Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), is an Arab state in Western Asia that makes up most of the Arabian Peninsula. Covering an area of more than 2,150,000 km2, Saudi Arabia is geographically the 5th biggest country in Asia and after Algeria the 2nd biggest country in the Arab world. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq in the north, by Kuwait in the north-east, as well as Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE on the east, by Oman in the south-east and by Yemen in the south. It is divided from Egypt and Israel by the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the only nation with a Red Sea coast and a Persian Gulf coast. Most of its terrain is dry, inhospitable desert or barren land. As the birthplace of the Arabs and Islam, Saudi Arabia is commonly referred as the ” land of the two holy mosques”, referring to Al-Masjid al-Haram ( located in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (located in Medina), which are the two most sacred places in Islam. Arabian is an official language in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The territory of today’s Saudi Arabia used to consist of four different regions: Hejaz, Najd and parts of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and Southern Arabia (‘Asir). In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established by Ibn Saud. Through a series of conquests, which began in 1902 with the occupation of Riyadh, the homeland of his family, known as the House of Saud, he unified the 4 regions into a single country. Since then Saudi Arabia has been an absolute monarchy, a hereditary dictatorship ruled by Islamic standards. The kingdom has a total population of 28.7 million, 20 million of whom are Saudi citizens and 8 million foreigners.
Oil was discovered in 1938, followed by several other discoveries mainly in the Eastern Province. Since then the Kingdom has become the largest oil producer and exporter in the world, with control of the 2nd largest oil resources in the world as well as the 6th largest gas reserves. The kingdom is classified as a high-income World Bank with a high index for human development and is the only Arab country that is part of the large G-20 economies. However, Saudi Arabia’s economy is the least diversified in the Gulf Cooperation Council, as there is no significant service or manufacturing sector (apart from resource extraction). Saudi Arabia is a monarchical autocracy and has the fourth highest military spending in the world. In 2010-14, SIPRI found that Saudi Arabia is the second largest importer of arms in the world. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is recognized as a regional and middle power. Besides the GCC, it is an active member of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and OPEC.
Geography of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia covers about four-fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau that gradually slopes eastward until it reaches sea level in the Persian Gulf.
The Sarawat or Sarat mountains run parallel to the Red Sea coast, starting near the Jordanian border and reaching the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in altitude in the south. It consists mainly of barren volcanic rocks, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but is also interspersed with old lava fields and fertile valleys. As you move further south towards Yemen, the dry landscape gradually gives way to lush green mountains and even forests, due to the fact that the monsoon is within reach. In Saudi Arabia, the area is commonly known as Hejaz, although the southernmost part of the area is known as ‘Aseer’. At the foot of Hejaz is the holy city of Mecca and about 400 km north of Mecca, in an oasis between two large lava fields, is the other holy city of Medina.
To the west of Sarawat or Hejaz Mountains lies a small coastal plateau that is known as the Tihama, which is the location of the second largest city in the country called Jidda.
To the east of Hejaz is the Najd plateau, a thinly settled part of desert steppe characterized by small volcanic mountains. East of Najd is the Tuwaig steep bank, a narrow plateau that stretches 800 km from north to south. The upper layer consists of limestone and the lower layer of sandstone. The Tuwaig Mountains and its immediate surroundings are historically rich in fresh groundwater and are crossed by numerous dry river beds (wadis). They are littered with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, embedded between a group of wadis, is the capital Ar-Riyadh.
Further east of the Tuwaig Plateau and parallel to it is a narrow corridor (20-100 km) of red sand dunes known as the Dahana Desert, which separates the “Central Region” or “Najd”. of the eastern province. The strong presence of iron oxides gives the sand its characteristic red appearance. Dahana Desert links two large “seas” of sandy dunes. The north is known as Nufuud, about the size of the Upper Lake, and the south is known as the “Empty Quarter”, so called because it covers a quarter of the peninsula. Although essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three “sand seas” are excellent pastures in spring, but even Bedouins have hardly ever tried to cross the empty quarter.
North of the Nufud Desert is a vast desert steppe, traditionally inhabited mainly by nomadic Bedouins, with the exception of some oases such as Al-Jof. This area is an adjacency of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts . After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can produce lush meadows and rich pastures.
The eastern province is largely barren, except that it contains two oases, which come from old fossil water sources. Al-Qateef’s oases are located on the Gulf Coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) is located further inland. Next to Qatif is the modern metropolitan region of Dammam, Dhahran and Al-Khobar.
Demographics of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s population in July 2013 was 26.9 million, of which between 5.5 million and 10 million are non-nationalized immigrants, though the population of Saudi Arabia has been difficult to estimate due to the historical tendency of Saudi officials to artificially increase the census. Since 1950, when it was estimated at approximately 3 million, the population of Saudi Arabia has increased rapidly and for many years maintained one of the highest birth rates in the world at about 3% per year.
Ethnically, 90% of Saudi nationals are Arab and the remaining 10% are Afro-Asian. The majority of Saudis live in Hejaz (35%), Najd (28%) as well as the Eastern Province (15%). Hejaz is the most populous region in Saudi Arabia.
In 1970, the majority of Saudis was still living in the rural provinces, however in the last quarter of the 20th century the kingdom has been rapidly urbanized. As of 2012, about 80 percent of the Saudis will live in urban agglomerations – especially in Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam.
The population is also quite young, with over half of the population under 25 years of age. A large proportion are foreigners. ( According to the CIA Factbook, in 2013 foreigners living in Saudi Arabia accounted for approximately 21% of the Saudi population).
Other estimates assume 30% or 33%).
In the early 1960s, the slave population in Saudi Arabia was estimated at 300,000. Slavery was officially abolished in 1962.
Religion in Saudi Arabia
Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Although no law explicitly stipulates that Saudi citizens or passport holders must be Muslims, public adherence to and proselytism of religions other than Islam is prohibited, and it is illegal to display non-Koranic written forms in public.
There are no official churches in Saudi Arabia. However, some Filipino workers report the presence of churches in some closed communities. Small numbers of Saudi- Arab Christians gather in Internet chat rooms, while foreign Christians can gather for Aramco purposes after having registered and provided their passports to prove they have foreign citizenship, or in private meetings organized in closed communities in one of several embassies. They can also hold services in each other’s homes. Although the niqab is the norm for Saudi women, Muslim women from outside the country may wear a hijab.
In Saudi Arabia, everything is determined by the 5 daily prayers. During each prayer, all of the stores and offices are closed for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes, and the religious police are patrolling the streets and loitering around the mosque. However, shopping malls, hospitals and airports remain open (but all stores in the malls are closed), and cabs and other public transportation continue to operate normally.
The first prayer is Fajr, early in the morning before the first light of dawn, and the call to prayer for Fajr will be your wake-up call to the Kingdom. After fajr, some people have breakfast and go to work, with stores opening.
The second prayer is the Dhuhr, which takes place in the middle of the day after noon. The Friday prayer (Jummah) is the most important of the week, when even less attentive Muslims usually make an effort to go to the mosque. After the Dhuhr, people go to lunch, while many stores prefer to stay closed and sleep off the heat of the day.
Asr prayers are in the late afternoon (one and a half to two hours before sunset), and many stores reopen after that. While Maghrib prayers are held at sunset, they also mark the end of the working day in most of the private sector. The last prayer is Isha’a, which is held about 45 minutes to 1 hour after sunset. Afterwards the locals go out for dinner. Expats refer to the time between Maghriband Isha’a as a “prayer window”, where you can go to the supermarket and buy your food when you have the right time.
Prayer times change daily depending on the season and your exact location in the Kingdom. You can find the times of day in any newspaper, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs maintains a convenient online prayer time service.
Foreigners in Saudi Arabia
The Saudi Arabian Central Ministry of Statistics and Information estimated the foreign population at 33% (10.1 million) at the end of 2014. According to the CIA Factbook, in 2013 foreigners living in Saudi Arabia represented approximately 21% of the population. Other sources report different estimates. Indians: 1.3 million, Pakistanis: 1.5 million, Egyptians: 900,000, Yemenis: 800,000, Bangladeshis: 500,000, Philippians: 500,000, Jordanians / Palestinians: 260,000, Indonesians: 250,000, Sri Lanka: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrians: 100,000 and Turks : 100,000. There are approximately 100,000 Westerners living in Saudi Arabia, most of which live in buildings or closed communities.
Foreign Muslims who have lived in the Kingdom for ten years can apply for Saudi citizenship. (Holders of degrees in various scientific fields have priority, and exceptions are made for Palestinians who are excluded due to instructions from the Arab League, which denies Arab states the right to grant citizenship unless they are married to a Saudi national). Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is non-signatory of the 1951 UN Treaty on Refugees.
Since the Saudi population is constantly growing while oil export revenues are stagnating, there is increasing pressure for “Saudization” ( replacement of foreign workers by Saudis) so the Saudi authorities are hoping to decrease the number of foreigners in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991 and erected a Saudi Yemen barrier against the influx of illegal immigrants and against the smuggling of drugs and weapons. Saudi Arabia expelled several thousand illegal Ethiopian residents from the Kingdom in November 2013. Various human rights organizations have criticized Saudi Arabia’s handling of the problem. Since 2013, over 500,000 undocumented migrant workers – mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen – have been arrested and deported.
Human rights in Saudi Arabia
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to condemn not only the Saudi criminal justice system but also the severity of its punishments. Saudi Arabia has no judicial system, and the courts observe only a few formalities. Human Rights Watch noted in a 2008 report that a code of criminal procedure was first introduced in 2002, but it did not provide basic protection and was routinely ignored by judges. Those arrested are often not informed about the crime they are accused of or are given access to a lawyer. They are abused and tortured if they do not confess. There is a presumption of guilt at trial and the accused is often unable to examine witnesses and evidence or present a legal defense. Most trials are kept secret. One example of a conviction is that the 74-year-old British pensioner and cancer victim Karl Andree had 360 lashes for drinking at home. He was later released due to an intervention of the British government.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is broadly criticized by many to have perhaps one of the worst human rights records in the world. Among the most criticized human rights issues are the extremely disadvantaged position of women, the death penalty for homosexuality, religious discrimination, lack of religious freedom and the activities of the religious police (see religion below). From 1996 to 2000 Saudi Arabia signed up to four UN human rights conventions, while in 2004 the government allowed the establishment of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), an organisation staffed by government officials to monitor its implementation. So far, NSHR’s activities have been limited, and doubts remain about its neutrality and independence.
Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries in the world that does not accept the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to ongoing criticism of its human rights record, the Saudi government points to the country’s particular Islamic character and claims that this justifies a different social and political order. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom has failed to encourage President Barack Obama to raise human rights concerns with King Abdullah during his visit to the Kingdom in March 2014, especially in regard to the imprisonment of Sultan Hamid Marzooq al-Enezi, Saud Falih Awad al-Enezi and Raif Badawi.
Furthermore, each year Saudi Arabia carries out numerous executions, predominantly for murder and drug smuggling, although some people have been executed for abandoning Islam and for crimes committed against the Faisal bin Musaid. These executions are usually carried out by public beheading. For example, Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 when he was 17 years old for taking part in anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring. In May 2014, Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to public decapitation and crucifixion.
In 2013, the government deported thousands of non-Saudis, many of whom were working illegally in the country or had exceeded their visas. There are many reports of foreign workers being tortured either by employers or others. As a result, many basic utilities suffered from labor shortages, as many Saudi Arabian citizens are not interested in working in labor jobs.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is running a “Program to Combat Radicalization”, which has the goal of ” fighting the spread of extremist ideologies and their ability to attract extremists among the general population” and “teaching them the true values of the Islamic religion including tolerance and moderation”. This “tolerance and moderation” was challenged by the Baltimore Sun, based on Amnesty International’s reports on Raif Badawi and in the case of a man from Hafr al-Batin who was sentenced to death for rejecting Islam. In September 2015, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, was elected Chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which appoints independent experts. In January 2016 Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr, who had called for demonstrations for democracy and free elections in Saudi Arabia.
Economy of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong state control over important economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves (26% of proven oil reserves), is the largest oil exporter and plays a leading role in OPEC. About 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP and 90% of export income are attributable to the oil industry. Approximately 25% of GDP is generated by the private sector.
Approximately 4 million foreign employees are playing an essential role in the Saudis economy – for instance in the oil and service-based sectors.
During 1999, the Saudi government has announced plans to start the privatization of the electricity companies, following an ongoing process of privatization in the telecommunications company. It is expected that the government will continue to call for private sector growth to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil and improve employment opportunities for the growing Saudi population. Water shortages and rapid population growth will limit the government’s efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.
Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. Although part of this can be explained by Saudis’ unwillingness to accept many kinds of work, it is also true that Saudis are being forced to compete with a large number of foreign workers, many of whom are considerably cheaper than the locals.