Holy land takes centre stage after rising from humble beginnings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am

Saudi Arabia is best known as the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest places, Mecca and Medina. More recently, the country has accelerated to a position of economic prominence in the Middle East, thanks to its huge oil reserves and strong government.

The kingdom's gradual path to wealth and modernisation gathered pace in the 1930s with King Abdulaziz, who oversaw the establishment of the country's basic infrastructure, building roads and communications systems, introducing modern technology and improving education, health care and agriculture.

In 1953, King Abdulaziz's eldest son, Saud, acceded to the throne. During the course of his nine-year reign he established ministries of health, education and commerce, and set up many schools and the first university, which opened its doors in 1957.

The following decade, King Faisal assumed the throne, ruling the country with equal respect for both innovation and tradition. As well as establishing the first of a series of economic and social development plans that had a particular impact on Saudi Arabian industry, he also oversaw the establishment of the first public school for girls. During his reign, which witnessed two Arab-Israeli wars and the oil crisis of 1973, King Faisal remained the voice of peace, moderation and stability.

In 1975, King Faisal was succeeded by King Khalid, heralding an era of explosive growth and great wealth and prosperity for the country.

King Khalid was one of the main instigators behind the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which promotes economic and security co-operation among its members.

His successor, King Fahd, continued the good work, overseeing efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy, restructuring the government and approving the first nationwide municipal elections.

The greatest challenge to Saudi Arabia's stability in modern times came in 1990 with Iraq's invasion of neighbouring Kuwait.

King Fahd was instrumental in putting together the international coalition that contributed to the eventual liberation of Kuwait.

King Fahd was also heavily involved in humanitarian issues. Under his rule, Saudi Arabia provided emergency assistance to such countries as Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and to the victims of natural disasters.

Since 2005, Saudi Arabia has continued to prosper under King Abdullah.

A carefully judged reform programme has continued apace, starting with the nationwide elections for half the members of the 179 municipal councils in an effort to promote increased political participation.

This process was completed in December 2005 when King Abdullah appointed the remaining members. Last year, the king held an inter-faith dialogue to encourage religious tolerance, not just in Saudi Arabia but around the world, while in February he reshuffled the cabinet, introducing more moderates to ministerial and judicial positions and appointing the first female member.

Saudi Arabia's prosperity in recent decades has relied largely on its oil-based economy.

It holds more than one fifth the world's proven petroleum reserves, is by far and away the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a starring role in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

As part of its continuing drive to lure foreign investment and diversify the economy, Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organisation in December 2005 after long years of negotiations.

The government has announced plans to establish six economic cities in different regions of the country to promote development and diversification.

But tight international credit, falling oil prices and the global economic slowdown are expected to hamper Saudi economic growth this year.

From humble beginnings in the 1930s, Saudi Arabia has steered a course to undreamed of prosperity little more than half a century later. Under the guiding hand of its rulers, and given its continued wealth from its oil reserves, the kingdom is likely to go from strength to strength in years to come.