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C. Joan Coggins, MD, and Ellsworth Wareham, MD. led the LLU Overseas Heart Team which successfully performed the first open heart surgery in the KSA on January 20, 1976.

Photo courtesy of Loma Linda University Photo Archive; Dept. of Archives and Special Collections, Loma Linda University.

Saudi Arabia

By Sven Hagen Jensen

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Sven Hagen Jensen, M.Div. (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA) has worked for the church for over 50 years as a pastor, editor, departmental director, and church administrator in Denmark, Nigeria and the Middle East. Jensen enjoys reading, writing, nature and gardening. He is married to Ingelis and has two adult children and four grandchildren.

First Published: October 4, 2022

Background Information

Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (المملكة العربية السعودية), is a country on the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is bordered by the Red Sea to the west; Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait to the north; the Persian Gulf, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to the east; Oman to the southeast; and Yemen to the south. Bahrain is an island country off the east coast connected to Saudi Arabia by a bridge. The Gulf of Aqaba in the northeast separates Saudi Arabia from Egypt.

The country comprises about 830,000 square miles (2,149,690 square kilometers) and has an estimated population of 35,000,000 (2020).1 Mostly uninhabited, much of the nation’s landmass consists of desert and semi-arid regions, with a dwindling Bedouin population. Less than two percent of the kingdom is arable land. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the leading petroleum producer and exporter and this industry fuels the Saudi economy. The capital and largest city is Riyadh with a population of 7,500,000 (2022). The country is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam. The Saudi government requires all citizens to be Muslim, and most of the population adheres to a fundamental theological interpretation within Sunni Islam, commonly known as Wahhabism.2

The Arabian Peninsula has been the location of various cultures and people groups over the years. In Bible times “Arab” was used mainly as a designation for the nomadic people of the Syrian and Arab desert representing different tribes (2 Chron. 17:11; Esth. 13:20; Jer. 3:2). In the post-exilic Old Testament time “Arabia” was designated the (partly Edomite) province of Arabia, which, like Judea and Samaria, formed part of the Persian satrapy “Beyond the River” (Neh. 2:19). The Arabs at Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost were probably Jews or proselytes from the Nabatean kingdom of Aretas along the east and south borders of Palestine, with Petra as its capital (Acts 2:11). The Arabia, in which Paul spent some time after his conversion (Gal. 1:17), is usually believed to be the same place.3 Arabia was not known in Bible times or before as one nation comprising most of the peninsula as it is today.

It was in the early seventh century that Prophet Muhammad united the people of the Arabian Peninsula and created a single Islamic polity. The Muslims believe that God (Allah) sent his final revelation “in clear Arabic” in the form of the Qu’ran through his Messenger, Muhammad, to whom almost all communities in Arabia declared their loyalty. Following his death in 632 A.D. his followers carried the religion throughout the Middle East and North Africa and thus rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule far beyond Arabia. The rise of Islam, and the subsequent importance of Mecca and Medina, have given the rulers of this territory significant influence beyond the peninsula.4

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by King Abdul-Aziz (known as Ibn Saud in the West). He united four regions of the peninsula, Hejaz, Najd, Al-Ahsa, and Asir, into one single state through a series of conquests beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, Al Saud. Since then, KSA has been an absolute monarchy where the king, the princes of the large Al Saud royal family, and the country’s traditional elite have overseen a highly authoritarian regime.5 “The ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam has been described as a ‘predominant feature of Saudi culture,’6 although the power of the religious establishment has been significantly eroded since the 2010’s.7

With Sunni Islam as the dominant religion (estimated 85-90 percent) and Shia Islam (10-15 percent) making up most of the rest, there has not been much room for other religions. According to estimates there are about 1,500,000 Christians in the country, almost all foreign workers. KSA allows Christians to enter the country as foreign workers for temporary work, but does not allow them to practice their faith openly.8 Officially there are no Christian citizens, and conversion from Islam (apostasy) has a death penalty.9

Seventh-day Adventist Ministry

Saudi Arabia is mentioned time and again as one of the greatest challenges of modern mission, where the gospel missionary for centuries has been forbidden to enter.10 One approach for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to connect with the leadership and people of Saudi Arabia has been through the promotion of temperance, an area where the Adventists and Muslims have much in common. The International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism was set up in 1952, with King Saud Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia as one of five honorary world presidents.11 He himself did not smoke or drink and had forbidden the importation of all alcoholic beverages into his country.12

As the first worker to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,13 Wadie Farag, assistant temperance director of the Middle East Division, succeeded in getting an interview with King Saud in his palace in Riyadh. He reported: “When I talked to the King regarding temperance and requested an article written by him, he very generously complied and sent a photo of himself. Several other ministers and top officials in Saudi Arabia also gave me articles against the use of alcohol.”14 Visits were later made to the King by W. A. Scharffenberg (executive secretary of the International Temperance Association of Seventh-day Adventists), and again in 1962 by Scharffenberg and Anees Haddad (temperance director of the Middle East Division).15 This was later followed up by lectures on temperance in the University of Riyadh by Winton H. Beaven and Jack Mahon of the Afro-Mideast Division in 1977.16 GC temperance director, Ernest H. Steed, visited KSA to rally support for an action on prevention of alcoholism in 1978.17

The TV program, Faith for Today, launched a program in 1955 in which it sent films to servicemen in the US Air Force stationed at different bases around the world, including Saudi Arabia. A report in the Review and Herald gave the following feedback: “Saudi Arabia, closed to usual forms of evangelism, welcomes Faith for Today films. The gospel story in visual form brings a response from Arabs employed at the Air Force base and their friends. In any language one picture is worth a thousand words.”18

In 1963 a Sabbath School was established at Dhahran on the eastern shore of the peninsula. Most likely those attending were temporary foreign oil workers and possibly domestic and hospital workers. It only operated for a short time. Also, there were Bible Correspondence School students scattered throughout the area.19

Two Five-Day Plans to Stop Smoking were conducted by Kenneth Oster and Dr. A. P. Bokovoy of the Middle East Union at Riyadh and Jeddah in 1972. This was apparently the first time Seventh-day Adventist ministers had the opportunity of speaking to large congregations in Saudi Arabia. The travel and entertainment expenses of the two men were paid for by the Saudi government. During their visit they presented two one-half-hour programs on National Television.20

In 1976 Yousif Farag, publishing director for the Middle East Union, reported about promising contacts made on behalf of the publishing work. He wrote, “In Saudi Arabia we were honored to meet King Khalid. He assured us that our work was highly appreciated… The Minister of Information sent us a letter informing us that our request was granted and that our colporteurs can start work in Saudi Arabia at any time.”21

On January 20, 1976, the Loma Linda University Overseas Heart Team successfully performed the first open heart surgery in the KSA. Led by physicians Ellsworth E. Wareham and Joan Coggin, a team of 19 operated on a 13-year-old girl, Nalwal Abdai, daughter of Colonel Azziz Bakra of the Saudi Arabian Army. The operation occurred at Khamis Mushayt Hospital, located on a military reservation in the province of Asir in southwestern Saudi Arabia. The team stayed for six weeks, had the opportunity to screen hundreds of heart patients, and operated on 35 of these patients. Before the team left for the USA, they were summoned to Riyadh for an audience with Prince Turki Al-Faisal, brother of King Khalid. They met at the Ministry of Defense and Aviation where, on behalf of the country, they were commended for their work and presented with gifts of appreciation.22 23

As a follow up to the surgeries a contract was made with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense and Aviation to develop an open-heart surgery program in Saudi Arabia. When the Loma Linda group returned to southern California, they were accompanied by seven Saudi Arabian English-speaking military personnel, who would receive an intensive four-month paramedical training for positions on the developing Saudi team. The LLU heart team went back to Saudi Arabia in November 1976 and successfully performed another 51 heart surgeries. They went again in 1977 to continue the on-the-site training program.24 Several students from KSA, 29 men and one woman, were admitted at the College of Arts and Sciences on the La Sierra campus in California. Anees A. Haddad from the division, who accompanied the team to Saudi Arabia as a liaison officer, reported that “the reason the Saudis selected Loma Linda University over two other universities under consideration is that LLU, as a Seventh-day Adventist institution, shares many of the same health habits as do those of the Muslim faith.”25

Haddad summed up his visits to KSA by stating how Adventist health principles and the practical spiritual life exhibited by team members had made deep impressions on Saudi patients, their families, and the doctors alike. This opened conversations on religious topics. “God sent you to us, and He is with you,” was one of their most frequently expressed sentiments. The LLU team’s unchanging habit of offering a prayer over a patient in the operating room before surgery did not go unnoticed among a people who take their own faith very seriously.26

In 1987 Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions entered a contract with the Riyahd Al Karj Hospital to train respiratory therapists. The first five degrees were conferred on November 29, 1990.27 Other agreements were later signed with the Prince Sultan Cardiac Center under the Medical Services Department, Ministry of Defense and Aviation, and King Fahd National Guard Hospital.28 29

In connection with the Gulf Conflict in 1991, several US servicemen were stationed in KSA, among them 10 to 12 Adventist chaplains. On August 11, 27 Adventists from the US Army and Air Force gathered for their first worship service in Saudi Arabia, reported C. E. Bracebridge, director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries.30 Even after the conflict, some Adventists remained stationed in KSA. Their responsibilities included caring for people who were displaced during the conflict.31

In 1985 Kenneth Oster, Middle East Union health and temperance director, was planning to arrange a Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking; but, because of Ramadan, he missed the opportunity to meet with the Minister of Health. Oster reported at the MEU yearend meetings: “By strange coincidence the alternative objective of visiting our people was rewarding. It was a surprise to me when visiting our lay workers there, that there were so many scattered throughout the kingdom as individuals and small groups.”32

From 1991 to 1993 Patricia Biro from the USA worked in KSA and gave Bible studies to migrant workers. Many Filipino and Indian Seventh-day Adventists worked in Saudi Arabia, as they did in other Gulf countries, and they met whenever possible for worship services.33 Some were there alone and had their primary connection with the Adventist Church through letters and Adventist magazines, as was the case with an immigrant worker in Tabruk, northern Saudi Arabia.34

Borge Schantz (formerly director of the Center for Islamic Studies of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists) had much departmental and administrative experience from his work in the Middle East. He made annual trips to Riyadh in the 1990’s to teach ethics and whole-person care. He had a real advantage as he brought an extensive knowledge of the Qu’ran to the courses.35 He also used these opportunities to visit and serve some of the scattered small groups of Adventists in the KSA, especially in the Riyadh and the Dhahran areas. Bible studies were shared, people were converted, and baptisms were performed outside the country—either in Cyprus, where the Middle East Union headquarters was at the time, or in neighboring countries.36

Adventist Work in the 21st Century

There is a two-track emphasis to ministry in the KSA, a country with heavy restrictions on any kind of religious activity outside the official religion that permeates society on all levels. One track includes the quiet influence through health-related activities (including selling health books),37 community outreach programs, and the silent Christian witness by professional, domestic, and skilled workers, as well as through Adventist radio and television programs in Arabic which are broadcast by AWR and Al-Waad all over the Middle East. The second track is the ministry of the many foreign workers in the country. An estimated 38.3 percent out of a population of 35,000,000 (2018), or more than 13,000,000 are foreigners, mostly from other Arab countries (90 percent), with the rest coming from Africa-Asia and a few from the West.38

The silent witnessing activities among the migrant workers has been going on for years from the time the first Adventists found employment in KSA. Witnessing was primarily by personal relationships among people from their own ethnic group. Sometimes small worship groups were able to meet. For many years Saudi Arabia was under direct supervision of the union or the division, and it was difficult for church administration to monitor any mission work there. Because of limited access, much was left to tentmakers and migrant workers in the county.39 With the reorganization and formation of the Middle East and North Africa Union Mission, and the Gulf Field in 2012, the scattered members in KSA received greater attention. A pastor was employed to serve the territory and organize the mission.40 The results are now (2022) bearing fruit.

As of July 2022, there were 598 registered members in KSA, not counting those who are actively attending church services, but have not yet been able to transfer their membership or who have not yet decided for baptism. The majority are medical professionals and engineers. Some are skilled workers and office administrators. There are also Adventists in the Kingdom who are unregistered and unmonitored. Primarily these are domestic workers who cannot conveniently go out at will. The members and their friends meet in eight organized churches, two organized companies, and three groups spread over three regions—Eastern Region (Alkhobar, Dammam, Jubail, Dhahran, and Al Hassa), Central Region (Riyadh), and Western Region (Jeddah, Taif, Tabuk, and Abha-Khamis). Most of the members are from the Philippines (85 percent) and the rest are from India, Southeast Asia, UK, USA, Africa, South America, and other countries.41

Most live in rented villas, while some stay in their company accommodations. Worship services are conducted privately with self-imposed security rules for protection in view of the severe restrictions on any religious gathering. There is a hope that there will be a change in government policies as a trend seems to be going in that direction. Where possible, an entire villa is rented and occupied by many members with a larger place set aside for church services. Baptisms result almost every quarter. There are annual camp meetings where all the members from the entire Kingdom gather to fellowship.42 In 2022 the Gulf Field president and the executive secretary were able to enter KSA and speak to the members.43

Organizational Affiliations

The Saudi Arabian territory has been served by different church entities. In 1927 it was listed with the Arabia Union Mission under the Central European Division and later the General Conference. In 1941 the name of Arabia Union Mission was changed to the Middle East Union, and in 1951 the territory was divided between the East Mediterranean Union and the Iraq Mission, both in the new Middle East Division. It seems that it was primarily the division leadership that took the initiative to enter Saudi Arabia, as it was known beginning in 1932. In 1970, when the Afro-Mideast Division was organized, Saudi Arabia again came under the Middle East Union and stayed there, as it also did under the change to General Conference attachment and later to the Trans-European Division. In 2000 it became a part of the Gulf Section and in 2001 the Gulf Southern Section, still in the Middle East Union. Beginning with the reorganization in 2012 it became part of the new Gulf Field under the Middle East North Africa Union (MENA), attached to the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.44

Observations and Conclusion

Saudi Arabia, home to the birth of Islam and a holy center for the Muslim world, has for many years been on the list for Seventh-day Adventist mission. From the beginning visionary leaders recognized the shared values on health and moral purity, using this strategy to begin building relationships with the King. Different offers of assistance in health work have been well received and appreciated, but it has not yet been possible to reach a breakthrough in Adventist faith. On the other hand, encouraging results are seen in the reaching of many migrant workers.

Sources

“A Picture Story of TV Evangelism, Unexpected Responses from Unexpected People and Places.” ARH, January 19, 1956.

Appel, George J. “The Middle East Division.” ARH, June 26, 1958.

Dadouch, Sarah. “Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Seeks to Reduce Influential Clerics’ Power.” The New York Times, August 3, 2021.

Haddad, Anees A. “SDA Observer Gives Saudi Arabia Impressions.” ARH, December 30, 1976.

Horn, H. “Arabia.” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979.

“LLU Holds First Graduation in Saudi Arabia.” ARH, January 1991.

“LLU to Train Health Personnel in Saudi Arabia.” ARH, September 24, 1987.

Malbouisson, Cofie D. Focus on Islamic Issues, 2007. United Kingdom: Nova Publishers Inc., 2007.

Middle East Union Committee Minutes, February 2, 1977; December 10-11, 1997; December 8, 2009. Middle East and North Africa Union Archives, Beirut, Lebanon.

Morris, C. C. “Temperance on the March.” Middle East Messenger, No. 3, 1955.

“News Notes from World Divisions,” ARH, July 14, 1977.

“Our Expanding Foreign Mission Program.” ARH, April 21, 1949.

“Saudi Arabia.” The New World Encyclopedia. Accessed July 25, 2022. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Saudi_Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia.” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, rev. ed. 1996, s.v.

Scharffenberg, W. A. “International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism.” ARH, December 5, 1957.

Scharffenberg, W. A. “International Temperance Association.” ARH, October 24, 1957.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbooks, 1927-2021. Accessed July 25, 2022. https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.

Steed, Earnest H. J. “World Trip Reveals Need for Action on Temperance.” ARH, January 26, 1978.

“This Week.” ARH, June 21, 1984.

Webster, F. C. “Two Five-Day Plans Held in Saudi Arabia.” ARH, December 21, 1972.

Weismeyer, Richard. “Heart Team Operates on 35 Saudi Arabians.” ARH, April 18, 1976.

Weismeyer, Richard. “LLU Heart Team Completes Surgeries.” ARH, November 25, 1976.

Weismeyer, Richard. “LLU Heart Team in Saudi Arabia.” ARH, February 12, 1976.

Weismeyer, Richard. “LLU Trains Seven Saudi Arabians.” ARH, June 10, 1976.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Saudi Arabia.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Accessed July 26, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=Saudi_Arabia&id=1099975963&wpFormIdentifier=titleform.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Demographics of Saudi Arabia.” Accessed July 25, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Saudi_Arabia.

Notes

  1. Wikipedia Contributors, "Saudi Arabia," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, accessed July 26, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=Saudi_Arabia&id=1099975963&wpFormIdentifier=titleform.

  2. “Saudi Arabia,” The New World Encyclopedia, accessed July 26, 2022, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Saudi_Arabia.

  3. Siegfried H. Horn, “Arabia,” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979), 65-66.

  4. “Saudi Arabia,” Wikipedia.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Cofie D. Malbouisson, Focus on Islamic Issues, 2007, 23.

  7. Sarah Dadouch, “Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Seeks to Reduce Influential Clerics’ Power,” The New York Times, August 3, 2021.

  8. Things are changing with Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman Al Saud towards more freedom in the country with the Vision 2030.

  9. “Saudi Arabia,” Wikipedia.

  10. “Our Expanding Foreign Mission Program,” ARH, April 21, 1949, 3; George J. Appel, “The Middle East Division,” ARH, June 26, 1954, 129.

  11. W. A. Scharffenberg, “International Temperance Association,” ARH, October 24, 1957, 19-20; “International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism,” ARH, December 5, 1957, 18-19.

  12. George J. Appel, “The Middle East Division,” ARH, June 26, 1958, 133-134.

  13. “This Week,” ARH, June 21, 1984, 2.

  14. C. C. Morris, “Temperance on the March,” Middle East Messenger, No. 3, 1955, 2, 7.

  15. “Saudi Arabia, Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (SDAE), rev. ed. 1996, s. v. 5,499.

  16. “News Notes from World Divisions,” ARH, July 14, 1977, 21.

  17. Ernest H. J. Steed, “World Trip Reveals Need for Action on Temperance,” ARH, January 26, 1978, 13-14.

  18. “A Picture Story of TV Evangelism, Unexpected Responses from Unexpected People and Places,” ARH, January 19, 1956, 16-17.

  19. “Saudi Arabia,” SDAE, 3,999.

  20. F. C. Webster, “Two Five-Day Plans Held in Saudi Arabia,” ARH, December 21, 1972, 24.

  21. Middle East Union Committee Minutes, February 2, 1977, 15. Middle East and North Africa Archives.

  22. Richard Weismeyer, “LLU Heart Team in Saudi Arabia,” ARH, February 12, 1976, 24.

  23. Richard Weismeyer, “Heart Team Operates on 35 Saudi Arabians,” ARH, April 8, 1976, 15-17.

  24. Richard Weismeyer, “LLU Trains Seven Saudi Arabians,” ARH, June 10. 1976, 17.

  25. Richard Weismeyer, “LLU Heart Team Completes Surgeries,” ARH, November 25, 1976, 18.

  26. Anees A. Haddad, “SDA Observer Gives Saudi Arabia Impressions,” ARH, December 30, 1976, 17-19.

  27. “LLU Holds First Graduation in Saudi Arabia,” ARH, January 1991, 6.

  28. “LLU to Train Health Personnel in Saudi Arabia,” ARH, September 24, 1987, 7.

  29. Middle East Union Committee Minutes, December 10-11, 1997, 100.

  30. “Adventist Servicemen Worship in Saudi Arabia,” ARH, August 30, 1990, 6.

  31. “Adventists Serve in Gulf Conflict,” ARH, December 5, 1991, 2.

  32. Middle East Union Committee Minutes, November 6-7, 1985, 27.

  33. “Saudi Arabia,” SDAE, 3,999.

  34. “Letters,” ARH, June 30, 1994.

  35. Middle East Union Committee Minutes, December 10-11, 1997, 100.

  36. Borg Shantz, personal communication shared with Sven Jensen, during the time he served in the Middle East Union as departmental director and administrator.

  37. At the Middle East Union year-end meeting, December 2009, the publishing director Amir Ghali reported: “The MEU publishing department is currently studying the possibility of sending books to the KSA. The Saudi authorities have already approved those books. They can be sent as soon as we get a sponsor. We are working on this with the union president. It is also my wish to be able to visit KSA and conduct LE training there.” MEU Minutes, December 8, 2009, 76.

  38. Wikipedia Contributors, “Demographics of Saudi Arabia,” accessed July 25, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Saudi_Arabia.

  39. Sven Jensen, personal experience from his time with the Middle East Union (1989-2001).

  40. “Gulf Field,” Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook 2021, 447.

  41. Freinald Matondo, e-mail message to author on July 19, 2022.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Jon Kyorin Park, Gulf Field Executive Secretary, e-mail message to author on July 19, 2022.

  44. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbooks 1927-2021, accessed July 25, 2022, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx.

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Jensen, Sven Hagen. "Saudi Arabia." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. October 04, 2022. Accessed February 26, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5DZV.

Jensen, Sven Hagen. "Saudi Arabia." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. October 04, 2022. Date of access February 26, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5DZV.

Jensen, Sven Hagen (2022, October 04). Saudi Arabia. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved February 26, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5DZV.