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 century AD.
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.
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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 Kingdom.
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 Hijaz.
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 two countries.
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 is governed.
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 representatives.
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 house.
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 royal house.
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 social tension.
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.