsory. It provides a constructive educational environment emphasizing social behavior, hygiene, and play activities. Kindergartens are usually co-educational and under the supervision of the General Presidency of Girls' Education. Kindergarten is divided into the following age groups: fewer than four years, four to five years, and five to six years old. Only elementary education is compulsory in Saudi Arabia. It is the foundation for the development of further education. Elementary education covers grades one to six. The curricula emphasis is Arabic language, Islamic religion, history, geography, mathematics, and sometimes English. Students are promoted by examination prepared by the individual schools. Private elementary schools comprise four percent of the schools at this level, but they must use the same government developed curricula and examination system used in public schools. The headmaster of each private school is a government employee appointed by the Ministry of Education. Elementary school teachers must have a bachelor's degree. An increase in teacher training programs is reducing the teacher shortage among males and native Saudi teachers.

In the 1994-1995 academic years in Saudi Arabia there was one kindergarten school under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education enrolling 472 students with a staff of 52 teachers. For the same year there were 205 kindergartens exclusively for girls enrolling 16,929 female students with a female teaching staff of 1,795 teachers. For male students there were 199 kindergartens enrolling 24,201 students with a male staff of 1,344 teachers. Private agencies accounted for 343 kindergartens enrolling 43,765 students with a teaching staff of 2,735.

At the elementary level of education the Ministry of Education sponsored 5,417 schools exclusively for males enrolling 1,015,401 boys with a male teaching staff of 68,200 for the academic years of 1994-1995. Saudi Arabia enrolled 909,024 female students at 4,528 schools exclusively for girls with a female teaching staff of 61,202 faculty members. Other government agencies in Saudi Arabia sponsored 433 schools enrolling 110,381 students and employing 7,934 teachers. There were 140 private schools in Saudi Arabia in 1994-1995 enrolling 114,912 students taught by 10,746 teachers.

Intermediate Level: The intermediate level is for students aged 12 to 15, lasts for three years, and furthers students' general education and the study of Islam. The objectives of intermediate education are to: (1) provide a comprehensive Islamic education, (2) teach students skills and knowledge to suit their age and level of development, (3) stimulate students to seek knowledge through meditation and scientific reasoning, (4) develop and refine intellectual skills, (5) instill respect for the social life of Islam, (6) train students to be loyal to their community, country, and the monarchy, (7) stimulate interest in Islam's past, (8) train students to use their time wisely with constructive activities, (9) enable students to confront misleading information about Islam, and (10) prepare students for the next stage of life. English becomes a required subject and is compulsory for all three years of secondary education. After completion of the intermediate level, students select from a regular secondary education program leading to a university degree or vocational and/or technical education programs of study.

For the academic years 1994-1995 the Ministry of Education funded 2,349 schools for boys enrolling 336,162 male students with a male teaching staff of 28,401 faculty. For girls there were 1,680 schools at the intermediate level in Saudi Arabia enrolling 321,137 female students taught by 24,121 female students. Other government agencies in Saudi Arabia funded 228 intermediate schools enrolling 39,861 students taught by 3,066 teachers. Saudi Arabia had 236 private schools at the intermediate level enrolling 20,373 students taught by 2,361 faculty.

Secondary Education

The objectives of Regular Secondary Education are religious orientation, development of a scientific attitude and academic practices, preparation for higher education, and the preparation of non-college bound students. A regular secondary education is three years, for students' ages 15 to 19 years old. A general curriculum is studied the first year. Students select from either a liberal arts or science curriculum for the two remaining years. Courses are offered in Islamic Studies, Arabic Studies, Social Studies, the Sciences, Mathematics, English, Physical Education (boys only), and Home Economics (girls only).

For a brief period ending in 1993, a Modern Secondary program provided an alternative to the Regular Secondary curriculum. Modern Secondary permitted students to develop their own programs of study. Students were free to select from a science or literary curriculum. Students were able to change divisions and transfer all credit courses. Discontinuation of this program eliminated the use of credit hours. Secondary religious institutes at Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University and the Islamic University offer male students a program of study in Islamic and Arabic studies, where science is replaced in the curriculum with religious subjects.

At the secondary level in Saudi Arabia for the 1994-1995 academic years the Ministry of Education had 849 schools for men enrolling 175,147 students taught by a male teaching staff of 11,400. For the education of women there were 797 schools enrolling 165,329 female students with a teaching staff of 13,578 female faculty members. Other government agencies in Saudi Arabia sponsored 177 secondary schools enrolling 20,530 students with a teaching staff of 970 faculty members. Private schools in Saudi Arabia numbered 137 schools enrolling 17,435 students with a teaching staff of 1,412.

Technical & Vocational Education: Technical and vocational education is a vital and extremely important part of the Saudi educational system. Upgrading technical and vocational education improves workplace skills, increases productivity, and enables the nation to keep pace with changing technological developments. The benefits protect and maintain an Islamic values system, maintain higher standards of living, and promote economic and social stability. In 1980, GOTEVT was formed to organize, consolidate, and centralize the administration of training programs within the government bureaucracy.

GOTEVT's goals are to (1) prepare individuals to work in industrial, commercial, and agricultural fields, (2) maintain the economy by providing competent technical work forces for either public or private sectors, (3) provide individuals with an Islamic foundation for high moral standards, (4) offer a broad scientific base for technical manpower to optimize worker response to rapid technological change, (5) allow individuals the opportunity to learn a trade and continue their training to the highest level, (6) develop technicians' skills and continuously upgrade vocational knowledge, (7) emphasize the dignity of manual and vocational work and the important role they contribute to national development, and (8) discourage internal migrations to big cities by building vocational training centers throughout Saudi Arabia.

There are three types of vocational and technical education in Saudi Arabia: secondary, junior college (intermediate technical colleges), and college (higher technical institutes) levels. Courses are offered during the day and at night. The government provides benefits for students enrolled in these programs. Secondary institute graduates are eligible to apply for government loans in order to start a business. The best qualified may go on to college. Graduates who work as teachers are given a teaching allowance, which is called a stipend. Requirements for admission to a secondary technical program are a good behavior certificate from the last school attended, passing a medical examination, Saudi citizenship, and an Intermediate School Certificate. Technical Industrial education offers programs in the mechanical department in general mechanics, metal work, and agricultural machinery. The electricity department centers on electrical installation and electro-mechanics. Auto mechanics, auto electrical, and diesel mechanics comprise the auto mechanics section. Curricula programs in electronics are mechanical, electrical, electronic, oil and minerals, and auto/engine technology. The Junior College of Technology in Riyadh (1989) offers a four-year program of study leading to a bachelor of science degree in Technology Engineering. The Colleges of Technology at Jeddah, Dammam, and Buraidah permit students to study mechanical, electrical, electronic, or auto/engine technology.

Two new junior colleges at Abha and Al-Ahsa offer programs in electronic, construction, commerce and management, and mechanical and auto/engine technology. Admission to junior colleges requires Saudi citizenship although non-Saudis may be given permission under special circumstances to enroll, and either a GOTEVT Secondary Institute, Secondary School Scientific Section, or Secondary School Liberal Arts Certificate. Previous grades must be at least a "good." Applicants must pass a medical exam and a personal interview, have a good behavior certificate from the last school attended, and enroll as full-time students. If three or more years have gone by since a secondary certificate was issued, trainees must pass a written examination given by the college committee. The Higher Technical Institute in Riyadh offers two- and three-year training programs for instructors needed to staff secondary industrial institutes and vocational training centers. A one-year program for College of Technology graduates qualifies them to teach at secondary industrial institutes, vocational centers, or colleges of technology. Graduates are given civil service appointments at grade six and can go as high as grade seven, along with stipends to teach and cover the cost of equipment and materials.

Technical Commercial Education programs train students for careers in the office and include accounting, bookkeeping, secretarial skills, commercial correspondence, typing, computers, and administration. All the commercial institutes are in urban areas and offer three-year programs of study. Graduates are appointed to the Civil Service, grade five and are eligible to continue their education. Admission requirements include an Intermediate School Certificate, passing a personal interview, and good manual dexterity and eyesight. Graduates of the Higher Institute for Financial and Commercial Studies are eligible for government hire. Two years of service go on their record earning promotions and the right to study abroad. Admission to Higher Institutes requires a Secondary Commercial School Certificate, the ability to fulfill specific subject prerequisites established by GOTEVT, and a successful interview.

The Technical Agricultural Education program and the Secondary Technical Assistants' Institute are two additional technical programs of study. The former offers special programs in Agricultural and Animal Production at the Model Agricultural Institute in Buraidah (1977). The Secondary Technical Assistants' Institutes offer three-year programs of study in surveying, sanitation and public health inspection, construction, water supply, architectural drawing, hydrology, and road construction. Admission requirements are the same as for the other institutes. Graduates are eligible for a Civil Service appointment at grade five and stipends.

For the academic years 1994-1995, Saudi Arabia enrolled 6,648 students at six Intermediate Colleges of Technology with a teaching staff of 913 faculty members. For the same academic years there were 8 Secondary Industrial Institutes enrolling 8,672 students taught by 1,126 teachers, 15 Secondary Commercial Institutes with a staff of 660 teaching 10,335 students, 3 Secondary Agricultural Institutes enrolling 774 students with a teaching staff of 94, and 5 Secondary Technical Assistants Institutes with a teaching staff of 240 enrolling 1,610 students.

Vocational and prevocational training centers train workers to (1) meet industrial requirements, (2) upgrade unskilled workers into a technical proficiency, (3) provide work opportunities for individuals with limited education, (4) provide opportunities for workers to study a vocational training center, (5) foster moral and religious values in trainees and develop respect for manual and vocational work, and (6) qualify the workforce to meet the nation's technical requirements in industry. The trades studied include auto mechanics, refrigeration and air conditioning, general mechanics, painting and auto body repair, general electricity, radio and television repair, sheet metal, office machine repair, carpentry, plumbing, printing, welding, aluminum construction and repair, commercial and office work, and diesel mechanics.

Prevocational study is for 14 to 17 year olds who have completed at least the fourth grade level of elementary school. Trainees receive a stipend and a monetary award upon graduation. An instructor training institute offers a ten-month program to train teachers to teach vocational education.

An on-the-job training program was started in 1974, by GOTEVT to upgrade work skills in the private sector. Private companies may receive subsidies from the government for training purposes. The primary objectives for this work program are to establish local or international standards in different trades and to provide the private sector with model training programs designed to ensure and upgrade workers' skills. Applicants must be under 45 years of age, a Saudi citizen, and able to read and write. New programs in this field include industrial relations, gas and electric utilities, fisheries, cable manufacturing, pneumatics, and steel manufacturing.

Cooperative Education is developed between private industry and GOTEVT to encourage workers to improve skills by studying at government institutes. There is a one-year program in technical education for mechanics and electricity and a three-year program for technical education. Training is offered for administration and commercial education in typing, secretarial skills, accounting, administration and supervision, marketing, shorthand, telex, and computers. Other fields include industrial safety and security, electronics, machine operation and maintenance, interior decoration, radio and television repair, surveying and architectural drawing, aviation services and tourism, printing, air conditioning repair, production engineering and mechanics. Cooperatives with other countries allow students to study industrial education in France, engineering and instructor training in industrial and agricultural equipment in Germany, vocational training in the United States, and industrial electronics, telecommunications, audio-visual electronics, and computer technology in Japan.

In 1994-1995, Saudi Arabia had 54 vocational training centers enrolling 9,512 students with a total staff of 1,418 faculty members. There were 3 on-the-job training programs with 466 students with a teaching staff of 96. For the same years of 1994-1995, Saudi Arabia had 42 Health Institutes enrolling 5,110 students with a staff of 735, 25 sewing centers with 1,726 students and a staff of 268, 10 postal and telecommunications institutes enrolling 937 students with a staff of 262 faculty, and 1 veterinary and animal husbandry institute enrolling 93 students with a staff of 11. There were 149 vocational sites offered by the private sector in Saudi Arabia enrolling 17,508 students and 41 other vocational sites with 386 students with a staff of 23 for the academic years of 1994-1995.

Higher Education

Higher education for men is government administered by the Ministry of Higher Education founded in 1975. The Ministry of Higher Education authorizes both the creation of a university and the programs offered. This ministry maintains educational missions in 32 countries and has oversight for Saudi citizens pursing educational studies in foreign countries. The university system is modeled on United States system of higher education but there are influences in the Saudi educational system from the educational systems of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Egypt. Islamic values and traditions are also incorporated. The Ministry's responsibilities are to raise the level of communication and coordination between institutions of higher learning, coordinate policy with government ministries and agencies based on the nation's needs, and assist in the kingdom's continuing development. A 1993 Royal Decree formed a Supreme Council for Universities to act as a legislative coordinating body for all the universities. The Higher Education Council's responsibilities include supervising university education development, coordinating degrees and scientific departments among universities, encouraging research, and formulating rules and regulations.

A university council is responsible for educational administrative and financial affairs, implementation of university policy, and preparing budget and future development plans. A scientific council at each university encourages scientific and research studies and publications. Each college within the university has its own council charged with the responsibility to implement and carry out university policy and regulations, submit budget requests, and propose policy changes. Each department within the college has an organization paralleling that of the college and university. Higher education witnessed rapid expansion in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

King Saud University is the oldest university in Saudi Arabia, founded in 1957. It is the largest university in the kingdom. Centered in Riyadh, the capital, the university has branches in Abha and Al-Qaseem. King Saud University offered 13 colleges and enrolled 30,559 students for the academic years 1994-1995 and had a teaching staff of 2,696. King Abdulaziz University (1967) is the second largest university in Saudi Arabia. Its academic programs are similar to those at King Saud University but special emphasis is given to the fields of science, medicine, economics, humanities, and engineering. A navigational sciences program operates at the seaport of Jeddah. A teacher training program is offered at the holy city of Madinah (Medina). King Abdulaziz University has nine colleges enrolling 33,037 students with a teaching staff of 1,987 for the 1994-1995 academic years.

King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (1963) is located in Dhahran and is the nation's leading university in the study of energy and the primary center for scientific research and innovation. It offers a one-year preparatory program emphasizing English, a four-year engineering program, and is exclusively for males. There are eight colleges at King Fahd University enrolling 4,935 students with 695 faculty members (1994-1995).

The Islamic University (1961) is a traditional Islamic university located in the holy city of Madinah. It is under the direct supervision of the Council of Ministers. The university grants degrees in linguistics and Islamic Literature, Islamic Law, and Quranic Studies. This is the only university in Saudi Arabia experiencing a decline in enrollments. For the academic years 1994-1995, the Islamic University, consisting of five colleges, enrolled 3,058 students with a staff of 378. Imam Muhammed Bin Saud Islamic University (1974) includes the Scientific Institute of Riyadh and branch campuses at Madinah, Abha, and Al-Hasa with degree programs in Sharia (Islamic) Law, Usul Din (Islamic Theology), Dawa (Islamic Mission), teacher education, and Arabic language and literature. This university operates overseas locations in Mauritania, Djibouti, and the United Arab Emirates and three Arabic language institutes in Japan, Indonesia, and the United States. There are 13 colleges at this university enrolling 20,734 students in 1994-1995 academic years with a teaching staff of 1,263.

King Faisal University (1975) at Al-Hasa in eastern Saudi Arabia offers degree programs in agriculture, education, veterinary sciences and animal surgery, medicine, foreign languages, chemistry, mathematics, social sciences, and education. King Faisal University maintains a 380-bed teaching hospital and offers medical exchange programs with hospitals and medical schools overseas. King Faisal University has six colleges, a teaching staff of 727, and a student population of 5,240. Umm Al-Qura University (1980) is Saudi Arabia's newest university. It is located in the holiest city of Islam, Makkah (Mecca) and includes the nation's oldest colleges, the Sharia College (1949) and the Teachers' College (1952). In addition to its nine colleges, this university has an Arabic Institute at Taif. The university's primary focus is religion but teacher education and the sciences are strong academic programs. For the academic years 1994-1995 some 1,184 faculty taught 18,635 students.

Saudi Arabia has 11 girls' colleges. Five universities offer selective coeducational programs of study. The total female student enrollments at the higher education level number 19,582 (1994-1995) with a teaching staff of 1,186. All the girls' colleges are administered by the General Presidency of Girls' Education. Each college is separately chartered but all share common goals for instruction, research, and service. While the Supreme Council on Universities governs all the universities, the Colleges Supreme Council made up of the heads of government agencies and distinguished educators governs the girls' colleges.

King Abdulaziz University offers a two-and-a-half year program of study in earth science and geology laboratory assistants and meteorology and environmental assistants. A two-and-a-half year degree in computer and information sciences is awarded at King Saud University. All universities grant bachelor's degrees in the arts and in the sciences and offer postgraduate programs leading to the master's or Ph.D. degrees in Islamic studies, humanities, Arabic language, social sciences, education, engineering, earth science, industrial management, and social services, medicine, and dental science.

Faculty at Saudi Arabia universities and colleges are expected to earn a doctoral degree from an accredited institution. Promotion from assistant to associate professor and from associate professor to full professor is each based on four years of additional research and further study since the last degree awarded. Faculty with master's degrees can teach but are encouraged to obtain doctorates. Faculty members without doctorates after five years is expected to leave teaching and enter administration.

Teaching Profession

Secondary school graduates with a degree from a two-year junior college are qualified to serve as teachers' assistants. Schools of Education at Saudi universities and girls' colleges offer a broad educational curriculum in theory and methods. Each student is required to have a specialization. Short training programs are available for students holding a university or college degree but lack the necessary education courses to qualify as a teacher. Saudi teachers are paid one-third more than other professionals and earn longer vacation leave. Junior college programs are available to retrain elementary teachers who have taught for at least three years. Teachers at all levels of instruction are expected to take additional course work for teacher recertification. Junior colleges provide a program of study for teachers who desire to transfer from elementary school teaching to teaching at an intermediate school. Graduates are awarded the Certificate of Completing the Intensive Program in their field. Educators at the secondary level of education are expected to have earned a bachelor's degree.


The educational system of Saudi Arabia displays the government's recognition that an educated population guarantees the nation's future. Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves and wealth make the country susceptible to internal and external pressures. Government supervision of all levels of education, the assignment of educators to ranks within the nation's bureaucracy, and a strong emphasis on technical and vocational education is the Saudi approach to maintaining a stable, well-educated work force of men and women committed to Islam. This approach also ensures the preservation of Islamic culture and the monarchy as the nation faces the challenges of the twenty-first century.


Al-Farsy, Fouad. Saudi Arabia. London: Stacy International, 1978.

Al Salloom, Hamid I. Education in Saudi Arabia. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1995.

Holden, David and Richard Johns. The House of Saud. NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Howart, David. The Desert King. London: Collins, 1964.

Lacey, Robert. The Kingdom. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Powell, William. Saudi Arabia and its Royal Family. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart Inc., 1982.

Vassiliev, Alexei. The History of Saudi Arabia. London: Saqi Books, 1998.

William A. Paquette

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Basic Data

Official Country Name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Region (Map name): Middle East
Population: 22,757,092
Language(s): Arabic
Literacy rate: 62.8%
Area: 1,960,582 sq km
GDP: 173,287 (US$ millions)
Number of Television Stations: 117
Number of Television Sets: 5,100,000
Television Sets per 1,000: 224.1
Number of Cable Subscribers: 82,800
Cable Subscribers per 1,000: 4.0
Number of Satellite Subscribers: 1,914,000
Satellite Subscribers per 1,000: 84.1
Number of Radio Stations: 76
Number of Radio Receivers: 6,250,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000: 274.6
Number of Individuals with Computers: 1,300,000
Computers per 1,000: 57.1
Number of Individuals with Internet Access: 200,000
Internet Access per 1,000: 8.8

Background & General Characteristics


A country of significant religious orientation and possessing one-fourth of the world's oil reserves, Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiyah as Suudiyah ) wields substantial political influence. As one of the Gulf States, it is bordered to the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, to the south by Yemen and Qatar, and to the southeast by the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. At 850,000 square miles it is the largest political actor in the Gulf Region, taking up more than two-thirds of the Arabian Peninsula and besting the next largest state of the regionIranby roughly 200,000 square miles. In fact, all of the land area of its bordering neighbors when added together only amounts to approximately 516,000 square miles. Though land alone is not always an indicator of political influence, in this case it does correlate due in large part to the oil reserves it has bequeathed to the country.

For Saudi Arabia, oil is the most valuable natural resource it possesses; actually, it is one of the few it possesses. Never colonized or wholly dominated by an outside power, the Saudis in large part have their bleak landscape and harsh climate to thank for this detail. There are no rivers, lakes, or forests in the country and only intermittent streams ever flow and only in certain areas. Less than 1 percent of its land is agriculturally viable for any crop with most of the actual surface area being either rock, gravel, or sand. The limited agriculture that does occur is in the Western mountainous Hijaz province where, with some of the peaks reaching 10,000 feet, enough precipitation falls. In other areas enough scrub brush survives to be used for grazing, but even this is only for about one-third of the land area. Along with the Hijaz, the middle Najd province and the eastern Hasa province are habitable, but in the south, there is a region known as the Rub'al-Khali or the "Empty Quarter." This area is rainless and hosts the largest area of sand in the world, dunes that can be several hundred feet tall, and a blistering desert wind that eternally shifts it all about. It is uninhabited even by nomadic tribes.


While Saudi Arabia has had a long and colorful history, including being the birthplace of Islam, the origins of the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began around 1902 when an exiled 22-year-old Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd ar-Rahman, who later became Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud (also written Abdul Aziz ibn Saud or Abdul Aziz Al-Sa'ud), launched a daring rescue of his family's former holdings that had been captured by the Rashid family in 1890. With only about 200 men he captured the walled city of Riyadh and began to restore the power of the House of Sa'ud. The Sa'ud family, as well as historically holding political influence in the area, also popularized the particular sense of Sunni Islam known as the Wahhabi movement currently prevalent in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism had its beginnings in the seventeenth century when Muhamad ibn Saudleader of a tribe in the Najd accepted the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

After capturing Riyadh, Abd al-Aziz greatly expanded his territory over the next 30 years, including incorporating the all-important Mecca and Medina into his realm. In addition, he consolidated enough power preceding and during World War I (paid $25,000 a year by the British not to side with Turkey) that by September 23, 1932, the Kingdom Saudi Arabia (Al Mamlakah al Arabiyah as Suudiyah ) was proclaimed under his rule. He ruled until his death in 1953.

Abd al-Aziz was succeeded by his son Saud who ruled through 1964. However, during portions of this time his brother Prince Faisal actually ran government affairs. After a power struggle, Faisal was made King on November 2, 1964. Faisal was a firm supporter of the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel, a critic of communism for any Arab country, often at odds with Egypt over policy, and happened to put the events in motion that created the United States' oil crisis in the 1970s. He was shot and killed by a nephew in 1975. Faisal's brother Khalid was then proclaimed King. Khalid ruled until his death in 1982. Khalid's principle aide and brother, Fahd, succeeded him as King. King Fahd Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Sa'ud is a son of the country's original founder and in addition to being King, in 1986 also declared himself "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" to affirm his commitment to Islam. While Fahd remains King after suffering a number of strokes in 1995 his brother, Prince Abdullah, has been the active ruler.

Current Social/Political Characteristics

As of 2001, Saudi Arabia had a population of more than 22 million people with an average annual income of about eight thousand dollars. The capital Riyadh (population 4.3 million) lies in the Najd province. Other important cities include: Mecca (1.2 million), Medina, Jeddah (2.25 million), and Damman/Khobar/Dhahran (1.6 million). The country is 90 percent Arab and 10 percent Afro-Asian in ethnic composition. The official language is Arabic with English also taught in schools. In relation to religion it is almost 100 percent Islamic, the exception being expatriate workers. The country is governed according to traditional Islamic law called Shari'a and also by a set of Basic Laws introduced in 1993 delineating the government's rights and responsibilities.

There is no suffrage in the country. Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy where the King is both the chief of state and the head of government and the crown prince is deputy of both state and government. There are also both a Council of Ministers and a Supreme Council of Justice. There are no political pressure groups and political parties are not allowed.

The Press

In 1908, the country's first newspaperal Hijaz appeared. Up to World War II a few other papers appeared, including Umm al Qura, the official government journal, Sawt al Hijaz, and Madinah al Manawarah. These were shut down, except for Umm al Qura, during WWII due to lack of funding. Publication of these papers was resumed in the late 1940s from Jeddah; Madinah under the same name, and Sawt al Hijaz under the name of Bilad al Sa'udiyah.

There are 13 dailies (approximately one major daily is allowed per region) being published in both English and Arabic with Ar-Riyadh, Al-Jazirah, and Riyadh Daily being among the leading papers. As well, Sharq Al Awsat (The Middle East ) is a leading Arabic daily and magazine in the regionstarted in 1978 and published in London under the ownership of Saudi Research and Publishing Company (SRPC), a firm under the umbrella company of Saudi Research and Marketing Group, SRMG). There are approximately 200 non-dailies being published. The overall average circulation for the country is listed as around 59 per 1,000 people. However, because there is no independent audit bureau of circulation in the country, circulation figures are at best estimates with reported figures sometimes fluctuating dramatically form source to source. A good example of this can be seen with the daily, Arab News. The reported circulation figures for this fluctuate between 51,481 and 110,000.

The dailies typically available include (estimated circulation figures presented when available; defaulting to recency of report first and secondly to the lowest reported figures): Arab News (circ. 51,481; editor-in-chief, Khaled Al-Maeena), Al-Bilad (The Country ; circ. 60,200; editor-in-chief, Abdulmajid Al-Shubukshi), Al-Eqtisadiah (circ. 76,928; editor, B. Oweida), Al-Hayat (circ. 168,250; editor, Omar Jastaniyah), Al-Jazirah (The Peninsula ; circ. 93,000; ed-in-Chief, Mohammed bin Abbas), Al-Madina al-Munawara (Medina The Enlightened City ; circ. 46,370; editor-in-chief, Usama As-Siba'ie), Al-Watan, An-Nadwah (The Council ; circ. 35,000; editor, Mohamed Algaddadi), Okaz (circ. 107,614; editor-in-chief, Khalid Darraj), Al-Riyadh (circ. 91,000; editor-in-chief, Turki A. As-Sudari), Riyadh Daily (circ. 91,000; editor-in-chief, Talaat Wafa), Saudi Gazette (circ. 60,000; editor-in-chief, Dr. Ahmad Al-Youssuf), URDU News (circ. 54,712; editor, B. Oweida), Al-Yaum (Today ; circ. 34,000; editor-in-chief, Mohammed Al Waeel).

Some of the weeklies include: Arrajol (circ. 37,378; editor, B. Oweida), Al-Jamila (circ. 63,799; editor, Sarah Al-Etabi), Laha (circ. 92,000; editor, Nadiah Shiekh), Al-Muslimoon

(The Muslims ; circ. 68,665, ed-in-chief, Dr. Abdullah Ar-Rifa'e), Saudi Arabia Business Week, Saudi Economic Survey (circ. 2,500; general manager, Walid S. Ashour), Sayidati (My Lady ; editor-in-chief, Mataral-Ahmadi), and Al-Yamama (circ. 35,000; editor-in-chief, Abdullah Al-Jahlan).

A range of other periodicals are published including: Ahlan Wasahlan (Welcome ), Majallat al-Iqtisad wal-Idara (Journal of Economics and Administration ), Saudi Review, As-Soqoor (Falcons ), At-Tadhamon al-Islami (Islamic Solidarity ), and At-Tijarah (Commerce ).

The topical range of Saudi press has increased considerably in recent years. In large part this is due to an increasing reader base that is the result of an expanding growth in literacy in the country. Literacy figures fluctuate like the circulation figures, but the highest available current statistics suggest 87.9 percent of males and 74.2 percent of females are literate. Compared with an early 1980s estimate of a 15 percent overall literacy rate the logic behind the expansion in print becomes readily apparent.

Traditionally, any available positive or general affairs having to do with the royal family are always presented in every newspaper after it is sent to the them by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), owned by the government. Other than this, newspapers vary in focus along the lines of politics, religion, editorializing, consumer information, local/national/international news emphases, economics, and the like. However, the Ministry of Information does provide guidelines on some issues for the papers to follow.

Economic Framework

The press in Saudi Arabia is privately owned. However, a number of organizations either have close connections with the royal family or actually have various members of the royal family involved in operations. There are approximately 12 publishing companies that control much of the publishing in the country's dailies, weeklies, and others. While there is some variety due to the number of publishing companies, some of the companies publish multiple titles potentially lessening the overall variety due to similarity in influence. For instance, Saudi Research and Publishing Company oversees the publishing of 17 titles including five of the 13 dailies.

Dailies are typically published Saturday-Thursday (Friday being held sacred by Muslims). Advertising is allowed in publications and this helps to subsidize the cost of production lessening the public's price of newsprint, which is almost all imported.

Press Laws

There is a 1964 press code that gives the government the right to interfere with the press when it feels the general welfare is threatened such as with criticism of Islam, the royal family, or the government. In such cases, publishing of the paper can be curtailed. This is supposed to happen nadiran (rarely). Also included in this code is the right of the Ministry of Information to veto any candidate in any company up for the board of directors. The Ministry also appoints the editor-in-chief and the chairman-ofthe-board in all companies from among candidates chosen by each board. It also has the power to dismiss those chosen for these positions.

Also, despite privatization of ownership for printing and publishing houses, all such organizations are required to be licensed by the Ministry of Information. The terms for licensure include having at least 15 Saudis involved, being headed by a director general, and having at least one hundred thousand Saudi riyals (SAR) available. Licenses can be revoked arbitrarily at any time.


In theory, Saudi Arabia's privately owned publishing companies enjoy relative freedom of expression in the press. However, for all practical purposes they are essentially official newspapers. The press is closely scrutinized by the Director General of Broadcasting, Press and Publications and can be censored on any significant topic or sensitive issue that does not meet with government approval. Additionally, a 1982 royal decree requires journalists to adhere to stringent self-censorship specifically dealing with foreign or national heads of state.

While the tendency is for the government to deal quietly with issues of concern, sentencing can be quick and extreme. Also, the press and other media are owned by people who have interests based in maintaining the status quo for economic and political reasonsdue especially to the way in which they are licensed and chosen by the governmentand therefore are unlikely to go against government desires in general. A further portion of the problem is that press freedom violations are typically not reported to reporting agencies for fear of further repercussions and therefore the extent of the problem remains unknown.

Overall, while there is legal freedom of the press there is significant censorship occurringwhether it is self or government imposed. Yet, compared to a decade ago press freedom seems to be increasing except for recent setbacks such as the editor of Al-Madina being deposed on March 18, 2002, after publishing a critical poem by a famous Saudi poet critiquing Saudi judges (the poet was imprisoned on March 16, 2002) and a revocation on March 22, 2002, of a royal decree a year earlier that had allowed Al-Hayat to be distributed without censorship.

State-Press Relations

As per above, as long as the press remains within the broad guidelines set out by the government there is a cordial relationship between the two. Of course, there is no question of who has the final authority in matters as from time to time harsh sentences are laid upon journalists and/ or publishers who fail to follow guidelines.

Attitude toward Foreign Media

Foreign journalists have a difficult time in Saudi Arabia. There is considerable restriction of movement and information available. Visas are hard to come by and are stringently monitored along with the content they are producing for publication. Journalists walk a fine line in Saudi Arabia between being able to be ethically true to their convictions and being able to stay in the country.

Foreign media is available, but it is screened upon entry to the country before being released to the Saudi public.

Much of the negative attitude toward the foreign press, especially of Western press, is that it is unethical. It often violates aspects of Islam which the Saudi government and Saudi Imams find offensive. Political content is also censored, but it often times need not even get to that point due to advertising that becomes the immediate negative.

News Agencies

The Saudi Press Agency (SPA), established in 1971 and owned by the government, is solely responsible for the creation of official news. This is then forwarded to all national papers for inclusion in their publications.

Broadcast Media

Radio has historically been an important fixture. King Saud introduced radio into the country under duress from the Wahhabi ulema (Islamic theologians). He circumvented their arguments against it by replying, "Can anything be bad which transmits the word of God?" Today there are 43 AM, 31 FM, and 2 short-wave broadcast stations in the country broadcasting to 6.25 million radios in approximately 43 languages. For all of the stations available, there is one state-owned serviceSaudi Arabian Broadcasting Serviceand one privately owned radio serviceSaudi ARAMCO FM Radio, with the private service available to employees of Saudi Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO).

As a partial exception to its policies, since the invasion of Kuwait and the stationing of foreign military personnel in the country, Saudi Arabia has allowed the United States (as well as Britain) to utilize some FM stations, under the rubric the Desert Shield Network, to broadcast programming from "back home." Much of this programming arrived via satellite from Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) based in Los Angeles. Broadcast service for stationed American personnel continues to operate and provides an interesting variation from the usual local programming and other short-wave programming such as the BBC and VOA.

One other relatively recent phenomenon is MBCFM. It is an Saudi-owned, Arabic language service broadcast from London, relayed by satellite to major Saudi cities, and rebroadcast on local FM stations. Its programming provides music, news, and talk shows. It is the only private radio station permitted; this is due to the fact that it is owned by Sheikh Walid Al Ibrahim, brother-in-law of King Fahd.

First suggested in 1963 and becoming a reality July 15, 1965, television broadcasting is also a state-run affair overseen by the Ministry of Information, funded by the government and advertising revenue (advertising was allowed as of 1986), and broadcast by Saudi Arabian Government Television Service (Arabic) and Saudi Arabian Government Television Service Channel 2 (English with a news bulletin in French). However, as with radio, ARAMCO Oil Company runs one private serviceDahran HZ-22-TV or ARAMCO TV. Overall there are 117 broadcast stations broadcasting to 5.1 million television sets. Television is strenuously censored, especially as concerns the portrayal of women. The portrayal of women in media is an extremely sensitive issue due to the Islam opinion of the role of women.

Working against the censorship of the national television network is the availability of satellite broadcasts that are easily accessible. Satellite dishes are officially banned in the kingdom, but the government rarely enforces the ban. Qatar-based Al-Jazeera provides the most popular satellite programming.

Electronic News Media

Through close surveillance by a department of the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KASCT), Saudi Arabia maintains strict control over the Internet, censoring any content deemed offensive to Islam or to the government. As an example of the govern-ment's control, in February 2002, the government shut down over 400 sites without providing explanation. Be that as it may, a number of traditional press publications, publishers, radio stations, and even TV stations maintain a presence on the Internet.

As of 2001 there were 400,000 Internet users and 42 Internet service providers (ISPs). Until 1999, there was no Internet public access in Saudi Arabia; use was limited to universities and some public operations. From no public access to 400,000 users in three years is suggestive of the remarkable electronic revolution occurring in the country. As well, unauthorized Internet access is available through Bahrain and the UAE and a purported 26,000 take advantage of this. Of all Internet users, an unofficial estimate is that two-thirds are women (suggested as being related to their restriction of movement).


While ongoing utilization of new technologies continues to open pathways into a traditionally closed society, Saudi Arabia remains resistant to many aspects relating to freedom of the press and to recognition of human rights. Yet, Saudi citizens have access to a fuller repertoire of information than ever before and Saudi government has less control over information flows than they ever have. It remains to be seen how or if this will translate into the creation of a more robust civil society with fuller freedoms for the press, for the media, and for all Saudi citizens.

Significant Dates

  • February 2002: Saudi government closes 400 Internet sites without explanation.
  • March 2002: Mohammed al-Mukhtar, editor-in-chief of the daily paper Al-Madina dismissed by interior minister Prince Nayef, after printing a poem about judicial corruption. Abdul Mohsen Musalam, the poet, was jailed on March 16 for the offense.
  • March 2002: information minister Fuad al-Farsi orders the pre-distribution censorship of the pan-Arab daily paper Al-Hayat, revoking a royal decree issued a year earlier allowing it to be distributed without censorship.


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Clint B. Thomas Baldwin

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia


Fatir (Flat Bread)........................................................ 134
Hawayij (Spice Blend)................................................ 134
Haysa Al-Tumreya (Dip for Dates).............................. 135
Kapsa (Chicken and Rice) .......................................... 136
Kimaje (Flat Bread).................................................... 137
Laban Drink (Yogurt Drink) ....................................... 138
Rice, Saudi Style........................................................ 139
Tabbouleh (Bulgur Wheat Salad)............................... 139
Hummus................................................................... 140
Qahwa (Arabic Coffee).............................................. 141


Saudi Arabia, the third-largest country in Asia, constitutes about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. The other countries that share the peninsulaYemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwaitare all much smaller in area. A narrow plain runs along the Red Sea coast. The Hijaz Mountains (Al Hijaz) rise sharply from the sea. At least one-third of the total area is sandy desert. There are no lakes, and except for artesian wells (wells where water flows to the surface naturally) in the eastern oases, there are no rivers or streams where water flows.


The people of Saudi Arabia are descended from tribes of nomadic sheep and goat herders and maintain many of the traditions of their past. Traditional foods like dates, fatir (flat bread), arikah (bread from the southwestern part of the country), and hawayij (a spice blend) are still eaten by Saudis today, although most Saudis have settled in towns and cities and no longer follow the nomadic lifestyle. Saudi Arabia is also home to Mecca, the origin and spiritual center of Islam. The culture, as well as the laws of Saudi Arabia, is founded on Islamic principles, including the dietary restrictions against eating pork or drinking alcohol.

In the 1930s, oil was discovered on the Arabian Peninsula. Income from oil has allowed Saudi Arabia to become modernized and to begin to develop stronger industries in other areas such as agriculture. Saudi Arabia now produces all of its own dairy products and most of its own vegetables. Many foreign workers are needed to maintain the new industries, and foreign foods as well as fast food chains are now available in Saudi Arabia. However, it is mostly the foreigners who eat those foods; most Saudis prefer traditional fare.

Fatir (Flat Bread)

Authentic fatir is made with toasted barley flour, not widely available in the United States. Flour tortillas baked in a warm oven over a metal mixing bowl for 3 to 4 minutes will simulate the shape of fatir.


  • 1 loaf frozen white bread dough, thawed according to package directions
  • Wok


  1. Turn the thawed bread dough out onto a floured surface.
  2. Divide it into 6 pieces. Flatten each piece under the palm of your hand and dust lightly with white flour.
  3. Roll out one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered with a damp dish towel, to make 6 flat breads about 10 inches in diameter. The bread will be very thin, so handle it carefully.
  4. Spray the outside of a wok with cooking spray and set the wok, upside down, over a burner on the stove. Heat it over medium-high heat.
  5. Wearing oven mitts, carefully lay the bread over the curved surface. (This will be awkward. If the mitts make it impossible to handle the dough, use two spatulas or wooden spoons to lift the dough and drop it onto the wok.)
  6. Press down gently, using a wooden spoon, to make sure all parts of the bread touch the cooking surface.
  7. Cook for 1½2 minutes. Using tongs, carefully turn the bread over and cook the other side.
  8. When the bread is fully cooked, remove it from the wok and wrap it in a kitchen towel to keep it warm.
  9. Cook the remaining breads the same way.

Serves 6 to 10.

Hawayij (Spice Blend)

This spice blend keeps for a long time in a well-sealed container.


  • 2 Tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 1 Tablespoon caraway seed
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom seed
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

Note: Ground spices may be substituted for the spices listed.


  1. Combine the peppercorns, caraway seeds, and cardamom seeds in a dry skillet and toast over high heat for 23 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
  2. Put the toasted seeds in a mortar or spice mill and pound or grind them to a powder. Alternatively, wrap in a clean dish towel, place the package on a hard surface (such as the garage floor or sidewalk) and pound with a hammer. All the spices should be pounded to a powder form.
  3. Add the saffron threads and pound or grind again. Transfer the spices to a mixing bowl.
  4. Add the turmeric and mix well.

Store in a glass or plastic container with a lid. (An empty spice jar works well.)

Haysa Al-Tumreya (Dip for Dates)


  • ¾ cup flour
  • ½ cup shortening or vegetable oil
  • Dates, pitted


  1. Combine the flour and shortening or oil in a saucepan.
  2. Heat over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture is golden brown.
  3. Remove from heat and pour onto a plate.
  4. Serve while hot with a bowl of pitted dates.

Serves 6 to 8 as a snack.


The people of Saudi Arabia are very traditional and eat the same foods they have eaten for centuries. The average meal of the Bedouin nomads who remain in Saudi Arabia is much simpler than that of the urban Saudis who make up the majority of Saudi Arabia's population today. However, the basic ingredients are the same: fava beans, wheat, rice, yogurt, dates, and chicken are staple foods for all Saudis. Saudi Arabia has over 18 million date palms that produce 600 million pounds of dates each year.

Saudis rank as the highest consumers of broiler chickens in the world, eating an average of 88.2 pounds of chicken per person per year. Saudis are strict Muslims and, following Islamic law, do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Lamb is traditionally served to honored guests and at holiday feasts. According to Islamic law, animals must be butchered in a particular way and blessed before they can be eaten, so Saudi Arabia is the world's largest importer of live sheep.

Camel (or sheep or goat) milk has long been the staple of the Bedouin diet, and dairy products are still favorites with all Saudis. Yogurt is eaten alone, used in sauces, and made into a drink called a lassi. Flat breadsfatir, a flat bread cooked on a curved metal pan over a fire, and kimaje, similar to pitaare the other mainstay of the nomadic diet that are eaten by all Saudis. These breads are used at every meal, in place of a fork or spoon, to scoop up other foods.

Kapsa (Chicken and Rice)


  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 small to medium onion, chopped
  • 3 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1 can (about 2 cups) chicken broth
  • 1½ cups water
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon lemon rind
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 small snack box of raisins
  • 1 package of skinless, boneless chicken (4 breast halves
  • 1 package of skinless, boneless thighs (4 to 6 thighs)
  • 1½ cups white Basmati rice


  1. Preheat oven to 300°F.
  2. Wash chicken thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels.
  3. Put chicken in a baking dish and bake in preheated oven until fully cooked (about 30 minutes).
  4. While the chicken is baking, heat oil (medium-high) in a large pot. Add chopped onions and 1 teaspoon of cardamom, stirring constantly until browned.
  5. Add chicken broth and 1½ cups water to pot. Add remaining 2 teaspoons of cardamom, tomato, tomato paste, garlic powder, lemon rind, cinnamon stick, salt, and raisins to the browned onions and water.
  6. Cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 23 minutes. Add the rice.
  7. Bring to a boil then immediately turn the heat down to low. Cover the pot tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.
  8. After 10 minutes, check the rice to see if it has absorbed all of the liquid.
  9. If the rice is dry but not soft yet, add a little more water and continue to simmer. Do not stir the rice! The rice is done when all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is soft.
  10. When both the rice and the chicken are cooked, place the rice on a platter and put the chicken on top in the middle.

Serves 6 to 8.

Kimaje (Flat Bread)

This bread is traditionally served warm from the oven and is used to scoop up other foods.


  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1¼ cups lukewarm water (more as needed)
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour (more or less as needed)


  1. In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water.
  2. Add oil, sugar, salt, and 2 cups flour, and stir until smooth.
  3. Add just enough of the remaining flour to make a dough that is not sticky and is easy to handle.
  4. Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
  5. Put the dough in a lightly oiled, large mixing bowl and move it around to grease all sides with the oil.
  6. Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm place to rise, for about 1 hour, until the dough doubles in size.
  7. When the dough has risen, punch it down and move it to the lightly floured work surface. Divide into 6 equal balls.
  8. Place the balls side by side on the work surface and cover with the towel. Let them rise for another 30 minutes.
  9. After they have risen, flatten each ball with a lightly floured rolling pin or the palm of your hand, until it is a circle about -inch thick and 6 inches across.
  10. Using 3 cookie sheets, place 2 breads on each so that they are not touching, cover them with towels, and let rise for another 30 minutes.
  11. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  12. When breads have risen, bake in oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown and puffed.

Laban Drink (Yogurt Drink)


  • ½ cup ice water
  • ½ cup plain yogurt (unsweetened)
  • 4 to 6 ice cubes (optional)


  1. Combine water and yogurt in a blender and blend until smooth.
  2. If you do not have a blender, put water and yogurt into a tall glass and stir briskly until smooth.
  3. Serve, over ice cubes if desired.


Saudi Arabia is a Muslim nation. The national holidays are Islamic holidays, including Ramadan (a month of fasting from sunup to sundown), Eid al-Fitr (the feast at the end of Ramadan), and Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice). Two of the Five Pillars (requirements) of Islam are to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and to give aid to the poor. Eid al-Adha, which occurs at the end of the month of pilgrimage, reenacts the story of God giving Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac. It also fulfills the requirement to give to the poor, by having a lamb ritually slaughtered and donating the meat to those in need.

Most Saudi holiday meals include thick soups, stuffed vegetables, bean salads or tabbouleh (a salad made with bulgur wheat), hummus, rice, and the flat bread that is eaten with all meals. Dates, raisins, and nuts are served as appetizers or snacks, and sweet desserts finish off the meal. Ornate rugs are laid out on the floor and dishes of food placed on them. The feasters sit cross-legged on the floor around the rugs and eat with their fingers or bread, sharing from the same dishes. Hands are ritually washed, in accordance with Islamic law, before and after eating.

Rice, Saudi Style


  • 3 cups rice
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon cardamom (ground, not whole pods)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

Note: To toast pine nuts and almonds, heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet. Add nuts and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until nuts are golden in color.


  1. Measure rice into a bowl, cover with cold water, and allow to soak for 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, cook onions and garlic in oil over medium heat in a large saucepan.
  3. After the rice has been soaking for 15 minutes, add it with tomato paste and raisins to the meat mixture.
  4. Add seasoning (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, salt, and pepper) and stir to combine. Lower heat and cover.
  5. Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Check to be sure the mixture isn't too dry. If there is no more liquid visible, add a little more water (½ cup at a time).
  6. Continue simmering for about 10 more minutes, until rice is tender.
  7. Serve dish garnished with the toasted nuts and accompanied by plain yogurt.

Tabbouleh (Bulgur Wheat Salad)


  • 1½ cups fresh parsley, stems removed, washed, and drained
  • 1 cup bulgur wheat
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • ½ cup green onions, washed, trimmed, and chopped
  • 3 tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons crushed dried mint leaves
  • ½ fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil (more or less as needed)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Finely chop the parsley (or cut with very clean scissors).
  2. Place chopped parsley in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
  3. Place bulgur in a small mixing bowl, cover with boiling water, and let soak for 30 minutes.
  4. Drain bulgur and squeeze out excess water with your (clean) hands. Add bulgur to parsley.
  5. Add onions, tomatoes, mint, lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper to the bulgur and parsley mixture. Toss well, adding more oil if needed to coat mixture.
  6. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  7. Remove from the refrigerator and let return to room temperature before serving.

Serves 6.



  • 2 cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 6 Tablespoons tahini (sesame seed pasteavailable at ethnic food shops or supermarkets or organic/health food stores)
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • ¼ of the liquid from 1 can of chickpeas
  • cup lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Olive oil
  • Paprika
  • Fresh chopped parsley


  1. Combine chickpeas, tahini, garlic, canned chickpea liquid, and lemon juice in a food processor or blender and puree to a smooth paste.
  2. Thin with more liquid from the canned chickpeas, if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a serving bowl.
  3. Mix olive oil with a bit of paprika to make it red and drizzle it on top of the hummus. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with pita bread.


Saudi customs for mealtimes and table etiquette come from both their nomadic tribal heritage as well as their Islamic tradition. Based on nomadic habits of herding animals throughout daylight hours, daytime meals are small, with a large meal in the evening. The month-long celebration of Ramadan builds on this tradition, requiring a complete fast from sunup until sundown, with a large meal after sunset. Saudi meals are eaten sitting cross-legged on the floor or on pillows around a rug or low table (as though in a tent), sharing food out of the same dishes. Food is usually eaten with the fingers or a piece of bread. Following Islamic law, only the right hand is used for eating, as the left hand is considered "unclean" because it is used for personal hygiene. Ritual hand washing is completed before and after eating.

Dates and sweet tea are favorite snacks for Saudis, and buttermilk, cola, and a yogurt drink known as lassi are popular beverages. Coffee has been a central part of Saudi life for centuries, with an intricate ceremony to prepare and serve it. Preparing the coffee involves four different pots in which the coffee grounds, water, and spices are combined and brewed before being served in small cups. It is considered very rude to refuse a cup of coffee offered by the host, and it is most polite to accept odd numbers of cups (one, three, five, etc.). Saudi men spend a great deal of time in coffeehouses, drinking coffee or tea and talking.

Qahwa (Arabic Coffee)


  • 3 cups water
  • 2 Tablespoons ground decaffeinated coffee
  • 3 Tablespoons cardamom (coarsely ground)
  • ¼ teaspoon saffron (optional)


  1. Boil the water in a pot. Add the coffeeto the water and bring to a boil over low heat. (In Saudi Arabia, the coffee would be strong and highly caffeinated.)
  2. Remove from the heat and allow coffee grounds to settle.
  3. Put the cardamom in another pot, strain the coffee (removing the grounds) into the second pot, and add the saffron.
  4. Bring back to a boil and serve immediately.

Serves 8 to 10.


The Saudis in general receive adequate nutrition. The country's agricultural practices have been modernized and the government has made significant investments in irrigation. Saudi farmers grow and raise almost enough crops and livestock to meet the needs of the population.

According to the World Bank, less than 4 percent of the population experiences inadquate nutrition, and nearly 90 percent of Saudi citizens have access to adequate sanitation.



Alford, Jeffrey, and Naomi Duguid. Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker's Atlas. New York: William Morrow, 1995.

Dosti, Rose. Mideast & Mediterranean Cuisines. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books, 1993.

Honeyman, Susannah. Saudi Arabia. Country Fact Files series. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1995.

Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1995.

Web Sites

4Arabs. [Online] Available at (accessed May 2, 2001).

ArabNet. [Online] Available at (accessed May 2, 2001).

Diana's Gourmet Corner. [Online] Available at (accessed May 2, 2001).

Recipe Source. [Online] Available at (accessed April 19, 2001).

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. [Online] Available at (accessed May 2, 2001).

Saudi ArabiaA Country Study. Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. [Online] Available at (accessed May 5, 2001).

Saudi ArabiaCultural Profiles Project. [Online] Available at (accessed May 2, 2001).

The Saudi Arabian Directory. [Online] Available at (accessed May 5, 2001).

The Saudi Arabian Information Resource. [Online] Available at (accessed May 5, 2001).

U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council. [Online] Available at (accessed May 2, 2001).

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia (säōō´dē ərā´bēə, sou´–, sô–), officially Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, kingdom (2005 est. pop. 26,419,000), 829,995 sq mi (2,149,690 sq km), comprising most of the Arabian peninsula. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea; on the east by the Persian Gulf, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates; on the south by Yemen and Oman; and on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia formerly shared a neutral zone with Iraq and another with Kuwait; both are now divided between the countries. Riyadh is the capital and largest city. See also Arabia, Hejaz, and Nejd.


The south and southeast of the country are occupied entirely by the great Rub al-Khali desert. Through the desert run largely undefined boundaries with Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to the Rub al-Khali, Saudi Arabia has four major regions. The largest is the Nejd, a central plateau, which rises from c.2,000 ft (610 m) in the east to c.5,000 ft (1,520 m) in the west. Riyadh is located in the Nejd. The Hejaz stretches along the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba south to Asir and is the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Asir, extending south to the Yemen border, has a fertile coastal plain. Inland mountains in the Asir region rise to more than 9,000 ft (2,743 m). The Eastern Province extends along the Persian Gulf and is the oil region of the country. The oasis of Al-Hasa, located there, is probably the country's largest. Saudi Arabia's climate is generally hot and dry, although nights are cool, and frosts occur in winter. The humidity along the coasts is high.


The population of Saudi Arabia is about 90% Arab, with Asian and African minorities. The vast majority belong to the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, although there is a small percentage of Shiites, mainly in the Eastern prov. Islam is the only officially recognized religion; other faiths are not publicly tolerated. A large proportion of the population are farmers in the Hejaz. Nomads and seminomads raise camels, sheep, goats, and horses. The large number of foreigners living in Saudi Arabia work in the oil industry, as computer technicians and consultants, and as construction and domestic workers. Arabic is spoken by almost everyone.


Because of the scarcity of water, agriculture had been restricted to Asir and to oases strung along the wadis, but irrigation projects relying on aquifers have reclaimed many acres of desert, particularly at Al Kharj, southeast of Riyadh, and Hofuf, in the eastern part of the country. Water also is obtained by desalinizing seawater. Agriculture is now a significant economic sector, and wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, and citrus fruit are grown, and livestock is raised. Manufacturing, which has also increased, produces chemicals, industrial gases, fertilizer, plastics, and metals. Minerals include iron ore, gold, copper, phosphate, bauxite, and uranium. There is also ship and aircraft repair. Saudi Arabia has a growing banking and financial-services sector, and the country is beginning to encourage tourism, especially along the Red Sea coast. Mecca, Medina, and the port of Jidda have derived much income from religious pilgrims; the annual hajj brings more than 2 million pilgrims to Mecca.

The oil industry, located in the northeast along the Persian Gulf, dominates the economy, comprising 90% of Saudi export earnings. Imports include machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, motor vehicles, and textiles. Major trading partners are the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, and Germany. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1936, and the country is now the world's leading exporter. It contains about one quarter of the world's known reserves; 14 major oil fields exist. A huge petroleum industrial complex has been developed in the town of Al Jubayl, as well as at Yanbu on the Red Sea. There are refinery complexes at Ras Tanura and Ras Hafji on the Persian Gulf; oil also is shipped to Bahrain for refining. The oil boom after World War II led to the construction of the Al Dammam–Riyadh RR, the development of Al Dammam as a deepwater port, and, especially since the 1970s, the general modernization of the country. Saudi Arabia, like other oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, depends heavily upon foreign labor for its oil industry; workers are drawn from Arab countries as well as S and SE Asia.


Saudi Arabia is governed according to Islamic law. The Basic Law that articulates the government's rights and responsibilities was promulgated by royal decree in 1992. The monarch is both head of state and head of government. The unicameral legislature consists of the Consultative Council, which has 150 members and a chairman, all appointed by the monarch for four-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into thirteen provinces.


Origins of Saudi Arabia

As a political unit, Saudi Arabia is of relatively recent creation. Its origins lay with the puritanical Wahhabi movement (18th cent.), which gained the allegiance of the powerful Saud family of the Nejd, in central Arabia. Supported by a large Bedouin following, the Sauds brought most of the peninsula under their control, except for Yemen and the Hadhramaut in the extreme south. The Wahhabi movement was crushed (1811–18) by an Egyptian expedition under the sons of Muhammad Ali. After reviving in the mid-19th cent., the Wahhabis were defeated in 1891 by the Rashid dynasty, which gained effective control of central Arabia.

It was Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, known as Ibn Saud, a descendant of the first Wahhabi rulers, who laid the basis of the present Saudi Arabian state. Beginning the Wahhabi reconquest at the turn of the century, Ibn Saud took Riyadh in 1902 and was master of the Nejd by 1906. On the eve of World War I he conquered the Al-Hasa region from the Ottoman Turks and soon extended his control over other areas. He was then ready for the conquest of the Hejaz, ruled since 1916 by Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca. The Hejaz fell to Saud in 1924–25 and in 1932 was combined with the Nejd to form the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, ruled under Islamic law. In much of the country, King Ibn Saud compelled the Bedouins to abandon traditional ways and encouraged their settlement as farmers.

Development of the Modern State

Oil was discovered in 1936 by the U.S.-owned Arabian Standard Oil Company, which later became the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). Commercial production began in 1938. Saudi Arabia is a charter member of the United Nations. It joined the Arab League in 1945, but it played only a minor role in the Arab wars with Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. An agreement with the United States in 1951 provided for an American air base at Dhahran, which was maintained until 1962. Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud, who soon came to rely on his brother, Crown Prince Faisal (Faisal bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud), to administer financial and foreign affairs.

King Saud at first supported the Nasser regime in Egypt, but in 1956, in opposition to Nasser, he entered into close relations with the Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq, until then the traditional enemies of the Saudis. He opposed the union in 1958 of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic and became a bitter foe of Nasser's pan-Arabism and reform program. When, in Sept., 1962, pro-Nasser revolutionaries in neighboring Yemen deposed the new imam and declared a republic, King Saud, together with King Hussein of Jordan, dispatched aid to the royalist troops. The Saudi family deposed Saud, and Prince Faisal became king in Nov., 1964.

Relations with Egypt were severed in 1962, but after the defeat of Egypt by Israel in June, 1967, an agreement was concluded between King Faisal and President Nasser. According to the agreement, the Egyptian army was to withdraw from Yemen and Saudi Arabia was to cease aiding the Yemeni royalists. By 1970, Saudi Arabia had withdrawn all its troops, and relations with Yemen were resumed. Saudi Arabia also agreed to give $140 million a year to Egypt and Jordan, which had been devastated in the 1967 war with Israel. In view of Britain's withdrawal from the Persian Gulf area, King Faisal pursued a policy of friendship with Iran, while encouraging the Arab sheikhdoms that had been under British rule to form the United Arab Emirates. King Faisal, however, maintained claims to the Buraimi oases, which were also claimed by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi.

In 1972 the government of Saudi Arabia demanded tighter rein on its oil industry as well as participation in the oil concessions of foreign companies. Aramco (a conglomerate of several American oil companies) and the government reached an agreement in June, 1974, whereby the Saudis would take a 60% majority ownership of the company's concessions and assets. The concept of participation was developed by the Saudi Arabian government as an alternative to nationalization. King Faisal played an active role in organizing the Arab oil embargo of 1973, directed against the United States and other nations that supported Israel; as U.S. oil prices soared, Saudi revenues increased. Relations with the United States improved with the signing (1974) of cease-fire agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria (both mediated by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and by the visit (June, 1974) of President Richard M. Nixon to Jidda.

Contemporary Saudi Arabia

As a result of Saudi Arabia's increased wealth, its quest for stability, and its improved relations with Western nations, the country began an extensive military build-up in the 1970s. On Mar. 25, 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew Prince Faisal. Crown Prince Khalid (Khalid bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud) then became the new king, stressing Islamic orthodoxy and conservatism while expanding the country's economy, its social programs, and its educational structures. Saudi Arabia denounced the 1979 agreement between Israel and Egypt and terminated diplomatic relations with Egypt (since renewed). Saudi leaders opposed both the leftist and radical movements that were growing throughout the Arab world, and in the 1970s sent troops to help quell leftist revolutions in Yemen and Oman.

Saudi religious interests were threatened by the fall of Iran's shah in 1979 and by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. In Nov., 1979, Muslim fundamentalists calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca. After two weeks of fighting the siege ended, leaving a total of 27 Saudi soldiers and over 100 rebels dead. Sixty-three more rebels were later publicly beheaded. In 1980, Shiite Muslims led a series of riots that were put down by the government, which promised to reform the distribution of Saudi wealth. Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War throughout the 1980s. In May, 1981, it joined Persian Gulf nations in the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to promote economic cooperation between the participating countries. Khalid died in June, 1982, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz.

By the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia had gained full ownership of Aramco. Saudi support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War became increasingly problematic in the mid-1980s as Iran's threats, especially regarding oil interests, nearly led to Saudi entanglement in the war. Iranian pilgrims rioted in Mecca during the hajj in 1987, causing clashes with Saudi security troops. More than 400 people were killed. This incident, along with Iranian naval attacks on Saudi ships in the Persian Gulf, caused Saudi Arabia to break diplomatic relations with Iran.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in Aug., 1990, King Fahd agreed to the stationing of U.S. and international coalition troops on Saudi soil. Thousands of Saudi troops participated in the Persian Gulf War (1991) against Iraq. The country took in Kuwait's royal family and more than 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees. Though little ground fighting occurred in Saudi Arabia, the cities of Riyadh, Dhahran, and outlying areas were bombed by Iraqi missiles. Coalition troops largely left Saudi Arabia in late 1991; several thousand U.S. troops remained. In 1995 and 1996 terrorist bombings in Riyadh and Dharan killed several American servicemen.

Following the Gulf War, King Fahd returned to a conservative Arab stance, wary of greater Western cooperation. Reforms instituted in the wake of the Gulf War included the revival of the Consultative Council, or Shura, with rights to review but not overrule government acts, promulgation of a bill of rights, and a revision in the procedures for choosing the king. However, these measures left the royal family's power basically undiminished. In 1995 the king created a Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, composed of royal family members and other appointees, in an apparent effort to establish a counterweight to the Ulemas Council, an advisory body of highly conservative Muslim theologians.

In the late 1990s, Crown Prince Abdullah, the king's half-brother and heir to the throne since 1982, effectively became the country's ruler because of King Fahd's poor health. Under the crown prince, the country was more openly frustrated with and critical of U.S. support for Israel. A treaty with Yemen that ended border disputes dating to the 1930s was signed in 2000, and early the next year both nations withdrew their troops from the border area in compliance with the pact.

The Saudi government restricted the use of American bases in the country during the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and by Sept., 2003, all U.S. combat forces were withdrawn from the country. Also in 2003, a decree gave the Consultative Council the authority to propose new laws without first seeking his permission. The move was perhaps prompted in part by rare protests in favor of government reform; the kingdom also was shaken by violent incidents, including a massive car bomb attack against a residential compound in Riyadh, involving Islamic militants. Such terror attacks continued into 2005.

The country held elections for municipal councils in Feb.—Apr., 2005, permitting voters (men only) to choose half the council members; the rest of the members were still appointed. King Fahd died in Aug., 2005, and was succeeded by Abdullah. In Nov., 2009, fighting in N Yemen spilled over into Saudi Arabia when Yemeni Shiite rebels (Houthis) crossed the border. Saudi forces fought the rebels and sought to drive them back into Yemen and away from the border; the conflict ended by Feb., 2010, with the rebels withdrawn into Yemen (and a truce established there).

In early 2011 Saudi Arabia experienced relatively small-scale antigovernment protests compared to other Arab nations, and those were at times harshly suppressed; many demonstrations involved Shiites. Protests and confrontations continued to a limited degree into 2012. Saudi forces also helped suppress antigovernment demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain. At the same time, the government lavished funds on government employee bonuses, low-income housing, and religious organizations. Later in the year, the king announced that women, who have had limited civil rights in the country, would be allowed to participate in municipal elections after 2011 and would serve on the Consultative Council; in 2013 women were appointed to a fifth of the Council seats. King Abdullah died in Jan., 2015, and was succeeded by Crown Prince Salman, his half brother. Saudi forces led Arab air attacks against Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen after Yemen's president was forced to flee the country in Mar., 2015; there also were clashes along the Saudi-Yemen border.


See C. L. Riley, Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Saudi Arabia (1972); E. A. Nakhleh, The United States and Saudi Arabia (1975), A. Al-Yassini, Religion and State in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1985), M. Abir, Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era (1988), J. R. Presley and T. Westaway, A Guide to the Saudi Arabian Economy (2d. ed. 1989), S. al-Sowayan, ed., Encyclopedia of Folklore of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2000), J. Kechichian, Succession in Saudi Arabia (2001), W. Stegner, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil (1971, repr. 2007), R. Lacey Inside the Kingdom (2009), T. C. Jones, Desert Kingdom (2010), K. House, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future (2012), T. W. Lippman, Saudi Arabia on the Edge (2012), and S. Yizraeli, Politics and Society in Saudi Arabia: The Crucial Years of Development, 1960–1982 (2012); bibliography by H.-J. Philipp (2 vol., 1984–89).

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Saudi Arabia


Country in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula, with a size of approximately 830,000 square miles (2,150,000 sq. km) and a population in 2002 of approximately 22 million. The country is bounded on the west by the Red Sea; on the north by Jordan and Iraq; on the east by the Gulf (also known as the Persian or Arabian Gulf) and the small states of Kuwait, the island state of Bahrain just off the Saudi shore, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates; and on the south by Oman and Yemen. The country forms a rough triangle, tilting from west to east. Al-Hijaz, the west-ernmost of the three principal regions, rises from a low, barren coastal plain to a craggy, mountainous spine before leveling out into a gravel plateau. As the birthplace of Islam, al-Hijaz contains Islam's holiest cities, Makka (Mecca) and al-Madina (Medina). It also contains Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, Jidda (Jedda), with the country's biggest port. The center of the country is occupied by the Najd, the historic center of modern Saudi Arabia and the location of its capital, Riyadh. The Eastern Province, lying between Riyadh and the Gulf, contains nearly all of the kingdom's massive oil deposits. Besides the conurbation of al-Zahran (Dhahran), al-Dammam, and al-Khubar (Khobar), the province also embraces the extensive and ancient oases of al-Ahsa (Hasa) and al-Qatif. Along the southeastern border, Saudi Arabia shares with Oman and Yemen the world's largest sand desert, al-Rub al-Khali (The empty quarter). In the southwest, the mountains of
al-Hijaz grow higher as they proceed south across Asir into Yemen. The country is divided into thirteen provinces.

Nearly all of the country is desert, and the climate is generally very hot in the summer and humid along the seashores. Although the coastal plains are mild in winter, the interior desert can be cold. Small juniper forests exist only in several spots in the western mountains. There are no rivers or permanent bodies of water. Rainfall is sparse.


Traditionally, the majority of the people were engaged in pastoral nomadism, herding camels, goats, and sheep. Subsistence agriculture was practiced in the extensive oases of al-Ahsa (Hasa) and al-Qatif in the Eastern Province, as well as in other smaller oases across the country. Cultivation was also intense in the southwest highlands, and fishing was a feature along both the Red Sea and Gulf coasts, The west, particularly Mecca, Jidda, and Medina, relied on the hajj (the annual Muslim pilgrimage) for income. Trade was important throughout the country, but especially for the small ports along the coastlines and for transshipment centers such as Burayda and Unayza in the Najd.

Oil exploration began in the Eastern Province in the 1930s, and commercially exploitable reserves were discovered in 1938. The advent of the Second World War delayed large-scale production until the late 1940s. Production levels reached 0.5 million barrels per day in 1949, doubling by 1955, and rising to 3.5 million barrels per day by 1968. By the beginning of the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was producing about 10 million barrels per day. This declined to less than 4 million barrels per day as a result of the decline in world demand for oil, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the kingdom was again producing over 8 million barrels per day and had become the world's largest crude oil exporter. Total reserves were estimated at 262 billion barrels in 2002, giving Saudi Arabia about 25 percent of the world's total. Other natural resources are negligible, although several small gold mines were put into operation in the early 1990s.

Oil completely transformed the Saudi economy. Prior to oil, the nascent Saudi kingdom was a poor state, highly dependent on hajj revenues for the government's income. Since then, Saudi Arabia has become a highly developed social welfare state. In the 1980s, it also embarked on a large-scale program of industrialization, emphasizing petrochemical industries and other energy-intensive industrial programs that could make effective use of locally refined oil or gas for fuel. The small ports of al-Jubayl on the Gulf and Yanbu on the Red Sea were selected as complementary sites for new industrial cities. Other industrial efforts have gone into import substitution and highly subsidized agricultural programs.

Language, Religion, and Education

Nearly all Saudi citizens are Arab, although there has been considerable ethnic mixing in al-Hijaz as a result of centuries of immigration connected with the hajj. Arabic is the sole indigenous language, but English is widely spoken. All Saudis are Muslims and most are Sunni. The Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence predominates because of Wahhabism, a movement within Sunni Islam, founded in eighteenth-century Najd by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, emphasizing the ascetic values of early Islam and widely followed within the kingdom (its adherents prefer to be known as Muwahhidun, or Unitarians). Saudi Arabia also perceives itself as having a special responsibility for the protection of the Islamic holy places. As many as 500,000 inhabitants of al-Qatif and al-Ahsa oases are Jaʿfari (or Twelver) Shiʿa, and small Shiʿite communities are to be found in Medina and Najran.

Great strides were made in education over the last half of the twentieth century, and about 62 percent
of Saudi citizens are literate. The country has eight universities, the oldest of which dates from 1957. Three universities specialize in Islamic disciplines and the other five offer broader curricula. Several hundred thousand Saudis have received a university education abroad, notably in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Political Structure

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, headed by a king drawn from the Al Saʿud royal family. The country's four monarchs since 1953 all have been sons of King Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman (r. 19021953): Saʿud (r. 19531964), Faisal (r. 19641975), Khalid (r. 19751982), and Fahd (r. 1982). King Fahd also holds the title of prime minister. His half-brother Abdullah is heir apparent and first deputy prime minister. Because of King Fahd's poor health, Abdullah serves as the de facto head of government. Although the king holds enormous power, he is not
an absolute monarch, being required to rule according to Islamic precepts and tribal tradition. Important decisions are made only after gaining the consensus of an inner circle of male members of the royal family. Generally, the process of consensus-building also includes the rest of the family, other key families (such as collateral branches of the Al Saʿud and the Al al-Shaykh, descendants of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab), the religious establishment, tribal shaykhs, senior government officials, and prominent merchant families.

The Council of Ministers was established in 1953 and its ranks have expanded so that the majority is made up of commoners, in addition to members of the Al Saʿud. The family continues to hold the key portfolios of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. The armed forces are divided into four services: army, air force, air defense, and navy. There is also a large national guard, which serves as a counterbalance to the regular armed forces and is said to be particularly loyal to the Al Saʿud. Saudi Arabia's orientation in foreign policy traditionally has been first to the Arab states and then to the Islamic world. Since the 1940s, the United States has been a key partner in oil exploitation, socioeconomic development, trade, and military and security matters. Staunchly anti-Communist, the kingdom established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union only in 1990 (earlier relations in the 1920s and 1930s were allowed to lapse).


The present kingdom is the third Saudi state established since an alliance was struck in 1744 between Islamic reformer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saʿud Al Saʿud, then the head of the small town of al-Dirʿiyya in Najd. Imbued with the religious fervor of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Saʿud and his successors were able to extend their authority over much of Arabia, thus creating the first Saudi state. However, their success, and especially the occupation of Mecca, aroused the anxiety of the Ottoman Empire, which instructed its viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to send an army to Arabia to sack al-Dirʿiyya in 1818, and the Al Saʿud family's seat was subsequently moved to Riyadh, where it has remained ever since. Saudi fortunes revived in the mid-nineteenth century under Turki ibn Abdullah, who founded the second Saudi state, and his son Faysal ibn Turki, who regained many of the territories won by his predecessors and added new ones. However, another disastrous period in the late nineteenth century saw the Al Saʿud forced to surrender Najd to a rival family, the Al Rashid of Haʾil, and flee to Kuwait.

The origins of the third Saudi state lie in a surprise attack by young Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman on Riyadh in 1902. With Riyadh restored to Al Saʿud control, Abd al-Aziz (commonly known in the West as Ibn Saʿud) was able to conquer the rest of southern Najd and most of the Eastern Province before the First World War. After the war, the Saudi leader first absorbed the Al Rashid state and then conquered the Hashimi kingdom in al-Hijaz. At the beginning of 1926, Abd al-Aziz was able to proclaim himself King of al-Hijaz and Sultan of Najd. Over the next decade, he gradually extended his boundaries to their present limits, being prevented from further expansion on all sides by British-protected states (apart from Yemen, with whom a border war was fought in 1934). In 1932, the name of the country was changed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The later years of King Abd al-Aziz's reign witnessed the infusion of oil income into a traditional society and the waste of much of it on consumer goods and the palaces of the Al Saʿud. Breaking with tradition, which held that succession should go to the strongest, King Abd al-Aziz appointed his weak son Saʿud as his heir instead of the more capable son Faisal. The early years of Saʿud's reign brought the kingdom to the brink of financial disaster, and his flirtation with Egypt's socialist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, did not prevent Egyptian intervention in Yemen in 1962. In 1964, an Al Saʿud family council, with the backing of the powerful religious establishment, deposed King Saʿud and named Faisal king. Faisal was able to continue the reforms
he already had instituted as prime minister and to lay the foundations of a modern government and social welfare system. Although he resisted Arab demands for a Saudi oil boycott of the West during the 1956 Arab-Israel War, he was unable to do so during the October 1973 war. The resultant shortage sent the price of oil soaring and put the kingdom in the center of the world stage.

In 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by a cousin, and his half-brother Khalid succeeded him, but Khalid left much of the day-to-day governing to his half-brother Fahd. When Khalid died in 1982, King Fahd inherited a country faced with much-reduced oil revenues and increasingly severe external challenges. The government suffered sixteen consecutive years of budget deficits before recording a surplus in 2000. The Iranian Revolution
(1979) and Iran-Iraq War (19801988) had refocused both Saudi and Western assessments of the principal threat to the kingdom away from the Soviet Union to a resurgent Iran. Saudi-Iranian relations remained troubled through the 1980s but improved through the 1990s. An even more serious threat emerged in August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and raised fears that it had designs on Saudi oil fields as well. Riyadh invited Arab and Western governments to participate in a coalition to drive the invading forces out of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm was launched from Saudi territory in early 1991 and accomplished the liberation of Kuwait and the destruction of much of Iraq's military and industrial capability. The kingdom participated fully in the subsequent economic sanctions against Iraq, although popular opinion increasingly turned against them.

The kingdom has relied heavily on its "special relationship" with the United States for more than fifty years. But ties were severely strained after the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001. Al-Qaʿida, a radical Islamist network established by a Saudi national, Osama bin Ladin, apparently orchestrated the attacks and recruited fifteen Saudis to be among the nineteen hijackers. In the following years, many in the United States claimed that the kingdom was not doing enough to stop the flow of funding to terrorist groups and that the country encouraged anti-American beliefs. The Saudi government strenuously denied these allegations and the Saudi and U.S. governments continued to have close official relations. A May 2003 terrorist attack on residential areas in Riyadh sparked a Saudi campaign to eradicate extremists in the kingdom, and a number of arrests and shootouts occurred over the succeeding months.

Riyadh's refusal to allow the United States to use military facilities in the kingdom during the 2003 war against Iraq prompted Washington to establish alternative bases in Qatar. By the end of that summer, all U.S. military detachments (apart from elements involved in training Saudi forces) were removed from the kingdom; this had been a key alQaʿida demand.

see also al al-shaykh family; al saʿud family; bin laden, osama; mecca; medina; muwahhidun; petroleum, oil, and natural gas; petroleum reserves and production; qaʿida, al-; shiʿism.


Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Helms, Christine Moss. The Cohesion of Saudi Arabia: Evolution of Political Identity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Holden, David, and Johns, Richard, with Buchan, James. The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982.

Kechichian, Joseph A. Succession in Saudi Arabia. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Niblock, Tim, ed. State, Society, and Economy in Saudi Arabia. London: Croon Helm, for the University of Exeter Centre for Arab Gulf Studies, 1982.

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

j. e. peterson

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Official name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Area: 1,960,582 square kilometers (756,984 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Jabal Sawdā' (3,133 meters/10,279 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 3 p.m. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 2,295 kilometers (1,426 miles) from east-southeast to west-northwest; 1,423 kilometers (884 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest

Land boundaries: 4,415 kilometers (2,743 miles) total boundary length; Iraq 814 kilometers (506 miles); Jordan 728 kilometers (452 miles); Kuwait 222 kilometers (138 miles); Oman 676 kilometers (420 miles); Qatar 60 kilometers (37.3 miles); United Arab Emirates 457 kilometers (284 miles); Yemen 1,458 kilometers (906 miles)

Coastline: 2,640 kilometers (1,640 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covers about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula and constitutes a land bridge connecting Africa with the Middle East. It is about three times as large as the state of Texas, and the third-largest country in Asia, after China and India. Because several of its borders are incompletely demarcated, however, its precise area is difficult to specify. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, and the nation ranks as the largest petroleum exporter. Its extensive coastlines on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea provide abundant shipping access through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.


Saudi Arabia has no territories or dependencies.


Saudi Arabia's desert climate is generally very dry and very hot. In winter, however, there can be frost and freezing temperatures. Day and night temperatures vary greatly. Two main climate extremes are the coastal lands and the interior. Coastal regions along the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf encounter high humidity and high temperatures, hot mists during the day, and a warm fog at night. In the interior, daytime temperatures from May to September can reach 54°C (129°F) and are among the highest recorded anywhere in the world. The climate is more moderate from October through April, with evening temperatures between 16°C and 21°C (61°F and 70°F). The prevailing winds are from the north. A southerly wind brings an increase in temperature and humidity, along with a Gulf storm known as kauf. A strong northwesterly wind, the shamal, blows in late spring and early summer.

Average annual rainfall is only 9 centimeters (3.5 inches). A year's rainfall may consist of one or two torrential outbursts that flood the wadis and quickly disappear into the sand. Most rain falls from November to May. The eastern coast is noted for heavy fogs, and humidity there can reach 90 percent. Between 3 and 5 centimeters (10 and 20 inches) of rain falls in the mountainous 'Asir area, where there is a summer monsoon. Much of the Rub' al-Khali is considered "hyper-arid," often going without rainfall for more than twelve consecutive months.


The country can be divided into six geographical regions: the Red Sea escarpment, from Hejaz in the north to 'Asir in the south; the Tihamah, a coastal plain that rises gradually from the sea to the mountains in the southeast; Nejd, the central plateau, which extends to the Tuwayq Mountains and further; and three sand deserts: the Ad Dahnā', the An-Nafūd, and, south of Nejd, the Rub' al-Khali Desert, one of the largest sand deserts in the world.


Two bodies of water border Saudi Arabia: the Persian (Arabian) Gulf to the east, and the Red Sea to the west. The Red Sea is the warmest and saltiest sea in the world. The Persian Gulf is the marginal offshoot of the Indian Ocean that lies between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, extending about 970 kilometers (600 miles) from the Shatt al Arab delta to the Strait of Hormuz. The gulf's width varies from a maximum of 338 kilometers (210 miles) to a minimum of 55 kilometers (34 miles) in the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman.

Seacoast and Undersea Features

The shallow gulf waters have very slow currents and a limited tidal range. There are practically no natural harbors along the Red Sea. The Red Sea eco-region is best known for the spectacular corals that live in the central and northern areas. Fewer coral species thrive in the Persian Gulf than in the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the entire Arabian Peninsula is fringed by some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world

Sea Inlets and Straits

The southeastern portion of Saudi Arabia's coast borders the Gulf of Bahrain and the Dawhat Salwa, an inlet of this gulf. The sea border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is an imaginary line drawn down the middle of the Dawhat Salwa.

Islands and Archipelagos

The Farasān Islands, in an archipelago in the Red Sea, are fringed by pristine coral reefs, sea-grass beds, and mangroves. Of the more than 120 islands, the largest are Farasān al Kabir, at 395 square kilometers (152 square miles); Sajid, at 156 square kilometers (60 square miles); and Zufaf, at 33 square kilometers (13 square miles). All are uninhabited.

Tarut Island in the Persian Gulf near Ras Tanura has the oldest town on the Arabian peninsula.

Coastal Features

Saudi Arabia's coast has no significant bays or capes. The Persian Gulf coast is extremely irregular and the shoreline is unstable. The Tihamah Plain borders the Red Sea; Jidda, which is located on this plain, is the chief port of entry for Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca. A flat, lowland coastal plain borders the Persian Gulf.


Except for artesian wells in the eastern oases, Saudi Arabia has no perennially existing freshwater, either pooled in lakes or flowing in rivers. Medina is the site of the largest and most important oasis in the Hejaz region. In the southern 'Asir, fertile wadis such as Wadi Bīshah and Wadi Tathlīth support Except oasis agriculture. Eastern Arabia is also known as Al Ahsa, or Al-Hasa, after the largest oasis in the country, which actually encompasses two neighboring oases and the town of Al-Hufūf.


In the northern Hejaz region, dry riverbeds (wadis) trace the courses of ancient rivers and contain water for a brief period following significant rainfall. The only consistent sources of inland water are oases, however. Oases are fertile areas of otherwise unfertile land.


At least one-third of the total area of Saudi Arabia is sandy desert. The Rub' al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) in the south is the largest desert region in the country. It consists of sand overlying gravel or gypsum plains, with a surface elevation that varies from 800 meters (2,624 feet) in the far southwest to near sea level in the northeast. Types of dunes include longitudinal dunes more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) long, moving dunes, crescent-shaped dunes (barchan), and enormous mountainous dunes. The northern counterpart of the Rub' al-Khali, the An-Nafūd, covers an area of about 57,000 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) with an elevation of about 1,000 meters (3, 280 feet). Longitudinal dunes here can reach heights of 90 meters (300 feet). The dunes are separated by valleys up to 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide. Connecting the Rub' al-Khali and An-Nafūd deserts is the Ad Dahnā' Desert, also called "the river of sand." The Ad Dahnā' connects to the An-Nafūd Desert by way of the Mazhur Desert.


The Tihamah Plain bordering the Red Sea is a salty tidal plain with an average width of only about 65 kilometers (40 miles). The flat, lowland coastal plain along the Persian Gulf is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide. The northern part is the Ad Dibdibah gravel plain; the southern section is a sandy desert called Al Jafurah. The salt flats of the Rub' al-Khali can harbor quicksand.


The Hejaz Mountains (with elevations from 910 to 2,740 meters/3,000 to 9,000 feet) rise sharply from the Red Sea and run parallel to the seacoast from north to south. Mount Lawz, at 2,580 meters (8,464 feet), rises in the far north of the Hejaz near the Red Sea and the neighboring country of Jordan. The northern range in the Hejaz seldom exceeds 2,100 meters (6,888 feet) and gradually decreases to about 600 meters (1,968 feet) around Mecca. Close to Mecca, the Hejaz coastal escarpment is separated by a gap. In the plateau region of Nejd, the Ajā' Mountains are just south of the An-Nafūd desert. The highest mountains (over 2,740 meters/9,000 feet) are in 'Asir in the south. This region extends along the Red Sea for 370 kilometers (230 miles) and inland about 290 to 320 kilometers (180 to 200 miles). Saudi Arabia's highest peak, Jabal Sawdā', is found here; this summit reaches 3,133 meters (10,276 feet).


The Tuwayq escarpment800 kilometers (496 miles) of spectacular limestone cliffs, plateaus, and canyons eroded by wind and sandcuts across the Ad Dahnā' Desert. Its steep west face rises anywhere from 100 to 250 meters (328 to 820 feet) above the Nejd Plateau.


East of Hejaz and 'Asir lie the central uplands of the Nejd, a large, mainly rocky plateau with widths ranging from about 1,520 meters (5,000 feet) in the west to about 610 meters (2,000 feet) in the east. The Nejd is scarred by extensive lava beds (harrat ), which are evidence of fairly recent volcanic activity. Al-Hasa, a low plateau to the east, gives way to the low-lying gulf region. The area north of the An-Nafūd, Badiyat ash Sham, is an upland plateau that is geographically part of the Syrian Desert. The Wādī as Sirhān, a large basin that lies 984 feet (300 meters) below the surrounding plateau, is a vestige of an ancient inland sea. East of the Ad Dahnā' lies the rocky, barren As-Summān Plateau, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) wide and descending in elevation from about 400 meters (1,312 feet) in the west to about 240 meters (787 feet) in the east. Separated from the As-Summān Plateau by the Ad Dahnā' is the Al-'Aramah Plateau, which runs right up to Riyadh.


More than 40 percent of Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf coastline consists of land reclaimed by dredging and sedimentation. The completion of the breakwater, or mole, at the port of Ras Tanura in 1945 allowed tankers to dock on the gulf coast. This site is still the largest oil port in the world. Over two hundred dams capture water from seasonal flooding for drinking and irrigation. Among the largest are those at the following wadis: Jizan, Fatima, Bisha, and Najran. In fact, the dam at Wadi Bisha is one of the largest in the Middle East.



Long, David E. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Nance, Paul J. The Nance Museum: A Journey into Traditional Saudi Arabia. St. Louis, MO: Nance Museum Publications, 1999.

Walker, Dale. Fool's Paradise. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Web Sites

Lonely Planet: Destination Saudi Arabia. (accessed April 14, 2003).

Saudi Arabian Information Resource. (accessed April 14, 2003).

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Country statistics


2,149,690sq km (829,995sq mi) 22,147,500

capital (population):

Riyadh (3,627,700)


Absolute monarchy

ethnic groups:

Saudi 82%, Yemeni 10%, other Arab 3%


Arabic (official)


Wahhabi (Sunni) Muslim 95%, Shi'a Muslim 5%


Saudi riyal = 100 halalah

Arabic kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula, sw Asia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies about 75% of the Arabian peninsula in sw Asia. More than 95% of the land is desert. The Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea lie off the w coast. The w coastal lands divide into two main regions: the Hejaz (Arab. ‘boundary’) plain in the nw, which includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and Saudi Arabia's main port, Jiddah. In the sw is the Asir (Arab. ‘inaccessible’) highland region, which contains the country's highest point, Sawda, at 3133m (10,279ft). The Tihama is a narrow, fertile, sw coastal plain. In the centre lies the Najd (Arab. ‘plateau’), which contains Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh. The plateau descends e to the Al Hasa lowlands. This region is the centre of the Saudi oil industry, and contains Saudi Arabia's largest oasis. In the n is the Nafud Desert. The bleak Rub' al Khali (‘Empty Quarter’), the world's largest expanse of sand, dominates the s of Saudi Arabia.

Climate and Vegetation

Saudi Arabia has a hot, dry climate. Summer temperatures in Riyadh often exceed 40°C (104°F). The Asir highlands have an average rainfall of 300–500mm (12in–20in). The rest of the country has less than 100mm (4in). Grass and shrub provide pasture on the w highlands and parts of the central plateau. The deserts contain few plants, except around oases.


Mecca is the holiest place in Islam. It was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in ad 570, and is the site of the Kaaba. In the 18th century, the Wahhabi (a strict Islamic sect) gained the allegiance of the Saud family, who formed an independent state in Nejd. With the support of the Bedouin, the Wahhabi rapidly conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. In the 1810s, Ottoman Turks conquered the region.

Abdul Aziz ibn Saud laid the foundations of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. In 1902, Ibn Saud captured Riyadh, and by 1906 captured the whole of the Nejd. In 1913, the Turkish province of Al Hasa also fell. In 1920, Ibn Saud seized the Asir, and by 1925 he gained the whole of the Hejaz. In 1932, the territories combined to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud became King, ruling in accordance with the sharia of Wahhabi Islam.

In 1936 the US company Arabian Standard Oil, which later became the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), discovered oil. In 1945, Saudi Arabia joined the Arab League. In 1953, Ibn Saud died, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud, who ruled with the aid of Crown Prince Faisal. The overthrow of the Yemeni royal family by pro-Nasser republican forces heightened Saud's concern at the growing power of Nasser's Egypt. Saud sent troops to Yemen to aid the monarchists. In 1964, Saud was overthrown and Faisal became king. In 1970, Saudi troops withdrew from Yemen. In 1971, British troops withdrew from the Gulf. Faisal supported the creation of the United Arab Emirates and sought to increase national ownership of Saudi's oil wealth. In 1974, Saudi Arabia agreed to a 60% share in Aramco.

In 1975, King Faisal was assassinated, and Crown Prince Khalid became king. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, especially in Iran, challenged Khalid's conservativism. In 1979, Shi'ite fundamentalists captured the Great Mosque in Mecca. The rebellion was brutally suppressed. Saudi Arabia's support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) led to Iranian attacks on Saudi shipping. In 1982, Khalid died and was succeeded by Prince Fahd. In 1990, more than 1400 pilgrims died in a stampede during the Hajj. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, King Fahd invited coalition forces to protect it against possible Iraqi aggression. Saudi air and land forces played a significant role in the Allied victory in the Gulf War (1991).


The King retains supreme authority, although a 60-man Consultative Council of royal nominees has been in existence since 1963. In 1996, King Fahd suffered a stroke and control of the government passed to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah. In the same year, the Council's president ruled out elections on Islamic grounds. Saudi Arabia has no formal constitution. In May 2003, suicide bombers suspected of having links with al-Qaeda killed 35 people in the capital Riyadh.


Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer and exporter of crude oil (2000 GDP per capita US$10,500). It has c.25% of the world's known oil reserves, and oil and oil products make up 85% of its exports. Oil revenue has been used to develop education, services, light industry, farming, and to purchase military hardware. The construction of desalination plants played an important part in improving the supply of freshwater. In the mid-1980s, world oil prices slumped and many infrastructure projects were abandoned. Agriculture employs 48% of the workforce, although only 1% of the land is fertile. Crops grown in Asir and at oases include dates and other fruits, vegetables, and wheat. Some nomadic livestock herders remain. Mecca is visited by more than 1.5 million pilgrims a year, making a vital addition to state revenue.

Political map

Physical map


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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Culture Name

Saudi Arabian

Alternative Names

Arabia, Saudi, North Arabia, Desert Arabia; informally, the Kingdom


Identification. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (in Arabic, al-Mamlaka al-Arabiya as-Saudiya ) occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, the original homeland of the Arab people and of Islam. The cultural identities Saudi Arabian citizens express are principally those of Muslim and Arab, linking them to millions of people beyond the nation's borders. They also identify with the contemporary state and its national culture; the country's name links the ruling dynasty, Al Saud, with the state's cultural and geographic setting.

Identities connected to the traditional ways of life of the Bedouin and of oasis-dwelling farmers, fishers, craftspeople and artisans, and merchants, caravaneers, and long-distance traders remain in force even as economic changes have transformed or ended those ways of life. Regional and kin-based tribal and clan identities are shared among Saudi Arabian citizens.

Location and Geography. Saudi Arabia occupies 868,730 square miles (2,250,000 square kilometers). It is bounded on the east by the Arabian (Persian) Gulf; on the west by the Red Sea; to the south and southeast by Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar; and to the north and northeast by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia has a hot desert climate with high humidity on the coastal fringes. Rainfall is scarce except in the area of Asir, where it is sufficient for agriculture on terraced farms and upper slopes and alluvial planes.

Rainfall is adequate for the nomadic herding of sheep, goats, and camels and for the sustenance of nondomesticated desert fauna, but crop production is dependent on irrigation from underground aquifers. Saudi Arabia has no rivers or permanent bodies of water other than artificial lakes and pools. Wadis, the dry beds of ancient rivers, sometimes flow with runoff from downpours and seep with underground water.

Saudi Arabia has four main regions. Najd, the geographic center and political and cultural core, is a vast plateau that combines rocky and sandy areas with isolated mountains and wadi systems. Agricultural oases are the sites of villages, towns, and cities. This area's rangelands have long sustained nomadic pastoral production and are the homelands of the main Bedouin communities. Najd is bordered to the west by the regions of Hijaz and Asir along the Red Sea. A narrow coastal plane known as Tihama is predominant in the south, while a mountain chain with a steep western escarpment runs through these areas.

Hijaz has strong and ancient urban traditions and is the location of Mecca (Makkah) and Medina (al-Madinah). Other important Hijazi cities are Jiddah, a seaport, a commercial center, and formerly diplomatic capital; Taif, summer capital; and Yanbu, a newly developing industrial and longtime port city. Hijaz has agricultural oases, and a history of tribally organized nomadic pastoralism.

Asir has several cities and some nomadic presence, yet it is rural, with farmers living in settled communities largely organized in accordance with tribal and clan identities. The seaports of Hijaz and Asir also have populations traditionally oriented toward the sea, for trade or fishing, a characteristic they share with the Eastern Province.

The largest oasis, al-Ahsa (al-Hasa), is watered by artesian wells and springs in the interior of the Eastern Province and provides dates and other crops. The Eastern Province is also the main source of oil wealth. Oil and gas wells, refineries and other processing and distribution plants, and the headquarters of the national oil industry are located there. Trade and urban centers have long existed in this area, but the tricity complex of Dammam, al-Khubar, and Dhahran has been predominant since the 1960s, while Jubail is becoming a large industrial city.

Each geographic region has diverse local customs and histories. However, all the regions share traditional ways of life in a harsh desert environment and from a long history that includes the creation of the contemporary state and its culture in the last three centuries. They also share a common history of development since the 1950s, including a vast oil-revenue-induced boom between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, military events that led to the presence of foreign troops on Saudi Arabian soil in the 1990s, and the process of "globalization" at the end of the twentieth century.

Demography. The population in 1992 was about 16,900,000 and was increasing at a rate of 3.3 percent annually. A population of twenty million was projected for the year 2000, almost triple the roughly seven million enumerated in the early 1970s. The 1992 population consisted of 12,300,000 Saudi Arabian citizens and 4,600,000 resident foreigners, of whom about half were other Arabs. Just over three-quarters of the population was urban, with the remainder classified as rural, including the few remaining nomads. More than half the citizens were less than 20 years old.

Linguistic Affiliation. Arabic is the language of all Saudi Arabian citizens and about half the immigrants. Classical Arabic (fusha ) in its Koranic, high literary, and modern standard forms is used for prayers and religious rituals, poetry, lectures, speeches, broadcasts, written communications, and other formal purposes. Conversationally, people use colloquial Arabic (amiya ). There are many subdialects and internal variants. English is the main second language.

Symbolism. The national flag is green, the color of Islam, and bears a white inscription that translates as, "There is No God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." A white saber, the sword of Islam, was added in 1906 and symbolizes the military successes of Islam and of Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, the founder of the contemporary state. The national logo depicts two crossed swords and a date palm tree. The national day is 23 September, marking the unification in 1932 of the regions of Najd and its dependencies, Hijaz, and Asir to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The national day is celebrated with speeches, receptions, and school-related activities but usually lacks pomp and ceremony. The king, leading princes, and government ministers often are seen on television performing their culturally prescribed roles.

The state and people engage in the creation of a national cultural heritage through the preservation or reconstruction of elements from the past that are seen as embodying the traditional culture. Examples are the preservation of old houses and mosques, the use of traditional motifs in new buildings, the holding of camel races, and the setting up in museums and hotels of tents with rugs and paraphernalia typical of traditional Bedouin tented households.

The national culture also embraces the new and the modern: a national airline (Saudia), oil industry and petrochemical installations, wheat growing in the irrigated desert, skyscrapers, shopping malls with artificial waterfalls and ice-skating rinks, and supermodern highways, ports, and airports. The contemporary consumer culture includes automobiles, pickup trucks, videocassette recorders, multi-channel televisions, and telephones as well as computers and mobile phones.

Other dimensions of the national culture and its symbolism include performances such as the ardah, where men dance waving swords in the air; the recitation of epic poems about historical events related to tribal affairs; and national sports competitions. The distinctive clothing worn by both men and women conforms with Muslim dress codes that prescribe modesty for both sexes but especially women.

Saudi Arabia's most powerful cultural symbols are those linked to Islam. The ritual celebrations that have the strongest hold on people's imaginations are the holy month of Ramadan, the holy pilgrimage (haj ) to Mecca, and the Muslim feasts of Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha, which occur after the end of Ramadan and in conjunction with the pilgrimage, respectively. Other important rituals are the more private social celebrations of weddings, visits (especially among women) for joyous and sad occasions, extended family and clan reunions and other kin-based socializing, and the expression of condolences and participation in funerals.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Saudi Arabia's cultural roots lie deep in antiquity. Although remote from centers of ancient civilizations, Arabia's people had a multiplicity of contacts with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq and with the Roman and Byzantine empires. Ancient Arabia was home to states, cities, and other manifestations of complex cultures and societies. Of particular significance to ancient Arabia was the domestication of the dromedary (one-humped camel) in the southern part of the peninsula between 3000 and 2500 b.c.e. By 1000 b.c.e., camels were important in the lucrative caravan trade, especially for the transport of incense, between southern Arabia and markets in the north. The invention of the north Arabian camel saddle between about 500 and 100 b.c.e. allowed tribally organized camel raisers to enhance their power and influence.

Armed camel raisers did not subsist on their own in desert Arabia but depended on foods produced by farmers in the region's oases and on a wide range of products, including weapons, manufactured by local craftspeople. The Bedouin obtained some of their necessities through tribute in return for their protection of farmers and craftspeople. Market exchange also existed, and the output of nomadic and sedentary producers was marketed locally and, in the case of camels and horses, through long-distance trade.

Markets and their specialized personnel of merchants and traders are as indigenous to the culture of Arabia as are Bedouin camel raisers and oasis-dwelling farmers. Knowledge of the state as an institution has also long been present, although the exercise of effective state power was often lacking in the past.

The foundation and legitimacy of the state are linked to Islam, which is itself historically linked to Arabia. Muslims believe that God (Allah) sent His final revelation "in clear Arabic," in the form of the holy Koran, through His Messenger, Muhammad. This occurred first in and around Mecca and then in Medina beginning in 622 c.e., which marks the first year of the Islamic era (1 a.h.). By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, almost all the tribal and local communities in Arabia had declared their loyalty to him as a political leader and most had accepted Islam. The process of conversion was completed under the leadership of Islam's first caliph, Abu Bakr. The religion was then carried by Arabian converts throughout the Middle East and north Africa.

Islam brought not only a new religion but a new way of life that included innovations in legal and political concepts and practices and a new identity that was universalistic and cosmopolitan. The new Muslim identity, politics, and laws transcended the social and cultural borders of existing communities that had been organized as localities or kinbased tribes.

National Identity. Contemporary Saudi Arabia arose from a process of state development that began in the late seventeenth century, when leaders of the Bani Khalid tribe created a state in the al-Ahsa area of today's Eastern Province. Other attempts at state building involved the Al Rashid and Al Idrisi dynasties in Najd and Asir, respectively. However, the most effective movement was initiated in the late 1730s by Sheikh Muhammad Al Abd al-Wahab (died 1792). After studying in the Hijaz and Iraq, he returned to Najd and preached and wrote against practices that deviated from Islam. He stressed the unity of God and urged his followers, who became known as muwahidun ("unitarians"), to end polytheistic practices and adhere strictly to the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet).

In 1744, the sheikh swore an oath with Muhammad Al Saud, the emir of ad-Diriyah, that they would collaborate to establish a state organized and run according to Islamic principles. Their goal was religious reform, a phenomenon that involved a new leadership structure that placed Al Saud in the position of umara (princes, rulers) and Al Abd al-Wahab (also known as Al Sheikh) in the position of ulama (learned in religion). The reform movement also involved military struggle, preaching, the establishment of Koranic schools, the setting up of new communities, and the creation of a bureaucratic state that ruled in Najd from 1765 and in Hijaz from 1803 until 1818, when it was defeated by an Ottoman army from Egypt. This state was reestablished in the mid-nineteenth century, overthrown by Al Rashid, and re-created through reconquest and religious reform under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Al Saud beginning in 1902 and culminating with the declaration of the present kingdom in 1932.

Never a colony of a foreign power or a province of the Ottoman Empire, the Saudi Arabian state resulted from an indigenous local process of sociopolitical change and religious reform. Some think of that state as having a strong tribal dimension, in part because the Al Saud are of tribal origins. However, merchants provided loans and financial assistance, preachers and teachers built a consciousness among Muslims and imparted religious knowledge, and jurists and bureaucrats labored to carry out the work of a state without regard to tribal identity.

The legitimacy of the state is derived from Islam, along with the will of the citizens, who swear an oath of allegiance (bayah ) to the ruler. The constitution is the Koran, and Sharia (Islamic law) is the law of the land. The ruler has the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," which implies an Islamic role, yet he also carries the title of malik ("king"), which may be seen as symbolic of the state's technical, administrative, and policing functions.

Ethnic Relations. As Muslims, Saudi Arabians participate in a community (ummah ) in which issues of race, ethnicity, and national origin should be of no significance and never form the basis for social action, political behavior, and economic organization. The identity of Muslim transcends the borders of states and ideally takes precedence over all other identities.

Socially, however, the concept of origin (asl )is strong among many Saudi Arabians. Some people, mainly in Hijaz, are recognized descendants of Muhammad and are known as Ashraf. Many others throughout the kingdom assert patrilineal descent from eponymous ancestors from ancient Arab tribes. Still others stress Arabian origins but without tribal connections. However, Saudi citizenship embraces people with historical origins outside the Arabian Peninsula. Considerations of origin are important markers and influence social interaction, including marriage, but do not translate directly into economic or power differentials in the national society. Moreover, the social significance of such considerations is waning, especially among younger people.

The more prominent cultural division within Saudi Arabian society is between citizens and immigrants. That division sometimes is muted by the common bonds of Islam and/or Arabism, yet many immigrants are neither Muslim nor Arab. In these cases, religious, linguistic, and other cultural barriers accentuate the social cleavage between the local person and the foreigner. Moreover, class divisions separate citizens from the many immigrants who are low-skilled workers. The immigrants come temporarily and mostly as individuals without families. They are thus in the society but not of it, and little effort is made to assimilate them.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

In 1950, roughly 40 percent of the population was nomadic and resided in tents in highly dispersed patterns on vast rangelands, where they migrated with herds of camels, sheep, and goats to seasonal pastures and for access to water. Another 40 percent lived in villages in the rural areas of oases or the Asir highlands and worked mainly in agriculture. The remaining 20 percent were urbanites in the old cities of Mecca, Medina, Jiddah, Taif, Abha, Buraydah, Unayzah, Ha'il, Hufuf, and Riyadh. In 1992, three-quarters of the population was classified as urban.

Major changes accompanied the growth of the oil industry in the 1950s. New cities developed rapidly, while older ones increased in size. Nomadic Bedouin settled in villages and in and around cities, and villagers left their communities for rapidly growing urban areas. This geographic mobility was accompanied by occupational mobility as Bedouin and villagers worked as wage laborers or small-scale traders and taxi drivers and then became government and private sector employees, professionals, and businesspeople. People from old cities also moved to newly developing cities and experienced occupational change.

The new cities and the transformed areas of old ones depend on the use of automobiles. They sprawl over large areas, have neighborhoods separated by open spaces, and are linked by wide thoroughfares, freeways, and ring roads. The new urban fabric contrasts sharply with urban scenes that lingered into the 1970s. The old cities were walled and had compact residential areas with mazes of narrow paths, parts of which were covered by the upper stories of houses. Most houses had inward-looking courtyards, and some used wind catches to circulate air. The old cities also had date palm gardens with wells and other greenery between and among neighborhoods. Mosques were within easy walking distance from residences, and there was always a main central mosque, a major market area, and a principal seat of government that was usually part of a fort.

Similarities in the social use of domestic space transcended the categories of nomad, villager, and urbanite and continue today. The tents of nomads and the permanent houses of others were divided into sections for men and women, which also served as the family living quarters. Among the nomads, men sat on kilims and carpets around a hearth outside the front of the tent to visit, drink coffee and tea, and eat. Boys past puberty and male visitors slept there. Women made similar use of the space set aside for their visiting in the tents.

The same pattern of gender-segregated space continues to exist in the homes of sedentary people. Modern housing often has separate entrances and separate reception areas or living rooms for each gender. In many houses, people sit on carpets or cushions alongside the walls of the room, and most of those houses have areas with chairs and sofas around the walls. The central space of the room is left open.

People in both cities and smaller communities now live mainly in individual dwellings with exterior surrounding walls. Although apartment buildings exist, they usually are inhabited by immigrants. The tents and old houses usually housed extended families of three or more generations. Although nuclear family households are increasingly the norm, relatives continue to cluster together, and it is not uncommon for brothers to locate their dwellings on adjacent lots or inside a common compound. Many immigrants live in camps specifically created for them or in abandoned housing in the older parts of towns; some guest workers live on farms.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The traditional staple foods were dates; goat, camel, and cow's milk; ghee, cheese, and other milk products; bread and other foods from wheat, millet, and barley; squash, eggplant, okra, pumpkin, beans, leeks, onions, and a few other vegetables; mint, coriander, parsley, and cumin; and occasionally mutton, goat, or camel meat and, on the coasts, fish. Elderly people remember meals of the past as simple but adequate, without a morsel wasted. They regularly ate at home and started the day with a breakfast of coffee and a few dates soon after the dawn prayer. A meal of dates, milk and/or milk products, and bread was served at midmorning. The last and main meal often was taken before the sunset prayer and consisted of a hot grain-based dish, vegetables among sedentary people in oases, milk among the nomadic Bedouin, rarely some meat, and dates.

Meals today are eaten later, and the foods are more copious and elaborate. Cheese, yogurt, jam, eggs, beans, and bread may be consumed around eight a.m. A lunch of mutton or chicken on a plate of rice with side dishes of vegetables and salads followed by fresh fruit is shared by family members around 2:30 p.m. The evening meal is usually a lighter version of lunch and is eaten well after eight o'clock. Less common today are dates, grain-based dishes, and milk. Rice has become ubiquitous, and chicken very common. Light roasted Arabic coffee without sugar but spiced with cardamom remains the national beverage; tea is also popular.

Foods that are taboo are those forbidden by Islam, notably pork and wine and other alcoholic beverages. Restaurants were uncommon and considered somewhat improper in the past, but a wide spectrum now serves Middle Eastern, north African, Italian, Indian and Pakistani, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and other cuisines in addition to American and Middle Eastern fast food.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. The arrival of a guest at one's home is an event that leads to a special meal in honor of the visitor. Traditional etiquette required that sheep, goat, or camel be sacrificially slaughtered, and this is still often done. However, chicken may be substituted, and in many urban households meat dishes have replaced eating the whole animal. Major ritual occasions associated with Islamic feasts, weddings, reunions of family and kin, and other social events still require the sacrificial slaughter of sheep or, less commonly, goats or young camels.

For these events, meat is boiled in huge pots, and part of the soup is passed among the guests, with the rest poured over large trays of rice on top of which the cooked meat is placed. Traditionally, male guests and older men gather around the tray and eat first, using the right hand; they are followed by younger men and finally boys. Women and girls eat separately, often food prepared specially for them but sometimes eating what the men and boys have not consumed. Multiple rounds of coffee and tea are served before and after the meal, and incense is burned.

Basic Economy. Saudi Arabia produced all its staple foods until the 1940s. Coffee, tea, sugar, cardamom, rice, cloth, and some manufactured items were the main imports. Exports consisted of dates, camels, horses, and sheep, with western India, Iraq, greater Syria, and Egypt being the main centers of long-distance trade. Saudi Arabia also received a modest income related to the holy pilgrimage and other travel to shrines. Generally, the country was self-reliant, but for a smaller population and at a lower consumption level. The majority of the population worked in food production; however, most people depended on local exchange for food and other items. Today, a vastly richer country is dependent on international trade for much of its food and almost everything else.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia invested heavily in new commercial agriculture. Spectacular increases have been achieved in the production of wheat, sorghum, barley, poultry and eggs, and new vegetable and fruit crops. However, much of this expansion depends on the use of fossil water (not replenishible), guest workers, imported machinery, and state subsidies. Saudi Arabia has regained self-sufficiency in wheat, and range-based livestock raising is increasingly commercial in orientation. Many Saudi Arabians still work in agriculture and ranching, but as owners and managers rather than workers; some are absentee owners, and many have other occupations and other sources of income.

Land Tenure and Property. Land developed for agricultural, residential, commercial, and industrial uses that has been demarcated is usually owned as private property (mulk ) and can be bought and sold freely. Some property, however, may be held as a trust (waqf ) for the support of a religious institution or an owner's descendants. Nondemarcated, undeveloped land in the desert belongs to the state, but traditional rights of access to rangeland and the ownership of water wells dug by nomads or their ancestors are informally attributed to lineages and clans in Bedouin communities. Much land in older settlements is encumbered by informal but powerful ancestral claims of ownership and tenure.

Commercial Activities. Saudi Arabia has banks, foreign exchange houses, and gold and jewelry shops; import houses and agencies of international companies; engineering and contracting firms; supermarkets, grocery stores, butcheries, and bakeries; hotels and restaurants; coffeehouses (for men only); and retail firms selling clothing, home wares, electronics, automobiles, and other consumer items. There are tailors, small repair shops, and other service shops.

Major Industries. The Saudi Arabian oil industry began in 1933, when Americans obtained concessions to explore for oil. Commercial quantities of "black gold" were discovered in 1938, but development of the industry was interrupted by World War II. The Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was formed in 1944, and the industry's expansion followed rapidly. Saudi Arabia has more than 261 billion barrels of proven oil reservesmore than a fourth of the world totaland perhaps a trillion barrels of potentially recoverable oil. It is the world's leading oil producer and exporter, has the world's greatest capacity for oil production, and has the world's fifth largest proven reserves of natural gas. Saudi Arabia also has large and expanding refinery projects and an ambitious program to develop petrochemical production. In the late 1990s, oil revenues accounted for 85 percent of export earnings and 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Gradual nationalization of the oil industry started in the 1970s. Control and ownership shifted to the state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) for crude production, refining, and marketing. Petrochemical production falls under the Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), while much of the downstream parts of the industry are controlled by state companies. The state holds title to all the country's mineral resources, and the oil industry as a whole is governed by the Supreme Petroleum Council headed by the king.

Trade. The bulk of exports are crude oil, refined products, and natural gas liquids. The main customers are Japan and other Asian countries, western Europe, and the United States. Aside from military items, the principal imports include machinery, appliances, electrical equipment, foodstuffs, chemical products, jewelry and metals, and transport items. The major source of imports is the European Union, followed by the United States, and Japan, with only 3 to 4 percent from other Middle Eastern countries.

Division of Labor. Unskilled manual work and that of servants and nannies is performed almost exclusively by immigrants. Medium- to high-skilled private sector salaried employment has also been dominated by guest workers. Saudi Arabian citizens prevail in government employment and ownership and management positions in business enterprises. A process of "Saudization" of the modern workforce has been a national goal since the 1980s. With rapidly rising levels of higher education and the local development of specialized expertise, young Saudi Arabians increasingly have taken on positions requiring advanced professional knowledge. Economic and demographic forces have contributed to the replacement of immigrants by local citizens in middle-level private sector jobs.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. A major social division is that between guest workers and local citizens. The working class is largely composed of temporary immigrants, who also occupy middle-class positions and a few positions in the upper class.

Major variations in income and accumulated wealth exist, with the major categories including the super-rich, the very rich, and the rich alongside a large middle-income group and some with limited incomes. Only small pockets of poverty persist. A strong ideology of egalitarianism is traditional among Saudi Arabians, whose social and verbal patterns of interaction stress equality and siblinghood rather than status differentiation. However, degrees of luxury vary greatly. Differences in lifestyle are increasing as wealthy elites interact less commonly with middle-class people. Common attitudes, beliefs, and practices are shared across economic divides, which also are bridged by ties of kinship and religion.

Political Life

Government. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy whose king serves as both head of state and head of government. The Koran is the constitution. Legislation and other regulations are promulgated by royal decree or ministerial decree sanctioned by the king. The monarch appoints cabinet ministers, governors of provinces, senior military officers, and ambassadors. He is also commander in chief of the armed forces and the final court of appeal with the power of pardon. Since the rule of King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud (died 1953), the kings have all come from among King Abd al-Aziz's sons, a provision that has been extended to include his grandsons.

The government also consists of the Royal Divan, which includes the king's private office; advisers for domestic, religious, and international issues; the chief of protocol; and the heads of the office of Bedouin affairs, along with the department of religious research, missionary activities, and guidance and the committees for the propagation of virtue and prevention of vice. The king holds court in the divan, where citizens can make requests or express complaints.

The Council of Ministers is the main executive organ and is composed of the king, the crown prince, several royal ministers of state without portfolio, other ministers of state, the heads of twenty ministries and the national guard, several main provincial governors, and the heads of the monetary agency and the petroleum and mineral organization. The kingdom has a large civil service that began to expand rapidly in the early 1970s and employed an estimated 400,000 persons in the early 1990s. Saudi Arabia has fourteen provinces, each governed by an emir, usually from the royal family, who reports to the minister of the interior.

Leadership and Political Officials. There are no political parties, but the royal family is a large grouping with significant political influence. It consists of about twenty thousand people and has several main branches and clans. Some princes are especially influential in politics, while others are active in business. The ulama also play important leadership roles and consist of members of the Al Sheikh family and several thousand religious scholars, qadis (judges), lawyers, seminary teachers, and imams (prayer leaders) of mosques. Business and merchant families often exert political influence, but there are no labor unions or syndicates for professional groups. Opposition groups exist outside the country. Political upheavals, some of them violent, have taken place, yet the political system has remained relatively stable over decades of rapid economic, social, and demographic change.

Social Problems and Control. Adherence to Islamic values and maintenance of social stability in the context of rapid economic change have been consistent goals of Saudi Arabia's development plans. Religion and society combine to foster significant social control. A powerful deterrent to deviant behavior is that such behavior brings shame to one's family and kin and is considered sinful. Crimes related to alcohol and drugs and to sexual misconduct sometimes are linked to rapid modernization. Theft is rare, and other economic crimes are relatively uncommon, with the exception of smuggling. Assault and murder are limited mainly to segments of tribal communities and usually involve issues of honor and revenge.

The justice system is based on the Sharia, which defines many crimes and specifies punishments. Crimes not specifically identified in the Sharia are defined on the basis of analogy and often are punished by prison sentences. Sharia-prescribed punishments usually have a physical component. An individual arrested on a criminal charge is detained in a police station until a judgment is rendered by a court of first instance presided over by one or more qadis. A court of cassation, or appeals court, also exists, and the king functions as a final court of appeal. A person found not guilty is released. If a physical punishment is prescribed, it is carried out in a public place, usually outside a main mosque on Friday, where the criminal's name and ancestral names are called out loudly for all to hear and where the shame is said to be more painful than the physical blow. Prison sentences, typical for cases involving drugs, are less public. Foreigners convicted of crimes are punished and then deported.

Islam is strict about issues of law and order and rigorous in the use of witnesses. For a man to be convicted of theft, four Muslims must swear a religious oath that they saw the theft take place. Alternatively, an individual may confess. Physical punishment usually is applied only to serious repeat offenders. The state employs the police, supports the qadis and the court system, provides the prisons, and assures that maximum media attention is given to punishments.

Military Activity. Saudi Arabia maintains an army, navy, air force, coast guard, national guard, and frontier guard with a combined total of about two hundred thousand men. These all-volunteer forces have state-of-the-art equipment and a reputation for professionalism.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

The giving of alms or a tithe (zakat ) is one of the five pillars of Islam. This religious obligation sometimes is paid as a tax to Islamic states. Considerable private donations are made to philanthropic societies that address the changing needs of the poor and the handicapped. Other private voluntary organizations deal with community needs, establish sports and cultural clubs, and contribute to development programs that complement state activities. These associations normally are registered with the ministry of social affairs and often receive financial support from the state in addition to contributions from citizens.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Strict gender segregation is sanctioned by the state and society. Males and females who are not not barred from marriage by incest rules should not interact in individual or group settings. Women may work outside the home in settings where they do not have contact with unrelated men. Women are employed in girls' schools and the women's sections of universities, social work and development programs for women, banks that cater to female clients, medicine and nursing for women, television and radio programming, and computer and library work. Sections of markets are set aside for women sellers. However, only about 7 percent of Saudi Arabia's formal workforce is female.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Men have more rights than do women. Women are not allowed to drive; cannot travel abroad without the permission or presence of a male guardian (mahram ); are dependent on fathers, brothers, or husbands to conduct almost all their private and public business; and have to wear a veil and remain out of public view. However, women can own property in their own names and invest their own money in business deals. Women's status is high in the family, especially in the roles of mothers and sisters. Significant numbers of women have had high levels of success in academia, literary production, business, and other fields, yet their achievements go publicly unremarked and they are barred from most aspects of public life.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage was between paternal first cousins or other patrilineally related kin. It was customary for potential spouses not to meet before the wedding night, and marriages had to be arranged by fathers, mothers, and other relatives. These practices are changing slowly and unevenly, but the tendency is toward fewer close-cousin marriages and for the couple to communicate with each other before the wedding. Parents still arrange marriages but are more likely to manage indirectly and from the background. Men are allowed to have four wives at a time as long as they can treat them equally, but polygyny is uncommon in most of the population. Marriage is considered a necessary part of life, and almost all adults marry. Marriage is usually a costly affair. Divorce is relatively easy for men and difficult for women. Divorce rates are high, and remarriage is common, especially for men.

Domestic Unit. In traditional residence pattern, a bride joined her husband in his father's household. Authority was held by the husband's father, and the new wife was under the control of her mother-in-law. Neolocal residence is now the norm, or at least the ideal, for newly married couples. In these smaller conjugal families, the roles of husbands and wives feature greater equality and more sharing of responsibilities. Authority formally rests with the husband, who also has the religiously sanctioned duty of providing for the needs of his wife and children.

Inheritance. The stipulations of Islam are widely followed in the inheritance of property. Sons inherit twice the share of daughters from their fathers. Provisions exist for a widow to inherit a small portion, but sons are enjoined to support their mothers, especially widowed or divorced mothers. Custom, but not the Sharia, allows immobile property to be inherited intact by male descendants; in such cases, daughters are usually given a "share" of a potential inheritance in money or other items when they marry.

Kin Groups. Kinship is patrilineal, and women continue to remain members of their kin groups after marriage. Among Bedouin and many rural settlers, kin groups identified by ancestral names in larger aggregations include lineages, clans, and tribes and have major social significance. Genealogy is of great interest; although corporate kin groups have largely ceased to exist, many people continue to identify with and take pride in their lineage, clan, and tribal names and descent.


Child Rearing and Education. Mothers used to give birth at home, perhaps with the assistance of a midwife. Infants were cared for by their mothers, who carried them everywhere and nursed them. Other women in extended households, including longtime domestic servants, participated actively in rearing children, teaching them Arabian culture and mores. Fathers and uncles and grandfathers did not take part in child care but played with the children, kissed them, and taught them genealogies and morality. They taught them generosity and hospitality by example.

Intense family and kin-based socialization at home is now mainly a memory. Birth takes place at a hospital, and infant boys are circumcised there before going home (girls are not circumcised). A foreign maid or nanny who may speak little or no Arabic often does much of the work of child rearing. This is an issue that troubles many Saudi Arabians. Breast-feeding sometimes is rejected for not being modern. While much visiting goes on among relatives, conjugal family households today do not provide the rich family learning setting of the past.

Boys and girls go to kindergarten and the rest of the educational system. In 1970, the literacy rate was 15 percent for men and 2 percent for women. In 1990, the rate was 73 percent for men and 48 percent for women, and it is even higher now. The increased role of the school in society represents a break with the past, yet there is also continuity. Religious subjects and the Arabic language are strongly represented in curricula but are not always taught in traditional ways. Universities have produced tens of thousands of graduates in a single generation. Half or more of those graduates are women.


Social interaction is marked by strong gender segregation and respect for age differentials. An egalitarian ethos and a high valorization of polite behavior also prevail. Men and women seldom interact across the gender divide outside the domestic space of families, and many of the society's most powerful do's and don'ts aim to regulate such interaction beyond the confines of a home. Thus male-female interaction in a commercial shop should be formal and strictly limited to the process of buying and selling. Generally, men and women should refrain from making specific references to individuals of the other gender, although it is appropriate and common for one to inquire about the well-being of another individual's "family" or "house"concepts which are understood as circumlocutions for significant others of the opposite gender. Deference should be shown to those who are older, and relations between generations are often characterized by strict formality and the maintenance of decorum in social gatherings.

Most social interaction takes place in groups that are gender- and age-specific. Social visiting within such contexts is very common and occurs on both an everyday basis and for special events. The latter especially include visits to convey condolences for a death or, conversely, to express congratulations for a happy occurrence such as a wedding, a graduation or promotion, or a safe return from a trip. A guest, upon arrival, should greet individually the host and all others present by shaking hands or, if well-known to each other and of similar age, by kissing on the cheeks three or more times. The individual being greeted should stand. The guest must be offered refreshments of coffee and tea. An invitation to lunch or dinner should also be offered by the host. An animated and relatively long exchange of greetings is expected between host and guest and between the guest and others present, as each individual inquires about the other's health and wishes him/her God's protection. The offering of refreshments and the exchange of greetings is extended to office and shop settings (at least among people of the same gender); failure to observe them is very rude. Meanwhile, gender segregation is maintained in public places such as airports or banks, where separate lines for men and women are usual.

People tend to remain in close physical contact during social interaction. Walking arm-in-arm or holding hands and gently slapping or touching a person's outstretched palm while talking is common, especially among people of the same gender who know each other well. Gazing, and especially staring, at strangers is rude. In public, people should avoid direct eye-contact with passers-by. When greeting a stranger or an acquaintance, it is appropriate for the person who arrives first to say, in Arabic, "Peace be upon you," to which the proper reply is, "And upon you peace." When saying goodbye, it is proper to say, in Arabic, "In the custody of God," the reply being "In the custody of the Generous One." Generally, the same patterns of etiquette hold throughout Saudi Arabia. Greater formality, however, prevails among Bedouin and rural people, while more relaxed, informal interaction occurs among younger urbanites. The same patterns, but in attenuated forms, apply between local citizens and immigrants.


Religious Beliefs. All Saudi Arabian citizens are Muslims. Except for a small minority of Shia, Saudi Arabians are Sunni and mainly follow the Handbali school of Islamic law (madhab ). Half or more of the immigrants are also Muslims. Non-Muslim faiths are not allowed to practice in Saudi Arabia.

Religious Practitioners. Islam does not have ordained clergy or priests. The person most learned in Islam is the one who leads the prayers. The learned (ulama ) include judges, preachers, teachers, prayer leaders, and others who have studied Islam.

Rituals and Holy Places. The major everyday rituals are related to the five daily prayers that constitute one of the five pillars of Islam. Those who pray face Mecca, ideally in a mosque or as a group. The haj (pilgrimage) is another of the five pillars and should be performed at least once in one's life. Visits also take place to the mosque and tomb of Muhammad in Medina. The other three pillars of Islam are witnessing that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger, fasting during the day throughout the month of Ramadan, and the giving of alms.

Death and the Afterlife. The dead are washed, wrapped in seamless shrouds, and buried in graves facing Mecca without coffins or markers. Burial takes place before sunset on the day of death. The dead go to heaven or hell.

Medicine and Health Care

A rich body of traditional medicine previously existed in Saudi Arabia. Physical ailments were treated with the use of herbs and other plants and also by cauterization or burning a specific part of the body with a hot iron. Severe mental health problems were often addressed through special readings of the Koran. Modern Western medicine is now wide-spread and is used by all segments of the society. Public and private hospitals and clinics are established throughout the country, and several specialist hospitals with state-of-the-art medical technologies and practice exist in the major cities. Still, travel abroad to other Arab countries and to Europe and the United States for medical treatment remains common and is supported by the state.

The Arts and Humanities

Literature. The main art form in Saudi Arabia is in the realm of literature. Classical Arabic poetry is highly valued, while a wide range of colloquial poetic forms is popular and are widely used in different social settings. Recitations of poetry are common at weddings and to mark other important public events. The novel has also become popular among both men and women authors. Local publishing houses exist, while authors also have access to publishers in other Arab countries. The state censor of publications, however, plays a powerful role in deciding what can be published.

Graphic Arts. Painting and sculpture are practiced, but a rich variety of folk art in weaving, decorative arts, furniture making, and similar work is of a high quality. The making of jewelry in both traditional and modern styles is also common.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The physical and social sciences are all taught in Saudi Arabian universities, which exist in all the main cities. Medical sciences are especially popular among both women and men students. One university is specifically devoted to study and research relevant to petroleum. Agriculture and agricultural engineering is a specialty at several other universities, while courses and programs in social studies bring anthropology, sociology, and social work to a wide spectrum of students. Psychology is also taught, as are economics and business. Research centers tied to universities, government entities, and to Islamic entities have a significant presence. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has a long history of state sponsorship of large numbers of university students and scholars abroad, especially in the United States.


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Donald Powell Cole

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia


The people of Saudi Arabia are called Saudis. The great majority have a common Arabian ancestry. The Bedu (called Bedoins by Westerners) are people who live in one of the desert areas of the Middle East and raise camels, sheep, or goats.

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