Kingdom is world’s 20th largest importer

Deeply conservative country is major market for European goods

Founded by Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud in 1932, the deeply conservative tribal kingdom of oil-rich Saudi Arabia occupies most of the Arabian peninsula and dominates the small Arab Gulf emirates.

A hereditary monarchy ruled by King Abdullah, a son of the founder, it is the site of the Muslim world's two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century.

Saudi Arabia's identity has been formed by the puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam, adopted as the state religion. The religious establishment not only determines the way of life but has great influence in governance.

The law of the land is Islamic Sharia as interpreted by the clerics who approve laws and have considerable influence in education. Life in the country is scheduled round the five daily prayers.

The Wahhabi kingdom possesses the world’s second largest oil reserves and sixth largest gas reserves. Oil and gas have transformed the kingdom from poverty to riches, giving it the 19th highest GDP in the world.


As the largest oil exporter, the kingdom enjoys considerable influence among oil exporting countries, in the Middle East and on the world scene. Saudi Arabia is the senior member of the Gulf Co-operation Council, hosts the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, and is a major power in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

More than 95 per cent of the kingdom's income comes from oil exports which also provide 70 per cent of government revenue, although in recent years the government has attempted to diversify the economy by developing industrial and agricultural sectors. Gold is also mined in the Hejaz province.

Saudi exports
In addition to oil and gas, Saudi exports include petrochemicals, plastics, construction materials and electrical appliances, while imports are dominated by food, clothing and raw materials. The kingdom is the world's 20th largest importer, making it a major market for European produce and goods.

Significant income is gained from the flow of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina but a large proportion of this revenue has been invested in infrastructure serving the millions of pilgrims. With a relatively small population of 16 million citizens, Saudi Arabia is dependent on some nine million skilled and unskilled foreign workers.

Over the past four decades, Saudi Arabia has spent tens of billions of dollars on foreign aid, the largest proportion on the propagation of Wahhabism through the building of mosques and religious schools and training of preachers for Muslim countries.

Arab Spring
Since the Arab Spring unrest of 2011, Riyadh has attempted to maintain social and political peace by providing housing and welfare benefits to poorer Saudis, promoting job training and cracking down hard on protests, particularly in the oil-producing eastern province inhabited by restive Shias.

Western powers allied with the kingdom since its founding have not addressed human rights issues. Women are subjected to the guardianship of their fathers, husbands and brothers, are treated as minors, and face legal and social discrimination. Foreign workers are often ill-treated and underpaid. There is no freedom of religion for non-Muslims. Execution by beheading is performed in public.