SAUDI ARABIA COUNTRY PROFILE

One of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has emerged from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to become one of the wealthiest nations in the region thanks to vast oil resources.



But its rulers face the delicate task of responding to pressure for reform while combating a growing problem of extremist violence. Named after the ruling Al Saud family, which came to power in the 18th century, the country includes the Hijaz region - the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam. This fact, combined with the Al Sauds' espousal of a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, has led it to develop a strongly religious self-identity.

Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by King Abd-al-Aziz - known as the Lion of Najd - who took over Hijaz from the Hashemite family and united the country under his family's rule. Since his death in 1953, he has been succeeded by various sons.

The Al Saud dynasty's monopoly of power meant that during the 20th century successive kings were able to concentrate on modernisation and on developing the country's role as a regional power.

It has always been in the ruling family's interests to preserve stability in the region and to clamp down on extremist elements. To this end, it welcomed the stationing of US troops in the country after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

But the leadership's refusal to tolerate any kind of opposition may have encouraged the growth of dissident groups such as Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda, which benefited from popular resentment against the role of the US in the Middle East.

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 - carried out mainly by Saudi nationals - the Saudi authorities were further torn between their natural instincts to step up internal security and pressure to allow a greater degree of democracy.

In 2003 suicide bombers suspected of having links with al-Qaeda killed 35 people - including a number of foreigners - in the capital Riyadh. Some Saudis referred to the attacks as their own 9/11.

Since then, demands for political reform have increased, as has the frequency of militant attacks, some of them targeted at foreign workers. The security forces have made thousands of arrests.

Municipal elections in 2005 were a first, limited exercise in democracy. But political parties are banned - the opposition is organised from outside the country - and activists who publicly broach the subject of reform risk being jailed.

Saudi Arabia sits on more than 25% of the world's known oil reserves. It is capable of producing more than 10 million barrels per day; that figure is set to rise. ;







AT A GLANCE

Politics:
The Al Saud dynasty holds a monopoly of power; political parties are banned and the opposition is organised from abroad; militant Islamists have launched several deadly attacks

Economy:
Saudi Arabia is the world's dominant oil producer and owner of the largest hydrocarbon reserves; rapidly growing unemployment is a major challenge

International:
Saudi Arabia is one of the main players in the Arab and Muslim worlds; its stature is built on its geographic size, its prestige as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and status as major oil producer