Saudi Arabia News & Current Events

The Attacks of September 11, 2001, and Their Consequences

Saudi Arabia's relations with the U.S. were strained after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?15 of the 19 suicide bombers involved were Saudis. Despite the monarchy's close ties to the West, much of the extremely influential religious establishment has supported anti-Americanism and Islamic militancy. In Aug. 2003, following the U.S.-led war on Iraq in March and April 2003, the United States withdrew its troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. had maintained troops in the country for the past decade, a source of great controversy in the strongly conservative Islamic country. One of the major reasons given for the Sept. 11 attacks by Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden was the presence of U.S. troops in the home of Islam's holiest sites, Medina and Mecca. On May 12, 2003, suicide bombers killed 34, including 8 Americans, at housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh. Al-Qaeda was suspected. Saudi Arabia's commitment to antiterrorist measures was again called into question by the U.S. and other countries. In July, the U.S. Congress bitterly criticized Saudi Arabia's alleged financing of terrorist organizations. While the Saudi government arrested a sizable number of suspected terrorists, little was done to quell Islamic militancy in the kingdom. Several attacks against Westerners took place in 2003 and 2004.

In Feb. 2005, Saudi Arabia held its first elections ever: municipal council elections to choose half of the new council members in Riyadh. The other half continued to be appointed, in keeping with the previous Saudi system. Women were not eligible to vote, and less than a third of eligible voters registered.

In Aug. 2005, King Fahd bin 'Abdulaziz died. His half-brother Abdullah, who had been the de facto ruler of the country for the past decade, assumed the throne.

Saudi Arabia brokered talks between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders in September 2008. In the talks, the first attempt to end the protracted armed conflict, the Taliban said it is severing ties to al-Qaeda.

King Shakes Up Government

King Abdullah took bold steps to reshuffle his government in February 2009, promoting reformers, firing controversial officials, including the conservative head of the religious police and the country's most senior judge, and appointing his first-ever female minister, for women's education.

Saudi Arabia was largely spared the popular uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa in early 2011, largely because King Abdullah remains popular among Saudis and the country's oil wealth provides a level stability not seen in countries such as Egypt. Nevertheless, unemployment among young Saudis is high, housing is in short supply, and there has been a push for broader civil liberties, particularly for women. In an attempt to prevent protests on Saudi soil, Abdullah, upon returning to Saudi Arabia after spending three months in Morocco recovering from back surgery, announced a $10 billion aid package that helps Saudis buy homes, start businesses, and marry.

In September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for seats on the Shura council, which advises the King on policy issues. Women will not be allowed to vote until the next election cycle in 2015. Still, the decision is a significant victory for women in a country where they are not allowed to drive and must have a male chaperone with them in public at all times. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that has not granted women suffrage.

Saudi Arabia lifted the ban forbidding women from competing in the Olympic Games, and sent three athletes to London in 2012. In another advance for women's rights, 30 women took seats on the formerly all-male Shura council. It was an enormous step that met with opposition from conservative clerics. In October 2013, dozens of women got behind the wheel to protest the kingdom's ban on allowing women to drive. Police did little to stop the women from driving.

Saudi Arabi Makes Unprecedented Move at the UN

In the fall of 2013, Saudi Arabia became increasingly frustrated with the U.S.'s Middle East policy. First, Saudi Arabia, which supports the opposition in Syria, felt betrayed when President Obama backed off promises to aid the opposition. Saudi Arabia was further angered when Obama opted to pursue diplomacy over a military strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons. In addition, Saudi Arabia felt threatened by the warming of relations between the U.S. and Iran, as well as by the reopening of multi-nation talks on Iran's nuclear weapons program. It feared that closer ties between the U.S. and Iran would compromise Saudi Arabia's standing in the Middle East. Finally, Saudi Arabia expressed frustration at the continued failure to achieve a deal on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That anger played out at the United Nations. On Oct. 18, 2013, Saudi Arabia declined a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council, a position it had been working toward for several years. The unprecedented move stunned both the UN and U.S. diplomats. "Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people by the chemical weapons, while the world stands idly, without applying deterrent sanctions against the Damascus regime, is also irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities," the Saudi ambassador to the UN said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia Joins the Fight Against ISIS and Attacks Rebels in Yemen

In September 2014, Saudi Arabia joined the U.S.-led campaign in Syria against the radical Islamist group ISIS, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in the Middle East ruled by strict shariah law.

Houthi rebels gained considerable ground in Yemen in 2014 and 2015. In January 2015, they took over the capital, Sana, placed Yemeni president Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels then moved further south, engaging in battles with government troops. In an attempt to stop the Houthis from advancing further, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab states in an offensive on Houthi targets in Yemen in late March 2015. More than 100 Saudi jets were involved in the airstrikes. A Saudi-led airstrike hit a camp for displaced civilians on March 30, killing as many as 40 people. The operation, called Decisive Storm, continued well into April but failed to stop the Houthis' advance. The fighting claimed hundreds of civilian lives, displaced as many as 150,000, and destroyed neighborhoods. An embargo of food and medicine, which the Saudis enforced, created a humanitarian crisis. On April 21, Saudi Arabia said the campaign, having achieved its goals, was over and the country would focus on a political solution. However, the main goals of the operation, to return President Hadi to office and rout the Houthis, were not achieved. Saudi Arabia resumed airstrikes the next day.

The Houthis are members of a political movement based in northern Yemen that have been challenging the government since 2004. They are backed by Iran and adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam, Zaydism. Saudi Arabia and other nations have accused Iran of arming the Houthis. The involvement of Saudi Arabia in the dispute runs the risk of inflaming tension or creating a broader conflict in the Middle East. Because of their religious beliefs, they are considered heretics by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is also based in Yemen.

King Abdullah Dies and Landmark Election is Held in 2015

King Abdullah died on Jan. 23, 2015. He was believed to be 90. His half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, assumed the throne. Salman said he planned to continue with his predecessor's diplomatic and economic policies. In April 2015, King Salman reordered the of succession, naming Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince. Nayef is the first grandson of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz, to be Crown Prince. Nayef replaced Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who was a protege of former King Abdullah.

For the first time, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to vote and run for office in the milestone Dec. 2015 election. More than a dozen women won seats on local councils throughout the country. However, the newly elected female officials would only make up less than 1 percent of all council members and have limited power.

See also Encyclopedia: Saudi Arabia .

U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Saudi Arabia

Central Department of Statistics http://www.planning.gov.sa/statistic/sindexe.htm