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Saudi Arabia: A Brief History

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A Brief History of Arabia and Modern Saudi Arabia 


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Introduction - Saudi Arabia occupies most of the Arabian peninsula. It has an area of 1,960,582 sq km, mostly desert, and a population of about 22,000,000 (estimates vary) including about 5 million foreigners. Of the citizens, 90%  are Arabs and all are Muslims. Saudi Arabia is  the birthplace of Islam,  the location of Mecca and and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam, and the focus of the annual Islamic Haj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.   According to Islamic tradition, no non-Muslims may live in its confines, though in fact non-Muslims are admitted to the kingdom without citizenship as technicians, merchants, diplomats and soldiers.

Saudi Arabia is the world's single largest repository of petroleum, having about one third of the world reserves of petroleum. Because the oil is close to the surface, it can be retrieved inexpensively. Saudi Arabia also has the world's largest developed reserve pumping capacity for oil, which allows it to control prices by adjusting the supply with relative ease, and to meet world shortages by increasing capacity. Nonetheless, poor management and a high birthrate have left Saudi Arabia a relatively poor country Only about 70% of adult males and 50% of females are literate, and infant mortality is approximately 50 per thousand. Annual per capita income is about $7,000.

Click here for larger map of Saudi Arabia

Map of Saudi Arabia
Map of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy governed under strict Islamic laws of the Wahhabi sect, which regulate public behavior, especially for women and foreigners. Women cannot drive cars and have numerous other restrictions imposed on them, and the presence of on-Muslim foreigners is tolerated but often raises resentment.

The Arabian peninsula (Al-Jazira) is bounded by the Red Sea to the west, the Arabian Sea to the south and the Persian Gulf to the east. To the west, the Hijaz and Asir  mountain ranges form a barrier from the sea. Further west, the Tihama is the coastal plain of the Red Sea. In the north, the An Nafud and 'Hamad deserts separate Saudi Arabia from Iraq and Jordan. The Rub' al Khali (empty quarter) in the southeast is a vast and generally impenetrable desert. An Nafud, a sea of enormous shifting sand dunes, was supposedly considered impenetrable until T.E. Lawrence crossed it in 1917 to attack Aqaba with his Arab allies.

The Arabs have been known in the Middle East at least since the time of Shalmanesser II in 853 BC.  Arabia  has been the home of several apparently distinct Semitic peoples in numerous tribes, all known as Arabs, for much of recorded history. The relatively high rainfall of Yemen and easy access to the sea made it the home of several prosperous kingdoms, including Saba (possibly the biblical Sheba), Himyar, Qataban, Minea (Ma'in) and Hadramaut. The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) The area was the source of frankincense and myrrh and also a relay point for spices coming from the East. An additional kingdom of Zufar was situated in the area of the modern Oman.

The north and center of the peninsula, corresponding to the Arabia Deserta of the Romans,  have always been populated by nomadic tribes, in contrast to the sedentary south. For much of ancient history, Aramaic was apparently the dominant language in the northern regions, rather than Arabic.  The desert is punctuated by oases where a sedentary way of life is possible, and which formed terminuses and way stations on caravan routes. Each town was located at an oasis, and was usually controlled and inhabited by several tribes who made a pact that allowed joint control of the oasis. In times of prosperity, differences between town and countryside were accentuated, and the caravans and the towns became targets of raids by relatively poorer Bedouin nomads.

The nomadic way of life and tribal organization of the interior of north and central Arabia made it difficult to form large stable political organizations. Two very well known but short-lived states were anchored outside the Arabian desert.  About 100 AD, the Nabateans ruled a kingdom that stretched from Palestine to the Gulf at its greatest extent, with its capital in Petra, in what is now Jordan. The Nabateans declined and their kingdom in the West was taken over by the Romans. A second kingdom arose in the North with its capital in Palmyra, under Odenathus in 265, and flourished under his widow Zenobia. It flourished all too well however, and was extinguished by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 273 after Zenobia proclaimed her son Athenodorus as Caesar Augustus. Two lesser known kingdoms in the interior were Li'hyan and Thamud. The Lakhmid, located in what is now Transjordan and Southern Arabia, was the first known kingdom to use Arabic as its official language. Its influence extended to the borders of South Arabia. The Kindah of western Central Arabia wrested control of much of Central Arabia from the Lakhmids in the 4th and 5th centuries AD but were forced back in 528. Two small protectorates of varying borders existed along the northern borders. Ghassan, along the border with Syria, was a Byzantine protectorate, and Hira, along the border with Persia (modern Iraq) was a Persian protectorate.

Map of Arabia about the time of Muhamed

Map of Arabia about the time of Muhamed

The Hijaz formed part of an important trade route from the Mediterranean south to the Arabian sea, and Mecca was a key city on this route. Arabia profited from the animosity between the Roman and Persian empires, which closed more desirable east-west trade routes through Egypt.  In 384 the Romans and Persians concluded a peace treaty. The trade route through the Hijaz was no longer needed and Arabia went into decline until 502, when the treaty was broken, and a new period of prosperity began for Arabia.

Note - Click here for a more detailed history of Islam

Religion Before Islam - Before the advent of Islam, the different tribes of Arabia followed different varieties of paganism, and later many converted to Christianity and Judaism. Muhamed, who was to become the prophet of Islam, was born about 570 to the Banu Hashim family, reputable merchants in the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca. He began preaching a new monotheistic religion sometime before 622, and was forced to migrate from Mecca about 622 with his followers, in the Hegira. At Medina, Muhamed consolidated a power base and followers.  By 630, the Muslims were strong enough to attack and capture Mecca. According to Muslim tradition, the attack took place only after the Quraysh had broken the treaty.

Muhamed - In 632, Muhamed died and was succeed by Abu Bakr, his father in law, followed by Umar, who was followed by Umar. Each ruler spread the rule of Islam, first consolidating its hold and Arabia, but rapidly expanding to Palestine (by 640), Syria, Persia and central Asia. Umar was succeeded by Uthman, who was succeeded by Muhamed's son-in-law Ali. Ali moved the capital outside Arabia to Kufa, in what is now Iraq. The further history of Islam is presented separately (click here),

Mecca and Medina - Mecca remained the spiritual focus of Islam because it was the destination for the obligatory Haj pilgrimage. The city, however, lacked political or administrative importance even in the early Islamic period.  Medina  had been the main base of Muhamed's political and military administration and the capital of the early caliphs. Medina continued to be an administrative center and developed into something of an intellectual and literary one as well. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Medina became an important center for the codification of Islamic law.

The Ka'aba in Mecca

Arabia in decline - As the center of Islamic and "Arab" civilization moved away from Arabia, order and culture receded, particular after the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, and later, after the overland trade routes were transferred to ocean shipping. When the Caliphate was powerful, it controlled the Hijaz and ensured the safety of pilgrims to Mecca.  However, by the ninth centrury the Caliphate had been greatly  weakened. The Hijaz fell under the sway of different tribes and factions. From about 967, the Hijaz was controlled by the the Hashemites, who claim direct descent from Ali, son-in-law of Muhamed, through his son Hussayn. They were the Sharifs of Mecca since 1201, though they became nominal tributaries of the Ottoman empire in the fifteenth century. The importance of Arabia as a trade route declined in the sixteenth century, as Europeans found ocean routes to the indies, but the Red Sea and the Hijaz still remained relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan. In the South East however, the Najd area was ruled by no one. The Najd was isolated. arid and barren, and was surrounded on three sides by deserts and separated from the Hijaz by mountains. The Bedouin tribes lived there in more or less total independence, and with little contact with the outside world. The Najd became the home of the Wahhabi Islamic sect and of the house of Saud that was to create modern Saudi Arabia.

The Saud family and the rise of the Wahhabis - The Saud family was established in Ad Diriyah, in the center of Najd, near the modern capital of Riyadh, where they had settled around 1500.  The tribes of the Najd, relatively isolated from Islamic life, had resumed various pagan practices. Some of the Arabian tribes attributed to trees and rocks the same sort of power that the Shia venerate in  the tombs of Imams. Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (died 1792), initiated a comprehensive reform. He grew up in Uyaynah, an oasis in southern Najd, where he studied Hanbali Islamic law. He continued his studies in Medina and then went to Iraq and to Iran.  In the late 1730s he returned to the Najd and began to write and preach against both Shia and local paganism. He focused on Muslim monotheism, and preached that there is only one God, who does not share  power with anyone. His students called themselves muwahhidun (unitarians). Their detractors referred to them as "Wahhabis"--or "followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab." 

Wahhab attached a militant political dimension to his preaching, attacking the Shia and attracting local sheikhs to his cause.  He won over some local leaders in  Uyaynah and destroying some shrines there with the assistance of the Saud family, but was obliged to leave that town because of Shi'a pressure, and headed for Ad Diriyah, where he was welcomed by the Saud family. In 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the  family, and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, swore a traditional Muslim oath promising to work together to establish a state based on Islamic principles.

By 1765, when he died, Muhammad ibn Saud's forces had established Wahhabism and the authority of the Saud family, over most of Najd. His son, Abd al Aziz, continued the Wahhabi advance. In 1801 the Al Saud-Wahhabi armies attacked and sacked the shrine of Husayn in Karbala, Iraq. In 1802 or 1803 they advanced on the Hijaz. In Mecca and Medina  they destroyed monuments and grave markers used for prayer to Muslim saints and for votive rituals, which they consider acts of polytheism, just as Muhamed had supposedly destroyed  pagan idols in Mecca. The Wahhabi advance to the Hijaz alarmed the ruler of Egypt, Muhamad Ali. In 1812 (some say 1816) he sent his son Tursun  to the Hijaz, and later joined him. On the Saudi side,  Abd Allah ibn Saud ibn Abd al Aziz who faced the invading Egyptian army, but was rapidly defeated, and then pursued to Al Diriyah and evicted from there in 1818.The Wahhabis and the Saud family retreated to Riyadh, which became their capital in 1824. Subsequently the Sauds ruled Riyadh and a variable territory around it. However, interfamily rivalry and frequent civil wars weakened them.  In 1890 Muhammad ibn Rashid, put effective control of Riyadh, into the hands of his own garrison commander, Salim ibn Subhan ruling through a Saud family puppet. When the puppet ruler, Abd ar Rahman attempted to exert his authority, he was driven out of Riyadh. The Saud family fled to Kuwait. 

Creation of Modern Saudi Arabia - In 1902, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud began battling his way back to power in the Najd and Riyadh, and by 1905 or 1906, the Ottomans had recognized him as their client in the Najd, and he was recognized as the Wahhabi imam. He continued his advances, aided by the Ikhwan brotherhood. The Ikhwan were Wahhabi Bedouin who had gathered into Hujjar - agricultural settlements geared for war. By 1913  Abd al Aziz's had thrown the Ottomans out of Al Hufuf in eastern Arabia.  Abdul Aziz's advance was during WW I. He sat by while the Hashemite family, aided and encouraged by the British, revolted against the Turks. After the war,  ibn Saud resumed his advance, capturing the Jebel Shammar in 1921, Mecca in 1924 and Medina in 1925. In 1932 he renamed renamed his Kingdom Saudi Arabia.

Suppresion of the Ikhwan - Ibn Saud had trouble controlling the Ikhwan, who were too eager to attack the Hashemites, clients of the British and enemies of the Wahhabi, and who had no tolerance for necessary twentieth century innovations, including all machines and telegraph as well as the presence of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, forbidden by tradition.  The Ikhwan remained eager to force reform on others, which  led them to attack non-Wahhabi Muslims, and even Wahhabis, both in Saudi and in Iraq.  When the Wahhabi forces continued to ignore his authority, Ibn Saud defeated them in battle in 1929. However, the conflict between the most extreme forces in Wahhabism and the more pragmatic strain was never completely resolved. Saudi ulema remained suspicious of foreign inventions. For example, they first opposed radio as a suspect modern innovation for which there was no basis in the Qur'an and the Hadiths, but were reconciled when Abd al Aziz demonstrated that the radio could be used to broadcast the Qur'an. Wahhabi rule remains strict in Saudi Arabia. No foreigners can become citizens. Women cannot get drivers licenses and cannot perform legal and financial procedures on their own. Alcohol is forbidden in the kingdom.

Discovery of oil - Beginning in the 1930s, the ARAMCO consortium, including Standard Oil of California and other firms, that had gotten oil concessions in Saudi Arabia, discovered huge quantities of petroleum. Saudi oil is close to the surface and therefore it is very cheap to extract. The discovery of oil transformed the kingdom and gave it, and the entire Gulf Region extraordinary strategic importance in World War II and thereafter. However, in large part, oil revenues contributed to the fortunes of the Saud family, who rule as absolute monarchs, and did not produce a concomitant social revolution and modern development such as occurred in some of the Gulf countries. 

King Saud - King Abdul Aziz died in 1953, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud. Saud was a spendthrift and political adventurer. His support for Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt alienated the US and British, his traditional allies. A 1957 visit by Saud to the United States raised eyebrows there due to his ostentatious lifestyle. His huge retinue, sumptuous feasts and conspicuous consumption by family members were widely reported. However, the visit served to cement a strategic friendship with the United States that has largely survived intact to present times.

In March 1958, economic problems forced Saud to transfer legislative and executive powers to the prime minister, his brother Crown Prince Faisal, but shortly thereafter,  Saud reassumed control of the government from Faisal. The union of Syria and Egypt alarmed the Saud family, who feared that they would be swept away on a tide of Arab nationalism, and there were rumors that Saud had conspired to assassinate Nasser. The kingdom also had to deal with the effects of the civil war in Yemen that raged in the 1960s. Saud was forced to abdicate in 1964 owing to fiscal profligacy. On November 2, 1964 Prince Faisal became king, designating his half-brother, Prince Khalid ibn Abdul, as his successor. Saud tried unsuccessfully to subvert the Saudi government from his exile in Cairo.

King Faisal - Faisal was a spartan and observant monarch, raised in the Wahhabi tradition by his mother, a scion of the Wahhabi clan. However, in addition to improved fiscal responsibility and relative austerity, Faisal introduced innovations such as television, inciting the opposition of conservative elements in the kingdom. Faisal is credited with abolishing slavery in Saudi Arabia in 1962.   He was also active in foreign affairs. Faisal helped bankroll the PLO and other anti-Israel ventures, and following the disastrous defeat of the Arabs in the 6-day war, he set up a special compensation fund for Arab countries that had suffered in the war. He initiated the oil embargo that followed the 1973 October war (Yom Kippur war). The boycott and the organization of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) as a coordinated monopoly tripled and quadrupled the price of oil. Saudi Arabia, as the world's largest exporter of oil, benefited from new found prosperity. However, Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by his nephew, and Khalid became king.

King Khalid - Khalid continued the process of modernization and under his rule Saudi Arabia initiated several foreign policy initiatives through Crown Prince Fahd. Fahd assumed a key role in the government because of Khalid's failing health. In 1979, Saudi Arabia was rocked by fundamentalist Sunni riots in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, initiated by those who felt the kingdom had become too liberal. Over 500 dissidents invaded and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca on November 20. The leader of the dissidents, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba, belonged to an important Najd family. His ancestors had been soldiers and comrades of Abd al Aziz ibn Saud. Juhaiman charged that the Saud family had become steeped in corruption, ostentation, and imitation of the West, echoing the rhetoric of the Ayatollah Khomeini's diatribes against the shah in Iran. The rioters shot and killed a guard in the Mosque, a holy place, where bloodshed is punishable by crucifixion. It was not possible to dislodge them by force until the Ulema issued a special Fatwa (religious decree) permitting bloodshed in the holy precincts.

Riots and disturbances - Later in 1979 and in 1980 there were riots in the eastern Shi'a areas, due to economic discrimination and neglect, and possibly due to incitement from neighboring Iran, which had undergone a fundamentalist Shi'a revolution in 1979. The rioters carried picture of Khomeini. The area is sensitive because of oil production facilities that are easily sabotaged, run by Aramco, which employs many Shi'ites. The government responded with massive repression, but later provided a special economic development package for these areas.

Saudi Peace initiative - Saudi Arabia responded to the Egyptian peace negotiations with Israel by breaking diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1979. However in 1981, Crown Prince Fahd offered a peace plan of his own.  The Fahd peace plan, envisioned a comprehensive settlement that included the creation of a Palestinian state and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

King Fahd - King Khalid died in 1982 and was succeeded by Fahd, who designated Abdullah as crown prince. Saudi Arabia apparently cooperated with the United States in keeping oil prices low in the 80s in order to hurt Soviet energy trade and bring down the Soviet economy. Saudi Arabia was a in a unique position to do so because it has vast reserves and because extraction of Saudi oil costs about a dollar a barrel. Extraction of Russian oil costs about $18 a barrel; oil prices must be higher than that figure to make extraction possible. The Saudis are thought to have used their reserves and tremendous capacity to maintain an over-supply of oil on the world market and force the Soviets out.  Falling oil prices allowed Saudi Arabia to dismiss some of the foreigners employed in the kingdom. However, the fall in oil prices ultimately hurt the Saudi economy.

In 1991, the kingdom accepted comparatively large numbers of US troops, and was a base for US operations against Iraq.  who remained in the kingdom after the end of Desert Storm, angering traditionalists. At the same time, the Saudi government and members of the Saudi family have been bankrolling extremist groups such as the Palestinian Hamas as well as Central Asian groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir, and paying for Islamic schools that are often hot beds of fundamentalism.

Osama Bin Laden, a dissident member of a rich Saudi family, is credited with a key role in organizing the successful overthrow of the Soviet-backed Afghanistan government with the support of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Some say he was also aided by Saudi Prince Turki-El-Feisal, then head of the Saudi intelligence services. Bin Laden became an implacable fundamentalist foe of the United States, and his Al-Qaeda network planned and executed the terror attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. The major stated reason for Bin-Laden's hostility to the US is the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia.  Many of the attackers were of Saudi origin, and subsequent revelations about Saudi support of Islamic and Islamist fundamentalist groups have strained relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In 2002, against the background of the second Palestinian Intifada and the looming war in Iraq, Crown Prince Abdullah initiated an Arab peace plan quite similar to the one offered by Crown Prince Fahd in 1981. The former plan had foundered on the resistance of Syria and other hard-line states. This plan was accepted at an Arab summit conference in Beirut.

The Saudi regime was rocked in 2003 by Al-Qaeda engineered explosions that took place in Riyadh in May and November, as well as riots demanding reform by both traditionalists and democratic reformers. The unrest was met with arrests and force, but also with promises of reform. The regime sponsored a forum on reform. State-supported preachers issued Fatwas (religious edits) enjoining against violence between Muslims and suicide attacks.

Ami Isseroff

See also:

A concise history of Islam and the Arabs

Saudi-Arabian Anti-Americanism

Explosion in Riyadh

Map of Saudi Arabia

Bibliography of Saudi Arabia

External link:

Saudi Arabia and the United States, 1931-2002

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The following is some of the additional historical information at MidEastWeb:
A concise history of Islam and the Arabs
Understanding the Middle East I - Talking Points Versus Understanding
Understanding the Middle East II - What's in a Word? 

Brief History of Israel and Palestine

A Brief History of Egypt
IRAQ History and Resources
IRAQ Timeline

Source Documents- Arab-Israel Conflict
Iraq- Source Documents

In a nutshell: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Population of Palestine before 1948
British support for restoration of the Jews
President Harry S. Truman and US Support for Creation of Israel
Palestinian Parties
The Palestinian Refugees
The Growth of Palestinian Identity
Why the Oslo Process Failed
Water Issues
Additional Sources
MideastWeb Web Site Fairness and Accuracy Policy

External Sources on Islam

The Internet Sourcebook of Islamic History

Medieval Middle East at Cornell  

Online Book - Life of Muhamed by Mohamed Haykal

Biography of Muhamed

Millenium Biography of Muhamed


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