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Saudi Arabia - History

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.

The birth of the Prophet Muhammad in AD 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:40:20 ZULU