Saudi Arabia (officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)) is a Unitary Islamic absolute monarchy located in the Middle East constituting of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is bordered by countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, and Egypt, has an area of approximately 2,150,000 square kilometers, and a population of around 33 million. Saudi Arabia plays a major role in the context of Middle Eastern politics due to its status as the birthplace of Islam and the world’s only remaining absolute monarchy, as well as its relatively strong and diverse economy and alliances with many Western powers.
The history of Saudi Arabia can be traced back to 20,000 BCE when the earliest nomadic tribes settled in the area. Over the ensuing millennia, Saudi Arabia soon became a thriving trade center for Middle Eastern Empires such as the Achaemenid Empire, Byzantine Empire, and Sassanid Empire. Its cities of Mecca and Medina were both thriving trade posts by the end of the 6th Century CE. The history of Saudi Arabia entered into a period of immense change after the birth of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, in 570. By the time of his death in 632 CE, Muhammad was able to unite the various tribes of Saudi Arabia under a single religion and also worked to end many of the social injustices prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabic society. Despite Saudi Arabia’s spiritual importance as the home of Mecca and Medina, the territory became less politically important compared to other Islamic empires during this time period. Most of Saudi Arabia once again fell under a traditional tribal rule and the Sharif of Mecca who ruled the holy city between the 10th and early 20th centuries had to defer to the Abbasids, Egyptians, and Ottomans, who each conquered Saudi Arabia at various times over the centuries.
Saudi Arabia’s present-day royal family descends from Mohammad bin Saud, who established the first modern Saudi state near Riyadh in 1744 with a religious leader named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam observed in Saudi Arabia today. After Ottoman viceroy Mohammed Ali Pasha destroyed this first Saudi state in 1818, a second Saudi state was established in a much smaller area in 1824. In 1891, the Al Saud were exiled by the Al Rashid clan with whom they battled for control of the territory for decades. The Ottoman Empire collapsed after the 1918 Arab Revolt and end of WWI. The House of Saud reclaimed Riyadh from the Al Rashid in 1902 and eventually regained control of most of their former territory by the time King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud established the present-day state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. At the time, Saudi Arabia ranked among the world’s poorest countries, but the nation’s fortunes dramatically changed after vast Persian Gulf oil reserves were discovered just a few years later in 1938.
The current constitution of Saudi Arabia (known as the “Basic Law”) was adopted on January 30, 1992, and stipulates that Saudi Arabia is an absolute theocratic monarchy. The law states that the king must comply with Shari’a (Islamic) law and the Qur’an and that the Qur’an and Sunnah are the main sources of law in the country. The current King of Saudi Arabia is Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who came into power in early 2015. In addition to formal roles, the Saudi King also serves as the country’s Prime Minister. The second most important position in Saudi Arabia is the Crown Prince, who is the designated successor of the King. Currently, the Crown Prince assumes power with the approval of the Allegiance Commission after he is appointed by the King. In addition to his role as the heir apparent to the Saudi royal throne, the Crown Prince sets the overall foreign and domestic policy of Saudi Arabia. The current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who assumed that role in May of 2017.
Royal decrees are the other main source of law but are referred to as regulations rather than laws because they are subordinate to the Sharia. Royal decrees supplement Sharia in areas such as labor, commercial and corporate law. Additionally, traditional tribal law and custom remain significant. Extra-Shari’a government tribunals usually handle disputes relating to specific royal decrees. Final appeal from both Sharia courts and government tribunals are to the King and all courts and tribunals follow Shari’a rules of evidence and procedure. The Saudi system of justice has been criticized for its “ultra-puritanical judges,” who are often harsh in their sentencing, but also sometimes overly lenient and slow, for example leaving thousands of abandoned women unable to secure a divorce. The system has also been criticized for being arcane, lacking in some of the safeguards of justice, and unable to deal with the modern world.
Overall, Saudi Arabia is considered by the international community to be among the worst violators of human rights and has consistently been criticized for human rights violations by organizations such as Amnesty International, Human rights Watch, FreedomHouse, as well as neighboring countries in the region. Some of the human rights issues that have attracted strong criticism include the disadvantaged position of women, capital punishment for even the most minor crimes, religious discrimination (particularly against the large Shi’a Muslim minority within the country), the lack of religious freedom, and the activities of the religious police. Between 1996 and 2000, Saudi Arabia acceded to four UN human rights conventions and, in 2004, the government approved the establishment of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), staffed by government employees, to monitor their implementation. To date, the activities of the NSHR have been limited and doubts remain over its neutrality and independence.
Saudi Arabia remains one of the very few countries in the world not to accept the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to the continuing criticism of its human rights record, the Saudi government points to the special Islamic character of the country and asserts that this justifies a different social and political order. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom had unsuccessfully urged US President Barack Obama to raise human rights concerns with King Abdullah on his March 2014 visit to the Kingdom especially the imprisonments of Sultan Hamid Marzooq al-Enezi, Saud Falih Awad al-Enezi, and Raif Badawi.
Another point of criticism regarding Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is its “Counter-Radicalization Program” the purpose of which is to “combat the spread and appeal of extremist ideologies among the general populous (sic)” and to “instill the true values of the Islamic faith, such as tolerance and moderation.”This “tolerance and moderation” has been called into question by numerous international observers. In September 2015, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, has been elected Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council panel that appoints independent experts. In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shi’aa cleric Sheikh Nimr who had called for pro-democracy demonstrations and for free elections in Saudi Arabia.
In terms of demographics, Saudi Arabia is estimated to be ~99% Muslim. Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, two of the three holiest cities in Islam, and major pilgrimage sites for Muslims throughout the world. Approximately 80-85% of Saudi Muslims are Sunni, whereas 15-20% are Shi’a, who primarily reside in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. A majority of Saudi Sunni Muslims follow the Wahhabi sect, whereas, most Saudi Shi’a Muslims are members of the Twelver sect. Due to their status as the minority group within Islam, the Shi’a minority of Saudi Arabia has been the target of ruthless state-sponsored oppression over the past few decades. For example, Shi’as are routinely denied opportunities in education, employment, access to governmental benefits, and are denied freedom to worship. Additionally, numerous Shi’a religious figures and political activists such as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr have been executed by the Saudi government based on the allegation that they are spies employed by the Iranian government. In addition, there are an estimated 2 million members (mostly foreign workers) of other religious communities residing in Saudi Arabia. Arabs are the largest ethnic group in Saudi Arabia and Arabic is the official language. Saudi Arabia has a literacy rate of 94.7% and a life expectancy of 75.5 years, comparable to the US and many Western countries.
Saudi Arabia has an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic activities. It possesses about 16% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC. The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 87% of budget revenues, 42% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings. Currently, Saudi Arabia has a GDP of $1.7 trillion (the largest in the Middle East and 19th largest in the world) and Human Development score of 0.853. The economy of Saudi Arabia is primarily service-based (53.2%) Agriculture and Industry make up 2.6 and 44.2% of the Saudi economy respectively. The unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is estimated to be ~6 as of 2018 and the country has a GDP per capita of $55,000. The economy of Saudi Arabia is currently in the process of being reformed under the Saudi Vision 2030 plan. The Vision 2030 Plan, introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, is meant to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. Goals include reinforcing economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil industry trade between countries through goods and consumer products, and increasing government spending on the military. Saudi Arabia’s primary trade partners are the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and Germany.
Saudi Arabia joined the United Nations in 1945 and is a founding member of member of the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, Muslim World League, OPEC, and the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Moreover, Saudi Arabia maintains diplomatic relations with a majority of countries and has attempted to frame itself as a voice for stability in the Middle East. Some of Saudi Arabia’s strongest regional allies include Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Additionally, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel has improved immensely since Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017, with both countries expanding their military cooperation (due to their mutual opposition to the Iranian government), developing close economic ties, and beginning to negotiate an agreement establishing formal diplomatic ties. Saudi Arabia is also a major critic of the current Iranian government and has repeatedly called for military intervention against Iran. The poor relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be traced back to factors such as competing visions for the future of the Middle East, different interpretations of Islam on the part of the leadership of both countries, and the fact that Saudi Arabia supported Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi during the Iranian Revolution. This rivalry has played a role in numerous conflicts throughout the Middle East, such as the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars, the Arab Spring Protests, and the ongoing genocide against Shi’a Muslims in Pakistan, Yemen, and Bahrain.
Outside of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has close ties with many Western countries. In particular, the US and Saudi Arabia have a strong alliance in nearly every area. The strong relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia can be traced back to the 1930s and expanded drastically after 1970. Foreign policy observers note that the primary reason the US has continued to support Saudi Arabia despite its repressive government and support for terrorism is due to its vast oil reserves and mutual opposition to expanded Iranian and Shi’a influence in the region. Since 2010, the US has sold Saudi Arabia an estimated $400 billion in weapons and other military aid. In addition to the US, Saudi Arabia in recent years has sought to establish a close relationship with China, with a majority of Saudi citizens viewing Chinese influence on the world stage as positive.
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia is one of the most important countries in the Middle East due to its relative stability, a strong economy, and close ties with Western powers. Despite its relative stability, Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the worlds worst human rights records and has destabilized much of the Middle East through its spread of Wahhabism and advocacy of genocide and repression of Shi’a Muslims and other minority groups throughout the region.