Country profile: 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
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.
Continue reading the main story
At a glance
Al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina: Resting place of the Prophet
- 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
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
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
Full name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Population: 26.2 million (UN, 2010)
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
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
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
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
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
- 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.
Saudi Arabia maintains tight control over the
Saudi investors are major players in the pan-Arab TV
industry, but the country has one of the region's most tightly-controlled media
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.
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
Saudi Gazette - Jeddah-based
Saudi TV - state-run, operates four
networks, including news network Al-Ikhbariya
Saudi Radio - state-run
Saudi Press Agency (SPA)
- state-run, English-language pages
A chronology of key events:
1871 - The Ottomans take control of the province of Hasa.
Continue reading the main story
Mecca: Islam's holiest city
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.
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
1933 - King Abd-al-Aziz's eldest son, Saud, is named Crown
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).
Continue reading the main story
Oil - source of Saudi wealth
- 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
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
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
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
1981 May - Saudi Arabia is a founder member of the GCC (Gulf
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
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
Large parts of southern Saudi Arabia are sand
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
2002 May - Revised criminal code includes ban on torture and
right of suspects to legal representation, but rights campaigners say violations
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
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
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.
Continue reading the main story
Al-Yamamah arms deal
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
2006 October - Saudi Arabia moves to formalise the royal
succession in an apparent bid to prevent infighting among the next generation of
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
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
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
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.
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
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