International Education
Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia


Education in Saudi Arabia is free but not compulsory. In the late 1980s the country had approximately 7680 elementary schools with a total annual enrolment of about 1, 484, 700 pupils and 3030 secondary schools with some 620, 200 students. 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 of 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 the major language. Altogether, some 114, 500 students were enrolled annually in the late 1980s in institutions of higher education in Saudi Arabia. Every year a number of qualified young Saudis enroll for advanced study in Europe and the United States.
Saudi Arabia, monarchy of Southwest Asia, occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula, and 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. Boundaries in the southeast and south are not precisely defined. Saudi Arabia has an area of about 2, 240, 000 sq km (about 864, 869 sq mi). The capital and largest city is 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. Largely unexplored, Rub al-Khali has an estimated area of about 777, 000 sq km (about 300, 000 sq mi). An extension of the Syrian Desert projects into northern Saudi Arabia, and extending southeast from this region is an-Nafud, an upland desert of red sand covering an area of about 56, 980 sq km (about 22, 000 sq mi). Ad-Dahna, a narrow extension of this desert, links an-Nafud and Rub al-Khali. A central plateau region, broken in the east by a series of uplifts, extends south from an-Nafud. Several wadis (watercourses), dry except in the rainy season, traverse the plateau region. The western limits of the latter are delineated by a mountain range extending generally northwest and southeast along the eastern edge of Al Hijaz and Asir regions. The highest point in Saudi Arabia, Jabal Sawda (3207 m/10, 527 ft), is located in the southwestern portion of the country. Between the range, which has an average elevation of about 1220 m (about 4000 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-Hasa. It is underlain by great petroleum deposits.
Extreme heat and aridity are characteristic of most of Saudi Arabia. The average temperatures for the months of January and July in Riyadh are 14. 4 C (58 F) and 42 C (108 F). The average temperatures in Jiddah for the same months are 22. 8 C (73 F) and 30. 6 C (87 F). Average annual precipitation in Riyadh and Jiddah is 100 mm (4 in) and 81 mm (3 in), respectively. Because of the general aridity, Saudi Arabia has no permanent rivers or lakes.
Natural Resources
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-Dahna 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 hyena, fox, wildcat, panther, wolf, gazelle, antelope, wild cow, ibex, ostrich, bustard, quail, and pigeon.
The population of Saudi Arabia is mainly composed (56 percent) of Arabs whose ancestors have lived in the area for many centuries. A substantial minority (18 percent) consists of Yemenis and other Arabs, Africans, and Asians who have come to Saudi Arabia since the 1950s because of the economic opportunities the country offered. Nomads, known as Bedouins, make up a declining proportion (27 percent) of the population, and the number of settled cultivators has also decreased. By the early 1990s 77 percent of the population was urban. The national language is Arabic. Virtually all Saudis are Muslims. The great majority are Sunnites, although some Shiites live in the east. The Wahhabi sect, reformers who began in Arabia during the 18th century and who have sought to purify and simplify the practice of Islam, has greatly influenced the Sunnites of Saudi Arabia.
Population Characteristics
According to a 1993 estimate, Saudi Arabia had a population of 17, 615, 310. The average density was about 8 people per sq km (about 20 per sq mi).
Principal Cities
The capital of Saudi Arabia is Riyadh (1988 estimate, 2, 000, 000). Important cities, with their estimated populations in 1986, include Riyadh, Jiddah (1. 4 million), a port city on the Red Sea; Mecca (618, 000), one of the great Muslim pilgrimage centers; Medina (500, 000), a holy city and cultural center of Islam; and Ad Damman (early 1980s, 200, 000), an oil center on the Persian Gulf. In the 1980s, two large new industrial centers, Al Jubayl, on the Persian Gulf, and Yanbu al-Bahr, on the Red Sea, were built at an estimated cost of more than $45 billion.
Libraries and Museums
Some of the largest libraries of Saudi Arabia are situated in Riyadh; the King Saud University libraries contain more than 1 million volumes. Collections of religious materials are housed in libraries in Mecca and in Medina. The Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, which was founded in Riyadh in 1978, features displays and exhibits on a wide variety of topics.
Agriculture and stock 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. The main deterrent has been the lack of trained or skilled labor. With the tremendous increase of world oil prices beginning in 1973, however, the government set about transforming its economy at an accelerated rate almost without precedent in modern history. The estimated annual budget for the late 1980s included revenue of about $24 billion and expenditure of about $37. 9 billion. Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product for 1992 was $122. 3 billion. Agriculture and fishing employed 48 percent of the workforce; trade and services employed 37 percent; and manufacturing and industry employed 14 percent.
The Saudi oil industry was founded in 1938 by the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) when a productive field was found at Ad Damm n on the Persian Gulf. Aramco was originally owned by four American oil companies, but in 1974 controlling interest was gained by the Saudi government. The country's vast reserves and high level of oil production have made Saudi Arabia a leading producer and a strong voice in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which has much influence over international oil pricing. Saudi Arabia's proven reserves of petroleum exceed 150 billion barrels. Annual production in the late 1980s was some 2 billion barrels of oil; output rose sharply after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Only the Soviet Union and the United States produced more petroleum. Saudi Arabia is the world's leading exporter of oil. Most oil is produced in the eastern part of the country; offshore drilling takes place in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia also produces considerable quantities of natural gas; the annual output in the late 1980s was 23. 2 billion cu m (819 billion cu ft). To facilitate the movement of crude petroleum to major markets, the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, known as Tapline, was completed in 1950. It carries crude oil to Sidon (Sayda), Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea. Another pipeline, linking the eastern oil fields around Buqayq with the Red Sea port of Yanbu al Bahr, was completed in the early 1980s. Most oil, however, continued to be exported from Persian Gulf ports, especially Ras Tanura and Ad Damm n.
Development Plans
In 1975 the government of Saudi Arabia announced an ambitious five-year development plan, based on continued oil revenues, calling for expenditures of about $150 billion. Priority in the industrial sector was given to the development of a petrochemical industry, to the building of liquefied natural-gas plants and petroleum-based industries, and to steel and cement production to facilitate the large-scale construction required by the plan. A subsequent development plan, for 1980-1985, called for expenditure of some $236 billion, with emphasis on diversifying industry. The 5-year plan for 1985-1990 called for $277 billion in development spending, but continued weakness in oil prices and declines in petroleum revenues forced the government to scale down many programs.
Because Saudi Arabia has long been a food importer, agriculture is a key area of development. The lack of water has made less than 1 percent of the land area useful for farming. Irrigated lands near oases have been virtually the only sites of cultivation. Many of the foreign workers and technicians who have been imported are engaged in agricultural projects.
Saudi Arabia's leading crops in the late 1980s (with annual output in metric tons) were wheat, 3 million; watermelons, 320, 000; dates, 495, 000; and tomatoes, 365, 000. Other major crops were barley, sorghum, dairy products, onions, grapes, tomatoes, and citrus fruit. Livestock included 7. 5 million sheep, 3. 6 million goats, 325, 000 cattle, and 417, 000 camels.
Forestry and Fishing
Under 1 percent of Saudi Arabia is forested. Shrimp, the only significant fish harvest, are taken from the Persian Gulf.
Apart from petroleum and petroleum-related products, the only significant minerals mined in Saudi Arabia are limestone, gypsum, marble, clay, salt, and gold.
Saudi Arabia's manufacturing sector has been diversified since the 1970s. Major products include refined petroleum, petrochemicals, plastics, processed food, clothing, fertilizer, and cement. In the late 1980s the country annually generated about 37. 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity; almost all was produced by thermal installations.
Currency and Foreign Trade
Saudi Arabia's unit of currency is the riyal, which is divided into 100 halalah (3. 75 riyal equal U. S. $1; 1994). Because of Saudi Arabia's reliance on foreign sales of petroleum, its yearly exports rose rapidly in the 1970s but declined almost as sharply in the 1980s; the nation's exports dropped from $111 billion in 1981 to $23 billion in 1987, while imports decreased from $30 billion to $18 billion. Leading imports include machinery, metal and metal products, transportation equipment, foodstuffs, and textiles and clothing. Among the principal trade partners of Saudi Arabia are the United States, Japan, France, Italy, Germany, South Korea, and the Netherlands. The large numbers of Muslim pilgrims who each year visit Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, and Medina, the site of his tomb, both of which are located in the west, spend considerable sums of money in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has an expanding transportation network. In the late 1980s the country had about 92, 800 km (about 57, 700 mi) of roads, of which 36 percent were paved. Saudi Arabia was served by some 875 km (some 545 mi) of operated railroad track, with the main line connecting Riyadh and Ad Damm n. The ports of Jiddah and Yanbu al Bahr are on the Red Sea, and Al Jubayl, Ad Damm n, and Ras Tanura are major oil-exporting ports on the Persian Gulf. Government-run Saudi Arabia Airlines provides domestic and international flights. Major airports are at Dhahran, Jiddah, and Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has 10 daily newspapers, 3 of which are published in English. The government operates radio and television broadcasting services, and in the late 1980s about 4 million radios and 3. 8 million television receivers were in use. More than 1 million telephones were in operation at the time.
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 had no written constitution until March 1992, when a series of royal decrees established a bill of rights, increased the powers of provincial governments, and provided for a 60-member Consultative Council, 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 in practice is determined in part by his personality and on how he interacts 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 Shura Council, a body of 60 ministers selected by the king as advisers. The council, however, has no legislative powers.
The judicial system of Saudi Arabia is based on the Sharia, which is derived from the Koran (the holy book of Islam) and the Sunna (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.
Local Government
Saudi Arabia is divided into 14 administrative districts. Large cities elect their own municipal governments. Towns and villages are governed by councils of elders.
Since the mid-1960s defense 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 57, 000 active members. The regular armed forces include an army of 68, 000 persons, an air force of 18, 000, and a navy of 11, 000. These forces, trained in part with U. S.assistance, are equipped with modern weapons and advanced aircraft.
Arabia was probably the original home of the Semites, from where, beginning in the 4th millennium BC, they moved into Mesopotamia and Palestine, later to be identified as Assyro-Babylonians, Canaanites, and Amorites.
Ancient Times
In the 1st millennium BC the Minaean kingdom was well established in Asir and the southern Hijaz (Hejaz) along the Red Sea coast; its capital was at Karna, or Qarnaw (present-day Sadah, Yemen). The Minaeans were nomads and herders, who eventually became the chief traders of incense through the northern Hijaz. After the Minaeans withdrew from their trading post at al-Ula in the 1st century BC, the Nabataeans founded a commercial center at Medain Salih, just to the north.
In the eastern part of the country was Dilmun, apparently a politicocultural federation centered on the Persian Gulf shore. It has sometimes been identified with the island of Bahrain, although it certainly included parts of the mainland and traded with the inland sections of what is now Saudi Arabia.
Alexander the Great of Macedonia had plans to conquer Arabia before his untimely death in 323 BC, and the Ptolemies of Egypt later gained a toehold at Yenbo but were thwarted by the Nabataeans. The country was later subject to Ethiopian and Persian struggles for hegemony. By the 5th century AD Mecca had superseded the Nabataean city of Petra in importance.
Coming of Islam
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in 570. His teachings angered local residents and Muhammad left for Medina. In 630 he returned with his followers and conquered Mecca, setting into motion the rapid expansion of Islam across the Middle East. The prophet Muhammad profoundly changed the history of the country with his founding of Islam in the 7th century. His successors went on to conquer and convert the entire Middle East, and as the caliphate was established, first in Dimashq (Damascus) in 660, and then in Baghdad, Muhammad's homeland itself became less important within the Islamic empire. After 1269 most of the Hijaz was under the nominal suzerainty of the Egyptian Mamelukes. The Ottoman Turks gained control of it when they conquered Egypt in 1517, but they were unable to extend their authority into the interior. During the 15th century the Saud dynasty was founded near modern-day Riyadh by Muhammad ibn Saud.
Wahhabi Ascendancy
In the mid-18th century the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab formed his fundamentalist sect, and, supported by Saudi armies, the movement soon established a nationalist Arab state in the Najd. In 1802 the Wahhabis captured Mecca, and although they were later expelled from there (1812), they were not defeated. The Wahabbi and Saudis retreated to Riyadh, where they founded their capital in 1818. From there the Saudis reconquered most of the land they had lost. After 1865 the dynasty fell into civil war and the kingdom was divided among various clans and the Ottomans. Defeated, the Saudi family fled into exile in Kuwait. In 1902, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud retook Riyadh and by 1906 his forces controlled the Nadj region. He captured the Hasa region in 1913, the Jebel Shammar in 1921, Mecca in 1924, Medina in 1925, and Asir in 1926. He then proclaimed himself king of the Hijaz. In 1932, after unifying the conquered territories, he renamed his vast realm Saudi Arabia.
Ibn Saud's Reign
Before 1938, when large-scale exploitation of Saudi Arabian oil resources began, socioeconomic conditions in the country differed little from those prevailing in antiquity. As royalties from the oil industry increased, King Ibn Saud developed an extensive modernization program, particularly in such areas as water supply, agriculture, manufacturing, and public health. Concurrently he strengthened relations with other states of the Middle East and adopted a friendly policy toward the United States and Great Britain. A supporter of the Allied cause in World War II, he permitted construction of a U. S.air base in Dhahran but remained officially neutral until March 1945, when he declared war on Germany and Japan.
In 1945 Saudi Arabia joined the United Nations and the Arab League. It opposed the creation of Israel but took only a minor part in the league's war of 1948-1949 against the Jewish state. In June 1951, Saudi Arabia agreed to U. S. use of the Dhahran air base for another five years in return for U. S. technical aid and permission to purchase arms under the Mutual Defense Assistance Act. In December a new agreement with the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) provided that 50 percent of the company's net earnings should be paid to Saudi Arabia.
Cold War Period
King Ibn Saud died on November 9, 1953. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud. Advocating Arab neutrality in the East-West cold war, Saudi Arabia opposed the Middle Eastern Treaty Organization (METO), formed in 1955 by Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Great Britain. Representatives from Saudi Arabia attended the Asian-African Conference held April 18-24, 1955, in Bandung, Indonesia. In October 1955 it signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt. In the same month British-led forces from the sultanate of Muscat and Oman (now Oman) recaptured an oasis in a disputed area that had been occupied in 1952 by Saudi Arabian police. Saudi Arabia appealed vainly to the United Nations for support against the British. In November King Saud agreed to lend Syria $10 million for economic and military purposes. A loan of $10 million was made to Egypt in August 1956, when Egypt's funds in foreign banks were frozen following the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26. After the joint Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in October and November, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Great Britain and France and cut off oil supplies to their tankers.
King Saud visited the United States in January 1957; shortly afterward it was announced that the U. S. would sell arms and supply other aid to Saudi Arabia in exchange for extension of authority to use the Dhahran air base. Saudi Arabia, in April, declared the Gulf of Aqaba to be territorial waters and announced that Israeli ships would be denied passage through the gulf. Despite the declaration, no attempts were made to interfere with the passage of Israeli ships. In February 1958 Saudi Arabian territorial waters were extended to 12 mi.
In March 1958 King Saud transferred legislative and executive powers, formerly included among his own absolute powers, to the prime minister, his brother Crown Prince Faisal, while retaining the right of veto. In May a royal decree established a cabinet system.
Relations with Other Middle Eastern States
At a conference held in Baghdad September 10-14, 1960, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Kuwait founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to coordinate their policies and help sustain oil prices. On December 21, Saud reassumed control of the government from Faisal and made himself prime minister.
In October 1962 King Saud again relinquished the premiership to Faisal. Meanwhile, Saudi relations with Egypt had been deteriorating. Serious tension developed after the September 1962 revolution in Yemen; Egypt supported the new republican government, while Saudi Arabia gave refuge to the overthrown Yemeni imam and pledged to support his efforts to regain his throne. After royalist attacks against Yemen from Saudi Arabia, Egyptian planes bombed Saudi towns in November, and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Egypt and mobilized its armed forces on January 3, 1963.
Prince Faisal, who had been consolidating his power and introducing major social and economic reforms, replaced Saud as king on November 2, 1964. He designated his half brother, Prince Khalid ibn Abdul, as his successor.
Arab-Israeli Conflicts
By 1967, as the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified prior to the Six-Day War, King Faisal expressed full support for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and dispatched 20, 000 troops to Jordan to face Israel. On June 6 all Saudi Arabian oil exports to Britain and the United States were suspended, but diplomatic ties were not broken; the oil trade was resumed after the Arab defeat. An Arab summit conference later in the year resulted in Egyptian withdrawal from Yemen, and the Saudis extended large-scale aid to Egypt to compensate for the loss of revenue caused by the closing of the Suez Canal in the war. King Faisal continued to call for pan-Islamic action against Israel and, under internal pressures, criticized alleged U. S.complicity with Israel. He remained unwilling, however, to articulate a militant anti-Western position, and in 1971 Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states concluded a 5-year pact with 23 Western oil companies, including 17 U. S. firms. In July 1970, Saudi Arabia formally recognized the republican government of Yemen after seven years of intermittent border fighting.
Saudi Arabia sent a small number of troops and weapons (notably aircraft) to aid the Arab states during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the aftermath of that conflict the government played a leading role in organizing a short oil boycott against countries that had supported Israel and in quadrupling the international price of petroleum. The latter development, and Saudi Arabia's 1974 takeover of controlling interest in the huge Aramco, greatly increased government revenue, thus providing funds for a massive economic development plan.
Financial Strength and Military Preparedness
In March 1975 King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew and was succeeded by Prince Khalid. Khalid, however, was in poor health and his half brother, Crown Prince Fahd, became the power behind the throne. The country remained conservative, and its influence kept OPEC from raising its prices as much as most member countries wanted. In 1980 it was announced that the government had taken full control of Aramco's assets retroactively from January 1976. Many of the petrodollars that poured into the country were reinvested in the West or spent on arms, but domestic inflation and a barely manageable pace of development were continuing problems.
Saudi Arabia, still considered a moderating force in the Arab-Israeli conflict, took a dim view of the conciliatory overtures by Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat to Israel in 1977, and after the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries in 1979, Saudi Arabia cut off financial aid to Egypt and severed diplomatic relations. The Iranian revolution that year and the subsequent seizure by fundamentalist Muslim guerrillas of the Grand Mosque in Mecca jolted the Saudi government, which afterward placed an increased emphasis on military preparedness and security. To ensure such security the U. S. in 1981 agreed to sell several Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to the Saudis, an arrangement that engendered heavy opposition from Israel and its U. S. friends, who feared an upset of the military balance in the Middle East. King Khalid died in June 1982 and was succeeded by Crown Prince Fahd. In July 1987 at least 400 people were killed in Mecca when Iranian Shiite pilgrims clashed with Saudi police. More than 1400 pilgrims died in July 1990 after a bridge and tunnel accident caused a panic.
Iraq's takeover of Kuwait in August 1990 had significant military, political, and economic consequences for Saudi Arabia. To counter the Iraqi military threat, the government allowed the temporary deployment on Saudi territory of hundreds of thousands of U. S.and allied troops, and Saudi forces fought as part of the anti-Iraq coalition in the Persian Gulf War. Meanwhile, to compensate for the loss of petroleum supplies from Iraq and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia greatly increased its own oil output. Political reforms decreed by King Fahd in 1992 established a consultative council, provided for a bill of rights, and changed the succession rules. Economic problems became evident in 1993. The United States had insisted that Saudi Arabia pay for the Persian Gulf War, costing the country $51 billion. In addition the Saudi economy had operated with a budget deficit from 1983 to 1993. War payments and the decline of oil prices in the 1980s forced the Saudi government to cut social and defense spending and to take out loans from international banks. Despite its economic problems, Saudi Arabia helped defeat a plan by Iran to artificially raise the price of oil in March 1994. The consultative council established by King Fahd in 1992, called the Shura Council, met for the first time in December 1993. Saudi Arabia continued to struggle with reactionary religious groups in 1994, stripping a wealthy Saudi businessman, Ussama Bin Laden, of his citizenship because he had supported terrorist groups.