HISTORY OF THE RULING FAMILY. The foundations for a modern Saudi state were laid in 1744 when Muhammad bin Saud, the ruler of a local tribe, joined forces with a religious reformer, Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab, in an attempt to unify the Arabian peninsula under strict Islamic law. Within 60 years, the Al Saud family, through a mixture of religious proselytizing and military conquest, had taken control of a majority of what is now Saudi Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. (Mecca is where the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was born in 570 A.D. and Medina is where, in 633, he died.)
The success of the Al Saud attracted the attention of the Ottoman Turks, who held the Arabian peninsula as part of their empire. In 1816, employing an Egyptian force, the Ottomans launched a campaign to recapture areas under Saudi control. The Al Saud, outnumbered and overpowered, were driven back by Egyptian forces and by 1818 had lost a majority of their empire.
Over the course of the 19th century, the Al Saud made numerous attempts to regain their lost territory, but superior Ottoman forces, as well as resistance from rival clans, proved difficult to overcome. By 1890 the Al Saud had been driven into exile in Kuwait.
In 1902, the Saudi prince Abdul Aziz Al Saud (who was to become known internationally as Ibn Saud) was able to recapture Riyadh, his family's ancestral home, from the rival Al Rashid clan. From there, Ibn Saud launched his campaign to reunify the peninsula. By the end of the First World War, in 1918, the Ottoman empire had collapsed, paving the way for Arabian independence. In 1924, having established a foothold in central Arabia, Ibn Saud moved west into the hejaz region where his army of fanatically religious desert dwellers known as the "Ikhwan" (brethren), defeated Sherif Hussein and took possession of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. By 1932, Ibn Saud, with the support of the Ikhwan, had consolidated control over nearly the entire peninsula. That year he declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with himself as its king.
Over the next 30 years the Al Saud and Al Rashid, vying for control over the peninsula of Arabia, remained at war. In the end, the Saudis emerged victorious, primarily due to Ibn Saud's ability to gain the loyalty of the Ikhwan. Ibn Saud, upon his death in 1953, had 34 surviving sons, who continue to sit at the center of the nation's political apparatus. Ibn Saud was succeeded after his death by his eldest son Saud, who, in his first year of rule, established the Council of Ministers, a body formed to advise the king on state policy and direct the development of the rapidly growing Saudi bureaucracy. Despite ruling for a full 11 years, King Saud was perceived as an ineffective leader. In 1964, under heavy pressure from religious elites and members of the royal family, Saud stepped down in favor of his half brother, Faisal, who had previously served as foreign minister.
As king, Faisal attempted to address issues to which Saud, and even Abdul Aziz, had given little thought, such as how to effectively modernize the country in the face of its emerging wealth. He also struggled with how to maximize the benefits of the kingdom's bountiful petroleum resources. Decisions on oil policy were not always easy to make, especially when matters of Arab solidarity conflicted with the country's drive toward economic prosperity.
When Arab oil producers decided to cut petroleum sales to the United States in 1973, this conflict came into full view. That year, the ever-present tensions between Israel and its neighbors erupted as Israeli and Egyptian forces clashed in the Sinai desert. U.S. aid to Israel during the war led to fierce protests in the Arab world, culminating in an Arab boycott of oil sales to the United States and other western countries. Saudi Arabia, which participated in the boycott, learned a hard lesson as a result: it could not maintain its economy without doing business in the West, for even though the price of oil went up during the boycott due to the cut in supply, the price spikes were insufficient to cover the loss in sales. In 1974, despite opposition from other Arab oil producers, the Saudis froze oil prices and resumed sales to the United States. That year, in a series of negotiations, the United States and Saudi Arabia came to an agreement by which America would provide the kingdom with military support in exchange for an uninterrupted flow of oil. Over the remainder of the decade, Saudi Arabia sold vast quantities of oil at inflated prices, leading it to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
King Faisal, who presided over the oil boycott and the subsequent agreement with the United States, was assassinated in 1975 by a member the royal family. The alleged assassin was executed for the crime. Faisal was replaced by his half brother, Crown Prince Khalid. Fahd, another half brother who would later become king, was appointed as the new Crown Prince and first deputy prime minister, where he was given the responsibility of overseeing a wide range of the country's international and domestic affairs.
Economic development was rapid under King Khalid. Saudi Arabia's acquisition of national wealth enhanced its political influence in the Middle East and heightened its role in world economic affairs. At the same time, however, the kingdom's growing relationship with the West began to concern religious hard-liners who feared that Western influence would corrupt the nation's Islamic ideals. In November 1979, about 250 armed followers of Sunni Muslim cleric Juhaiman Ibn Seif al-Oteif took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. After a standoff, government troops ousted the militants by force. The incident was not without effect, as it alerted the royal family to the extent of the religious opposition it was fostering by failing to display a more overt commitment to the preservation of Islamic ideals. In response, a committee was established, chaired by interior minister Prince Nayef, to establish a set of societal rules based on Islamic principles. Still, opposition from Islamist religious forces continues to pose the greatest single threat to the royal family.
In June 1982, Khalid died and, in a smooth transition, Prince Fahd became king. Prince Abdullah, Fahd's half brother and commander of the Saudi National Guard, was appointed crown prince and deputy prime minister. The role of second deputy prime minister was filled by Fahd's brother, Prince Sultan, who also served as the minister of Defense and Aviation.
King Fahd, despite inheriting a weakening economy, quickly became a central figure in Middle East politics. In 1988, he played a key role in bringing about a cease fire in the Iran-Iraq war. He also helped reorganize and strengthen the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of 6 gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) formed to facilitate regional economic cooperation and peaceful development. Additionally, in the 1990-91 Gulf War, King Fahd used his influence as arbiter over Islam's holiest sites (Mecca and Medina) to help organize and hold together the U.S.-led war coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraq. King Fahd suffered a stroke in November of 1995. By 1997, Crown Prince Abdullah had taken effective control of the state.
Over the decades, tensions between the royal family and radical religious forces have persisted as various Saudi kings have sought to balance the nation's dependence on the West with efforts to preserve the kingdom's cultural and religious heritage. Currently, opposition from Islamist religious forces poses the greatest single threat to the Saudi government. The royal family tries to maintain close ties with the religious leaders, who, it is hoped, can keep the extremist members of the clergy in line. However, religious radicals have, especially over the past decade, attracted a growing number of followers. The reasons for this vary. The kingdom's uneven distribution of wealth is partly to blame, as it has led to rising discontent among the nation's poorest citizens. But more importantly, there is deep seeded resentment stemming from the presence of non-Muslim military forces on Saudi soil. U.S. troops and British soldiers have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War, a situation religious fundamentalists fiercely oppose. This opposition on more than one occasion has been expressed through violence. In November 1995, a car bomb exploded near a U.S. military installation, killing 7 people. In June 1996, there was another, more lethal attack in which a bomb blew up outside the Khobar Towers military barracks, killing 19 American servicemen. A Saudi dissident, Osama bin Laden, has been blamed for planning the attack. However, as of 2001, no arrests had been made.