What Should I Know About Saudi Arabia?

Brendan McGuigan

Saudi Arabia is a large country in the Middle East. It covers 830,000 square miles (2,149,700 sq. km), making it larger than the state of Alaska, and the fourteenth-largest country in the world. It shares borders with Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and has coastline along the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

A Saudi Arabian woman in an abaya and niqab.
A Saudi Arabian woman in an abaya and niqab.

The land that is now Saudi Arabia has been lived in for millennia, with early settlements appearing more than 5000 years ago. In the 4th millennium BCE the land was ruled by Sumerians, until they were supplanted something around 3500 BCE by various Semitic groups, most of whom lived nomadic lifestyles. Various kingdoms would rule over the region in the subsequent millennia, including the Sabaean Kingdom, the Himyarite Kingdom, the Kingdom of Aksum, the Persian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

A map of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.
A map of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.

Parts of this country, particularly the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, were important trade hubs between the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire before the advent of Islam. But it was Islam that would cause Saudi Arabia to grow to be one of the most important kingdoms in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of oil.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of oil.

Since the time of Muhammad, this region has had particular importance for Muslims, as it contains the two holiest cities of Makkah and Medina. In the 18th century a local prince, Mohammed ibn Saud, rose to become a dominant force in Arabia, controlling the majority of the interior for nearly a century before being crushed by Egypt under the Ottomans. In the early-19th century the House of Saud returned to power, however, consolidating power until the end of the century when it was again conquered. In the early 20th century the House of Saud once again rose to ascendancy, and over the next few decades would conquer most of the surrounding land.

The Hajj is a Muslim pilgrimage that leads to the Ka'aba in the Saudi city of Mecca.
The Hajj is a Muslim pilgrimage that leads to the Ka'aba in the Saudi city of Mecca.

In 1932, the two kingdoms the House of Saud had conquered were unified to create the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Six years later oil was discovered in the nation, and virtually overnight the country was transformed. The country's wealth and power would increase steadily over the next few decades, and following the creation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would see an even more dramatic increase. The country is currently the world’s largest exporter of oil.

For most of the modern era, Saudi Arabia has kept friendly relations with the West. Despite remaining fairly autocratic, and despite numerous reports of human rights violations, the West also remains very friendly to the country. The country has faced some criticism for a perceived failure to crack down on radicalism, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Since then the Saudi Arabian government has pledged to support the War on Terror and to police terrorists within its borders.

Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy, ruled by Islamic law (Shari’a). A growing central government has been formed since the 1950s, but power still rests within the hands of the House of Saud. All judges in the country are appointed directly by the king, and rule by Shari’a. In 2005 the country held local elections, the first ever in the country, which many have taken to be a sign of growing democratization.

Travel in Saudi Arabia is currently discouraged for Westerners, amid growing violence in the major urban centers, and targeted violence against Westerners in rural regions of the country. Although the cities of Makkah and Medina are both full of historically important and beautiful architecture, access to both cities is limited exclusively to Muslims. Saudi Arabia still has plenty to interest sightseers, however, most notably the astonishing tombs of Madain Saleh.

The cities of the Arabian peninsular developed along routes used by trade caravans in ancient times.
The cities of the Arabian peninsular developed along routes used by trade caravans in ancient times.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


There was a documentary on TV and it showed Saudi women and men always sitting separately and never seeing one another unless they are related somehow or married. Girls who reach a certain age also have to cover before their fathers I think, even though they can sit together.

The women wore long black clothing that covered everything including their faces. They showed one girl who was engaged and she was so excited because her parents allowed her to speak with her fiance on the phone. She had never seen him and would see him for the first time after the wedding.

The documentary also talked about how the new Saudi generation is using technology to break these barriers. Apparently if girls and boys are in the same vicinity outside, shopping or eating at restaurants, they communicate with each other by using their cell phone's Bluetooth.

I think this is really interesting. It seems that the society is trying its best to protect conservatism and Islamic culture. But technology is still able to break through those barriers. I think the government is aware of this though. I had head that many internet sites are blocked in Saudi Arabia. Maybe they might try and block use of Bluetooth too.


@anon23678-- I have read some about it and I can tell you a few important details. As the article has said already, lots of people are seeing the 2005 elections as a sign of democratization. I personally think that it's too early to reach any conclusions. I hope that this is just the first step and the Saudi government keeps reforming the political system and allows more and more public input.

The elections was actually a small step because it was just municipal elections and not even all of the representatives were elected. Only half of the representatives were elected by voters.

The other thing is that women could not vote at all and neither could military personnel. So, really, at least half of the population was disenfranchised from the elections.

Despite these issues though, elections is still better than no elections. In that sense, this is a really important event for Saudi Arabia. Let's hope that we hear about more elections in the future, and hopefully this time allowing women and military to vote as well.


The Islam in Saudi Arabia is called Wahhabi Islam. There are some Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia as well, but most Saudis follow Wahhabism which is a different kind of Sunni Islam. It was founded by a scholar called Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab.

From a paper I wrote on it a long time ago, I remember Wahhabism as being a movement that wants to bring back Islam to it's original form, the way it was during Prophet Mohammad's time. Wahhab and Kind Saud at the time were close companions and together they decided to implement a purified state of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

This is why Prophet Mohammad's birthday is not celebrated in Saudi Arabia. Some Sufi and Shiite Islamic practices are also not allowed because it is seen as human fabrication that has never had a place in Islam.


Very informative, Thank You! I want to read more about the first Saudi Elections that happened in 2005, anyone out there have a source?

Post your comments
Forgot password?