- Summarize the physical features of the Arabian Peninsula.
- Understand the main economic activities of each country.
- Describe the types of governments found in the region.
- 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.
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.
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.
Kuwait, a small country located on the Persian Gulf, is a monarchy ruled by an emir from the royal family. Immense oil reserves have made Kuwait attractive to international oil investors. In 1961, Zapata Oil Company (now Pennzoil), owned by former US president George H. W. Bush, drilled the first offshore Kuwaiti oil well in the Persian Gulf. Thanks to ample oil revenues, the small Kuwaiti population (about three million people) has adequate social services. The country has a high standard of living. Education is free, and much of the labor base comes from non-Kuwaiti migrants. Petroleum exports account for most of the government’s income.
Kuwait has an excellent port at Kuwait City. However, one of the environmental problems with building a large city in the desert is the shortage of fresh water. To solve this problem, Kuwait has turned to the desalinization of seawater to provide for its domestic, agricultural, and industrial needs.
The United States and an international coalition fought the First Persian Gulf War in 1991 to “liberate” Kuwait from the grip of Saddam Hussein. It is compelling to note that the war was not about democracy. The war was about the control of oil resources. Under Hussein, Iraq invaded Kuwait and took over its enormous oil industry and port facilities. By taking over the oil assets, Hussein was in actuality taking over the oil assets of various international oil corporations. With the support of United Nations (UN) resolutions demanding that Hussein leave Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush organized an international military coalition to remove Hussein from Kuwait. The US mission was called Operation Desert Storm. The war started on bases in Saudi Arabia and pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. When Hussein realized that he could not benefit from the oil in Kuwait, he had approximately 750 oil wells in Kuwait dynamited, which caused serious well fires and large lakes of oil flowing out onto the desert sands. The fires and spilled oil caused extensive environmental damage.
Figure 8.38 Desert Storm
US fighter jets in Operation Desert Storm fly over burning oil well fires in Kuwait. The fires were set by retreating Iraqi forces.
Wikimedia Commons – public domain.
Kuwait was not a democracy during the Persian Gulf War and is not a true democracy today. It is considered a constitutional emirate. The emir, or head of the royal family, is the head of state. He appoints the prime minister and has a high level of control over the government. The emir has the authority to dissolve the National Assembly, which has members that hold seats by election. A number of groups wish to have a political voice in the government, including Islamists, business merchants, secular liberals, Shia activists, and a small number of local groups. Islamist groups are usually those who support an Islamic religious state as the desired type of government.
Kuwait had to invest nearly five billion dollars to reestablish the oil industry after the Persian Gulf War, but the emirate has recovered, and its economy is growing with the increased sale of exported oil. Kuwait has about 104 billion barrels of oil in known reserves. In 2010, the four largest export partners were Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, which are all economic powers in East Asia that have to import almost all of their energy and raw materials. The US has traditionally been Kuwait’s number one source of imported goods.
Bahrain is a small archipelago (group of islands) in the Persian Gulf. The country received its independence from Great Britain in 1971. Iran has made claims on the islands to no avail. Similar to other small monarchies in the region, Bahrain has lots of oil and a small population. Though more than 50 percent of the population is Shia, the country is opening up to democratic reforms. In 1999, elections were approved for a parliament, all political prisoners were released, and women were allowed to vote. The royal family, ruled by the king, has had an enormous degree of power over its government. Officially, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, but the king appoints the members of the upper house in its bicameral legislature. The first female was appointed to a cabinet position in 2004, which was an indication of the move toward openness to the globalization process and modernization. Some in the country think the implementation of these measures is still too slow.
Figure 8.39 Development in Bahrain
This Hardee’s franchise in Bahrain is a clear example of Americanization of the Arabian Peninsula.
Claus Wolf – Fast Food in Dammam – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Most of Bahrain’s wealth is gained through the extraction of natural resources. Enormous natural gas reserves are located in Bahrain’s coastal waters, and oil now makes up about 60 percent of the export profits. The small land area size of the country, lack of sufficient supplies of fresh water, and few other natural resources has prompted a shift for Bahrain to expand into the financial sector. Islamic banking and financial services for the global marketplace have been an expanding sector of the economy. The objective in diversifying the economy is to reduce the dependency on oil as a future source of national wealth. In addition, the United States has entered into a free-trade agreement with Bahrain, which has attracted multinational corporations to do business in the region. Bahrain has been supportive of a US military presence for both protection and cooperation and is the permanent headquarters for the US Fifth Fleet navel operations. In a mutual defense agreement, some one thousand American navel officers and personnel are stationed on the island. Bahrain has been a frontline state for the US military in the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan.
The country is also opening up development in the service sectors. Tourism is not what usually comes to mind when one thinks about the Arabian Peninsula, but Bahrain has been attracting millions of visitors yearly. The country’s authentic heritage is attractive to tourists from neighboring Arab states and the global community. The country boasts of nearly five thousand years of human activity. UNESCO has designated the Qal’at al-Bahrain castle as a World Heritage Site. The country has invested heavily in modern shopping malls and international sports facilities in an effort to modernize its country and attract more international events.
The citizens of Bahrain have had to work to balance the shift toward modernization and globalization with the strong Arab heritage and Islamic beliefs that have been the foundation of their culture. The term Middle East Lite has been applied to Bahrain because Bahrain has been investing in modern infrastructure but has worked hard to maintain its Arab heritage with a Persian Gulf identity that is more accepting and open to the outside world. The growing and prosperous middle class is more tolerant and liberal than many of its Middle East neighbors.
The same level of tolerance toward outsiders has not been witnessed within the country. The 2011 protests and demonstrations that swept across North Africa and the Middle East also occurred in Bahrain. The king, the royal family, and the majority in government follow the Sunni branch of Islam; however, most of the population follows the Shia branch of Islam. Many within the Shia community felt that they were being discriminated against and protested the lack of democratic reforms. Protests and demonstrations in Bahrain have prompted the government to call in military support from Saudi Arabia to help quell the uprising. A number of Shia mosques were reported to have been destroyed, and hundreds of people were detained by police. The protests and demonstrations in Bahrain are more than just a conflict between Shia and Sunni, though this split has been a major concern for years. Many Sunni have participated in the demonstrations because they are in support of more democratic reforms as well.