For several thousand years, Arabia has been inhabited by nomadic Semitic tribes. Towns were established at various oases and along caravan routes. During the 7th century AD followers of Muhammad expanded beyond the Mecca-Medina region and within a century conquered most of the Mediterranean region between Persia in the east and Spain in the west. Although Arabs were dominant in many parts of the Muslim world and there was a great medieval flowering of Arab civilization, the Peninsula itself (except for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) declined in importance and remained virtually isolated for almost a thousand years. Throughout this period, Arabia was barely more than a province of successive Islamic caliphates that established their capitals in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Constantinople (now Istanbul).
The foundations of the kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia were laid in the 18th century by the fusion of the military power of the Sa'ud family and Wahhabism, an Islamic puritan doctrine preached by Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab. Muhammad ibn-Sa'ud (r.1744–65) and his son 'Abd al-'Aziz (r.1765–1803) gave the religious reformer refuge at Ad-Dar'iyah, in central Arabia, and together they embarked on a program of religious reform and territorial expansion. By 1801, Najd and Al-Ahsa were occupied. 'Abd al-'Aziz's son and successor, Sa'ud (r.1803–14), brought the Hijaz under Sa'udi control and took the holy city of Mecca. The Ottoman Turks called on their governor of Egypt, Muhammad 'Ali, to put down the Sa'udis. A long struggle (1811–18) finally resulted in Sa'udi defeat. During that time, Sa'ud died, and his son 'Abdallah (r.1814–18) was captured and beheaded.
When international conditions forced Muhammad 'Ali to withdraw his occupation forces in 1840, the Sa'udis embarked upon a policy of reconquest. Under Faisal (Faysal, r.1843–67), Wahhabi control was reasserted over Najd, Al-Ahsa, and Oman, with Riyadh as the new capital. (Hijaz remained under the control of the sharifs of Mecca until 1925.) After Faisal's death, conflict between his sons led to a decline in the family's fortunes. Taking advantage of these quarrels, the Ibn-Rashids, a former Sa'udi vassal family, gained control of Najd and conquered Riyadh. The Sa'udi family fled to Kuwait in 1891.
In January 1902, 'Abd al-'Aziz, a grandson of Faisal, who was to gain fame under the name Ibn-Sa'ud, succeeded in driving the Ibn-Rashid garrison out of Riyadh. At a decisive battle in 1906, the Rashidi power was broken. In 1913, the Sa'udis again brought Al-Ahsa under their control, and in December 1915, Ibn-Sa'ud signed a treaty with the British that placed Sa'udi foreign relations under British control in return for a sizable subsidy.
Warfare broke out again in Arabia in 1919, when Hussein ibn-'Ali (Husayn ibn-'Ali), the sharif of Mecca, who had become an independent king, attacked the Sa'udis. Hussein was defeated, and Ibn-Sa'ud annexed 'Asir. In 1921, he finally rid Arabia of the Rashids, and by 1923, he had consolidated his kingdom by occupying the districts west and north of Ha'il. Hussein of Mecca provoked another conflict with Ibn-Sa'ud in March 1924 by proclaiming himself caliph. War broke out, and the Sa'udis captured At-Ta'if, Mecca, and Medina (December 1925). 'Ali ibn-Hussein ('Ali ibn-Husayn), who had replaced his father as king of Hijaz, then abdicated, and in November 1925, Ibn-Sa'ud entered Jeddah. This increase in Ibn-Sa'ud's territory was acknowledged by the British in a treaty of 20 May 1927 that annulled the 1915 agreement and recognized his independence. On 22 September 1932, the various parts of the realm were amalgamated into the Kingdom of Sa'udi Arabia, with much the same boundaries as exist today.
With the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the history of Sa'udi Arabia was irrevocably altered. Reserves have proved vast— about one-fourth of the world's total—and production, begun in earnest after World War II, has provided a huge income, much of it expended on infrastructure and social services. Sa'udi Arabia's petroleum-derived wealth has considerably enhanced the country's influence in world economic and political forums. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Sa'udi government undertook a vast aid program in support of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Sa'udi Arabia joined the 1973 Arab boycott against the United States and the Netherlands and, as a key member of OPEC, lent its support to the huge rise in oil prices during the 1970s. This move had stunning consequences for the world economy and also caused a dramatic upsurge in Sa'udi Arabia's wealth and power. Since the 1980s, the government has regulated its petroleum production to stabilize the international oil market and has used its influence as the most powerful moderate member of OPEC to restrain the more radical members.
Political life in Sa'udi Arabia has remained basically stable in recent decades, despite several abrupt changes of leadership. In November 1964, Crown Prince Faisal (Faysal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz as-Sa'ud), a son of Ibn-Sa'ud, became king and prime minister following the forced abdication of his brother King Sa'ud. His first act as prime minister was to announce a sweeping reorganization of the government, and his major social reform was the abolition of slavery. In March 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew in an apparently isolated act of revenge. Faisal was succeeded by Crown Prince Khaled (Khalid ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz as-Sa'ud), who embarked on an expanded development program. King Khaled died of a heart attack in June 1982, and his half-brother, Crown Prince Fahd ibn-'Abd al-'Aziz as-Sa'ud, ascended the throne. King Fahd has encouraged continuing modernization while seeking to preserve the nation's social stability and Islamic heritage. As the custodian of the holy Moslem shrines at Mecca and Medina, the monarchy has been deeply embarrassed by several incidents in recent years; e.g., seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by about 500 Islamic militants in 1979, which led to the deaths of more than 160; a riot by Iranian pilgrims during the 1987 pilgrimage, which cost 400 lives; and the suffocation of over 1,400 pilgrims in a tunnel at the Grand Mosque in 1990. Misfortune continued in 1994, when a stampede in Mecca killed 270 pilgrims rushing toward a cavern for a symbolic stoning ritual, and in 1997, when as many as 300 pilgrims were killed in a fire at a campsite outside the holy city.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Sa'udi Arabia, fearing Iraqi aggression, radically altered its traditional policy to permit the stationing of foreign troops on its soil. (The government was criticized by senior Sa'udi religious scholars for taking this step.) Riyadh made substantial contributions of arms, oil, and funds to the allied victory. It also expelled workers from Jordan, Yemen, and members of the PLO for giving support to Iraq in the period after the invasion. Sa'udi Arabia's wealth and selective generosity has given it great political influence throughout the world and especially in the Middle East. It suspended aid to Egypt after that country's peace talks with Israel at Camp David, Md., but renewed relations in 1987. It made substantial funds secretly available to US president Ronald Reagan's administration for combating Marxist regimes in Central America. The kingdom played a key role in creating the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in working for an end to the civil strife in Lebanon. It actively supported Iraq during the war with Iran and tried, in vain, to prevent the conflict with Kuwait.
Sa'udi Arabia and the United States consult closely on political, economic, commercial, and security matters. The United States, with the United Kingdom, is a major supplier of arms and offers training and other support to the kingdom's defenses. These supports grew more visible following the Gulf War and continued Iraqi intransigence in the face of increased US and international pressure to disarm. The increased US military presence in Sa'udi Arabia in 1993–94 caused considerable irritation among conservative elements of Sa'udi society who felt that the US military presence was blasphemous to Islam. In 1995, seven people, including five Americans, were killed by a terrorist attack on a Sa'udi National Guard Training Center in Riyadh. In June 1996, a car bomb detonated in front of a housing complex for US military personnel killed 19 US servicemen, causing considerable uproar in the United States and leading military planners to relocate US military bases to remote desert areas.
By the end of the 1990s, the Islamist backlash that followed Sa'udi-US cooperation in the Gulf War had been contained through the (mostly) temporary detention of hundreds of Islamic radicals and the long-term detention of their most prominent leaders. Between 1997 and 1999, the reins of government had largely passed to Crown Prince Abdullah, the half-brother of the ailing King Fahd, who was believed to have suffered a stroke in 1995 and whose two-month stay in Spain in the summer of 1999 raised renewed speculations about his health. At the turn of the 21st century, much of the Saudis' attention was focused on unaccustomed economic pressures resulting from a 40% drop in oil prices in 1998. With almost half its GDP coming from oil, the country's budget deficit had soared as export revenues plummeted. Prince Abdullah was instrumental in pushing through the production cutbacks agreed to by the OPEC countries in March 1999.
At a summit held in Beirut in March 2002, the Arab League accepted a Sa'udi proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah. Known as the "Beirut Declaration," the plan offered Israel normalized relations with the Arab states and a guarantee of peace and security in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem," and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state with its capital at East Jerusalem. The proposal was introduced against the backdrop of an escalation in violence in Israel and the occupied territories in spring 2002, when Israel took over Palestinian-controlled cities and territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in response to an increase in suicide bombings and violence resulting from the then 18-month-old al-Aqsa intifada . In April, Crown Prince Abdullah met with US president George W. Bush, and presented him with an eight-point list of proposed agreements for immediate peace in the Middle East. It included an end to Israel's military seige of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was sequestered; complete Israeli withdrawal from terrorities recently occupied in the conflict; introduction of a multinational force in the region; the reconstruction of Palestinian areas; the renunication of violence; the initiation of peace talks; an end to Israeli settlements; and implementation of UN resolutions calling for Israel's withdrawal from the territories occupied during the 1967 war, including the Golan Heights and West Bank. Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat called the Sa'udi proposal approved in Beirut the most important step toward peace taken in over 20 years. After Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan was put forward, the violence in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza increased.
Due to the fact that 15 of the 19 hijiackers involved in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were Sa'udis, in addition to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the United States placed pressure on Sa'udi Arabia to undertake counterterrorism measures. The United States during 2002 and into 2003 lobbied Sa'udi Arabia for its support in a possible war with Iraq if it were to be found in "material breach" of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 passed on 8 November 2002, calling on Iraq to immediately disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), allow for the reintroduction of IAEA and UN weapons inspectors, and comply with all previous UN resolutions regarding the country passed since the Gulf War in 1991. In early 2003, Sa'udi Arabia was debating what degree of support it would offer the United States in the event of a war with Iraq. Senior members of the royal family indicated in February 2003 that Sa'udi Arabia might call for the withdrawal of American troops from the country following the end of the campaign to disarm Iraq. Although those statements were not confirmed by the US Pentagon, it is clear that Sa'udi Arabia is considering a reevaluation of its relationship with the US. It was assumed that security cooperation would continue, yet any distance Sa'udi Arabia might take from the United States would be seen as paving the way for political reform, including increased democratization and a curtailing of the power of Wahhabi religious authorities. On 26 February, Sa'udi Arabia stated it would allow the use of the Prince Sultan air base, where most of the 5,000 US troops based in the kingdom are located, only for the enforcement of a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq. It stated it had not agreed to allow US troops and planes based in the country to undertake a war with Iraq. However, Sa'udi Foreign Minister Prince Sa'ud al-Faisal stated the kingdom could reconsider its position with regard to the US military presence if circumstances were to change.