The Kingdom’s currencies: A history of the Saudi riyal

The Kingdom’s currencies: A history of the Saudi riyal
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The newly issued SR5 polymer banknote makes use of metameric inks which makes two colors appear similar under one set of lighting, but different in other light conditions. (SPA)
The Kingdom’s currencies: A history of the Saudi riyal
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A “thaler” coin with an image of Austria’s then de facto empress, Maria Theresa (known as the “French riyal”) and stamped with the word “Alhijaz.”
The Kingdom’s currencies: A history of the Saudi riyal
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Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Zaid, general supervisor of the King Abdul Aziz Library in Riyadh.
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Updated 08 October 2020

The Kingdom’s currencies: A history of the Saudi riyal

The Kingdom’s currencies: A history of the Saudi riyal
  • Saudi Arabia’s unique identity brought forward with issuance and maintenance of its own national currency

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s newly issued SR5 ($1.33) polymer banknote is the latest release of its kind during King Salman’s reign. The note features a major security change, but dons the same image of the Saudi ruler, just as it has for almost every leader in the Kingdom’s history.

The new banknote is the sixth revision in the past five years. The only change is the use of a synthetic polymer that adds security features incompatible with paper banknotes, such as the use of metameric inks. The inks use the principle of metamerism to make two colors appear similar under one set of lighting, but different in other light conditions.

Historically, the riyal, a currency used in the Middle East before the establishment of the Kingdom, was commonly used and traded in the region. While the founding father of the Kingdom began unifying the country that we know today, various foreign gold, silver and bronze currencies were used alongside one another.

According to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA), King Abdul Aziz made efforts to bring forth the Kingdom’s unique identity partly through the issuance and maintenance of its own national currency. This led to the creation of the Saudi riyal, both in coin and paper banknote form.

The King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh possesses a collection of rare coins and currencies that are a historical testament to the stages of the Saudi state’s formation, transformation and development.

“Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Middle East that is independent and has not been subject to any pressure, colonization or occupation by foreign powers over its long history of 300 years,” the general supervisor of the King Abdul Aziz Library in Riyadh, Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Zaid, told Arab News.

Al-Zaid said that after King Abdul Aziz united the country in 1902, he was keen to make a sovereign decision regarding the new state’s currency. King Abdul Aziz viewed the economy as the main engine of a state that wanted to build modern foundations, Al-Zaid added.

Before anything resembling a monetary system was devised, the Indian rupee and a version of Britain’s golden pound coin were commonly used throughout the Gulf and Al-Ahsa, and as far inland as the Najd region.

Otherwise, Ottoman silver coins and “thaler” coins with images of Austria’s de facto empress, Maria Theresa (dubbed the “French riyal,”) were used before 1926.

Al-Zaid said that there was also a local currency in use during that time in the eastern province of Al-Ahsa called the “Tawilah” (Arabic for long) coin, which was made of copper, silver and gold. “The ‘Tawilah’ was used in the Gulf regions and sometimes in Riyadh and other nearby areas,” he added.

During the country’s initial monetary chaos, King Abdul Aziz strived to find solutions that would help control the situation and limit the diversity of currencies used in the region. The founding father’s first practical step was to stamp popular coins, such as “French riyals,” with the words “Najd” and “Hijaz.”

Al-Zaid said: “This stamp or seal meant that the currency belonged to Saudi Arabia, and traders wouldn’t accept, for example, ‘French riyals’ that were not stamped.”

In the years after, the Kingdom’s economy grew dramatically, especially when oil was discovered in 1938. Therefore, King Abdul Aziz gave orders to mint a Saudi currency bearing his name and the Kingdom began issuing coins of silver called Saudi riyals, which consisted of halves and quarters.

“After 1938, this currency began to gradually replace the existing currencies,” said Al-Zaid.

As no central monetary authority existed to organize and regulate the state currency, coins were minted abroad and delivered to the country in batches. The silver Saudi riyals were minted in the US.


On Saudi National Day 1999, the centenary of the founding of Saudi Arabia, two new denominations represented by 200 and 20 Saudi riyal banknotes were issued. The 200 riyal banknote featured the portrait of King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud and a view of the Al-Masmak Palace, while the 20 riyal banknote bore the picture of Al-Noor mountain in Makkah and another portrait of the former ruler.

The Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority said that in 1952, following great turmoil in the Kingdom’s exchange and payment systems, King Abdul Aziz agreed to bring in a US financial mission chaired by economic adviser Arthur Young.

The delegation advised the state on its budget and monetary system. Following the successful advisory mission, two royal decrees were issued to establish the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority in 1952, making it the second-oldest central bank in the Arab world.

All that has been achieved since then in the Kingdom can be partly attributed to the ambition and vision of King Abdul Aziz.

With the further development of the Kingdom and the growing presence of pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah, King Abdul Aziz realized the difficulty worshippers faced when having to carry heavy coins. He therefore ordered the production of the Kingdom’s first paper currency in 1953.

The newly issued notes were referred to by SAMA as the “Pilgrims’ Receipt,” and included 10, five and one riyal banknotes. Coins soon fell out of fashion, and King Abdul Aziz’s decision proved beneficial for pilgrims and the Saudi public alike.

In its first edition, the banknotes contained multiple phrases in Arabic, Persian, English, Urdu, Turkish and Malay, and bore the Kingdom’s emblem with the following words on its right side: “This receipt was issued by the Monetary Authority to facilitate pilgrimage for its bearer, and to make the Arabian riyals at his disposal, easily and quickly, during his stay in the country without paying the costs of exchange.”

It also contained a guarantee, which read: “We certify that the Authority holds in its vaults in Jeddah the sum of 10 Arab Riyals at the disposal of the bearer of this receipt. It is fully negotiable, and its value will immediately be paid upon presentation to any center of the Authority.”

Though the “Pilgrims’ Receipt” circulation was later halted in 1965, Al-Zaid said the Kingdom’s economic affairs soon flourished and Saudi currencies began a tradition of revisal, which continued throughout the reign of King Saud to this day.

Six new revisions have been issued in the past six decades, each banknote bearing the portrait of past rulers. They have also featured views of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, an Umayyad Dinar, the Kingdom’s natural scenery, oil rigs and other unique Saudi themes.