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Saudi Arabia

The flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The color green represents the faith of Islam, while the Arabic Script in white states the Muslim creed: "There is no God but God; Mohammed is the Messenger of God."

The third largest country in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia. The region that makes up this state is perhaps more responsible for shaping modern Arab culture than any other nation on the planet. It is the home of Islam and also to Islam’s most holy two cities- Mecca and Medina. Over the past century, Saudi Arabia has come from being a relatively insular and underdeveloped country into one of the richest in the Middle East. This success, as with most rich countries in the region, is due primarily to its vast oil reserves.

Saudi Arabia makes up nearly eighty percent of the entire Arabian Peninsula. It is slightly more than one fifth the size of the United States and the fourteenth largest country in the world. Although Saudi Arabia is considerably large, the majority of the country is uninhabited due to the hot, arid desert. In fact, the desert covers so much of the landmass that only a mere two percent of the land is actually arable. Most of the population lives along the coasts of the country. The red sea lies to the west of the country, while the Persian Gulf creates the eastern shore. Additionally, Saudi Arabia also has several large volcanic formations. However, these have been dormant for several centuries.

Map of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The first evidence of people in the area now known as Saudi Arabia is of hunter-gatherers that lived off of the plant and animal life they found throughout the peninsula. Previous to the melting of the European ice cap, the peninsula was much less arid and able to support a greater amount of wildlife. However, after this last Ice Age, the Arabian Peninsula underwent a desertification and became much more similar to what it is today.

As civilizations developed out of the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Arabian Peninsula became instrumental for trade in the ancient world. The region that makes up the modern-day country was strategically placed between both the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley and the civilization of ancient Egypt. The people who lived in the southern portion of Saudi Arabia especially profited from this trade. By 1000 BCE, civilization on the Arabian Peninsula peaked due to the vast amounts of wealth that trade brought them. Among the most profitable items were frankincense and myrrh. It was around this time that the Biblical settlement of Sheba arose. The people who lived there actually referred to the kingdom as Saba. The kingdom was so successful during ancient times that Romans referred to the region as Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia.

The ancient Nabataean site of Mada' in Saleh, an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The people of ancient Saudi Arabia maintained their primarily nomadic lifestyle for several hundreds of years. Innovations such as the domesticating of camels created vast improvements in the overall welfare of the people, due to the fact that camels allowed trade to flourish even more in the region. This also brought wealth to the area. The city of Petra was one of these wealthy settlements that existed during the First Century C.E. kingdom of the Nabataeans. Petra is a famous tourist attraction in the country of Jordan due to its treasury, which was carved into the face of a cliff. However, the Nabataeans also created other rock-cut architecture in Saudi Arabia at Mada’in Saleh. The site consists of 131 tombs, carved into a rock face. Mada’in Saleh is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws in a large amount of tourism for the area.

During the Sixth Century, the Arabian Peninsula experienced the birth of the new religion of Islam. The prophet of this new faith, Muhammad, was born in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca in 570. After he began preaching in the year 610 Islam spread extremely quickly over the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula. After the prophet’s death in 632, his successors were also able to defeat powers in regions outside of the Arabian Peninsula, such as the Byzantines and the Persians, even into India.

Although two of the most holy of Muslim cities are located within the modern-day country of Saudi Arabia, the Middle Ages were a time when Muslim power was concentrated in other foreign areas like Egypt and Spain. However, the Arabian Peninsula did not suffer. Trade continued to flourish in the region and, as the birthplace of Islam, the peninsula also experienced a large number of tourists visiting its holy cities. By the Tenth Century, these two cities fell under the control of the Hashemite Sharifs of Mecca. They remained in control of this area, known as the Hejaz, until the Twentieth Century. The Arab and Muslim world also experienced a Golden Age at this time with the proliferation of learning in areas such as mathematics and science.

In the Eighteenth Century, a major religious development would once again shape the history of the country. Wahhabism, a movement within Islam, first began to take shape during this century when its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, began practicing around the year 1744. Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative and sometimes radical form of Islam. Abd-al-Wahhab believed in the purging of impurities from the Muslim faith. It is still the dominant strain of Islam in Saudi Arabia today. The founder of this movement created a powerful alliance with a tribal leader Muhammad ibn Saud, who in turn created the Saudi Dynasty. The Saudi Dynasty would rule under the First Saudi State from 1744 to 1818, but would come into power again in 1824 after a brief defeat to the Ottoman sultan during what is considered the Second Saudi State. However, they did not regain their entire territory, just the Nejd region.

The Riyadh skyline at night with the Kingdom Tower (center).

For the remainder of the Second Saudi State, the Saudis were threatened by a growing power in the area- the Al Rashid of Ha’il. For nearly seventy years the two families were engaged in a civil war over control of the Nejd region, until in 1891, the Saudis were defeated and sent to exile in Kuwait. They would not come back to the area until 1902, and even then held very little power in the shadow of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans were defeated during World War II. A large part of the Ottoman defeat was the Arab Revolt, during which most of the tribes and families on the Arabian Peninsula joined forces against the Empire under the guidance of Britain. This was initially done with the understanding between the two groups that after the war, Britain would support Hussein bin Ali as the leader of a pan-Arabian state. The Saud family did not participate in the attack, yet negotiations between Hussein and the British fell through and allowed the Saudi Dynasty to take control of the country once again. They did this by first securing the city of Riyadh in 1902 and over the next couple of decades securing other cities, such as Mecca and Medina. By 1932 the Saudi leader, King Abdulaziz, declared all of the collected territories to be united under one state, known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Abdulaziz lead the country until his death in 1953. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud. Much like his father, Saud went about the task of bettering the Arab country. One of his most remarkable improvements was in the area of education. Many of the improvements within the country were funded by the great income generated from the oil fields. The life of the royal family and government officials became much more lavish than it previously had been. This was one of the primary reasons that an intense feud between Saud and his brother developed, which led to the deposition of the King in favor of his brother, who took his place as King Faisal in 1964.

Faisal’s reign was also ended, due to family tensions when his nephew, Faisal bin Musa’id, had his uncle-king assassinated in 1975. Faisal’s half-brother, Khalid, then succeeded him to the throne. Under King Khalid, Saudi Arabia was able to further strengthen its infrastructure and also its ties with the western world. Additionally, the country began to become much stricter in its adherence to Islam. For example, all cinemas within the boarders were closed, due to the fact that they were seen as corrupting. Much of this reform was passed after Islamic extremists captured and occupied the Grand Mosque in 1979.

After King Khalid passed away in 1981, he was succeeded by King Fahd. It was under King Fahd that Iraq invaded Kuwait, thus initiating Desert Storm in 1991. King Fahd allowed United States forces into the country and together, liberated Kuwait from Iraq. This act angered many in the Muslim community and is commonly linked towards the rise in terroristic acts since.

The Kaaba in Mecca sits beneath the city's growing skyline.

After Kind Fahd’s death in 2005, his half-brother King Abdullah took to the throne. King Abdullah’s reign has been marked by his vast reforms, especially in the financial sector. During the sweep of protests that spread across the Arab world in 2011, King Abdullah opposed opposition among citizens of Arab countries, as seen in his support of the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. In response to protests within his own country, Abdullah awarded his citizens additional benefits and pardoned many loans.

To this day, democracy is frowned upon in Saudi Arabia. It is the belief of the royal family that governments must be run through consultation, in accordance with Islamic creed. Therefore, it is difficult to foresee an elective government in Saudi Arabia’s near future. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is a country based in tradition and is highly conservative. The culture of the country relies heavily on Islam and has changed little over the past centuries. Daily life in the country is based on religious observance. For example, unlike most western countries, the weekend in Saudi Arabia begins on Thursday so that Friday, the holiest day of the week falls on the weekend. Saudi Arabia in the Twentieth Century has been marked by the struggle between maintaining these traditional aspects of society and becoming a modern world power.

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