Saudi Arabia Background Notes

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Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932, and is the birthplace of Islam, as well as home to the two most important Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina. The government is a traditional monarchy, headed by King Abdullah. The constitution is based on the holy text of the Qur’an and the country is governed by Shar’ia law and is very culturally conservative, although some secular codes have been introduced recently. The government recognizes no official political parties, while the monarch (King Abdullah) is both chief of state and head of government. He does maintain Council of Ministers, which is largely comprised of members of the royal family. Recently, municipal elections have been held, but the monarchy continues to exercise primary control over the government and economy.

Saudi Arabia has a population of about 28million people and the capital city is Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy country, ranking in the top 25 of highest GDP’s worldwide. The Saudi economy is largely oil based, with the petroleum sector accounting for roughly 80% of budget revenues, 45% of GDP, and 90% of export earning. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of petroleum worldwide, and is home to the largest proven oil reserves (about 20% of the world’s oil). Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia is the leading member of OPEC, and has vested interests in maintaining stable and profitable relationships in the region. More than 95% of all Saudi oil is produced on behalf of the Saudi government by ARAMCO, the world’s largest fully integrated oil company. Since its ascension into the WTO in 2005, King Abdullah has been seeking to diversify their economy into the power generation, telecommunications, natural gas exploration and petrochemical sectors. Aside from the lack of diversity within the economy, unemployment is a huge problem for Saudi Arabia. Currently, the unemployment rate is around 10.8% (this figure only reflects rate for Saudi men). There are about 6 million foreign workers employed in S.A, and about 80% of the work force is currently estimated to be non-national.

The United States is Saudi Arabia’s leading trading partner. Aside from shared economic interests, S.A and the United States also share common concerns regarding regional security of the Middle East, sustainable development, and Counterterrorism efforts.

Despite this close relationship, the United States does have significant concern with Saudi Arabia’s ongoing human rights abuses. Most notably, the abuse of prisoners, incommunicado detention, prohibition or severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly and association, and religion, denial of the right of citizens to change their government, systematic discrimination against women, ethnic and religious minorities and suppression of workers rights.

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