Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Population of Saudi Arabia

Population Saudi Arabia - Fanack
Medina / Photo Shutterstock


The population of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2020 is estimated at 34.81 million, with an estimated population growth rate of 1.73% compared to the case in 2019, which is 34.22 according to the General Authority for Statistics. So the population will increase in the year 2020 AD by about 7.73 million people within 10 years after the last official census in the year 2020 AD.

The population growth rate had witnessed a remarkable decline to less than 2% in 2018 and 2019, registering 1.8% and 1.67% in the two years, respectively.

The total sex (gender) ratio in 2020 was 137.1 males for every 100 females, given that a large portion of the foreign male labor force lives without their families.

It is noteworthy that the Kingdom carried out the first official census in its comprehensive sense in 1394 AH (1974 CE), and the second census was in 1413 AH (1992 CE). The third census was conducted in 1425 AH (2004 CE). In the censuses series, the 1431 AH (2010 CE) census is the fourth one that the Department of Statistics and Information implemented and transferred to the General Authority for Statistics. The total population in this census was (27,136,977) people.

According to the survey results, the population of Saudi citizens was estimated at around 20.41 million, or 62.69% of the total population of the Kingdom, compared to about 20.07 million in the 2016 demographic survey, with an increase of 1.7%.

The population of Saudi citizens were distributed by gender, at a rate of 50.94% of males, and 49.06% of females of Saudi citizens’ total population in 2017, with a gender ratio of approximately 104 males per 100 females. These rates were close to their counterparts in 2016, where the percentage of males was 50.96%, and females 49.04%.

The number of non-Saudis (expatriates) was estimated at 12.14 million, or 37.3% of the total population in 2017, compared to 11.40 million in 2016, or 36.2% of the total population Kingdom, with an increase between the two years of 6.5%.

Arabic is the official language in the country. Arabs constitute 90% of the total population, while Afro-Asians make up the remaining 10%.

Islam is the official religion of the Kingdom, and the percentage of Sunni Muslims among the Saudi citizens ranges between 85% and 90%, compared to 10-15% of the Shiite Muslims. There are also unspecified numbers of Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

Although there is a large diaspora community of various religions, most forms of public religious expression that contradict the government-sanctioned interpretation of Sunni Islam are restricted. Non-Muslims are not permitted to acquire Saudi citizenship, and non-Muslims are also not permitted to hold worship places.

Population of Saudi arabia
Sources: World Bank Data, World Population Prospects 2019, UN DESA/Population division and “Population Characteristics Surveys 2017”, General Authority of Statistics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. @Fanack

Age Groups

According to the CIA World Factbook, Saudi society is classified among the young societies, where 24.84% of the total population is under the age of fifteen, according to 2020 estimates. 65.58% of the population falls in the age group (15-54 years); 5.95% of the total population is in the age group (55-64 years), and those who have reached the age of 65 or over constitute 3.63% of the total population.

The 2018 Family Health Survey results revealed the total fertility rate of all women in the age group (15-49), reaching 1.92 births per woman, while the total fertility rate for Saudi women was (2.33) births per woman.

As for the average life expectancy at birth, the population in Saudi Arabia was estimated at around 76.4 years in 2021 AD (74.1 years for males, 78.07 years for females), according to the CIA World Factbook.

Areas of Habitation

Historically, the Saudi population has been predominantly nomadic or semi-nomadic, and they have become more stable since the discovery of oil in the 1930s. Most of the economic activities – and with it the country’s population – are concentrated in a wide area across the middle of the peninsula, from Dammam in the east, passing through Riyadh in the interior, to Makkah Al-Mukarramah – Medina in the west near the Red Sea.

Due to the vast area of ​​the country (2.15 million km2), Saudi Arabia is one of the least populated countries globally, and in 2020 it recorded 16.2 people / km2. The urbanization rate is 2.17%, and the Kingdom’s population is distributed geographically into 13 administrative regions. Five regions accounted for about 80% of the total population of the Kingdom, according to 2019 estimates. Total population, respectively.

Population of Saudi arabia
Sources: World Bank Data, World Population Prospects 2019, UN DESA/Population division and “Population Characteristics Surveys 2017”, General Authority of Statistics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. @Fanack

Ethnic Groups

Population Saudi Arabia - Fanack

Muslims in prayer around the Kaabah in Mecca / Photo ShutterstockThe overwhelming majority (90 percent) of the native population of Saudi Arabia is Arab. Some Saudis are of mixed ethnic origin, being descendants of Turks and Iranians. Around 10 percent have an African or Asian (Indonesian or Indian) background, most of whom immigrated as pilgrims and resided in the Hijaz region along the Red Sea coast.

Since the oil boom in the 1970s, many non-nationals, including Arabs from nearby countries, and significant numbers of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Filipinos, and Westerners, are employed in the kingdom. Most of them work in the oil and construction industries as teachers, computer technicians, consultants, and domestic workers.


Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest labor markets, and the number of non-Saudis (expatriates) was estimated at 13.10 million, or 38.4% of the total population in mid-2019, compared to 12.64 million in 2018, with an increase between the two years of 3.5 %. Non-citizens work mainly in the industrial and service sectors.

The kafala system (sponsorship) is the practice by which a foreign worker is invited via a business contract to work in Saudi Arabia under a kafil (employer) sponsorship. The system requires the foreign worker to seek permission from his sponsor to change jobs or leave the country. This subjects workers to abuse and control by their employers.

The Ministry of Labour announced in May 2012 that it had banned all restrictions an employer might enforce on a worker, such as not being able to change jobs or the withholding of passports. The Saudi Labour law was amended in an attempt to scrap the sponsorship system. Technical terms were changed, such as employer instead of sponsor and transfer services instead of transfer sponsorship. Furthermore, the relationship between employer and worker is to be defined in a contract.


The Ministry’s move is seen as a positive step to protect migrant workers’ rights. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia would also have to amend its Residency Law to remove the system’s risks fully. Migrant workers’ residency permits are linked to their employer’s residency, requiring them to obtain permission from their employer (who is considered their sponsor) to change jobs or leave the country. The private employment agencies, which the workers’ sponsorship would be transferred to, also pose a risk to workers since such agencies do not have a clean record.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which existing Saudi employment agencies have abused migrant workers, from deception about employment contracts and refusal to help workers leave employers to physical abuse. While recruitment agencies are not allowed to charge workers any fees, there have been cases in which agencies have violated this rule but were not penalized.

Saudi Arabia’s population is Muslim: 85-90 percent are Sunni, the remaining 10-15 percent are Shiite. Sunnis adhere to an ultra-orthodox branch of Islam, generally known as Wahhabism.

The branch takes its name from the alim (cleric) Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who was born in 1703 in the village of Uyayna in Najd. Throwing in his lot with the emir of the neighbouring oasis al-Diriya, Muhammad ibn Saud, the Wahhabi faith spread across the Arab Peninsula in the wake of the military expansion 18th century.

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s followers actually call themselves Muwahhidun (Unitarians), ‘those who believe in the unity of God’ (tawhid). At its core, Wahhabism strives towards a strict observance of the doctrine of the first Muslims, the Salaf, rigorously abandoning unorthodox practices which have been embraced by Muslims over time (such as the reverence of holy men).

Based on a ruling issued by the Prophet Muhammad, Wahhabism does not tolerate any other religion besides Islam in the land where it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Wahhabis activities have also put severe pressure on the position of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis regard Shia Islam as heresy and strove against the Shiites from the early days, often with violence. Since Sunni Islam is the only publicly-observed religion in Wahhabi-controlled territory, public displays of faith by Shiites were long forbidden and suppressed. Nowadays, these are tolerated to a certain extent. Shiites nonetheless remain second-class citizens in their own country.

Public display of faith of non-Muslim migrants (mainly Christians and Hindus) by a summons to prayer or having a space for worship is prohibited by law. Many non-Muslims can, however, observe their religious practices in their private houses or residential compounds.

Cradle of Islam

The origins of Islam lie in what is today Saudi Arabia. Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, who was to become the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca circa 570 CE. In 613, after he had his first revelations, the Prophet Muhammad started preaching. In 622, he and his followers were invited to move to Yathrib (later renamed Madinat al-Nabi – City of the Prophet, or Medina). This move, the Hijra (Emigration), and the year in which it took place, 622, became the Islamic calendar’s starting point. The Hijra also was the starting point of the nation-building that Muhammad undertook – with success, although it took him almost ten years. From Medina, he conquered the whole of the Arabian Peninsula and united the Arabs under Islam’s banner.

Sunni-Shia Schism

After the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, there arose two different camps within the umma (Muslim community) concerning his succession, the Sunnis and Shiites. The designation ‘Shiite’ goes back to the Arabic term shiat Ali (Party of Ali). The followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin, and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, were united in this party. Based on personal promises believed to be made by Muhammad, Ali obtained the leadership within the umma (his party termed this leadership the imamate) for himself and his descendants. The Sunnis, whose name derives from the sunna (the Prophet’s tradition), argued for rule by a chosen leader (which they termed the ‘caliphate’).

Although Ali, regarded by the Shiites as their first imam, was chosen as the fourth caliph by the Sunnis (as the successor to the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman), the conflict between the two main branches of Islam over leadership escalated after his death. The schism between the Sunnis and Shiites deepened after 680 CE with the battle near Karbala, where the Shiites, now led by one of Ali’s sons, Husayn, were defeated in an unequal contest. Husayn and his companions were slain.

Arab-Islamic Expansion

After the Prophet died in 632, his followers continued his mission, which resulted in territorial conquest. Although there were tribal conflicts in the Arabian Peninsula, the conquest of the regions to the north was relatively expeditious for several reasons. Firstly, the Byzantine Empire had been weakened by wars and internal conflicts, and the population in Asia Minor was weary of its rulers. Secondly, the Arabs deployed friendly tribes – related to those already established in the region – to conquer these populations.

The first dynasty of caliphs to govern these regions, the Umayyads (661-750), governed from Damascus. Thus, the center of the Islamic empire moved away from the Arabian Peninsula, although the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina retained their pivotal religious significance for Muslims. The Umayyad dynasty was succeeded by that of the Abbasids (750-1258), whose administrative center lay in Baghdad.

Five Pillars of Islam

For all Muslims, there are five obligations – called the Five Pillars of Islam: the creed of faith (‘There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet’), prayer five times a day, the giving of alms, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca. To the Five Pillars can be added to every Muslim’s obligation to engage in jihad, the struggle to defend the community of believers (umma) against attacks by the infidel.

Daily life in Saudi Arabia is dominated by Islamic observance. The authorities established the so-called ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,’ a state religious police unit, to enforce religiously conservative behavior rules. Islamic Law (Sharia) is the basis of the legal system. Offenders of the law face physical punishment, in serious cases the death penalty.

Religious functionaries (ulama) are distinguished by their functions: imam (leader of communal prayer), qadi (judge), and mufti (legal scholar). The latter has the authority to issue fatwas (a juristic ruling concerning Islamic law).

Sunni ulama have a key influence in major government decisions, they run the judiciary, play a significant role in the education system and have a monopoly of authority in the sphere of religious and social morals.

Mecca and Medina

Population Saudi Arabia - Fanack

Mecca and Medina are important pilgrimage centres for millions of Muslims every year. The cities are visited year-round but especially during the pilgrimage season when around two million pilgrims arrive to perform the rituals. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the city and its surroundings.

The Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina have been continuously renovated and expanded since the Saudi state’s creation to accommodate millions of pilgrims. Residents of the residential and commercial areas around the mosques, some of which are historical and of religious value, have had to be relocated to accommodate the expansion. More than 10,000 properties in Mecca have had to be demolished. The two cities thrived on trade and tourism for centuries and are now targets for further economic opportunities.

The late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (1924-2015 AD) inaugurated the largest expansion in the history of the Grand Mosque since the dawn of Islam, for 200 billion Saudi riyals (approximately $ 53 billion) and raising the capacity of the campus to one million and 600 thousand worshipers outside peak times and the expansion of the parking lot and the Jamarat Bridge in addition to To the Emaar Makkah project, which included one of the largest construction projects in the world (Jamarat Bridge), where the project area is 385,000 square meters and provides a capacity for about 5 million pilgrims.

It also included the expansion of the road to double the capacity to 3 times its previous capacity to enable 150,000 people to circulate every hour, in addition to sound, lighting, air-conditioning, and pedestrian cruising systems.

In addition to the launch of the first pilgrimage train journey, with a 20 km route, for 6.65 billion riyals (approximately $ 1.8 billion).

The Hajj is one of the Seven Pillars of Islam: every Muslim must go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, provided that he or she is physically and financially able to do so. The Hajj (great pilgrimage) falls between the eighth and twelfth day of the Islamic calendar’s twelfth month (Dhu al-Hijja). The Umra (lesser pilgrimage) also can be undertaken any time of the year.

The Hajj and the Umra are important religious experiences for Muslims. Co-religionists flock together from all corners of the world in the al-Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in Mecca, where the Kaaba is located. There, hundreds of thousands of believers pray and perform a series of ritual acts symbolic of Ibrahim (Abraham) ‘s lives and his second wife Hajar (Hagar).

On the twelfth day, the Hajj is concluded with the Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice). Many pilgrims also visit the Holy City of Medina before or after the Hajj, 450 kilometers north of Mecca. The oldest mosque, the Masjid Quba (Quba Mosque), and al-Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) are located, and where the Prophet Muhammad is buried.

Muslims have practiced the Hajj since the 7th century CE. Until well into the 20th century, the long journey to Mecca brought many perils. The introduction of modern transport facilities has greatly reduced the risks. Yet the journey remains hazardous – bringing health risks and the perils involved when large crowds gather (in 2011, 1.8 million pilgrims took part).

Serious accidents have occurred in the past, leading to the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims. In politically unstable times – such as during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 – Iranian Shiites’ demonstrations led to clashes with the Saudi police.

In July 1987, the Saudi security forces suppressed an unauthorized protest by Iranian pilgrims, killing more than 400 people, including 275 Iranians, according to the official toll. Two years later, a double attack outside the Grand Mosque killed one person and wounded 16 others. As a result, 16 Kuwaiti Shiites were convicted and executed several weeks later.

In September of 2015, weather factors killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds, among them many foreigners, when a crane in Mecca’s Grand Mosque collapsed due to high winds and heavy rains. In the same season, it was followed by the death of 2,300 people due to the stampede in the worst disaster ever in the Hajj season.

Pilgrims still face many other unfortunate events such as fires, breakdowns in ventilation systems, and stampede, which the Kingdom’s government is working to avoid and limit in various ways.

Migration and Refugees

Population Saudi Arabia - Fanack
Remittances – IMF & World Bank

Saudi Arabia is one of the top migrant destinations worldwide, preceded only by the United States and Germany. Most of the migrants in Saudi Arabia are from South and East Asian countries. United Nations records show that, between 2005 and 2010, the net number of migrants residing in Saudi Arabia was 1,055,000.

The total number of migrants recorded from 1950 to 2010 was approximately 6,237,000. Reports also indicated that there are 13 million immigrants on the Kingdom’s territory in 2020.

Many immigrants in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia explain the high rate of remittances sent by migrant workers to their countries, and Saudi Arabia began implementing programs to localize jobs, including entire sectors that expatriate workers controlled, to reduce unemployment rates and provide job opportunities for Saudi youth.

In March 2021, Saudi Arabia began implementing reforms in labor contracts related to foreign workers, which ended the sponsorship system’s work for decades, such as regulating the relationship between employers and old workers from outside the country.

Among the most prominent reforms introduced by the new system is abolishing the requirement that a sponsor is present to enter the country and work in it. Also, the new system abolished the authority granted to the employer in terms of insurance and residency renewal and his ability to cancel work permits at any time he wanted.

Remittances from foreign residents living in Saudi Arabia increased by 19.25% during the year 2020 AD, to reach $ 39.92 billion, compared to about $ 33.47 billion during 2019.

Remittances from Saudi Arabia during the year 2020 AD contradicted the bank’s expectations of a decrease in remittances from workers abroad around the world due to several main factors, namely weak economic growth rates, employment in host countries of immigrants, declining oil prices, and the depreciation of the currencies of the countries sending remittances against the US dollar.