Official country name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Area: 756,985 sq miles (1,960,582 sq km)
Population: 27.6 million (2007 est.), including 5.6 million foreigners working in Saudi Arabia; in 1990, when the foreign work force was at 4.6 million, it included large numbers of Egyptians, Yemenis, Jordanians, Bahrainis, Pakistanis, Indians, and Filipinos, in that order.
Median age: 21.4
Ethnic Groups: All Saudis are Arabs, as are about half the foreign workers in Saudi Arabia
GDP and GDP per capita: $349.1 billion and $14,745 (2006 estimates)
Government and Politics:
Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian monarchy ruled by the House of Saud since 1924, although the country of Saudi Arabia wasn’t formed as such until 1932. The nation is ruled by King Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, who is also its prime minister. Beyond a family council dominated by the King and members of the Saud family, it isn’t clear how the executive rules, although it does so in consultation with Saudi Arabia’s many tribes and, especially, its religious interests, through a 150-member Consultative Council appointed by the king.
Saudis are all Muslims, and overwhelmingly Sunni. Perhaps 5 percent of the Saudi population is Shiite Muslim (the Saudi government doesn’t provide precise figures). Other religions may not be practiced in the country. Churches, synagogues and other non-Muslim houses of worship are banned, even in foreign workers’ compounds. The most puritanical form of Islamic law found in the Muslim world, based on the tenets of Wahhabism, prevails in Saudi Arabia, a country also known as “The Land of The Two Holy Mosques”—in Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.
The Saudi economy is overwhelmingly dominated by oil. Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil producer
and sits on 260 billion barrels, about a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves. The International Monetary Fund reported that in 2005, oil export revenues accounted for around 90 percent of total Saudi export earnings, 70-80 percent of state revenues, and 44 percent of the country’s GDP. Oil generates more than $1 billion per day for state-owned Saudi Aramco
, the monopoly oil company. Saudi Arabia is steadily increasing its oil output to 12 million barrels per day by 2009.
Saudi Arabia spends more on its military, as a share of GDP, than any other country—8.8 percent in 2005 (compared with 4 percent for the United States and about 1.4 percent for China). In actual dollars, however, Saudi Arabia spent $25.4 billion on its military in 2005, mostly to buy British and American fighter jets and weaponry. The Saudi military is less than 100,000 strong. There is no conscription, but Saudi soldiers are well paid. Saudi Arabia is among the world’s leading buyer of U.S. arms.
Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:
There is no freedom of association or expression in Saudi Arabia. The country is patrolled by its religious police, a 5,000-odd force of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, in whose custody several individuals have died. In 2002, 14 girls died in a fire at a girls’ school when Commission men blocked the school’s exit doors on the pretense that the girls weren’t properly dressed to leave. In November 2007, the government doubled the sentence of a rape victim who’d spoken out
about her punishment. Foreign domestic workers are routinely abused. Media are heavily censored.
In the 7th century Islam was born in Medina and Mecca, in the heart of the Arab peninsula, and rapidly spread from there. Tribal society dominated the peninsula before and after the 7th century. The country wouldn’t be unified until 1932 with the rise of the dynasty of the House of Saudi, although Saudi Arabia’s borders were mostly drawn by Britain. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been as much a political ally of the West as a dependent on western oil consumption. Saudi Arabia took a hard line against the West in the 1973 oil embargo. It has always been the chief bankroller of Arab, Palestinian and Islamic causes.
Saudi Arabia’s principal concern, besides protecting the House of Saud and Saudi oil fields, is to prevent an expansion of the Iranian revolution and a militant Shiite take-over of Iraq. Militant Islam poses a danger to the Saudi monarchy’s arch-conservative but consensus-driven rule. To keep militancy at bay, Saudi Arabia heavily subsidized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 1996-2001 and is currently reported to be funding the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, in hopes of preventing Shiite hegemony there.