History of Saudi Arabia
History of Saudi Arabia ©HistoryMaps

1727 - 2024

History of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's history as a nation state began in 1727 with the rise of the Al Saud dynasty and the formation of the Emirate of Diriyah . This area, known for its ancient cultures and civilizations, is significant for early human activity traces . Islam, emerging in the 7th century, saw rapid territorial expansion post-Muhammad's death in 632, leading to the establishment of several influential Arab dynasties.

Four regions—Hejaz, Najd, Eastern Arabia, and Southern Arabia—formed modern-day Saudi Arabia, unified in 1932 by Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman (Ibn Saud). He began his conquests in 1902, establishing Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy. The discovery of petroleum in 1938 transformed it into a major oil producer and exporter.

Abdulaziz's rule (1902–1953) was followed by successive reigns of his sons, each contributing to Saudi Arabia's evolving political and economic landscape. Saud faced royal opposition; Faisal (1964–1975) led during a period of oil-fueled growth; Khalid witnessed the 1979 Grand Mosque seizure; Fahd (1982–2005) saw increased internal tensions and the 1991 Gulf War alignment; Abdullah (2005–2015) initiated moderate reforms; and Salman (since 2015) reorganized government power, largely into the hands of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been influential in legal, social, and economic reforms and the Yemeni Civil War intervention.

Pre-Islamic Arabia
Lahkmids & Ghassanids. ©Angus McBride
3000 BCE Jan 1 - 632

Pre-Islamic Arabia


Pre-Islamic Arabia, before Islam's emergence in 610 CE, was a region with diverse civilizations and cultures. This period is known through archaeological evidence, external accounts, and later Islamic historians' recordings of oral traditions. Key civilizations included the Thamud (around 3000 BCE to 300 CE) and Dilmun (end of the fourth millennium to around 600 CE).[1] From the second millennium BCE,[2] Southern Arabia housed kingdoms like the Sabaeans, Minaeans, and Eastern Arabia was home to Semitic-speaking populations.

Archaeological explorations have been limited, with indigenous written sources primarily being inscriptions and coins from Southern Arabia. External sources from Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and others provide additional information. These regions were integral to Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade, with major kingdoms like the Sabaeans, Awsan, Himyar, and the Nabateans prospering.

Hadhramaut's first inscriptions date back to the 8th century BCE, though external references to it appear in the 7th century BCE. Dilmun is mentioned in Sumerian cuneiform from the end of the 4th millennium BCE.[3] The Sabaean civilization, influential in Yemen and parts of Eritrea and Ethiopia, lasted from 2000 BCE to the 8th century BCE, later conquered by the Himyarites.[4]

Awsan, another important South Arabian kingdom, was destroyed in the 7th century BCE by the Sabaean king Karib'il Watar. The Himyarite state, dating from 110 BCE, eventually dominated Arabia until 525 CE. Their economy was heavily based on agriculture and trade, particularly in frankincense, myrrh, and ivory.

The Nabataean origins are unclear, with their first definite appearance in 312 BCE. They controlled significant trade routes and were known for their capital, Petra.

The Lakhmid Kingdom, founded by Yemeni immigrants in the 2nd century, was an Arab Christian state in Southern Iraq. Similarly, the Ghassanids, migrating from Yemen to southern Syria in the early 3rd century, were South Arabian Christian tribes.[5]

From 106 CE to 630 CE, northwestern Arabia was part of the Roman Empire as Arabia Petraea.[6] A few nodal points were controlled by Iranian Parthian and Sassanian empires. Pre-Islamic religious practices in Arabia included polytheism, ancient Semitic religions, Christianity, Judaism, Samaritanism, Mandaeism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and occasionally Hinduism and Buddhism.

Arabia Petraea
Arabia Petraea ©Angus McBride
106 Jan 1 - 632

Arabia Petraea

Petra, Jordan

Arabia Petraea, also known as Rome's Arabian Province, was established in the 2nd century as a frontier province of the Roman Empire. It encompassed the former Nabataean Kingdom, covering the southern Levant, the Sinai Peninsula, and northwestern Arabian Peninsula, with Petra as its capital. Its borders were defined by Syria to the north, Judaea (merged with Syria from 135 CE) and Egypt to the west, and the rest of Arabia, known as Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, to the south and east.

Emperor Trajan annexed the territory, and unlike other eastern provinces like Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, Arabia Petraea remained part of the Roman Empire well beyond Trajan's rule. The province's desert border, the Limes Arabicus, was significant for its location adjacent to the Parthian hinterland. Arabia Petraea produced Emperor Philippus around 204 CE.

As a frontier province, it included areas populated by Arabic tribes. While it faced attacks and challenges from the Parthians and Palmyrenes, Arabia Petraea did not experience the constant incursions seen in other Roman frontier areas like Germany and North Africa. Furthermore, it did not have the same level of entrenched Hellenized cultural presence that characterized other eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.

Spread of Islam
Muslim Conquest. ©HistoryMaps
570 Jan 1

Spread of Islam

Mecca Saudi Arabia

The early history of Mecca is not well-documented,[7] with the first non-Islamic reference appearing in 741 CE, after Prophet Muhammad's death, in the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle. This source mistakenly locates Mecca in Mesopotamia instead of the Hejaz region of western Arabia, where archaeological and textual sources are scarce.[8]

Medina, on the other hand, has been inhabited since at least the 9th century BCE.[9] By the 4th century CE, it was home to Arab tribes from Yemen and three Jewish tribes: the Banu Qaynuqa, the Banu Qurayza, and Banu Nadir.[10]

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca around 570 CE and began his ministry there in 610 CE. He migrated to Medina in 622 CE, where he united Arabian tribes under Islam. Following his death in 632 CE, Abu Bakr became the first caliph, succeeded by Umar, Uthman ibn al-Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. This period marked the formation of the Rashidun Caliphate.

Under the Rashidun and the following Umayyad Caliphate, Muslims expanded their territory significantly, from the Iberian Peninsula to India. They overcame the Byzantine army and toppled the Persian Empire, shifting the Muslim world's political focus to these newly acquired territories. Despite these expansions, Mecca and Medina remained central to Islamic spirituality. The Quran mandates the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca for all capable Muslims. The Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, with the Kaaba, and the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, containing Muhammad's tomb, have been pivotal pilgrimage sites since the 7th century.[11]

Following the collapse of the Umayyad Empire in 750 CE, the region that would become Saudi Arabia largely returned to traditional tribal governance, which persisted after the initial Muslim conquests. This area was characterized by a fluctuating landscape of tribes, tribal emirates, and confederations, often lacking long-term stability.[12]

Muawiyah I, the first Umayyad caliph and a native of Mecca, invested in his hometown by constructing buildings and wells.[13] During the Marwanid period, Mecca evolved into a cultural hub for poets and musicians. Despite this, Medina held greater significance for a substantial portion of the Umayyad era, as it was the residence of the burgeoning Muslim aristocracy.[13]

The reign of Yazid I saw significant turmoil. Abd Allah bin al-Zubair's revolt led to Syrian troops entering Mecca. This period witnessed a catastrophic fire that damaged the Kaaba, which Ibn al-Zubair subsequently reconstructed.[13] In 747, a Kharidjit rebel from Yemen briefly seized Mecca without resistance but was soon overthrown by Marwan II.[13] Finally, in 750, control of Mecca and the larger caliphate transitioned to the Abbasids.[13]

Ottoman Arabia
Ottoman Arabia ©HistoryMaps
1517 Jan 1 - 1918

Ottoman Arabia


From 1517, under Selim I, the Ottoman Empire began integrating key regions of what would become Saudi Arabia. This expansion included the Hejaz and Asir regions along the Red Sea and the al-Hasa region on the Persian Gulf coast, which were among the most populous areas. While the Ottomans claimed the interior, their control was mostly nominal, varying with the central authority's fluctuating strength over four centuries.[14]

In the Hejaz, the Sharifs of Mecca retained a significant degree of autonomy, although Ottoman governors and garrisons were often present in Mecca. The control of the al-Hasa region on the eastern side changed hands; it was lost to Arab tribes in the 17th century and later regained by the Ottomans in the 19th century. Throughout this period, the interior regions continued to be governed by numerous tribal leaders, maintaining a system similar to that of previous centuries.[14]

1727 - 1818
First Saudi State
First Saudi State: Emirate of Diriyah
A pivotal moment occurred in 1744 when Muhammad ibn Saud, the tribal leader of Ad-Dir'iyyah near Riyadh, formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement. ©HistoryMaps
1727 Jan 1 00:01 - 1818

First Saudi State: Emirate of Diriyah

Diriyah Saudi Arabia

The Saudi dynasty's foundation in central Arabia dates back to 1727. A pivotal moment occurred in 1744 when Muhammad ibn Saud, the tribal leader of Ad-Dir'iyyah near Riyadh, formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab,[15] the founder of the Wahhabi movement.[16] This alliance in the 18th century provided a religious and ideological basis for Saudi expansion and continues to underpin Saudi Arabian dynastic rule.

The First Saudi State, established in 1727 around Riyadh, expanded rapidly. Between 1806 and 1815, it conquered much of what is now Saudi Arabia, including Mecca in 1806[17] and Medina in April 1804.[18] However, the growing power of the Saudis alarmed the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Mustafa IV directed his viceroy in Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha, to retake the region. Ali's sons, Tusun Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha, successfully defeated the Saudi forces in 1818, significantly diminishing the Al Saud's power.[19]

Wahhabi War: Ottoman/Egyptian-Saudi War
Wahhabi War ©HistoryMaps
1811 Jan 1 - 1818 Sep 15

Wahhabi War: Ottoman/Egyptian-Saudi War

Arabian Peninsula

The Wahhabi Wars (1811–1818) began with the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II ordering Muhammad Ali of Egypt to attack the Wahhabi state. Muhammad Ali's modernized military forces faced the Wahhabis, leading to significant conflicts.[20] Key events in the conflict included the capture of Yanbu in 1811, the Battle of Al-Safra in 1812, and the capture of Medina and Mecca by Ottoman forces between 1812 and 1813. Despite a peace treaty in 1815, the war resumed in 1816. The Najd Expedition (1818) led by Ibrahim Pasha resulted in the Siege of Diriyah and the eventual destruction of the Wahhabi state.[21] Following the war, prominent Saudi and Wahhabi leaders were executed or exiled by the Ottomans, reflecting their deep resentment towards the Wahhabi movement. Ibrahim Pasha then conquered additional territories, and the British Empire supported these efforts to secure trade interests.[22] The Wahhabi movement's suppression was not entirely successful, leading to the establishment of the Second Saudi State in 1824.

1824 - 1891
Second Saudi State
Second Saudi State: Emirate of Nejd
Saudi warrior on horseback. ©HistoryMaps
1824 Jan 1 - 1891

Second Saudi State: Emirate of Nejd

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

After the fall of the Emirate of Diriyah in 1818, Mishari bin Saud, brother of the last ruler Abdullah ibn Saud, initially attempted to regain power but was captured and killed by the Egyptians. In 1824, Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad, a grandson of the first Saudi imam Muhammad ibn Saud, successfully expelled Egyptian forces from Riyadh, founding the second Saudi dynasty. He is also an ancestor of modern-day Saudi kings. Turki established his capital in Riyadh, with support from relatives who had escaped Egyptian captivity, including his son Faisal ibn Turki Al Saud.

Turki was assassinated in 1834 by a distant cousin, Mishari bin Abdul Rahman, and was succeeded by his son Faisal, who became a significant ruler. However, Faisal faced another Egyptian invasion and was defeated and captured in 1838.

Khalid bin Saud, another relative of the Saudi dynasty, was installed by the Egyptians as ruler in Riyadh. In 1840, when Egypt withdrew its forces due to external conflicts, Khalid's lack of local support led to his downfall. Abdullah bin Thunayan from the Al Thunayan branch briefly took power, but Faisal, released that year and assisted by the Al Rashid rulers of Ha'il, regained control of Riyadh. Faisal accepted Ottoman suzerainty in return for recognition as "ruler of all the Arabs".[23]

Following Faisal's death in 1865, the Saudi state declined due to leadership disputes among his sons Abdullah, Saud, Abdul Rahman, and Saud's sons. Abdullah initially assumed rule in Riyadh but faced challenges from his brother Saud, leading to a prolonged civil war and alternating control over Riyadh. Muhammad bin Abdullah Al Rashid of Ha'il, a vassal of the Saudis, took advantage of the conflict to expand his influence over Najd and eventually expelled the last Saudi leader, Abdul Rahman bin Faisal, after the Battle of Mulayda in 1891.[24 ]As the Saudis went into exile in Kuwait, the House of Rashīd sought friendly ties with the Ottoman Empire to its north. This alliance became less and less profitable during the course of the 19th century as the Ottomans lost influence and legitimacy. 

1902 - 1932
Third Saudi State
Third Saudi State: Unification of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia ©Anonymous
1902 Jan 13 00:01

Third Saudi State: Unification of Saudi Arabia

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

In 1902, Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, leader of the Al Saud, returned from exile in Kuwait and began a series of conquests, starting with the seizure of Riyadh from the Al Rashid. These conquests laid the foundation for the Third Saudi State and ultimately the modern state of Saudi Arabia, established in 1930. The Ikhwan, a Wahhabist-Bedouin tribal army led by Sultan bin Bajad Al-Otaibi and Faisal al-Duwaish, was instrumental in these conquests.[28]

By 1906, Abdulaziz had expelled the Al Rashid from Najd, gaining recognition as an Ottoman client. In 1913, he captured Al-Hasa from the Ottomans, acquiring control of the Persian Gulf coast and future oil reserves. Abdulaziz avoided the Arab Revolt, recognizing Ottoman suzerainty in 1914, and focused on defeating the Al Rashid in northern Arabia. By 1920, the Ikhwan had seized Asir in the southwest, and in 1921, Abdulaziz annexed northern Arabia after defeating the Al Rashid.[29]

Abdulaziz initially avoided invading the Hejaz, protected by Britain. However, in 1923, with British support withdrawn, he targeted the Hejaz, leading to its conquest by the end of 1925. In January 1926, Abdulaziz declared himself King of the Hejaz, and in January 1927, King of Najd. The Ikhwan's role in these conquests significantly altered the Hejaz, imposing Wahhabi culture.[30]

The Treaty of Jeddah in May 1927 recognized the independence of Abdul-Aziz's realm, then known as the Kingdom of Hejaz and Najd.[29] After the Hejaz conquest, the Ikhwan sought to expand into British territories but were halted by Abdulaziz. The resulting Ikhwan revolt was crushed at the Battle of Sabilla in 1929.[31]

In 1932, the Kingdoms of Hejaz and Najd united to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.[28] Boundaries with neighboring states were established through treaties in the 1920s, and the southern boundary with Yemen was defined by the 1934 Treaty of Ta'if after a brief border conflict.[32]

Recapture of Riyadh
On the night of 15 January 1902, Ibn Saud led 40 men over the city walls on tilted palm trees and took the city. ©HistoryMaps
1902 Jan 15

Recapture of Riyadh

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

In 1891, Muhammad bin Abdullah Al Rashid, a rival of the House of Saud, captured Riyadh, leading the then 15-year-old Ibn Saud and his family to seek refuge. Initially, they sheltered with the Al Murrah Bedouin tribe, then moved to Qatar for two months, briefly stayed in Bahrain, and eventually settled in Kuwait with Ottoman permission, where they lived for about a decade.[25]

On 14 November 1901, Ibn Saud, accompanied by his half-brother Muhammad and other relatives, launched a raid into Nejd, targeting tribes allied with the Rashidis.[26] Despite dwindling support and his father's disapproval, Ibn Saud continued his campaign, ultimately reaching Riyadh. On the night of 15 January 1902, Ibn Saud and 40 men scaled the city walls using palm trees, successfully recapturing Riyadh. The Rashidi governor Ajlan was killed in the operation by Abdullah bin Jiluwi, marking the start of the third Saudi State.[27] After this victory, the Kuwaiti ruler Mubarak Al Sabah sent 70 additional warriors, led by Ibn Saud's younger brother Saad, to support him. Ibn Saud then established his residence in his grandfather Faisal bin Turki's palace in Riyadh.[26]

Kingdom of Hejaz
Kingdom of Hejaz ©HistoryMaps
1916 Jan 1 - 1925

Kingdom of Hejaz

Jeddah Saudi Arabia

As Caliphs, Ottoman Sultans appointed the Sharif of Mecca, usually selecting a member of the Hashemite family but fostering intra-familial rivalries to prevent a consolidated power base. During World War I, Sultan Mehmed V declared a jihad against the Entente powers. The British sought to align with the Sharif, fearing the Hejaz could threaten their Indian Ocean routes. In 1914, the Sharif, wary of Ottoman intentions to depose him, agreed to support a British-backed Arab Revolt in return for promises of an independent Arab kingdom. After witnessing Ottoman actions against Arab nationalists, he led the Hejaz in successful revolts, except for Medina. In June 1916, Hussein bin Ali declared himself King of Hejaz, with the Entente recognizing his title.[36]

The British were constrained by a prior agreement granting France control over Syria. Despite this, they established Hashemite-ruled kingdoms in Transjordan, Iraq, and Hejaz. However, border uncertainties, particularly between Hejaz and Transjordan, arose due to the changing Ottoman Hejaz Vilayet boundaries.[37] King Hussein did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and rejected a 1921 British proposal to accept the Mandate system, especially regarding Palestine and Syria.[37] Failed treaty negotiations in 1923–24 led the British to withdraw support for Hussein, favoring Ibn Saud, who eventually conquered Hussein's Kingdom.[38]

Arab Revolt
Soldiers in the Arab Army during the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918, carrying the Flag of the Arab Revolt and pictured in the Arabian Desert. ©Anonymous
1916 Jun 10 - 1918 Oct 25

Arab Revolt

Middle East

In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire maintained nominal suzerainty over most of the Arabian Peninsula. This region was a mosaic of tribal rulers, including the Al Saud, who returned from exile in 1902. The Sharif of Mecca held a prominent position, ruling the Hejaz.[33]

In 1916, Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, initiated the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Supported by Britain and France,[34] then at war with the Ottomans in World War I, the revolt aimed to achieve Arab independence and establish a unified Arab state from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.

The Arab army, comprising Bedouin and others from across the peninsula, did not include the Al Saud and their allies, due to longstanding rivalries with the Sharifs of Mecca and their focus on defeating the Al Rashid in the interior. Despite not achieving its goal of a unified Arab state, the revolt played a significant role in the Middle-Eastern Front, tying down Ottoman troops and contributing to the Ottoman defeat in World War I.[33]

The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire post-World War I saw Britain and France backtrack on promises to Hussein for a pan-Arab state. Although Hussein was recognized as King of the Hejaz, Britain eventually shifted its support to the Al Saud, leaving Hussein diplomatically and militarily isolated. Consequently, the Arab Revolt did not result in the envisioned pan-Arab state but did contribute to freeing Arabia from Ottoman control.[35]

Saudi conquest of Hejaz
Saudi conquest of Hejaz ©Anonymous
1924 Sep 1 - 1925 Dec

Saudi conquest of Hejaz

Jeddah Saudi Arabia

The Saudi conquest of Hejaz, also known as the Second Saudi-Hashemite War or the Hejaz-Nejd War, occurred in 1924–25. This conflict, part of the longstanding rivalry between the Hashemites of Hejaz and the Saudis of Riyadh (Nejd), led to the incorporation of Hejaz into the Saudi domain, marking the end of the Hashemite Kingdom of Hejaz.

The conflict reignited when pilgrims from Nejd were denied access to holy sites in Hejaz.[39] Abdulaziz of Nejd initiated the campaign on 29 August 1924, capturing Taif with little resistance. Mecca fell to Saudi forces on 13 October 1924, after Sharif Hussein bin Ali's pleas for British aid were rejected. Following Mecca's fall, an Islamic Conference in Riyadh in October 1924 recognized Ibn Saud's control over the city.

As Saudi forces advanced, the Hejazi army disintegrated.[39] Medina surrendered on 9 December 1925, followed by Yanbu. Jeddah capitulated in December 1925, with Saudi forces entering on 8 January 1926, following negotiations involving King bin Ali, Abdulaziz, and the British Consul.

Abdulaziz was proclaimed King of Hejaz following his victory, and the region was merged into the Kingdom of Nejd and Hejaz under his rule. Hussein of Hejaz, having stepped down, moved to Aqaba to support his son's military efforts but was exiled to Cyprus by the British.[40] Ali bin Hussein assumed the Hejazi throne amidst the war, but the fall of the Kingdom led to the Hashemite dynasty's exile. Despite this, the Hashemites continued to rule in Transjordan and Iraq.

Ikhwan Revolt
Soldiers from akhwan min taʽa Allah Army on Camels carrying the Flags of the Third Saudi State, and Flag of Saud dynasty, Flag and the akhwan Army. ©Anonymous
1927 Jan 1 - 1930

Ikhwan Revolt

Nejd Saudi Arabia

At the start of the 20th century, tribal conflicts in Arabia led to unification under Al Saud's leadership, primarily through the Ikhwan, a Wahhabist-Bedouin tribal army led by Sultan bin Bajad and Faisal Al Dawish. Following the Ottoman Empire's collapse after World War I, the Ikhwan helped conquer the territory forming modern Saudi Arabia by 1925. Abdulaziz declared himself King of the Hejaz on 10 January 1926 and King of Nejd on 27 January 1927, changing his title from 'Sultan' to 'King'.

Post-Hejaz conquest, some Ikhwan factions, particularly the Mutair tribe under Al-Dawish, sought further expansion into British protectorates, leading to conflicts and heavy losses in Kuwait-Najd Border War and raids on Transjordan. A significant clash occurred near Busaiya, Iraq, in November 1927, resulting in casualties.

In response, Ibn Saud convened the Al Riyadh Conference in November 1928, attended by 800 tribal and religious leaders, including Ikhwan members. Ibn Saud opposed the Ikhwan's aggressive expansion, recognizing the risks of conflict with the British. Despite Ikhwan beliefs that non-Wahhabis were infidels, Ibn Saud was aware of existing treaties with Britain and had recently gained British recognition as an independent ruler. This led to the Ikhwan openly revolting in December 1928.

The feud between the House of Saud and the Ikhwan escalated into open conflict, culminating in the Battle of Sabilla on 29 March 1929, where the rebellion's main instigators were defeated. Further clashes occurred in the Jabal Shammar region in August 1929, and the Ikhwan attacked the Awazim tribe in October 1929. Faisal Al Dawish fled to Kuwait but was later detained by the British and handed over to Ibn Saud.

The rebellion was suppressed by 10 January 1930, with the surrender of other Ikhwan leaders to the British. The aftermath saw the elimination of the Ikhwan leadership, and the survivors were integrated into regular Saudi units. Sultan bin Bajad, a key Ikhwan leader, was killed in 1931, and Al Dawish died in Riyadh prison on 3 October 1931.

Discovery of Oil in Saudi Arabia
Dammam No. 7, the oil well where commercial volumes of oil were first discovered in Saudi Arabia on March 4, 1938. ©Anonymous
1938 Mar 4

Discovery of Oil in Saudi Arabia

Dhahran Saudi Arabia

In the 1930s, there was initial uncertainty about the existence of oil in Saudi Arabia. However, motivated by Bahrain's oil discovery in 1932, Saudi Arabia embarked on its own exploration.[41] Abdul Aziz granted a concession to the Standard Oil Company of California for oil drilling in Saudi Arabia. This led to the construction of oil wells in Dhahran in the late 1930s. Despite failing to find substantial oil in the first six wells (Dammam No. 1–6), drilling continued at Well No. 7, led by American geologist Max Steineke and assisted by Saudi Bedouin Khamis Bin Rimthan.[42] On March 4, 1938, significant oil was discovered at a depth of approximately 1,440 meters in Well No. 7, with daily output rapidly increasing.[43] On that day, 1,585 barrels of oil were extracted from the well, and six days later this daily output had increased to 3,810 barrels.[44]

During and after World War II, Saudi oil production increased significantly, largely catering to the Allies' needs. To enhance oil flow, Aramco (the Arabian American Oil Company) constructed an underwater pipeline to Bahrain in 1945.

The discovery of oil transformed Saudi Arabia's economy, which had struggled despite Abdulaziz's military and political achievements. Full-scale oil production commenced in 1949, following initial development in 1946 delayed by World War II.[45] A crucial moment in Saudi-U.S. relations occurred in February 1945 when Abdulaziz met with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy. They forged a significant agreement, still effective today, for Saudi Arabia to supply oil to the United States in return for American military protection of the Saudi regime.[46 ] The financial impact of this oil production was profound: between 1939 and 1953, oil revenues for Saudi Arabia surged from $7 million to over $200 million. Consequently, the kingdom's economy became heavily reliant on oil income.

Saud of Saudi Arabia
With his father King Abdulaziz (seated) and half-brother Prince Faisal (later king, left), early 1950s ©Image Attribution forthcoming. Image belongs to the respective owner(s).
1953 Jan 1 - 1964

Saud of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Upon becoming king in 1953 following his father's death, Saud implemented a reorganization of the Saudi government, establishing the tradition of the king presiding over the Council of Ministers. He aimed to maintain friendly relations with the United States while also supporting Arab nations in their conflicts against Israel. During his reign, Saudi Arabia joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

The kingdom's economy experienced significant prosperity due to increased oil production, which also enhanced its political influence internationally. However, this sudden wealth was a double-edged sword. Cultural development, particularly in the Hejaz region, accelerated with advancements in media like newspapers and radio. Yet, the influx of foreigners heightened existing xenophobic tendencies.

Simultaneously, the government's spending became increasingly extravagant and wasteful. Despite the newfound oil wealth, the kingdom faced financial challenges, including governmental deficits and the need for foreign borrowing, primarily due to the lavish spending habits during King Saud's reign in the 1950s.[47]

Saud, who succeeded his father Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) in 1953, was seen as an extravagant spender, leading the kingdom into financial difficulties. His reign was marked by financial mismanagement and a lack of focus on development. In contrast, Faisal, who had served as a competent minister and diplomat, was more fiscally conservative and development-oriented. He was concerned about the kingdom's economic instability under Saud's rule and its dependence on oil revenue. Faisal's push for financial reform and modernization, coupled with his desire to implement a more sustainable economic policy, put him at odds with Saud's policies and approach.

This fundamental difference in governance and financial management led to increasing tension between the two brothers, ultimately resulting in Faisal replacing Saud as king in 1964. Faisal's ascension was also influenced by pressure from the royal family and religious leaders, who were concerned about Saud's mismanagement affecting the stability and future of the kingdom. This was of special concern given the Arab Cold War between Gamel Abdel Nasser's United Arab Republic and the pro-U.S. Arab monarchies. As a consequence, Saud was deposed in favor of Faisal in 1964.[48]

Faisal of Saudi Arabia
Arab leaders meet in Cairo, September 1970. From left to right: Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), Yasser Arafat (Palestine), Jaafar al-Nimeiri (Sudan), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), King Faisal (Saudi Arabia) and Sheikh Sabah (Kuwait) ©Image Attribution forthcoming. Image belongs to the respective owner(s).
1964 Jan 1 - 1975

Faisal of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

After King Saud's deposition, King Faisal initiated modernization and reforms, focusing on pan-Islamism, anti-communism, and support for Palestine. He also sought to reduce the influence of religious officials.

From 1962 to 1970, Saudi Arabia faced significant challenges from the Yemen Civil War.[49] The conflict arose between Yemeni royalists and republicans, with Saudi Arabia supporting the royalists against Egyptian-backed republicans. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Yemen diminished after 1967, following the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Yemen.

In 1965, Saudi Arabia and Jordan exchanged territories, with Jordan relinquishing a large desert area for a small coastal strip near Aqaba. The Saudi-Kuwaiti neutral zone was divided administratively in 1971, with both countries continuing to equally share its petroleum resources.[48]

While Saudi forces did not engage in the Six-Day War in June 1967, the Saudi government subsequently offered financial support to Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, providing annual subsidies to aid their economies. This assistance was part of Saudi Arabia's broader regional strategy and reflected its position in Middle Eastern politics.[48]

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Saudi Arabia joined the Arab oil boycott against the United States and the Netherlands. As an OPEC member, it was part of the moderate oil price increases starting in 1971. The post-war period saw a significant rise in oil prices, enhancing Saudi Arabia's wealth and global influence.[48]

Saudi Arabia's economy and infrastructure developed with substantial assistance from the United States. This collaboration led to a strong but complex relationship between the two countries. American companies played a crucial role in establishing Saudi's petroleum industry, infrastructure, government modernization, and defense industry.[50]

King Faisal's reign ended with his assassination in 1975 by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musa'id.[51]

1973 Oil Crisis
An American at a service station reads about the gasoline rationing system in an afternoon newspaper; a sign in the background states that no gasoline is available. 1974 ©Image Attribution forthcoming. Image belongs to the respective owner(s).
1973 Oct 1

1973 Oil Crisis

Middle East

In the early 1970s, the world witnessed a seismic shift in the energy landscape, as the 1973 oil crisis sent shockwaves throughout the global economy. This pivotal event was marked by a series of significant occurrences, driven by political tensions and economic decisions that would forever alter the way nations viewed and managed their energy resources.

The stage was set in 1970 when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) made a fateful decision to flex its newfound economic muscle. OPEC, primarily comprised of Middle Eastern oil-producing nations, held a meeting in Baghdad and agreed to increase oil prices by 70%, marking the beginning of a new era in oil geopolitics. The oil-producing nations were determined to gain more control over their resources and negotiate better terms with Western oil companies.

The turning point, however, came in 1973 when geopolitical tensions in the Middle East escalated. In response to the United States' support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, OPEC decided to wield its oil weapon as a political tool. On October 17, 1973, OPEC declared an oil embargo, targeting countries seen as supporting Israel. This embargo was a game-changer, leading to a global energy crisis.

As a direct result of the embargo, oil prices soared to unprecedented levels, with the price per barrel quadrupling from $3 to $12. The impact was felt across the globe as gasoline shortages led to long lines at gas stations, skyrocketing fuel prices, and an economic downturn in many oil-dependent nations.

The crisis prompted widespread panic and fear in the United States, which was heavily reliant on imported oil. On November 7, 1973, President Richard Nixon announced the launch of Project Independence, a national effort to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. This initiative marked the beginning of significant investments in alternative energy sources, energy conservation measures, and the expansion of domestic oil production.

In the midst of the crisis, the United States, under President Nixon's leadership, sought to negotiate a ceasefire in the Middle East, eventually leading to the end of the Yom Kippur War. The conflict's resolution helped ease tensions, leading OPEC to lift the embargo in March 1974. However, the lessons learned during the crisis lingered, and the world recognized the fragility of its dependence on a finite and politically volatile resource.

The 1973 oil crisis had far-reaching consequences, shaping energy policies and strategies for decades to come. It exposed the vulnerability of the global economy to energy disruptions and ignited a renewed focus on energy security. Nations began to diversify their energy sources, invest in renewable energy technologies, and reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Furthermore, the crisis elevated OPEC's status as a major player in international politics, emphasizing the significance of oil as both a strategic and economic weapon.

Khalid of Saudi Arabia
Saudi soldiers fighting their way into the Qaboo Underground beneath the Grand Mosque of Mecca, 1979 ©Anonymous
1975 Jan 1 - 1982

Khalid of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

King Khalid succeeded his half-brother King Faisal, and during his reign from 1975 to 1982, Saudi Arabia underwent significant economic and social development. The country's infrastructure and educational system were rapidly modernized, and foreign policy was characterized by strengthening ties with the United States.

Two major events in 1979 profoundly impacted Saudi Arabia's domestic and foreign policies:

1. The Iranian Islamic Revolution: There was concern that the Shi'ite minority in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where the oil fields are located, might rebel under the influence of the Iranian revolution. This fear was heightened by several anti-government riots in the region in 1979 and 1980.

2. The seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists: The extremists were partly motivated by their perception of the Saudi regime's corruption and deviation from Islamic principles. This event deeply shook the Saudi monarchy.[52]

In response, the Saudi royal family enforced stricter adherence to Islamic and traditional Saudi norms (such as closing cinemas) and increased the role of the Ulema (religious scholars) in governance. However, these measures only partially succeeded, as Islamist sentiments continued to grow.[52]

King Khalid delegated significant responsibilities to Crown Prince Fahd, who played a pivotal role in managing both international and domestic affairs. Economic growth continued swiftly, with Saudi Arabia playing a more prominent role in regional politics and global economic matters.[48] Regarding international borders, a tentative agreement on dividing the Saudi-Iraqi neutral zone was reached in 1981, with finalization in 1983.[48] King Khalid's reign ended with his death in June 1982.[48]

Fahd of Saudi Arabia
US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney meets with Saudi Defence Minister Sultan bin Abdulaziz to discuss how to handle the invasion of Kuwait; December 1, 1990. ©Sgt. Jose Lopez
1982 Jan 1 - 2005

Fahd of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

King Fahd succeeded Khalid as the ruler of Saudi Arabia in 1982, maintaining close ties with the United States and enhancing military purchases from the U.S. and Britain. During the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia emerged as the world's largest oil producer, leading to significant changes in its society and economy, largely influenced by oil revenues. This period saw rapid urbanization, expansion in public education, influx of foreign workers, and exposure to new media, which collectively transformed Saudi societal values. However, political processes remained largely unchanged, with the royal family retaining tight control, causing growing disaffection among Saudis seeking broader government participation.[48]

Fahd's reign (1982-2005) was marked by major events, including the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia joined the anti-Iraq coalition, and Fahd, fearing an Iraqi attack, invited American and Coalition forces to Saudi soil. Saudi troops participated in military operations, but the presence of foreign troops spurred increased Islamic terrorism in the country and abroad, notably contributing to the radicalization of Saudis involved in the September 11 attacks.[48] The country also faced economic stagnation and rising unemployment, leading to civil unrest and dissatisfaction with the royal family. In response, limited reforms like the Basic Law were introduced, but without significant changes to the political status quo. Fahd explicitly rejected democracy, favoring governance by consultation (shūrā) in line with Islamic principles.[48]

Following a stroke in 1995, Crown Prince Abdullah assumed day-to-day government responsibilities. He continued mild reforms and initiated a more distant foreign policy from the U.S., notably refusing to support the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.[48] Changes under Fahd also included expanding the Consultative Council and, in a landmark move, allowing women to attend its sessions. Despite legal reforms like the criminal code revision in 2002, human rights violations persisted. The U.S. withdrawal of most troops from Saudi Arabia in 2003 marked the end of a military presence dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, though the countries remained allies.[48]

The early 2000s saw a surge in terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia, including the 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, leading to a more stringent government response against terrorism.[53] This period also witnessed increased calls for political reforms, exemplified by a significant petition by Saudi intellectuals and public demonstrations. Despite these calls, the regime faced ongoing challenges, including escalating militant violence in 2004, with multiple attacks and deaths, particularly targeting foreigners and security forces. The government's efforts to curb militancy, including an amnesty offer, had limited success.[54]

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
King Abdullah with Vladimir Putin on 11 February 2007 ©Image Attribution forthcoming. Image belongs to the respective owner(s).
2005 Jan 1 - 2015

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

King Fahd's half-brother, Abdullah, became King of Saudi Arabia in 2005, continuing a policy of moderate reform amidst growing demands for change.[55] Under Abdullah's reign, Saudi Arabia's economy, heavily reliant on oil, faced challenges. Abdullah promoted limited deregulation, privatization, and foreign investment. In 2005, after 12 years of negotiation, Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organization.[56] However, the country faced international scrutiny over the £43bn Al-Yamamah arms deal with Britain, leading to a controversial halting of a British fraud investigation in 2006.[57] In 2007, Saudi Arabia purchased 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from Britain, amidst legal controversies in the UK over the cessation of the corruption inquiry.[58]

In international relations, King Abdullah engaged with U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009, and in 2010, the U.S. confirmed a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.[60] WikiLeaks' revelations in 2010 about Saudi funding for terrorist groups strained U.S.-Saudi relations, but arms deals continued.[60] Domestically, mass arrests were a key security strategy against terrorism, with hundreds of suspects detained between 2007 and 2012.[61]

As the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011, Abdullah announced a $10.7 billion welfare spending increase but did not introduce political reforms.[62] Saudi Arabia banned public protests in 2011 and took a hard stance against unrest in Bahrain.[63] The country faced criticism for human rights issues, including the Qatif rape case and the treatment of Shia protesters.[64]

Women's rights also advanced, with symbolic protests against the ban on female drivers in 2011 and 2013, leading to reforms including women's voting rights and representation in the Shura Council.[65] The Saudi anti male-guardianship campaign, spearheaded by activists like Wajeha al-Huwaider, gained momentum during Abdullah's reign.[66]

In foreign policy, Saudi Arabia supported the Egyptian military against Islamists in 2013 and opposed Iran's nuclear program.[67] President Obama's visit in 2014 aimed to strengthen U.S.-Saudi relations, particularly concerning Syria and Iran.[67] The same year, Saudi Arabia faced a severe outbreak of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), leading to a change in the health minister.

In 2014, 62 military personnel were arrested for alleged terrorist links, highlighting ongoing security concerns.[68] King Abdullah's reign ended with his death on 22 January 2015, succeeded by his brother Salman.

Salman of Saudi Arabia
Salman, US President Donald Trump, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi touching a glowing globe at the 2017 Riyadh summit. ©The White house
2015 Jan 1

Salman of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Following King Abdullah's death in 2015, Prince Salman ascended to the Saudi throne as King Salman. He undertook government reorganization, abolishing several bureaucratic departments.[69] King Salman's involvement in the Second Yemeni Civil War marked a significant foreign policy action. In 2017, he appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman(MBS), as crown prince, who has since been the de facto ruler. MBS's notable actions included detaining 200 princes and businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh in an anti-corruption campaign.[70]

MBS spearheaded Saudi Vision 2030, aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy beyond oil dependence.[71] He implemented reforms reducing the powers of the Saudi religious police and advancing women's rights, including the rights to drive in 2017,[72] open businesses without male guardian permission in 2018, and retain child custody post-divorce. However, MBS has faced international criticism for his involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and broader human rights concerns under his rule.

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Saudi Arabia's Geographic Challenge

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Why 82% of Saudi Arabians Just Live in These Lines

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Geopolitics of Saudi Arabia

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Abdullah bin Saud Al Saud

Abdullah bin Saud Al Saud

Last ruler of the First Saudi State

Fahd of Saudi Arabia

Fahd of Saudi Arabia

King and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia

Faisal of Saudi Arabia

Faisal of Saudi Arabia

King of Saudi Arabia

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

King and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia

Mohammed bin Salman

Mohammed bin Salman

Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab

Founder of Wahhabi movement

Muhammad bin Saud Al Muqrin

Muhammad bin Saud Al Muqrin

Founder of the First Saudi State and Saud dynasty

Hussein bin Ali

Hussein bin Ali

King of Hejaz

Muhammad bin Abdullah Al Rashid

Muhammad bin Abdullah Al Rashid

Emirs of Jabal Shammar

Salman of Saudi Arabia

Salman of Saudi Arabia

King of Saudi Arabia

Ibn Saud

Ibn Saud

King of Saudi Arabia

Khalid of Saudi Arabia

Khalid of Saudi Arabia

King and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia

Turki bin Abdullah Al Saud (1755–1834)

Turki bin Abdullah Al Saud (1755–1834)

Founder of the Second Saudi State

Saud of Saudi Arabia

Saud of Saudi Arabia

King of Saudi Arabia


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