Saudi Arabia (officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or KSA) is a Middle Eastern country that occupies most of the Arabian peninsula and has coastlines on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Neighboring countries include Jordan to the northwest, Iraq and Kuwait to the northeast, Bahrain and Qatar to the east, the United Arab Emirates to the southeast, and Oman and Yemen to the south.
Saudi Arabia contains the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina, to which all physically and financially able Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage at least once if possible (see Hajj) and where non-Muslims are forbidden from entering. As a country that strictly enforces Sharia law, if you are not prepared to accept several limitations on your behaviour and freedom of expression, or if you feel uncomfortable with such adjustments, you should not travel to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is one of three countries named for their royal families, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and The Principality of Lichtenstein. The Saudi family were sheiks of Nejd, the area around Riyadh, but were driven out by a neighboring dynasty, hiding with their relatives, the emirs of Kuwait. Then in 1902, young Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and his army returned to re-capture their home. As it turned out, the invaders had been corrupt, ineffective, and abusive, so many locals joined them. They not only re-captured Riyadh but much of the surrounding territory.
After that, Abdulaziz set out on a 30-year campaign of conquest. The area united under him became known as Saudi Arabia.
In the 1930s, the discovery of oil transformed the country and the US was quick to seek to put one over on the weakened British erstwhile colonialists.
Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia offered refuge to the Kuwaiti royal family and 400,000 refugees while allowing Western and Arab troops to deploy on its sand for the liberation of Kuwait the following year. A burgeoning population, unemployment, aquifer depletion, and an economy largely dependent on petroleum output and prices are all major governmental concerns.
Saudi Arabia is an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia has the second-largest reserves of petroleum in the world after Venezuela (26% of the proven reserves), ranks as one of the largest exporters of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. About 25% of the GDP comes from the private sector.
Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy – for example, in the oil and service sectors.
The government in 1999 announced plans to begin privatizing the electricity companies, which follows the ongoing privatization of the telecommunications company. The government is expected to continue calling for private sector growth to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil and increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. Shortages of water and rapid population growth will constrain government efforts to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural products.
Unemployment among young Saudis is a serious problem. While part of this can be explained by Saudi reluctance to take many types of work, it is also true that Saudi citizens are forced to compete with multitudes of imported labor, which is often much cheaper than that of the locals.
Saudi Arabia covers approximately four-fifths of the area of the Arabian Peninsula, which can be described as a rectangular plateau gradually sloping downhill to the east until reaching sea level at the Persian Gulf.
The main topographical features are:
The Sarawat or Sarat mountain range running parallel to the Red Sea coast beginning near the Jordanian border until the southern coast of Yemen, gradually increasing in height southwards. It is largely made up of barren volcanic rock, especially in the south, and sandstone in the north, but it is also interspersed with ancient lava fields and fertile valleys. As you move further south towards Yemen, the barren landscape gradually gives way to green mountains and even woodlands, the result of being in the range of the monsoons. In Saudi Arabia, the range is commonly known as the Hejaz, though the southernmost part of the range is known as ‘Aseer. In the foothills of the Hejaz lies the holy city of Mecca, and approximately 400km north of Mecca in an oasis between two large lava fields lies the other holy city of Medina.
West of the Sarawat or Hejaz mountain range is a narrow coastal plain known as Tihama, in which the country’s second-largest city, Jidda, is located.
East of the Hejaz lies the elevated plateau known as Najd, a sparsely populated area of desert steppe dotted with small volcanic mountains. To the east of Najd-proper lies the Tuwaig escarpment, a narrow plateau running 800km from north to south. Its top layer is made of limestone and the bottom layer of sandstone. Historically rich in fresh groundwater and criss-crossed with numerous dry riverbeds (wadis), the Tuwaig range and its immediate vicinity are dotted with a constellation of towns and villages. In the middle, nestled between a group of wadis, is the capital city, Ar-Riyadh.
Further east from the Tuwaig plateau and parallel to it is a narrow (20-100km) corridor of red dunes known as the Dahana desert, which separates the “Central Region” or “Najd” from the Eastern Province. The heavy presence of iron oxides gives the sand its distinctive red appearance. The Dahana desert connects two large “seas” of dunes. The northern one is known as the Nufuud, approximately the size of Lake Superior and the southern is known as “the Empty Quarter,” so-called because it covers a quarter of the area of the Peninsula. Though essentially uninhabitable, the edges of these three “seas of sand” make for excellent pastures in the spring season, but even the bedouin rarely attempted to cross the Empty Quarter.
North of the Nufud desert lies a vast desert steppe, traditionally populated mainly by nomadic bedouins except for a few oases such as Al-Jof. This region is an extension of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts (or vice versa). After a rainy season, these barren, rocky steppes can yield lush meadows and rich pastures.
The eastern province is largely barren except that it contains two oases resulting from springs of ancient fossil water. These are the oases of Al-Qateef on the Gulf coast and Al-Hasa (or Al-Ahsa) further inland. Next to Qatif lies the modern metropolitan area of Dammam, Dhahran, and Al-Khobar.
The highest point is Jabal Sawda’ at an elevation of 3,133m (10,279 ft).