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8.5: Arabs, Islam, and Oil

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the physical features of the Arabian Peninsula.
    2. Understand the main economic activities of each country.
    3. Describe the types of governments found in the region.
    4. Outline women’s rights and circumstances in each country in the region.

    States of the Arabian Peninsula

    The Arabian Peninsula is a desert environment surrounded by saltwater bodies. The Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea border the peninsula on three sides. Arid type B climates dominate the region. Saudi Arabia only receives an average of four inches of precipitation per year. The southern portions of the peninsula are some of hottest places on Earth. Summer temperatures can reach more than 120 ºF. In the south is the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter), which is mainly desert and comprises about 25 percent of Saudi Arabia. It is extremely dry and virtually uninhabited, though oil discoveries have brought temporary settlements to the region. There are no natural lakes or major rivers on the peninsula. Agricultural activity is dependent on the availability of water by rainfall, underground aquifers, oases, or desalinization of seawater.

    Figure 8.34 Satellite Image from 2008 of the Arabian Peninsula Illustrating the Mountainous Regions, the Uninhabited Empty Quarter Desert Region, and the Surrounding Bodies of Water


    Satellite image courtesy of NASA’s Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor project and John Nevard – public domain.

    Most of the people living on the peninsula are Arabs, and most of the peninsula’s countries are ruled by monarchs who rely on oil revenues to gain wealth. Minerals are mined in the mountains that dominate the peninsula’s western and southern regions. The highest peaks reach more than twelve thousand feet in elevation in northern Yemen. Of the countries on the peninsula, Yemen has the fewest oil resources and has had the sole democratically elected government. Saudi Arabia dominates the region in size and in oil resources. Islam, the major religion, infiltrates all aspects of Arab culture.

    Saudi Arabia

    Figure 8.35 Political Map of the Arabian Peninsula


    Map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.

    The holy cities of Medina and Mecca are in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Islam first united the many traditional groups of Arabia with religion and then with the Arabic language. The region was further united after 1902, when Abdul Aziz Al-Sa‘ud and his followers captured the city of Riyadh and brought it under the control of the House of Sa‘ud. In 1933, the lands under the control of the king were renamed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. In 1938, US oil corporation Chevron found large quantities of oil in the region, which has sustained the royal family ever since. Aramco is the state-run oil corporation. Controlling about one-fifth of the world’s known oil reserves, the Saudi royal family claims considerable power.

    The Saudi royal family gave safe haven to thousands of Kuwaitis, including the emir and his family, during the First Persian Gulf War (1991). Saudi Arabia allowed US and Western military forces to use bases on its soil during Operation Desert Storm. Acquiescence to non-Muslims operating military bases on the same soil as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina gave extremist groups a reason to engage in terrorist activities. Out of the nineteen hijackers in the 9-11 attack in New York, sixteen were from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has been forced to step up its efforts against terrorism and domestic extremist groups.

    The entire economy of Saudi Arabia is based on the export of oil, and more than 20 percent of the known oil reserves in the world are located in Saudi Arabia. The country is a key member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and has been the world’s number one oil exporter. Millions of foreign workers in the petroleum industry make up a vital component of the country’s economy.

    A high rate of population growth has been outstripping economic growth in Saudi Arabia. In 2010, more than one-third of the population was younger than fifteen years old, and family size was about 3.8 children. The unemployment rate is high, and there is a shortage of job skills in the workforce. The government has been working to shift its focus away from a petroleum-based economy and increase other economic opportunities; it plans to heavily invest in the necessary infrastructure and education to diversify its economy.

    Saudi Arabia has made several efforts to move forward and put the country more in line with globalization efforts that are modernizing the other Persian Gulf States. The World Trade Organization accepted Saudi Arabia as a member in 2005. In 2008, the king implemented the initiative for interfaith dialogue in an effort to address religious tolerance and acceptance. The first woman was appointed to the cabinet, and municipal councils held elections for its members.

    Figure 8.36 Modern Infrastructure Illustrated on Medina Road in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia


    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

    Saudi Culture

    The royal family and most of the people in Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims. The country has a strong fundamentalist Islamic tendency. The law of the state is strict and supports conservative Islamic ideals. The Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam has a major influence on culture. Activities such as gambling, alcohol consumption, and the promotion of other religions are outlawed. Alcohol and pork products are forbidden in accordance with Islamic dietary laws. Movie theaters and other Western-style productions are prohibited but can be found in areas where workers from other countries live in private compounds. Though movie theaters are restricted, movies on DVDs are not prohibited and are widely available. The dress code in Saudi Arabia strictly follows the Islamic principles of modesty. The black abaya (an article of clothing that looks like a cloak or robe) or modest clothing is appropriate for women. Men often wear the traditional full-length shirt and a headcloth held in place by a cord.

    In Saudi Arabia, human rights organizations, legal associations, trade unions, and political parties are banned. The country maintains a tight censorship of all local media. The press is only allowed to publish what the government permits it to report. Communication with foreigners, satellite media, and Internet access are highly controlled. Those who speak out against the government can be arrested or imprisoned.

    Figure 8.37 Women in Saudi Arabia


    Former First Lady Laura Bush meets medical staff in Saudi Arabia. Note the women’s attire.

    Photo courtesy of the White House – public domain.

    The Sharia is the basic criminal code in Saudi Arabia, along with whatever law is established by the king. A wide range of corporal and capital punishments—from long prison sentences to amputations (arm or foot), floggings, and beheadings—are proscribed for legal or religious offenses. Trials are most often held in secret without lawyers. Torture has been used to force confessions that are then used to convict the accused. Torture techniques—including the use of sticks, electric shocks, or flogging—can be applied to children and women as well as men. Executions are usually held in a public place every Friday.

    Role of Women

    Men hold the dominant roles in Saudi society. Under strict Islamic law, women do not have the same rights as men, so Saudi women do not have the opportunities that women in many Western countries have. For example, it is not customary for a woman to walk alone in public; traditionally, she must be accompanied by a family member so as to not be accused of moral offences or prostitution. The mutawa’een (religious police) have the authority to arrest people for such actions. The punishment could be as many as to twenty-five days in prison and a flogging of as many as sixty lashes.

    As of 2011, the following restrictions have been made on women:

    • Women are not allowed to drive motor vehicles.
    • Women must wear modest clothing such as the black abaya and cover their hair.
    • Women can only choose certain college degrees. They cannot be engineers or lawyers, for example.
    • Women cannot vote in political elections.
    • Women cannot walk in a public spaces or travel without a male relative.
    • Women are segregated from men in the workplace and in many formal spaces, even in homes.
    • Women need written permission from a husband or father to travel abroad.
    • Marriages can be arranged without the woman’s consent, and women often lose everything in a divorce.

    Saudi Arabia is a country steeped in tradition based on the heritage of its people, and many of the traditions regarding women were implemented to protect and care for them. However, as the forces of globalization seep into the fabric of society, many of these traditions are evolving and changing to adapt to the times and to a more open society. Women are asserting themselves in the culture, and many of these long-standing traditions are starting to break down. In late 2011, there were a number of women who organized to defy the ban on driving. One woman was arrested for driving a car and sentenced to ten lashes. Saudi King Abdullah then overturned the sentence and promised to support or protect women’s rights. There is no law stating that women cannot drive a vehicle. The taboo is based on tradition and religious views. More women have taken to the roadways in spite of the taboo against it (Huffington Post). Saudi Arabia is an example of how Islamic fundamentalism is being challenged by modernity and democratic principles.