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Saudi Arabia

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Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
المملكة العربية السعودية
al-Mamlaka al-ʻArabiyya as-Suʻūdiyya
Flag Emblem
Motto: "لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله"
There is no god but God: Muhammad is the Messenger of God" Shahada)
Anthem: " Aash Al Maleek"
"Long live the King"
and largest city
24°39′N 46°46′E
Official languages Arabic
Spoken languages Arabic, English
Demonym Saudi, Saudi Arabian
Government Islamic absolute monarchy
 -  King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz
 -  Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz
 -  Second Deputy Prime Minister Naif bin Abdul Aziz
Legislature Council of Ministers
appointed by the king
 -  First Saudi State established 1744 
 -  Second Saudi State established 1824 
 -  Third Saudi State declared January 8, 1926 
 -  Recognized May 20, 1927 
 -  Kingdom Unified September 23, 1932 
 -  Total 2,149,690 km2 ( 14th)
830,000 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 0.7%
 -  2010 estimate 27,136,977 ( 41st)
 -  Density 12/km2 ( 205th)
31/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2010 estimate
 -  Total $618.744 billion
 -  Per capita $23,701.260
GDP (nominal) 2010 estimate
 -  Total $438.009 billion
 -  Per capita $16,778.112
HDI (2010) Increase 0.752
Error: Invalid HDI value · 55th
Currency Saudi Riyal (SR) ( SAR)
Time zone AST ( UTC+3)
 -  Summer ( DST) (not observed) ( UTC+3)
Drives on the right
Calling code 00966
ISO 3166 code SA
Internet TLD .sa, السعودية.
1. Population estimate includes 8,429,401 non-nationals.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Arabic: المملكة العربية السعودية‎), commonly known as Saudi Arabia ( / ˌ s d i ə ˈ r b i ə / or / ˌ s ɔː d i ə ˈ r b i ə /) is the largest Arab country of the Middle East. It is bordered by Jordan and Iraq on the north and northeast, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on the east, Oman on the southeast, and Yemen on the south. It is also Bahrain by bridge. The Persian Gulf lies to the northeast and the Red Sea to its west. It has an estimated population of 28 million, and its size is approximately 2,149,690 square kilometres (830,000 sq mi). The kingdom is sometimes called "The Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam. The two mosques are Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Masjid Al-Nabawi (in Medina). The current kingdom was founded by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, whose efforts began in 1902 when he captured the Al-Saud’s ancestral home of Riyadh, and culminated in 1932 with the proclamation and recognition of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though its national origins go back as far as 1744 with the establishment of the First Saudi State. Saudi Arabia's government takes the form of an Islamic absolute monarchy. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has the world's largest oil reserves and is the world's largest oil exporter. Oil accounts for more than 90% of exports and nearly 75% of government revenues, facilitating the creation of a welfare state, which the government has found difficult to fund during periods of low oil prices. As of 2006, Saudi Arabia was the world's most generous donor nation per capita, donating £49 billion in aid in the previous three decades, but exclusively to Muslim countries (except for one donation amounting to the equivalent of £250,000).


Although the region in which the country stands today has an ancient history, the emergence of the Saudi dynasty began in central Arabia in 1744. That year, Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of the town of Ad-Dir'iyyah near Riyadh, joined forces with a well-known Islamic scholar and Imam, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, to create a new political and religious entity. Both persons found they had common interests, mainly to see all the Arabs of the peninsula brought back to "true" Islam. This alliance formed in the 18th century remains the basis of Saudi Arabian dynastic rule today, and over the next 150 years, the fortunes of the Saud family rose and fell several times as Saudi rulers contended with Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and other Arabian families for control of the peninsula (see First Saudi State and Second Saudi State). The third and current Saudi state was founded in the early 20th century by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (known internationally as Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud).

First Saudi State (1744–1818)

First Saudi State (1744–1818)

The first Saudi State was established in 1744 when Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab settled in Diriyah and Prince Muhammed Ibn Saud agreed to support and espouse his cause in the hope of cleansing Islamic practices of heresy. The House of Saud and its allies rose to become the dominant state in Arabia controlling most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia, including the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Concerned at the growing power of the Saudis, the Ottoman Sultan instructed Mohammed Ali Pasha to reconquer the area again. Ali sent his sons Tusun Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha who were successful in routing the Saudi forces in 1818, eventually weakening the hold of Al Saud. Alshuraim was one of the largest families that supported king Abdulaziz and his family.

Second Saudi State (1824–1891)

Second Saudi State (1824–1891)

After a rebuilding period following the ending of the First Saudi State, the House of Saud returned to power in the Second Saudi State in 1824. The state lasted until 1891 when it succumbed to the Al Rashid of Ha'il.

1891 to present day

Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)

Rashidi Arabia endured from 1891 to 1902, when Ibn Saud reconquered Riyadh, the first of a series of conquests leading to the creation of the modern nation state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The Third Saudi state was founded by the late King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. In 1902 Ibn Saud captured Riyadh, the Al-Saud dynasty's ancestral capital, from the rival Al-Rashid family. Continuing his conquests, Abdul Aziz subdued Al-Hasa, the rest of Nejd, and the Hejaz between 1913 and 1926. Boundaries with Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait were established by a series of treaties negotiated in the 1920s, with two " neutral zones" created, one with Iraq and the other with Kuwait. On January 8, 1926 Hussain Ibn Ali became the King of Sharqiya. On January 27, 1927 he took the title King of Nejd (his previous Nejdi title was Sultan). By the Treaty of Jeddah, signed on May 20, 1927, the United Kingdom recognized the independence of Abdul Aziz's realm (then known as the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd). In 1932, these regions were unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The discovery of oil on March 3, 1938 transformed the country. The country's southern boundary with Yemen was partially defined by the 1934 Treaty of Taif, which ended a brief border war between the two states.

Abdul Aziz's military and political successes were not mirrored economically until vast reserves of oil were discovered in March 1938. Development programs, which were delayed due to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, began in earnest in 1946 and by 1949 production was in full swing. Oil has provided Saudi Arabia with economic prosperity and a great deal of political leverage in the international community. Prior to his death in 1953, Abdul Aziz, aware of the difficulties facing other regional absolute rulers reliant on extended family networks, attempted to regulate the succession.

Saud succeeded to the throne on his father's death in 1953. However, by the early 1960s the Kingdom was in jeopardy due to Saud's economic mismanagement and failure to deal effectively with a regional challenge from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. As a consequence, Saud was deposed in favour of Faisal in 1964. Intra-family rivalry, echoed by increasing complications from the 1973 oil crisis, was one of the factors that led to the assassination of Faisal by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musa'id, in 1975. He was succeeded by King Khalid until 1982 and then by King Fahd. When Fahd died in 2005, his half-brother, Abdullah, ascended to the throne.

Government and Politics

The monarchy and the royal family

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The central institution of the Saudi Arabian government is the Saudi monarchy. The Basic Law of Government adopted in 1992 declared that Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the sons and grandsons of the first king, Abd Al Aziz Al Saud. The leading members of the royal family choose the king from among themselves with the subsequent approval of religious leaders (the ulema). The Basic Law proclaims that the Qur'an is the constitution of the country, which is governed on the basis of the Sharia (Islamic Law). No political parties or national elections are permitted and according to The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated. However, the king's powers are theoretically limited within the bounds of Shari'a and other Saudi traditions. He also must retain a consensus of the Saudi royal family, the ulema, and other important elements in Saudi society.

The royal family dominates government and politics in Saudi Arabia. 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. Though some have put the family's numbers as high as 25,000, most estimates place their numbers in the region of 7,000, with most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of King Abd Al Aziz.

Saudi kings have gradually developed a central government. Since 1953, the Council of Ministers, appointed by the king, has advised on the formulation of general policy and directed the activities of the growing bureaucracy. This council consists of a prime minister (who is usually the King), first and second deputy prime ministers (usually the first and second in line to the throne respectively) and, since 2005, 22 ministers with portfolio and seven ministers of state, two of whom have special responsibilities. The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal family, as are most of the thirteen regional governorships. Long term political and government appointments, 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), Crown Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence & Aviation since 1962, Prince Nayef who has been the Minister of Interior since 1975, Prince Saud who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1975 and Prince Salman, who has been Governor of the Riyadh Region since 1962, have resulted in the creation of fiefdoms where senior princes have, it is reported, often co-mingled their personal wealth with that of their respective domains.

King Abdullah, since his accession in 2005, has attempted to modernise and reform the Saudi government by making significant personnel changes in government (including making the first appointment of a woman to a ministerial post) and seemingly adopting a more open approach. This has, reportedly, been opposed by the Sudairi faction in the royal family. However, the changes have been criticized as being too slow or merely cosmetic. The question of reform remains a significant issue within the royal family and it is reported that it continues to play a major part in the internal politics of the succession.

Legislation is by resolution of the Council of Ministers, ratified by royal decree, and must be compatible with the Shari'a. A 150-member Consultative Assembly, appointed by the King, has limited legislative rights. Access to high officials (usually at a majlis; a public audience) and the right to petition them directly are well-established traditions.


Transparency International in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010 gave Saudi Arabia a score of 4.7 (on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is "highly corrupt" and 10 is "highly clean"). The government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi royal family have been subject over many years to frequent allegations of extensive and systemic corruption originating, in part, from a lack of distinction between the personal interests and wealth of the royal family and that of the Saudi state.

Asked about allegations of royal corruption in 2001, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a senior member of the royal family and son of the Crown Prince said: "If you tell me that building this whole country ... out of $400bn, that we misused, or got, $50bn, I'll tell you, 'Yes. So what?'."

The most widely reported example of Saudi royal family corruption relates to the Al-Yamamah arms deal. In 2003 and 2004, the British newspaper The Guardian and the BBC respectively claimed that BAE Systems had engaged in the payment of bribes to members of the Saudi royal family in relation to its 'Al-Yamamah' contract. These allegations ultimately led to separate investigations by the UK's Serious Fraud Office and the United States Department of Justice. Although the UK investigation was halted following Saudi political pressure, the US investigation resulted in BAE Systems being fined $400 million under a plea bargain arrangement in March 2010.

The political role of the Ulema and the Al ash-Sheikh

The ulema, the clerical establishment, are led by the Al ash-Sheikh, who are the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab founder of the dominant Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. The alliance between the Al-Saud (the royal family) and the Al ash-Sheikh has existed since the First Saudi State and is based on a power-sharing understanding whereby the Al-Saud have political predominance but will support and propagate the Al ash-Sheikh's Wahhabism while the Al ash-Sheikh have predominance in religious matters but will support the Al-Saud's rule.

Despite this long-standing balance of power, the ash-Sheikh family, and the Ulema as a whole, have in recent years exercised influence beyond purely religious matters and have had decisive involvement in key political decisions, for example the imposition of the oil embargo in 1973 or the invitation to foreign troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990

The current leader of the Al ash-Sheikh is Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia

Politics and opposition to the regime

As noted above, there are no recognized political parties or national elections, except for one local election, which was held in 2005, when participation was reserved for male citizens only.

Nevertheless, the extensive royal family is itself the main forum for politics in the country as it is divided by political factions and clan loyalties - the most prominent faction being the Al Fahd, previously known as the ' Sudairi Seven' (members of which include the late King Fahd and the current Crown Prince). It is reported that, with the current generation of senior princes of the royal family likely to die out in the next few years, there is on-going faction-fighting over the succession to the crown amongst the next generation of the family.

Additionally, although the government of Saudi Arabia is based on the authoritarian rule of the monarch (and Saudi royal family) and party politics is not permitted, political opposition to that rule has arisen from four sources: Sunni Islamist activism; liberal pro-democracy critics; the Shiite minority - particularly in the Eastern Province; and long-standing tribal and regional particularist opponents (for example in the Hijaz). Of these, the Islamist activists have been the most prominent threat to the regime and have in recent years perpetrated a number of violent or terrorist acts against the Saudi state.

Support for Islamist terrorism in Saudi society

As noted above, Saudi Arabia is a source of Islamist terrorist activity, although this is not just internally to Saudi Arabia, but also world-wide. Osama bin Laden and 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals and former CIA director James Woolsey described Saudi Arabian Wahhabism as "the soil in which Al-Qaeda and its sister terrorist organizations are flourishing."

According to a 2009 U.S. State Department communication by Hillary Clinton, United States Secretary of State, (disclosed as part of the Wikileaks U.S. 'cables leaks' controversy in 2010) "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide". Part of this funding arises through the zakat (or religious tax) required to be paid by all Saudis to charities, and amounting to at least 2.5 percent of their income. Although many charities are genuine, others, it is alleged, serve as fronts for money laundering and terrorist financing operations. While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money goes toward good causes, it has been alleged that others know full well the terrorist purposes to which their money will be applied.


The Kingdom occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian peninsula. In 2000 Saudi Arabia and Yemen signed an agreement to settle their long-running border dispute. A significant length of the country's southern borders with the United Arab Emirates and Oman are not precisely defined or marked, so the exact size of the country remains unknown. The Saudi government's estimate is 2,217,949 km2 (856,355 sq mi). Other reputable estimates vary between 1,960,582 km2 (756,985 sq mi) and 2,240,000 km2 (864,869 sq mi). The kingdom is commonly listed as the world's 14th largest state.

Saudi Arabia's geography is varied. From the humid western coastal region ( Tihamah) on the Red Sea, the land rises from sea level to a peninsula-long mountain range (Jabal al- Hejaz) beyond which lies the plateau of Nejd in the centre. The southwestern 'Asir region has mountains as high as 3,000 m (9,843 ft) and is known for having the greenest and freshest climate in all of the country, one that attracts many Saudis to resorts such as Abha in the summer months. The east is primarily rocky or sandy lowland continuing to the shores of the Persian Gulf. The geographically hostile Rub' al Khali ("Empty Quarter") desert along the country's imprecisely defined southern borders contains almost no life. Saudi Arabia has no permanent year-round rivers or lakes; however, its coastline extends for 2,640 km (1,640 mi) and, along the Red Sea, harbors world-class coral reefs, including the Gulf of Aqaba.


Native animals include the ibex, wildcats, baboons, wolves, hyenas and Arabian leopard in the mountainous highlands. Small birds are found in the oases. The coastal area on the Red Sea, with its coral reefs, has a rich marine life.


The Basic Law, in 1992, declared that Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the progeny of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. It also declared the Qur'an as the constitution of the country, governed on the basis of Islamic law.

As part of his broader reforms of the Saudi government, King Abdullah initiated a number of reforms of the Saudi Court system in the 2007 Law of the Judiciary with the aim of making it more efficient and independent. Saudi administration of justice has been criticized as 'slow and arcane' and 'one of the most frustrating barriers to doing business effectively in Saudi Arabia'.

Criminal cases are tried under Sharia courts in the country. These courts exercise authority over the entire population. Cases involving small penalties are tried in Shari'a summary courts. More serious crimes are adjudicated in Shari'a courts of common pleas. Courts of appeal handle appeals from Shari'a courts.

Civil cases may also be tried under Sharia courts with one exception: Shiites may try such cases in their own courts. Other civil proceedings, including those involving claims against the Government and enforcement of foreign judgments, are held before specialized administrative tribunals, such as the Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and the Board of Grievances.

The king acts as the highest court of appeal and has the power to pardon.

Main sources of Saudi law are Hanbali fiqh as set out in a number of specified scholarly treatises by authoritative jurists, other schools of law, state regulations and royal decrees (where these are relevant), and custom and practice.

The Saudi legal system prescribes capital punishment or corporal punishment.Theft is punishable by amputation of the hand, although it is rarely prescribed for a first offense. The courts may impose other harsh punishments, such as floggings, for less serious crimes against public morality such as drunkenness. Murder, accidental death and bodily harm are open to punishment from the victim's family. Retribution may be sought in kind or through blood money. The blood money payable for a woman's accidental death is half as much as that for a Muslim male. This is mainly because Islamic law requires men to be providers for their families, and therefore to earn more money in their lifetimes. The blood money for a man would be expected to sustain his family, at least for a short time.

Money payable for the death of a Christian or Jewish male is also half that for a Muslim male; all others (e.g. Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs) are valued at 1/16th.

Slavery was legal in Saudi Arabia until abolished in 1962.

The freedom of women is seriously restricted in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to travel without the permission of their closest male relative, who may be a son or a younger brother. Women who are divorced, return under their father's authority and like any other adult woman is denied the right to live on her own and to marry of her free will. Furthermore, the Saudi government considers filial "disobedience" as a crime for which women have been imprisoned or have lost custody of their child. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving in major cities and towns, although they may drive in small towns and villages or in private housing compounds—some of which extend to many square miles. The Saudi Shura Council recommended in 2008 that the ban be relaxed, allowing young women to drive subject to some restrictive conditions.

In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by a range of penalties, including corporal punishment and the death penalty.

The Government views its interpretation of Islamic law as its sole source of guidance on human rights. In 2000 the Government approved the October legislation, which the Government claimed would address some of its obligations under the Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

"The state protects human rights in accordance with the Islamic Shari'ah."

Basic Law, Chapter 5, Article 26.

The first independent human rights organization, the National Society for Human Rights was established in 2004. The Saudi Government is an active censor of Internet communication within its borders. A Saudi blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, was jailed for five months in solitary confinement in December, 2007, without charges, after criticizing Saudi religious, business and media figures.


Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 provinces (manatiq, – singular mintaqah). The provinces are further divided into governorates.

Province Capital L. Map
Al Bahah Al Bahah city
Bahah —–
Jizan —
Eastern Province
Northern Border Arar
Al Jawf Sakaka city
Al Madinah Medina
Al Qasim Buraidah
Ha'il Ha'il city
Asir Abha
Eastern Province Dammam
Al Riyadh Riyadh city
Tabuk Tabuk city
Najran Najran city
Makkah Mecca
Jizan Jizan city


Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, whose main offices are in Dhahran
Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of petroleum in the world

Saudi Arabia's command economy is petroleum-based; roughly 75% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from the oil industry. The oil industry comprises about 45% of Saudi Arabia's 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.

The government is attempting to promote growth in the private sector by privatizing industries such as power and telecommunications. Saudi Arabia announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies in 1999, which followed the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. Shortages of water and rapid population growth may constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.

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. Recent oil price increases have helped boost per capita GDP to $17,000 in 2007 dollars, or about $7,400 adjusted for inflation.

Oil price increases of 2008-2009 have triggered a second oil boom, pushing Saudi Arabia's budget surplus to $28 billion (110SR billion) in 2005. Tadawul (the Saudi stock market index) finished 2004 with a massive 76.23% to close at 4437.58 points. Market capitalization was up 110.14% from a year earlier to stand at $157.3 billion (589.93SR billion), which makes it the biggest stock market in the Middle East.‏

OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) limits its members' oil production based on their "proven reserves." The higher their reserves, the more OPEC allows them to produce. Saudi Arabia's published reserves have shown little change since 1980, with the main exception being an increase of about 100 billion barrels (1.6×1010 m3) between 1987 and 1988. Matthew Simmons has suggested that Saudi Arabia is greatly exaggerating its reserves and may soon show production declines (see peak oil).

To diversify the economy, Saudi Arabia launched a new city on the western coast with investments exceeding $26.6 billion. The city, which is named " King Abdullah Economic City", will be built near al-Rabegh industrial city north of Jeddah. The new city, where construction work started in December 2005, includes a port which is the largest port of the kingdom. Extending along a coastline of 35 km, the city will also include petrochemical, pharmaceutical, tourism, finance and education and research areas. Saudi Arabia officially became a World Trade Organization member in December 2005.


Saudi Arabia is one of only a few fast-growing countries in the world with a high per capita income of $20,700 (2007). Saudi Arabia will be launching six "economic cities" (e.g. King Abdullah Economic City) which are planned to be completed by 2020. These six new industrialized cities are intended to diversify the economy of Saudi Arabia, and are expected to increase the per capita income. The King of Saudi Arabia has announced that the per capita income is forecast, to rise from $15,000 in 2006 to $33,500 in 2020. The cities will be spread around Saudi Arabia to promote diversification for each region and their economy, and the cities are projected to contribute $150 billion to the GDP.

However the urban areas of Riyadh and Jeddah are expected to contribute $287 billion dollars by the year 2020.

Foreign labour

Despite the government's efforts to promote Saudization, the country draws a significant portion of its labour force from foreign countries, especially from South and Southeast Asia (notably India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka), East Africa and from other Middle Eastern countries. There are also some people from East Asia, North America, South America, and Europe. Hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers and skilled workers from regions of the developing world migrate to Saudi Arabia, sometimes only for a short period of time, to work. Although exact figures are not known, skilled experts in the banking and services professions seek work in the kingdom.


Demographics of Saudi Arabia, FAO data, 2005; Number of inhabitants in thousands
Saudi Arabia population density (person per Km2).

Saudi Arabia's population as of July 2010 is estimated to be about 27,136,977, including an estimated 8.5 million resident foreigners. Until the 1960s, a majority of the population was nomadic; but presently more than 95% of the population is settled, due to rapid economic and urban growth. As recently as the early 1960s, the Saudi Arabia’s slave population was estimated at 300,000. Slavery was officially abolished in 1962. The birth rate is 29.56 births per 1,000 people and the death rate is 2.62 deaths per 1,000 people. Some cities and oases have densities of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer (2,600/sq mi).

About 31% of the population is made up of foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia. A large portion of the expatriate population is South Asian or of South Asian ancestry, including Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. In addition, there are some citizens of mixed ancestry which can include: Asian, Turkish , Indian, Persian, Levantine , North Africans and Sub-Saharan , commonly found in Hejaz , (Jeddah, Makkah and Madina). Many Arabs from nearby countries are employed in the kingdom. There are over eight million migrants from countries all around the world (including non-Muslims): Indian: 1.3 million, Pakistani: 900,000, Bangladeshi: 400,000, Filipino: 500,000, Egyptian: 900,000, Yemeni: 800,000, Indonesian: 250,000, Sri Lankan: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrian: 100,000 and Turkish: 80,000. There are around 100,000 Westerners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom live in compounds or gated communities. Although Arabic is the official language, English is the lingua franca of the country and is very widely spoken by residents.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was also a significant community of South Koreans, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, but most have since returned home. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 to punish Yemen for its opposition to the Gulf War against Iraq. An estimated 240,000 Palestinians are living in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to hold or even apply for Saudi citizenship, because of Arab League instructions barring the Arab states from granting them citizenship. Palestinians are the sole foreign group that cannot benefit from a 2004 law passed by Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers, which entitles expatriates of all nationalities who have resided in the kingdom for ten years to apply for citizenship with priority being given to holders of degrees in various scientific fields. The Articles 12.4 and 14.1 of the Executive Regulation of Saudi Citizenship System can be interpreted as requiring applicants to be Muslim. The Saudi royal family and official creed of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is Sunnism. According to a study conducted by Dr. Nura Al-Suwaiyan, director of the family safety program at the National Guard Hospital, one in four children is abused in Saudi Arabia. The National Society for Human Rights reports that almost 45% of the country's children are facing some sort of abuse and domestic violence.


There are about 25 million people who are Muslim, or 97% of the total population. This figure is calculated taking into consideration the Muslim and non-Muslim expatriates. Saudi citizens, who number around 19 million, are nearly all Muslim, majority of whom follow the Salafi methodology. Although the vast majority of Saudis are Sunni, Shias represent around 10-15% of the Muslim population. The majority of Saudi Arabians in the central region follow the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, majority of Saudi Arabians in the western and southern regions follow the Shafi`i school, and a few follow the Maliki school. The highest religious establishment called "Hay'at Kibar al-'Ulamaa" (The Commission of Grand Clerics), contains 21 members who belong to the four main schools of jurisprudence under Sunni Islam.

The dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is commonly known as Wahhabism (a name which some of its proponents consider derogatory, preferring the term Salafism). Wahhabism, founded in the Arabian penisular by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century, is often described as 'puritanical', 'intollerant' or 'ultra-conservative'. However, proponents consider that its teachings seek to purify the practise of Islam of any innovations or practices that deviate from the seventh-century teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions

As noted earlier (Government and Politics) Saudi Arabia is a source of Sunni Islamist activity, including violent or terrorist Islamist activity and "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide".

Religious freedom is virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia. The Government does not provide legal recognition or protection for freedom of religion, and it is severely restricted in practice. As a matter of policy, the Government guarantees and protects the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious practice; however, this right is not always respected in practice and is not defined in law. Moreover, the preaching and public practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited. The Saudi Mutaween (Arabic: مطوعين), or Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (i.e., the religious police) enforces the prohibition on the public practice of non-Muslim religions.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal, and conversion by Muslims to another religion ( apostasy) carries the death penalty, although there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years.


Street view of Mecca
A recreation park in Riyadh
Arabian Oud an important instrument in the country's music tradition.

Saudi Arabian culture mainly revolves around both Islamic and tribal values. Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are located in the country. Five times every day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques which are scattered around the country. The weekend begins on Thursday due to Friday being the holiest day for Muslims. Most Muslim countries have a Thursday-Friday or Friday-Saturday weekend. Saudi Arabia's cultural heritage is celebrated at the annual Jenadriyah cultural festival.

Music and dance

One of Saudi Arabia's most popular folk rituals is the Al Ardha, the country's national dance. This sword dance is based on ancient Bedouin war traditions: drummers beat out a rhythm and a poet chants verses while sword-carrying men dance shoulder to shoulder. Al-sihba folk music, from the Hejaz, has its origins in al-Andalus. In Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, dance and song incorporate the sound of the mizmar, an oboe-like woodwind instrument in the performance of the Mizmar dance. The drum is also an important instrument according to traditional and tribal customs. Samri is a popular traditional form of music and dance in which poetry is sung especially in the Eastern Region of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabian Musical tradition depends heavily on the modern Arabian oud.

  • Al Ardha (Arabic: العرضة‎) is a type of folkloric war dance performed by the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian peninsula, It was traditionally only performed before going to war, but nowadays is performed at celebrations or cultural events, such as the Jenadriyah festival. The dance, which is performed by men carrying swords or canes, is accompanied by drums and spoken verse.
  • Mizmar (Arabic: مزمار‎) is the name of a folkloric dance native to the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia. The dance involves moving while twirling a bamboo cane (tool) cane, to the music of drums.
  • Samri (Arabic: سامري‎) is the name of a folkloric music and dance. It involves singing poetry while the daff drum is being played. Two rows of men, seated on the knees sway to the rhythm.


Saudi Arabian dress strictly follows the principles of hijab (the Islamic principle of modesty, especially in dress). The predominantly loose and flowing, but covering, garments are suited to Saudi Arabia's desert climate. Traditionally, men usually wear an ankle length shirt woven from wool or cotton (known as a thawb), with a keffiyeh (a large checkered square of cotton held in place by a cord coil) or a ghutra (a plain white square made of finer cotton, also held in place by a cord coil) worn on the head. For rare chilly days, Saudi men wear a camel-hair cloak ( bisht) over the top. Women's clothes are decorated with tribal motifs, coins, sequins, metallic thread, and appliques. Women are required to wear an abaya or modest clothing when in public.

  • Ghutrah (Arabic: غتره‎) is a traditional headdress typically worn by Arab men. It is made of a square of cloth (" scarf"), usually cotton, folded and wrapped in various styles around the head. It is commonly worn in areas with an arid climate, to provide protection from direct sun exposure, and also protection of the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand.
  • Agal (Arabic: عقال‎) is an Arab headdress constructed of cord which is fastened around the Ghutrah to hold it in place. The agal is usually black in colour.
  • Thawb (Arabic: ثوب‎) is the standard Arabic word for garment. It is ankle length, usually with long sleeves similar to a robe.
  • Bisht (Arabic: بشت‎) is a traditional Arabic men’s cloak usually only worn for prestige on special occasions such as weddings.
  • Abayah (Arabic: عباية‎) is a women's garment. It is a black cloak which loosely covers the entire body except the head. Usually, the sleeves are decorated with stitched embroidery and different bright colors or even crystals, and the rest of the cloak is plain.Some women choose to cover their faces with the Niqab and some don't. Recently, there's a move towards Abaya colors other than black especially in the Makkah Province in the west of the Kingdom.
  • Kameez/Kurta Salwar is a men's and women's garment. It is worn by Indian and Pakistani people in Saudi Arabia.


Arabic leavened bread, or khobz, is eaten with almost all meals. Other staples include lamb, grilled chicken, falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls), shawarma (spit-cooked sliced lamb- or chicken), and hummus (a paste of chickpea, garlic and lemon). Traditional coffeehouses used to be ubiquitous, but are now being displaced by food-hall style cafes. Arabic tea is also a famous custom, which is used in both casual and formal meetings between friends, family and even strangers. The tea is black, served without milk and often has one of a variety of herbal flavorings.

Film and theatre

During the 1970s, cinemas were numerous in the Kingdom and were not considered a deviation from religious norms, although they were pressured from tribal norms. It was only during the Islamic revival movement in the 1980s that Islamic Ulams's teaching influenced the government's Cinema policy. Public theaters and cinemas were prohibited as several Saudi ulama(expertise in Islamic studies) deemed those institutions to be incompatible with Islam. However, lately (as of 2009), a reform is being undertaken in the country, in which several cinemas and movies had been shown under serious objections raised by several Saudi groups. An IMAX theatre is also available, and in private compounds such as Dhahran and Ras Tanura public theaters can be found, but they are often more popular for local music, arts and theatre productions, rather than the exhibition of motion pictures. DVDs, including American and British movies, are legal and widely available.


Some Saudi novelists have had their books published in Beirut, Lebanon, because of censorship in Saudi Arabia. Despite signs of increasing openness, Saudi novelists and artists in film, theatre, and the visual arts face greater restrictions on their freedom of expression than in the West. Contemporary Saudi novelists include:

  • Abdul Rahman Munif (exiled, now deceased)
  • Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
  • Rajaa al-Sanea
  • Abdu Khal
  • Turki al-Hamad (subject of a fatwā and death threats)
  • Ali al-Domaini
  • Ahmed Abodehman (now writes in French)

Women in Saudi society

Gender roles in Saudi society originate from Sharia (Islamic law) and tribal culture. Women's social and legal position in Saudi Arabia differs substantially from that of men. For example, all women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian. The World Economic Forum 2010 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity. It was the only country to score a zero in the category of political empowerment.

Leading Saudi feminist and journalist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, has said "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. The oppression of women and the effacement of their selfhood is a flaw affecting most homes in Saudi Arabia." Although many Saudis would like more freedom in Saudi Arabia, there is evidence that many women do not want radical change. Even many advocates of reform reject foreign critics, for "failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society."

A number of Saudi women have risen to the top of some professions or otherwise achieved international prominence:

  • Mrs. Norah AlFayez , the first Saudi female to be appointed as a Deputy Minister of Education.
  • Dr. Arwa AlSayyid , a leading periodontist in dental implantation and was the first Saudi and Arab woman doctor to earn distinction in gum surgery. She also helped set up and chaired the first Saudi fellowship dental implantation program and has worked in developing the Canadian dental implantation system. She has been awarded the King Abdul Aziz Medal First Class , the royal order for the award has come in recognition of her research on kidney transplant patients which led to the discovery of the gene disorder that causes swollen gums. She currently works as Consultant Periodontist at the Armed Forces Hospital in Riyadh.
  • Dr. Hayat Sindi , chosen by the famous "Poptech" science magazine among top 15 scientists expected to change the world. She co-founded "Diagnostics For All" to offer point-of-care diagnostic tools micro-fabricated in paper. These technologies allow healthcare workers to monitor the treatment of the 60% of people living beyond the reach of medical infrastructures.
  • Dr. Ghada Al-Mutairi,who heads a research centre in California after winning the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award Program.
  • Dr. Khawla AlKuraya , a consultant and the principal clinical scientist at the King Faisal Hospital and Research Center. She was also appointed as the director to the Department of Human Cancer Genomic Research, as well as director for the Research Center for Children’s Cancer. She has produced many internationally peer reviewed journals and has presented her findings in global summits as well as local conferences. She's also a member of several associations and institutes such as the College of American Pathologist, the American Association for Cancer Research and the United States-Canadian Academy of Pathology. In January 2010, King Abdullah conferred the prestigious “First Rank King Abdulaziz Medal” on Dr. Khawla Al-Kuraya in recognition of her achievements in science that have made her a prominent international figure in cancer research. She currently heads the Riyadh-based King Fahd National Center, which is the only children’s cancer centre in the Middle East.
  • Ms. Ghada Ba-Aqeel,awarded the "Best Women's Business" in the world in 2009, by the Youth Organization of Global Business (YBI), an unprecedented achievement in the Arab world.
  • Dr. Howaida Obaid al-Qethamy, who rose up as another famous Saudi surgeon who has distinguished herself in pediatric and neonatal heart surgery and won the King Faisal order of merit, fourth grade, for becoming the top pediatrician in the Middle East and second in the world.
  • Ms. Umaima al-Khamis,who wrote a novel called al-Warfah (The Leafy) to be listed for the Arabic Booker Prize 2010, also known as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
  • Dr. Soraya Al-Turki,a Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo who shines as an exemplary Saudi academic who lectures at universities worldwide from Harvard to George Washington.
  • Dr. Salwa Al-Hazza(Arabic: سلوى الهزّاع), She became the late King Fahad’s personal ophthalmologist. She is the first Saudi woman to head a medical department; the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. Dr. Al Hazza has numerous publications including an encyclopedia on Saudi genetic diseases and groundbreaking research in rescuing the eyesight of premature babies.
  • Ms. Muna AbuSulayman, (Arabic: منى أبو سليمان‎) is Secretary General and Executive Director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, the philanthropic arm of HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal's Kingdom Holding Company and formerly co-host of one of MBC TV’s most popular social programs, Kalam Nawaem (“Softly Speaking”). In 2005, she became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to be appointed by the United Nations Development Program as a Goodwill Ambassador. In 2007, the Middle East Excellence Awards Institute presented Ms. AbuSulayman the Achievements in Regional and International Relations Award. In 2009, she was named one of the most influential Muslims in the world. She is also a member of Soliya , an organization devoted to improving communications between East and West through university education.
  • Ms.Hanadi AlHindi, she became Saudi Arabia's first female pilot.
  • Ms. Arwa Mutabagani, she became The first female member of a Saudi Olympic delegation. She became a member of the Saudi Olympic Committee after her appointment in April 2008 to the government body in charge of sports in Saudi Arabia, another first for a woman.


When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932, education was not accessible to everyone and limited to individualized instruction at religious schools in mosques in urban areas. These schools taught Islamic law and basic literacy skills. By the end of the century, Saudi Arabia had a nationwide educational system providing free training from preschool through university to all citizens.

The primary education system began in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. By 1945, King Abdulaziz bin Abdelrahman Al-Saud, the country's founder, had initiated an extensive program to establish schools in the Kingdom. Six years later, in 1951, the country had 226 schools with 29,887 students. In 1954, the Ministry of Education was established, headed by then Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz as the first Minister of Education. The first university, now known as King Saud University, was founded in Riyadh in 1957.

Today, Saudi Arabia's nationwide public educational system comprises fifty nine (59) universities, more than 24,000 schools, and a large number of colleges and other educational and training institutions. The system provides students with free education, books and health services and is open to every Saudi. Over 25% of the annual State budget is for education including vocational training.

Schools in Saudi Arabia are divided into: elementary (six grades), intermediate (three grades), and High (three grades). For elementary and intermediate levels, subjects taught include: Islamic studies, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Arabic syntax and diction, Arabic literature, Computer skills, English, art and drawing, and physical science. On their first year of high school, students must choose among different tracks which are : Natural Sciences, Literature, Islamic studies, and Social and Managerial Sciences. There are common courses among the different tracks, but the emphasis area is different. For example,The Natural Sciences track emphasizes Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Computer Science, and English while less emphasis is on Islamic studies and Literature.

Universities in Saudi Arabia are distributed in all the thirteen provinces and are either public or private. Many subjects are being taught in these universities such as Medicine, Pharmacology, Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, Biology,Petroleum sciences, Philosophy, Psychology, Literature, Management, Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Political Science, Computer Science, Law, Fiqh, Hadith, etc. The Kingdom has also worked on scholarship programs to send students overseas to the United States, Canada, France, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Spain, Germany, China, Singapore, South Korea and other nations. Currently tens of thousands of Saudi male and female students are being sent to higher-education programs every year under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. More than 23,000 students study in the United States only.

The study of Islam remains at the core of the Saudi educational system. The Islamic aspect of the Saudi national curriculum is 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 in madrasah throughout the world.


Men can often be found playing sports. Women rarely participate in sports, and always away from the presence of men; this often leads to indoor gyms. association football is the most popular sport. Saudi Arabia has recently participated in the Summer Olympic Games and in international competitions in volleyball and other sports. The Saudi Arabian national youth baseball team has also participated in the Little League World Series. The Saudi Arabia national football team is often most known for competing four consecutive times in the FIFA World Cup and six times in the AFC Asian Cup.

Foreign relations

Saudi Arabia is one of the largest contributors of development aid, both in volume of aid and in the ratio of aid volume to GDP.

All of Saudi Arabia's aid has gone to Islamic countries. This aid has contributed to the spreading of Islam of the sort found in Saudi Arabia, rather than fostering the traditions of the receiving ethnic groups. The effect has been the erosion of regional Islamic cultures through standardization. Examples of the acculturizing effect of Saudi aid can be seen among the Minangkabau and the Acehnese in Indonesia, as well as among the people of the Maldives.

On the 18 December 2008, the William J. Clinton Foundation released a list of all contributors. It included The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which gave between US$10–25 million.

In addition, Saudi Arabia remains one of the United States' allies in the region, and relations between the two countries go back as far as 1931 when the US first extended diplomatic recognition. In 1945 President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz bin Saud met on board a ship to discuss relations between the two countries. Since then, the two countries have maintained close relations for economic and political reasons.

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