New Internationalist

Saudi Arabia

August 1989

new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989


Saudi Arabia

Map of Saudi Arabia The Western picture of the Arab world draws heavily on romantic images of Arabia: the drifting sands, the wandering Bedouin.

The picture has long needed updating. Today less than five per cent of the Saudi Arabian population are pastoralists; almost 70 per cent live in modern cities. And even when Saudis herd camels, sheep and goats they are likely to do so with the aid of the pick-up truck and the CB radio.

Change has come with great speed. Until the 1930s Saudi Arabia was a Middle Eastern backwater. Then oil was discovered by US companies. By 1954 an oil refinery and pipeline to the Mediterranean had put Saudi Arabia on the world energy map. Today the country is the world's third-largest oil producer and supplies 12 per cent of world output.

This strategic significance did not escape the US Government: by 1951 the two countries had signed a mutual assistance pact. In return for its loyalty to Washington it has been able to draw on US political and military backing - most notably when the US fleet guaranteed its oil exports during the Gulf War.

When the oil boom began in the 1960s Saudi oil revenue rose with startling speed. By 1970 annual revenue was $1.2 billion; by 1981 it was $102 billion.

[image, unknown] A series of five-year plans concentrated on building a modem infrastructure. In effect the Saudis built a twentieth-century state from scratch. Roads, towns, schools, hospitals were constructed at breakneck speed. And as fast as society changed, Saudis adapted to take on new habits of urban life and an aggressive consumerism.

But in two important ways Saudi Arabia remains a traditional and highly conservative society. Islamic restrictions on women's freedom, on public freedom, on public entertainment and on alcohol are strictly enforced. And so is a retributive system of justice rejected by Muslims in many other countries. Its political system, too, is deeply conservative. Power is monopolised by the Al-Saud family, whose ancestors unified Arabia in the nineteenth century. There is no parliament or even consultative body - a fact which has produced growing disquiet among even privileged Saudis.

In recent years oil revenues have fallen sharply, causing drastic revision of development plans. For the first time in a generation living standards have declined for some Saudis. Unemployment is rising.

Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of stability in the volatile Gulf region. The question its rulers and their friends in Western capitals are now asking is whether the country can pass through a period of economic uncertainty without political upheaval. As the Shah of Iran discovered, economic boom can soon turn to political bust.

P Byrne

Leader: King Fahd Bin Abdel-Aziz

Economy: GNP per capita $6,950 (US $17,480)
Monetary unit: Saudi riyal.
Oil dominates economy; oil-related industries such as petrochemicals have been developed and are now affecting world market. Light manufacturing serves mainly local needs. Agriculture has been transformed in the central and eastern regions where irrigation has allowed cereal farming on a huge scale: the country is now a net exporter of wheat. In the western highlands traditional subsistence methods still dominate. Nomadism has all but ceased as Bedouin have been encouraged to settle in urban centres or to take up farming.

People: 12 million

Health: Infant mortality: 74 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1.000)

Culture: A Muslim state: Islam originated in the cities of Mecca and Medina which are still seen as the centres of the Muslim world. Traditional Islamic principles govern social life and the legal system. All Saudis consider themselves to be Arabs.
Language: Arabic. Large Western expatriate community means that English is widely understood.
Religion: Sunni Islam. No other religion tolerated.


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A fabulously wealthy elite; poverty in some rural areas

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Much technology from abraod

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Most urban women are veiled and confined to the home

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Right Authoritarian; no pretence of democratic structures

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Female 12%, Male 35%, Better in cities, patchy in countryside.

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No dissent tolerated. Death penalty often used.

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63 years
(US 76 years)

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previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page [image, unknown]

This feature was published in the August 1989 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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