Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has its roots in the desert centre of the Arabian Peninsula. In this environment, the Prophet Muhammad began spreading the message of Islam and founded the first state based on the new religion. Eventually, the Kingdom would be established here, developing into a wealthy state, increasingly looking outwards. Below is an introduction of Fanack's History file on Saudi Arabia.

History of Saudi Arabia
A picture taken on March 31, 2018 shows a Saudi man walking near ancient tombs at the Khuraiba archaeological site near Saudi Arabia’s northwestern town of al-Ula. Al-Ula, an area rich in archaeological remnants, is seen as a jewel in the crown of tourist attractions in the Kingdom.

The Arabian Peninsula

The Arabian Peninsula in ancient times was surrounded by some of the greatest of the early empires. The Byzantine Empire, the successor of the Roman Empire, was situated in the northwest and the Persian Empire in the northeast. The fertile valleys of Mesopotamia were linked to the mountainous kingdoms of the southwest of the Peninsula, in what is now Yemen, and the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Desert trade routes through the Hijaz mountains as well as through settlements like Mecca and Yathrib (later called Medina) on the west coast of the Peninsula linked these regions, bringing trade, but also, at times, religious monotheism. In this environment, the Prophet Muhammad, a member of the Hashemite tribe in Mecca, began preaching in 610 CE, spreading the message of a single God and founding the first state based on the new religion of Islam.

Early Islam

After the death of the Prophet in 632, the Islamic state in the Peninsula expanded rapidly into Byzantine and Persian territory. The political centre of the Islamic state moved first to Damascus under the Umayyads, and then to Baghdad, under the Abbasids.

But the religious importance of Mecca remained and the Hashemites remained in control of Mecca, which prospered as a trading and religious centre. By the sixteenth century CE, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Hijaz from Istanbul, although locally the Hashemite family predominated.

The rise of the Wahhabis

In the mid-eighteenth century, a religious scholar named Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab began preaching reform of Islam in the Nejd, the central part of the Arabian Peninsula. He and his followers became known as Wahhabis and were famous for the strictness of their doctrine.

They formed a local alliance with the Al Saud family of Diriya in the Nejd. The Wahhabis provided a religious ideology that legitimised the ruling Al Saud, who provided the force that underpinned the alliance. This alliance has continued until today.

The Saudi-Wahhabi state soon came into conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Although it was defeated by the Ottomans more than once, Wahhabi ideology survived. In rivalry with the Hashemites in Mecca, the Wahhabis fought for control of central Arabia.

Ibn Saud and the Foundation of the Kingdom (1902-1946)

At the end of the nineteenth century, the British government formed alliances with both the Saudis and the Wahhabis in the Hijaz. The British regarded both groups as a potential tool serving British imperial interests.

The Ottomans, meanwhile, tried to cement their control over the Hijaz by building a railway between Damascus and Medina, which became an important strategic asset once the First World War began.

As the Hashemite rulers tried to split away from the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the war, the British sent military assistance. But they also helped the Saudis, thus strengthening both sides.

After the war, Husayn al-Hashimi, calling himself King of Hijaz, and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, calling himself King of the Nejd, fought over control of the Peninsula. By 1924, Ibn Saud had taken much of Arabia, apart from Yemen and the eastern and southern coasts.

Two years later, the Hijazi state collapsed, and in 1932 Ibn Saud formed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The new state was poor, but Ibn Saud prepared the ground for future prosperity by signing oil production agreements with American oil companies. During the Second World War, he laid the basis for future political and diplomatic alliance with the United States.

Saudi Arabia after Ibn Saud

Good relations with the US helped guarantee American strategic support during the Cold War but US support for the State of Israel clashed with Saudi interests. After Abdul Aziz ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by his son Saud, followed by Faisal, this contradiction led to political difficulties that increased due to the growing role of oil revenue in the economy.

Religious leaders in Saudi Arabia resented the alliance with the Americans and the social effects of oil wealth in society. The government sought to manage these strains by giving social and political authority to the Islamic leadership while increasing the oil revenue. There were even tensions within the royal family.

Oil, Religion, and the Leadership Struggle 1964-1979

The contradictions between oil wealth and the morality of the regime on the one hand, and between the Kingdom’s Islamic ideology and the alliance with the US, backer of Israel, became more apparent when the two wars of 1967 and 1973 ended in defeat for Arab armies.

During this period, Saudi Arabia got much richer as a mainstay of OPEC, and after the 1973 war, the regime tried to use the ‘oil weapon’ as a lever with the Western powers. This did not change US and Western policy, but it did help to force global oil prices up very sharply after 1973.

In the long term, it pushed western consumers to seek new sources of oil outside the Middle East. In the short term, it made Saudi Arabia so rich that its economy lacked incentives to produce anything else.

King Faisal tried to buy popular support with huge investments in health and education. He also emphasised the Islamic roots of the Kingdom at home and subsidised Islamic religious movements in the wider world. At the same time, Islamic radicalism grew. In 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew and King Khalid bin Abdulaziz took the throne.

King Khalid oversaw a plan to develop the economy and industrialise the country. He co-founded the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981. Outside Saudi Arabia, Islamic radicalism also advanced, particularly after the Iranian revolution of 1979 which excited the substantial Shia minority in the eastern provinces.

In the same year, the start of peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan inflamed Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia, leading to an uprising in Mecca that occupied the Great Mosque.

King Fahd: two decades of crisis 1979-2001

King Fahd became king on the death of King Khalid in 1982. During a global economic crisis, oil price hikes led to widespread inflation in the developed countries in the late 1970s.

The Kingdom could not escape the resulting tensions. Saudi Arabia rejected the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt but proposed a peace plan of its own in 1981. The Saudi government provided huge loans to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war but refused to extend them when the war was over.

It led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which left the Saudi government dependent on US protection. While Saudi Arabia supported Islamic jihadists who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Islamists in Saudi Arabia itself accused the government of aligning itself with the US while ignoring Islamic values inside the country.

These crises laid the foundations of the events of September 2001 (9/11) that shook the Middle East, as well as the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia from 9/11 to the death of King Abdullah

The 9/11 attacks were a stunning blow to US-Saudi relations because so many of the attackers came from Saudi Arabia. Many US politicians were enraged by the Saudi-American alliance, as were many Islamists inside the Kingdom. The Saudi government attempted to crush them and rebuild relations with Washington by sponsoring a Middle East Peace Plan.

Dissent about human rights and the role of the religious police grew inside the country, and Islamist terrorism originating from al-Qaeda led to several very bloody incidents.
Saudi Arabia weathered the Arab uprisings or ‘Arab Spring’ safely and tried to face down the Iranian threat by intervening in the Yemeni Civil War in 2015.

In January 2015, King Abdullah died, aged 91, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Salman, who was 79 years old. His rule would mark the end of the generation of Ibn Saud’s sons and open a new era in Saudi history.

King Salman and the rise of a new generation

King Salman soon appointed his 35-year-old son Muhammad as his heir and charged him with overseeing a new national plan, the Vision 2030. It aimed to shift Saudi Arabia from dependence on oil by diversifying the economy, developing health care and education and liberalising social life.

Muhammad bin Salman followed this plan with great vigour, but as documented by human rights organisations, his modernisation drive was accompanied by heavy repression, not only of Islamists but also of liberal critics. At the same time, Saudi Arabia opened up to international investments and tourism.