Traveling through the great Nafud Desert before dawn to escape the blistering heat of the sun, a cavalcade of several hundred camels slowly wound its way through the golden dunes towards the Arabian Gulf. At the head of the procession in the middle of a line of several camels abreast, a tall rider - distinguished only by the golden threads of the ighal that held his headdress in place - was speaking to break the monotony of the long march. As he patiently answered questions from all sides, his every word was eagerly absorbed by the people around him.

King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman

Although the setting seemed timeless, and indeed could have been mistaken for a scene from Arabia of centuries ago, the topics discussed dealt with the concerns of a changing world. They included relations with other nations, the repercussions for the Arab nation of the recently-concluded Great War, and ways of meeting the needs of the people.

The year was 1924 and the imposing rider who answered the unbroken string of questions was Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, a charismatic leader still engaged in what at the time seemed an impossible task - the unification of the tribes living in an area almost the size of Western Europe into what eight years later would become the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

riyadh park

Among his entourage on this particular trek across the Arabian Peninsula were several visitors from abroad, as well as religious, tribal and bedouin leaders. Responding to a question about European and U.S. policies in the wake of World War I, King Abdul Aziz spoke of his special feeling for the United States and former President Woodrow Wilson. "Wilson is a great man and his is the credit for awakening the small oppressed nations of the world," he stated. "Wilson showed them the way to freedom and independence."

Taken aback by the extent of the knowledge of global affairs demonstrated by a leader who to many outsiders appeared isolated in the midst of the great Arabian desert, one of the visitors asked why King Abdul Aziz considered Wilson's example relevant to events in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. He replied: "A man of good sense needs but a suggestion. Just point the way to him and that is sufficient. And the man of good sense is he who strives for himself and profits by the striving."

This short statement provides some insight into the mind of one of the most important figures in the Middle East of the 20th Century. It shows the philosophy that drove his quest to establish a modern state, and also how that state would function in the future.

As they observe the 65th anniversary of the founding of their Kingdom this year, the people of Saudi Arabia reflect on the great debt that they owe to this legendary individual, who with faith, force of character and perseverance worked for 30 years to overcome great obstacles to forge a modern state of what had previously been a collection of opposing tribes and groups. Proving to be "a man of good sense," he learned from the Holy Qur'an and his people's traditions and rich culture to discern the way and pursue it with vigor and determination, joining history's select ranks of founding fathers.

But perhaps just as importantly, King Abdul Aziz endeavored to instill in his sons and the people of Saudi Arabia the same values that he held dear, among which was the belief he enunciated during the 1924 trek, and which he often repeated in the daily majlis that was open to all citizens, that "the man of good sense is he who strives for himself and profits by the striving." To his credit, and that of his successors and his people, that belief has seeped into the collective consciousness of the nation. Over the decades, it has manifested itself in the growing contribution of the individual and the private sector to the Kingdom's progress, and in Saudi Arabia's development planning that stresses increased self-reliance and sustainable progress that brings about change tailored to the nation's religious and social values.

riyadh road

sports medicine hospital


electronics lab

The remarkable story of Saudi Arabia's transformation from a country largely unchanged for centuries to one which today boasts the most modern amenities and services as well as a thriving, sophisticated economy, was initially written in oil. Sitting on a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves, Saudi Arabia symbolizes oil wealth to much of the world at large. Yet the government and people of Saudi Arabia view oil as a God-given resource that serves as the engine driving a vast national development effort that ironically aims to phase out and eventually supplant the oil industry as the main generator of revenue. To develop the non-oil sector of the economy, the Kingdom realized early on that it needed to use its oil revenues to underwrite a long-term plan that would bring about conditions conducive to the growth of industry, agriculture and commerce.

Learning from the mistakes of other developing nations where growth was sporadic and uncharted, Saudi Arabia sought to bring about carefully planned progress that encompassed all socioeconomic sectors and was achieved on a national level. Such development would have to transform a largely agrarian society dependent on imports for most of its industrial needs into a nation capable of achieving self-sufficiency in a wide range of products and one which would eventually export finished products to other countries.

The tool which the Kingdom employed to achieve its ambitious objective was a series of development plans. While development was ongoing in the 1950s and 1960s, the five-year development plans initiated in 1970 introduced cohesion and a long-term outlook. Investments made in one sector were not merely aimed at realizing advances in that particular area, but were part of a broader effort that would ultimately complement and facilitate progress in other fields to achieve national development.

The earlier development plans focused on establishing a modern infrastructure. When King Abdul Aziz traveled on his annual pilgrimage from Riyadh to Makkah in the 1930s, there was not a single modern road in the country. Local guides were required to show the best route through the deserts and much time was wasted digging cars out of the sand and for makeshift repairs. By 1996, after Saudi Arabia had invested 3,870 billion Saudi riyals (1,032 billion U.S. dollars) in the course of the first five development plans, there were more than 82,000 miles of roads connecting all urban and industrial centers. Additionally, 25 airports, including three huge international complexes, had been constructed and 186 modern wharves were set up at ports along the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. These facilities not only make possible travel from one part of the country to another, but more importantly underpin the nation's phenomenal economic growth.

truck assembly line

Since the introduction in 1970 of the first in a series of five-year development plans, Saudi Arabia has built a modern infrastructure and achieved tremendous progress in agriculture, health care, education, industry, social welfare and in virtually all areas of human endeavor (photo above and those preceding).

While work on establishing a modern infrastructure was being carried out, the government placed special emphasis on manpower development to educate and train Saudis in the large numbers required to run a modern economy. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz, who served as the nation's first Minister of Education in the early 1950s, said recently that Saudi Arabia considers investing in education and manpower training as the backbone of economic development and social prosperity. During his tenure as Minister of Education, there were fewer than 30,000 students in the country. That number grew rapidly, particularly during the course of the development plans as more educational facilities were built. At the end of the last academic year more than four million students were enrolled in 22,632 schools at all levels of education, fully half of whom were female students. Reflecting the emphasis on higher education, 306,584 students were enrolled in seven universities, 70 colleges and 78 institutes of higher education. A further 62,354 were enrolled in 334 vocational training institutes.

People living in Saudi Arabia today can hardly grasp the scope and magnitude of the advances the nation has realized in such a short time. Health care is just one of the many sectors that can be cited in this respect. In the early part of this century diseases were a constant threat, and no individual was safe. As an example, the influenza epidemic of 1919 claimed more than a tenth of the population of Riyadh, including King Abdul Aziz's first-born son, Prince Turki. Today, epidemic diseases have long been eradicated in Saudi Arabia, and everyone, no matter what his standing in society or where he lives, has access to a sophisticated health care system of 192 hospitals with 27,000 beds, 1,731 primary health care centers and mobile clinics run by the Ministry of Health. Furthermore, the private sector operates more than 100 hospitals and 1,500 health care centers. Together, these facilities provide the full spectrum of medical services, ranging from preventive care to organ transplants.

Concurrent with the national effort to ensure a healthy and educated population, the development plans introduced provisions for wide-ranging economic growth. From the outset, the Kingdom viewed economic growth in two separate, yet complementary sectors, oil and non-oil. To maximize earnings from the oil sector, which would be vital to fund growth of social services and the non-oil industrial sector, Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, invested in new production facilities, pipelines, plants and shipping facilities, while searching for new deposits outside the Eastern Province, where production has historically been focused. Also, the Kingdom gradually moved away from the export of crude oil to processing oil into higher-value products for sale at home and abroad. As a further step to maximize earnings from the Kingdom's vast hydrocarbon reserves, Saudi Aramco moved into the downstream market through joint ventures in the United States, South Korea, the Philippines and Greece and is currently considering other markets.

sports stadium

Saudi Arabia has built a network of modern sports facilities across the Kingdom.

In 1976, during the Second Development Plan, Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) with the intention of setting up industrial units that would use as feedstock the natural gas and natural gas liquids that are produced in conjunction with oil. Up to that time these precious commodities were flared - burned at the wellhead. These new plants, set up at the twin industrial cities of Jubail on the Gulf and Yanbu on the Red Sea, manufacture a wide range of products, including fertilizers that are sold to the agricultural sector, and plastic resins and steel that are used as feedstock by secondary industrial plants in the production of consumer goods.

These operations were a unique boost for the private sector, giving investors an opportunity to set up companies that contribute to Saudi Arabia's economic development. To further encourage the growth of the private sector, the government introduced a series of incentives. These included long-term, interest-free loans provided by specialized funds in the industrial, agricultural and commercial sectors.

In industry, more than 2,300 factories had been established by 1996, manufacturing diverse industrial and consumer goods for sale in Saudi Arabia and more than 70 countries throughout the world. The provision of long-term, interest-free loans and free consulting services generated similar growth in commerce and agriculture. As a result, the private sector - in which King Abdul Aziz's axiom about "the man of good sense is he who strives for himself and profits by the striving" applies - has witnessed tremendous growth in the past three decades. It now accounts for 35 percent of Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product (GDP) of 510 billion Saudi riyals (136 billion U.S. dollars), the twenty-eighth largest in the world.



Water, or its absence, has historically been a major impediment to the growth of urban centers and their economic activities in Saudi Arabia. A country with no permanent rivers where scant rains disappeared into the sand, and with limited reliable water supplies outside the oases and scattered wells, access to which in the old days was strictly limited to the tribes in whose territories they happened to be, Saudi Arabia introduced a series of projects to make this precious resource readily accessible to its growing cities, industry and agriculture.

Investing more than 17 billion riyals (4.53 billion dollars), the Kingdom constructed dams to collect and use the runoff, built extensive irrigation networks to channel the precious waters to the fields and bored thousands of wells to water fields which were inaccessible to these networks. As a result, the agricultural sector in Saudi Arabia, which just decades ago was largely restricted to the production of dates and a limited quantity of grains, fruits and vegetables, generated products valued at 34.8 billion riyals (9.28 billion dollars) in 1995, including four million tons of grains, 2.5 million tons of vegetables, one million tons of fruit, 568,000 tons of dates, 2.67 billion poultry, 2.5 billion eggs, 648,000 tons of milk and 150,000 tons of red meat.

girls school

electronics class

Education is free and available to all from kindergarten (top) through university (above).

residential housing

Various government funds provide long-term, interest-free loans to citizens for the construction of housing (above) and for the establishment of private agricultural, industrial and commercial ventures.

To meet the growing demand for water, especially for urban and industrial use, Saudi Arabia has invested a further 56 billion riyals (14.93 billion dollars) to build 33 desalination plants along the Red Sea and the Gulf, producing 700 million gallons of drinking and potable water daily and 20 percent of the nation's electricity supply. It has established a 1,200-mile network of pipelines and numerous pumping stations to supply the water to urban and industrial centers far inland. It also has invested heavily in plants that treat urban and industrial runoff for use in industry and agriculture.

Such lists of Saudi Arabia's accomplishments over the past few decades are echoed in almost every area of human endeavor. Yet while evidence of these achievements are readily visible in the form of schools, universities, roads, hospitals, airports, seaports, factories, farms and modern cities, there are other, less tangible signs of Saudi Arabia's profound socioeconomic progress. These include the emergence of a thriving banking industry capable of supporting the continued expansion of the private sector. The service industry, a vital component of national growth, is now capable of catering to the needs of the public and private sectors. Saudi universities, and vocational and technical schools are tailoring their curriculum to train young Saudis in a manner most suited to the specific requirements of domestic companies and industries. Saudi scientists and research institutes conduct ground-breaking medical and scientific research that benefits people not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in other countries. Saudi companies, buoyed by their success in the domestic market, look abroad for prospective business partners and markets, entering a new and broader phase of growth.

These are only some of the manifestations of King Abdul Azizs vision of a nation that can achieve development on a massive scale while preserving its values and heritage, and of a people dedicated to the principle that one must strive for oneself and profit by the striving.

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