Saudi Arabia

new internationalist
issue 319 - December 1999

Country profile - Saudi Arabia

Where is Saudi Arabia? The clichés about Saudi Arabia abound - mysterious, medieval, above all mega-rich. The country's mystique stems principally from the fact that it is a very difficult place to visit - and not an easy place about which to obtain accurate information.

The modern state is largely the creation of one man: Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'ud, known as Ibn Sa'ud. The al-Sa'ud family had led a tribal alliance which conquered much of Arabia in the eighteenth century but had lost control of nearly all of it by 1897 when Ibn Sa'ud became head of the family. His talents in diplomacy and military strategy saw him ruling most of the peninsula by 1924. He named the country the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The new kingdom consisted largely of desert. Outside a few cities and scattered farming oases, it was populated, if at all, by camel-rearing nomads. When the Japanese discovered how to farm oysters in 1930 the Gulf pearl trade collapsed, leaving Saudi Arabia one export commodity (dates) and an annual revenue of about $250,000, nearly half of which came in the form of subsidies from Britain.

Oil changed all that. By 1950, the Kingdom was selling a million dollars' worth of oil a week. Since then, it has grown immensely richer and more powerful; it holds the world's largest proven reserves of crude oil (over a quarter of the total) and is the largest exporter. Despite the fluctuations in the price of oil in recent years, it is a very wealthy state, with vast reserves of money as well as oil. Its citizenry is generally prosperous and provided with free education and healthcare; its infrastructure and services are up to European standards. But the development of the country has been so rapid and on such a spectacular scale that its social and political institutions have failed to keep pace.

Indeed, politically Saudi Arabia is little different now from how it was in 1932. It remains an absolute monarchy, which the King (or in reality now the Crown Prince, Abdullah, since his brother King Fahd is very ill), rules by royal decree. In practice, matters of state are decided by the King in consultation with his ministers, who are mostly his brothers, cousins, nephews etc. There is no constitution, just a Basic Law issued in 1982 which begins: 'Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab state with Islam as its religion; God's book and the teachings of His Prophet are its constitution.'

The judicial system has a decidedly medieval ring to it. There is no penal code as such. There are no juries. Apart from fines and imprisonment, the usual punishments are, depending on the seriousness of the crime, flogging, amputation and beheading. Executions are frequent (there were 29 last year) and often carried out in public.

No avenues of dissent are tolerated. Human-rights organizations believe there are hundreds of political prisoners. There are no trade unions, strikes are illegal; women are not allowed to travel in public without male accompaniment and cannot drive. Foreign workers have few rights and are often subject to arbitrary mistreatment. There are no cinemas, no theatres. The press is strictly controlled.

The Saudi state was once described as a 'house built on sand'. Millions of Muslims the world over eagerly look forward to the day the flimsy edifice - dependent on oil and expatriate labour - collapses. The country is as derided in the Arab world as it is in the West for both its wealth and its perceived backwardness. But though no government can rule for long by repression alone, the state appears to be in no immediate danger of collapse.

Sufyan al-Jazzar


LEADER: King Fahd (Crown Prince Abdullah is Regent due to the King's illness).

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $8,500, assuming a population of c. 11 million (Australia $20,090).
Monetary unit: Riyal. Utterly dependent on oil exports (75% of budget revenue). The Govemment controls much of the economy. Plans to diversify and privatize have long been in the offing.

PEOPLE: The latest official figure, a 1995 estimate of just short of 19 million, would give the Kingdom easily the highest population-growth rate in the world. A more reliable figure is generally believed to be around 11 million. Some 4 million of those are foreign workers - around 3 million from South Asia.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 24 per 1,000 births (Britain 6 per 1,000). The State provides free healthcare for all Saudi citizens.

ENVIRONMENT: Coastal pollution from oil spills is a problem, as are increasing desertification and the depletion of underground water sources.

CULTURE: Arab and Muslim. Most are Sunni, with a Shi'ite minority (around 10%) in the east. Arabic is the official language.

Sources The State of the World's Children 1999; information supplied by the author.

Previously profiled August 1989



[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The top of the pile contains some of the richest people in the world, but among Saudi citizens oil wealth is quite evenly distributed.
[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown]

LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
63% overall, but fewer than half of Saudi women can read and write.

1989 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

[image, unknown]

SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Everything, apart from oil, is imported.

1989 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

[image, unknown]

FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Political and cultural expression are seriously curtailed and the open practice of any faith other than Islam is illegal.

1989 [image, unknown]

[image, unknown]

POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown]
Serious restrictions on virtually every aspect of womens lives.

1989 [image, unknown]

[image, unknown]

LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
71 years. Compares with its poorer neighbour Yemen's 58 and rich- world levels such as Canada's 79 years.

1989 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown]
Ordinary citizens have no say in the running of the state. Although Crown Prince Abdullah is seen, by Saudi standards, as somewhat progressive, he will have great difficulty in getting reform past some of his powerful reactionary brothers. Substantial improvement is unlikely in the foreseeable future.


NI star rating

[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown]

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