News·9 min read

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia
Getty Images
December 2, 2019

The most recent Dem debate had a bigger spotlight on foreign policy, including how the candidates plan to deal with Saudi Arabia. Here’s your Skimm on the country.

Saudi Arabia
Getty Images

The Story

Saudi Arabia is one of the most important power players in the world. 

The Background 

Saudi Arabia is a young country – it’s formally been around for less than 100 years. In 1932, Ibn Saud, a Muslim religious leader, combined the Arabian regions he controlled into the kingdom of, yep, Saudi Arabia. It’s always been ruled by a monarchy made up of Ibn Saud’s descendents. And in its short history, it’s gained a lot of influence. 


1. Oil. Turns out the land Ibn Saud was sitting on was pretty slick. As in it holds about a fifth of the world’s oil reserves, and many countries rely on Saudi Arabia for oil. In the 1960s, the country helped establish OPEC – a group of countries that produce about 40% of the world’s crude oil – to help keep global oil prices stable by deciding how much oil to produce at once. By 1980, Saudi Arabia took full control of oil company Saudi Aramco – making its economy heavily reliant on oil. For a while, that worked out great. Which brings us to... 

2. Wealth. Oil made Saudi Arabia rich. The royal family is worth an estimated $1.4 trillion, and they’re not afraid to spend that money on yachts and Da Vinci paintings. All that oil money has helped the government spread its influence around the world. Including in the US, where the Saudi gov has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying efforts for issues like arms sales, and is a major investor in Silicon Valley (think: Uber and Lyft). But the 2014 drop in oil prices raised alarm bells in Saudi Arabia, and it learned the hard way that it can’t put all its eggs in one gassy basket. 

3. Religion. Saudi Arabia is considered the birthplace of Islam. It’s home to Mecca – the most important religious site for Muslims. And the royal family has long followed Wahhabism – a strict form of Islam that follows a literal interpretation of the Quran. That means the country has strict rules. Examples: men and women have to be separated on public transportation. And until recently, Saudi women were required to wear abayas (full body cloaks) and get a man’s permission to travel abroad. On top of that, religion is the basis for Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran. They represent two different factions of Islam: Sunni and Shiite. Skimm Notes gets into how the Saudi-Iran rivalry fuels a lot of the conflicts in the Middle East. And why Sunnis and Shiites are so divided.

Saudi Arabia and Iran

0:00 / 0:00
Sunnis and Shiites

0:00 / 0:00

The Big Issue

Saudi Arabia is at a turning point in its short history. The architect: Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and no. 1 in line to become king. On the one hand, he’s leading a push to modernize the country and overhaul its economy. On the other, he’s overseen an escalating crackdown on critics that’s put Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Western world on edge.

For more on how he came to power and what he’s like as a leader, listen to Skimm Notes on:

✷ How he grew up ✷ How he became crown prince✷ Why he's come under scrutiny

Mohammed bin Salman

0:00 / 0:00

I sense tension.

You could say that. Tension between the country’s vision for the future, and what many see as its human rights violations. MBS wants the country to be less reliant on oil. At the same time, the country’s population has youth on its side – about 70% of people are under the age of 30. And they’re liking where MBS (who’s 34 btw) is taking the country. He created a 10(ish)-year vision board and introduced Vision 2030 – the plan to modernize the Saudi Arabia. So far, that’s included…

  • Lifting restrictions. In the past couple of years, the country opened its first movie theater in decades, started allowing foreign tourists to visit beyond religious reasons, and gave women permission to drive and travel without a man’s permission, among other things.

  • Saudi Aramco’s upcoming IPO. Earlier this year, the state-owned company announced it’s going public. Big deal, because it’s the world’s most profitable company. The Saudi gov wants to use the IPO to raise money to invest in other industries and spark job growth in a country where unemployment among Saudi nationals is more than 10%. 

But you said human rights violations?

Yes. The progress Saudi Arabia is trying to make has been overshadowed by political repression. The country has long cracked down on dissidents. And that’s continued as MBS has consolidated power. The most prominent example: Jamal Khashoggi

Remind me about him.

He’s the Saudi dissident and journalist who was murdered in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. His death caused an uproar around the world, with many pointing to it as a blatant example of the country’s record on human rights abuses. The CIA concluded that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder. And the UN said MBS should be investigated after “credible evidence” showed he was behind the killing. Since Khashoggi was a US-resident and journalist, the US in particular faced pressure to respond, and it imposed sanctions in response. MBS denied ordering killing but ultimately claimed responsibility because it happened under his watch.

On top of Khashoggi, there’ve been:

  • Arrests. Even though the gov allowed women to drive, it has also detained women activists who had called for lifting that ban. 

  • Secret crackdown campaigns. Earlier this year, it came out that the government allegedly started a secret campaign to kidnap, detain, and torture some critics. The kingdom denies the allegations.

  • Twitter spies. Earlier this year, the Justice Dept charged two former Twitter employees for spying on Saudi dissidents on behalf of Saudi Arabia. It was the first time the US publicly accused the country of having agents in the US.

The Debate

The US has been a Saudi ally for decades, relying on the country not only for oil but to help keep Iran (which it considers a state sponsor of terrorism) from gaining more power in the region. The murder of Khashoggi put that relationship in question. Here’s where some teams stand...

The Impact

On the world…Saudi Arabia has a large sway on the global oil supply. Which we saw most recently with the September attacks on Aramco’s facilities. That cut about half of the country’s output – about 5% of the world’s supply – and led to a spike in oil prices. Take that as your reminder that Saudi Arabia has some pull over what you pay at the gas station. On top of that, there’s the environment. All of the country’s oil drilling isn’t doing the planet any good, and some are concerned about the country’s impact on climate change. Aramco has also acknowledged its business is at risk because of climate change.

On the region…its regional rivalry with Iran puts the Middle East’s stability at risk. Saudi Arabia has done everything from freeze out Iran’s allies to engage in a proxy battle in Yemen. And things have been especially testy lately, with Saudi Arabia blaming the Aramco attack on Iran...and Iran saying ‘wasn’t us.’ Further flare-ups between the two could possibly lead to an all-out war, potentially dragging in the countries’ regional rivals too. On another note, the country is hoping its plans to modernize give it a leg up over Iran on the international stage.

On the US...their relationship affects everything from energy to tech to US jobs. But Khashoggi's murder has had some lawmakers questioning how the US could work closely with a country that’s been accused of human rights violations. And that’s on top of the ongoing tension between the two over Saudi Arabia’s ties to the 9/11 terror attacks.


Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential actors in the global economy. Now it’s trying to diversify that influence, appealing to its younger population and the Western world. How this experiment shakes out could have implications not only for international relations but for the future of the Middle East. 

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.