Saudi Arabia

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia (säōō´dē ərā´bēə, sou´–, sô–), officially Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, kingdom (2015 est. pop. 27,752,000), 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 been used to reclaim desert for agriculture, particularly at Al Kharj, southeast of Riyadh, and Hofuf, in the eastern part of the country. Water also is obtained by desalinizing seawater. Agricultural products include barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, and citrus fruit; 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.

King Abdullah died in Jan., 2015, and was succeeded by Crown Prince Salman, his half brother. Saudi forces have led Arab air attacks against Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen since Yemen's president was forced to flee the country in Mar., 2015, and subsequently there also have been clashes along the Saudi-Yemen border, naval and air blockades of Yemen, and Houthi ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia as the war continued. The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric, as part of mass execution of 47 condemned prisoners in Jan., 2016, was bitterly condemned by Iran; Saudi Arabia then broke off diplomatic relations with Iran.

In June, 2017, King Salman named his son Mohammed bin Salman crown prince, replacing his nephew and former heir apparent Mohammed bin Nayef. The king had previously appointed his son defense minister and head of a council charged with overseeing the economy. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and a few other nations, broke diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in June, 2017, accusing it of supporting jihadi groups and destabilizing the region; Qatar rejected the nations' accusations and demands. In November an anticorruption drive led to the investigation of several hundred prominent Saudis, many of whom paid large settlements and were pardoned (while also remaining under government surveillance); the campaign also was seen in part as an attempt by Mohammed bin Salman, regarded as the country's de facto ruler, to consolidate his power. The country also sought to force Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign, in a possible attempt to discredit Hezbollah.


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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