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Saudi Arabia

المملكة العربية السعودية

2916

Country codes:SA
Calling codes:966
Area:1,960,582.00 km²
Population:27,601,038

Introduction

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Arabic: المملكة العربية السعودية‎ al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyyah as-Sa‘ūdiyyah  Arabic pronunciation (help·info)), commonly known in British English as Saudi Arabia ( /ˌsaʊdi əˈreɪbiə/ or in American English as /ˌsɔːdi əˈreɪbiə/) and in Arabic as as-Sa‘ūdiyyah (Arabic: السعودية‎‎), is the largest state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab World. 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 connected to Bahrain by the King Fahd Causeway. The Red Sea lies to its west, and the Persian Gulf lies to the northeast. Saudi Arabia has an area of approximately 2,149,690 km (830,000 sq mi), and it has an estimated population of 27 million, of which 8.8 million are registered foreign expatriates and an estimated 1.5 million are illegal immigrants. Saudi nationals comprise an estimated 16 million people.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud (known for most of his career as Ibn Saud) in 1932, although the conquests which eventually led to the creation of the Kingdom began in 1902 when he captured Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the House of Saud, referred to in Arabic as the Al Saud. The Saudi Arabian government, which has been an absolute monarchy since its inception, refers to its system of government as being Islamic, though this is contested by many due to its strong basis in Salafism, a minority school of thought in Islam. The kingdom is sometimes called "The Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca), and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam.

Saudi Arabia has the world's second largest oil reserves and is the world's second largest oil exporter. Oil accounts for more than 90% of exports and nearly 75% of government revenues, facilitating the creation of a welfare state. However, human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

History

From the earliest times to the foundation of Saudi Arabia

In pre-Christian Arabia, apart from a small number of urban trading settlements, such as Mecca and Medina, located in the Hejaz in the west of the Arabian Peninsula, most of what was to become Saudi Arabia was populated by nomadic tribal societies or uninhabitable desert. The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was born in Mecca in about 571. 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 swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula to India) in a matter of decades. In so doing, Arabia soon became a politically peripheral region of the Muslim world as the focus shifted to the more developed conquered lands. 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.

In the 16th century, the Ottomans added the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coast (the Hejaz, Asir and Al-Hasa) to their Empire and claimed suzerainty over the interior. The degree of control over these lands varied over the next four centuries with the fluctuating strength or weakness of the Empire's central authority. The emergence of what was to become the Saudi royal family, known as the Al Saud, began in Nejd in central Arabia in 1744, when Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the dynasty, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, 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. The first 'Saudi State' established in 1744 in the area around Riyadh, rapidly expanded and briefly controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia, but was destroyed by 1818 by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha. A much smaller second ‘Saudi state’, located mainly in 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. By 1891, the Al Rashid were victorious and the Al Saud were driven into exile.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire continued to control or have suzerainty (albeit nominal) over most of the peninsula. Subject to this suzerainty, Arabia was ruled by a patchwork of tribal rulers(including the House of Saud who had returned from exile in 1902) with the Sharif of Mecca having pre-eminence and ruling the Hejaz. 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, Arabia was freed from Ottoman suzerainty and control by the latter's defeat in World War I.

In 1902, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, leader of the House of Saud, had seized Riyadh in Nejd from the Al Rashid – the first of a series of conquests ultimately leading to the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The main weapon for achieving these conquests was the Ikhwan, the Wahhabist-Bedouin tribal army led by Sultan ibn Bijad and Faisal Al-Dawish. From the Saudi core in Nejd, and aided by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Ikhwan had completed the conquest of the territory that was to become Saudi Arabia by the end of 1925. On 10 January 1926 Abdul-Aziz declared himself King of the Hejaz and, then, on 27 January 1927 he took the title of King of Nejd (his previous title having been 'Sultan'). After the conquest of the Hejaz, the Ikhwan leaders wanted to continue the expansion of the Wahhabist realm into the British protectorates of Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait, and began raiding those territories. Abdul-Aziz, however, refused to agree to this, recognizing the danger of a direct conflict with the British. The Ikhwan therefore revolted but were defeated in the Battle of Sabilla in 1930, where the Ikhwan leadership were massacred.

In 1932, the two kingdoms of the Hejaz and Nejd were united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

From the foundation of the State to the present

The new kingdom was one of the poorest countries in the world, reliant on limited agriculture and pilgrimage revenues. However, in 1938 vast reserves of oil were discovered in the Al-Hasa region along the coast of the Persian Gulf and full-scale development of the oil fields began in 1941. 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. But the large influx of foreigners to work 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.

King Saud succeeded to the throne on his father's death in 1953. However, an intense rivalry between the King and his half-brother, Prince Faisal emerged, fueled by doubts in the royal family over Saud's competence. As a consequence, Saud was deposed in favor of Faisal in 1964. The major event of King Faisal's reign was the 1973 oil crisis, when Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab oil producers, tried to put pressure on the US to withdraw support from Israel through an oil embargo. Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaid.

Faisal was succeeded by his half-brother King Khalid during whose reign economic and social development progressed at an extremely rapid rate, transforming the infrastructure and educational system of the country; in foreign policy, close ties with the US were developed. In 1979, two events occurred which profoundly threatened the Al Saud regime, and had a long-term influence on Saudi foreign and domestic policy. The first was the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It was feared that the country's Shi'ite minority in the Eastern Province (which is also the location of the oil fields) might rebel under the influence of their Iranian co-religionists. In fact, there were several anti-government uprisings in the region in 1979 and 1980. The second event, was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists. The militants involved were in part angered by what they considered to be the corruption and un-Islamic nature of the Saudi regime. Part of the response of the royal family was to enforce a much stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms in the country (for example, the closure of cinemas) and to give the Ulema a greater role in government. Neither entirely succeeded as Islamism continued to grow in strength.

Khalid was succeeded by his brother King Fahd in 1982 who continued the close relationship with the United States and increased the purchase of American and British military equipment. From 1976 Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil producer in the world. The vast wealth generated by oil revenues and channeled through the government had a profound impact on Saudi society. It led to urbanization, mass public education, and the creation of new media. This and the presence of large numbers of foreign workers greatly affected traditional Saudi norms and values. Although there was dramatic change in the social and economic life of the country, political power continued to be monopolized by the royal family leading to discontent among many Saudis who began to look for wider participation in government.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Saudi Arabia joined the anti-Iraq Coalition and King Fahd, fearing an attack from Iraq, invited American and Coalition soldiers to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. This action was one of the issues that has led to an increase in Islamic terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamic terrorist attacks in Western countries by Saudi nationals – the 9/11 attacks in New York being the most prominent example. But also many Saudis who did not necessarily support the Islamist terrorists were deeply unhappy with the government stance.

Islamism was not the only source of hostility to the regime. Although now extremely wealthy, the country's economy was near stagnant, which, combined with a growth in unemployment, contributed to disquiet in the country, and was reflected in a subsequent rise in civil unrest, and discontent with the royal family. In response, a number of limited 'reforms' were initiated (such as the Basic Law). However, the royal family's dilemma 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: “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, Prince Abdullah assumed the role of acting King, albeit his authority was hindered by conflict with Fahd's full brothers (known, with Fahd, as the "Sudairi Seven"). Abdullah continued the policy of mild reform and greater openness, but in addition, adopted a foreign policy distancing the kingdom from the US. In 2003, Saudi Arabia refused to support the US and its allies in the invasion of Iraq. However, terrorist activity increased dramatically in 2003, with the Riyadh compound bombings and other attacks, which prompted the government to take much more stringent action against terrorism.

In 2005, King Fahd died and his half-brother, Abdullah ascended to the throne. The king subsequently introduced a new program of moderate reform which included a number of economic reforms aimed at reducing the country's reliance on oil revenue: limited deregulation, encouragement of foreign investment, and privatization. He has taken much more vigorous action to deal with the origins of Islamic terrorism, and has ordered the use of force for the first time by the security services against some extremists. 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 indiviuals and the appointment of the country’s first female deputy minister.

In early 2011, King Abdullah indicated his opposition to the protests and revolutions affecting the Arab world by giving asylum to deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and by telephoning President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (prior to his deposition) to offer his support. Saudi Arabia has also been affected by its own protests. In response, King Abdullah announced a series of benefits for citizens amounting to $10.7 billion. These included funding to offset high inflation and to aid young unemployed people and Saudi citizens studying abroad, as well as the writing off of some loans. State employees will see their incomes increase by 15 per cent, and additional cash has also been made available for housing loans. No political reforms were announced as part of the package, though some prisoners indicted for financial crimes were pardoned.

Culture

Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country with centuries-old attitudes and traditions, often derived from Arab tribal culture. This conservative tendency has been bolstered by the austerely puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam, which arose in the eighteenth century and now predominates in the country. The many limitations on behaviour and dress are strictly enforced both legally and socially. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, for example, and there is no theatre or public exhibition of films. Public expression of opinion about domestic political or social matters is discouraged. There are no organizations such as political parties or labour unions to provide public forums.

Daily life is dominated by Islamic observance. Five times each day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques scattered throughout the country. Because Friday is the holiest day for Muslims, the weekend begins on Thursday. In accordance with Wahhabi doctrine, only two religious holidays are publicly recognized, ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā. Celebration of other Islamic holidays, such as the Prophet’s birthday and ʿĀshūrāʾ (an important holiday for Shīʿites), are tolerated only when celebrated locally and on a small scale. Public observance of non-Islamic religious holidays is prohibited, with the exception of September 23, which commemorates the unification of the kingdom.

Islamic heritage sites

Saudi Arabia, and specifically the Hejaz, as the cradle of Islam, has many of the most significant historic Muslim sites including the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina. One of the King's titles is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the two mosques being Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, which contains Islam's most sacred place, the Kaaba, and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina which contains Muhammad's tomb.

However, Saudi Wahhabism is hostile to any reverence given to historical or religious places of significance for fear that it may give rise to 'shirk' (that is, idolatry). As a consequence, under Saudi rule, the Hejaz cities have suffered from considerable destruction of their physical heritage and, for example, it has been estimated that about 95% of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished. These 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). Other historic buildings that have been destroyed include the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, the house of Abu Bakr, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.

Critics have described this as "Saudi vandalism" and claim that over the last 50 years 300 historic sites linked to Muhammad, his family or companions have been lost. It has been reported that there now are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad.

Dress

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.

Entertainment, the arts, sport and cuisine

During the 1970s, cinemas were numerous in the Kingdom and were not considered un-Islamic, although they were seen as contrary to Arab tribal norms. During the Islamic revival movement in the 1980s, and as a political response to an increase in Islamist activism including the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the government closed all cinemas and theaters. However, with King Abdullah's reforms from 2005, some cinemas have re-opened.

From the 18th century onward, Wahhabi fundamentalism discouraged artistic development inconsistent with its teaching. In addition, Sunni Islamic prohibition of creating representations of people have limited the visual arts, which tend to be dominated by geometric, floral, and abstract designs and by calligraphy. With the advent of oil-wealth in the 20th century came exposure to outside influences, such as Western housing styles, furnishings, and clothes. Music and dance have always been part of Saudi life. Traditional music is generally associated with poetry and is sung collectively. Instruments include the rabābah, an instrument not unlike a three-string fiddle, and various types of percussion instruments, such as the ṭabl (drum) and the ṭār (tambourine). Of the native dances, the most popular is a martial line dance known as the ʿarḍah, which includes lines of men, frequently armed with swords or rifles, dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines. Bedouin poetry, known as nabaṭī, is still very popular.

Censorship has limited the development of Saudi literature, although several Saudi novelists and poets have achieved critical and popular acclaim in the Arab world – albeit generating official hostility in their home country. These include Ghazi Algosaibi, Abdelrahman Munif, Turki al-Hamad and Rajaa al-Sanea.

Football (soccer) is extremely popular, as is scuba diving, windsurfing, and sailing. Basketball is popular with both men and women, with the national team winning bronze at the 1999 Asian Championship. More traditional sports such as camel racing became more popular in the 1970s. 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 practiced.

Cuisine in Saudi Arabia is similar to that of the surrounding Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, and has been heavily influenced by Turkish, Persian, and African food. Islamic dietary laws are enforced: pork is not consumed and other animals are slaughtered in accordance with halal. A dish consisting of a stuffed lamb, known as khūzī, is the traditional national dish. Kebabs are popular, as is shāwarmā (shawarma), a marinated grilled meat dish of lamb, mutton, or chicken. As in the countries of the Gulf, machbūs (kabsa), a rice dish with fish or shrimp, is popular. Flat, unleavened bread is a staple of virtually every meal, as are dates and fresh fruit. Coffee, served in the Turkish style, is the traditional beverage.

Geography

Saudi Arabia occupies about 80 percent of the Arabian 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 defined or marked, the exact size of the country remains unknown. The CIA World Factbook's estimate is 2,149,690 km (830,000 sq mi) and lists Saudi Arabia as the world's 13th largest state.

Saudi Arabia's geography is dominated by the Arabian Desert and associated semi-desert and shrubland (see satellite image to right). It is, in fact, a number of linked deserts and includes the 647,500 km (250,001 sq mi) Rub' al Khali (“Empty Quarter”) in the southern part of the country, the world’s largest sand desert. There are virtually no permanent rivers or lakes in the country, but wadis are numerous. The few 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 Mount Sawda, which is generally considered the highest point in the country. Estimates of its elevation range from 3,133 to 3,207 m (10,279 to 10,522 ft).

Except for the south western province of Asir, Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with extremely high day-time temperatures and a sharp temperature drop at night. Average summer temperatures are around 45 °C, but can be as high as 54 °C. In the winter the temperature rarely drops below 0 °C. In the spring and autumn the heat is temperate, temperatures average around 29 °C. Annual rainfall is extremely low. The Asir region differs in that it is influenced by the Indian Ocean monsoons, usually occurring between October and March. An average of 300 mm of rainfall occurs during this period, that is about 60% of the annual precipitation.

Animal life includes wolves, hyenas, mongooses, baboons, hares, sand rats, and jerboas. Larger animals such as gazelles, oryx, and leopards were relatively numerous until the 1950s, when hunting from motor vehicles reduced these animals almost to extinction. Birds include falcons (which are caught and trained for hunting), eagles, hawks, vultures, sand grouse and bulbuls. There are several species of snakes, many of which are venomous, and numerous types of lizards. There is a wide variety of marine life in the Persian Gulf. Domesticated animals include camels, sheep, goats, donkeys, and chickens. Reflecting the country's desert conditions, Saudi Arabia’s plant life mostly consists of small herbs and shrubs requiring little water. There are a few small areas of grass and trees in southern Asir. The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is widespread.

Inforamtion above from the Wikipedia article Saudi Arabia, licensed under CC-BY-SA full list of contributors here.

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