A Short History of Saudi Arabia: Background information when reading The Siege of Mecca

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The Siege of Mecca

The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda

by Yaroslav Trofimov

The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov X
The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 320 pages

    Sep 2008, 336 pages


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A Short History of Saudi Arabia

This article relates to The Siege of Mecca

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covers an area about the third of the size of the USA, and occupies most of the Arabian peninsula (map), most of which is desert. Its population is about 27 million, of which 5 million are foreigners (technicians, merchants, diplomats and soldiers). 90% of citizens are Arabs and all are Muslims (citizenship is only open to Muslims). Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina - the former being where most of the Koran was revealed to Muhammad, the latter being his administrative capital and the capital of the early caliphs.

The region has been home to various groups of Semitic* people through most of recorded history. Before Islam, the different tribes of Arabia were pagans of various stripes with many converting to Christianity and Judaism; until about 630 AD, when followers of Muhammad gained sufficient strength to capture Mecca.

Saudi Arabia sits on about 25% of the world's known oil reserves, and because the oil is close to the surface it can be retrieved inexpensively (apparently, for about $1 per barrel). Despite effectively controlling the price of oil, Saudi Arabia is a relatively poor country with a burgeoning population, little water, and an average per capita income of $14,000. Adult literacy rates are about 80% (70% in women) - with some sources quoting much lower numbers.

Male citizens can vote from 21 years of age; no one can drink alcohol; and women cannot vote, drive, or perform legal or financial procedures. The age and sex of suffrage is somewhat academic as the kingdom is ruled by an hereditary monarch who is both King and Prime Minister. Following Al-Qaeda engineered explosions in Riyadh in 2003 and riots demanding reforms, nominal steps have been taken to promote increased political participation. The government held municipal elections in 2005 for half the members of 179 municipal councils, and in 2006, a committee of Saudi princes was established that will have a role in selecting future kings, but the system will not take effect until after Crown Prince Sultan becomes king.

The creation of modern Saudi Arabia began in 1924 when the al-Saud dynasty, who had been influential in the region for about 400 years, conquered Mecca and Medina, giving them control over the Hajj* but little international influence. From the start, they governed under strict Wahhabi law which is enforced by the religion police known as 'mutawa'. In 1932, the discovery of oil in Arabia gave it, and the area, extraordinary strategic importance and gave the family the financial muscle to spread their brand of conservative Islamic theology. That same year, the country was renamed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Since then there have been a series of heredity kings who have held on to power despite external and internal threats including an abdication and an assassination. Along the way the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has:

  • Formed a lasting strategic friendship with the USA (stemming from a visit by King Saud to the USA in 1957).
  • Bankrolled the PLO, Hamas and other anti-Israel ventures.
  • Officially abolished slavery in 1962 (although the Kingdom is still on many human rights watch lists).
  • Initiated the oil-embargo after the1973 Arab-Israeli War (Egypt and Syria vs. Israel).
  • Organized OPEC as a coordinated monopoly of petroleum exporting countries.
  • Put down fundamentalist Sunni riots in the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 initiated by those who felt the kingdom had become too liberal.
  • Put down riots in late 1979 and 1980 in the eastern Shi'a region due to economic discrimination.
  • Cooperated with the USA to keep oil prices below $25 in the late 1980s (historical chart of crude oil prices) so as to hurt the Soviet economy by making it uneconomic to extract its oil (Russian extraction costs being far higher than Saudi costs).
  • Provide a base for USA troops during the 1991 Iraq War. The USA continued to station troops in Saudi Arabia up until 2003, angering extremists such as Osama bin Laden (a member of a rich Saudi family).
  • Initiated two Arab-Israel peace initiatives.

*Semitic comes from the Arabic word for Shem, one of Noah's three sons, and refers to the language family that includes Arabic, Hebrew and Maltese. Confusingly, during the 19th century anti-Semitism came to refer specifically to hostility towards Jews.

As one of the pillars of Islam, all able-bodied Muslims who can afford to must go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime (Hajj) as a demonstration of Muslim solidarity and their submission to God. Sunni Muslims adhere to five pillars - Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), Shahadah (profession of faith), Salah (ritual prayer), Zakah (alms tax) and Sawm (fasting during Ramadan). Shi'a Muslims adhere to seven or eight, including Jihad (struggle).

Sources include mideastweb.org/ and the CIA Factbook.

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Siege of Mecca. It originally ran in October 2007 and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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