Peninsula was occupied by the Abyssinians before
the 6 th century AD. Around AD 576 they were driven out of the
southern regions by the Persians, who made it a territory of their
The year AD 622, which has been adopted as the beginning of the
Muslim era, was important for
the flight of the Prophet Muhammad from his home town of Mecca
to nearby Medina, where he organised his followers before launching
a successful campaign to recapture Mecca.
Many Arab tribes joined Muhammad before his death
in 632 and afterwards the Muslims continued their development
across the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq),
Persia and westwards into Egypt and North Africa.
The towns of Mecca and Medina,
both of which were flourishing cultural and commercial centres
before and after Muhammad, are the holiest cities of Islam and
the Saudis take the responsibility for protecting their integrity
with the utmost sincerity.
Arabia was absorbed into the Turkish Ottoman
Empire during the 16th century, after the capture
of Mecca by the Turks in 1517, but consequent local rulers were
allowed a great deal of autonomy. Under Turkish supervision, successive
Sherifs of Mecca ruled the territory of Hijaz,
which covered the western part of the peninsula including the
Red Sea coast as far south as Yemen, until the beginning of World
In 1914 the British armed forces chief Lord Kitchener offered
the Sheriff of Mecca a deal under which Hijaz would gain independence,
guaranteed by the United Kingdom, on condition that the Sheriff
supported the military campaign against the Turks. The Sheriff
accepted, and after the Turkish defeat, the Kingdom of Hijaz was
accepted as independent at the 1920 Treaty
On the other side of the peninsula, the leading potentate was
Abdul Aziz Ibn
Abdar-Rahman, better known as ‘Ibn Saud’,
leader of the province of Najd. In 1915, the government of India,
then under British rule, acknowledged Najd and some other territories
along the Persian Gulf as possessions of Ibn Saud.
Throughout the 1920's, military conflicts between
Ibn Saud’s troops and forces loyal to the Hashemite King
of Hijaz, Hussein, grew more frequent as the decisive struggle
for control of the peninsula took place.
The British and other Western powers switched their support between
the 2 sides as it suited them. Finally, Ibn Saud pushed out the
Hashemites, and in 1926 was recognised as ruler of the Kingdom
of Hijaz and Najd. In 1932 this developed
into the United Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Hashemites were comforted with the thrones of Iraq
and Transjordan (later Jordan). In 1933 the 1st
explorations began for oil, vast deposits of which were discovered
in the eastern part of the country. This set Saudi Arabia on the
road to its current wealth.
Ibn Saud who ruled as King until his death in 1953, used
the gathering revenues to develop a national infrastructure and
basic state services. Political and social development in the
kingdom, by Western standards at any rate, lagged somewhat behind
economic developments, for example slavery was not eliminated
Ibn Saud’s descendants embrace the dynasty which has since
ruled Saudi Arabia. They are, like most Saudis, supporters to
the Wahhabi sect, which subscribes
to an orthodox variant of Sunni Muslim doctrine expounded by the
18 th century religious scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab.
Islamic laws are strictly imposed
by the mutawwa (religious police). The oil search of the 1930's
brought the United States of America into contact with Saudi Arabia
for the 1st time and they quickly became the country’s principal
However, there was 1 issue on which Saudi and US policies were
implacably opposed, Israel. Washington’s
reliable support for the Jewish state has been a constant source
of friction. This became spectacularly clear in 1973 when Saudi
Arabia and Iran, 2 of the United States of America’s staunchest
allies in the region, led the OPEC cartel in trebling the price
of oil overnight in response to the West’s support for Israel
during the Yom Kippur War.
The period of cool relations with the United States of America
that followed came to an end with the revolution
in Iran in 1979. Iran was perceived to pose a threat to Saudi
Arabia for several reasons, the Shia branch of Islam followed
by the Iranian mullahs is fundamentally opposed to the Sunni Wahhabi
interpretation which prevails in Saudi Arabia, moreover, Iran
is an important strategic force in the Gulf in its own right.
For those reasons, as well as Arab solidarity, Saudi Arabia provided
massive financial support, to the tune of over US $100 million,
to Saddam Hussein’s regime
during the Iran Iraq war, which lasted much of the 1980's.
The Saudis were thus surprised in 1991 when, following the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait, Saddam’s forces seemed
to be poised to strike south and occupy parts of Saudi Arabia.
After early doubts and furious debates within the royal family,
the US led UN coalition was cleared to base its huge forces in
the country prior to the ‘Desert Storm’
military operation which drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait. In the
aftermath, the Saudis backed the US policy of ‘dual containment’
designed to keep both Iran and Iraq in check.
However, the presence of American forces
in Saudi Arabia remained an remarkably sensitive political issue
resented by much of the population. In 2002, as the American government
geared up to launch operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudis
made it clear that they would prefer the Americans to move elsewhere.
They did, and Qatar became the main command and
control centre for the recent US military operations in Iraq and
The change in the Saudi position followed from a major shift in
the country’s domestic politics.
Many factors were at work but the most important is the effective
replacement of King Fahd, who after prolonged illness is effectively
an invalid, by Crown Prince Abdullah.
The Crown Prince
is commonly less pro American than Fahd and takes a harder line
on oil pricing. There has also been considerable friction between
the 2 governments in the wake of the 9 11 terrorist attacks, not
least because the bulk of the hijackers were Saudi nationals.
Abdullah belongs to the generation of leaders
who have governed Saudi Arabia since the death of Abdul Aziz,
all of whom are now in their 70's, there is no clear line of succession
and there may be a devastating power struggle among the 6,000
male descendants who now make up the House of Saud.
The most likely victors are the branch of the family descended
from 1 of Ibn Saud’s wives, bint Sudairi,
who form a powerful clan within the group (commonly known as the
‘Sudairi Seven’). Abdullah is not among them but all,
and several number of their immediate relatives, occupy key ministerial,
administrative and diplomatic posts.
Abdullah has also taken some hesitant steps towards relaxing the
royal family’s political stranglehold, mainly to appease
international opinion and increasingly vocal domestic reformers.
Local government elections with
a limited authorization are planned, probably some time in 2005.