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Saudi Arabia

A Middle Eastern kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia plays a major role in Muslim affairs throughout the world. Islam originated in the region in the 600s, and Saudi Arabia continues to attract thousands of Muslim pilgrims each year. Since 1932 the House of Saud has ruled the country. These kings rely on Islam to unite Arabian society, validate their own authority, and ensure Saudi Arabia's place as the center of the Islamic world.

Overview of the Country

Around one-fifth the size of the United States, Saudi Arabia occupies 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula. With the Persian Gulf to the east and the Red Sea to the west, the country holds a strategic position for trade and shipping. Jordan and Iraq lie to the north of Saudi Arabia, and Yemen and Oman lie to the south. Saudi Arabia also shares borders with Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Land and People.

The population of Saudi Arabia numbers around 24 million. All Saudis are Muslim, and most are Sunnis, but the country includes a significant Shi'i minority. About 90 percent of Saudis are Arab; the other 10 percent are Asian or African. Large numbers of foreigners have immigrated to Saudi Arabia from other Muslim countries, settling mainly in port cities. Islam plays a dominant role in Saudi Arabian life. It informs national identity, society, law, and politics. Every city and village has a mosque, and street life comes to a standstill at prayer time, when shops close and Muslims turn toward Mecca to pray.

Because Saudi Arabia has a desert climate, it relies on trade rather than agriculture as the basis of its economy. Much of the land is uninhabited, and less than 2 percent is arable. Saudi Arabia experiences frequent sand and dust storms, as well as extremes in temperature. In the 1930s, Saudi Arabians discovered vast oil deposits in their deserts, which account for 25 percent of the world's total known petroleum reserves. Saudi Arabia ranks as the world's largest exporter of oil.

Saudi Arabia

petrochemical plan in Yanbu

David Austen / Stock Boston Inc./PictureQuest

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Geographical Regions.

Saudi Arabia is divided into four distinct regions: al-Hasa, Hejaz, Asir, and Najd. Located near the Persian Gulf, al-Hasa is one of the kingdom's most fertile regions. It is also the location of the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as most of Saudi Arabia's Shi'i Muslims. Hejaz borders the Red Sea and contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This region has a large foreign population, especially in the port city of Jeddah, where 70 percent of the inhabitants are from outside the country.

The southwestern part of the kingdom, Asir, is a predominantly agricultural region. It shares a common border and cultural ties with Yemen. Najd is the central part of Saudi Arabia. Surrounded mostly by desert, this region includes the capital city of Riyadh, which serves as the base of the ruling Saud family.

Arabian History

Before Islam, Arabia consisted of warring tribes without a central government. In the 600s, Muhammad spread his teachings throughout Mecca and Medina. Muhammad united feuding tribes, brought the peninsula under his control, and established Islam as a world religion. Muslims began to spread Islam to other parts of the Middle East, bringing many territories under Islamic rule.

Arabia and the Islamic Empires.

After Muhammad's death, various Islamic empires arose. From their base in Syria, the Umayyads seized control of the Middle East and established a central trade route in the Persian Gulf. When the Abbasids came to power in 750 , they granted large sums of money to Mecca and Medina so that the cities could maintain themselves as the spiritual capitals of Islam.

Around the 1300s, the Mamluks took over part of Arabia, only to be conquered by the Ottomans in the 1500s. The Ottomans vied with European nations for control of the port cities in the region. While European colonialism expanded in the 1800s, Mecca provided Muslims with a sense of common heritage and ideology. Various religious movements originated in Arabian regions, including the Wahhabis, who ultimately brought about the establishment of the modern Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabi Movement and Saud Expansion.

Founded by a religious reformer from Najd named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab , the Wahhabi movement began in the mid-1700s. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab rejected the veneration of saints commonly practiced by Shi'is and Sufis and stressed the acceptance of only one God. He taught that all Muslims should receive an Islamic education so that they would behave according to the guidelines of the Qur'an and the sunnah. The Muslim community could then fulfill its mission of becoming the living embodiment of God's laws on earth. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab emphasized that believers should live in obedience to a just ruler, who would enforce God's laws in consultation with the ulama.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab found a supporter in Muhammad ibn Saud , chieftain of southern Najd. Ibn Saud wanted to gain control of the Arabian Peninsula and promoted his teacher's ideas on Islamic rule. The two joined forces, and by the early 1800s, they and their successors had conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. Egyptian armies, however, defeated the Wahhabi-Saud empire when it spread beyond the peninsula. The Wahhabis withdrew into the southern Najd region and remained there throughout the 1800s.

Saud Revival.

In 1902 Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (a descendant of Muhammad ibn Saud) captured Riyadh and began a 30-year campaign to re-unify the Arabian Peninsula. To raise an army, he sponsored missionary work in remote villages. He taught Bedouin nomads about Islam and provided them with land, food, money, and farming supplies. In return, many joined the Ikhwan (Brotherhood), a military force that served as the backbone of Abd al-Aziz's army. Abd al-Aziz imposed strict Islamic law on Bedouin society, forbidding smoking, drinking, and music. His efforts led to a religious revival in Riyadh and other cities. Wahhabism swept through the peninsula, uniting tribes and establishing Abd al-Aziz as the leader of a vast social and political movement.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

After three decades of conquest, Abd al-Aziz had unified Saudi Arabia under his rule. He formally proclaimed the existence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and created an Islamic monarchy. The Qur'an serves as the constitution; traditional Islamic law provides the legal system; and the ulama serve as the judges and legal advisers. The state-funded Council of Senior Ulama grants religious approval for government policies. Religious police, known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, monitor public behavior. They enforce rules against smoking, music, and loud laughter, as well as ensuring that shop owners close their businesses during prayer time and that women cover themselves in public. They also regulate interaction between men and women.

The Saudi king serves as chief of state and implements laws with the help of a cabinet, the Council of Ministers, which includes many royal family members. Abd al-Aziz ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until his death in 1953 . His descendants have ruled since that time. The Wahhabi influence on Saudi society remains strong, determining the ways in which people dress, behave in public, and pray.

The Council of Senior Ulama plays a crucial role in sanctioning government policies. Many Muslims support the decisions of Saudi leaders when they have the backing of the religious elite. Some, however, do not always agree with the council. For example, when the ulama approved King Faysal's plan to promote education for women in 1960 , the decision attracted fierce opposition. Muslims expressed similar outrage in 1990 , when the council approved King Fahd's decision to invite American forces to Saudi Arabia to wage war against the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein .

In foreign policy, Saudi kings have used their power and influence to maintain Saudi Arabia as the center of the Islamic world. They support Islam and its followers around the globe, providing emergency aid and welfare to needy Muslims abroad. They build mosques and community centers in Western nations to accommodate Muslim immigrants in these countries, and they establish international organizations that promote Muslim unity. The Muslim World League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference both originated in Saudi Arabia.

Opposition to the Government.

Despite its prominent place within the Muslim community, the Saudi government has had its share of rebellion from its citizens and from outsiders. During the mid-1900s, revivalist movements sprang up throughout the Muslim world. In Iran, these led to the 1979 revolution that established the Shi'i leader Ruhollah Khomeini as head of the government. Iranians used the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina as an opportunity to spread Khomeini's teachings. They encouraged the already discontented Saudi Shi'is to challenge their king's claim to leadership. Iranian pilgrims sometimes clashed with Saudi security forces. In 1987 more than 400 people died in a struggle between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security officers.

The 1990 – 1991 Gulf War stirred up dissent among Sunnis as well as Shi'is. Many had opposed the king's invitation to American forces to use Saudi Arabia as a military base. They favored a nonviolent solution to what they viewed as a regional problem, and they resented the presence of foreign soldiers, especially women in the military. The Gulf War also placed an international spotlight on certain human rights abuses in the country. A variety of Saudi groups emerged to demand government reforms, such as a new constitution, a consultative council, an independent judiciary, and equality among all citizens.

In 1992 the government responded to these pressures by establishing a “Basic Law” of government and other political reforms. Human rights groups, however, considered the changes “empty reforms” that reinforced the power of the king rather than ensuring a more representative government. Declining oil prices in the 1990s also caused discontent among the Saudis, as many college-educated youth were unable to find jobs. Many joined neo-Wahhabi religious groups and demonstrated for more career opportunities, a fairer distribution of wealth, better access to health and education facilities, greater political participation, and more accountability in government. They also pushed for stricter enforcement of rules promoting Islamic values, segregating the sexes, and ensuring public modesty.

The king, however, punished those who spoke out against the government. Preachers, religious scholars, and university professors who voiced dissent were dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned, or had their passports taken away. Students who spoke out against the government were denied admission to universities. In 1990 the government punished a group of Saudi women who had demanded the right to drive cars. The head of the Council of Ministers issued a ruling that women should never drive or participate in politics.

Despite these incidents, the Saudi king maintains his control over the region and has enjoyed a relatively smooth reign. Mecca and Medina continue to attract thousands of pilgrims, and the Saudis have retained their influence on the rest of the Islamic world. In the 21st century, the most pressing issues for Saudi Arabia include overcrowding and overpopulation in cities, pollution, and fluctuating oil prices. See also Iran; Iraq; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Mecca; Medina; Middle East.

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