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Saudi Arabia factfile

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Saudi Arabia today – A rapidly developing, cosmopolitan society

Over a thousand years ago, whilst Europe languished in the dark ages, Arabian scientists and philosophers were hard at work, leading the world in what was Arabia’s golden age. There is much more to the Kingdom today than this, and always has been.

Over a thousand years ago, whilst Europe languished in the dark ages, Arabian scientists and philosophers were hard at work, leading the world in what was Arabia’s golden age. Great advances in our understanding of astronomy had their roots in Arabia, along with pioneering works in the fields of physics, algebra and geometry. It was Arab scholars who perfected today’s numerical system.

Before the oil boom years of the 1960s, much of Arabia remained a distinctly rural, desert-based economy. Cities were small communities with mud-bricked palaces surrounded by high clay walls. Roads were almost non-existent. It is almost impossible to believe the impact that the discovery of oil has had on Saudi Arabia, and there can be few countries in the world that have developed and grown so quickly. Arabia as a whole has seen more change in the last six decades than it has witnessed in the last ten centuries.

Arabia’s fast growing population (22 million people today, compared to 12 million 20 years ago) have witnessed these changes within their own lifetime. Standards of living have improved dramatically as a result of comprehensive development programmes supported by the enormous oil wealth.


When the Kingdom was first united in the 1930s there were less than a dozen schools in Saudi Arabia. By 1951 the country had 226 schools teaching 29,887 students. However, facilities were poor, with few desks and chairs and a blackboard for the lucky few. Further education was a dream only a few could aspire to at this time. The first university was founded in Riyadh in 1957 and consisted of 9 instructors teaching 21 students.

By the 1990s great progress had been made, with 22,000 schools in the Kingdom educating 3 million students in state-of-the-art facilities. There are now seven universities and 60 colleges offering further education in 400 specialities. Moreover, students are given an allowance to encourage them to go to university.

More than 2,340 adult education centres have also been opened to meet the challenge of stamping out illiteracy and ensuring those who missed out on an education as a child can reap the benefits later in life.

Social development

Health care in Saudi Arabia is another area in which there has been rapid development. A network of health care centres across the Kingdom provide emergency and basic services, as well as pregnancy care for mothers–to-be and preventive medicine for the whole community. The number of these centres rose from 591 in 1970 to 3,254 in 1995. They have played an important part in reducing infant deaths from 68 per thousand in 1980 to less than 30 per thousand by the mid 1990s.

In addition to the health centres there are nearly 300 hospitals in the Kingdom today including specialist centres and medical centres in Makkah and Medinah to care for pilgrims. Diseases like malaria and smallpox which were once the cause of many deaths are now almost unheard of.

There has also been a rapid growth in public housing to meet the needs of the growing population with sometimes 100,000 new homes a year being built.


In the early years of the Kingdom travel was difficult as there were just 237 kilometres of paved roads (less than the distance between London and Exeter!). Today there are more than 139,000 kilometres of roads and motorways. One extraordinary achievement is the
25-kilometre-Bahrain Causeway which, was opened in 1986 and is the second longest causeway in the world.

26 airports serving regional and international needs. Saudia the national airline was set up in 1945 today it carries more than 12 million passengers a year

Food and Water

One of the most important developments over the last half a century has been the building of desalination plants* so that all Saudi people have easy access to fresh drinkable water (see water factfile). With temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius not uncommon in the Kingdom, this is a resource more valuable than oil to the Saudi people. Thirty years ago the Kingdom had to import most of its food but today it is self sufficient and even exports some agricultural products. Between 1980 and 1995 cultivated land increased from 600,000 to 1.7 million hectares.

* Desalination = removal of salt


Saudi Arabia has become a predominantly urban society with many people moving to the cities. The capital city of Riyadh (see Riyadh in Cities factfiles) was as recently as 1960 a remote, oasis-based mud-bricked community of less than 60,000 people. Today, less than 50 years later, it is home to over four million people, and must rank as one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the world.


Internet usage in Saudi Arabia, whilst still low compared to the UK, is growing rapidly, and this, together with large numbers of satellite TV dishes, brings often-alien western values into conservative homes. In 1950 there were only 8,000 telephones in the Kingdom. By 1995 the Kingdom’s telephone exchanges had a capacity of more than 1.89 million lines, linking 450 towns and cities.


Saudi women are encouraged to play an important part in the workforce in such occupations as doctors, dentists, teachers and TV presenters. The government is working hard to encourage progress in this area whilst still retaining traditional values.


Rapid progress is also evident on the international sports field, and the national soccer team has qualified to play in the last three World Cup competitions. All young people are encouraged to take up a sport – there are more than 150 sports clubs in the Kingdom and sixteen giant sports complexes.

Open doors

Did you know?From being an insular society, Saudi Arabia is increasingly opening its doors. Saudi Arabia has always taken a leading role in Islamic and Middle Eastern Affairs but now there is a genuine desire to be understood by the wider world and for people to have a better appreciation of Arab life, art and culture.

What slowly evolved in Europe over several centuries has taken merely decades in Saudi. It has brought many advantages to Saudi society, but has required careful thought and management by the Kingdom’s leaders because Saudi is not just another developing country, but is also the keeper of the two holy mosques at Medinah and Makkah (see Islam factfile). Progress has to be balanced against the country’s important religious role, in this respect. The government aims to maintain a balance between progress and a cultural heritage that has its roots in Islam.

Whilst technology and scientific developments have arrived in Saudi Arabia with great speed, it takes time for people to come to terms with new ways of doing things, and time to question and debate the rights and wrongs of different systems and lifestyles.

Saudi Arabia is an evolving nation of great contrast, where some of the most modern cityscapes in the world mix with ancient crafts and tribal traditions. For anyone to make a balanced judgement on the Kingdom today, they must take into account the speed at which the country has been thrust into the 21st century, and the delicate cultural balancing act that the Kingdom’s rulers must follow in their role as chief spiritual and moral custodian of the Muslim faith worldwide.

Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders.

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