Saudi Arabia Historical Background

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Pre-Islamic Period:

By 1000 B.C., southern Arabia had evolved significantly as a result of 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, Arab 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.

Early Islam:

The birth of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 570 forever shaped Saudi Arabia. Today, many Arabs refer to the era 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. His life and ministry 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. Although the Prophet did not appoint a spiritual successor, 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 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 (661–750) established a hereditary line of caliphs centered in Damascus. The Abbasids, claiming a different hereditary line, overthrew the Umayyads in 750 and moved the caliphate to Baghdad. Although the spiritual significance of Mecca and Medina remained constant, the political importance of Arabia in the Islamic world waned.

The Al Saud and Wahhabi Islam:
The Al Saud family emerged as the dominant factor in Saudi Arabia’s history. The clan’s origins can be traced to Najd, near Riyadh, beginning in about 1500. 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 a political partner in Muhammad ibn Saud, and the two 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. 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. 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, and 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 regained 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. 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; the Al Saud were driven out of Riyadh and forced to take refuge in Kuwait.

Establishing a Modern State:
Abd al Aziz laid 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 Najd. From there, he cultivated his Wahhabi connections, establishing himself as the Al Saud leader and as a Wahhabi imam. During the next 25 years, Abd al Aziz gradually extended his authority. This slow process culminated in the conquest of the Hijaz in 1924. Thus, after nearly 40 years the Al Saud again controlled Islam’s most holy land.

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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. With victory achieved, the Ikhwan expected a strictly Wahhabi state. Ultimately, however, Abd al Aziz moved to rein in the Ikhwan. He 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 an official state 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. 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 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. 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. Faced with the threat of Iraqi imperialism following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia requested the assistance of the United States and a multinational coalition to defend the Saudi border, 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, while proving advantageous to Saudi Arabia’s global position, it aroused criticism in the Arab world and exposed Saudi Arabia to the ire of radical Islamists. Nevertheless, widespread oil prosperity defused many regional tensions.

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. He survived, but with limited capacities. His half-brother, Crown Prince Abd Allah (Abdullah), served as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia until formally becoming king upon King Fahd’s death on August 1, 2005. King Abd Allah has served effectively in the face of continuing external and internal challenges, including terrorism, Islamic extremism, regional instability, and burgeoning domestic unrest. In particular, the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, brought unwanted attention to the Saudi connection to terrorism, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The Saudi government has, for the most part, cooperated with the United States in fighting the spread of terrorism and Islamic extremism in the region. Its traditional ties to the United States have grown closer as a result of increased U.S. emphasis on security over political reform in Saudi Arabia since the September 11 attacks.

Democratic Reforms:
Since 1995, Saudi Arabia has made subtle changes in its governance structure. Concerns over balancing the various factions of the royal family led to the creation of new advisory groups and a slight diffusion of power. In 2003 the government announced a reorganization of the Council of Ministers and then plans to create municipal councils and to hold democratic elections. Originally scheduled for October 2004, the first stage of the municipal elections finally took place February 10, 2005. In general, the candidates exhibited far more enthusiasm than the voters. More than 1,800 candidates sought election to 592 seats, but only about 25 percent of eligible male voters (and possibly as few as 15–20 percent) cast votes. While some observers viewed the elections as a mark of progress, critics concluded that the poor turnout reflected a general dissatisfaction with the limited extent of the legislative reforms.

~Library of Congress~

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