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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, desert kingdom occupying most of the Arabian Peninsula of southwestern Asia.

Land and climate

Parts of the frontiers of Saudi Arabia have yet to be accurately determined. Estimates of the country's area vary from about 830,000 sq mi (2,149,700 sq km) to 927,000 sq mi (2,400,930 sq km). It is bordered on the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait; on the east by the United Arab Emirates, the Persian Gulf, and Qatar; on the south by Oman, Yemen, and Southern Yemen; and on the west by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Most of the country is desert. Rising steeply from the narrow, barren Red Sea coastal plain are the western highlands of the Hejaz in the north and the Asir Highlands bordering Yemen in the south. Eastward sloping desert plateaus of sand and rock cover the interior of the country. The Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter) is a great, southern sand desert of some 250,000 sq mi (647,500 sq km). The An Nafud, the northern sand desert, covers almost 25,000 sq mi (64,750 sq km). In the east, the Hasa Lowlands, mostly sand or gravel, fall away gradually to the sands, lagoons, and occasional coral reefs along the Persian Gulf. There are oases where date palms, tamarisks, and acacias grow, but there are neither lakes nor rivers. The coastal regions have an oppressively humid climate. The interior deserts are hot and dry, and summer temperatures in some areas exceed 120°F (49°C). In winter, however, frosts are common on the plateaus and in the mountains. Some desert areas go without rain for several years in succession.


The people of Saudi Arabia are almost entirely Arab. Riyadh, the capital, the Red Sea port of Jiddah, and the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina are the main centers. Islam is the state religion: 80% of the people belong to the Sunni branch of Islam.


Saudi Arabia's rich oil fields, discovered in 1936, represent nearly one-fifth of the world's known reserves, and the oil and natural gas industry dominates the economy. The Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) is chiefly responsible for oil operations in Saudi Arabia, although other U.S. and some Japanese concerns also have concessions. Since 1974, Saudi Arabia has held 60% of the ownership of these foreign concessions. Petro dollars are used for industrial development, especially oil refining, ambitious irrigation projects, and foreign investments. Saudi Arabia also produces limestone, gypsum, and salt. Its chief crops are sorghum, dates, wheat, barley, coffee, citrus fruits, and millet.


In the 7th century, the formerly disparate Semitic nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula were united for the first time under Islam. In succeeding centuries rival sheikdoms rose and fell. In the 1500s Arabia came under the Ottoman Turks as part of the Ottoman empire. Between 1750 and 1800 the fundamentalist Wahabi sect led by the Saudi rulers of Dariya reconquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. Modern Saudi Arabia was founded by Ibn Saud, who, between 1902 and 1932, conquered Hijd and the Hejaz, joining them with Hasa and Asir and establishing a hereditary monarchy. Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by Saud IV, who was deposed in 1964. King Faisal succeeded to the throne and reigned until his assassination in 1975. He was succeeded by King Khalid, who began programs of industrialization and social welfare before he died in 1982; he was followed by the current monarch, King Fahd. Saudi Arabia, through its oil wealth, has considerable political influence in the Middle East and has supported Arab countries and the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. At the same time, as an ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia also has been something of a moderate voice in the region. Saudi Arabia asked for U.S. military assistance and joined forces with the U.S. and other allies in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq (1990–91). Saudi Arabia plays a major role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In 1995, the border conflict with Yemen was solved.


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