Pre-Islamic Period: By 1000 B.C., southern Arabia had a relatively high level of development. The civilization evolved rapidly because it had steady contact with the outside world via the trade routes that spanned the region. Exports in frankincense and myrrh brought wealth and global connections to present-day Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, and southern Saudi Arabia. While the Persians and Romans fought to control the Near East, Arabic society benefited from the exchange of ideas that came with the camel caravans. Multiple religions were present in the region, including Christianity, Judaism, and various polytheistic paganisms.
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Early Islam: The birth of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 570 forever changed Saudi Arabia. Today, many Arabs refer to the time before the introduction and spread of Islam as “the time of ignorance.” Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca into the prominent Quraysh tribe, which controlled water rights and maintained a very active role in peninsular trade. The life and ministry of Muhammad did much to unify Arabia. Until the seventh century, the peninsula’s tribes fought a destructive series of wars for control of the region. The situation had changed dramatically by the time of Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632. Muhammad, as well as his political successor Abu Bakr, enjoyed the loyalty of almost all of Arabia. Abu Bakr used force and coercion to form an even stronger alliance of Arab tribes and demanded conversion to Islam from followers of the old polytheisms. Although no spiritual successor to the Prophet was named, the institution of the caliphate emerged and expanded the Islamic empire.
For the first 30 years following the Prophet’s death, caliphs ruled the Islamic world from Yathrib, today known as Medina. Responding to threats from the Byzantine and Persian empires, the caliphs demanded growing allegiance from the Arab tribes. In a relatively short span of time, the Islamic empire expanded northward into present-day Spain, Pakistan, and the Middle East. However, maintaining unity proved to be a continual challenge. Following the death of the third caliph, Uthman, in 656, splits appeared in the burgeoning Islamic empire. The Umayyads established a hereditary line of caliphs centered in Damascus. The Abbasids, claiming a different hereditary line, ruled from Baghdad and subsequently overthrew the Umayyads in 750. Although the spiritual significance of Mecca and Medina remained constant, the political importance of Arabia in the Islamic world waned. By 900, most significant Islamic centers of politics and governance were located in Egypt, India, Turkey, and the Central Asian republics.
The Al Saud and Wahhabi Islam: The Al Saud family emerged as the dominant factor in Saudi Arabia’s modern history. The clan’s origins can be traced to Najd, near Riyadh, beginning in about 1500. The ancestors of Saud ibn Muhammad settled in the region and began harvesting dates. As a small town developed, the Al Saud came to be recognized as its leaders, and the clan’s power and influence grew. The rise of the Al Saud coincided with that of the Muslim scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703–87), who wrote and preached against leaders and traditions that he deemed contradictory to the idea of a unitary god. Unlike other religious leaders who preached unitarianism, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab demanded that political power be used to implement his theology. In 1744 Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab found the political partner that he had been searching for, and he and Muhammad ibn Saud swore a traditional oath to work together in order to establish a state ruled according to Islamic principles. The alliance was based on Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s claim of religious legitimacy and Muhammad ibn Saud’s readiness to undertake jihad in defense of such principles. Some scholars have cited this partnership as the “original religio-political movement.” By 1765, Muhammad ibn Saud’s forces had established Wahhabism and with it Al Saud political authority over most of Najd.
After Muhammad ibn Saud died in 1765, his son, Abd al Aziz, continued the Wahhabi advance. In 1802 the Al Saud-Wahhabi armies sacked Karbala, including the Shia shrine commemorating Husayn, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad whom Shia Muslims regard as their spiritual forefather. In 1803 Wahhabi forces moved on to Mecca and Medina. These holy cities were spared the destruction that met Karbala, but the Wahhabis did destroy monuments and markers established for prayer to Muslim saints, which Wahhabi theology deemed to be acts of polytheism. With the assault on the Hijaz, the region of pilgrimage, the Al Saud invited conflict with much of the rest of the Islamic world. Recognizing the symbolic importance of the region, the Ottoman sultan ordered the recapture of the Hijaz. In 1812 and 1813, Egyptian forces, fighting on behalf of the sultan, regained control of Mecca and Medina. Meanwhile, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab had died in 1792, and Abd al Aziz died shortly before the capture of Mecca.
Nineteenth-Century Arabia: Following a six-year period of Egyptian interference, the Al Saud reestablished political control of the Najd region in 1824 under Turki ibn Abd Allah, who rebuilt Riyadh and established it as the new center of Al Saud power. The sphere of influence for Turki and his successors extended to the regions north and south of Najd and also along the western coast of the Persian Gulf. Although they did not control a centralized state, the Al Saud successfully controlled military resources, collected tribute, and resisted Egyptian attempts to regain a foothold in the region.
From 1830 to 1891, the Al Saud maintained power and protected Arabia’s autonomy by playing the British and Ottomans against each other. External threats were largely kept at bay, but internal strife plagued the Al Saud throughout much of the century. After the assassination of Turki in 1834, the family devolved into a series of competing factions. The infighting and constant civil war ultimately led to the decline of the Al Saud and the rise of the rival Al Rashid family. In 1891 Muhammad ibn Rashid placed Riyadh under the nominal control of Al Saud leader Abd ar Rahman, but effective control of the city was in the hands of his own garrison commander. When Abd ar Rahman attempted to exert true authority, he and the remainder of the Al Saud were driven out of Riyadh and forced to take refuge in Kuwait.
Establishing a Modern State: Abd al Aziz, the eldest son of Abd ar Rahman, began laying the groundwork for the modern state of Saudi Arabia while exiled in Kuwait. In 1902 he led a small force in a raid against the Al Rashid garrison in Riyadh, successfully gaining a foothold in the Najd. From there, he cultivated his Wahhabi connections, establishing himself as the Al Saud leader and as a Wahhabi imam. By forging agreements with tribes around Riyadh, Abd al Aziz strengthened his position so that the Al Rashid garrison was unable to evict him. During the next 25 years, Abd al Aziz gradually extended his authority and in doing so, laid the foundation for the Saudi state. It was a slow process, highlighted by three milestones. In 1905 Abd al Aziz retook control of Najd. In 1921 he led Wahhabi forces to defeat the Al Rashid at Hail. In culmination, Abd al Aziz conquered the Hijaz in 1924. Thus, after nearly 40 years the Al Saud again controlled Islam’s most holy land.
Once Abd al Aziz controlled the Hijaz, he became a significant leader, not just for Saudi Arabia but for all Islamic peoples. Unlike most other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia existed independent of Western control. That autonomy had been achieved in large part because of the military strength of the radical Ikhwan forces, desert warriors organized by Abd al Aziz and dedicated to promoting Wahhabi Islam. This militant group looked eagerly for the opportunity to fight non-Wahhabi Muslims. With victory achieved, the Ikhwan expected a strictly Wahhabi state. Ultimately, however, Abd al Aziz was forced to reign in the Ikhwan in order to establish a modern state. Abd al Aziz then assembled a diverse and committed political coalition and was able to maintain a delicate political balance between religion and modernization. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became official in 1932 and subsequently faced severe economic constriction in the 1930s. Fortunately, however, following the worldwide depression, geologists made a discovery that significantly buoyed the region’s economic outlook—enormous and easy-to-access deposits of oil.
Abd al Aziz’s Successors: Following Abd al Aziz’s death in 1953, Saud succeeded his father as king in a reign largely characterized by wasteful state expenditures and the polarization of wealth. In 1964 the royal family and ulama, responding to public discontent, deposed Saud and appointed his half-brother, Faisal, as king. King Faisal aggressively pursued modernization, introduced Western technology, and increased public education. His reign (1964−75) witnessed increasing diplomatic complexity both within the Arab world and beyond its borders. When conflict broke out in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia remained on the periphery. In 1967 Saudi Arabia claimed neutrality during the Six-Day War between Arab and Israeli forces. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia again decided not to participate militarily, but it did join the Arab oil boycott of the United States.
External conflicts were coupled with internal threats. In 1975 Faisal fell victim to an assassination plot carried out by one of his nephews. The assassin was only one member of a larger group of discontented royal family members. Another of King Faisal’s nephews had sacrificed his life leading a 1965 attack on Saudi Arabia’s first television station. Saudi officials conducted an extensive investigation into Faisal’s assassination. Although ultimately it was determined that the assassin acted alone, the threat of internal strife loomed over the kingdom, now led by Faisal’s half-brother, Crown Prince Khalid. In 1979 internal revolt once again reared up in Saudi Arabia, as 500 dissidents seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, claiming that Saudi Arabia had abandoned its traditionalist roots in favor of Western corruption. After two weeks of careful planning, the Saudi military overtook the dissidents, and all of the surviving male radicals were beheaded. Far from discounting the dissidents, however, King Khalid made some effort to address their grievances. For example, he formed a consultative council to investigate poor living conditions in the Eastern Province and the repression of Shias. He also recommended increased funding for education, electricity, and sewage projects in poor areas of the country.
Khalid’s half-brother, Crown Prince Fahd, ascended the throne following Khalid’s death after a short illness in June 1982. The crash of oil prices in 1986 brought economic challenges to the entire Middle East region. Saudi Arabia functioned as a stabilizing force in the region throughout the turbulent 1980s. King Fahd played an important role in bringing about a cease-fire between Iraq and Iran in August 1988. He also supported the formation and strengthening of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance of the six Persian Gulf states of the Arabian Peninsula, with headquarters in Riyadh. The Gulf War in 1991 changed regional diplomatic relationships significantly. Before 1991 Saudi Arabia had preached a policy of Arab economic cooperation and peaceful negotiations. The threat of Iraqi imperialism, however, made such a policy obsolete. Saudi Arabia requested the assistance of the United States and a multinational coalition to defend the Saudi border from the Iraqi troops amassed in fallen Kuwait, and King Fahd played a pivotal role in bringing together Western allies with GCC and other Islamic states.
Throughout the 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic and economic relationship with the United States remained strong. But this relationship, while proving advantageous to Saudi Arabia’s global position, aroused criticism from within the Arab world. Islamic fundamentalists decried Saudi Arabia’s liberalizing society and relations with the West. The defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War did help restore Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran, however, and widespread oil prosperity defused many regional tensions that might have otherwise resulted in armed conflict.
King Fahd, who had proved to be an effective leader capable of instituting liberal reforms and strengthening bonds among Arab countries, suffered a massive stroke in 1995. The king survived, but with limited capacities. His half brother, Crown Prince Abd Allah, has served as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since that time. The crown prince has served effectively, but uncertainty surrounding the succession has fostered a contentious and unstable environment within the royal family, as Saudi Arabia confronts continuing external and internal challenges.