Saudi Arabia is in a state of flux. A royal family purge, including the arrests of several high-profile elites; economic malaise, due to a dramatic slump in oil prices; and social reforms, including expanding rights for women, have all combined to create a sense of uncertainty around the kingdom’s future.
But Saudi Arabia, and its previous incarnations, has faced down serious challenges before. Although the modern Saudi state was founded less than a century ago, the Saudi clan has dominated the Arabian Peninsula for nearly three centuries. Various empires and tribes have sought to bring the region under their rule, leading to disintegration and a constant struggle for power throughout much of its history. Only the Saudis have managed to maintain long-term control over much of the Arabian Peninsula.
But the two principal factors that Saudi power rests on – religion and oil – are not what they used to be. The peninsula is thus likely to fragment once again – a condition that was the historical norm prior to the Saudis’ reign. In this report, we look at the foundations of the kingdom, the rise of the Saudis on the Arabian Peninsula and how the country got to where it is today.
Defining the Arabian Peninsula
The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, which stretches from the Levant in the north to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea in the south, and from the Red Sea in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. Contemporary Saudi Arabia is composed of two main, very distinct regions: Hejaz, a cosmopolitan area located along the Red Sea, and Nejd, an arid, desert area consisting of multiple valleys buried in the interior of the peninsula. Nejd begins where the mountains of Hejaz taper off and extends to the oasis region of Hasa along the eastern coast. The Nafud and Rub al-Khali deserts constitute its northern and southern peripheries, respectively.
In 622, the entire peninsula was brought under the control of the first ever Muslim polity (founded in Medina while the Prophet Muhammad was still alive), but the area broke up after his death a decade later. Immediately after assuming his position as the first caliph, Abu Bakr faced rebellion from several tribes, many of which hailed from Nejd. Though these rebellions were put down, Arabia would quickly lose its significance within the caliphate as it extended its reach into the areas taken from the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. The political capital shifted to Damascus and then to Baghdad, leaving Arabia – particularly Hejaz – as an important religious component of the caliphate but far from its political center.
For much of Islamic history, the various imperial dominions that held power in the Middle East – the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Ayubids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans – sought control over the Hejaz region, which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, because of its religious significance. Powers that dominated the Persian Gulf exercised influence on the east coast of the peninsula. But Nejd was an obscure, mysterious and foreboding place located deep in the interior of Arabia and closed off from the rest of the world. All of this would change in the mid-18th century, when the Saudi clan and the Wahhabi sect emerged from the region.
Saudi Rule Emerges
For centuries, the tribes in Nejd constantly fought for power. Meanwhile, beginning in the late 10th century, Mecca and Medina in Hejaz were managed by Arab rulers known as sharifs from the Hashemite clan (whose descendants rule modern-day Jordan). It was not until the Ottomans established their control on both the west and the east coasts of the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-16th century that Nejd became the focus of a major power. The empire wanted to control the interior of the peninsula, but the inhospitable terrain and low return on investment made it a low priority.
The Ottomans dedicated far more resources to expanding into Europe and pushing northward beyond the Black Sea basin. Nevertheless, they had an opportunity to expand into Nejd because they controlled both coasts, since the region was far more accessible from Hasa in the east than it was from the west. (Previous empires maintained power only in Hejaz.) But the Ottomans were held back by their need to focus on the wars with the Safavid Empire north of the Persian Gulf.
By the late 17th century, Ottoman power began to wane. The empire’s authority in Arabia never extended far beyond the coasts. In fact, its local allies on the coasts, including the sharifs in Hejaz, became increasingly independent. By the early 18th century, tribes from both Hejaz in the west and Hasa in the east tried to expand into Nejd, heightening the tribal conflict in the region. Meanwhile, the decline of the Ottoman Empire left the economy in Arabia in shambles. The tribes in control of the oasis towns of Uyaina, Qasim, Diriyah and Riyadh sought to defend their holdings.
Diriyah, located on the outskirts of Riyadh, became a pivotal town when Saud bin Muhammad, the founder of the Saudi dynasty, became its emir in the 1710s. When he was killed in 1725, his son, Muhammad bin Saud, succeeded him as emir, but not before a bitter power struggle involving tribal warlords from neighboring areas. An economic downturn led to a decline in commerce, which intensified tribal warfare and anarchy in the interior. Another generation would pass before order would be established.
During this time, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the ultraconservative branch of Islam known as Wahhabism or Salafism, returned to his native Nejd after studying at seminaries in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt. He began preaching a puritanical interpretation of Islam, which conflicted with the prevailing Sunni creeds at the time.
He was forced to flee and, in 1744, settled in Diriyah, in Nejd region. He entered into a pact with its ruler, Muhammad bin Saud. This was the foundation of the alliance between the Saudis and the Wahhabis that continues today. Together, they oversaw the founding of the First Saudi State in 1744 and launched a jihad to spread the new ideology throughout Nejd and beyond. This was a turning point in the history of the Saudis; without the Wahhabi religious ideology, they would have been just another warlord clan among many in Nejd. The goal was to first conquer all of Nejd and then move on to Hejaz, freeing it from Ottoman rule. By 1808, both regions had been brought under the authority of the First Saudi State.
The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance posed a major threat to the Ottomans, whose power had declined by the early 19th century. The Ottomans had lost control of Egypt to an Albanian governor, Muhammad Ali Pasha, on whom they had to rely to confront the Saudi threat. In 1811, Muhammad Ali Pasha sent a task force led by his son Ibrahim Pasha to retake Hejaz from the Saudis.
After seven years of war, the Egyptians destroyed the First Saudi State. The Egyptians, however, weren’t interested in maintaining an enduring presence in Nejd. This enabled the Saudis to regroup six years later under the leadership of Turki bin Abdullah, the grandson of Muhammad bin Saud, and seize control of Riyadh from the invading forces, leading to the establishment of the Second Saudi State in 1824. This state was much smaller and weaker than its predecessor because of internal strife and the Egyptians and Ottomans’ support of rival tribes, especially the al-Rasheeds of the northern Hail region. In 1891, the al-Rasheeds were triumphant and the Saudis were driven into exile in Kuwait.
Founding the Modern Kingdom
A decade later in 1901, Abdulaziz bin Abdulrehman, the future founder of the modern Saudi kingdom and the son of the last ruler of the Second Saudi State, sought to reconquer the lands of his forefathers. He took control of Riyadh in 1902 but didn’t seize the east coast from the Ottomans until 1913. Abdulaziz also wanted to take control of Kuwait, but the British opposed the move. They didn’t want to jeopardize relations with other rulers they supported, especially the Hashemites, who had helped London defeat the Ottoman Empire.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire along with the British and French move to divide their Arab holdings weakened the position of the Hashemites, and in 1923, the British allowed Abdulaziz to move on Hejaz. Until then, Abdulaziz had been taking control of territory around the Hejaz region, including the region of Asir – south of Hejaz and north of Yemen – which he conquered in 1920. But six years later, his forces took Hejaz. With the holy cities firmly in their hands, the Saudis could now claim to be not just rulers of an Islamic state but also leaders of the Islamic world.
In 1927, the British recognized the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd via the Treaty of Jeddah. The two regions would remain separate domains for five years, at which point they were formally unified during the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By the early 1930s, the Saudis were in firm control of much of the Arabian Peninsula. This was a historic moment, for until then, no single regime since the time of the prophet could claim authority over the entire area.
But the kingdom was still a weak state that relied on the British for its security needs. Islam alone would not be enough to maintain stability and unity in the country over the long term, especially given the fragmentation of the Muslim world. The third Saudi incarnation was threatened by the emergence of competing forces, especially secular Arab nationalism in Egypt and Baathism in Iraq and Syria, during the interwar period.
The Saudis had tried and failed twice before to hold on to control of a Saudi state. What made this time different, however, was the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938 by Standard Oil. Production did not begin until 1949, and it took another decade for the oil sector to be nationalized, but the Saudis eventually became the world’s largest producers of crude oil. Together, the country’s rich oil reserves and religious primacy in the Muslim world helped sustain the Saudi monarchy for decades. In addition, the wealth created from the oil sector enabled the kingdom to project power and influence throughout the region and beyond. Following the end of World War II, the United States effectively became the Saudis’ security guarantor, making up for the fact that the kingdom’s military, despite its massive oil wealth, was weak.
Abdulaziz bin Abdulrehman didn’t live to see his kingdom flourish. His sons took over the monarchy after his death in 1953, but they had many internal problems to contend with – both from within the royal family and from radical elements of the religious establishment. These resulted in multiple crises over the decades, including the 1964 forced abdication of Abdulaziz’s first successor, King Saud bin Abdulaziz; the 1975 assassination of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz, who succeeded Saud; the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious extremists; dissident movements in the 1990s; and the rise of al-Qaida in the 2000s and the Islamic State in the 2010s.
To be sure, the Saudis have faced significant domestic crises in the past. But they now must also deal with numerous external problems: the proliferation of jihadism, the erosion of state authority in the Arab world, the rise of Iran and its Shiite Arab allies, an emergent Turkey and the divergence of interests with the United States. All of this comes at a time when the kingdom is at a historic impasse, with power shifting to the third generation of Saudi monarchs. Making matters worse is that funds from the kingdom’s most important revenue source, oil, are drying up because of depressed oil prices.
Members of the Saudi royal family perform prayer on the first day of Eid al-Fitr in the Great Mosque in the old City of Riyadh on Aug. 19, 2012. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The Saudis are having to burn through cash to maintain stability at home. With a large youth population – at least two-thirds of all citizens are under the age of 30 – the social and cultural fabric of the country is shifting. Religion unified warring tribes in the past, but its less likely to hold together the more modern and youthful kingdom that’s emerging today. If anything, it can be used by jihadist extremists to challenge the Saudis’ leadership role in the Muslim world.
For these reasons, the crown prince and future king, Mohammed bin Salman, has been making unprecedented moves against the religious establishment as well as the royal family itself, including imposing social reforms and arranging the arrests of dozens of princes and senior officials. For now, it seems the young prince doesn’t face any serious resistance, but it’s still early in the process. Whether the Saudis can survive this test as they have survived other challenges over the past 300 years remains to be seen.
Regardless of what happens to the Saudi monarchy, the Arabian Peninsula as a whole is already showing signs of fracture; the war in Yemen and the Arab blockade of Qatar are just two signs of this fragmentation. The crisis in Saudi Arabia threatens to accelerate that process. But this is nothing new; the relative resilience of the Saudi regimes of the past 300 years have actually been an anomaly.
Arabia has been geopolitically significant at two points in history: in the 7th century with the rise of Islam and in the 20th century with the discovery of oil. At other points, only the region’s coastal areas were relevant. The weakening of the Saudi state will return the peninsula to this state of affairs, with the coasts once again becoming the centers of power and the interior becoming a broken remnant of its former self.