• Bangladesh!

    Bangladesh: Traditional houses. Go Now!

    This low-lying country has historic ties to India and Pakistan, but today maintains a wholly unique culture. Explore Bangladesh!

  • Indonesia!

    Indonesia: Lombok. Go Now!

    This archipelago nation is culturally diverse from big cities to isolated islands. Begin Your Journey!

  • Jordan!

    Jordan: Petra. Go Now!

    Tucked away in this Middle Eastern country, the famed city of Petra (pictured) links the past to the present culture. Explore Jordan!

  • Mongolia!

    Mongolia: Desert. Go Now!

    This vast country has a culture that spans past and present... a nomadic life shifting to a modern & sedentary society. Begin Your Journey!

  • Kyrgyzstan!

    Kyrgyzstan: Tian Shan Mountains. Go Now!

    The mountains, including the Tian Shan Mountains (pictured), give Kyrgyzstan a unique culture, partially formed from this isolation from the mountains. Go Now!

History of Saudi Arabia

WARNING: Terrorist threats linger in Saudi Arabia, please read this travel warning before going!

People have lived in what is today Saudi Arabia for tens of thousands of years, however for much of history the living conditions in this desert have been harsh and have prevented most settlement and people in general. Most of the region's earliest people were either settlers in the western and southwestern parts of the country or were nomads who lived in the deserts.

In about 570 AD the Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca. He began preaching in 610, but moved to Medina in 622 as the religion of Islam was born. Muhammad united the people and arguably founded a country that later became Saudi Arabia. This religion and country were based around the Arab people from the Arabian Peninsula.

In 632 Muhammad died and Abu Bakr took the lead over the Muslim people as the first Caliph. Abu Bakr and his successors took many of the surrounding lands and converted the people to Islam. By 661 the Umayyad Caliphs took power and continued the expansion of the religion from their capital in Damascus (modern day Syria) as they defeated the Byzantines and Persian in large areas.

As Islam spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the lands of Saudi Arabia remained fairly stable as the cities of Mecca and Medina became destinations for the religious, which requires a trip to Mecca during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah once in his or her life. From this time these cities expanded dramatically, although the region fell on the edge of Islamic rule.

Despite the pilgrims arriving to the region every year, the country changed little in the 700s-900s as the people remained primarily desert-dwelling nomads. This began to change in the 900s-1200s when the rulers of Mecca and Medina, the Hashemite Sharifs, began to expand their rule into the deserts.

In 1517 the Ottomans took over the region, including Mecca and Medina as their rule covered lands from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. However the Ottomans allowed the local leaders to rule most of the day to day operations of the cities and regions. Their rule continued into the 1700s with little argument although the nomadic Bedouins at times revolted and retook their land.

In 1744 in central Arabia, nearly Riyadh, an independent political entity began to develop under the tribal leader Muhammad ibn Saud. In conjunction with Abd-al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement the two took ever increasing power and eventually took most of modern day Saudi Arabia, including Mecca and Medina which were taken by 1816.

This slow takeover of land led to the Ottomans and Egyptians to move into the Arabian Peninsula to reassert Ottoman control in 1818. Just six years later though the Saud family returned to power, but only held on to their original homeland in the region surrounding Riyadh. For most of the 1800s they fought with the Al Rashid for control of this, and the surrounding lands. This ended with Al Rashid victory in 1891 as the Al Saud family went into exile in Kuwait (where they remained until 1902).

During this time the Egyptians remained in the region to solidify control, only leaving in 1840 as the Ottomans again took direct control over the region of Mecca and Medina, with nominal control over nearly the entire peninsula other than the far south.

In 1916 the British and French, fighting the Ottomans at the time in World War I, encouraged the Arabs to begin a revolt and take their lands. This was led by the Sharif of Mecca and he gained great support throughout the peninsula and further north. With Ottoman defeat in WWI, the British granted the Arabs a state in the Arabian Peninsula, but not to the extent promised. Additionally, British support soon shifted from the Sharif of Mecca to the Al Saud family.

By this time, about 1920, the Al Saud family, led by Abdul Aziz, had returned from exile, had re-taken Riyadh, and had begun taking various lands in the surrounding areas, all but defeating the Al Rashid in 1920. The Al Saud takeover truly climaxed in 1925 when they took the Hejaz region in the country's southwest, declaring himself king in 1927, which the United Kingdom recognized. In 1932 the regions of Hejaz and Nejd were united to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In the 1930s power was solidified with the discovery of oil as by the late 1940s this export supported the entire economy. The government also established great relations with Western Europe and the United States when they supplied these countries with oil during World War II.

As the oil industry blossomed the country was faced with vast cultural changes as foreigner began making their way to the region. This led to ethnic tensions, overspending, and increased technology, but with backlashes to maintain conservatism. This led to a change in leadership, brought about by the royal family.

During the years, in the 1950s and 1960s the government oddly turned to the United States to help develop infrastructure. The U.S. had created their oil industry with success so was sought again to help create improved roads, airlines, automobiles, communication, and technology. This has created a long and positive relationship between the two countries.

In 1967 civil war in Yemen led to tensions with Egypt as Saudi Arabia supported the current government and the Egyptians supported the protesters. Due to this, Saudi Arabia refused to participate in the Arab-Israeli war in the same year to show their dissatisfaction with Egypt. Also in the 1960s Saudi Arabia got more involved with their neighbors as they exchanged land with Jordan and supported, financially their neighbors who were at war with Israel.

The relations with the United States took a dip in 1973, during another Arab-Israeli war when Saudi Arabia boycotted exporting oil to the United States in fear that they would send their oil to Israel. It was also during this time that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was established and as they created limited supplies they saw increasing prices and much larger profits, making Saudi Arabia an extremely wealthy country and that time and into today.

The 1970s were also a challenging time for Saudi Arabia as they faced pressure from their Shi'ite minority in the east and Islamic extremists in the west. The extremists viewed the changes in the country and cooperation with the United States as un-Islamic. This led to stricter religious laws in the country, but the extremists continued their protests.

In the 1980s the economy grew further as the country became the world's largest oil producer. They also used much of this money to improve their military.

The 1990s were headlined by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia has long had a good relationship with Kuwait and this led to their intervention in the situation, also requesting that the United States defend Kuwait, allowing U.S. soldiers to be station in Saudi Arabia.

In the 2000s Saudi Arabia is again seeking a balance as they spoke out again the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, but are also seeing a rise in Islamic extremists. This has led to recent military actions to end these extremists as the country has spoken out again former Saudi national Osama bin Laden who was exiled from his home country before being killed in 2011.

This page was last updated: July, 2012