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Language: Arabic

Ethnicity/race: Arab 90%, Afro-Asian 10%

Religion: Islam 100%

Literacy rate: 79% (2003 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2009 est.): $585.8 billion; per capita $20,400. Real growth rate: 0.2%. Inflation: 5%. Unemployment: 11.6% male only (local bank estimate; some estimates range as high as 25%) (2004 est.). Arable land: 2%. Agriculture: wheat, barley, tomatoes, melons, dates, citrus; mutton, chickens, eggs, milk. Labor force: 6.76 million; note: more than 35% of the population in the 15–64 age group is non-national; agriculture 12%, industry 25%, services 63% (1999 est.). Industries: crude oil production, petroleum refining, basic petrochemicals; ammonia, industrial gases, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), cement, fertilizer, plastics; metals, commercial ship repair, commercial aircraft repair, construction. Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, copper. Exports: $180.5 billion (2009 est.): petroleum and petroleum products 90%. Imports: $86.61 billion (2009 est.): machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, motor vehicles, textiles. Major trading partners: U.S., Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Germany, UK (2004).

Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 3.9 million (2002 est.); mobile cellular: 2.9 million (2002 est.). Radio broadcast stations: AM 43, FM 31, shortwave 2 (1998). Radios: 6.25 million (1997). Television broadcast stations: 117 (1997). Televisions: 5.1 million (1997). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 22 (2003). Internet users: 1.453 million (2002).

Transportation: Railways: total: 1,392 km (2002). Highways: total: 151,470 km; paved: 45,592 km; unpaved: 105,878 km (1999). Ports and harbors: Ad Dammam, Al Jubayl, Duba, Jiddah, Jizan, Rabigh, Ra’s al Khafji, Mishab, Ras Tanura, Yanbu’ al Bahr, Madinat Yanbu’ al Sinaiyah. Airports: 209 (2002).

International disputes: nomadic groups on border region with Yemen resist demarcation of boundary; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been negotiating a long-contested maritime boundary with Iran; because the treaties have not been made public, the exact alignment of the boundary with the UAE is still unknown and labeled approximate.

The Discovery of Oil and Political Evolution

Oil was discovered in 1936, and commercial production began during World War II. This oil-derived wealth allowed the country to provide free health care and education while not collecting any taxes from its people. Saudi Arabia was neutral until nearly the end of the war, but it was permitted to be a charter member of the United Nations. The country joined the Arab League in 1945 and took part in the 1948–1949 war against Israel. Saudi Arabia still does not recognize the state of Israel. On Ibn Saud’s death in 1953, his eldest son, Saud, began an 11-year reign marked by an increasing hostility toward the radical Arabism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1964, the ailing Saud was deposed and replaced by the prime minister, Crown Prince Faisal, who gave vocal support but no military help to Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Faisal’s assassination by a deranged kinsman in 1975 shook the Middle East, but it failed to alter his kingdom’s course. His successor was his brother, Prince Khalid. Khalid gave influential support to Egypt during negotiations on Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Desert. King Khalid died of a heart attack in 1982, and he was succeeded by his half-brother, Prince Fahd bin ‘Abdulaziz, who had exercised the real power throughout Khalid’s reign. King Fahd chose his half-brother Abdullah as crown prince.

Saudi Arabia and the smaller oil-rich Arab states on the Persian Gulf, fearful that they might become Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s next targets if Iran conquered Iraq, made large financial contributions to the Iraqi war effort during the 1980s. At the same time, cheating by other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), competition from nonmember oil producers, and conservation efforts by consuming nations combined to drive down the world price of oil. At the time Saudi Arabia had one-third of all known oil reserves, but falling demand and rising production outside OPEC combined to reduce its oil revenues from $120 billion in 1980 to less than $25 billion in 1985, threatening the country with domestic unrest and undermining its influence in the Gulf area.

At the start of 1996, King Fahd passed authority to Crown Prince Abdullah, after suffering an incapacitating stroke. In 1998 the country’s oil income fell by 40% because of a worldwide decline in prices, and it entered its first recession in six years.

In 2000, Saudi Arabia, along with other OPEC nations experiencing a recession, decided to reduce production to raise oil prices. In 2001, OPEC cut oil production three additional times.

The Attacks of September 11, 2001, and Their Consequences

Saudi Arabia’s relations with the U.S. were strained after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—15 of the 19 suicide bombers involved were Saudis. Despite the monarchy’s close ties to the West, much of the extremely influential religious establishment has supported anti-Americanism and Islamic militancy. In Aug. 2003, following the U.S.-led war on Iraq in March and April 2003, the United States withdrew its troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. had maintained troops in the country for the past decade, a source of great controversy in the strongly conservative Islamic country. One of the major reasons given for the Sept. 11 attacks by Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden was the presence of U.S. troops in the home of Islam’s holiest sites, Medina and Mecca. On May 12, 2003, suicide bombers killed 34, including 8 Americans, at housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh. Al-Qaeda was suspected. Saudi Arabia’s commitment to antiterrorist measures was again called into question by the U.S. and other countries. In July, the U.S. Congress bitterly criticized Saudi Arabia’s alleged financing of terrorist organizations. While the Saudi government arrested a sizable number of suspected terrorists, little was done to quell Islamic militancy in the kingdom. Several attacks against Westerners took place in 2003 and 2004.

In Feb. 2005, Saudi Arabia held its first elections ever: municipal council elections to choose half of the new council members in Riyadh. The other half continued to be appointed, in keeping with the previous Saudi system. Women were not eligible to vote, and less than a third of eligible voters registered.

In Aug. 2005, King Fahd bin ‘Abdulaziz died. His half-brother Abdullah, who had been the de facto ruler of the country for the past decade, assumed the throne.

Saudi Arabia brokered talks between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders in September 2008. In the talks, the first attempt to end the protracted armed conflict, the Taliban said it is severing ties to al-Qaeda.

King Shakes Up Government

King Abdullah took bold steps to reshuffle his government in February 2009, promoting reformers, firing controversial officials, including the conservative head of the religious police and the country’s most senior judge, and appointing his first-ever female minister, for women’s education.

Saudi Arabia was largely spared the popular uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa in early 2011, largely because King Abdullah remains popular among Saudis and the country’s oil wealth provides a level stability not seen in countries such as Egypt. Nevertheless, unemployment among young Saudis is high, housing is in short supply, and there has been a push for broader civil liberties, particularly for women. In an attempt to prevent protests on Saudi soil, Abdullah, upon returning to Saudi Arabia after spending three months in Morocco recovering from back surgery, announced a $10 billion aid package that helps Saudis buy homes, start businesses, and marry.