Dubai: Saudi Arabia, which wields broad influence in the Middle East and is the regional rival of Iran, is the world’s biggest oil exporter and a key ally of the United States.
– World’s biggest oil exporter –
The vast desert kingdom is the world’s biggest oil exporter and the Arab world’s largest economy.
It possesses the second-largest known reserves of crude oil in the world after Venezuela, equivalent to about 260 billion barrels.
Its reliance on the petroleum industry meant it was hit hard by the mid-2014 plunge in crude oil prices, which pushed the kingdom to slash public spending.
A 2016 reform plan aimed at diversifying its economy put an emphasis on developing tourism and layed out plans to sell a fraction of state-owned oil giant Aramco.
On October 9 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) upgraded Saudi Arabia’s growth forecast due to its increased oil production.
The economy, which shrunk by 0.9 percent last year, is forecast to increase by 2.2 percent in 2018 and by 2.4 percent next year.
– Islam’s holiest sites –
The kingdom, where Islam was born in 622, is home to the religion’s two holiest sites: the Kaaba stone at the heart of Mecca’s Grand Mosque towards which Muslims pray, and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina where Prophet Mohammed is buried.
Every year hundreds of thousands of Muslims — more than two million in 2018 — from around the world flood to these sites during the hajj pilgrimage, one of the largest annual gatherings in the world.
Saudi Arabia considers itself the guardian of the Sunni branch of Islam, the kingdom’s official religion.
About 10 percent of Saudis belong to the Shiite branch of Islam, and are concentrated in the east of the kingdom.
Non-Muslim worship is forbidden.
– Wahhabism –
The ultra-conservative kingdom is among only a few remaining absolute monarchies in the world and political parties are banned.
It is the cradle of the austere doctrine of Wahhabism, which follows a strict interpretation of Sharia law — enshrined in the national law.
The death penalty is given for crimes including terrorism, murder, rape, armed robbery and drug trafficking. The kingdom has one of the highest execution rates in the world.
In 2017 Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised a “moderate” and “tolerant” Saudi Arabia amidst attempts to break with the country’s austere image.
Saudi Arabia has since launched economic and social reforms, including the lifting of bans on women drivers and cinemas. But women’s rights in the country continue to be among the most restricted in the world.
– Regional power struggle –
A dangerous power struggle between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has for decades overshadowed the region.
Saudi Arabia financially supported former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against Iran in their eight-year war in the 1980s.
In Syria, Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad’s battle against mainly Sunni rebels, some of whom are backed by Saudi Arabia.
The two also take opposing sides in the Yemen conflict: Riyadh leads a coalition in support of the president while Tehran is accused of backing the Huthi rebels.
In January 2016 Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties with Iran after protesters ransacked its embassy in Tehran to protest the execution of a Shiite cleric.
Riyadh and its allies broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017 and imposed a ground, maritime and air embargo on the small Gulf state, accusing it of fostering ties with Iran among other charges.
– Key US ally –
The longstanding relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been largely based on the exchange of American security for Saudi oil.
In May 2017 President Donald Trump, who echoes Saudi concerns over Iran, made Saudi Arabia his first foreign trip after taking office.