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Saudi Arabia

[Map of Saudi Arabia]Saudi Arabia dominates the Persian Gulf region, as the largest country, the next-door neighbor of seven of the eight other countries in the region, and the focus of the Islamic faith. Despite its large size, vast sections of the country, such as the al-Rub’ al-Khali ("Empty Quarter"), are uninhabitable, resulting in population concentrations in the littoral regions, mountains, and oases. [Flag of Saudi Arabia]The settlements, many grown into cities, that dot the country are a result of the nation’s founder’s campaign to settle the bedouin in his quest to conquer the Arabian Peninsula during the first quarter of this century. The region was a center of anti-Ottoman intrigue during World War I, when the British were still ascendant on the eastern and southern coasts, the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz ibn abd al-Rahman al-Sa’ud (a.k.a. Ibn Sa’ud), held the center and north, while the Hashemite Sherif of Mekka, the great-grandfather of the present King of Jordan, was the main actor on the west coast, which remained largely under the control of various local shaykhs. Although the Arabs never achieved their unified kingdom that was the goal of their cooperation with the British, Ibn Sa’ud emerged as undisputed ruler in the east, and Sherif Hussein ruled in the West. When Hussein declared himself Caliph (successor to the Prophet Mohammed as the spiritual leader of Islam) following the deposition of the Ottoman Sultan, Ibn Sa’ud launched a successful challenge, achieving control of the western kingdom in 1926 and unifying the two kingdoms into today’s Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Saudi Arabia in Statistics
Metric Value  Remarks
Population 17.88 millions, 1995
Population density 7 per km2, 1995
GDP 120.2 US$billions, 1994
GDP per capita 6,868 US$, 1994
Telephones 1,719.4 thousands, 1995
Teledensity 9.62 per 100 inhabitants, 1995
Teledensity in largest city 18.86 per 100 inhabitants, 1995
Cellular subscribers 16.0 thousands, 1995
Cellular density 0.09 per 100 inhabitants, 1995
PCs 600 thousands, 1995
PC density 3.36 per 100 inhabitants, 1995
Television sets (receivers) 4,600 thousands, 1995
Television density 26.9 per 100 inhabitants, 1995
Literacy rate 62.8   per 100 inhabitants older than 15 years, 1995
Infant mortality 46.4   per 1000 inhabitants, 1996 estimate

As keeper of the two holy cities of Mekka and Medina, the former being the site of the annual Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage), the King is a central figure in Sunni Islam, although the degree of authority varies over time and the Saudi royal family and a majority of Saudis adhere to the strict Wahhabi sect, untempered by the pragmatism of their fellow Wahhabis in Qatar. The tribal, geographic, and religious heritages of the Saudis provide the backdrop for what is today a very conservative society attempting to modernize in selected aspects. Cultural and religious norms probably more strongly condition the nature of government control in Saudi Arabia than in other countries of the region.

The Saudi government is under social, political, and economic pressure. More than the other countries in the region, the Saudi government has spent its oil wealth lavishly, sustaining ambitious construction programs, a gracious lifestyle for the elite, and social spending programs to improve the average citizen’s standard of living. Although Saudi Arabia has by far the largest GDP of any country in the region, the GDP per capita is modest, due to the large population. Thus, the government cannot afford lavish spending for the benefit of all citizens. The result has been a sharp division in society between the elite, the middle class, and the rest of the population. As oil income declined, and under the burden of Desert Storm expenses, spending on social programs was cut first, resulting in increasing discontent among the lower classes. Meanwhile, the continued support of the royal family at the Treasury’s expense exacerbated the lower classes’ sense of betrayal by a government upon which they had come to rely for basic necessities. The Saudi government’s traditional approach to opposition was to silence or exile dissenters, but the proliferation of communications media and information technology has enabled off-shore opposition groups, such as the London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), to voice their dissent from a safe distance. The royal family has attempted to maintain its traditionally close links to the populace, and is taking careful steps to liberalize society in ways that are not threatening to religious norms or the monarchy, but there is increasing pressure for more radical changes, especially for limiting the power of the monarchy or eliminating it altogether.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi flag is a green field with a large white Arabic script (that may be translated as "There is no God but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God") above a white horizontal saber (the tip points to the hoist side). Green is the traditional color of Islam.