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Country Profile : Saudi-arabia

Country profile: Saudi Arabia

Map of Saudi Arabia

One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources.

But its rulers face the delicate task of responding to pressure for reform while combating a growing problem of extremist violence.

Named after the ruling Al Saud family, which came to power in the 18th century, the country includes the Hijaz region - the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam. This fact, combined with the Al Sauds' espousal of a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, has led it to develop a strongly religious self-identity.

At a glance

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, Saudi Arabia

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina: Resting place of the Prophet Muhammad

  • Politics: The Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly of power; political parties are banned and the opposition is organised from abroad; militant Islamists have launched several deadly attacks
  • Economy: Saudi Arabia is the world's dominant oil producer and owner of the largest hydrocarbon reserves; rapidly growing unemployment is a major challenge
  • International: Saudi Arabia is one of the main players in the Arab and Muslim worlds; its stature is built on its geographic size, its prestige as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and status as major oil producer


Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by King Abd-al-Aziz - known as the Lion of Najd - who took over Hijaz from the Hashemite family and united the country under his family's rule. Since his death in 1953, he has been succeeded by various sons.

The Al Saud dynasty's monopoly of power meant that during the 20th century successive kings were able to concentrate on modernisation and on developing the country's role as a regional power.

It has always been in the ruling family's interests to preserve stability in the region and to clamp down on extremist elements. To this end, it welcomed the stationing of US troops in the country after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

But the leadership's refusal to tolerate any kind of opposition may have encouraged the growth of dissident groups such as Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda, which benefited from popular resentment against the role of the US in the Middle East.

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 - carried out mainly by Saudi nationals - the Saudi authorities were further torn between their natural instincts to step up internal security and pressure to allow a greater degree of democracy.

In 2003 suicide bombers suspected of having links with al-Qaeda killed 35 people - including a number of foreigners - in the capital Riyadh. Some Saudis referred to the attacks as their own 9/11.

Since then, demands for political reform have increased, as has the frequency of militant attacks, some of them targeted at foreign workers. The security forces have made thousands of arrests.

Municipal elections in 2005 were a first, limited exercise in democracy. But political parties are banned - the opposition is organised from outside the country - and activists who publicly broach the subject of reform risk being jailed.

Saudi Arabia sits on more than 25% of the world's known oil reserves. It is capable of producing more than 10 million barrels per day; that figure is set to rise.



Muslim pilgrims stone pillars representing the devil near Mecca

Full name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Population: 26.2 million (UN, 2010)

Capital: Riyadh

Area: 2.24 million sq km (864,869 sq miles)

Major language: Arabic

Major religion: Islam

Life expectancy: 73 years (men), 76 years (women) (UN)

Monetary unit: 1 Riyal = 100 halalah

Main exports: Oil, gas, cereals

GNI per capita: US $16,190 (World Bank, 2009)

Internet domain: .sa

International dialling code: +966



Head of state, prime minister: King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud

Saudi King Abdullah King Abdullah is seen as being reform-minded within the Saudi context

Saudi Arabia has been ruled since its foundation by the Al Saud dynasty. King Abdullah succeeded the late King Fahd, his half-brother, in August 2005.

As crown prince, Abdullah had been the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia since the former king suffered a stroke in the mid-1990s.

He became heir to the throne in 1982, commanded the powerful National Guard and was considered to be the most influential figure in the country. He is a former mayor of Mecca. His son, Mutib, is deputy commander of the National Guard.

Abdullah is said to have forged alliances with other members of the ruling family to offset the influence of his seven half brothers. Known as the "Sudayri Seven", they are the most powerful alliance within the ruling family.

He is seen as being untainted by corruption - giving credibility to his drive to stamp it out - and to favour reforms which are balanced with a respect for Saudi traditions.

Regarded in the Arab world as a supporter of wider Arab interests, he has criticised US support for Israel and Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.

At home, he appears to subscribe to the view that granting modest reforms can help prevent potentially explosive tensions from building up.

One of his responses to the Arab Spring has been to use financial sweeteners in an effort to keep the Saudi people happy.

He has also promised Saudi women that they will eventually get the vote.

King Abdullah is believed to have been born in 1924. He received a traditional religious education and is close to the Saudi tribal way of life, often spending periods of time in the desert. However, he has never shared the severely puritanical view of Islam of his country's Wahhabi religious establishment.

  • Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al Saud was named as heir to the throne, following the death of Sultan bin Abdul Aziz in October 2011.



Man walks past newspaper stand in Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia maintains tight control over the media

Saudi investors are major players in the pan-Arab TV industry, but the country has one of the region's most tightly-controlled media environments.

Criticism of the government and royal family and the questioning of Islamic tenets are not generally tolerated. Self-censorship is pervasive.

The state-run Broadcasting Service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) operates almost all domestic broadcasting outlets. The minister of culture and information chairs the body which oversees radio and TV.

Private TV stations cannot operate from Saudi soil, but the country is a major market for pan-Arab satellite and pay-TV. Saudi investors are behind the major networks MBC, which is based in Dubai, and Bahrain-based Orbit Showtime.

Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns the Rotana media entertainment empire and in late 2011 acquired a $300m stake in the social media site Twitter.

Newspapers are created by royal decree. There are more than a dozen dailies. Pan-Arab papers, subject to censorship, are available. On sensitive stories, newspapers tend to follow the editorial lead of the state-run news agency.

There were 11.4 million internet users by December 2010 (Internetworldstats.com). Strict filtering is in place, targeting "pornographic", Islam-related, human rights and political sites. The authorities say some 400,000 sites are blocked.

Changes to the press law in 2011 brought all forms of electronic publishing under its scope.

Saudi researchers say there are up to 10,000 blogs in the kingdom. The platform has given women some leeway to express themselves freely.

The press

Al-Watan - Abha-based daily

Al-Riyadh - Riyadh-based daily

Okaz - Jeddah-based daily

Al-Jazirah - Riyadh-based daily

Al-Sharq al-Awsat - Riyadh-based daily, English-language web pages

Arab News - Jeddah-based English-language daily

Saudi Gazette - Jeddah-based English-language daily


Saudi TV - state-run, operates four networks, including news network Al-Ikhbariya


Saudi Radio - state-run

News agency

Saudi Press Agency (SPA) - state-run, English-language pages



A chronology of key events:

1871 - The Ottomans take control of the province of Hasa.

Mecca: Islam's holiest city

View of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with the Kaaba in centre

Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year. Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering.

1891 - The Al Saud family are exiled to Kuwait by the Rashidi family.

1902 - Abd-al-Aziz Bin-Abd-al-Rahman Bin-Faysal Bin-Turki Bin-Abdallah Bin-Muhammad Al Saud (often known as Ibn Saud) takes control of Riyadh bringing the Al Saud family back into Saudi Arabia.

1912 - The Ikhwan (Brotherhood) is founded based on Wahhabism; it grows quickly and provides key support for Abd-al-Aziz.

1913 - Hasa is taken from the Ottomans by Abd-al-Aziz.

1921 - Abd-al-Aziz takes the title Sultan of Najd.

1924 - Mecca regained.

1925 - Medina retaken.

Brotherhood trouble

1926 - Abd-al-Aziz is proclaimed King of the Hijaz in the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

1928-30 - The Ikhwan turn against Abd-al-Aziz due to the modernisation of the region and the increasing numbers of non-Muslims. They are defeated by Abd-al-Aziz.

1932 September - The areas controlled by Abd-al-Aziz are unified under the name Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Abd-al-Aziz is proclaimed King.

1933 - King Abd-al-Aziz's eldest son, Saud, is named Crown Prince.

1938 - Oil is discovered and production begins under the US-controlled Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company).

1953 November - King Abd-al-Aziz dies and is succeeded by the Crown Prince Saud Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud. The new King's brother, Faysal is named Crown Prince.

King Saud deposed

1960 - Saudi Arabia is a founding member of Opec (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries).

Oil - source of Saudi wealth

Worker at a Saudi oil refinery in 1956
  • World's largest oil exporter with 25% of proven global reserves
  • Prospecting began in 1933
  • Ghawar oil field, world's largest, has estimated reserves of 70bn barrels

1964 November - King Saud is deposed by his brother, the Crown Prince, Faysal Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud.

1970 - The OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) is founded in Jeddah.

1972 - Saudi Arabia gains control of a proportion (20%) of Aramco, lessening US control over Saudi oil.

1973 - Saudi Arabia leads an oil boycott against the Western countries that supported Israel in the October War against Egypt and Syria. Oil prices quadruple.

King Faysal assassinated

1975 March - King Faysal is assassinated by his nephew, Faysal Bin-Musaid Bin-Abd-al-Aziz; he is succeeded by his brother, Khalid Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud.

1979 - Saudi Arabia severs diplomatic relations with Egypt after it makes peace with Israel.

1979 - Extremists seize the Grand Mosque of Mecca; the government regains control after 10 days and those captured are executed.

1980 - Saudi Arabia takes full control of Aramco from the US.

1981 May - Saudi Arabia is a founder member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council).

King Khalid dies

1982 June - King Khalid dies of a heart attack and is succeeded by his brother, Crown Prince Fahd Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud.

1986 November - King Fahd adds the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" to his name.

1987 - Saudi Arabia resumes diplomatic relations with Egypt, severed since 1979.

1990 - Saudi Arabia condemns Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and asks the US to intervene; it allows foreign troops, the Kuwaiti government and many of its citizens to stay in Saudi Arabia but expels citizens of Yemen and Jordan because of their governments' support of Iraq.

Saudi attacks Iraq

1991 - Saudi Arabia is involved in both air attacks on Iraq and in the land force that went on to liberate Kuwait.

1992 March - King Fahd announces the "Basic System of Government" emphasising the duties and responsiblities of a ruler. He proposes setting up a Consultative Council (majlis al-shura).

1993 September - King Fahd decrees the division of Saudi Arabia into thirteen administrative divisions.

1993 December - The Consultative Council is inaugurated. It is composed of a chairman and 60 members chosen by the king.

1994 - Islamic dissident Osama Bin Laden is stripped of his Saudi nationality.

King Fahd ill

1995 November - King Fahd has a stroke. Crown Prince Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud takes on the day-to-day running of the country.

1996 February - King Fahd resumes control of state affairs.

1996 June - A bomb explodes at the US military complex near Dhahran killing 19 and wounding over 300.

1997 July - King Fahd increases the members of the Consultative Council (majlis al-shura) from sixty to ninety.

1999 October - Twenty Saudi women attend a session of the Consultative Council for the first time.

2000 September - UK-based rights group Amnesty International describes Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, particularly foreign domestic workers, as "untenable" by any legal or moral standard.

2001 March - Several British workers are arrested in Riyadh after a series of blasts in which a British and an American national are killed.

Relations with US
Sand dune in Saudi Arabia Large parts of southern Saudi Arabia are sand desert

2001 11 September - 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in attacks on New York and Washington are Saudi nationals.

2001 December - King Fahd calls for the eradication of terrorism, saying it is prohibited by Islam; government takes the unprecedented step of issuing ID cards to women.

2002 February - British man arrested in Riyadh after the March 2001 bombings claims the Saudi authorities tortured him and forced a confession. The man, Ron Jones, had been released after being allowed to retract his confession.

2002 May - Revised criminal code includes ban on torture and right of suspects to legal representation, but rights campaigners say violations continue.

2002 November - Saudi foreign minister says his country will not allow the US to use its facilities to attack Iraq, even in a UN-sanctioned strike.

2003 April - US says it will pull out almost all its troops from Saudi Arabia, ending a military presence dating back to the 1991 Gulf war. Both countries stress that they will remain allies.

2003 May - Suicide bombers kill 35 people at housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh hours before US Secretary of State Colin Powell flies in for planned visit.

Signs of dissent

2003 September - More than 300 Saudi intellectuals - women as well as men - sign petition calling for far-reaching political reforms.

2003 October - Police break up unprecedented rally in centre of Riyadh calling for political reform. More than 270 people are arrested.

2003 November - Suicide attack by suspected al-Qaeda militants on residential compound in Riyadh leaves 17 dead and scores injured.

2003 November - King grants wider powers to Consultative Council (majlis al-shura), enabling it to propose legislation without his permission.

2004 February - Stampede at Hajj pilgrimage leaves 251 dead.

2004 April - Four police officers and a security officer killed in attacks near Riyadh. Car bomb at security forces' HQ in Riyadh kills four, wounds 148. Group linked to al-Qaeda claims responsibility.


2004 May - Attack at petrochemical site in Yanbu kills five foreigners. Attack and hostage-taking at oil company compound in Khobar; 22 people are killed.

2004 June - Three gun attacks in Riyadh within a week leave two Americans and a BBC cameraman dead. The same week, a US engineer is abducted and beheaded, his filmed death causing revulsion in America.

Security forces kill local al-Qaeda leader Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin shortly afterwards, but an amnesty for militants which follows has only limited effect despite a fall in militant activity.

2004 December - Attack on US consulate in Jeddah; five staff and four attackers are killed.

Two car bombs explode in central Riyadh; security forces kill seven suspects in a subsequent raid.

2005 February-April - First-ever nationwide municipal elections. Women do not take part in the poll.

2005 1 August - Saudi royal court announces death of King Fahd. He is succeeded by the former crown prince, Abdullah.

2005 September - Five gunmen and three police officers killed in clashes in the eastern city of Dammam.

Al-Yamamah arms deal

Tornado fighter of the Saudi Royal Air Force over Riyadh

Britain's biggest arms contract, first signed in 1985

  • Involves aircraft, ships and support for Saudi military
  • Worth 40 billion for BAE Systems and partners
  • New order for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets confirmed in 2007
  • UK probe into alleged corruption dropped

2005 November - World Trade Organization gives the green light to Saudi Arabia's membership following 12 years of talks.

2006 January - 363 Hajj pilgrims are killed in a crush during a stone-throwing ritual in Mecca. In a separate incident, more than 70 pilgrims are killed when a hostel in the city collapses.

2006 February - Government says it has foiled a planned suicide bomb attack on a major oil-processing plant at Abqaiq.

2006 June - Six men allegedly linked to al-Qaeda are killed in a shootout with police in Riyadh, the latest of several incidents involving Islamist militants.

2006 October - Saudi Arabia moves to formalise the royal succession in an apparent bid to prevent infighting among the next generation of princes.

2006 December - Britain halts a fraud investigation into the al-Yamamah defence deal with Saudi Arabia.

2007 February - Four French nationals are killed in a suspected terror attack near the north-western ruins of Madain Saleh, which are popular with tourists.


2007 April - Police say they have arrested 172 terror suspects, some of whom trained as pilots for suicide missions.

2007 July - Religious police are banned from detaining suspects. The force has come under increasing criticism for overzealous behaviour after recent deaths in custody.

2007 September - Saudi Arabia, Britain agree a deal for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon combat jets.

2007 October - Royal decree orders an overhaul of the judicial system.

2007 December - Authorities announce arrest of a group of men suspected of planning attacks on holy sites during the Hajj pilgrimage.

2008 April - British High Court rules British government acted unlawfully in dropping corruption inquiry into the 43bn Saudi Al-Yamamah defence deal.

2008 July - British House of Lords reverses High Court decision and says their government acted lawfully in dropping investigation into the Al-Yamamah defence deal as the Saudis had threatened to withdraw cooperation with London on security matters.

2008 December - Saudi Arabia and Qatar agree final delineation of border.

2009 February - Interpol issues security alerts for 85 men suspected of plotting attacks in Saudi Arabia, in its largest group alert. All but two are Saudis.

King Abdullah sacks head of religious police, most senior judge and central bank head in rare government reshuffle. Also appoints country's first woman minister.

2009 April - Saudi Arabia said it had arrested 11 al-Qaeda militants who were allegedly planning attacks on police installations, armed robberies and kidnappings.

2009 June - US President Barack Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia at the start of a Middle East tour aimed at increasing US engagement with the Islamic world. Had talks with King Abdullah.

Al-Qaeda trial

2009 July - A court issued verdicts in the first explicit terrorism trial for al-Qaeda militants in the country. Officials said 330 had been on trial, but did not specify how many had been found guilty. One was sentenced to death.

Amnesty International criticised Saudi Arabia over abuses allegedly committed as part of its counter-terrorism operations, saying thousands of suspects have been detained for years without charge or trial.

The Human Rights Watch group accuses Saudi Arabia of not living up to pledges to free women from the institution of male guardianship, which prevents them from receiving medical treatment without the permission of a male relative.

2009 August - Saudi Arabia says it arrested 44 suspected militants with alleged links to al-Qaeda.

2009 November - Saudi troops move to enforce buffer zone in northern Yemen after becoming involved in border clashes with Yemeni rebels.

2010 October - US officials confirm plan to sell $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia - the most lucrative single arms deal in US history.

2010 November - Officials announce arrest of 149 militants over past eight months, most of them allegedly belonging to al-Qaeda.

King Abdullah undergoes back surgery in the US.

2010 December - Diplomatic cables revealed by whistle-blowing website Wikileaks suggest US concern that Saudi Arabia is the ''most significant'' source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.


2011 January - Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali finds sanctuary in Saudi Arabia after fleeing a popular uprising at home.

2011 February - King Abdullah announces increased welfare spending, as unrest continues across Arab world.

2011 March - Public protests banned, after small demonstrations in mainly Shia areas of the east. King Abdullah warns that threats to the nation's security and stability will not be tolerated.

Saudi troops participate in crackdown on unrest in Bahrain.

2011 June - Saudi women mount symbolic protest drive in defiance of ban on female drivers.

2011 September - King Abdullah announces more rights for women, including the right to vote and run in municipal elections and to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council - the most influential political body in the country.

A woman is sentenced to 10 lashes after being found guilty of driving - the first time that a legal punishment has been handed down for violation of the ban on women drivers. King Abdullah overturns the sentence.

2011 October - Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al Saud is named as the heir to the throne, after Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud dies.

2011 December - US confirms major sale of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.

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