Saudi Arabia, a monarchy in southwestern Asia, occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is bounded on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait; on the east by the Persian Gulf and Qatar; on the southeast by the United Arab Emirates and Oman; on the south by the Republic of Yemen; and on the west by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The country’s border with the United Arab Emirates is not precisely defined. Saudi Arabia has an area of about 2,240,000 sq km (about 864,900 sq mi). The capital and largest city are Riyadh.
Land and Resources
Considerably more than half the area of Saudi Arabia is desert. Rub’ al Khali, known in English as the Great Sandy Desert and as the Empty Quarter, extends over much of the southeast and beyond the southern frontier. Partially unexplored, Rub’ al Khali has an estimated area of about 650,000 sq km (about 250,000 sq mi). An extension of the Syrian Desert projects into northern Saudi Arabia, and extending southeast from this region is An Nafûd, an upland desert of red sand covering an area of about 57,000 sq km (about 22,000 sq mi). Ad Dhan’, a narrow extension of this desert, links An Nafûd and Rub’ al Khali. A central plateau region, broken in the east by a series of uplifts, extends south from An Nafûd. Several wadis (watercourses), dry except in the rainy season, traverse the plateau region.
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Its western limits are delineated by a mountain range extending generally northwest and southeast along the eastern edge of the regions of Al Ḩijz (Hejaz) and ‘Asîr. The highest point in Saudi Arabia, Jabal Sawd’ (3,207 m/10,522 ft), is located in the southwestern portion of the country. Between the range, which has an average elevation of about 1,200 m (about 4,000 ft), and the Red Sea is a narrow coastal plain. In the east, along the Persian Gulf, is a low-lying region known as Al Aḩs’. It is underlain by great petroleum deposits.
Extreme heat and aridity are characteristic of most of Saudi Arabia. The average temperature range in January is 8° to 20°C (47° to 68°F) in Riyadh and 19° to 29°C (66° to 83°F) in Jiddah. The average range in July is 27° to 43°C (81° to 109°F) in Riyadh and 27°to 38°C (80°to 100°F) in Jiddah. The Arabian Peninsula is one of the few places in the world where summer temperatures above 48°C (120°F) are common, while in winter frost or snow can occur in the interior and the higher mountains. Precipitation is sparse throughout the country. Annual rainfall in Riyadh averages 100 mm (4 in) and falls almost exclusively between January and May; the average in Jiddah is 54 mm (2.1 in) and occurs between November and January. Because of the general aridity, Saudi Arabia has no permanent rivers or lakes.
Fertile oases, many of which are the sites of towns and villages, are scattered through the Saudi Arabian deserts north of Rub’ al Khali, and larger tracts of pasturage are in Ad Dhan’ and the plateau region. The great Saudi Arabian oil fields are located in the coastal area adjoining the Persian Gulf. Because of the general aridity, the vegetation is not extensive. Various fruit trees, notably the date palm, and a wide variety of grains and vegetables thrive in the oases and in other areas where water is available. The indigenous wildlife includes the antelope, bustard, fox, gazelle, hyena, ibex, ostrich, panther, pigeon, quail, wildcat, wild cow, and wolf.
Environmental protection is an ancient tradition in Arabia, and special reserves were known long before the advent of Islam. Today Saudi Arabia has an extensive system of protected areas, including one national park, a number of nature reserves, and several classes of special-use areas. Some protection has been extended to sensitive marine habitats off the coasts.
Saudi Arabia is mostly desert. Only 0.1 per cent (1995) is forested, although the government conducts a reforestation program. Livestock grazing represents the largest environmental threat to the sparse natural vegetation. A high population growth rate has put extreme pressure on the delicate arid environments of the interior and created concern over the management of scarce resources, especially water. Underground aquifers are overdrafted, and the government has spent huge sums on desalinization plants to provide artificially processed freshwater.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest producers of petroleum products and suffers a number of related problems, including oil spills on land and off its coasts. Marshes and other sensitive marine habitats, especially in the Persian Gulf, have been in decline for decades because of oil pollution. They are important not only as rare habitat but as key elements in the ecology of commercially harvested fish and shrimp. The 1991 Persian Gulf War caused catastrophic damage to some of these areas.
For a country largely composed of the desert, Saudi Arabia has a fairly rich biodiversity. Eighteen per cent of its invertebrate animals, seven of its nine amphibians, and all of its indigenous freshwater fish are found nowhere else. There are an estimated 3,500 species of plants and 59 terrestrial mammals, 19 of which are endangered, vulnerable, or rare. Government-sponsored wildlife teams are working to increase populations of threatened houbara bustards and Arabian oryx. In addition, there are 413 recorded species of birds, 11 of which are rare or endangered.
Saudi Arabia participates in international environmental agreements pertaining to climate change, hazardous wastes, and ozone layer protection. Regionally, the country has committed itself to the cooperative protection of shared marine environments in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden.
The resident population of Saudi Arabia is composed mainly (82 per cent) of Arabs whose ancestors have lived in the area for many centuries. A substantial minority (13 per cent) consists of Yemenis and other Arabs who came to Saudi Arabia after the 1950s because of the economic opportunities the country afforded. Nomads, known as Bedouins, make up a declining proportion of the population, and the number of settled residents has also decreased. In the early 1990s, 27 per cent of the people in the country were nonresident foreign workers, primarily from Asia and Africa.
By 2000 an estimated 86 per cent of the population was urban. The national language is Arabic. Virtually all Saudis are Muslims. The great majority are of the Sunni sect, although some Shia Muslims live in the east (Sunni Islam; Shia Islam). The Wahhabi sect, comprised of reformers who settled in Arabia during the 18th century and who have sought to purify and simplify the practice of Islam, has greatly influenced the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia.
According to the 1992 census, Saudi Arabia had a population of 16,929,294. The 2002 estimate is 23,513,330, yielding an average population density of 10 persons per sq km (27 per sq mi).
The capital of Saudi Arabia is Riyadh. Other important cities include Jiddah, a port city on the Red Sea; Mecca, one of the great Muslim pilgrimage centres; Medina, a holy city and cultural centre of Islam; and Ad Dammam, an oil centre on the Persian Gulf. In the 1980s two large new industrial centres, Al Jubayl, on the Persian Gulf, and Yanbu’ al Baḩr, on the Red Sea, were built at an estimated cost of more than $45 billion.
Education in Saudi Arabia is free but not compulsory. In the 1998-1999 school year the country had 11,506 primary schools with a total enrollment of 2.3 million pupils; secondary schools enrolled 1.8 million students. Some 94 per cent of Saudi adults were literate in 2001, a dramatic increase from the less than 3 per cent literacy rate in the early 1960s. In recent decades, teacher-training institutes have been established with the aim of reducing the country’s great dependence on other Arab countries for teachers. King Saud University was founded as the University of Riyadh in 1957; the Islamic University, in Medina, in 1961; King Abdulaziz University, in Jiddah, in 1967; King Faisal University, in Ad Dammam, in 1975; and Umm al-Qura University, in Mecca, in 1979.
Founded in Riyadh in 1953, the Islamic University of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud attained university status in 1974. Three other institutions for advanced learning are the Technical Institute (1964), at Riyadh, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (1963), at Dhahran, and a college of Islamic studies, founded in 1933, at Mecca. Additional institutes for religious training are located in Riyadh and other cities and towns. Instruction at the higher levels is frequently in English, which, after Arabic, is Saudi Arabia’s major language. Altogether, some 349,600 Saudis were enrolled in institutions of higher education in 1998-1999. Every year a number of qualified young Saudis enrol for advanced study in Europe and the United States.
Agriculture and livestock raising have historically been the basic economic activities of Saudi Arabia, but since the development of the oil industry, the government has sought to diversify its industrial base and improve its basic economic structure, developing roads, airports, seaports, and the power industry. Through a sharp increase in oil prices beginning in 1973, Saudi Arabia began to amass a tremendous cash reserve. The government used its newfound wealth to transform its economy at a rate almost without precedent in modern history.
A lack of trained and skilled labour was partially offset by millions of guest workers. By the mid-1980s, however, oil prices were in decline as a system of production quotas created by oil-exporting nations began to break down, and high prices encouraged exploration and development of oil reserves elsewhere. Saudi Arabia began to spend more than it took in, drawing down its cash reserves. By the mid-1990s continued declines in oil sales forced the Saudi government to reduce expenditures. Residents anticipated a reduction in government subsidies on telephone calls and public services, and consideration was given to the privatization of some government assets.
The estimated annual budget in the mid-1990s included revenues of about $39 billion and expenditures of about $50 billion. Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2000 was $173.3 billion. The government was the largest employer in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s, engaging about 34 per cent of the workforce. The industry employed 28 per cent, including 5 per cent in the oil industry, while 22 per cent were in trade and other services, and 16 per cent in agriculture or fishing.
Saudi Arabia has 1 daily newspaper, some of which are published in English. The government operates radio and television broadcasting services, and in 1997 there were 321 radio receivers and 262 television sets for every 1,000 residents. In 2000 Saudi Arabia had 137 telephone mainlines per 1,000 people.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. The government is based on the Sharia, the sacred law of Islam, which is interpreted according to the strict Hanbali rite by the learned religious elders, or ulama. Saudi Arabia has no formal constitution; however, in March 1992 a series of royal decrees established a bill of rights, increased the powers of provincial governments, and provided for a Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), to be appointed by the king.
Executive and Legislature
The chief government and religious official of Saudi Arabia is a king. Succession to the office is not hereditary, and the crown prince, who succeeds the king, is chosen from among the Saud royal family by the family in consultation with religious and government leaders. The king usually also serves as Saudi Arabia’s prime minister. The royal family and a few other prominent families provide most higher government officials.
The king’s power is effectively determined by his personality and his interaction with the leading families and religious officials of the country. Saudi Arabia has no separate legislature or political parties. Laws are issued by the king and his ministers. In 1992 King Fahd established the Consultative Council, a body of 60 members selected by the king as advisers. The council has no legislative powers. In 1997 its membership was increased to 90.
The judicial system of Saudi Arabia is based on the Sharia, which is derived from the Qur’an (Koran) (the holy book of Islam) and the Sunnah (traditions) of the prophet Muhammad. The principal tribunals of the country are the Supreme Council of Justice, the Court of Cassation, general courts, and summary courts.
Saudi Arabia is divided into 13 administrative districts. Large cities elect their own municipal governments. Towns and villages are governed by councils of elders.
Since the mid-1960s Saudi Arabia’s defence expenditures have increased dramatically. The country maintains two separate armies. The first is the national guard, or the white guard, which is a conglomeration of tribal levies organized along traditional lines and has about 77,000 active members.
In 2001 the regular armed forces included an army of 75,000 soldiers, an air force of 20,000, a navy of 15,500, and an air defence force. These forces, trained in part with U.S. assistance, are equipped with modern weapons and advanced aircraft.
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