Last Updated: Friday, 27 November 2015, 12:04 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Saudi Arabia, 2007, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Saudi Arabia borders Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain (by a bridge link), Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. It also stretches from the Arabian/Persian Gulf in the east to the Red Sea in the West.


Abdul Aziz bin Abdul-Rahman Al Saud (later also known as 'Ibn Saud'), began his campaign to reclaim the Al Saud's ancestral domains in Najd in 1902. By 1926 he had expanded his control beyond Najd into al hasa in the east and the Hejaz in the west. The independence of these areas under Abdul Aziz's rule was recognised by treaty in 1927. These various regions came to be unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Saudi Arabia has been ruled as a monarchy by the Sauds since that time. This was accomplished in part through the Al Saud's alliance with the Wahhabi religious school, although the latter's powers have on occasion been curbed by Abdul Aziz - a pattern that remains in evidence today.

The monarch carries the title 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques' (i.e. Mecca and Medina). This close relationship between a particular interpretation of Islam and politics is deeply engraved in all aspects of governance in Saudi Arabia. This is reflected, for example, in the speech of King Fahd at the time the 1992 Saudi Basic law was issued "This State was set upon a clear course of politics and government. It was committed to propagating Islam and to fostering a sense of community. This is the course of Islam, the Creed and the Sharia. Ever since the establishment of this righteous state, the people of the country have enjoyed happiness, security and unity of opinion. They have been living in harmony and fraternal cooperation, after a prolonged period of fear and division."


Main languages: Arabic

Main religions: Sunni, Shii, Zaydi and Isma'ili Islam. Christianity, Hinduism and other religions amongst the migrant workers

Main minority groups: Shi'is (especially Twelver or Ithna'ashari) (15%, Council on Foreign Relations,, Isma'ilis 700,000 and Zaydis Muslims.

About 15 per cent of Saudis are Shi'i, mainly in the Eastern Province or 'Ash Sharqiyah' (in particular the al-Hasa region), but with substantial communities elsewhere as well.

There are approximately 700,000 Isma'ilis in the region of Najran.

The Zaydis in the country include citizens living on the borders with Yemen as well as migrant workers from Yemen.

The population of Saudi Arabia is around 27 million, with around 5.5 million being non-nationals (FAO, 2005).

Migrant workers constitute the majority of these non-nationals. A significant proportion work as domestic workers and do not enjoy sufficient legal protection. Migrant workers cannot get residency and their stay is always considered temporary.


The 1992 Saudi Basic Law establishes the structure of government in Saudi Arabia and it proclaims a 'bill of rights' for citizens. It reiterates the inseparability, in the regime's perspective, of Islamic justice from Saudi rule. For example, Article 7: "The regime derives its power from the Holy Qur'an and the Prophet's Sunnah which rule over this and all other State Laws." It also emphasises that the monarchy shall always remain in the Saud family (Article 5b) and outlines the extensive powers of the monarch (Articles 55-69).

There were expectations for political reforms as a result of international attention and the presence of international troops in Saudi Arabia for the liberation of Kuwait, subsequent to its invasion by Kuwait in 1990-91, yet these have proved somewhat optimistic. Local elections - for men only - were allowed for the first time in early 2005 but only for half of the members of the municipal councils. The elections were for half of the seats. The municipal councils are under the charge of the governor of each region - Saudi Arabia's 13 regions having 179 municipal councils in all. The members and chairman of the national 'parliament', the Consultative Council's (Majlis al-Shura) are all appointed by the monarch.

Semi-traditional participation, through access to those wielding power and patronage, continues in the form of majlis, or open meetings, with sheikhs and princes from the local to the national level - all the way up to the King. Yet these function more as a means to dispense patronage, gather information, and pre-empt complaints, than as a means for political participation.

Saudi Arabia has been hit by a number of terrorist attacks, mainly targeting foreigners and non-Muslims, since 2003. The government appears to have been able to regain control, in part through co-optation and the population's disenchantment with the terror tactics. Societal tensions include unemployment and different perspectives on democracy, modernisation and the role of women.


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