Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and is known as the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected and converts from Islam face the death penalty.
One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources. But its rulers face the delicate task of responding to pressure for reform while combating a growing problem of extremist violence.
Named after the ruling Al Saud family, which came to power in the 18th century, the country includes the Hijaz region – the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam. This fact, combined with the Al Sauds’ espousal of a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, has led it to develop a strongly religious self-identity.
The Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly of power; political parties are banned and the opposition is organised from abroad; militant Islamists have launched several deadly attacks. It has always been in the ruling family’s interests to preserve stability in the region and to clamp down on extremist elements. To this end, it welcomed the stationing of US troops in the country after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 – carried out mainly by Saudi nationals – the Saudi authorities were further torn between their natural instincts to step up internal security and pressure to allow a greater degree of democracy.
In 2003 suicide bombers suspected of having links with al-Qaeda killed 35 people – including a number of foreigners – in the capital Riyadh. Some Saudis referred to the attacks as their own 9/11. Since then, demands for political reform have increased, as has the frequency of militant attacks, some of them targeted at foreign workers. The security forces have made thousands of arrests.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and owner of the largest hydrocarbon reserves. Saudi Arabia sits on more than 25% of the world’s known oil reserves. It is capable of producing more than 10 million barrels per day; that figure is set to rise. Rapidly growing unemployment is a major challenge.
Saudi Arabia is one of the main players in the Arab and Muslim worlds; its stature is built on its geographic size, its prestige as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and status as major oil producer.
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