The Arabian Peninsula is a desert environment surrounded by saltwater bodies. The Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea border the peninsula on three sides. Arid type B climates dominate the region. Saudi Arabia only receives an average of four inches of precipitation per year. The southern portions of the peninsula are some of hottest places on Earth. Summer temperatures can reach more than 120º F. In the south is the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter), which is mainly desert and comprises about 25 percent of Saudi Arabia. It is extremely dry and virtually uninhabited, though oil discoveries have brought temporary settlements to the region. There are no natural lakes or major rivers on the peninsula. Agricultural activity is dependent on the availability of water by rainfall, underground aquifers, oases, or desalinization of seawater.
There is a variety of wildlife that lives in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that most of it is dominated by desert. Birds include falcons, which are caught and trained for hunting. The Arabian horse is also native to the area. The coastline has 2000 km (1,240 miles) of coral reef that is host to a rich ecosystem with lots of marine life.
The cities of Medina and Mecca are in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Islam first united the many traditional groups of Arabia with religion and then with the Arabic language. The region was further united after 1902, when Abdul Aziz Al-Sa‘ud and his followers captured the city of Riyadh and brought it under the control of the House of Sa‘ud. In 1933, the lands under the control of the king were renamed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy.
In 1938, US oil corporation Chevron found large quantities of oil in the region, which has sustained the royal family ever since. Aramco is the state-run oil corporation. Controlling about one-fifth of the world’s known oil reserves, the Saudi royal family claims considerable power.
The entire economy of Saudi Arabia is based on the export of oil, and more than 20 percent of the known oil reserves in the world are located in Saudi Arabia. The country is a key member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and has been the world’s number one oil exporter. Millions of foreign workers in the petroleum industry make up a vital component of the country’s economy.
A high rate of population growth has been outstripping economic growth in Saudi Arabia. In 2010, more than one-third of the population was younger than fifteen years old, and family size was about 3.8 children. The unemployment rate is high, and there is a shortage of job skills in the workforce. The government has been working to shift its focus away from a petroleum-based economy and increase other economic opportunities; it plans to heavily invest in the necessary infrastructure and education to diversify its economy.
The royal family and most of the people in Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims. The country has a strong fundamentalist Islamic tendency. The law of the state is strict and supports conservative Islamic ideals. The Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam has a major influence on culture. Activities such as gambling, alcohol consumption, and the promotion of other religions are outlawed. Alcohol and pork products are forbidden in accordance with Islamic dietary laws. The dress code in Saudi Arabia strictly follows the Islamic principles of modesty. The black abaya (an article of clothing that looks like a cloak or robe) or modest clothing is appropriate for women. Men often wear the traditional full-length shirt and a headcloth held in place by a cord.
The rationale for the abaya is often attributed to the Quranic quote, “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them” Qur’an 33:59. This quote is often given as the argument for wearing the abaya.
In Saudi Arabia, human rights organizations, legal associations, trade unions, and political parties are banned. The country maintains a tight censorship of all local media. The press is only allowed to publish what the government permits it to report. Communication with foreigners, satellite media, and Internet access are highly controlled. Those who speak out against the government can be arrested or imprisoned.
Men hold the dominant roles in Saudi society. Under strict Islamic law, women do not have the same rights as men, so Saudi women do not have the opportunities that women in many Western countries have. For example, it is not customary for a woman to walk alone in public; traditionally, she must be accompanied by a family member so as to not be accused of moral offenses or prostitution. The mutawa’een (religious police) have the authority to arrest people for such actions. The punishment could be as many as to twenty-five days in prison and a flogging of as many as sixty lashes.
Here are some of the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia (at the time of this writing):
- Women must wear modest clothing such as the black abaya and cover their hair. They are sometimes harassed for wearing too much makeup.
- Women are under a male guardianship system, where a man controls her life from birth until death. The guardian is normally her father (and later her husband), but could even be a brother or son who makes decisions on her behalf. Women are treated as permanent legal minors.
- Women are segregated from men in the workplace and in many formal spaces, even in homes. Many public buildings have separate entrances for men and women.
- Women cannot walk in public spaces or travel without a male relative. Unlawful mixing can result in criminal charges, with women facing harsher punishments.
- Parks, public transportation, beaches, and other venues are segregated.
- Marriages can be arranged without the woman’s consent, and women often lose everything in a divorce.
- Some jobs like judges or drivers are off-limits to women. Strict segregation policies are a disincentive for employers who would consider hiring women.
- Women weren’t allowed to drive cars until 2018.
Restrictions in the country are being eased to some extent (a 35-year ban on movies and music concerts has been lifted, and women were allowed to drive cars in 2018) but laws are still strict. You can research the current laws online.
Saudi Arabian cuisine is similar to that of the surrounding countries in the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Arab world, and has influenced and been influenced by Turkish, Indian, Persian, and African food. Islamic dietary laws forbid the eating of pork and the drinking of alcoholic beverages.
A satellite image of Kuwait reveals its desert topography:
Kuwait, a small country located on the Persian Gulf, is a monarchy ruled by an emir from the royal family. Immense oil reserves have made Kuwait attractive to international oil investors. Thanks to ample oil revenues, the small Kuwaiti population (about three million people) has adequate social services. The country has a high standard of living. Education is free, and much of the labor base comes from non-Kuwaiti migrants. Petroleum exports account for most of the government’s income.
Kuwait has an excellent port at Kuwait City. However, one of the environmental problems with building a large city in the desert is the shortage of fresh water. To solve this problem, Kuwait has turned to the desalinization of seawater to provide for its domestic, agricultural, and industrial needs.
Summers in Kuwait are some of the hottest on earth. The highest recorded temperature was 54 °C (129 °F) at Mitribah on 21 July 2016, which is the highest temperature recorded in Asia.
The United States and an international coalition fought the First Persian Gulf War in 1991 to liberate Kuwait from the grip of Saddam Hussein. The US mission was called Operation Desert Storm. The war started on bases in Saudi Arabia and pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
Bahrain is a small archipelago (group of islands) in the Persian Gulf. The country received its independence from Great Britain in 1971. Iran has made claims on the islands to no avail. Similar to other small monarchies in the region, Bahrain has lots of oil and a small population. Though more than 50 percent of the population is Shia, the country is opening up to democratic reforms.
Most of Bahrain’s wealth is gained through the extraction of natural resources. Enormous natural gas reserves are located in Bahrain’s coastal waters, and oil now makes up about 60 percent of the export profits. The small land area size of the country, lack of sufficient supplies of fresh water, and few other natural resources has prompted a shift for Bahrain to expand into the financial sector.
The citizens of Bahrain have had to work to balance the shift toward modernization and globalization with the strong Arab heritage and Islamic beliefs that have been the foundation of their culture. The term Middle East Lite has been applied to Bahrain because Bahrain has been investing in modern infrastructure but has worked hard to maintain its Arab heritage with a Persian Gulf identity that is more accepting and open to the outside world. The growing and prosperous middle class is more tolerant and liberal than many of its Middle East neighbors.
The same level of tolerance toward outsiders has not been witnessed within the country. The 2011 protests and demonstrations that swept across North Africa and the Middle East also occurred in Bahrain. The king, the royal family, and the majority in government follow the Sunni branch of Islam; however, most of the population follows the Shia branch of Islam. Many within the Shia community felt that they were being discriminated against and protested the lack of democratic reforms. Protests and demonstrations in Bahrain have prompted the government to call in military support from Saudi Arabia to help quell the uprising. A number of Shia mosques were reported to have been destroyed, and hundreds of people were detained by police. The protests and demonstrations in Bahrain are more than just a conflict between Shia and Sunni, though this split has been a major concern for years. Many Sunni have participated in the demonstrations because they are in support of more democratic reforms as well.
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Additional information and image credits:
Saudi Arabia info
Saudi Arabia map
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650012
Satellite image courtesy of NASA’s Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor project and John Nevard – public domain.
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32296115
By Hans Braxmeier – pixabay archive copy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46573225
By Ealdgyth – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4143948
By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66175562
By Greg Hume – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17232686
By Sumeet Moghe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24265680
Striped hyena info
Saudi Arabian cuisine
By Vengolis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69236045
By Basel15 at English Wikipedia(Original text: Bazel) – Own work (Original text: self-made), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2230212
Kuwait satellite image
By Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC – Cropped from: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=2252, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37340
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31591224
Bahrain coastal area
By Soman – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1423651
By Ghala Alrefaei – Imported from 500px (archived version) by the Archive Team. (detail page), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71339405