Saudi Arabia country overview

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Saudi Arabia information index

Saudi Arabia summary

Saudi Arabia is a sparsely populated kingdom in the Middle East, ruled by the Saud family. The alliance between the Saud family and the conservative Wahhābī Islamic movement has shaped the country’s history. Currently, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, acts as the de facto ruler on behalf of his elderly father, King Salman.

Saudi Arabia, located in the northern and central Arabian Peninsula, has a young history but is rooted in a rich past. The western highlands, known as the Hejaz, are home to the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. In the heartland of the country lies Najd, a vast arid region once inhabited by nomadic tribes. To the east, along the Persian Gulf, are the abundant oil fields that have made Saudi Arabia synonymous with wealth since the 1960s. These three elements – religion, tribalism, and wealth – have greatly influenced the country’s development.

It was the rise of the Saud family, a Najdi group after which the country is named, that transformed Saudi Arabia into a modern nation in the early 20th century. The success of the Saud family can be attributed to their adoption of Wahhābism, a strict form of Islam that became the state’s ideology. This religious conservatism coexists with tribalism, where competing family groups vie for resources and status, making Saudi society complex for outsiders to understand. The country’s enormous oil wealth has led to significant investments in infrastructure. While many citizens have benefited from this growth, critics argue that the ruling family has mismanaged and wasted the country’s wealth, leading to discontent. The close ties between Saudi Arabia and the West, particularly symbolized by the presence of U.S. troops until 2005, have also sparked civil unrest, notably following the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91.

During the mid-20th century, Saudi Arabia predominantly adhered to a traditional way of life that had remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. However, since then, the pace of life in Saudi Arabia has accelerated significantly. The consistent influx of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, with vast crowds arriving for the annual hajj pilgrimage and numerous pilgrims visiting throughout the year for the lesser pilgrimage, known as the ʿumrah, has always facilitated external connections for the country. Nonetheless, interaction with the outside world has expanded due to advancements in transportation, technology, and organization. Saudi Arabia’s increasing wealth from petroleum has also brought about irreversible changes domestically, encompassing education, social aspects, and the economy. The introduction of millions of foreign workers and the employment of hundreds of thousands of Saudis in nontraditional occupations have superimposed modern methods of production onto a traditional society. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Saudi students have pursued their studies abroad, with the majority choosing the United States as their destination. Television, radio, and the Internet have become prevalent forms of communication and education, while highways and air travel have replaced traditional modes of transportation.

Over time, Saudi Arabia has transitioned from a country characterized by small towns and cities to one that is increasingly urbanized. Traditional centers such as Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina have transformed into large cities, and the capital city, Riyadh, which was once an oasis town, has evolved into a modern metropolis. The majority of the region’s traditional nomadic population, known as the Bedouin, have resettled in cities or agricultural communities.

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