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date: 03 December 2022

Modern Saudi Arabiafree

Modern Saudi Arabiafree

  • Fred H. LawsonFred H. LawsonMills College


Modern Saudi Arabia emerged in the 1920s as the successor to a collection of local political entities on the Arabian peninsula, whose histories are only starting to be investigated. Existing studies of Saudi history emphasize the actions and objectives of successive rulers, most notably the founder of the kingdom, 'Abd al-'Aziz bin 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud, and his sons Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, and 'Abdullah. Popular responses to the rise and consolidation of Saudi rule have received little sustained attention. Equally lacking is an objective analysis of the pivotal period of the late 1950s, when elite and mass movements for political reform took shape. Instability during this period is generally attributed to the personal failings of King Sa'ud bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, rather than to conflicts among influential social forces. Current scholarship explores the emergence of radical Islamist movements in the Sunni and Shi'i communities alike.


  • Middle East

After the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1918, the province of al-Hijaz on the western coast of the Arabian peninsula emerged as an autonomous political entity under the leading figure of the pilgrimage city of Mecca, Amir al-Husain bin 'Ali Al Hashim, who had been recognized as the king of al-Hijaz by Britain and France in 1916. The new polity possessed a functioning, albeit rudimentary, administrative apparatus that it had inherited from the Ottoman empire, including a constitution, municipal courts, a council of ministers, and a regular armed forces. Somewhat less well institutionalized was the administration of 'Asir on the Red Sea coast south of al-Hijaz, headed by Muhammad bin 'Ali al-Idrisi at Sabya; even more informally structured was the domain of Amir Sa'ud bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Rashid, centered in the inland commercial town of Hail at the edge of the desert north of al-Hijaz. The existence of all three polities was threatened by a dynamic alliance of beduin and settled clans based in the central Arabian region of Najd, headed by sultan 'Abd al-'Aziz bin 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud. This alliance was rooted in the historic partnership between the Sa'ud clan and a body of religious scholars ('ulama) who promoted the teachings of the puritanical 18th-century reformer Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab.

Shortly after World War I ended, the British authorities stopped providing monetary subsidies to al-Husain’s government. As a result, Hijazi officials imposed a variety of new taxes on international and local trade, which prompted the commercial elite of the city of al-Madinah (Medina) to call a general strike in November 1922. At the same time, the government of al-Hijaz terminated the subventions that it had previously paid to the surrounding clans, sparking a sharp increase in raiding around Mecca and al-Madinah and encouraging several tribal leaders who had previously aligned themselves with al-Husain to defect to the alliance led by 'Abd al-'Aziz. Meanwhile, the Saudi alliance cultivated a corps of shock troops called the Brothers (al-ikhwan); this armed formation consisted of former beduin who had set up agricultural communities in Najd in order to practice the strict Islamic way of life (shari'ah) prescribed by Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab. These troops conquered the Rashidi domain in November 1921, after Amir Sa'ud was assassinated and succeeded by the youthful 'Abdullah bin Mut'aib Al Rashid.

As the fiscal crisis deepened in al-Hijaz, al-Husain in March 1924 declared himself to be the successor (khalifah, caliph) to the Prophet Muhammad. This move angered the Brothers, who attacked towns outside Mecca and succeeded in occupying the city that October. Forces loyal to al-Husain managed to hold out in al-Madinah and the port of Jiddah for another year, but these two cities eventually fell under Saudi control.

Founding of the kingdom

In January 1926, 'Abd al-'Aziz accepted from a delegation of local notables the title “King of al-Hijaz” and added it to his existing title, “Sultan of Najd and its Dependencies.” King 'Abd al-'Aziz immediately appointed a fifty-one-member Consultative Council (majlis al-shura) and named his son Faisal to the post of viceroy of al-Hijaz. The Consultative Council collapsed after several members were found to be agitating for the restoration of Hashimi rule. Meanwhile, influential religious scholars allied to the Al Sa'ud issued edicts that prohibited the sale or use of alcohol and tobacco in 'Abd al-'Aziz’s enlarged domain and made attendance at Friday prayers mandatory. The new regulations were enforced by vigilantes called the Committees for the Commanding of Virtue and Suppressing of Evil, who were mostly devout followers of Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab from the smaller towns of Najd.

By mid-1927, discontent had broken out among the Brothers. These fighters found themselves excluded from prestigious administrative posts by better-educated citizens of the cities, and they were irritated by 'Abd al-'Aziz’s agreeing to accept the title of king, which has negative connotations in Islamic history. The Brothers also opposed an order issued by 'Abd al-'Aziz that ended direct trade between Najd and Kuwait, which they believed worked to the benefit of the Shi'i merchant community of the eastern coastal region of al-Hasa. As soon as the order was implemented, the Brothers began to raid settled areas along the border with Kuwait and Iraq and ignored 'Abd al-'Aziz’s entreaties to desist. The king then requested assistance from British military commanders in the Persian Gulf, who supplied the Saudi government with armored cars and aircraft. Supported by these advanced weapons, forces loyal to 'Abd al-'Aziz managed to defeat the Brothers in a series of battles from March to November 1929.

Crucial to the economy of al-Hijaz was the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which attracted thousands of visitors from all across the Islamic world. The Great Depression of 1929–1933 sharply reduced the flow of pilgrims, forcing the Saudi authorities to raise taxes on local merchants and reduce subsidies to allied clans in order to cover administrative expenses. A wave of popular discontent consequently swept across 'Asir, al-Hijaz, and al-Hasa from early 1930 to the end of 1932. Anti-Saudi agitation prompted 'Abd al-'Aziz to annex 'Asir in November 1930. Disaffection in al-Hijaz was mobilized by a secret organization called the Hijazi Liberation Party. The activities of this party threatened to split the urban coalition that underpinned Saudi rule, as well as to divide the Al Sa'ud from allied clans in the countryside. The threat posed by the Hijazi Liberation Party persuaded 'Abd al-'Aziz to declare the formal unification of al-Hijaz and Najd in September 1932, thereby creating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The monarch designated his eldest son, Sa'ud, as heir apparent, and gave Faisal the role of foreign minister. He also set up a ministry of finance and appointed the sons of his favorite wife to be the governors of key provinces.

More important, in May 1933 the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL) concluded an agreement with 'Abd al-'Aziz, according to whose terms the company agreed to pay the government an annual royalty in exchange for the exclusive right to search for petroleum in al-Hasa and the rest of the kingdom’s extensive Eastern Province. The initial payment made it possible for the authorities to sustain the growing corps of state employees, and SOCAL soon found that it had stumbled upon the richest reservoir of petroleum in the Gulf region. The first shipment of oil produced by the consortium of companies that SOCAL formed in order to exploit the Saudi concession, called the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), departed from the new oil terminal at Dammam in May 1939.

Nevertheless, the outbreak of World War II severely disrupted trade in al-Hijaz and sharply reduced the number of pilgrims who visited Mecca each year. Large numbers of Hijazis consequently migrated to the oil-producing districts of the Eastern Province. The rise in population aggravated wartime food shortages in the oil fields, which sparked organized protests among petroleum and transportation workers during the spring of 1945. Rising public disaffection led Saudi officials to solicit technical assistance from the United States, which dispatched missions that reorganized the ministry of finance in 1948, set up the ministries of the interior and health in 1951, and created the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency in 1952. King 'Abd al-'Aziz in October 1953 formed a council of ministers to coordinate the activities of the new state agencies, while leaving the provision of many public services in the hands of ARAMCO. The growing institutionalization of the central administration accompanied heightened mobilization of workers throughout the Eastern Province, where clandestine cells took shape that championed the concept of Egyptian-style Arab socialism, the platform of the Lebanon-based Movement of Arab Nationalists, and even a local variety of communism.

Era of struggle

As these developments came to a head, King 'Abd al-'Aziz expired in November 1953 and was succeeded by his son Sa'ud. The new monarch came to power as oil revenues spiked, jumping from US$236 million in 1953 to USD 340 million a year later. Oil income then stagnated from 1955 to 1957. The rise and subsequent stagnation of government income generated opposition to the regime in two ways. First, it gave political clout to dissident members of the ruling family. A faction of 'Abd al-'Aziz’s thirty-four sons who favored introducing such political reforms as a permanent constitution and an elected Consultative Council coalesced under the leadership of Talal bin 'Abd al-'Aziz. Figures associated with this movement created an organization that took the name Young Najd; it charged that King Sa'ud was both incompetent and corrupt and called for closer cooperation with Egypt and the other Arab republics. Discontent inside the ruling family was heightened by the new king’s tendency to place his own sons in pivotal administrative positions. Sa'ud also abolished the post of prime minister, thereby alienating Faisal and his allies.

Second, the stagnation in oil revenue accompanied renewed labor activism in the Eastern Province. In October 1953, some 13,000 workers in Dammam went on strike and maintained the industrial action for three weeks. An underground Workers’ Committee continued to plan protests in the wake of the strike and joined a group of reform-oriented military officers to create the National Reform Front. This coalition demanded the implementation of constitutional rule, guarantees of civil liberties, and an end to foreign control of national economic assets. Its supporters carried out a large anti-American demonstration in the town of Dhahran on the occasion of king Sa'ud’s first visit to the Eastern Province in May 1956. The demonstration was crushed by beduin fighters on the orders of the provincial governor, but the brutality that was used against the protesters led to a general strike in the oil fields that June. Meanwhile, students in the less-advantaged districts of Buraidah and 'Unaizah in central Najd mobilized to demand the abolition of the Committees for the Commanding of Virtue and Suppressing of Evil, as well as a standardized secondary school curriculum throughout the kingdom.

By 1958 a sizable portion of the ruling family had become disenchanted with Sa'ud, and in particular with his ability to deal with the challenges facing the regime. A faction led by Fahd bin 'Abd al-'Aziz pressured the king to restore the post of prime minister and nominate Faisal to hold it. Sa'ud acquiesced in this demand, but after Faisal soon resigned the king made overtures to more reform-oriented princes and appointed a number of reformers to ministerial posts in December 1960. In addition, he created a ministry of labor and workers’ affairs, along with a Supreme Planning Council that was put in the hands of Talal. Such moves were strenuously resisted by Faisal and his allies, as well as by the kingdom’s religious establishment. In December 1961, a group of pro-reform princes proposed that the country adopt an Organic Law to lay out the basic structure of governance, and Talal once again proposed setting up an elected Consultative Council. The king referred these measures to the kingdom’s senior religious authority, the Grand Mufti, who issued a formal ruling (fatwa) that asserted that neither measure was necessary since the Islamic way of life (shari'ah) served as the kingdom’s constitution. Blocked in his efforts to initiate fundamental change, Talal in February 1962 resigned from the council of ministers and left the country.

One month later, Faisal resurrected the premiership. He then announced a package of incremental reforms called the Ten Point Program. Among the proposed measures was the abolition of slavery, the formation of a Consultative Council, and a variety of projects in the areas of health, education, and social affairs. The Ten Point Program won support from influential merchant families in al-Hijaz, who considered Sa'ud to be inherently unpredictable and suspected that he sympathized with proponents of political and economic transformation. Encouraged by backing from the commercial elite, Faisal that September gave his half-brother 'Abdullah command of the National Guard, the paramilitary force that was assigned to protect the palace and the oil fields, and installed another half-brother as governor of the capital district in Riyadh. In January 1963, the council of ministers declared martial law and ordered the security forces to round up suspected dissidents in the armed forces and the labor movement. Government ministers aligned with Sa'ud were removed from their positions four months later, and Faisal named his half-brother Fahd as minister of the interior and Fahd’s full brother Sultan as minister of defense.

Sa'ud made one last attempt to exercise control over policy making in March 1964. But Faisal riposted by dispatching units of the National Guard to encircle the king’s primary residence; he then obtained a fatwa that authorized the transfer of ruling authority to himself. Sa'ud was formally deposed by a council of senior Saudi princes in October 1964, and the deposition was ratified by the religious establishment. The ruling family immediately designated Faisal as king and reconfirmed Fahd and Sultan as ministers of interior and defense, respectively.

Consolidation of the regime

As soon as he became king, Faisal ignored earlier pledges that a Consultative Council would be set up, and instead used the massive revenues derived from oil exports to construct a comprehensive welfare system, set up a handful of technical ministries, and rationalize the government bureaucracy. Policies put in place during the early years of Faisal’s rule encouraged the emergence of large private trading companies, the great majority of which were owned by the leading merchant houses of al-Hijaz. Alexei Vassiliev reports that these family-held firms “acted as contractors, built apartments, hotels and supermarkets, set up shipping and transport companies and invested in industry.”1 The centrality of al-Hijaz to the new political-economic order was reflected in the appointment of Ahmad Zaki al-Yamani to the post of minister of state for oil affairs. At the same time, capital-intensive farming expanded, with richer cultivators using loans from the state-affiliated agricultural bank to mechanize their operations.

Such programs sparked sporadic resistance from two directions: from those who considered these policies to constitute an unwarranted intrusion of Western practices into local society, and from those who saw them as boosting the wealth and power of well-connected elites at the expense of the general public. The opening of the kingdom’s first television station in September 1965, for instance, prompted a group of radical Islamists led by Khalid bin Mus'aid Al Sa'ud to attack the broadcasting studio in Riyadh; the attackers, including Khalid—a descendant of the Al Rashid rulers of Hail—were arrested and sentenced to death for their temerity. Along the same lines, the opening of a government-sponsored girls’ school in Buraidah set the stage for violent demonstrations, which came to an end only after the National Guard intervened to protect the institution. The year 1966 saw a wave of attacks against state offices and ARAMCO installations by radical Islamists of the Society for the Liberation of the Holy Soil and the Arab nationalist Union of the People of the Arabian Peninsula. During the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, demonstrators marched on the U.S. consulate in Dhahran and several nearby police stations; in response, the internal security forces rounded up labor activists all across the Eastern Province. Three years later, members of the Movement of Arab Nationalists joined Ba'th Party sympathizers to form a Popular Democratic Party.

The Faisal era also saw the steady subordination of the religious establishment to state supervision. Vigilantes called “volunteers” (mutawwa'in) who took it upon themselves to enforce the rules of public behavior associated with the doctrines of Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab were offered handsome salaries and other material benefits if they agreed to keep their activities within bounds. The office of Grand Mufti was quietly allowed to lapse, and in September 1970 it was superseded by a newly created Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. More important, in late 1971 a government-sponsored Council of Senior 'Ulama was set up to provide an institutional forum for deliberations regarding religious matters. Only one member of the influential Al al-Shaikh, the descendants of Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab, was accorded a place on the council.

Faisal’s program of augmenting the infrastructural power of the Saudi state ended abruptly in March 1975, when he was assassinated by Faisal bin Mus'aid Al Sa'ud, a brother of the Khalid who had been executed for raiding the television station. The Sa'ud family council immediately confirmed Khalid bin 'Abd al-'Aziz as his successor and designated Fahd crown prince. At this point, knowledgeable observers of Saudi politics concur that the regime became polarized into three mutually antagonistic camps. The first and dominant faction included King Khalid, 'Abdullah, and the religious establishment; this camp was predisposed to return the country to the type of personalist governance that had characterized the era of 'Abd al-'Aziz. The second and rising faction consisted of a close-knit collection of princes known as the Sudairis, since its leading figures (Crown Prince Fahd, Minister of Defense Sultan, and Minister of the Interior Nayif) were all sons of one of 'Abd al-'Aziz’s wives who came from the Sudair region; its members favored continuing the project of enhancing the institutional capacity and regulatory scope of the central administration. The third faction, which found itself at a distinct disadvantage relative to the others, was made up of an assortment of younger princes, most of whom had been educated at Western universities. The most prominent of these well-trained and ambitious grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz was Sa'ud bin Faisal.

Resurgent challenges

Upon ascending to the throne, Khalid followed Faisal’s example and took on the post of prime minister. Nevertheless, almost all important policy decisions ended up being delegated to Crown Prince Fahd. In July 1975, the government announced the inauguration of a Five-Year Development Plan, which earmarked USD 141 billion for the expansion of basic infrastructure and social services, as well as for the construction of a pair of integrated industrial cities at Yanbu' on the Red Sea and Jubail on the Gulf. That October, the major ministries were reorganized and six new ministries created; the heads of the new state agencies were drawn from allies of the crown prince. The tug-of-war between Khalid and Fahd shaped policy making over the next few years.

Then came the 1978–1979 revolution in Iran. This event revived popular activism in predominantly Shi'i districts of the Eastern Province, which tended to be significantly poorer and less well-endowed with government services than other parts of the kingdom. Sporadic rioting in al-Hasa and al-Qatif accompanied the appearance of a collection of clandestine organizations that claimed to be fighting for the improvement of the living conditions of the Shi'i community. Among these were the Call to Islam (al-Da'wah), the Islamic Revolutionary Organization of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Liberation Party of the Peninsula. The emergence of these groups persuaded state officials to step up spending on a wide range of public projects, most notably water and sewage systems, hospitals, schools, and roads. Government banks also initiated a scheme whereby Shi'i entrepreneurs could gain access to low-interest loans to fund their businesses. Protests nevertheless persisted, particularly in al-Qatif, where in November 1979 riot police assaulted a ritual procession commemorating the martyrdom of al-Imam Husain ('ashurah). Protesters responded to the assault by looting shops and breaking into local branches of state-owned financial institutions. A smaller but better-organized protest took place in February 1980, which convinced the king to visit al-Qatif for 'ashurah the following year.

By the late 1970s, cells of militant Sunni Islamists had started to spring up as well. These groups condemned the Al Sa'ud for tolerating laxity in public religious practice and engaging in personal immorality. Members of one such cell, led by Juhaiman bin Muhammad Al 'Utaibah and Muhammad bin 'Abdullah al-Qahtani, issued a series of pamphlets that castigated the ruling family for its luxurious lifestyle, lambasted the religious establishment for coddling the Shi'i community, and demanded that all foreigners residing in the country be expelled. The actions of this network sparked a short-lived revolt in a rural district between Mecca and al-Madinah in November 1979. Fighters loyal to the cell then seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it for two weeks. Toward the end of 1979, a shadowy organization called the Brothers (al-Ikhwan) came to light in al-Hasa, compelled ARAMCO to close its training program for women, and vandalized several beauty salons. In response, the authorities ordered the mutawwa'in to crack down on women who ignored the conventions that regulated behavior and dress in public places. The government also took steps to undercut the radical Sunni current by supporting a loose collection of liberal Islamist scholars known as the Islamic Awakening (al-Sahwah al-Islamiyyah), whose platform broadly paralleled that of Syria’s Muslim Brothers. More concretely, Crown Prince Fahd announced that a Consultative Council would soon be set up, and in March 1980 a commission was formed under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior to draw up the guidelines whereby members of such a body might be nominated.

Return to orderliness

King Khalid died unexpectedly in June 1982, and the Sa'ud family council immediately confirmed Fahd as his successor. Proposed political reforms were put on hold “due to the death of Khalid.” Sultan remained as minister of defense, and Nayif continued to be minister of the interior; 'Abdullah was designated crown prince, even though he refused to relinquish command of the National Guard as he was expected to do. The succession from one of 'Abd al-'Aziz’s sons to another elicited grumbling among the younger princes, who found themselves yet again excluded from the pinnacle of power. Fahd appointed Sa'ud bin Faisal as foreign minister and installed a number of grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz as provincial governors in an attempt to quiet the grumbling.

Fahd from the outset collaborated closely with the religious establishment. He met with prominent 'ulama every week, authorized the promulgation of a formal law code rooted in Muhammad bin 'Abd al-Wahhab’s strict interpretation of Islam, and placed members of the Al al-Shaikh in key positions in the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. In addition, the early 1980s brought notable enhancements to the prerogatives of the Directorate of Religious Research, Rulings, Propagation and Guidance, an institution that operated at the intersection of the religious establishment and state agencies. These years also saw the opening of Islamic universities in Riyadh, Mecca, and al-Madinah, which by the late 1980s enrolled more than 15 percent of the country’s university students. In October 1986, Fahd adopted a new title, the Custodian of the Two Holy Places (khadim al-haramain al-sharifain), and no longer referred to himself as “king.”

Fahd came to the rulership at a moment when Saudi oil revenues dropped off precipitously. Government officials proposed a succession of tax increases in an attempt to maintain existing levels of spending, but these measures were consistently blocked by the Chamber of Commerce in the capital. Budget deficits consequently soared, and most new industrial and infrastructural projects were suspended or canceled, particularly in the Eastern Province and 'Asir. At the same time, an evident gap took shape between the ruling family, wealthy merchant houses, and tribal leaders on one side, and on the other the residents of peripheral districts in al-Hasa, 'Asir, and the al-Qasim region of Najd province. Growing economic inequality set the stage for what Madawi Al-Rasheed calls the “emergence of a new generation of self-appointed literate and articulate mutawwa'in,”2 as well as rising antagonism between the religious establishment and the Islamic Awakening movement.

Renewed discontent

Popular protests broke out again in al-Hasa during the spring of 1989, as local Shi'is took the streets to mourn the death of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Grand 'Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That July, a group called the Arab Fury Generation claimed responsibility for a succession of bombings outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. At the same time, the governor of 'Asir arrested a local preacher who had voiced criticism of the Al Sa'ud, which precipitated large-scale demonstrations in support of the preacher. Anti-regime sentiment spread throughout the country as U.S. soldiers started to arrive in the Eastern Province in the fall of 1990. Sermons and speeches that criticized the Al Sa'ud for relying on the Americans to defend the holiest places of Islam circulated widely on audio cassettes and videotapes; in November 1990, forty-three prominent figures in the Islamic Awakening movement signed a petition to the ruler requesting the immediate implementation of political and social reforms. The petition coincided with a public protest by elite women in Riyadh against the longstanding custom of not permitting females to drive automobiles, along with a small rally in Jiddah that called for an end to Al Sa'ud rule.

During the spring of 1991, liberal intellectuals joined the Islamic Awakening movement in circulating petitions that advocated the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. When the governor of Najd stopped a preacher in Buraidah from delivering a Friday sermon that was expected to criticize the authorities, more than one thousand of his supporters poured into the streets in protest. As popular discontent escalated, a group of senior religious scholars called on the ruler to set up an appointed Consultative Council, take steps to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth, and crack down on corruption at all levels of society. That November, Fahd announced that he planned to authorize the establishment of a Consultative Council and issue a Basic Order of Government, yet leaflets and cassettes continued to attack the Al Sa'ud for squandering public funds and neglecting their primary obligation—to protect the heartland of Islam. Persistent criticism led Fahd to tell the council of ministers in January 1992 that “another way” besides “patience” might become necessary in order to deal with the opposition. Nevertheless, three major regulations were promulgated in March 1992: the Basic Law of Government, which for the most part confirmed the ruler’s right to carry out a broad range of duties; the Law of the Consultative Council, whereby the ruler would appoint representatives to advise him concerning domestic affairs; and the Law of the Provinces, which provided for a network of appointed provincial councils.

Instead of silencing critics of the regime, the new laws encouraged them to raise their demands even further. More than one hundred religious scholars and faculty members of the Islamic universities signed a Memorandum of Advice, which urged the ruler to reduce the arbitrariness that permeated law enforcement, set up independent agencies to monitor government spending, allow independent mass media, and bring an end to judicial proceedings that infringed on the personal rights of citizens. More pointedly, the Memorandum of Advice demanded that the government break up existing economic monopolies that worked to the advantage of “people of privilege,” stop issuing bonds that paid interest to investors, cut petroleum production in order to raise world oil prices, and liquidate the kingdom’s investments in the United States. The Council of Senior 'Ulama immediately condemned the document and accused those who had signed it of promoting divisiveness in Saudi society. When a group of liberal Islamists in May 1993 set up the Committee to Defend Legitimate Rights to struggle against injustice and corruption in the kingdom, the Council of Senior 'Ulama condemned that initiative as well.

To combat the actions of anti-Saudi Islamists, the government in July 1993 set up a new ministry of Islamic affairs, endowments, propagation, and guidance. It also revived the office of Grand Mufti and appointed 'Abd al-'Aziz bin Baz to the post—the first Grand Mufti who was not a member of the Al al-Shaikh. The authorities then unleashed the security forces against actual and suspected Islamist militants. Heightened harassment led the Council for the Defense of Legitimate Rights to decamp to London in the spring of 1994.

Even as state officials escalated the battle against radical Islamists, they found themselves strapped for resources. The Saudi armed forces signed major arms contracts with American and British companies in the wake of the 1990–1991 Gulf war, and at the same time wrote off sizable loans to Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq. By the end of 1993, the kingdom’s total indebtedness had reached USD 55 billion, or more than half of total gross domestic product. This trend steadily weakened public sector enterprises, but strengthened private capital, which exercised its influence by forming joint ventures with a wide range of foreign companies. Under these circumstances, Fahd in August 1993 finally appointed sixty representatives of the kingdom’s economic and intellectual elite to a Consultative Council. Paul Dresch vividly portrays the assembly as “serried ranks of overweight men at expensive desks, all dressed almost identically and saying such uniform things that public life seems hardly worth the bother.”3

Despite the convening of the Consultative Council, popular unrest continued to percolate. Anti-regime demonstrations erupted in Buraidah in September 1994, in response to which the security forces arrested leading figures of the Islamic Awakening and several hundred of their supporters. Three clandestine organizations claimed responsibility for the November 1995 bombing of a National Guard facility in Riyadh. The Council of Senior 'Ulama made little effort to condemn these strikes, which prompted the government to form the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs to deal with the radicals. This body included the minister of the interior, the minister of defense and the foreign minister, but not one religious scholar.

Foundation of the 21st-century Order

Fahd suffered a massive stroke in November 1995 that left him largely incapacitated, so policy making devolved onto Crown Prince 'Abdullah. The acting ruler took greater care than his predecessor to mollify Islamist critics of the regime. 'Abdullah made a point of tolerating dissident religious scholars and preachers and imposed stricter limits on the behavior of members of the ruling family. He was even reported to have engaged in talks with the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in early 1996. The reports resulted in a split inside that organization which dramatically diminished the influence of its moderate wing. A number of members who broke away in the wake of the talks set up a rival organization, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, which demanded that the Consultative Council be elected rather than appointed and called for a more active role in policy making on the part of the religious establishment. Under these circumstances, 'Abdullah ordered the release of a number of detained Islamist activists during of 1997–1999.

Despite such overtures, anti-regime violence continued. Attacks on state agencies and military installations were increasingly associated with the shadowy Committee for Advice and Reform. This group was led by a charismatic firebrand named 'Usama bin Ladin, who had organized and trained hundreds of Saudi citizens to fight the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Bombs were detonated outside the U.S. military mission in Riyadh and the al-Khobar Towers barracks in al-Hasa during 1996, responsibility for which was claimed by three previously unknown groups.

Meanwhile, state officials announced plans to deregulate the economy as a way to manage the crisis that resulted from the collapse of world oil prices in 1998 and the ongoing rise of Saudi public debt. 'Abdullah told the December 1998 summit meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council that the oil-producing states of the Gulf must cut state spending and encourage the expansion of private enterprise if they were to prosper in future. The new council of ministers that was appointed in June 1999 included prominent champions of economic liberalization and proponents of foreign investment. Two months later, the government created a Supreme Economic Council to draw up a comprehensive plan to implement privatization and phase out the country’s extensive system of public subsidies. In April 2000 the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority was formed to facilitate foreign investment in the kingdom, and in August 2001 a Privatization Committee was formed inside the Supreme Economic Council to start transferring public enterprises to private owners.

In the wake of the September 2001 attacks on the United States, a wave of anti-American sentiment swept through Saudi Arabia. Radical Islamists criticized the Islamic Awakening and the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights alike for their softness toward the West. One preacher in Buraidah called the United States “an enemy of Islam,” while a retired member of the Council of Senior 'Ulama issued a fatwa backing the Taliban of Afghanistan. In December 2001, a riot broke out in Jiddah at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan after vigilantes attacked unaccompanied women and families walking along the waterfront. The crown prince responded to the unrest by launching a campaign against excessive rhetoric in Friday sermons, and he hinted that the members of the Consultative Council might in the near future be elected rather than appointed. The atmosphere changed dramatically in March 2002, when a girls’ school in Mecca caught fire and the mutawwa'in prevented the pupils from escaping because they were not fully covered. This incident generated outrage against the radicals throughout Saudi society, and Minister of the Interior Nayif in the company of the Grand Mufti visited the headquarters of the Committees for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppressing of Evil to admonish the mutawwa'in to respect individual rights and show leniency toward the weak.

A group of 104 intellectuals and professionals, including several prominent Shi'is, sent 'Abdullah a memorandum in January 2003 that was entitled “Strategic Vision for the Present and Future of the Homeland.” The document proposed the further development of constitutional institutions, an elected legislature, guarantees of civil rights, the legalization of civic and professional associations, and a reaffirmation of political authority based on justice. The crown prince met with some of the signers and told them that he accepted the principles they had laid out, but he urged them to be patient and not expect quick implementation. That April the Ministry of the Interior authorized the formation of two competing human rights organizations. Before these organizations could settle down to business, militants of al-Qa'idah on the Arabian Peninsula set off bombs outside three residential compounds in the capital. 'Abdullah, in a rare televised address to the nation, warned that such violence would not be tolerated, and he ordered the security forces to crack down on a wide range of Islamists and other dissidents. Skirmishes between the police and Islamist radicals led civil rights activists to join the Islamic Awakening in petitioning the crown prince to set a clear timetable for reform; 'Abdullah pointedly ignored the document, and Minister of the Interior Nayif summoned those who had signed the petition to come to the ministry to explain themselves.

Consolidation of the 'Abdullah regime

At the end of July 2005, Fahd died and 'Abdullah became ruler at the age of eighty-two. Sultan was named crown prince and, like 'Abdullah, retained his post as defense minister; Nayif stayed on as interior minister. Civil rights activists and Shi'i leaders alike welcomed the transition, expecting the new king to be more amenable to reform than either his predecessor or the other senior members of the Al Sa'ud. As one of his first official acts, 'Abdullah issued a decree that created a thirty-five-member Allegiance Council to select the next ruler after Sultan; the council included both sons and grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. Further steps toward political reform failed to materialize, however, and the government turned its attention instead to making productive use of the surge in revenue that resulted from the upturn in world oil prices that occurred in the summer of 2007. A portion of the influx of funds was earmarked for agricultural projects in the comparatively impoverished districts of al-Qasim, 'Asir, and the southern region of Jizan.

Crown Prince Sultan was whisked off first to Geneva and then to New York for medical treatment in May 2008, prompting renewed discussion of the succession. The next March, the ruler named Nayif to the new post of second deputy prime minister, which was widely interpreted as a sign that the seventy-five-year-old minister of the interior would succeed the eighty-two-year-old Sultan. Talal complained from Beirut that the episode demonstrated that the Allegiance Council was being bypassed. After this the Al Sa'ud started to fracture along kinship lines: Nayif tightened his grip on the Ministry of the Interior, and his son Muhammad set up a special surveillance agency inside the ministry. In November 2009 'Abdullah at last gave up command of the National Guard and turned it over to his son Mut'aib. Meanwhile, popular discontent reappeared in the Eastern Province, and the outspoken preacher Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in al-Qatif warned that the Shi'i community might take steps to secede if its members continued to be harassed.

Radical Sunnis distributed broadsheets denouncing the prominent Iraqi scholar 'Ali al-Sistani in February 2010, while gangs of Sunni militants attacked businesses and houses in a Shi'i neighborhood in al-Madinah. Simmering sectarian discontent set the stage for two petitions that were delivered to the ruler in February 2011, demanding the institution of a constitutional monarchy. At the same time, a group of liberal Islamists announced plans to form a political organization called the Islamic Ummah Party, headed by a leader of the Islamic Awakening. 'Abdullah rushed home from Morocco, where he had been recovering from surgery, and ordered the release of USD 70 billion to fund new welfare projects, bonuses for civil servants, and housing for low-income citizens. Nevertheless, public protests erupted in Riyadh and al-Qasim in early March, and Shi'is in al-Qatif took to the streets to demand the release of imprisoned community activists. Such episodes prompted the authorities to issue a draconian law in July 2011 that designated as “terrorism” any action that “harmed the reputation of the state or its position.”

Crown Prince Sultan died in October 2011, and 'Abdullah named Nayif to succeed him, commanding the Allegiance Council to accept his choice. The Defense Ministry was turned over to Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, who was then appointed crown prince after Nayif died in June 2012. At that point Khalid bin Sultan was named minister of defense, and Muhammad bin Nayif took over as minister of the interior. The National Guard was transformed into a government ministry in May 2013, putting its commander, Mut'aib bin 'Abdullah, on the same level as the ministers of defense and the interior. This move heightened speculation that Mut'aib was being groomed to succeed his father as ruler. Yet in June 2013 'Abdullah named Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz as second deputy prime minister, thereby installing him next in line after Salman, who was rumored to be in ill health.

After 'Abdullah

'Abdullah passed away in January 2015. Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz was confirmed as ruler by the Al Sa'ud family council, despite clear indications of physical and mental incapacity, and Muqrin bin 'Abd al-'Aziz was promoted to crown prince. Muhammad bin Nayif was appointed second deputy prime minister, becoming the first grandson of 'Abd al-'Aziz to be in line for the succession. The new ruler’s son Muhammad took over as minister of defense, displacing the sons of Sultan bin 'Abd al-'Aziz. Muqrin asked to be relieved of his post in April 2015, and Salman designated Muhammad bin Nayif to be crown prince and advanced Muhammad bin Salman to the position of deputy crown prince. Madawi Al-Rasheed described the emergent political order “a cluster of clans or fiefdoms under an honorary king.”4

Review of the Literature

Standard histories of modern Saudi Arabia emphasize the role of leaders, tribal politics, and the religious establishment in the emergence and evolution of the kingdom.5 The impact of Great Britain and the United States on the creation and consolidation of the current political order has received extensive treatment as well.6 How the conflict between King 'Abd al-'Aziz and the Brothers shaped the development of the country has been broached but merits further inquiry.7 More important is the controversial era of King Sa'ud: conventional writing follows the official line that Sa'ud was psychologically unstable and exceptionally corrupt and had to be deposed for the good of the country; a revisionist interpretation argues that his actions posed a severe challenge to the existing structures of governance and might have opened the door to fundamental reforms.8 Much work remains to be carried out on the crucial years between 1953 and 1964. In a parallel vein, two quite different perspectives exist concerning the subsequent era of King Faisal: most observers credit Faisal with carrying out productive reforms in administrative and economic affairs, although an alternative view underscores the ways in which rationalizing the government apparatus and creating a welfare state enhanced the regime’s capacity to suppress popular dissent.9

Existing studies rarely deal with peripheral dimensions of Saudi history. Studies of labor and the workers’ movement are practically nonexistent.10 Equally unexplored are the local structures of governance in the territories that the Al Sa'ud conquered during the 1920s.11 One would have expected the major port city of Jiddah to have attracted the attention of economic, social, and architectural historians by now. The history of the Shi'i community of the Eastern Province has only recently been subjected to sustained analysis, while that of the Isma'ilis of the southern highlands remains untapped.12

Recent scholarship focuses on tensions between the religious establishment and the liberal current that produced the Islamic Awakening movement.13 The emergence and suppression of radical Islamist organizations has been explored in considerable detail as well.14 An innovative perspective on Saudi affairs claims that the regime’s persistent efforts to ensure that citizens have access to an adequate supply of water provides the key to understanding the kingdom’s modern history.15

Primary Sources

Historians of modern Saudi Arabia rely heavily on documents that are preserved in government depositories located outside the country, most notably the British National Archives (previously called the Public Record Office) in Kew, southwest of London, and the United States National Archives in College Park, outside Washington, DC. The most pertinent holdings in the former can be found in the records of the Foreign Office (FO) and Colonial Office (CO), although useful material is also held in the Cabinet series (CAB). Most scholars make use of the latter’s General Records of the Department of State (Record Group 59), although important material is also contained in the Modern Military Records (Record Group 33) and the Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Record Group 218). Additional British documents concerning the history of the Gulf region are preserved in the India Office Records, now housed at the British Library in London.

Robert Vitalis pioneered the use of the private papers of American government officials and corporate executives who spent time in the kingdom, most notably the William E. Mulligan Papers held at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and the William Alfred Eddy Papers at Princeton University.

Chronicles dealing with modern history have been collected and published by two state-sponsored institutions inside Saudi Arabia: the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Saudi government documents can also be found in the libraries of King Sa'ud University, al-Imam Muhammad bin Sa'ud Islamic University, and King 'Abd al-'Aziz University. Histories of different localities tend to be privately published and hard to obtain, and have been subjected to routine censorship by the authorities.

Indispensible as a survey of contemporary scholarship by Saudi historians and the institutional context in which such work is produced is Joerg Matthias Determann’s Historiography in Saudi Arabia (2014).

Further Reading

  • al-Dakhil, Khalid S. “Wahhabism as an Ideology of State Formation.” In Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia. Edited by Mohammed Ayoob and Hasan Kosebalaban. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Determann, Joerg Matthias. Historiography in Saudi Arabia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.
  • Al-Fahad, Abdulaziz H. “The 'Imama vs. the 'Iqal: Hadari-Bedouin Conflict and the Formation of the Saudi State.” In Counter-Narratives. Edited by Madawi Al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Jones, Toby Craig. “Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery: Modernity, Marginalization and the Shi'a Uprising of 1979.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 38 (2006): 213–233.
  • Lacroix, Stephane. Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Lawson, Fred H. “Keys to the Kingdom: Current Scholarship on Saudi Arabia.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43 (2011): 737–747.
  • Matthiesen, Toby. The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Peterson, J. E. Historical Dictionary of Saudi Arabia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1993.
  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi. A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi, and Robert Vitalis, eds. Counter-Narratives: History, Contemporary Society and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Vassiliev, Alexei. The History of Saudi Arabia. London: Saqi, 1998.
  • Vitalis, Robert. America’s Kingdom. London: Verso, 2009.
  • Yizraeli, Sarah. The Remaking of Saudi Arabia: The Struggle between King Sa'ud and Crown Prince Faysal, 1953–1962. Tel Aviv: Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies, 1997.


  • 1. Alexei Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi, 1998), 410.

  • 2. Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 155.

  • 3. Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 213.

  • 4. Madawi Al-Rasheed, “The Coming Saudi Decentralization”, March 28, 2014.

  • 5. Karl Twitchell, Saudi Arabia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958); R. Bayly Winder, Saudi Arabia in the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1965); Christine Moss Helms, The Cohesion of Saudi Arabia (London: Croom Helm, 1981); Vassiliev, History of Saudi Arabia; Joseph Kostiner, The Making of Saudi Arabia 1916–1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Al-Rasheed, History of Saudi Arabia; Ayman Al-Yassini, Religion and State in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985); George S. Rentz, The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia (London: Arabian Publishing, 2004); and David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

  • 6. Garry Troeller, The Birth of Saudi Arabia (London: Frank Cass, 1976); Clive Leatherdale, Britain and Saudi Arabia 1925–1939 (London: Frank Cass, 1983); Askar H. al-Enazy, The Creation of Saudi Arabia: Ibn Saud and British Imperial Policy, 1914–1927 (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2010); Aaron David Miller, Search for Security: Saudi Arabian Oil and American Foreign Policy 1939–1949 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); and Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom (London: Verso, 2009).

  • 7. John S. Habib, Ibn Sa'ud’s Warriors of Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1978); and Joseph Kostiner, “On Instruments and Their Designers: The Ikhwan of Najd and the Emergence of the Saudi State,” Middle Eastern Studies 21 (1985): 298–323.

  • 8. Sarah Yizraeli, The Remaking of Saudi Arabia (Tel Aviv: Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies, 1997).

  • 9. Vitalis, America’s Kingdom; Alexei Vassiliev, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia: Personality, Faith and Times (London: Saqi, 2012).

  • 10. Helen Lackner, A House Built on Sand (London: Ithaca, 1978).

  • 11. William Ochsenwald, Religion, Society and State in Arabia: The Hijaz under Ottoman Control 1840–1908 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984); Madawi Al-Rasheed, Politics in an Arabian Oasis: The Rashidi Tribal Dynasty (London: I.B. Tauris, 1991); Joseph Teitelbaum, The Rise and Fall of the Hashemite Kingdom of Arabia (London: Hurst, 2001); Anne K. Bang, The Idrisi State in 'Asir 1906–1934 (Bergen: University of Bergen Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 1996); and Mai Yamani, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

  • 12. Fouad Ibrahim, The Shi'is of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi, 2006); Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Toby Matthiesen, “Shi'i Historians in a Wahhabi State: Identity Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Local Historiography in Saudi Arabia,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47 (2015): 25–45.

  • 13. Mansoor Jassem Alshamsi, Islam and Political Reform in Saudi Arabia (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2011); and Stephane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

  • 14. Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

  • 15. Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).