According to archaeologists and others who know such things, people have lived in the land we now know as Saudi Arabia for almost twenty thousand years–hardy, persistent people, most of whom were nomadic traders who found some way to survive the brutal desert climate of the Arabian peninsula by moving and moving and moving across the endless stretches of sands. Some nomads did stop for just long enough to form small fixed settlements like Mecca and Medina, but for centuries upon centuries, most just kept on keepin’ on.
This highly mobile nation may not be the most likely candidate to become the home to one of the world’s most powerful religions, but no one seemed to mention that to Mohammad, who Muslims revere as “The Prophet Mohammad,” who was born in Mecca in 570. Orphaned at a young age, Mohammad was raised by his uncle and started his adult life as a merchant and shepherd. When he was 40 years old he had his first of many divine revelations–described as a visitation from the angel Gabriel/Jibrīl–and three years later he began preaching in public about them. At the time nomads who lived in the Arabian peninsula worshiped any number gods of which “Allah,” the creator of the world, was only one. There were some communities of monotheistic Christians and Jews as well as, according to Islamic theologians and many historians, a group of monotheistic Arabs
called the Hanufa who claimed descent from the Biblical Abraham though his son Ishmael (son of Abraham and his “second wife,” Hagar, and older brother of Isaac, a forefather of the Israelites). Mohammad, perhaps raised as one of the Hanufa (though not all scholars agree), preached not only that Allah is the one and only God, but that people would live their best lives in submission/service/devotion to Allah.
Mohammad and his expanding group of followers faced persecution in Mecca and eventually emigrated to Medina. Accepted there, Mohammad continued to preach and more and more Medinans converted. Mohammad became a leading social reformer in Medina, speaking out for the rights of the poor, and he also became leader of a group of
fighters who he eventually led in victorious battle over Mecca. After taking Mecca, Mohammad’s devotees went on to conquer most of the Arabian peninsula, gaining more and more converts to the religion that came to be known as Islam.
During the 23 years between Mohammad’s first revelation and his death, each time Mohammed recounted the words of Gabriel/Jibrīl, spoken to him in his revelations, his followers recorded them as the word of God. They compiled these revelations into “the Qu’ran,” which is Islam’s holiest book.
After Mohammad’s death in the year 632 there was disagreement among his followers as to who would lead the community; some supported Mohammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, while others claimed Muhammad wanted his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. Mohammad’s closest supporters quickly elected Abu Bakr to become the first “caliph,” the political head of the Muslims, over the objections of those who followed Ali. This split led to the formation of two fundamental denominations in Islam: Sunnis, who support the election of the caliph by the Muslim community, and Shia, who choose to follow Imams (religions leaders) who they believe to have been blessed by God.
Despite this internal turmoil, Abu Bakr and the next three political leaders of the Muslims
continued to conquer lands and spread Islam. By the end their rule, known uniformly as the Rashidun Caliphate, Muslims controlled a vast territory including most of Persia, North Africa and the Middle East. After the assassination of the fourth “righteous caliph” a leader of the Umayyad family rose to power. According to tradition, the Umayyads shared a common ancestor with Mohammad. (Mohammad was a descendant of Abd Manaf through his son Hashim, making him a “Hashemite,” while the Umayyads were Abd Manaf’s descendants via his son, Umayya.) Over about a century of rule, Umayyad leaders expanded the empire to include more of Persia, the rest of North Africa and even much of the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Portugal and Spain), often fighting the Christian Byzantines for political and religious domination. They also moved their capital to Damascus, Syria, shifting the focus of Arab political life away from the Arabian peninsula. Hashemite leaders remained in Saudi Arabia, where they consolidated power around the westernmost section of the peninsula, known as the Hejaz.
In the mid-1800s a Hashemite leader named Muhammad ibn Saud teamed up with the founder of the fundamentalist, anti-secularist Sunni/Wahhabi movement of Islam and solidified their mutual rule. [Take note: Not every Wahhabi calls him or herself “Wahhabi.”] The Saud family has some ups and downs–the Ottoman-Saudi War of 1811-1818 was a particular downer–but even though many of its members endured a late 19th century exile in Kuwait the family has maintained some kind of leadership in the region to this day. In 1902 the Saud family and their army captured (re-captured) Riyadh and embarked on a 30 year campaign to unify the Arabian peninsula under Saud rule. During World War I the British supported “King of the Hejaz” Hussein bin Ali to rise up against the Ottoman Empire. After the War the British reneged on their promise to bin Ali of independence for his envisioned pan-Arab state and shifted their support to Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud.
Saudi Arabia was economically a very poor nation when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud united its warring people. That changed abruptly in the 1938 when engineers discovered oil there. Saudi Arabia has since become unfathomably wealthy–well, the families and supporters of the five sons of Abdul Azia ibn Saud who eventually went on to be king (Abdul Azia Saud had 22 wives an 37 sons) have done quite well. Foreign workers the Saudis bring in from around the Middle East and South Asia and many other Saudis lag behind.
Speaking of ibn Saud’s five sons, they and only they have ruled Saudi Arabia since their father’s death. You can see photos of all five if you scroll about halfway down Wikipedia’s “History of Saudi Arabia” page. If you’re keeping score at home, they are:
— King Saud (who ruled from 1953 to 1964): oversaw great accumulation of oil wealth until his brother Faisal accused him of incompetence and deposed him. During his rule the Saudis and Egyptians found themselves on different sides of the Yemeni Civil War, with the Saudis supporting the Yemeni royal family. (More about Yemen and its many civil wars when we visit there in a week or two.)
— King Faisal
(1964-1975): as King he led the country through many partnerships with Western corporations, especially those from the United States, which built a substantial amount of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Still, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War he led Saudi Arabia in participating in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC’s) Arab Oil Boycott of the United States. In 1975 he was assassinated by his nephew.
— King Khalid
(1975-1982): More rapid economic growth, more Saudi-U.S. partnerships. During Khalid’s reign the 1979 Iranian Revolution inspired Islamist fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia to demand the government be more religious. Khalid responded by closing down movie theaters and giving more political power to the Islamic leadership, but the fundamentalists, especially the Shi’ite minority in the East (which, by the way, is the location of the oil fields) continued to rebel. Khalid died in 1982 and his brother Fahd followed.
— King Fahd
(1982-2005): Fahd maintained close ties with the West, even supporting the U.S. in the 1990 Gulf War, inviting the Kuwaiti royal family and over 300,000 Kuwaitis into the country during the hostilities. He also responded to the increasing wealth gap and calls for democracy with less-than-convincing reforms: “A system based on elections,” said King Fahd, “is not consistent with our Islamic creed, which [approves of] government by consultation.” Fahd and his family are among the world’s most absolute autocrats, though they do rule within the context of shifting loyalties among branches of the family and of other Saudi elites. Still, under Fahd Islamists stepped up their attacks on both the Saudi monarchy and the United States. Though Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Lauden, once a Saudi national, had been stripped of his citizenship, fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Despite the monarchy’s dislike of Al-Queda and their historic rivalry with Iraq, King Fahd and Prince Abdullah, who took over much of the leadership when Fahd had a stroke in 1995, didn’t support the United States in its 2003 ousting of Saddam Hussein.
— King Abdullah
(2005-present): King Abdullah has increased his pressure on Islamic extremists and has even considered loosening harsh restrictions on the public behavior of women in the Kingdom (more about the status of women in Saudi Arabia below). Still, Saudi Arabia is far from a democracy. The Saudi family continues to amass oil wealth and maintain a firm grip on the nation’s economic and social institutions, despite an increasing wealth gap and ongoing tensions with foreign workers. King Abduallah approached the pro-democracy
movements around the Arab world in 2011 by giving asylum to Tunisia’s deposed president Ben Ali and publicly supporting Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until his ultimate defeat. There are still no political parties allowed in Saudi Arabia.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s deeply entrenched monarchy, the nation does have a “Basic Law,” adopted in 1992 as a reform of King Fahd, which institutionalizes a balance of power between the monarchy and Islam. The Basic Law declares that the even the King must comply with Sharia (Islamic law) and that the Qu’ran and the traditions of Muhammad are the country’s constitution. The Ulema, a body of Islamic religious leaders, has a direct role in government, with substantial power in determining the country’s social mores, and the
Mutawas, the religious police, are brutal in their enforcement of strict Islamic social mores. The part of the Saudi government that officially manages them is called “The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.”
One of the most controversial of Saudi “virtues” is the way Saudi society relates to women. Saudi contemporary culture draws substantially from ancient patriarchal tradition of the region. In Saudi Arabia women have no political rights and find themselves under total legal and socially-sanctioned control of men. Saudi Sharia law, based on strict fundamentalist Sunni/Wahhabi Islam, does not regard women as being equal to men. both male and female, attribute the nation’s view of gender relations to tribal and cultural
concerns and not to Islam. The Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah, for example, was actually an independent businesswoman and strong, positive presence in his life. “It’s the culture,” they say, “not the religion.”
Whatever the root of the power differential, in Saudi Arabia all women must have a legal male guardian, usually a father or husband. The male guardian must agree to a woman’s marriage, her opening of a bank account, her pursuit of education and, if she’s under 45, any travel. All women, local or foreign, must certainly wear a headscarf in public and are strongly encouraged (local women are required, under threat of arrest) to wear an abaya, an extensive body cover that only leaves the face, feet and hands exposed (In Iran this attire is known as a chador, in South and Central Asia, a burqa) and also in some cases a
veil known as a niqab. [Look at this fascinating Niqab Page that presents conflicting arguments for whether or not a niqab is “fard.”]
At the moment, Saudi Arabian women can’t vote or run for political office, though King Abdullah says this will change for the elections scheduled for 2015. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia–the only nation in the world with such a ban–though the King has hinted that this may change too. At present, to get anywhere by car women must either have a spouse, male relative or a hired driver transport them.
Not all advocates for keeping the status quo are male. Saudi some women like Rowdha Yousef, outraged that a female Saudi activist, Wajeha al-Hwaider, went to the border with Bahrain and tried (and failed) to cross without a male accompanying her, helped start a campaign entitled “My Guardian Knows What’s Right For Me.” Thousands of Saudi women have supported the campaign, agreeing with her that the Saudi version of Islamic law offers women the right amount of independence and that outsiders don’t understand the nuances of the local culture. As she told the New York Times, “These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women.” Al-Hwaider, whose 2008 video on YouTube showing her driving a car so
outraged traditionalist Saudis that she still gets death threats because of it, would likely
— Read this interesting take on Wajeha al-Hwaider on the blog SaudiWoman, in which Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan asks members of her mother’s generation what they think about al-Hwaider (“subversive, disobedient, and disloyal to her religion, family and country”) and her husband (“…he just frowned. I think he’s worried that there might be an inner Wajeha lurking inside of me, squirming to get out.”) She suggests al-Hwaider may not receive proper appreciation until the next generation.
— See this New York Times slideshow of Saudi women that features both Yousef and al-Hwaider.