Saudi Arabia is a large country in the Middle East. It covers 830,000 square miles (2,149,700 sq. km), making it larger than the state of Alaska, and the fourteenth-largest country in the world. It shares borders with Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and has coastline along the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
The land that is now Saudi Arabia has been lived in for millennia, with early settlements appearing more than 5000 years ago. In the 4th millennium BCE the land was ruled by Sumerians, until they were supplanted something around 3500 BCE by various Semitic groups, most of whom lived nomadic lifestyles. Various kingdoms would rule over the region in the subsequent millennia, including the Sabaean Kingdom, the Himyarite Kingdom, the Kingdom of Aksum, the Persian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.
Parts of this country, particularly the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, were important trade hubs between the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire before the advent of Islam. But it was Islam that would cause Saudi Arabia to grow to be one of the most important kingdoms in the Middle East.
Since the time of Muhammad, this region has had particular importance for Muslims, as it contains the two holiest cities of Makkah and Medina. In the 18th century a local prince, Mohammed ibn Saud, rose to become a dominant force in Arabia, controlling the majority of the interior for nearly a century before being crushed by Egypt under the Ottomans. In the early-19th century the House of Saud returned to power, however, consolidating power until the end of the century when it was again conquered. In the early 20th century the House of Saud once again rose to ascendancy, and over the next few decades would conquer most of the surrounding land.
In 1932, the two kingdoms the House of Saud had conquered were unified to create the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Six years later oil was discovered in the nation, and virtually overnight the country was transformed. The country's wealth and power would increase steadily over the next few decades, and following the creation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would see an even more dramatic increase. The country is currently the world’s largest exporter of oil.
For most of the modern era, Saudi Arabia has kept friendly relations with the West. Despite remaining fairly autocratic, and despite numerous reports of human rights violations, the West also remains very friendly to the country. The country has faced some criticism for a perceived failure to crack down on radicalism, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Since then the Saudi Arabian government has pledged to support the War on Terror and to police terrorists within its borders.
Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy, ruled by Islamic law (Shari’a). A growing central government has been formed since the 1950s, but power still rests within the hands of the House of Saud. All judges in the country are appointed directly by the king, and rule by Shari’a. In 2005 the country held local elections, the first ever in the country, which many have taken to be a sign of growing democratization.
Travel in Saudi Arabia is currently discouraged for Westerners, amid growing violence in the major urban centers, and targeted violence against Westerners in rural regions of the country. Although the cities of Makkah and Medina are both full of historically important and beautiful architecture, access to both cities is limited exclusively to Muslims. Saudi Arabia still has plenty to interest sightseers, however, most notably the astonishing tombs of Madain Saleh.