"There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger"
Saudi Arabia or Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute Islamic monarchy founded in 1932 and located in the Arabian Peninsula.
The largest country in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is bordered by the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and shares borders with Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Yemen.
Due to the lack of precision of the country's borders with Oman and the Emirates, it is difficult to determine the exact size of its territories. This is estimated at approximately 2,200,000 square kilometers, placing the country at the 13th position of the countries of the world.
Etymologically, Saudi Arabia derives its name from the Al Saoud family and particularly from the founder of Saudi Arabia's third state and the first king of Saudi Arabia in its present form, Abdelaziz bin Abderrehmane Al Saud.
Saudi Arabia at a glance
Administrative divisions: 13 provinces divided into 118 governorates
Population: more than 28 million inhabitants
Main languages: Arabic Najdi and Arabic Hijazi
Religion: Islam, State religion
Current King: Salmane ben Abdelaziz Al Saud
Currency: Saudi Riyal (1 Saudi riyal = 20 hirshs and 100 halalas)
Conversion into euro: 100 riyal = 24 euros
Tourism: people traveling as business travelers in Saudi Arabia must respect the customs of the country and avoid border areas as well as some Shiites. No tourist visa is issued.
A huge desert
Saudi Arabia is covered mostly by huge desert spaces consisting of sand dunes. The Rub al Khali located in the south of the peninsula has the largest sandy area in the world with more than 650,000 km² or almost a third of the country.
This region is particularly hostile and dangerous and the authorization must be granted to persons who wish to cross it even with the help of a guide. It is notably swept by winds capable of moving dunes more than 200 meters high in less than a day. The orange-colored sand areas follow the gravel areas and are occasionally dotted with salty brackish seamen. The climate is not more pleasant than the landscapes, with temperature variations able to evolve from 60 ° to -10 °.
The area was nevertheless inhabited and enjoyed a much more pleasant climate during prehistory. The traces of prosperous cities, the lakes now missing and a rich and diverse flora and fauna have been discovered.
However, the country also has many other landscapes such as the western coastal strip bordered by the first foothills of a mountain range, itself dominated by the Nejd Plateau.
Most of the country is uninhabited or occupied by the Bedouins, a nomadic or semi-nomadic people who subsidize from the breeding of camelids and goats, in the almost total absence of fertile land.
The population is therefore mainly concentrated on the coasts, apart from some immense oases in the interior.
The climate is also diversified in Saudi Arabia. Alongside the desert climate of the south of the country, the coastline bordering the Red Sea has a subtropical climate and the interior of the country enjoys hot and humid summers as well as mild winters.
Only the Asir region of the Sarawat Mountains enjoy cooler temperatures and regular rainfall under the influence of the Indian Ocean monsoon. This region is the greenest in the country.
The fauna and flora are extremely reduced in the desert with only about twenty species of plants as well as some arachnids and rodents. In the rest of the country, there is a greater biodiversity including gazelles, leopards, baboons, hyenas, eagles, vultures ...
The vegetation comes down to herbs and shrubs. The date palms are the only trees that grow in these countries.
A people coming from Africa
The settlement of Saudi Arabia probably begins with the arrival of African tribes of Homo ergaster that had previously been identified as Homo erectus during the Lower Palaeolithic.
The new theories now differentiate the Homo ergaster present in Africa and the Homo erectus present in Asia. Other historians incline to a simple evolution, the erectus would then be a descendant of the ergaster.
However, different theses clash with regard to the period of the first occupation of Arabia.
Because of its geographical proximity, according to some historians, the peninsula would be the first country to know the establishment of Homo sapiens outside the African continent. The first so-called modern men would then have crossed these regions during their expansion towards Asia to about 70,000 BC.
Yet, the discovery of stone tools dating back to an earlier period (over 100,000 years ago) would indicate that the area was already occupied by ancient hominids. The size of the tools is similar to that discovered in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which would prove that the exit from Africa predates the appearance of Homo sapiens.
Due to the absence of hominid bones, it is difficult to decide between the different theories that rely solely on the model of the recovered tools.
However, the recent discoveries have enabled the Jebel Faya site in the Emirates to be dated around 125,000 years ago, which would support the hypothesis of an earlier settlement throughout the peninsula.
On the other hand, it is certain that the desert region of Rub-al-Khali was occupied during the Neolithic. The then green and inhabited country would have housed different important cities according to legends.
Among them, the "lost city" of Iram nicknamed the "City of the thousand pillars" is mentioned in the Quran which states that it was founded around the 3rd millennium BC by the tribe of Ad, direct descendants of Noah. The legend says it was led by rich, polytheistic and decadent men, who provoked the anger of Allah who buried the city under the sand.
This history has not failed to intrigue the archaeologists who have launched in the footsteps of the city engulfed in the desert. Excavations assisted by images of the Persian Gulf taken from the space shuttle and showing traces of cities along the Incense Route linking Egypt and India have made discoveries that would confirm the existence of several towns or fortresses along the road taken by camel drivers. Again, the researchers were unable to determine the position of the famous city that may have been destroyed by a sinkhole (land collapse).
As a result of climate change, the towns have been abandoned and only a handful of Bedouins are still venturing into the region, while trading routes have become impassable.
The land of the Bedouins
A Greek historian of the 5th century BC, Ctesias, describes Arabia in his histories devoted to Persia and India. During the Antiquity, the region was divided into three parts: the happy Arabia corresponding to Yemen, the deserted Arabia populated by nomadic Bedouin tribes and sedentary tribes settled around watering points and Arabia, the imperial province.
The various tribes governed by independent chiefs were bound by the commercial exchanges generally controlled by the Bedouins, who thus confirmed their domination over the region. The equilibrium is fragile, however, and organized raids against other tribes and incursions into the lands of the Byzantine Empire by qâ'il (warlords) are frequent.
The society was already well organized, and different members of the tribes served as diviners, spokespersons or poets, while the task of the tribal assembly was to manage the work or to respect the traditions.
The beginnings of Islam
At that time, Mecca is a small town located near a water point in western Saudi Arabia. It was founded according to the Koranic tradition by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ishmael of a miraculous source of divine origin.
By the 6th century, Mecca had only a relative importance in relation to the cities of Palmyra and Petra. Far from being a rich merchant city, it is considered a mere sanctuary and attracts pilgrims. The city passes into the hands of different clans and remains polytheistic, there are some 360 deities in Mecca. Among them, we find Allah, a creative god who can be compared to Zeus, Brahma or Jupiter whose worship was celebrated in the Kaaba, a sacred space whose foundation is attributed to Abraham and Ishmael in the Qur'an. It is not, however, Allah but the lunar god Houbal who is the main pre-Islamic Arab deity. Pilgrimages and commercial exchanges allow the city to prosper.
The absence of mentions of Mecca in the Greek and Roman writings make historians prudent as regards his existence before Mohammed or at least its importance.
The founder of the Islamic religion Mahomet was born around 570 AD and the Muslim tradition places this birth in Mecca, a fact that is not certified. The history of Mahomet rests essentially on oral tradition, since the first writings relating to his life were written only more than a century after his death.
Muhammad would have received instructions from the angel Gabriel speaking in the name of Allah in the cave of Hira in a mountain, a few kilometers from the city. He will then try to convert his fellow citizens to a new religion. If the poorest population of Mecca is persuaded, the affluent see with displeasure its precepts which threaten their possessions. Mahomet and his companions (the sahaba) driven out of the city in 622 find refuge in the oasis of Yathrib (present-day Madinah). This exile called the Hegira corresponds to Year 1 of the Islamic calendar.
It is therefore in Madinah that Mahomet gathers more and more of the faithful, his clan thus gaining importance quickly dominates the city. After chasing the Jewish tribes opposed to the extension of the Moslim (faithful of Allah), Muhammad will conclude pacts with the Arab tribes of the whole peninsula. They agree to pay taxes and pledge to Muhammad to fight non-Muslims in exchange for war booty.
In 630, Mohammed besieged Mecca, which soon surrendered and converted to Islam. The city becomes a holy city and all the idols are destroyed with the exception of the "black stone" set in a wall of the Kaaba.
Mahomet died in Medina two years later but Islam continued its progression under the impulse of the caliphs, the successors of the prophet.
The birth of the Saudi state
In the 13th century, the holy places are under the control of the Mamluks of Egypt, former guards of the Ayyubid Sultan who rule over an Islamic state stretching from Egypt to Syria via the Arabian Peninsula until 1517, the year of the Ottoman Turks' conquest of the country.
Arabia then divides into rival clans which allows the Al Saud family converted to Islam in the time of Mahomet to seize the Nejd plateau which will become the nucleus of the future Saudi state in 1744. The city Of Riyadh is chosen as the capital of the first Saudi state.
The Ottomans worried about the growing power of the Al Saoud family are recovering the lost territories. The Al Sauds exiled to Kuwait in 1893 under the protection of the British. They quickly organized the revival of Riyadh in 1902 and continued their reconquest, notably of the holy cities, Medina and Mecca and various Yemeni regions.
A treaty was signed between the Al Saoud family and the British in 1927 to confirm the borders of their territories. The Saudis thus renounce to extend their country which will lead to the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 22nd 1932.
To ensure the protection of the United States, the Saudis give them access to oil, the great wealth of Arabia, a partnership that continues today.
Since the creation of the first kingdom, the Al Saoud family is at the head of the country, an absolutist Islamic monarchy. Second king of the Hedjaz and Nejd and first King of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdelaziz ben Abderrahmane ruled for 50 years. Six of his sons have succeeded him since his death in 1953.
Since January 2015, it is the 25th son of Abdelaziz and former governor of the province of Riyadh, Salmane who is on the throne. At his death, the 35th and last living son of the founder of the Kingdom, Moukrine would have to have access to power. In the order of things, he should have been the last king of his generation before passing the torch to the grandsons of Abdelaziz but he asked to be relieved of his duties as crown prince, a title that returned to Mohammed Ben Nayef, son of the 23rd son of the founder.
The monarchy considers the Koran as the only constitution and the country is managed simply by a "fundamental law" codifying rules of organization.
The freedom of worship is restricted or non-existent and it is forbidden to publicly express a divergent opinion on pain of death.
The country is divided into 13 provinces themselves subdivided into 118 governorates
The oil, the country's main resource
The economy of Saudi Arabia has long relied solely on the production of oil, which has made it the leading economic power in the Arab world and the 20th in the world.
This production still accounted for 90% of the country's income in 2014, but the successive crashes have done considerable damage to its economy. For the first time, Saudi Arabia has to borrow money in 2016.
The government has responded by diversifying its resources, including nuclear and solar energy, as well as technology and real estate.
A mixed population
The population of Saudi Arabia is made up of more than a third of foreigners, mainly from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, India and the Philippines, attracted by the country's economic growth. Since the oil revenues have sharply decreased, Saudi Arabia has expelled foreign workers to secure jobs for Saudi Arabians.
Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia, but English remains the language in which business is concluded. The company's elite has adopted English as a second language although Farsi remains the second most spoken language in the northeast of the country.
Wahhabi Islam is the only religion of Saudi Arabia. The population is 90% Sunni and 10% Shiite. A kind of religious police, the Muttawa, is responsible for controlling the application of Wahhabi rules in public places. A certain degree of tolerance is however granted in the private sector in order to allow immigrants to practice their religion.
While the Arab population has long been nomadic, it is estimated that 95% of the population is now settled. In order to allow the last nomads to have decent living conditions, shelter villages were built in the 1990s.
Contrasting with the poverty of the villages, the towns are sprawling and present a contemporary architecture as well as an important road infrastructure.
The daily life of the Saudis is regulated by religion and the fundamental law. It is thus that they must dress with broad clothes not emphasizing any form and covering a maximum of the body so as not to hurt modesty. Men wear thawb (long shirt) and keffieh or ghutra (headgear) while women wear the abaya and the niqab.
The Saudis eat traditional halal dishes based on rice or wheat, lamb or chicken, beans and dates such as kebsa, falafels or kabsa. The law formally forbids alcohol and pork. Coffee, tea and yoghurt accompany meals or are served to welcome guests.
Although Sunni tradition discourages forms of art, music, dance and poetry are very present in everyday life.
Since 2009, cinema and theater are licensed while the sale of DVD has been legalized.
Tourism : a closed country
The Arab government does not want to open the country to tourists and does not issue tourist visas. The businessmen must obtain a visa from the Saudi Embassy of their country, which will serve as a "sponsor". The persons employed by a Saudi employer receive a residence permit and a work permit valid for two years. They will not be able to travel in the country without the agreement of their employer who must also ensure their repatriation at the end of the contract.
The holy cities of Mecca and Medina are forbidden to any non-Muslim person. The foreigners must provide a "certificate of conversion to Islam" to enter the sacred enclosure.
The few foreigners admitted to the soil of Saudi Arabia must abide by the very strict rules. In particular, they cannot possess non-Islamic religious articles, medicines banned in the country, "immoral" books, products of Israeli origin, etc.)
The women must always be accompanied by a family man and cannot travel in the same car as a man who is not her relative.
The offenses are punishable by heavy prison sentences or even by the death penalty.
The few people who can visit the country will be seduced by the huge desert areas punctuated by oases including al Hasa, the largest oasis in the world and by prehistoric sites. The contrast with modern cities is striking.