Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the official name of the country.

Location: Arabian Peninsula in Southwest Asia

Area: 830,000 sq mi (2,149,700 km2)

Population: 22,000,000 (estimate)

Capital and Largest City: Riyadh

Major Language(s): Arabic (official)

Major Religious Group(s): Muslim (official)

Government: Monarchy

Head of state — king

Head of government — president

Legislature — Majles

Chief Products:

Agricultural — wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, citrus, livestock

Manufactured — petroleum refining, petrochemicals, cement, fertilizer, plastics

Mineral — petroleum

Monetary Unit: Saudi riyal (1 riyal = 100 halalah)


Saudi Arabia is a vast kingdom in the Middle East, about one-third the size of the continental United States. Its population, however, is relatively small, for much of Saudi Arabia is desert, poorly suited to human habitation.

Saudi Arabia occupies most of the boot-shaped Arabian Peninsula in southwestern Asia. For much of its history, Arabia was isolated from the rest of the world. It was largely the home of nomadic Bedouin, who crossed the deserts searching for grazing land and water for their herds of camels, goats, and sheep. But two events, many centuries apart, greatly changed the character and fortunes of the region.

In A.D. 610 the prophet Mohammed began to preach the new faith of Islam. Soon an Islamic civilization spread across much of Asia, Africa, and into Europe, where it was halted by Christian armies. The second major event occurred in the 1930s, when enormous deposits of oil were discovered beneath Arabia's barren soil. Today the wealth from its vast oil reserves has helped transform Saudi Arabia from a desert kingdom into a modern state.

The People

Population. Saudi Arabia has a population of about 22 million, but about 25 percent of its residents are workers from foreign countries, known as expatriates. Of the total native population, 90 percent is Arab and 10 percent is Afro-Asian.

Language. Arabic, a member of the Semitic family of languages, is the official language of Saudi Arabia. Its significance comes from the belief that the Koran (Quran) was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in the Arabic language.

Religion. All native Saudi Arabians are Muslims, and 90 percent of them belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. A significant number of Sunni Muslims conform to Wahhabism, a reform sect that follows strict interpretation of all the laws of Islam. Ten percent of Saudi Arabians belong to the Shi’ite branch of Islam.

Islam’s two major holy sites — Mecca and Medina — are situated in Saudi Arabia. Mecca draws about 3 million Muslim pilgrims from all over the world for the hajj (pilgrimage) to the Kaaba (cube-shaped holy site in Mecca) each year during the twelfth month in the Islamic calendar. Muslims are required to make this pilgrimage once during the course of their lives given that they are adult, able-bodied, and have the financial means to do so. The second holiest Islamic city is Medina. It is the city where the first Islamic state was established. The Prophet Mohammed’s mosque and tomb are located there.

Education. The government of Saudi Arabia provides free schooling from the primary through the university level. Girls and boys attend separate schools. Universities for men and colleges for women are located in Riyadh, the capital, and in other major cities such as Jidda, Medina, and Dhahran. An Islamic university in Medina trains religious scholars and leaders. The College of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran trains technicians and managers for industry. Many students attend colleges and universities abroad.

Way of Life. Until fairly recently, most of Saudi Arabia’s people were nomadic or seminomadic. But the impact of modern economic, social, and political changes has led to the rapid growth of urban areas. By the year 2000, approximately 80 percent of the population lived in cities. Many former nomads, who once rode animals for transportation and lived in tents, now drive cars and live in modern apartments or houses subsidized by the government.

Those who still follow nomadic traditions travel through the desert during the autumn, winter, and spring months. In the summer, when grass and water are scarce, they may camp near an oasis, wellspring, or other permanent water source. They visit the towns and villages to sell their livestock, buy supplies, and visit friends. In late autumn, they resume the cycle.

Traditional village life in Saudi Arabia centers around a marketplace, a mosque (the Muslim house of worship), and a coffeehouse, where men gather to talk. Houses are usually one or two stories high and are constructed of sun-dried bricks, stone, or concrete blocks. They are often built around an open courtyard.

Customs. Religion and family relationships have always played important roles in Saudi Arabian life, and the people are proud of their ancestral traditions and codes of honor. A household is typically made up of a husband and wife, their unmarried sons and daughters, and in some cases married sons with their wives and children. In the past, parents arranged their children’s marriages, and men often had more than one wife. These practices, however, are now in decline.

In Saudi Arabia, the most socially conservative of the Arab countries, women are not allowed to drive cars or travel alone. But educated Saudi Arabian women are gradually moving into public life.

Dress. Traditional clothing for men consists of an ankle-length gown called a thobe or jellaba, over which may be worn an aba, or dark-colored cloak. The head covering is a large square cotton cloth called a ghutra. It is held in place by a black ropelike hoop called an agal.

In public, Saudi Arabian women cover their faces and wear long dark-colored garments that cloak their bodies from head to foot. However, at home they often wear western-style clothing.

The Land

Land Regions. Saudi Arabia has several distinct geographical regions: the Western Highlands, the Central Plateau, the Northern Deserts, the Rub al-Khali, and the Eastern Lowlands.

The Western Highlands lie along the Red Sea. The northern portion is called the Hejaz, and the southern portion is called the Asir. A narrow coastal plain called the Tihama separates parts of both regions from mountains that rise to the east. Jabal Sawda, the country’s highest peak, rises 10,279 feet (3,133 meters) in the Asir.

The Central Plateau, called the Nejd, extends eastward from the mountains. This is a relatively level area, occasionally interrupted by low ranges and cut by wadis, or desert valleys. A chain of fertile oases extends down the plateau.

About one-third of Saudi Arabia is desert. The Northern Deserts are also known as the An Nafd. Southern Saudi Arabia encompasses the Rub al-Khali — or Empty Quarter. Because of the sweltering heat and lack of water, this vast area of continuous sand is one of the most inhospitable and least known deserts in the world. The An Nafd and Rub al-Khali deserts are connected by the Ad Dahn, a long, narrow belt of sand ridges.

The Eastern Lowlands, along the Persian Gulf, make up the lowest part of country.

Rivers, Lakes, and Coastal Waters. Saudi Arabia is bordered by the Red Sea to the west and the Persian Gulf to the east. It has no permanent rivers or lakes. The many wadis are formed by temporary streams that carry water only after the infrequent rains.

Climate. Most of Saudi Arabia has a harsh desert climate, with frequent dust and sand storms and little rainfall. From May to September, the weather is very hot and dry. Temperatures drop rapidly after sunset, and the nights are relatively cool. Temperatures are lower along the coasts, but the humidity is higher. Temperatures are less extreme from October to May.

Natural Resources. Saudi Arabia has about one-quarter of the world’s known reserves of oil and natural gas. It also has deposits of iron ore, gold, and copper.

The Economy

Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading producer and exporter of petroleum and natural gas. Because petroleum provides almost all of the country’s income, the economy fluctuates with the rise and fall of world oil prices. In recent years, to diversify their investments, Saudi Arabians have put much of their wealth into foreign products and financial markets.

Services. The development of the oil industry and rapid economic growth has drawn many foreigners to Saudi Arabia. Many of these expatriates are employed by banks, restaurants, hotels, airlines, hospitals, schools, and other service providers.

Manufacturing. Most Saudi industries are related to oil, such as the refining of crude petroleum and the manufacture of petrochemicals, fertilizer, and plastics. The expanding construction industry employs large numbers of workers. Steel mills and aluminum refineries are also being built. Other notable products include leather goods, clothing, and processed foods.

Agriculture. Only a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s land is suitable for the cultivation of crops. Because there is a shortage of fresh water for drinking and irrigation, one of the most important industries is desalinization—the process by which seawater is transformed into drinking water and table salt.

Wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, and citrus are the most important crops. As domestic production cannot meet the needs of the growing population, most foods must be imported.

Major Citites

Riydah. the capital and largest city, has a population of about 3 million. In the older part of the city, the streets are narrow. The newer portion of Riyadh is a city of wide avenues lined with modern government buildings and royal palaces.

Jidda. Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, has a population of approximately 2 million people. Located on the Red Sea, Jidda is the country’s center of commerce, cultural activity, and a port of entry for millions of Muslim pilgrims and other visitors.

Mecca. The holiest site in all of Islam, is the country’s third largest city, with a population approaching 1 million.

Cultural Heritage

Poetry and storytelling are common Arabian folk traditions, dating back as far as the A.D. 500s, before the time of Mohammed. The Koran limits public performances of music and dance and prohibits artists from the making of graven images (objects of worship). However, hand-lettered Korans are produced, usually with illustrations based on complex geometric and floral designs.

The Covernment

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, ruled by a king under the laws of Sharia (Islam). Ulema (Muslim religious leaders) advise the king, and ministers run the various departments, but major decisions are made by the king and his Council of Ministers. In 1992, King Fahd created a new governmental body, Shura (the Consultative Council), which advises the ministers and reviews laws. The chief court is the Supreme Council of Justice, and the country’s legal system is based on Islamic law.


By the time the prophet Mohammed died in 632, most of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula had embraced Islam. Within the next 100 years, Islam and Arab political control extended from India to Spain. But Arabia lost its place as the center of Islam. Its capital shifted to Damascus, located in present-day Syria, and later to Baghdad, in present-day Iraq. Arabia became a subordinate province, although it remained important as the site of the holy cities.

After Mohammed’s death, no ruler was able to control the entire peninsula. In the 1500s, the coastal regions acknowledged the authority of the Ottoman Turks, who had established an empire centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The interior of the peninsula remained isolated and under the rule of several tribal leaders.

The Saudis. In the 1700s, the Wahhabi movement, which sought to restore the original teachings of Islam, gained many Arabian followers. Early in the 1800s this movement came under the leadership of the Saudis, one of the ruling tribes of region. As Wahhabism increased, the Saudis gained control of central and eastern Arabia. But their power diminished when the family split into rival factions. The Turks, seeing an opportunity, took over large areas of Arabia, and the Saudi leaders were forced to flee.

In 1902, Ibn Saud, one of the exiled Saudi leaders, recaptured Riyadh, the tribal seat. By 1926, Ibn Saud’s power extended over almost all of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed, with Ibn Saud as king. Ibn Saud was succeeded by his sons Saud (in 1953), Faisal (in 1964), Khalid (in 1975), and Fahd (in 1982).

Recent History. Saudi Arabia’s enormous petroleum reserves have made it of vital importance to many industrialized nations, whose economies depend on oil. When Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor to the north, invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia became the springboard for the campaign by allied forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Its land border with defeated Iraq remains closed, except to the export of food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods.

Reviewed by Alam Payind

Jennifer Nichols
Middle East Studies Center
The Ohio State University

From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge

Copyright © 2002 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.