A large, oil-rich country Middle Eastern country bordering Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan, Saudi Arabia dominates the Arabian Peninsula and remains an important regional power. It’s one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world, and home to the holiest cities of the Islamic religion sometimes called “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” It’s also the only nation with coasts on the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. There’s no question that Saudi Arabia is an important country. Yet, it’s also a controversial one and has been criticized for treatment of women and its frequent use of capital punishment. It leads and almost single-handedly directs the oil cartel, OPEC, which has enormous influence over the world’s oil production.
Recently, the Kingdom has even militarily intervened in the civil war in Yemen, supporting the government against Houthi fighters. But Saudi Arabia has also confronted its own share of the problems, including budget pressures from falling oil prices, internal political divisions, and trying to diversify its economy. For many people in the West, the country seems like an anachronism, where a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is absolute law and women aren’t allowed to drive, but also a place of great history and culture, the site of the yearly Hajj pilgrimage for millions of Muslims, and of course, massive oil wealth.
Here are 15 crazy facts about the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
15. There Are No Elections, No Parliament, No Political Parties, and No Dissent
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, essentially a hereditary autocracy along Islamic lines. There are no national elections, no political parties, and no representative parliament – only a symbolic advisory body known as the Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Assembly, which has no power to pass or enforce laws. This brazen disregard for any accountability or respect for democratic norms has gone on for decades, and the country regularly receives the lowest possible marks for civil and political freedoms from organizations like Freedom House, alongside the world’s most brutal dictatorships.
There is also no constitution, though according to the charter known as the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia, which was adopted by royal decree in 1992, the monarch must comply with Sharia and the Koran, which are declared to be the country’s constitution. Criticism and dissent are strictly forbidden: activists are regularly jailed and given harsh punishments. Two examples are Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr, who was sentenced to eight years for demanding a transition to a constitutional monarchy, and blogger Raif Badawi, who was given 1,000 lashes for calling for free speech.
14. Home to Islam’s Holiest Cities
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and home to the major religion’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. The 43-foot-high (13 meters) Kaaba, is Islam’s holiest site in the Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s most sacred mosque. The Kaaba is also the source for the Muslim direction of prayer. One of the five pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially capable of making the journey. Approximately two million people a year make the trip to Saudi Arabia.
As you might imagine, that many pilgrims in one place can cause serious problems, such as the 2015 stampede that killed and injured more than 2,000 people by some estimates. That’s why in recent years the rituals have been changed slightly to accommodate the greatly increasing crowds, and pilgrims have been subjected to new safety measures, including tighter security and GPS-tracked electronic ID bracelets.
13. Executions Are So Frequent There’s a Shortage of Swordsmen
The death penalty is commonly used in Saudi Arabia. On average, Saudi authorities executed one person every other day in 2015. It’s the fourth in the world in executions, and people are put to death for reasons such as adultery and renouncing Islam. A large number of these executions are carried out by beheading, where executioners use a traditional scimitar to take off the head on one slice. The Kingdom may be the only country on earth that suffers from a lack of swordsmen: at the start of 2013, Saudi Arabia started considering ending the beheadings and taking up alternative methods of execution because of a shortage of swordsmen in the country. A switch to using a firing squad as the preferred method is likely in the future.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is one of the remaining four countries in the world that still carry out public executions. Deera Square in central Riyadh is the frequent site of public beheadings, earning it the charming local name, “chop-chop square.”
12. The Oil Reserves Are Massive
When you think Saudi Arabia, what word springs to mind? As the world’s largest exporter of petroleum liquids, the Kingdom’s name is synonymous with everything related to oil and gas. Well over half the country’s GDP comes from its lucrative oil industry. Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are simply massive; the Ghawar oil field is the largest in the world and has enough reserves to fill 4,770,897 Olympic swimming pools. It has an estimated 75 billion barrels of oil left, even after decades of pumping it out for export.
Saudi Arabia possesses 22 percent of the world’s total oil reserves, second only to Venezuela. It was a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960. Because of this enormous petroleum industry, more than 30 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is made up of foreign workers.
11. Largest Country in the World Without a River
Saudi Arabia is over 2 million square kilometers (830,000 square miles) in total area, making it the 13th largest country in the world. Over 95 percent of Saudi Arabia is desert or semi-desert. The country is home to some of the largest areas of desert in the world, including An Nafud, otherwise known as the Nafud Desert, in the north. As well as Rub’ al Khali in the south, also called the Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous sand desert on earth. Because of this large area of desert, and because the average summer temperature is about 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), Saudi Arabia has no above ground lakes or rivers, though it does have permanent bodies of water underground.
It is the largest country in the Middle East, about one-quarter the size of the United States and makes up most of the Arabian Peninsula. As such, Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the world without a river.
10. The Royal Family is Worth $14 Trillion
As the head of the ruling House of Saud, the monarch and his thousands of related royals hold all the levers of power in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The royalty’s grip on the country would be the envy of any medieval court; King Salman’s net worth is estimated to be more than $17 billion, and more than 7,000 princes bearing the family name are currently alive, with some estimates of the number of titled family members going as high as 30,000, and each one is allocated a job while more talented candidates are shunned due to not having the right last name.
Through the state-owned oil monopoly Saudi Arabian Oil Co., better known as Saudi Aramco, the royal family enjoys the massive profits from the country’s oil wealth, estimated at around $270 billion a year.
In fact, if one were to take the entire Saudi royal family as a single entity and roll all their staggering wealth and financial holdings together as a single sum, it’s estimated that they would be worth a collective $14 trillion.
9. Punishments Are Harsh
We’ve already talked about the strict laws in Saudi Arabia, but how about the punishments? Well, as it turns out, they are no better: the legal system of the country uses the same ultra-conservative and traditionalist Hanbali school for jurisprudence as does the terrorist group ISIS. Many of the so-called “judges” for the Islamic State, much like the ones in Saudi Arabia, judge based solely on their interpretation of Islamic law.
Among the punishments doled out by Saudi authorities are chopping off of the hands and feet for theft, lashes and stoning for adultery and other misdemeanors, and beheading for anything from sedition and political crimes to drug smuggling and even sorcery and witchcraft. Other death sentences include blasphemy (insulting God or the Prophet in any way), acts of homosexuality, and violent theft. Despite the ever-growing pressure on Saudi Arabia to liberalize its legal system, executions and punishments have remained steady.
8. “Sidewalk Skiing” Is A Dangerous Fad There
One particularly daredevil craze in Saudi Arabia is the ridiculously dangerous stunt known as “sidewalk skiing.” The stunt involves tipping a car onto its side two wheels on a public road while driving, followed by the passengers climbing out and standing on top of the moving vehicle to ride along. Drivers in the country consider balancing their car on its side as a sport, rather than one of the most needlessly perilous things ever invented by humankind. The death-defying “sport” is also invariably done on Saudi Arabia’s public roads with no safety equipment, and in such a large desert country there are plenty of open roads for it.
In one video of the stunt being performed, the sidewalk skiing team even climbs out of the car to change one of the airborne tires, all while the car is still moving of course. Some have even taken to sitting in the middle of the road and allowing the “skiing” car to speed over them. To say, “don’t try this at home” would be putting it mildly.
7. Built An Air-Conditioned Fireproof Tent City
Originally, pilgrims making the Hajj brought their own tents on the journey which they would erect on the flat plains of Mina. In the 1990s, the Saudi government installed cotton tents as a permanent fixture, allowing pilgrims to come without their own camping equipment. But after a deadly fire swept through the new tent city in 1997, killing 350 pilgrims, they built a new tent city out of flame retardant materials. The city of Mina consists of five square kilometers of 100,000 neatly arranged eight-by-eight meter fireproof tents, complete with air conditioning, kitchen, and bathroom facilities, in essence making it like a modern housing complex.
The ultra-modern tents have the capacity to house about 3 million people, is used for about five days each year by pilgrims on the Hajj, and sits empty for the rest of the time. The Kingdom faced criticism when it would not use the tents to house Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in that country.
6. They Had a Lingerie Problem
Women are effectively banned from working outside the home in Saudi Arabia. This leads to some pretty awkward situations, such as women being served by men in lingerie shops. Saudi women activists who were growing increasingly uncomfortable buying their lingerie from male shop assistants led an effort to change the laws, and at the start of 2012, a royal decree was passed banning men in the country from working in women’s underwear stores at all.
The decree was opposed by top clerics, who felt that women doing any work outside the home is in contradiction to Sharia. About one hundred shops that didn’t follow the ruling were shut down in the months after the law came into effect. The decree continues to be upheld, and surprise inspections by the labor ministry threaten shops with closure if men are found on their sales staff. The ruling was soon followed by women-only sales assistants at cosmetics shops.
5. They Have A “Magic Police”
It’s highly illegal in Saudi Arabia to practice any form of what the state considers sorcery, witchcraft, or magic. In fact, sorcery is a capital offense, and people have been beheaded for allegedly practicing magic. Saudi Arabia takes the supposed threat of sorcery so seriously that it has banned the Harry Potter books and have set up a police unit specifically for catching practitioners of magic. Established in 2009, the Anti-Witchcraft Action Unit is under the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPV), Saudi Arabia’s religious police. The unit is charged with apprehending sorcerers and reversing their spells; over 500 people have been arrested and prosecuted for practicing magic since 2009.
Allegedly casting spells or rituals or being caught with a talisman can get in serious trouble, though the expectation they have of witches is not subtle – clerics have been known to describe them as “riding on a broom and flying through the air.” Due to the legal code of Saudi Arabia, it’s up to the judge to decide if the person is guilty of performing sorcery or if they get the death penalty.
4. Soon Home to the World’s Tallest Building
One of the most highly sought-after titles in the world is “World’s Tallest Building.” While it is currently the Burj Khalifa in Dubai that holds the coveted record, in 2018 the title will belong to Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, also known as Kingdom Tower. The tower is set to be the first building to reach more than a kilometer (3,280 feet) into the air. Kingdom Tower will be the gleaming centerpiece in a new coastal city in Saudi Arabia. To put this in perspective, the One World Trade Center in New York, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere, is 541 meters (1,775 feet) tall, or just over half of the proposed height of the Kingdom Tower.
When it’s finished, the Kingdom Tower will include a hotel, an observatory, office spaces, and some (extremely expensive) penthouse apartments. At its proposed cost is around $1.2 billion., the tower will probably not be surpassed for quite some time. The 1,000 meters of the Kingdom Tower has been described as currently “the limits of what engineering can do.”
3. Their Women’s Rights Are Way Worse Than You Think
The Wikitravel page for tourists going to Saudi Arabia should give an idea of how restrictive its laws are. Over the past decade, the Gulf kingdom’s treatment of women has been at the forefront of social struggle; it’s currently the last country on earth where women are not allowed to drive, which has received much media attention. Of course, this is merely the tip of the iceberg, as women also cannot leave the house, make a purchase, open a bank account, be employed, go to school, act as a signatory to a legal document or any other official action, or even agree to surgery, without the consent of a male guardian (usually the husband or the father).
Segregation of the sexes in public places and separate services for women are common, and unlike most Islamic countries, most women are expected to wear not only the traditional hijab but also a face-veil called the niqab and a black cloak on top of that.
Until recently, women couldn’t vote in the municipal elections at all, and could not sit on the advisory chamber, making Saudi Arabia the last country on earth to give women the vote. Before his death, King Abdullah allocated one-fifth of the chamber to women and allowed them to vote, but these are mostly symbolic gestures that have done little to affect the lives of Saudi women.
2. Have One Of The Largest Military Budgets In The World
For a country of only 33 million people, Saudi Arabia’s military spending is huge. The Kingdom is usually ranked fourth place for military expenditure in the world, putting it behind the U.S., China, and Russia, all superpowers with a much bigger territory and larger population. In 2015, it rose to number three when it increased its military budget from $80 billion to over $87 billion, or about 13.7 percent of its GDP, which is absolutely massive.
Most countries are around 2 percent to 4 percent, while Washington’s military budget, frequently criticized as excessively enormous, amounts to “only” about 3.5 percent of the U.S. GDP. Although the U.S. may be unrivaled when it comes to the sheer amount of military spending, Saudi Arabia spends by far the largest percent of its GDP on their defense of any country in the world. The only country that comes close is Israel at about 5.2 percent, and Russia after a huge military spending increase which reached 4.5 percent.
While we’re on the subject, Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries on earth to operate the M1 Abrams tank, one of the most advanced in the world. It currently has several hundred. The Kingdom was also the world’s second largest arms importer from 2010-2014.
1. Imports Sand And Camels From Australia
That’s right: Saudi Arabia, a country covered in sand, actually imports sand from Australia. They also have many camels in the country, yet they import those too. Why? Well, it turns out that none of the sand in Saudi Arabia is viable for use in construction, so in order for them to build anything, they require special alluvial sand that is free of silica, which creates dust and can cause lung problems for workers when it’s used in sandblasting. The Kingdom is able to import this kind of sand in bulk from Australia.
Now for the camels, which are frequently sold in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and are used for carrying people or goods, and sometimes for racing. Camels are also used for food, but the Saudis don’t have enough camels for meat since breeding focuses on domestic uses and racing. Meanwhile, Australian camels are feral and an invasive species that’s very harmful to the environment, so Australia is happy to be rid of them. Ironically, camels were first imported into Australia from Arabia, India, and Afghanistan in the 19th century.