Location: Saudi Arebia
DIRECTORY IN Saudi Arebia
Saudi Arabia,[c] officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA),[d] is a country on the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It has a land area of about 2,150,000 km2 (830,000 sq mi), making it the fifth-largest country in Asia, the second-largest in the Arab world, and the largest in Western Asia. It is bordered by the Red Sea to the west; Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north; the Persian Gulf, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to the east; Oman to the southeast; and Yemen to the south. Bahrain is an island country off the east coast. The Gulf of Aqaba in the northwest separates Saudi Arabia from Egypt. Saudi Arabia is the only country with a coastline along both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and most of its terrain consists of arid desert, lowland, steppe, and mountains. Its capital and largest city is Riyadh. The country is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam.
Pre-Islamic Arabia, the territory that constitutes modern-day Saudi Arabia, was the site of several ancient cultures and civilizations; the prehistory of Saudi Arabia shows some of the earliest traces of human activity in the world. The world’s second-largest religion, Islam, emerged in what is now Saudi Arabia. In the early 7th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad united the population of Arabia and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to parts of Central and South Asia in the east) in a matter of decades. Arab dynasties originating from modern-day Saudi Arabia founded the Rashidun (632–661), Umayyad (661–750), Abbasid (750–1517), and Fatimid (909–1171) caliphates, as well as numerous other dynasties in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The area of modern-day Saudi Arabia formerly consisted of mainly four distinct historical regions: Hejaz, Najd, and parts of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and Southern Arabia (‘Asir). The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by King Abdulaziz (known as Ibn Saud in the West). He united the four regions into a single state through a series of conquests beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the Al Saud. Saudi Arabia has since been an absolute monarchy, where the king, the princes of the large Al Saud royal family and the country’s traditional elites have overseen a highly authoritarian regime. The ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam has been described as a “predominant feature of Saudi culture”, although the power of the religious establishment has been significantly eroded in the 2010s. In its Basic Law, Saudi Arabia continues to define itself as a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its official religion, Arabic as its official language, and Riyadh as its capital.
Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s second-largest oil producer (behind the US) and the world’s largest oil exporter, controlling the world’s second-largest oil reserves and the fourth-largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy and is the only Arab country to be part of the G20 major economies.
The kingdom spends 8% of its GDP on the military (highest in the world after Oman), which places it as the world’s third biggest military spender behind the United States and China, and the world’s largest arms importer from 2015 to 2019, receiving half of all the US arms exports to the Middle East. According to the BICC, Saudi Arabia is the 28th most militarized country in the world and possesses the second-best military equipment qualitatively in the region, after Israel. By the late 2010s, there have been continual calls for halting of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, mainly due to alleged war crimes in Yemen and especially following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. The state has attracted criticism for a variety of reasons, including its role in the Yemeni Civil War, alleged sponsorship of Islamic terrorism and its poor human rights record, which has been characterized by the excessive and often extrajudicial use of capital punishment, failure to adopt adequate measures against human trafficking, state-sponsored discrimination against religious minorities and atheists, and antisemitism, and its strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Saudi Arabia is considered both a regional and middle power. The Saudi economy is the largest in the Middle East; the world’s eighteenth-largest economy by nominal GDP and the seventeenth-largest by PPP. As a country with a very high Human Development Index, it offers a tuition-free university education, no personal income tax, and a free universal health care system. Saudi Arabia is home to the world’s third-largest immigrant population. It also has one of the world’s youngest populations, with approximately 50 per cent of its population of 34.2 million being under 25 years old. In addition to being a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia is an active and founding member of the United Nations, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Arab League, Arab Air Carriers Organization and OPEC.
Following the amalgamation of the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd, the new state was named al-Mamlakah al-ʿArabīyah as-Suʿūdīyah (a transliteration of المملكة العربية السعودية in Arabic) by royal decree on 23 September 1932 by its founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud. Although this is normally translated as “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” in English, it literally means “the Saudi Arab kingdom”, or “the Arab Saudi Kingdom”.
The word “Saudi” is derived from the element as-Saʿūdīyah in the Arabic name of the country, which is a type of adjective known as a nisba, formed from the dynastic name of the Saudi royal family, the Al Saud (Arabic: آل سعود). Its inclusion expresses the view that the country is the personal possession of the royal family. Al Saud is an Arabic name formed by adding the word Al, meaning “family of” or “House of”, to the personal name of an ancestor. In the case of Al Saud, this is Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin, the father of the dynasty’s 18th-century founder, Muhammad bin Saud.
Anthropomorphic stela (4th millennium BC), sandstone, 57×27 cm, from El-Maakir-Qaryat al-Kaafa (National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh)
There is evidence that human habitation in the Arabian Peninsula dates back to about 125,000 years ago. A 2011 study found that the first modern humans to spread east across Asia left Africa about 75,000 years ago across the Bab-el-Mandeb connecting the Horn of Africa and Arabia. The Arabian peninsula is regarded as a central figure in the understanding of hominin evolution and dispersals. Arabia underwent an extreme environmental fluctuation in the Quaternary that led to profound evolutionary and demographic changes. Arabia has a rich Lower Paleolithic record, and the quantity of Oldowan-like sites in the region indicate a significant role that Arabia had played in the early hominin colonization of Eurasia.
In the Neolithic period, prominent cultures such as Al-Magar, whose centre lay in modern-day southwestern Najd flourished. Al-Magar could be considered a “Neolithic Revolution” in human knowledge and handicraft skills. The culture is characterized as being one of the world’s first to involve the widespread domestication of animals, particularly the horse, during the Neolithic period. Aside from horses, animals such as sheep, goats, dogs, in particular of the Saluki breed, ostriches, falcons and fish were discovered in the form of stone statues and rock engravings. Al-Magar statues were made from local stone, and it seems that the statues were fixed in a central building that might have had a significant role in the social and religious life of the inhabitants.
In November 2017, hunting scenes showing images of the most likely domesticated dogs, resembling the Canaan dog, wearing leashes were discovered in Shuwaymis, a hilly region of northwestern Saudi Arabia. These rock engravings date back more than 8,000 years, making them the earliest depictions of dogs in the world.
At the end of the 4th millennium BC, Arabia entered the Bronze Age after witnessing drastic transformations; metals were widely used, and the period was characterized by its 2 m high burials which were simultaneously followed by the existence of numerous temples, that included many free-standing sculptures originally painted with red colours.
In May 2021, archaeologists announced that a 350,000-year-old Acheulean site named An Nasim in the Hail region could be the oldest human habitation site in northern Saudi Arabia. The site was first discovered in 2015 using remote sensing and palaeohydrological modelling. It contains paleolake deposits related with Middle Pleistocene materials. 354 artefacts, hand axes and stone tools, flakes discovered by researchers provided information about tool-making traditions of the earliest living man inhabited South-West Asia. Besides, Paleolithic artefacts are similar to material remains uncovered at the Acheulean sites in the Nefud Desert
The “Worshipping Servant” statue (2500 BC), above one metre (3 ft 3 in) in height, is much taller than any possible Mesopotamian or Harappan models. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.
The earliest sedentary culture in Saudi Arabia dates back to the Ubaid period, upon discovering various pottery sherds at Dosariyah. Initial analysis of the discovery concluded that the eastern province of Saudi Arabia was the homeland of the earliest settlers of Mesopotamia, and by extension, the likely origin of the Sumerians. However, experts such as Joan Oates had the opportunity to see the Ubaid period sherds in eastern Arabia and consequently conclude that the sherds date to the last two phases of the Ubaid period (period three and four), while a handful of examples could be classified roughly as either Ubaid 3 or Ubaid 2. Thus, the idea that colonists from Saudi Arabia had emigrated to southern Mesopotamia and founded the region’s first sedentary culture was abandoned.
Climatic change and the onset of aridity may have brought about the end of this phase of settlement, as little archaeological evidence exists from the succeeding millennium. The settlement of the region picks up again in the period of Dilmun in the early 3rd millennium. Known records from Uruk refer to a place called Dilmun, associated on several occasions with copper, and in later periods it was a source of imported woods in southern Mesopotamia. A number of scholars have suggested that Dilmun originally designated the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, notably linked with the major Dilmunite settlements of Umm an-Nussi and Umm ar-Ramadh in the interior and Tarout on the coast. It is likely that Tarout Island was the main port and the capital of Dilmun. Mesopotamian inscribed clay tablets suggests that, in the early period of Dilmun, a form of hierarchical organized political structure existed. In 1966, an earthwork in Tarout exposed an ancient burial field that yielded a large, impressive statue dating to the Dilmunite period (mid 3rd millennium BC). The statue was locally made under the strong Mesopotamian influence on the artistic principle of Dilmun.
At the end of the 7th century BC, an emerging kingdom appeared in the historical theatre of north-western Arabia. It started as a Sheikdom of Dedan, which developed into the Kingdom of Lihyan tribe. The earliest attestation of state regality, King of Lihyan, was in the mid-sixth century BC. The second stage of the kingdom saw the transformation of Dedan from a mere city-state of which only influence they exerted was inside their city walls, to a kingdom that encompasses much wider domain that marked the pinnacle of Lihyan civilization. The third state occurred during the early 3rd century BC with bursting economic activity between the south and north that made Lihyan acquire large influence suitable to its strategic position on the caravan road.
Lihyan was a powerful and highly organized ancient Arabian kingdom that played a vital cultural and economic role in the north-western region of the Arabian Peninsula. The Lihyanites ruled over a large domain from Yathrib in the south and parts of the Levant in the north. In antiquity, Gulf of Aqaba used to be called Gulf of Lihyan. A testimony to the extensive influence that Lihyan acquired.[
Middle Ages and rise of Islam
Shortly before the advent of Islam, apart from urban trading settlements (such as Mecca and Medina), much of what was to become Saudi Arabia was populated by nomadic pastoral tribal societies. The Islamic prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in about 571 CE. In the early 7th century, Muhammad united the various tribes of the peninsula and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to parts of Central and South Asia in the east) in a matter of decades. Arabia soon became a more politically peripheral region of the Muslim world as the focus shifted to the vast and newly conquered lands.
Arabs originating from modern-day Saudi Arabia, the Hejaz in particular, founded the Rashidun (632–661), Umayyad (661–750), Abbasid (750–1517), and the Fatimid (909–1171) caliphates. From the 10th century to the early 20th century, Mecca and Medina were under the control of a local Arab ruler known as the Sharif of Mecca, but at most times the Sharif owed allegiance to the ruler of one of the major Islamic empires based in Baghdad, Cairo or Istanbul. Most of the remainder of what became Saudi Arabia reverted to traditional tribal rule.
The Battle of Badr, 13 March 624 CE
For much of the 10th century, the Isma’ili-Shi’ite Qarmatians were the most powerful force in the Persian Gulf. In 930, the Qarmatians pillaged Mecca, outraging the Muslim world, particularly with their theft of the Black Stone. In 1077–1078, an Arab Sheikh named Abdullah bin Ali Al Uyuni defeated the Qarmatians in Bahrain and al-Hasa with the help of the Great Seljuq Empire and founded the Uyunid dynasty. The Uyunid Emirate later underwent expansion with its territory stretching from Najd to the Syrian desert. They were overthrown by the Usfurids in 1253. Usfurid rule was weakened after Persian rulers of Hormuz captured Bahrain and Qatif in 1320. The vassals of Ormuz, the Shia Jarwanid dynasty came to rule eastern Arabia in the 14th century. The Jabrids took control of the region after overthrowing the Jarwanids in the 15th century and clashed with Hormuz for more than two decades over the region for its economic revenues, until finally agreeing to pay tribute in 1507. Al-Muntafiq tribe later took over the region and came under Ottoman suzerainty. The Bani Khalid tribe later revolted against them in the 17th century and took control. Their rule extended from Iraq to Oman at its height and they too came under Ottoman suzerainty.
In the 16th century, the Ottomans added the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coast (the Hejaz, Asir and Al-Ahsa) to the Empire and claimed suzerainty over the interior. One reason was to thwart Portuguese attempts to attack the Red Sea (hence the Hejaz) and the Indian Ocean. The Ottoman degree of control over these lands varied over the next four centuries with the fluctuating strength or weakness of the Empire’s central authority. These changes contributed to later uncertainties, such as the dispute with Transjordan over the inclusion of the sanjak of Ma’an, including the cities of Ma’an and Aqaba.
Foundation of the Saud dynasty
The emergence of what was to become the Saudi royal family, known as the Al Saud, began in Nejd in central Arabia in February 1727, when Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the dynasty, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement, a strict puritanical form of Sunni Islam. This alliance formed in the 18th century provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion and remains the basis of Saudi Arabian dynastic rule today.
In 1727, the Emirate of Diriyah established in the area around Riyadh rapidly expanded and briefly controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia, sacking Karbala in 1802, and capturing Mecca in 1803. In 1818, it was destroyed by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha. The much smaller Emirate of Nejd was established in 1824. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the Al Saud contested control of the interior of what was to become Saudi Arabia with another Arabian ruling family, the Al Rashid, who ruled the Emirate of Jabal Shammar. By 1891, the Al Rashid were victorious and the Al Saud were driven into exile in Kuwait.
Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founding father and first king of Saudi Arabia
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire continued to control or have a suzerainty over most of the peninsula. Subject to this suzerainty, Arabia was ruled by a patchwork of tribal rulers, with the Sharif of Mecca having pre-eminence and ruling the Hejaz. In 1902, Abdul Rahman’s son, Abdul Aziz—later to be known as Ibn Saud—recaptured control of Riyadh bringing the Al Saud back to Nejd, creating the third “Saudi state”. Ibn Saud gained the support of the Ikhwan, a tribal army inspired by Wahhabism and led by Faisal Al-Dawish, and which had grown quickly after its foundation in 1912. With the aid of the Ikhwan, Ibn Saud captured Al-Ahsa from the Ottomans in 1913.
In 1916, with the encouragement and support of Britain (which was fighting the Ottomans in World War I), the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire to create a united Arab state. Although the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918 failed in its objective, the Allied victory in World War I resulted in the end of Ottoman suzerainty and control in Arabia and Hussein bin Ali became King of Hejaz.
The new kingdom was reliant on limited agriculture and pilgrimage revenues. In 1938, vast reserves of oil were discovered in the Al-Ahsa region along the coast of the Persian Gulf, and full-scale development of the oil fields began in 1941 under the US-controlled Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company). Oil provided Saudi Arabia with economic prosperity and substantial political leverage internationally.
Cultural life rapidly developed, primarily in the Hejaz, which was the centre for newspapers and radio. However, the large influx of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia in the oil industry increased the pre-existing propensity for xenophobia. At the same time, the government became increasingly wasteful and extravagant. By the 1950s this had led to large governmental deficits and excessive foreign borrowing.
In 1953, Saud of Saudi Arabia succeeded as the king of Saudi Arabia, on his father’s death, until 1964 when he was deposed in favour of his half brother Faisal of Saudi Arabia, after an intense rivalry, fuelled by doubts in the royal family over Saud’s competence. In 1972, Saudi Arabia gained a 20 per cent control in Aramco, thereby decreasing US control over Saudi oil.
In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against the Western countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, leading to the quadrupling of oil prices. In 1975, Faisal was assassinated by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaid and was succeeded by his half-brother King Khalid.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West began to cause growing concern among some of the ulema and students of Sharia law and was one of the issues that led to an increase in Islamist terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks in Western countries by Saudi nationals. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen (until stripped of his citizenship in 1994) and was responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 USS Cole bombing near the port of Aden, Yemen. 15 of the 19 terrorists involved in September 11 attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania were Saudi nationals. Many Saudis who did not support the Islamist terrorists were nevertheless deeply unhappy with the government’s policies.
Islamism was not the only source of hostility to the government. Although extremely wealthy by the 21st century, Saudi Arabia’s economy was near stagnant. High taxes and a growth in unemployment have contributed to discontent and have been reflected in a rise in civil unrest, and discontent with the royal family. In response, a number of limited reforms were initiated by King Fahd. In March 1992, he introduced the “Basic Law”, which emphasized the duties and responsibilities of a ruler. In December 1993, the Consultative Council was inaugurated. It is composed of a chairman and 60 members—all chosen by the King. The King’s intent was to respond to dissent while making as few actual changes in the status quo as possible. Fahd made it clear that he did not have democracy in mind, saying: “A system based on elections is not consistent with our Islamic creed, which [approves of] government by consultation [shūrā].”
In 1995, Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke, and the Crown Prince, Abdullah, assumed the role of de facto regent, taking on the day-to-day running of the country; however, his authority was hindered by conflict with Fahd’s full brothers (known, with Fahd, as the “Sudairi Seven”). From the 1990s, signs of discontent continued and included, in 2003 and 2004, a series of bombings and armed violence in Riyadh, Jeddah, Yanbu and Khobar. In February–April 2005, the first-ever nationwide municipal elections were held in Saudi Arabia. Women were not allowed to take part in the poll.
Map of oil and gas pipelines in the Middle-East
In 2005, King Fahd died and was succeeded by Abdullah, who continued the policy of minimum reform and clamping down on protests. The king introduced a number of economic reforms aimed at reducing the country’s reliance on oil revenue: limited deregulation, encouragement of foreign investment, and privatization. In February 2009, Abdullah announced a series of governmental changes to the judiciary, armed forces, and various ministries to modernize these institutions including the replacement of senior appointees in the judiciary and the Mutaween (religious police) with more moderate individuals and the appointment of the country’s first female deputy minister.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy; however, according to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia adopted by royal decree in 1992, the king must comply with Sharia (Islamic law) and the Quran, while the Quran and the Sunnah (the traditions of Muhammad) are declared to be the country’s constitution. No political parties or national elections are permitted. Saudi Arabia is authoritarian, and some critics regard it as a totalitarian state. The Economist rated the Saudi government as the fifth most authoritarian government out of 167 rated in its 2012 Democracy Index, and Freedom House gave it its lowest “Not Free” rating, 7.0 (“1=best, 7=worst”) for 2019.
In the absence of national elections and political parties, politics in Saudi Arabia takes place in two distinct arenas: within the royal family, the Al Saud, and between the royal family and the rest of Saudi society. Outside of the Al-Saud, participation in the political process is limited to a relatively small segment of the population and takes the form of the royal family consulting with the ulema, tribal sheikhs, and members of important commercial families on major decisions. This process is not reported by the Saudi media.
By custom, all males of full age have a right to petition the king directly through the traditional tribal meeting known as the majlis. In many ways the approach to government differs little from the traditional system of tribal rule. Tribal identity remains strong and, outside of the royal family, political influence is frequently determined by tribal affiliation, with tribal sheikhs maintaining a considerable degree of influence over local and national events. As mentioned earlier, in recent years there have been limited steps to widen political participation such as the establishment of the Consultative Council in the early 1990s and the National Dialogue Forum in 2003.
Monarchy and royal family
The king combines legislative, executive, and judicial functions and royal decrees form the basis of the country’s legislation. The king is also the prime minister, and presides over the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia. The royal family dominates the political system. The family’s vast numbers allow it to control most of the kingdom’s important posts and to have an involvement and presence at all levels of government. The number of princes is estimated to be at least 7,000, with most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of Ibn Saud. The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal family, as are the 13 regional governorships.
Long-term political and government appointments have resulted in the creation of “power fiefdoms” for senior princes, such as those of King Abdullah, who had been Commander of the National Guard since 1963 (until 2010, when he appointed his son to replace him), former Crown Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence and Aviation from 1962 to his death in 2011, former crown prince Prince Nayef who was the Minister of Interior from 1975 to his death in 2012, Prince Saud who had been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975 and current King Salman, who was Minister of Defense and Aviation before he was crown prince and Governor of the Riyadh Province from 1962 to 2011. The current Minister of Defense is Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the son of King Salman and Crown Prince.
The royal family is politically divided by factions based on clan loyalties, personal ambitions and ideological differences. The most powerful clan faction is known as the ‘Sudairi Seven’, comprising the late King Fahd and his full brothers and their descendants. Ideological divisions include issues over the speed and direction of reform, and whether the role of the ulema should be increased or reduced. There were divisions within the family over who should succeed to the throne after the accession or earlier death of Prince Sultan. When prince Sultan died before ascending to the throne on 21 October 2011, King Abdullah appointed Prince Nayef as crown prince. The following year, Prince Nayef also died before ascending to the throne.
Al ash-Sheikh and role of the ulema
Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al ash-Sheikh with Bogdan Borusewicz in the Polish Senate, 26 May 2014
Saudi Arabia is almost unique in giving the ulema (the body of Islamic religious leaders and jurists) a direct role in government. The preferred ulema are of the Salafi persuasion. The ulema have also been a key influence in major government decisions, for example the imposition of the oil embargo in 1973 and the invitation to foreign troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990. In addition, they have had a major role in the judicial and education systems and a monopoly of authority in the sphere of religious and social morals.
By the 1970s, as a result of oil wealth and the modernization of the country initiated by King Faisal, important changes to Saudi society were underway and the power of the ulema was in decline. However, this changed following the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamist radicals. The government’s response to the crisis included strengthening the ulema’s powers and increasing their financial support: in particular, they were given greater control over the education system and allowed to enforce the stricter observance of Wahhabi rules of moral and social behaviour. After his accession to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah took steps to reduce the powers of the ulema, for instance transferring control over girls’ education to the Ministry of Education.
The primary source of law is the Islamic Sharia derived from the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet). Saudi Arabia is unique among modern Muslim states in that Sharia is not codified and there is no system of judicial precedent, giving judges the power to use independent legal reasoning to make a decision. Saudi judges tend to follow the principles of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence (fiqh) found in pre-modern texts and noted for its literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith.
Because the judge is empowered to disregard previous judgments (either his own or of other judges) and may apply his personal interpretation of Sharia to any particular case, divergent judgments arise even in apparently identical cases, making predictability of legal interpretation difficult. The Sharia court system constitutes the basic judiciary of Saudi Arabia and its judges (qadi) and lawyers form part of the ulema, the country’s Islamic scholars.
Royal decrees are the other main source of law; but are referred to as regulations rather than laws because they are subordinate to the Sharia. Royal decrees supplement Sharia in areas such as labour, commercial and corporate law. Additionally, traditional tribal law and custom remain significant. Extra-Sharia government tribunals usually handle disputes relating to specific royal decrees. Final appeal from both Sharia courts and government tribunals is to the King and all courts and tribunals follow Sharia rules of evidence and procedure.
The Saudi system of justice has been criticized for its “ultra-puritanical judges”, who are often harsh in their sentencing (with beheading for the crime of witchcraft), but also sometimes overly lenient (for cases of rape or wife-beating) and slow, for example leaving thousands of abandoned women unable to secure a divorce. The system has also been criticized for being arcane, lacking in some of the safeguards of justice, and unable to deal with the modern world. In 2007, King Abdullah issued royal decrees reforming the judiciary and creating a new court system, and, in 2009, the King made a number of significant changes to the judiciary’s personnel at the most senior level by bringing in a younger generation. Studies have shown that Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world although there are differing views as to whether this is attributable to the legal system or other factors such as social structures. Although repeated theft can be punishable by amputation of the right hand, only one instance of judicial amputation was reported between 2007 and 2010. Atheism or “calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based” is considered a terrorist crime. Lashings are a common form of punishment and are often imposed for offences against religion and public morality such as drinking alcohol and neglect of prayer and fasting obligations,.
Saudi Arabia joined the UN in 1945 and is a founding member of the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, Muslim World League, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). It plays a prominent role in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in 2005 joined the World Trade Organization. Saudi Arabia supports the intended formation of the Arab Customs Union in 2015 and an Arab common market by 2020, as announced at the 2009 Arab League summit.
Since 1960, as a founding member of OPEC, its oil pricing policy has been generally to stabilize the world oil market and try to moderate sharp price movements so as to not jeopardize the Western economies. In 1973, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations imposed an oil embargo against the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and other Western nations which supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The embargo caused an oil crisis with many short- and long-term effects on global politics and the global economy.
Between the mid-1970s and 2002, Saudi Arabia expended over $70 billion in “overseas development aid”. However, there is evidence that the vast majority was, in fact, spent on propagating and extending the influence of Wahhabism at the expense of other forms of Islam. There has been an intense debate over whether Saudi aid and Wahhabism has fomented extremism in recipient countries. The two main allegations are that, by its nature, Wahhabism encourages intolerance and promotes terrorism. Counting only the non-Muslim-majority countries, Saudi Arabia has paid for the construction of 1359 mosques, 210 Islamic centres, 202 colleges, and 2000 schools.
Saudi Arabia has been seen as a moderating influence in the Arab–Israeli conflict, periodically putting forward a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians and condemning Hezbollah. Following the Arab Spring Saudi Arabia offered asylum to deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and King Abdullah telephoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (prior to his deposition) to offer his support. In early 2014 relations with Qatar became strained over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia’s belief that Qatar was interfering in its affairs. In August 2014 both countries appeared to be exploring ways of ending the rift. Saudi Arabia and its allies have criticized Qatar-based TV channel Al Jazeera and Qatar’s relations with Iran. In 2017, Saudi Arabia imposed a land, naval and air blockade on Qatar.
Major Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict locations
Saudi Arabia halted new trade and investment dealings with Canada and suspended diplomatic ties in a dramatic escalation of a dispute over the kingdom’s arrest of women’s rights activist Samar Badawi on 6 August 2018.
Tensions have escalated between Saudi Arabia and its allies after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This has strained the already problematic Saudi Arabia–Turkey relations. As stated by Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office “Turkey is maintaining a very delicate balance in its relations with Saudi Arabia. The relations have the potential of evolving into a crisis at any moment.”
The pressure on Saudi Arabia to reveal the truth about the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi from the US and European countries has increased. Saudi-US relations took an ugly turn on 14 October 2018, when Trump promised “severe punishment” if the royal court was responsible for Khashoggis’ death. The Saudi Foreign Ministry retaliated with an equal statement saying, “it will respond with greater action,” indicating the kingdom’s “influential and vital role in the global economy.” A joint statement was issued by Britain, France, and Germany also demanding a “credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened, and — if relevant — to identify those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, and ensure that they are held to account.”
The US expects its Gulf allies involved in the coalition in Yemen to put in more efforts and address the rising concerns about the millions that have been pushed to the brink of famine. According to the United Nations, the Arabian peninsula nation is home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 50,000 children in Yemen died from starvation in 2017. The famine in Yemen is the direct result of the Saudi-led intervention and blockade of the rebel-held area.
In the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018, the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the US defence secretary Jim Mattis called for a ceasefire in Yemen within 30 days followed by UN-initiated peace talks. Pompeo has asked Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stop their airstrikes on populated areas in Yemen. Theresa May backed the US call to end the coalition. President of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband called the US announcement as “the most significant breakthrough in the war in Yemen for four years”.
In September 2020, Showtime announced that it will premiere its original documentary, Kingdom of Silence, on 2 October that year. The film was based on the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi authorities. Directed by filmmaker Rick Rowley, the documentary examines the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, as a backdrop to the murder of Khashoggi, along with the interactions between the Trump administration and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Another documentary by Bryan Fogel, The Dissident, which excavated a web of deceit behind the murder, was to be released on the same day that marked the second death anniversary of Khashoggi.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK Foreign Secretary, on his visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE on 12 November 2018, is expected to raise the need for a ceasefire from all sides in the four-year-long Yemen civil war. The US called for a ceasefire within 30 days. Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), said that Hunt and Boris Johnson “played an utterly central and complicit role in arming and supporting the Saudi-led destruction of Yemen.
The Saudi military consists of the Royal Saudi Land Forces, the Royal Saudi Air Force, the Royal Saudi Navy, the Royal Saudi Air Defense, the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG, an independent military force), and paramilitary forces, totalling nearly 200,000 active-duty personnel. In 2005 the armed forces had the following personnel: the army, 75,000; the air force, 18,000; air defence, 16,000; the navy, 15,500 (including 3,000 marines); and the SANG had 75,000 active soldiers and 25,000 tribal levies. In addition, there is an Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah military intelligence service.
The kingdom has a long-standing military relationship with Pakistan, it has long been speculated that Saudi Arabia secretly funded Pakistan’s atomic bomb programme and seeks to purchase atomic weapons from Pakistan, in near future. The SANG is not a reserve but a fully operational front-line force, and originated out of Ibn Saud’s tribal military-religious force, the Ikhwan. Its modern existence, however, is attributable to it being effectively Abdullah’s private army since the 1960s and, unlike the rest of the armed forces, is independent of the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The SANG has been a counterbalance to the Sudairi faction in the royal family: The late prince Sultan, former Minister of Defense and Aviation, was one of the so-called ‘Sudairi Seven’ and controlled the remainder of the armed forces until his death in 2011.
Saudi soldiers from the First Airborne Brigade.
Spending on defence and security has increased significantly since the mid-1990s and was about US$78.4 billion, as of 2019. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest percentages of military expenditure in the world, spending around 8% of its GDP in its military, according to the 2020 SIPRI estimate. Its modern high-technology arsenal makes Saudi Arabia among the world’s most densely armed nations, with its military equipment being supplied primarily by the US, France, and Britain.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, in 2010–14 Saudi Arabia became the world’s second-largest arms importer, receiving four times more major arms than in 2005–2009. Major imports in 2010–14 included 45 combat aircraft from the UK, 38 combat helicopters from the US, four tanker aircraft from Spain, and over 600 armoured vehicles from Canada. Saudi Arabia has a long list of outstanding orders for arms, including 27 more combat aircraft from the UK, 154 combat aircraft from the US, and a large number of armoured vehicles from Canada. Saudi Arabia received 41 per cent of UK arms exports in 2010–14. France authorized $18 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in 2015 alone. The $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is believed to be the largest arms sale in Canadian history. In 2016, the European Parliament decided to temporarily impose an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, as a result of the Yemen civilian population’s suffering from the conflict with Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Saudi Arabia signed a 110 billion dollar arms deal with the United States.
Saudi Arabia is Britain’s largest arms customer, with more than £4.6 billion worth of arms bought since the start of Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. A recent poll conducted by YouGov for Save the Children and Avaaz stated that 63 per cent of British people oppose the sale of weapons to Saudi.
Following the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a nonbinding resolution was passed in the European Parliament on 25 October 2018, urging EU countries to impose an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. Germany became the first Western government to suspend future arms deal with the kingdom after Angela Merkel stated that “arms exports can’t take place in the current circumstances.
Saudi Arabia occupies about 80 per cent of the Arabian Peninsula (the world’s largest peninsula), lying between latitudes 16° and 33° N, and longitudes 34° and 56° E. Because the country’s southern borders with the United Arab Emirates and Oman are not precisely marked, the exact size of the country is undefined. The United Nations Statistics Division estimates 2,149,690 km2 (830,000 sq mi) and lists Saudi Arabia as the world’s 12th largest state. It is geographically the largest country in the Middle East and the Arabian Plate.
Saudi Arabia’s diverse geography is dominated by the Arabian Desert, associated semi-desert, shrubland, steppes, several mountain ranges, volcanic lava fields and highlands. The 647,500 km2 (250,001 sq mi) Rub’ al Khali (“Empty Quarter”) in the southeastern part of the country is the world’s largest contiguous sand desert. Though there are lakes in the country, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the world by area with no permanent rivers. Wadis, non-permanent rivers, however, are very numerous. The fertile areas are to be found in the alluvial deposits in wadis, basins, and oases. The main topographical feature is the central plateau which rises abruptly from the Red Sea and gradually descends into the Nejd and toward the Persian Gulf. On the Red Sea coast, there is a narrow coastal plain, known as the Tihamah parallel to which runs an imposing escarpment. The southwest province of Asir is mountainous, and contains the 3,133 m (10,279 ft) Mount Sawda, which is the highest point in the country. Saudi Arabia is home to more than 2000 dormant volcanoes. Lava fields in Hejaz, known locally by their Arabic name of harrat (the singular is harrah), form one of Earth’s largest alkali basalt regions, covering some 180,000 square kilometres (69,000 sq mi), an area greater than the state of Missouri.
Except for the southwestern regions such as Asir, Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with very high day-time temperatures during the summer and a sharp temperature drop at night. Average summer temperatures are around 45 °C (113 °F), but can be as high as 54 °C (129 °F) at its most extreme. In the winter the temperature rarely drops below 0 °C (32 °F) with the exception of mostly the northern regions of the country where annual snowfall, in particular in the mountainous regions of Tabuk province, is not uncommon. The lowest recorded temperature to date, −12.0 °C (10.4 °F), was measured in Turaif.
Saudi Arabia is home to five terrestrial ecoregions: Arabian Peninsula coastal fog desert, Southwestern Arabian foothills savanna, Southwestern Arabian montane woodlands, Arabian Desert, and Red Sea Nubo-Sindian tropical desert and semi-desert. Wildlife includes the Arabian leopard, wolf, striped hyena, mongoose, baboon, hare, sand cat, and jerboa. Animals such as gazelles, oryx, leopards and cheetahs were relatively numerous until the 19th century, when extensive hunting reduced these animals almost to extinction. The culturally important Asiatic lion occurred in Saudi Arabia until the late 19th century before it was hunted to extinction in the wild. Birds include falcons (which are caught and trained for hunting), eagles, hawks, vultures, sandgrouse, and bulbuls. There are several species of snakes, many of which are venomous. Saudi Arabia is home to a rich marine life. The Red Sea in particular is a rich and diverse ecosystem. More than 1200 species of fish have been recorded in the Red Sea, and around 10 per cent of these are found nowhere else. This also includes 42 species of deepwater fish.
The rich diversity is in part due to the 2,000 km (1,240 mi) of coral reef extending along its coastline; these fringing reefs are 5000–7000 years old and are largely formed of stony acropora and porites corals. The reefs form platforms and sometimes lagoons along the coast and occasional other features such as cylinders (such as the Blue Hole (Red Sea) at Dahab). These coastal reefs are also visited by pelagic species of Red Sea fish, including some of the 44 species of shark. The Red Sea also contains many offshore reefs including several true atolls. Many of the unusual offshore reef formations defy classic (i.e., Darwinian) coral reef classification schemes, and are generally attributed to the high levels of tectonic activity that characterize the area. Domesticated animals include the legendary Arabian horse, Arabian camel, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, chickens, etc. Reflecting the country’s dominant desert conditions, Saudi Arabia’s plant life mostly consists of herbs, plants, and shrubs that require little water. The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is widespread.
Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 regions (Arabic: مناطق إدارية; manatiq idāriyya, sing. منطقة إدارية; mintaqah idariyya). The regions are further divided into 118 governorates (Arabic: محافظات; muhafazat, sing. محافظة; muhafazah). This number includes the 13 regional capitals, which have a different status as municipalities (Arabic: أمانة; amanah) headed by mayors (Arabic: أمين; amin). The governorates are further subdivided into sub-governorates.
As of October 2018, Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the Middle East and the 18th largest in the world. Saudi Arabia has the world’s second-largest proven petroleum reserves and the country is the largest exporter of petroleum. It also has the fifth-largest proven natural gas reserves. Saudi Arabia is considered an “energy superpower”. It has the second highest total estimated value of natural resources, valued at US$34.4 trillion in 2016. Saudi Arabia’s command economy is petroleum-based; roughly 63% of budget revenues and 67% of export earnings come from the oil industry. It is strongly dependent on foreign workers with about 80% of those employed in the private sector being non-Saudi. Challenges to the Saudi economy include halting or reversing the decline in per-capita income, improving education to prepare youth for the workforce and providing them with employment, diversifying the economy, stimulating the private sector and housing construction, and diminishing corruption and inequality.
The oil industry constitutes about 45% of Saudi Arabia’s nominal gross domestic product, compared with 40% from the private sector (see below). Saudi Arabia officially has about 260 billion barrels (4.1×1010 m3) of oil reserves, comprising about one-fifth of the world’s proven total petroleum reserves.
In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia experienced a significant contraction of oil revenues combined with a high rate of population growth. Per capita income fell from a high of $11,700 at the height of the oil boom in 1981 to $6,300 in 1998. Taking into account the impact of the real oil price changes on the kingdom’s real gross domestic income, the real command-basis GDP was computed to be 330.381 billion 1999 USD in 2010. Increases in oil prices in the early 2000s helped boost per capita GDP to $17,000 in 2007 dollars (about $7,400 adjusted for inflation), but have declined since oil price drop in mid-2014.
Statistics on poverty in the kingdom are not available through the UN resources because the Saudi government does not issue any. The Saudi state discourages calling attention to or complaining about poverty. In December 2011, the Saudi interior ministry arrested three reporters and held them for almost two weeks for questioning after they uploaded a video on the topic to YouTube. Authors of the video claim that 22 per cent of Saudis may be considered poor (2009). Observers researching the issue prefer to stay anonymous because of the risk of being arrested.
King Abdullah Financial Center is one of the largest investment centres in the Middle East, located in Riyadh
In September 2018, the Public Investment Fund completed a deal with a group of global lenders for a loan of $11 billion. The deal raised more than initially planned and was the first time the PIF had incorporated loans and debt instruments into its funding. According to data from Fitch Ratings, over two years starting from May 2016 Saudi Arabia went from having zero debt to raising $68 billion in dollar-denominated bonds and syndicated loans—one of the fastest rates among emerging economies.
Each year, about a quarter-million young Saudis enter the job market. With the first phase of Saudization into effect, 70% of sales jobs are expected to be filled by Saudis. However, the private sector still remains hugely dominated by foreigners. The rate of local unemployment is 12.9%, its highest in more than a decade. According to a report published by Bloomberg Economics in 2018, the government needs to produce 700,000 jobs by 2020 to meet its 9% unemployment target.
The unexpected impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, along with Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights records, laid unforeseen challenges before the development plans of the kingdom, where some of the programs under ‘Vision 2030′ were also expected to be affected. On 2 May, the Finance Minister of Saudi Arabia admitted that the country’s economy was facing a severe economical crisis for the first time in decades, due to the pandemic as well as declining global oil markets. Mohammed Al-Jadaan said that the country will take “painful” measures and keep all options open to deal with the impact..
Serious large-scale agricultural development began in the 1970s. The government launched an extensive program to promote modern farming technology; to establish rural roads, irrigation networks and storage and export facilities; and to encourage agricultural research and training institutions. As a result, there has been a phenomenal growth in the production of all basic foods. Saudi Arabia is now completely self-sufficient in a number of foodstuffs, including meat, milk, and eggs. The country exports wheat, dates, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and flowers to markets around the world. Dates, once a staple of the Saudi diet, are now mainly grown for global humanitarian aid. In addition, Saudi farmers grow substantial amounts of other grains such as barley, sorghum, and millet. As of 2016, in the interest of preserving precious water resources, domestic production of wheat has ended.
The Kingdom likewise has some of the most modern and largest dairy farms in the Middle East. Milk production boasts a remarkably productive annual rate of 6,800 litres (1,800 US gallons) per cow, one of the highest in the world. The local dairy manufacturing company Almarai is the largest vertically integrated dairy company in the Middle East.
The Kingdom’s most dramatic agricultural accomplishment, noted worldwide, was its rapid transformation from importer to exporter of wheat. In 1978, the country built its first grain silos. By 1984, it had become self-sufficient in wheat. Shortly thereafter, Saudi Arabia began exporting wheat to some 30 countries, including China and the former Soviet Union, and in the major producing areas of Tabuk, Hail, and Qasim, average yields reached 8.1 tonnes per hectare (3.6 short ton/acre). The Kingdom has, however, stepped up fruit and vegetable production, by improving both agricultural techniques and the roads that link farmers with urban consumers. Saudi Arabia is a major exporter of fruits and vegetables to its neighbours. Among its most productive crops are watermelon, grapes, citrus fruits, onions, squash, and tomatoes. At Jizan in the country’s well-watered southwest, the Al-Hikmah Research Station is producing tropical fruits including pineapples, paw-paws, bananas, mangoes, and guavas.
Although most tourism in Saudi Arabia still largely involves religious pilgrimages, there is growth in the leisure tourism sector. According to the World Bank, approximately 14.3 million people visited Saudi Arabia in 2012, making it the world’s 19th-most-visited country. Tourism is an important component of the Saudi Vision 2030 and according to a report conducted by BMI Research in 2018, both religious and non-religious tourism have significant potential for expansion.
Starting December 2018, the kingdom offers an electronic visa for foreign visitors to attend sports events and concerts. The “sharek” visa process started on 15 December 2018 when the Saudi Ad Diriyah E Prix race started. In September 2019, the kingdom announced its plans to open visa applications for visitors, where people from about 50 countries would be able to get tourist visas to Saudi. In January 2020, it was announced that holders of a US, UK or Schengen visa are eligible for a Saudi electronic visa upon arrival.
The population of Saudi Arabia as of July 2013 is estimated to be 26.9 million, including between 5.5 million and 10 million non-nationalized immigrants, though the Saudi population has long proved difficult to accurately estimate due to Saudi leaders’ historical tendency to inflate census results. Saudi population has grown rapidly since 1950 when it was estimated to be 3 million, and for many years had one of the highest population growth rates in the world at around 3 per cent a year.
The ethnic composition of Saudi citizens is 90% Arab and 10% Afro-Arab. Most Saudis live in the Hejaz (35%), Najd (28%), and the Eastern Province (15%). Hejaz is the most populated region in Saudi Arabia.
As late as 1970, most Saudis lived a subsistence life in the rural provinces, but in the last half of the 20th century, the kingdom has urbanized rapidly. As of 2012 about 80% of Saudis live in urban metropolitan areas—specifically Riyadh, Jeddah, or Dammam.
Its population is also quite young with over half the population under 25 years old. A large fraction are foreign nationals. (The CIA Factbook estimated that as of 2013 foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia made up about 21% of the population. Other estimates are 30% or 33%) Immigrants make up 38.3% of the total population, according to UN data (2019), mostly coming from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. As recently as the early 1960s, Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 300,000. Slavery was officially abolished in 1962.
The official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic. The three main regional variants spoken by Saudis are Najdi Arabic (about 14.6 million speakers), Hejazi Arabic (about 10.3 million speakers), and Gulf Arabic (about 0.96 million speakers). Faifi is spoken by about 50,000. Saudi Sign Language is the principal language of the deaf community, amounting to around 100,000 speakers. The large expatriate communities also speak their own languages, the most numerous of which, according to 2018 data, are Bengali (~1,500,000), Tagalog (~900,000), Eastern Punjabi (~800,000), Urdu (~740,000), Egyptian Arabic (~600,000), Rohingya, North Levantine Arabic (both ~500,000) and Malayalam.
Monarchy and royal family
Education is free at all levels, although higher education is restricted to citizens only. The school system is composed of elementary, intermediate, and secondary schools. Classes are segregated by sex. At secondary level, students are able to choose from 3 types of schools: general education, vocational and technical, or religious. The rate of literacy is 99% among males and 96% among females in 2020. For the youth, literacy rate rose up to approximately 99.5% for both sexes.
According to the educational plan for secondary (high school) education 1435–1438 Hijri, students enrolling in the “natural sciences” path are required to take five religion subjects which are: Tawhid, Fiqh, Tafseer, Hadith and Islamic Education and Quran. However, in 2021 the Saudi Ministry of Education merged the multiple Islamic subjects into one single book as part of a series of reforms to revamp the school education system. In addition, students are required to take six science subjects which are Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology and Computer.
Higher education has expanded rapidly, with large numbers of universities and colleges being founded particularly since 2000. Institutions of higher education include the country’s first university, King Saud University founded in 1957, the Islamic University at Medina founded in 1961, and the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah founded in 1967. Princess Norah University, the largest women’s university in the world, was founded in 1970. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, known as KAUST, founded recently in 2009. Other colleges and universities emphasize curricula in sciences and technology, military studies, religion, and medicine. Institutes devoted to Islamic studies, in particular, abound. Women typically receive college instruction in segregated institutions.
The religious sector of the Saudi national curriculum was examined in a 2006 report by Freedom House which concluded that “the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the ‘unbeliever’, that is, Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others”. The Saudi religious studies curriculum is taught outside the kingdom via Saudi-linked madrasah, schools, and clubs throughout the world. Critics have described the education system as “medieval” and that its primary goal “is to maintain the rule of absolute monarchy by casting it as the ordained protector of the faith, and that Islam is at war with other faiths and cultures”. This radical teaching takes place in Saudi funded mosques and madrasas across the Islamic world from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.
The approach taken in the Saudi education system has been accused of encouraging Islamic terrorism, leading to reform efforts. Following the 9/11 attacks, the government aimed to tackle the twin problems of encouraging extremism and the inadequacy of the country’s university education for a modern economy, by slowly modernising the education system through the “Tatweer” reform program. The Tatweer program is reported to have a budget of approximately US$2 billion and focuses on moving teaching away from the traditional Saudi methods of memorization and rote learning towards encouraging students to analyse and problem-solve. It also aims to create an education system which will provide a more secular and vocationally based training.
In 2021, the Washington Post newspaper published a report on the measures taken by Saudi Arabia to clean textbooks from paragraphs considered anti-Semitic and anti-women. The paragraphs dealing with the punishment of homosexuality or same-sex relations have been deleted, and expressions of admiration for the extremist martyrdom. Anti-Semitic expressions and calls to fight the Jews became fewer. David Weinberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, said that references to demonizing Jews, Christians, and Shiites have been removed from some places or have toned down, noting the deletion of paragraphs that talk about killing gays, infidels and witches. The US State Department expressed in an email that it welcomed the changes to the materials affecting Saudi educational curricula. The Foreign Ministry supports a training program for Saudi teachers.
Health care in Saudi Arabia is a national health care system in which the government provides free health care services through a number of government agencies. Saudi Arabia has been ranked among the 26 best countries in providing high quality healthcare.
The Saudi Ministry of Health (MOH) is the major government agency entrusted with the provision of preventive, curative, and rehabilitative health care for the kingdom’s population. The Ministry’s origins can be traced to 1925, when a number of regional health departments were established, with the first in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. The various healthcare institutions were merged to become a ministerial body in 1950. Abdullah bin Faisal Al Saud was the first health minister and served in the position for three years, with his main role to set up the newly formed Ministry.
The Health Ministry created a friendly competition between each of the districts, and between different medical services and hospitals. This idea resulted in the creation of the “Ada’a” project launched in 2016. The new system is a nationwide performance indicator, for services and hospitals. Following the implementation of the new KPI tables, waiting times and other major measurements improved dramatically across the Kingdom.
A new strategy has been developed by the Ministry, known as Diet and Physical Activity Strategy or DPAS for short. Many lifestyle issues in the country were causing bad lifestyle choices. This led to the Ministry advising that there should be a tax increase on unhealthy food, drink and also cigarettes in the region. This additional tax could be utilized to improve healthcare offerings. The tax was implemented in 2017. As part of the same strategy, calorie labels were added in 2019 to a number of food and drink products. Ingredients were also listed, not as an aim to reduce obesity, but also for citizens with health issues, to manage their diet. As part of the ongoing focus on tackling obesity, women-only gyms were allowed to open in 2017. A number of sports were offered in each of these gyms, including bodybuilding, running and swimming to maintain higher standards of health.
Smoking in Saudi-Arabia in all age groups was widespread. In 2009 the lowest median percentage of smokers was university students (~13.5%) while the highest was elderly people (~25%). The study also found the median percentage of male smokers to be much higher than that of females (~26.5% for males, ~9% for females). Before 2010, Saudi Arabia had no policies banning or restricting smoking.
Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics & Information estimated the foreign population at the end of 2014 at 33% (10.1 million). The CIA Factbook estimated that as of 2013 foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia made up about 21% of the population. Other sources report differing estimates. Indian: 1.5 million, Pakistani: 1.3 million, Egyptian: 900,000, Yemeni: 800,000, Bangladeshi: 400,000, Filipino: 500,000, Jordanian/Palestinian: 260,000, Indonesian: 250,000, Sri Lankan: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrian: 100,000 and Turkish: 80,000.
According to The Guardian, as of 2013 there were more than half a million foreign-born domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Most have backgrounds in poverty and come from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. To go to work in Saudi Arabia, they must often pay large sums to recruitment agencies in their home countries. The agencies then handle the necessary legal paperwork.
As the Saudi population grows and oil export revenues stagnate, pressure for “Saudization” (the replacement of foreign workers with Saudis) has grown, and the Saudi government hopes to decrease the number of foreign nationals in the country. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 and has built a Saudi–Yemen barrier against an influx of illegal immigrants and against the smuggling of drugs and weapons. In November 2013, Saudi Arabia expelled thousands of illegal Ethiopian residents from the kingdom. Various Human Rights entities have criticized Saudi Arabia’s handling of the issue.
Religion in society
Religion is a core aspect of everyday life in Saudi Arabia. It plays a dominant role in the country’s governance and legal system, deeply influences culture and daily life, although the power of the religious establishment has been significantly eroded in the 2010s. The Hejaz region, where the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, is the destination of the Ḥajj pilgrimage, and often deemed to be the cradle of Islam.[e]
Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. There is no law that requires all citizens to be Muslim, but non-Muslims and many foreign and Saudi Muslims whose beliefs are deemed not to conform with the government’s interpretation of Islam must practice their religion in private and are vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for foreigners, deportation. Neither Saudi citizens nor guest workers have the right of freedom of religion. The dominant form of Islam in the kingdom—Wahhabism—arose in the central region of Najd, in the 18th century. Proponents call the movement “Salafism”, and believe that its teachings purify the practice of Islam of innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of Muhammad and his companions. The Saudi government has often been viewed as an active oppressor of Shia Muslims because of the funding of the Wahhabi ideology which denounces the Shia faith. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the United States, stated: “The time is not far off in the Middle East when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that have “religious police” (known as Haia or Mutaween), who patrol the streets “enjoining good and forbidding wrong” by enforcing dress codes, strict separation of men and women, attendance at prayer (salat) five times each day, the ban on alcohol, and other aspects of Sharia (Islamic law). However, since 2016 the power of religious police was curbed, which barred them from pursuing, questioning, requesting identification or arresting suspects. In the privacy of homes, behaviour can be far looser, and reports from WikiLeaks indicate that low ranked members of the ruling Saudi Royal family indulge in parties with alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes.
Women in society
Throughout history, women did not have equal rights to men in the kingdom; the U.S. State Department considers Saudi Arabian government’s discrimination against women a “significant problem” in Saudi Arabia and notes that women have few political rights due to the government’s discriminatory policies. However, since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince in 2017, a series of social reforms have been witnessed regarding women’s rights.
Under Saudi law, every adult female must have a male relative as her “guardian” (wali), As of 2008, a woman was required to have permission from her male guardian in order to travel, study, or work. A royal decree passed in May 2017 allowed them to avail government services such as education and healthcare without the need of a consent of a male guardian. The order however also stated that it should only be allowed if it does not contradict the Sharia system.
According to a leading Saudi feminist and journalist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, “Saudi women are weak, no matter how high their status, even the ‘pampered’ ones among them, because they have no law to protect them from attack by anyone.”
Women face discrimination in the courts, where the testimony of one man equals that of two women in family and inheritance law. Polygamy is permitted for men, and men have a unilateral right to divorce their wives (talaq) without needing any legal justification. A woman can only obtain a divorce with the consent of her husband or judicially if her husband has harmed her. In practice, it is very difficult for a Saudi woman to obtain a judicial divorce. With regard to the law of inheritance, the Quran specifies that fixed portions of the deceased’s estate must be left to the Qur’anic heirs and generally, female heirs receive half the portion of male heirs.
Saudi Wahhabism is hostile to any reverence given to historical or religious places of significance for fear that it may give rise to ‘shirk’ (idolatry), and the most significant historic Muslim sites (in Mecca and Medina) are located in the western Saudi region of the Hejaz. As a consequence, under Saudi rule, an estimated 95% of Mecca’s historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished for religious reasons. Critics claim that over the last 50 years, 300 historic sites linked to Muhammad, his family or companions have been lost, leaving fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad. Demolished structures include the mosque originally built by Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, and other mosques founded by Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s father-in-law and the first Caliph), Umar (the second Caliph), Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law and the fourth Caliph), and Salman al-Farsi (another of Muhammad’s companions).
Six cultural sites in Saudi Arabia are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih); the Turaif district in the city of Diriyah; Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Mecca; Al-Ahsa Oasis; Rock Art in the Hail Region; and Ḥimā Cultural Area. Ten other sites submitted requests for recognition to UNESCO in 2015.
Football is the national sport in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabia national football team is considered one of Asia’s most successful national teams, having reached a joint record 6 AFC Asian Cup finals, winning three of those finals (1984, 1988, and 1996) and having qualified for the World Cup four consecutive times ever since debuting at the 1994 tournament.
In the 1994 FIFA World Cup under the leadership of Jorge Solari, Saudi Arabia beat both Belgium and Morocco in the group stage before falling to defeat Sweden in the round of 16. During the 1992 FIFA Confederations Cup, which was played in Saudi Arabia, the country reached the final, losing 1–3 to Argentina. Scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing and basketball (which is played by both men and women) are also popular with the Saudi Arabian national basketball team winning bronze at the 1999 Asian Championship. More traditional sports such as horse racing and camel racing are also popular. A stadium in Riyadh holds races in the winter. The annual King’s Camel Race, begun in 1974, is one of the sport’s most important contests and attracts animals and riders from throughout the region. Falconry, another traditional pursuit, is still practised.
Women’s sport is controversial due to the suppression of female participation in sport by conservative Islamic religious authorities, however this restriction has eased slightly in recent years. Until 2018 women were not permitted in sport stadiums. Segregated seating, allowing women to enter, has been developed in three stadiums across major cities.
Saudi Arabia, in its vision for modernization, introduced the nation to a number of international sporting events, bringing sports stars to the kingdom. However, in August 2019, the kingdom’s strategy received criticism for appearing as a method of sportswashing soon after Saudi’s US-based 2018 lobbying campaign foreign registration documentations got published online. The documents showed Saudi Arabia as allegedly implementing a ‘sportswashing’ strategy, inclusive of meetings and official calls with supreme authorities of associations like the Major League Soccer (MLS), World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), National Basketball Association (NBA). The strategy is being viewed as a method of sportswashing following the chaos spread across Yemen for 6 years.