Population: In July 2004, Saudi Arabia’s population was estimated to be 25,795,938, with a growth rate of about 2.4 percent. The population total includes 5,576,076 non-nationals. Nearly 100,000 foreigners enter the country each year, mostly to fill specific job openings. Immigrant workers come primarily from other Arab and Muslim countries, including many from South Asia and the Philippines. Fewer than 100,000 Westerners work and live in Saudi Arabia. Because most of the terrain is unsuitable for cultivation, the coastal areas and interior oases support the vast majority of the population. Some cities have reported densities of 1,000 people per square kilometer. The Mecca region, which also contains the major city of Jiddah, is the most populated area of the country, containing nearly 26 percent of the total population. Other population centers include Riyadh and the clustered Eastern Province cities of Ad Dammam, Khobar, and Dhahran. The least populated regions lie at the kingdom’s periphery, to the extreme north and south.
Demography: The Saudi population is overwhelmingly young. According to 2004 estimates, 38.3 percent of Saudis are under the age of 15, 59.3 percent are 15–64 years of age, and 2.3 percent are 65 and older. The median age for males is 22.8, for females 21.2. The sex ratio is 1.2 males/female. The birthrate and death rate are estimated to be 29.7 per 1,000 and 2.6 per 1,000, respectively. Saudi Arabia has a relatively low infant mortality rate, estimated to be 13.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. It has a relatively high level of life expectancy: 73.3 years for males and 77.3 years for females. The country’s fertility rate is 4.1 children per woman.
Ethnic Groups and Languages: Saudi Arabia’s population is very homogenous. The native population is 90 percent Arab and 10 percent Afro-Asian. Arabic is the common language.
Religion: Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, and the country's legal code and constitution are based on Islamic law. Largely distinguishing Saudi Arabia from its neighbors, 95 percent of Saudis follow the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Five percent, based mostly in the eastern portion of the country, are Shia Muslims. The presence of other religions in Saudi Arabia is largely attributable to the foreign nationals who live and work in the country, including Hindus and Christians. Comprehensive statistics are not available, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million Catholics currently reside in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, the government has stated a policy of allowing non-Muslim foreigners to practice their religion privately, but no change in the law reflects this sentiment. Public worship of other religions is prohibited by law, and is regulated and punished by the state's Committees for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (mutawwiin). Proselytizing by non-Muslims and by non-Sunni Muslims is strictly prohibited. Conversion from Wahhabi Islam to another religion is a crime. The government controls all mosques and is the direct employer of imams. It also operates centers designed to facilitate the conversion of foreigners to Islam. Non-Sunni Muslims are largely eliminated from consideration for government employment and educational opportunities.
Education and Literacy: The U.S. Department of State estimates the Saudi literacy rate for males to be 84.7 percent and for females, 77.8 percent. Saudi Arabia’s nationwide public education system includes eight public universities and more than 20,000 schools. When Saudi Arabia formally became a nation in 1932, education was largely limited to instruction for a select few in Islamic mosques. Today, public education—from elementary through high school—is open and free to every citizen. Parents are not, however, required to send their children to school. Statistics from 1996 estimated that about 61 percent of children attended school. Education in Saudi Arabia has never fully separated from its Islamic roots. All curricula must conform to Islamic laws and the Koran, and traditional gender roles continue to shape educational opportunities available to females. The education of females has increased dramatically in recent years, from 25 percent of all students in 1970 to 47.5 percent in 2001. However, education is largely segregated by gender. Women reportedly are allowed to attend only six of the nation’s eight universities, and they are prohibited from studying certain subjects. Whereas men are allowed to travel to foreign countries to pursue education, women are discouraged from doing so and generally must be accompanied by a spouse or male relative.
Government spending on education continues to grow in Saudi Arabia. In 2004 the government increased education spending by 28 percent over the previous year. Additionally, special emphasis is being placed on technical training in order to fill the labor gap that has long been met with foreign expertise.
Health: Health benefits for Saudi citizens have increased exponentially since the implementation of the first five-year Development Plan in 1970. Today, according to the Saudi government, every citizen has access to unlimited, free medical care. The government generally finances the building of health care facilities and provides the bulk of funding for health care. Health care expenditures account for about 4.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Per capita, the government spends about US$591 annually on health care. Although spending has increased, however, management problems have hindered coordination among state, private, and military health care providers.
Statistics indicate a relatively high level of health in Saudi Arabia. According to 2001 estimates, there are about 1.7 doctors and 2.3 hospital beds per 1,000 persons. Nearly the entire Saudi population, excluding perhaps those living in the most remote regions, has access to sanitation, and 95 percent of Saudis have access to clean water. Similarly, nearly 100 percent of the population has access to affordable essential drugs. Immunization against tuberculosis and measles has increased to 94 percent of all one-year-olds. Of births that occurred between 1995 and 2001, 91 percent were attended by a trained health professional.
The Saudi government does not release comprehensive health statistics, but estimates on human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) place the adult prevalence rate at 0.01 percent. In 2004, 85 cases of AIDS were reported. In most recent decades, Saudi Arabia has struggled to eradicate poliomyelitis, malaria, and leishmaniasis. The health status of women and children has attracted some concern from international organizations. Islamic law condemns violence against any innocent persons, but health workers report that physical spousal abuse and violence against women appear to be common problems. To address this problem, the Saudi government has now mandated that hospitals report any suspicions of violence against women, domestic or otherwise, to law enforcement officials. Perhaps most disturbingly, abuse of children also seems to be a significant problem.
Welfare: Among developing nations, as categorized by the United Nations, Saudi Arabia ranks thirtieth on the Human and Income Poverty Index, ahead of most of its Middle East neighbors. Overall, Saudi Arabia ranks 73rd out of 175 on the 2003 United Nations Development Report. Saudi Arabia, through its series of five-year Development Plans, continues to transform oil wealth into broader economic prosperity. Plans to convert the workforce, currently dominated by foreign workers, into one composed mostly of Saudis will help address the nation’s high unemployment.
The General Organization for Social Insurance provides some assistance to retired workers and those injured on the job. Old-age pensions, funded by payroll taxes, are paid to retired workers at a rate of 2.5 percent of one’s last average salary. Men must be 60 years of age and women 55 in order to begin receiving payments. Additionally, all Saudis are granted a plot of land and a small loan to build a house. Nevertheless, the perception that oil revenues are not equitably distributed throughout the population continues to create some social discontent.