Today's Saudi Arabia was established in 1932. The first
Saudi state was established almost two hundred years earlier
in 1744, but people have lived in the area for about 20,000
years. Saudi Arabia's history is marked by the country's
geopolitical position, home to Islam's two holiest sites,
Mecca and Medina, as well as major oil deposits.
The Arabian Peninsula has been inhabited for thousands of
years, with small, isolated communities based on coastal
trade and with striking nomadic people who were fed mainly
by camel teams inland.
It is believed that this area, which today is mostly
desert, was fertile in ancient times, and it is believed
that the rich mine kingdom was established there as early as
the 12th century before our time. This was followed by the
Sabian and Himyaric empires, which were mostly loose
federations of city states, and which existed until the 5th
The southern part of Arabia gained great importance as a
trading center, and came into contact with both the Persian
and the Roman Empire. The area was never subject to these,
but parts of it were for a time ruled by the Abyssinians. See
abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Saudi Arabia.
In the 600s, Islam grew in the western part of Arabia, in
Hijaz, around the cities of Taif, Medina and Mecca. Hijaz
was then a center of trade between the Byzantine Empire,
Egypt and the East, thereby strengthening its political
position and independence.
The association created by Prophet Muhammad quickly
disintegrated, and it was not until the Ottoman occupation
of the 16th century that the whole of the Arabian Peninsula
was united under one rule, but did not really unite as a
single entity. The Ottomans ruled through governors and
local families - and partly in extension of their rule in
Egypt and Mesopotamia respectively. On the other hand, they
never took control of the interior of Arabia - Najd - where
local emirs ruled cities and oases, and tribal associations
maintained independence. Neither did European powers
establish control over Arabia.
The King's House and the Wahhabites
The Saudi royal house originated in Najd, where the Saud
family came to power in the 18th century. Dynasty founder
Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin was followed by his death in
1747, followed by his son Muhammad ibn Saud. He gave asylum
to the founder of the Puritan Islamic movement Wahhabism,
the reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who was committed
to bringing Islam back to its original.
The alliance between the house of Saud and the Wahhabites
was a prerequisite for the later power of the Saud clan, and
became a foundation for the modern state formation of Saudi
Arabia. Wahhabite influence spread, and in 1802 the
Wahhabites invaded Taif, 1803 Mecca and 1804 Medina in
Hijaz. In 1806 they also controlled Yanbu and Jeddah.
The Saudi-Wahhabi Emirate took control of much of the
Gulf coast, including Qatar and Bahrain, and challenged the
Ottoman regime in Hijaz, Iraq and Syria. The fear that
Wahhabite teachings would spread and their political power
be widened led Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali to send an army
to Arabia in 1811. The campaign lasted for eight years,
ending the defeat of the Wahhabites and occupation of
Arabia. Riyadh, the capital of Najd, fell, and both Najd and
Hijaz came under the control of the Ottoman sultan.
In 1841, the Egyptian forces withdrew to Hijaz, leaving
Najd to local rulers.
The foundation of the later Saudi kingdom was laid during
a subsequent power struggle in the central parts of the
peninsula in the 19th century, when a power struggle was
fought between the Saudi and Rashidi clans. The latter had
the support of the Ottomans, while the Saudis received
support from Kuwait and thus indirectly from the United
The Al Saud clan initially lost, but after eleven years
in exile in Kuwait, Abdulaziz captured ibn Saud in 1902
Riyadh from Ibn Rashidi and proclaimed himself ruler of Najd.
He fortified the Saud dynasty at the expense of other emirs
and became known by the name of Ibn Saud. Through
colonization of outer territories, he gathered what later
became the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This happened at the same time as the UK began to tighten
its grip on the region as a sphere of interest, by placing
several emirates under its protection as protectorates. With
the outbreak of the First World War, the British expanded
their interest to include the interior of the Arabian
Peninsula as well - which strengthened the house of Saud and
the state-building process.
In 1915, Ibn Saud signed an agreement with the United
Kingdom and gained British recognition for Najd's
independence, against renouncing aggression against or
claiming emirates under British protection. In 1916, Hussein
of Mecca declared himself King of Hijaz, with Britain's
support - against Hussein gathering Arab support against the
Ottomans. The conflict between Sharif Hussein and Ibn Saud
ended with war, with the former standing without British
support, and the Saudis conquering Mecca in 1924 and Jeddah
in 1925. In January 1926, Ibn Saud declared himself ruler of
The rivalry between Ibn Saud and Ibn Rashid also led to
new acts of war during and after the First World War, but
without outside support, Ibn Rashid lost the battle. Ibn
Saud thus became the sultan of Najd and king of Hijaz, and
was recognized as such by European powers. This double
kingdom, along with Hasa and Asir, became the independent
kingdom of Saudi Arabia, September 23, 1932.
Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that itself was
never invaded or colonized. By contrast, a colonization
policy was the basis for uniting what became the new state,
and resistance - especially from Bedouins - was suppressed.
Some of the kingdom's boundaries were only finally
established at the turn of the century.
In 1934, there was a brief border war between Saudi
Arabia and Yemen, which the Saudis won. A new border war
with South Yemen took place in 1969, and in the 1990s there
was occasionally a tense relationship between Saudi Arabia
and Yemen. In 1997 there were border crossings between the
King Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by his son
Saud bin Abdulaziz. In 1958, following pressure from the
royal family, he transferred extensive power to his brother,
Crown Prince Faisal, who took over as king in 1964, when
King Saud was forced to abdicate.
In the same period there was a power struggle inside the
royal house, and a royal opposition group, The Free Princes,
was established in exile. Two coup attempts against the king
were revealed in 1969. King Faisal was assassinated by a
nephew in 1975 and was followed by his half-brother, Crown
Prince Khalid. When King Khalid died in 1982, he was
succeeded by his younger brother Fahd. King Fahd died in
2005 after several years of illness, after which his
brother, Abdullah, succeeded him as king. Abdullah, as Crown
Prince, had in effect ruled the country since 1995, when the
king was hit by blows. After Abdullah's death in 2015, he
was succeeded by his half-brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Saudi Arabia is uniquely governed by the king and the
king's inner core; there is no national assembly, and
political parties are not allowed. Some liberalization took
place in 1992, when the king established an advisory body
with 60 (later increased to 150) designated members and
local councils that gave the provinces some degree of local
power. At the same time, a new law of limited scope was
adopted that safeguarded people's civil rights and
supplemented Islamic law, Sharia, under which Saudi Arabia
The first step towards representative government was
taken in 2005, when the first local elections were held, and
won by moderate Islamists. Women did not have the
opportunity to take part in the elections. The first time
women got their right to vote was in local elections in
2015. Then Saudi Arabia also got its first female elected
Saudi Arabia had a relatively high degree of political
stability for many years, but the coup attempts in 1969 and
increased criticism of the royal family in the 1990s, as
well as militant resistance in the 2000s, cast doubt on the
stability. A serious crisis occurred in 1979, when about 250
armed supporters of a Sunni Muslim extremist group occupied
the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca. Conservative
influence over Saudi policy increased in subsequent years,
which, among other things, affected women's rights.
Opposition to the Saudi regime also comes from the Shia
minority east of the country, as well as from a more liberal
opposition, moderate Islamists and from extreme Sunnis.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Saudi Arabia
received huge revenues from oil and gas exports. The
modernization this brought with it contributed to political
and social tensions in the most culturally conservative of
the Arab states. An increasingly materialistic way of life,
as well as close political contact with the West, does not
harmonize with Puritan Wahhabism, which remains strong.
Radical Islamists view the royal house as corrupt, which
has been particularly pronounced after the year 2000 in a
militant opposition to the royal house. Among the critics
was al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, even Saudi by birth. He
criticized Saudi Arabia for, among other things, allowing US
bases in the country after the 1991 Gulf War. A total of 15
of the 19 hijackers who took part in the September 11, 2001
actions were Saudi.
Militant Islamists, primarily al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula (AQAP), also prevailed in Saudi Arabia from 2003,
including two attacks by suicide bombers on civilian housing
complexes with many foreign residents. In 2004, the US
Consulate in Jeddah was attacked. That same year, the
suspected leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz
al-Muqin, was killed in clashes with security forces.
A significant Shi'a minority east of Saudi Arabia, with
contact with its influential faiths in Iran and Iraq, is
considered a potentially destabilizing factor. Saudi Shiites
have been behind riots that have been beaten. In 2016, the
Shiite scholar Nimr al-Nimr was executed after being
convicted of, among other things, rioting.
In Wahhabism, which belongs to the Sunni direction of
Islam, Shi'ism is heresy. Religious tolerance in Saudi
Arabia is low and no religions other than Islam are allowed.
The first oil exploration license was granted to Standard
Oil of California, later Arabian American Oil Company (
Aramco), in 1933. Exploration began in 1935, commercial
extraction began in 1938, with exports from 1939. For many
years, Aramco played a very central role in modernizing
Saudi Arabia; not only by providing large revenues to the
state - in fact the royal house - but also by providing
basic infrastructure development.
The strong role of US oil interests in the country
weakened Britain's influence in Saudi Arabia, which became
the US's closest connection in the Arab world, also
militarily. This was expressed during the second Gulf War in
1991, when Saudi Arabia became the most important marching
zone for the liberation of Kuwait and the invasion of Iraq.
The US built up its military presence in the country and
maintained it after the war. The presence of hundreds of
thousands of foreign soldiers, and a large number of media
workers, helped to open up the Saudi society. This exposure
is attributed to some of the explanation for the modest
movement in a more liberal direction after 1991. At the same
time, this gave rise to increased opposition to the royal
The rise of modern, urban and industrialized Saudi Arabia
took place especially from the 1970s, with sharply increased
revenues from oil exports and a more changing head of state
in King Faisal. Among other things, he helped promote
education, including for women, and implemented several
economic, social and bureaucratic reforms. The large revenue
allowed the development of social services, the
establishment of public jobs and the introduction of
subsidies, which benefited the broad strata of the
population - and which consolidated the position of the
Saudi Arabia is governed by the King's House, which has
provided minimal insight into the state's finances, and
which consumes a significant portion of its revenue. Despite
industrial travel and agricultural development, Saudi Arabia
has remained heavily dependent on revenues from oil and gas
exports, and thus on world market prices. With its strong
role in OPEC, Saudi Arabia has played a key role in
controlling production volume and price development, not
least during and after the 1973 oil embargo on the West.
Just as drastically rising prices in the early 1970s led
to large revenue increases and investments, price declines
in the 1980s led to loss of income and tightening. Saudi
Arabia has not only invested in a modern infrastructure and
national heavy industry, it has also built up an advanced
and costly defense. A significant part of the physical
development of modern Saudi Arabia has been done by guest
workers, most of them from South Asia and other countries in
the Middle East. Gradually it has been required to secure
more jobs for Saudis, to reduce unemployment and reduce
Saudi Arabia did not participate in the first Gulf War
between Iraq and Iran in 1980–88, even though the country
was partying for Iraq. In the second Gulf War in 1991, Saudi
Arabia remained at the center of allied action against Iraq
to liberate Kuwait, both as a base area and as a seat of the
Kuwaiti government in exile. Saudi Arabia also helped other
Islamic countries join forces with the Allied force.
After the war, Saudi Arabia, by providing military
facilities at the disposal of the United States, became one
of the guarantors of Kuwait's independence. The reason for
Saudi Arabia's involvement was that the country looked
threatened by a possible further territorial expansion from
Iraq when Kuwait was invaded and annexed. While Iraq invaded
Kuwait, the country deployed forces along the Saudi border.
Saudi Arabia's motive for participating in an allied
operation to liberate Kuwait was therefore also justified in
securing its own borders. The first US troops to arrive in
Saudi Arabia after the invasion of Kuwait were as much a
strengthening of Saudi Arabia's security as a first step in
the Allied force build-up.
The bulk of the war effort was made from Saudi territory.
Saudi Arabia itself participated in the war and, like
Israel, became a target for Iraqi scud missiles. In January
1991, Iraqi forces crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and
occupied the city of Ras al-Khafji, before being defeated by
Saudi, Qatari and US forces. After the war, some US branches
remained in the country, and the United States became a
guarantor of Saudi Arabia's security, but internal
resistance to close relations helped Saudi Arabia not
support the US-led war on Iraq in 2003.
As a result of Jordan's and Yemen's support for Iraq,
Saudi assistance to Jordan stopped, and up to 800,000
foreign workers from Yemen returned home. The support of the
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was also halted as
a result of the PLO's support for Iraq. Relations between
PLO and Saudi Arabia have since improved.