-Karen Elliot House, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future
Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Arabic:
المملكة العربية السعودية; Al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyyah as-Su‘ūdiyyah), is the country of the Islamic holy sites. Also, the sacred homeland of the Prophet Muhammad
and the birthplace of Islam. Home of two of the world's world's biggest tourist meccas... Mecca (now you know how the word came into English) and Medina.
The country is an absolute monarchy, founded by Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud
at the end of World War I
, who wanted to unite all the vast land around the ancestral home of his family, which had been something of the historical pastime of his dynasty like the English Kings tried to conquer France and Scoland.
But like them, it wouldn't have been a pastime if they got it over and done with. What most people don't know is that the Saudi Arabia that exists today is actually the *third* dynastic Saud state to hold sway, and the middle of the road in terms of size. But every time the Sauds would start to get powerful, the surrounding forces would combine to smack them down.
The Saudi family's rise to royal might in the 18th when the leader of a relatively small clan with big dreams made a savvy alliance with religious philosopher, Wahhab.
The patriarch of the Saudi dynasty gave Wahhab political protection and armed muscle, and in term Wahhab offered him legitimacy and the the Ikhwan, or "Brotherhood
", a group of Wahhab's militant followers driven by his fiery preaching and radical philosophy.
Over the next several decades, this alliance carved out an imperial emirate across most of Arabia that is actually larger than Saudi Arabia is today and influence stretching beyond that even, with Ikhwan raiding as far afield as Damascus. However, their fall was just as rapid as their rise. The new Saudi emirate recognized neither the Ottoman Caliph who was the nominal ruler of Arabia and Sunni Islam or the claims of Turkey's treacherous vassal Egypt
to the Red Sea Coast of Arabia. The Staunchly Sunni massacres of Shiites along the Persian Gulf alienated the equally Shiite Imperial Iran. Finally, they subsidized Wahhabist Piracy in the Gulf and Straits of Tiran right around the time the Napoleonic British Empire was becoming involved there. As if to cap this all off, the atrocities the Ikhwan committed in the holiest cities in Islam when they captured them scandalized the entire Muslim world almost more than the French had.
So all of these powers decided to set aside their differences
and go after the Saudis. The main heavy lifter was to be Egypt's newly instated Muhummad Ali and his equally new Westernized army. He promptly invaded Arabia and killed every Saudi he could while the British put down the pirates
, leaving the leaders of the Saud on Ottoman execution blocks and the survivors to flee into the desert to lick their wounds.
A few years later they came back and bounced the Egyptians out to establish a far smaller but still powerful emirate. It held sway for several decades but never managed to obtain the world fearing scope of the first. However, a combination of Tribal Politics, a Deadly Decadent Court
, and new arch-enemies in the form of the Rashidi clan eventually toppled the Sauds and forced them to flee to Kuwait
, whose leader welcomed him in.
A few years later, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud
led a war party that retook Riyadh, reopening the war for Arabian supremacy and starting the modern Saudi State. You can read more about the process in his page, but over the next several years of byzantine politics and both victories and defeats he was able to steadily consolidate his power until World War One
broke out. Then, the Saud- like other anti-Turkish Arab rebels- made a deal with the Western Allies
who distracted and eventually destroyed the Turkish Empire, while the Saud used the opportunity to polish off all other rivals (including the Ikhwan
) to dominate what is now Saudi Arabia.
And because succession defacto goes from older brother to younger brother and *then* father to son, the throne is still being passed to his various sons today.
With the passage of time, however, there has been a lot of bickering among members the royal family. Most of that has cooled down with time, too, but given the old age of Ibn Saud's surviving children and grandchildren there is a Succession Crisis
everybody can see coming in the near future. Expect more squabbles in the next decade or two.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of being an ally of the West, starting when the British Empire
provided muscle to the Al-Saud in their struggles against their Turkish-backed Rashidi rivals and continuing well after America took over for Britain. They tend to spend time buying military equipment from them and allowing them to use the country as a launching platform for Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. However, this relationship has always been an uneasy one. The first significant interaction between the Saudi dynasty and the West was when the former sponsored pirates in the 18th/early 19th century that attacked British shipping, they didn't support America in the most recent invasion of Iraq, and they took domestic flak for supporting the first invasion. On top of this the country as a whole has a reputation as a terrorist cultivator, not the least of which because Osama bin Laden
was a Saudi national.
Popularly, Saudis are seen as extremely conservative and devoutly religious, sometimes to the point of fanaticism
. The country is well known for its massive oil reserves
and sparse desert, being something of a Qurac
in fiction. Because of its historical significance as the homeland of the Arabs, including several nomadic tribes (such as the famous Bedouin people
), Saudis are sometimes seen as Proud Warrior Race Guys
. The Saudi state backs the Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli Conflict
; for this reason, it does not recognize Israel.note
Reports of anti-Semitic propaganda
being widely distributed by official channels and taught in schools have led to complaints on several occasions, and bring us to the next subject.
As mentioned above, the Saudi Arabian state owes its origins to a sort of pact between the Saudi dynasty and the followers of Wahhab's philosophy, the Wahhabis, some of the first "modern" radical Islamists. This pact has waxed and waned over the years and Abdul Aziz outright purged the Wahhabist Ikhwan when he consolidated his power, but both sides have an integral part in each others' society. At present there exists a sort of compromise: the Saud rule, obtain homage from everyone else, and dictate overall policy and external relations in a relatively pragmatic and secular way. In turn, they leave domestic policy -including schooling and day to day life- to the far more radical Wahhabists as long as they don't upset royal control; hence the anti-Semetic curriculum. This arrangement has been fraught with problems before, to the point where many Islamists (including Bin Laden) hate/d the Saud as decadent hedonists and sellouts to the West
, but the common ground both share and Saudi power has been able to keep most problems down.
A note on the Saudi flag from The Other Wiki
: do NOT change the orientation of the Arabic text in white. Seriously, don't. This of course means that if you plan on hanging it vertically, you need to buy another flag with the writing still going properly right to left, and a properly-made flag is actually folded over so that the writing is seen going the right way, no matter what angle you look at it. The caption translates what the writing is; it's something of a big deal for Muslims in general.
The Saudi Arabian flag
The field is colored green, the traditional color of Islam; at the center is the shahada
, the Muslim creed of faith, which reads: "La 'ilaha 'illa-llah Muḥammadun rasulu-llah
" ("There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger"); and below the shahada
is a scimitar symbolizing the House of Saud, ruler of the country since its creation.
Saudi Arabia in fiction:
- JAG: In "Head to Toe", A female naval aviator serving with the U.S. Air Force in Saudi Arabia is defending herself on not wearing an abaya, and arguments are made for abiding by the culture, subjugation of women and treatment of foreigners. When Mac is subjected to the same treatment she sides with the defendant.
- Tom Clancy has some action going on here in various Ryanverse novels. They're generally 'good guys'.
- The Kingdom a team of FBI agents have to work with the local law enforcement in Saudi Arabia to hunt down a terrorist group responsible for the bombing of civilians.
- In Videogames, Pullum Purna, of Street Fighter fame is an example of a Saudi character. Although, she's a walking cliché and sports an outfit that has absolutely nothing to do with Arab culture, let alone Saudi Arabia.