The second in a series of articles on Saudi Arabia and it’s position in the Middle East


As a newly arrived expatriate in Saudi Arabia in 1978, I could not escape a feeling of newness.  Owing to the construction that one encountered almost everywhere in Riyadh, the skyline of the city was distinguished by enormous cranes that were utilized in the raising of a modern city in the middle of an oasis surrounded by desert terrain. 

Along with the erection of multi-storied office buildings and outsized shopping malls that would rival the dimensions of any in the United States, it seemed that practically overnight an infrastructure was being put into place, with super-highways and high-speed rail transportation taking form.  Oil revenues were having a decided impact in a few years time, while previous centuries had tended to bypass the tribal people who inhabited the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula that was thought by most Europeans and Americans to be an arid wasteland. 

In prior history, most contact with the outside world was through the annual haj or pilgrimage, which saw thousands of the Muslim faithful journeying to Mecca and Medina.  But, by the 1970’s, thousands of young Saudis, through the largesse of their government, were studying in leading universities in Europe and America and returning home to take their places as faculty on relatively new campuses, such as King Saud University, where I had recently been employed.

For a society that was just entering the 20th century, the physical progress was fast and furious; however, occasionally, I found myself wondering if the human element would be able to keep pace with such rapid material advancement. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself was a relative newcomer to the family of nations, having only assumed its current identity as a monarchical government, presiding over the lion’s share of the Arabian Peninsula, or an area of approximately 860,000 square miles, in 1932. 

The name of the country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, literally means the Arabian Kingdom of the Saud Family.  As I was to learn, there were fully 5,000 princes of the royal Saudi bloodline, and in large part, government in that land could only function through consensus of the Saud family.

The Sauds had been dominant in the Nadj or central portion of the Arabian Peninsula for generations and, in the 18th century, had allied themselves with a fervent fundamentalist Muslim preacher named Muhammad Abdul-Wahhab.  Thus was born the religious-secular alliance with a rigorous fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam which the Sauds would eventually ride to power.

By the late 19th century, however, the Sauds had fallen on hard times; and, owing to a power struggle with the politically prominent Rashid family, had gone into exile in Kuwait.  By the early 20th century, however, the forceful, legendary figure of Abdul-Aziz Ibn-Saud would emerge to triumphantly lead the family back to Riyadh and the Nadj, which would serve as a base of operations from which he would emerge as a King and gradually put together the territories that would comprise his kingdom.

Keeping in mind that divorce and remarriage in Islam were comparatively clear-cut and uncomplicated matters (from the male point of view) and that a man was entitled to take up to four wives, much of  Ibn-Saud’s nation building was accomplished through marriage alliances with tribes from which he sought support.  In many respects, the king’s marital bed was a revolving door through which passed the daughters of prominent tribal chieftains.  And, through the vigor and potency of ibn-Saud, some 70 legitimate sons were produced, the grandfathers of the 5,000 through whose veins course the royal blood today.

What could not be obtained by alliances was conquered.  By the time of World War I, Ibn-Saud had broadened his control to include large segments of eastern Arabia; and, availing himself of the fanatical Wahhabi warriors called the Ikhwan, he began a program of conquest, deposing or sending into exile the rulers of various petty Arabian sheikdoms.

In the early 1920’s, Ibn-Saud turned his attention to the Hijaz, or the western portion of Arabia, where the Hashemites had ruled as the protectors of Mecca.  At the end of 1925, Mecca, Medina and the important Red Sea Port of Jedda were under the control of the Sauds, and the Hashemite line was in exile. Ibn-Saud ruled as the King of the Hijaz and Sultan of the Najd until 1932, when his kingdom became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with himself as absolute monarch.

In 1938, oil was discovered in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.  After World War II, ARAMCO, the Arab-American Oil Co., was created.  Soon, Saudi Arabia would be recognized as the holder of the largest verifiable reserves of oil in the world, and by the late 20th century the Kingdom would be one of the world’s principal holders of foreign monetary reserves.

Still, in the 21st century, fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam holds sway in Saudi Arabia.  By bolstering the monarchy, the religious establishment has received governmental financial support to the tune of billions of dollars.  These funds have been used to build mosques and establish Islamist schools and universities in Saudi Arabia and throughout the world.  Some of the madrasas which have been founded with Saudi Wahhabi backing in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria have served to incubate a new generation of Islamic extremists.  And, yet, most Middle East authorities would maintain that the Saud monarchy could not stand without the backing of two seemingly dissimilar props, one being the Wahhabi religious establishment and the other being American military power.

By 1978, owing to working and living in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, I began to rethink my world view.  No longer would I see Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and how they related to my own country and the rest of the world in the simplistic terms that characterized the American news media.  No longer would I be able to unthinkingly consume propaganda turned out by various interest groups seeking to influence American foreign policy.  And, had I been possessed of sufficient foresight at that point in time, I might have been able to see how limited knowledge of the history, cultures, languages and religions of other lands may lead to disastrous decisions adversely affecting not only the lives of one’s own countrymen but also those of foreign innocents caught in the crossfire generated by the inappropriate policies of inept politicians. Such bungling is readily on view today in President Obama’s Middle East policies, and, in New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s naiveté and disingenuous handling of the mosque controversy is an astounding display of gullibility and cultural ignorance.