The Middle East is one of the most complex areas of the world. We hear about Middle Eastern countries in the news daily, but many of us lack some basic knowledge about their history, economy, and government. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to understand these news stories. Saudi Arabia is one of the most active countries in the Middle East. Its developed economy is making it a prosperous place for international investment. Let us dissect this country.
The first evidence of human presence in the Arabian Peninsula dates back 15,000 to 20,000 years. During those times, nomads used this land. When the two great centers of civilizations, the Nile River Valley and Mesopotamia, formed, the Arabian Peninsula became the crossroads of trade in the ancient world.
Around the year 610, when Muhammed received a message from God through the angel Gabriel, the Arabian Peninsula forever changed. A steady group of followers of the prophet Muhammed emerged. When the prophet received threats of assassinations, he led his followers to the town of Yathrib, today known as Madinah. In the next few years, several battles between the followers of Muhammed and the pagans of Makkah occurred. By 628, the tribes were successfully unified. He and his followers could reenter Makkah.
100 years after Islam was founded, the Islamic Empire already reached from Spain to parts of India and China. The Arab language emerged, trade flourished, and a unique Arab culture developed. In the 17th century, the Islamic Empire diminished into several smaller, more isolated kingdoms.
When the Muslim reformer Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud made steps to create the First Saudi State, the Ottoman Empire, the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa, became anxious. Therefore, in 1818 it marched an army to western Arabia, besieging Diriyah, the largest city in the peninsula at the time. After the Ottomans were overthrown in the Middle East and the Second Saudi State was formed, the Ottoman Empire (along with the infamous Al-Rashid family) attacked yet another time.
In 1902, the Saudi people came together and defeated the Ottoman Empire and Al-Rashid family once and for all. The young Abdulaziz, who led this defeat, became king. This marked the formation of the modern Saudi state. Since then, there have been six kings, who have built up what is now Saudi Arabia.
When the modern Saudi state was formed, the Arabian Peninsula was an agricultural society. Depending on farming and commerce, it lacked the infrastructure to extensive economic growth.
The discovery of oil in 1938 changed that. After World War II, oil exports provided steady funds to build up Saudi Arabia’s basic infrastructure of roads, airports, seaports, schools, and hospitals. A series of five-year plans further built a modern economy capable of producing previously imported goods. Today, the private sector is playing an increasingly larger role in the Saudi economy. It accounts for about 48% of the GDP. This percentage is only expected to increase.
Another development in Saudi economy has been the entry into the World Trade Organization on December 2005. This is giving the country greater access to global markets, more jobs, and substantial foreign investment.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy based on Islam. The king, who is also the commander in chief of the military, appoints a Crown Prince and works with the cabinet (composed of 22 government ministries, such as education, foreign aid, and finance) to govern the country. The king is also aided by 150 members of the legislative body. Another one of his responsibilities is to act as the final court of appeal since he is on top of the legal system according to Islamic law.
The country is divided into 13 provinces. Each is run by a governor and a deputy governor, who deals with the development of the province and reports back to the king.
RELIGIOUS RIGHTS: The Saudi Arabian government forbids the practice of any religion other than Islam. During times of worship, shops, television stations, and restaurants are required to close. Whoever does not comply, is faced with interrogation, humiliation, imprisonment, and flogging. Citizens caught practicing another religion are often put in detention centers. If they are foreigners, they will be deported. This harsh treatment is often due to an extremely biased judicial system staffed by extremist judges. This tremendous bias causes religious prisoners before a court to be viewed as infidels, and therefore deserving of a harsh penalty. Clearly as evidenced, religious rights are not being observed in this country.
MINORITY RIGHTS: Religious and ethnic minorities, including expatriate foreign workers, do not have any legal rights or protection in Saudi Arabia. The government’s harsh discriminatory policies affect almost every aspect of the daily lives of millions of people inside Saudi Arabia. This is interesting because in 2004 the Saudi Statistics Department of the Ministry of Economy and Planning acknowledged that non-Saudis account for 67% of the country’s labor force. About 85-90% of the private sector jobs are held by expatriates. Even though non-Saudis are contributing a tremendous amount to the economy, they are not being granted basic rights.
WOMEN’S RIGHTS: Women in Saudi Arabia are less represented in political, social, economic, and scientific fields than women in any other Arab or Muslim country. The are not allowed to:
- participate in elections
- study certain subjects in school like chemistry and biology
- legally drive a car
- travel within or outside the country without male permission
- sit in the front of a bus
- play sports in school (according to Saudi health official admission, this is causing serious health concerns)
- maintain custody of a child over six, if she divorces her husband
Saudi Arabia is a very interesting country. Its progressive economy is making it one of the fastest developing countries in the world. Having said this, the lack of basic human rights towards women, non-Muslims, and minorities is something this country is struggling with greatly.