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Saudi Arabia

Atlas Saudi Arabia

Country (long form)
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Total Area
756,984.94 sq mi
1,960,582.00 sq km
22,023,506 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
62.8% total, 71.5% male, 50.2% female (1995 est.)
Muslim 100%
Life Expectancy
66.11 male, 69.51 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 Saudi riyal (SR) = 100 halalah
GDP (per capita)
$9,000 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture 12%, industry 25%, services 63% (1999 est.)
crude oil production, petroleum refining, basic petrochemicals, cement, construction, fertilizer, plastics
wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, citrus; mutton, chickens, eggs, milk
Arable Land
petroleum and petroleum products 90%
machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, motor vehicles, textiles
Natural Resources
petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, copper
Current Environmental Issues
desertification; depletion of underground water resources; the lack of perennial rivers or permanent water bodies has prompted the development of extensive seawater desalination facilities; coastal pollution from oil spills
Telephones (main lines in use)
3.1 million (1998)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
1 million
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
6 (1999)

Parts of what is now eastern Saudi Arabia were first settled in the fourth or fifth millenium BC by migrants from what is now southern Iraq. The Nabateans had the biggest of the early empires, stretching as far as Damascus around the first century BC.

In the early 18th century the Al-Saud, the ruling family of modern Saudi Arabia, were the ruling sheikhs of the oasis village of Dir'aiyah, near modern Riyadh. When they formed an alliance, in the mid-18th century, with Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, the result was Wahhabism, the back-to-basics religious movement that is still Saudi Arabia's official form of Islam. By 1806, the converting armies of Wahhabism had conquered most of modern Saudi Arabia as well as a large part of southern Iraq.

None of this went down well in Constantinople, as western Arabia was, at least in theory, part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1812 the empire retook western Arabia, and by the end of the 19th century the Al-Saud had retreated to Kuwait, where they were given sanctuary.

Enter stage left one of the great Al-Saud leaders, known as Ibn Saud, who brewed up an irresistible combination of piety, strategy and diplomacy and retook Riyadh and then, in 1925, Jeddah.

In 1938, Chevron found commercial quantities of oil in Saudi Arabia, and when WWII started, oil production really took off. By 1950 the kingdom's royalties were running at about 1000000 a week, and by 1960, 80% of the government's revenues came from oil. The Arab oil embargo, in 1973-74, increased the price of oil fourfold and Saudi Arabia became something of a world power. As the government raked in the cash, a building boom began and Saudi Arabia became one immense construction site. But the oil boom attracted a lot of interest from outside the country, and Saudi Arabia's relations with its neighbours became increasingly strained. The massacre of 400 Iranian pilgrims at the 1987 haj resulted in Iran boycotting the pilgrimage for several years.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Saudis started getting nervous, and asked the USA to send troops to defend the kingdom. Although Saudi Arabia was not invaded, the crisis stirred up demands for political change, and in 1993 the king set up a Consultative Council - members are appointed by the king and can comment on proposed laws.

The days of easy oil money are just a fond memory and the country's population is growing rapidly (the average Saudi woman bears six children), presenting Saudi Arabia and the aging King Fahd with an impressive challenge. Two generations of generous public assistance haven't inculcated the country's youth with the strongest work ethic, either.

In 1999, the first high-end tour groups entered the difficult-to-visit nation, but visas remain officially restricted to business travellers, Muslims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and those few lucky folk able to convince a Saudi national to sponsor their visit.

The terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001 were something of a landmark event for Saudis too. Most of the suspects subsequently arrested turned out to be Saudi nationals, and the rumours of state sponsorship of terrorism are not going away. The US military pulled out of the country in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq hoping this would ease the outrage in some pockets of the Islamic world who found its presence in the kingdom intolerable. Some observers are predicting an increasingly turbulent future for the Saudi royal family, as the voices of change get louder.