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Saudi Arabia


Al Mamlakah al Arabiah al Saudiah

Currency unit

Saudi Riyal


Arab World








 Saudiwoman blog






Saudi Arabia occupies the center of the Arabian peninsula. It includes the area of the Hejaz bordering the Red Sea where Islam was preached by the Prophet Mohammed and from where it spread to many other parts of the world. He and his followers formed an Arab empire based on Madinah (= city of the Prophet) formerly Yathrib. After the first three successors the capital was transferred to Damascus and then Baghdad, leaving the Hejaz as a backwater, except for the pilgrimage.

Throughout known history most of this area was ungovernable as the only method of transport was the camel, with the horse in certain limited areas. The nomadic Beduin (camel and sheep herders) were ungovernable, and untaxable, as they moved about from waterhole to waterhole and grazing areas. The cities, composed of merchants and craftsmen, had government but this did not extend far outside the walls. Armed troops escorted travelers from one town to the next.

The city of Makkah in the Hejaz is a place of religious pilgrimage. Even here government could not always protect the pilgrims from bandits. The Red Sea coast became part of the Ottoman Empire which maintained garrisons in the main cities, Makkah, Madinah and Ta'if, and tried to police the roads. But they did not control the nomads. By the 16th century there were Ottoman garrisons on the eastern side in Hofuf and Qateef and along the shores of the Gulf, but again they did not control the interior. The Hejaz was ruled, under Turkish overlordship, by the hereditary Sharifs (Princes) of Makkah. These were Hashemites, descendants of Mohammed.

The north eastern part of Arabia was the location where one of the Muslim reformers arose, Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab (died 1787) who preached a return to what he regarded as fundamental Islam. He was followed by the Al Saud family.

The Sauds were based on Riyadh in the Nejd, from which they were expelled in the 19th century. Abdul Aziz recaptured the town in a daring desert raid in 1904. This made him King of Nejd. From this base he conquered the rest of the country.

In the period before and during the first world war some of the British had a plan to control the whole Arab world, first to weaken the Ottomans, secondly to improve their position in India and to control the oil which had been discovered in Iran. During the war the British intelligence officer T.E.Lawrence intended the proposed Arab dominion to be headed by the Sharif of Makkah. However, this plan failed when the French took Damascus and created a French colony in Syria. But probably it could never have succeeded as the British Empire was already much weaker than it had been at its peak and the Arabs would probably not have agreed to it. However, the British had at least two policies: that of the Foreign Office which tended to support the Hashemites; and that of the India Office which supported and financed Ibn Saud. In the long run it was the India Office policy which prevailed.

Following the end of the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the British government, which controlled the Red Sea and much of the southern coast of Arabia - Aden, Oman, Trucial States - saw no reason to oppose Ibn Saud's expansion into the Red Sea coast and the Hejaz. The British provided the Hashemites of Makkah with kingdoms in Iraq and Transjordan as a compensation for not being the kings of all Arabia. Ibn Saud was given arms.

The importance of Ibn Saud's conquest is that Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country which can claim to be the result of Arab conquest rather than colonialist arrangements. The British assisted by recognizing its existence rather than trying to bring it about. Before oil was discovered it was not considered worth further effort.

The province of Asir bordering Yemen was conquered from Yemen in 1920. The most notable addition was the Hejaz, where the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are to be found. They were conquered in 1924 after which Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud proclaimed himself king of the Hejaz and Nejd. The united Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed by Abdul Aziz in 1932.

Until oil was found the main revenues were the fees paid by pilgrims to the Hejaz (and British subsidy). But now Saudi Arabia controls a large part of the world's oil reserves and is thus of world strategic interest, shown by the quick response of American and other troops during the Kuwait crisis beginning in August 1990. Much of the cost of this war was paid by Saudi funds.

The Saudis are also believed to have supported financially many other American interests including the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and RENAMO in Mozambique. They do not support movements which intend democracy. Their funds also support fundamentalist Sunni Islam in many countries, including Egypt and Algeria. The exact form of the funding of Osama bin Laden, whether from private persons or members of the royal family, is unknown, though there are many suspicions.

The eastern province of Saudi Arabia is inhabited by Shi'ites whose loyalty to the King is suspect. Asir is claimed by Yemen but with little hope of recovery. The Yemen itself is threatened by Saudi destabilization.

If the monarchy were overthrown would the country hold together? The money generated by the oil industry might prove to be a powerful glue. There are no signs that an overthrow is likely, though the Osama bin Laden events suggest there is some opposition, especially as during the period of low prices the oil money no longer flowed with the same largesse as it did at the height of the oil boom.

In 2011 the king has increased welfare payments, presumably an attempt to buy off discontent after the Revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Will this work?








Saudi Arabia, like the other Gulf states, is a "traditional" monarchy, derived from the status of the traditional Sheikh. The Saud family, although based in the desert town of Riyadh, were the leaders not just of the merchants settled in the town but also overlords of the nomadic camel herders (Beduin) in the area around. The house of Saud based its power on control of this area and on their support for a revivalist preacher Abdul Wahhab, who founded the sect of the Wahhabis which is now the dominant religious force in the kingdom. (This is a Puritan and fundamentalist group which rejected much of the later developments of Islam and claimed, like all fundamentalists, to be going back to the original teaching of the Prophet, though Abdul Wahhab rejected the tolerance of the Prophet for Christians and Jews - and the mystical teaching.)

The house of Saud were the "secular arm" of this preacher and his movement and worked to spread it all over Arabia. In the process they came to control most of the desert plateau of the interior.

The monarchy has expanded with the wealth of the country. The founder of the modern state, king Abdul Aziz, continued to live a fairly ascetic life, even though he lived into the age of oil. He died in 1953. His first successor, his son Saud, seems to have regarded the oil revenues mainly as a source of funds for himself. He was deposed in 1958 by the family and his brother Feisal installed, first as Prime minister, then in 1964 as king. He presided over a general development plan and ruled until assassinated in 1975. The family appointed another brother, Khalid, who presided until his death in 1982. Yet another brother, Fahd, then took over after having run the government (it is believed) during king Khalid's reign.

The political system is not necessarily a modern form of the European absolute monarchies, such as the French system founded by Louis the 14th, nor similar to the 20th century dictatorships. The traditional bedouin attitude to the rulers was to approach them directly without fear. All officials, including governors of provinces (always members of the ruling family), are supposed to be open to approach by anyone with a problem. To say that these political entities are not democracies in the western sense is not necessarily to say that they are unrestricted despotisms. Just as the tribal Sheikh ruled by consent and could be overthrown, the modern royal family cannot afford to alienate the people.

However, the above may be nothing but an apology for a system which is effectively a one-party state in which the party is known as the Saud family.

It has been argued that other modern one party states - Romania, Iraq, N.Korea - tend towards the same condition as the family run states of Arabia. In practice the people were bought off by large welfare provisions and any critics of the monarchy "disappear" or go into exile. But when the price of oil fell the amount for welfare also declined.

There is a large Shi'ite minority in the eastern provinces which is believed to be badly treated and is therefore probably hostile to the regime. Their sympathy is with the Iranians.

The government has to act in agreement with the religious establishment of Ulema (religious lawyers). The royal family is believed to pay the fundamentalists generously in the hope of preventing them from denouncing the royal family for its lack of adherence to religion.

A consultative assembly (Majlis al Shura) building was started in 1980 but not used until king Fahd announced its appointment in August 1993 and it met at the end of December 1993.

To guard against military coups, there are two "armies" : the official army and the National Guard. Both are well equipped with tanks and aircraft. One of their functions is to watch the other to make a military takeover difficult. (This is a device common in politically vulnerable countries.)

Democracy in any recognizable form seems very unlikely. However, if the wealth of the country were to decline the political situation might change. For about a decade the world price of oil has been low but the rate of Saudi pumping is high. Huge quantities of money are spent on arms. In May 1993 a committee of dissident academics - Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights - called for some change in the system of government. They were arrested. It is unclear what sort of regime they were advocating. As Muslim fundamentalists they could scarcely make the regime more rigorous. Their chief spokesman operated from London but the British government following Saudi pressure promised to expel him - but the courts prevented this.

When government funds went into deficit there might have been political consequences as welfare payments had to decline. Arms expenditure ought to be reduced instead but western governments would be threatened.

Saudi politics are completely secret to the outsider.

The exact relation of Osama bin Laden to politics in Saudi Arabia is hard to determine but there is believed to be growing discontent with the regime, and he is believed to have support among some of the princes as well as among the clergy and ordinary people who have no say in government.

The then Prince Abdullah, a brother of the late king Fahd and Crown Prince (the designated successor), was believed by some to favor reform. Probably very uncertain times face this state.

If the royal ruler should try to bring in reform he would be opposed by: the Religious establishment; other branches of the Royal family. He would probably be supported by external allies.

It is said that there would be a danger of the royal family fighting among itself. Suppose the royal family were overthrown. What kind of regime might follow. One possibility is an extremist religious regime of the kind promoted by Osama bin Laden. Possibly he might declare himself Emir of the Emirate of the Hejaz and Nejd. But there are other possibilities. The culture of the people of the Hejaz is different from that of the central area from where the Sauds came.

The loyalty of the Shi'ites in the main oil provinces is weak. If the central government weakened they can be expected to organise, and possibly even attempt separation for the rest of the kingdom. Could the state divide into a moderate Sunni state in the Hejaz; a Shi'ite state in the east, closely linked to Iraq; a fanatical state in the center?

In any case there is the possibility of a period of disturbance during which the oil exports (10% of the world's supply) might be suspended. This would have effects on the world's oil market, especially if no other source, such as Iraq's, could be developed to replace them.

King Fahd (who had probably been incapacited since 1993) died and was replaced by the former Crown Prince Abdallah - who had been running the country since Fahd had had a stroke. But Abdullah, a half brother, was 81 in 2006. So far, since Abul Aziz the founder of the state, only his sons have been king.

He is claimed to be a modest reformer. Elections (men only) were held in February 2005 for half the seats on municipal councils. These were the first since the 1960s. The councils probably have few powers. Only a quarter of potential voters registered, and only two thirds of those actually voted. There were no parties. There were also elections for the Chamber of Commerce, which included women voters and candidates. There has been no repeat of these elections.

There is probably some truth in the idea that in states founded entirely on mineral extraction, the government is likely to be an autocracy because the rulers have no need to negotiate with the citizens for taxes. The same may be true of states dependent on "aid". (See section on Democracy.)

Will Saudi Arabia be affected by the 2011 wave of protests in Arab countries? Probably not as the Secret Police are well funded. Saudi forces are probably assisting the king in Bahrain, for fear the Shi'ite agitation there may spread to the Shi'ites in the eastern provinces of Saudi. A large squad of "National Guard" entered Bahrain to put down demonstrations there, making Bahrain a protectorate of the larger kingdom.

What is the real status of religion in the kingdom? The government enforces the observance of religion everywhere. Shops must close at the times of prayer. However, the author observed that in a situation where religion was voluntary (a certain school) few of the students actually prayed. This may be a hint that people's real adherence to religion may be much weaker than the government likes to advertise. A democratic state may turn out to be much less religious than the extreme right (Fox) in the United States fear. It may even take note of the advice of the Prophet that "there should be no compulsion in religion".

Blog about possible demonstrations. 11 March 2011 is a possible date. But nobody turned up.

Interesting reading

Wilfred Thesiger - Arabian Sands

Die Brunnen der Wüste: Mit den Beduinen durch das unbekannte Arabien (Serie Piper)

Girls of Riyadh

Die Girls von Riad: Roman

Les filles de Riyad : Rècit

Robert Lacey - Inside the Kingdom

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia






The oil industry dominates the economy. The great wealth from the export of oil has enabled the kingdom to build modern cities and provide electricity, water (from desalination), roads and welfare services.

Saudi policy is to maintain a large share of the market and frequently ignores the OPEC quotas. It is Saudi pumping which has kept the oil price low in the past. The oil reserves are so large that even at low prices income is high. Saudi policy seems to be to oppose any limitation in the use of oil to combat the greenhouse effect, although if solar energy became practicable Saudi Arabia could be an important producer. Saudi money probably influences the world's financial markets, and is used to support regimes they like (usually authoritarian).

There are reports that so much was spent on supporting Iraq during its war with Iran (estimate of $23,000 million) and fighting Iraq (estimate of $52,000 million) that the reserves are depleted and hard times may be ahead. The reserves were built up when oil prices were high, but exploration in other parts of the world has driven prices down.

It is not in Saudi Arabia's interest that Iraq should start pumping again, as this would drive prices down still further. But it was thought Iraq's oil might flow again as sanctions are ended. The insurgency in Iraq has prevented an increase in production there and oil prices are high again.

The real extent of the oil reserves is a closely guarded secret. There are rumors that the main field - Ghawar - has been depleted far more than is publicly claimed - that is, the future ability of Saudi Arabia to keep up supply may not be as great as is usually assumed. This is the basis of some of the predictions in discussions of Peak Oil.

The higher prices of oil during recent years give the government more scope.






Although the oil will last well into the 21st century, and by the end Saudi Arabia may be the world's last oil producer, the long term future must always be questionable. If solar energy comes to replace oil in a program to prevent climate change the Saudis may find themselves less important, though still possessing useful energy supplies from the land, which has sunshine. Perhaps this is why the Saudi government has resisted the Kyoto Agreement on Climate Change.

During the period of oil boom the land and sea of the area has been contaminated and the ground water reserves depleted. The cities are dependent on desalinated water which in turn requires cheap energy to fuel. If energy became expensive the cities would be unviable. The country in its present form may then turn out to be only a temporary phenomenon.

The Gulf was seriously contaminated by oil spillage during the Kuwait War of 1991. It was contaminated less seriously before by normal oil activities.

There is ground water of unknown origin (possibly it is fossil water from the last Ice Age). Rare species in the desert include the Oryx (shot at from Rangerovers).

Agriculture from desalinated sea water may be the most bizarre (because extremely expensive) result of the oil boom. Thus wheat is exported (at a subsidized price), making the kingdom the sixth largest wheat exporter. Essentially this is a job creation program.





Human Rights

There are believed to be political prisoners and considerable press and tv censorship.

It has been reported that citizens of Yemen were badly treated before their expulsion during the Kuwait crisis.

The absolute monarchy can do what it likes. The royal family (several thousand persons) are effectively above the law. There are reports of disappearances of dissidents. A huge arms deal with Britain has involved "commission" payments to certain Saudi princes on an eye-popping scale.

Women have no rights to drive or to travel without the permission of their husband, brother, son, or father. They are seldom allowed to work.

To western eyes the status of women is poor. It is claimed to be a result of Islam, but some argue that women in early Islam had a more equal status and that Islamic dress is actually derived from the customs of Syrian Christians in the early days of the Caliphate.

The Shi'ites of the eastern province are reported to have suffered from arbitrary arrest, torture and disappearance.

If there were a world human rights regime Saudi Arabia could not meet any likely standards. The authorities claim that the benefit of harsh standards of punishment - execution for murder, rape, drugs offenses and armed robbery - are seen in a low crime rate. However, crime statistics are secret so that it is impossible to judge whether they really are low.

Torture by the police is reported to be routine, including western prisoners. British torture equipment is sold to them. What do they do with it?

Several western workers have been arrested and tried for causing explosions, though most observers believe the explosions were caused by Islamists. These were eventually released and reported they had been tortured.

Climate effects

One degree

Even hotter than at present

Two degrees

Fossil waters continue to run out. Will the monsoon reach Asir province? One possibility is a greater frequency of tropical storms entering the Gulf area as happened in June 2007. These do not make agriculture possible but cause devastation. More floods were reported in January 2011 in the Red Sea area (Jeddah).

Last revised 30/03/11

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