There are few places in this world quite as inhospitable as the roasting deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Where temperatures can creep up to 55 °C (130°F) during the summer and only the hardy can survive. Smack bang in the middle of this is a country that is both very old in terms of its culture but very young in terms of its unification and modern borders. Within these borders, 95% of the nation is classified as desert, but it also comes with some of the largest oil reserves on the planet.
Saudi Arabia is a country that is both revered and abhorred. With the most important Islamic site on Earth, the Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Mecca draws pilgrims from across the world in staggering numbers. In 2019, an estimated 2.5 million people made their way to the dusty city in western Saudi Arabia, and that’s slightly down on the record, which was in 2012 when roughly 3.1 million attended.
But the list of grievances against the country, especially by those with more – how shall I put it – liberalised western ideals, is substantial. From human rights abuses, the treatment of women, the bombing of already poor countries back into the stone age, the flagrant murder of journalists inside their embassies and plenty more, this is a country that certainly has several black marks against it.
But I’m not going to sit here and regale you with a long list of negatives about Saudi Arabia because, no doubt you’ve heard it all before, and it would get in the way of what is quite a fascinating story. You see, the rise of Saudi Arabia has been nothing short of unstoppable. For a nation that hasn’t even celebrated its 100th birthday as a unified country, it today stands as one of the most powerful nations, not just in the region, but across the world. It is also a story with plenty of Game of Throne-eque family intrigue, backstabbing and even murder.
Today in Saudi Arabia
We normally start these videos with some historical background and build from there, but today we’re going to start with the present because Saudi Arabia is one country that many seem to mutter about, but few really understand what lies behind the scenes.
As I just mentioned, Saudi Arabia is practically all desert. The country encompasses an area of 2.15 million km² (830,000 sq mi) – which is roughly three and half times the size of Texas – and the Arabian Desert that lies at its heart accounts for 95% of it. The country has a population of 34.2 million with 80% of those residing in the 10 major cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Hofuf, Ta’if, Khobar, Yanbu, Dhahran, Dammam. It’s also one of the youngest populations in the world, with 50% of Saudi Arabians under 25 years old.
Now, in the past having a country with no rivers and where only 1.5% of the land was considered arable might have been a problem, but not today. You see, deserts might be bad for pale skin, ice cream and most life in general, but below the surface lies something that has absolutely transformed this region from a place once roamed predominantly by the hardy nomadic Bedouin, to a global powerhouse in the space of less than 100 years.
Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar oilfield is the largest in the world and has in the region of 75 billion barrels of oil left – which is enough to fill 4,770,897 Olympic swimming pools – and it’s probably not a great surprise to hear that the petroleum sector accounts for roughly half of the country’s GDP – and to be very honest I was surprised it wasn’t higher.
The financial boom off the back of this vast under-desert cash cow has been staggering, although this has certainly been tempered in recent years with the crash in oil prices. They are in the process of building the tallest building in the world in Jeddah, with the Kingdom Tower expected to reach 1 km (0.6 miles) in height, but work has been on hold since January 2018. Along with that are six vast ‘economic’ cities that are pretty much being constructed from scratch across the country – which I’ll come back to a little later in the video.
So that’s pretty much the state of affairs in Saudi Arabia today, now let’s jump back a little to put this magnanimous change into context.
As I said earlier, Saudi Arabia is both very young and very old. There is evidence of human settlement in the area dating back 63,000 years, and fossils even suggest a potential migration through the region between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. But geographically things were very different back then and the land through which early humans may have passed long ago is often referred to as Green Arabia – and I’m sure you can guess why.
The Birth of Islam
In 570 AD a child was born in Mecca who would eventually go on to be the most revered prophet of the Islamic faith. When he was around 40, Mohammed began preaching in the city, urging those around him to abandon polytheism and dedicate themselves to Islam. It was also around the same time that he began receiving revelations that he believed were coming from Allah and his followers carefully transcribed these revelations into what is the Islamic holy book, the Quran.
He and his companions were relatively successful at uniting the various tribes in the region under the single banner of Islam known as the Caliphate, although after he died in 632 AD, a series of military engagements took place known as the Ridda Wars, in which rival factions slugged it out for supremacy.
From here, Islam spread quickly, sometimes through peaceful means and sometimes through bloody war. In the space of just a few decades, the Persian Empire to the north had been destroyed and the Islamic world stretched from Spain to India. In terms of sweeping religious conquests, it was one of the most staggeringly successful in human history.
The Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown in 750 AD and for the next seven hundred years or so the area that is today Saudi Arabia was a shifting sea of tribal coalitions. Loosely speaking, it remained part of various Islamic empires that came and went, namely the Abbasids of Baghdad, the Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamluks of Egypt, but with distances so vast and environment so hostile, it wasn’t as if large armies were crawling back and forth in this region.
In the 16th Century, the area fell under Ottoman rule and until the early 20th Century power swung back and forth between various Arab tribes and the Ottoman rulers. In 1744, we see the first glimmers of what would eventually be an independent Saudi State when a group of religious leaders joined together to form Wahhabism, which was an Islamic reform movement looking to return the religion to its purity and its roots. One man who became involved with this movement was Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, broadly known as the First Saudi State, established in 1744 but destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818. In Wahhabism, Saud saw a movement that would be wise to attach his name to, and for a short period, things worked well.
Independent Saudi Arabia
By the early 20th Century, things were getting a little shaky for the Ottomans and their massive empire. While they technically controlled the Saudi Arabian area, in reality, there was still plenty of infighting on the ground between various rival groups, in particular the Al Rashid and Al Saud.
In 1902, Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, leader of the Al Saud, and descendent of Muhammad bin Saud, returned from exile and took control of Riyadh, which was at the time still a long way from the large city we see today. The conflict between the two sides increased and things were made all the more confusing by the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule by some, but not all, of the tribes in the area. If you’ve ever seen Lawrence of Arabia you’ll know all about this period, and if you haven’t, then you probably should because it’s a great film.
After the end of World War I, the final battle for Saudi Arabia took place, with Abdul-Aziz Al Saud finally defeating his rivals. In 1926, he proclaimed himself king and the following year he was given the all-important vote of approval as the United Kingdom formally recognized him as the ruler of the region. In 1930, the two kingdoms of Hejaz and Najd were united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and what we see today as the modern borders around the country were finalised.
The battle for Saudi Arabia was over and one family had emerged as rulers, but at this point, the young Saudi Arabia was, as it still is today, a vast expanse of desert. The Al Saud family had claimed victory but there was little to no hint as to the extraordinary find that was about to transform not only the country but the fortunes of the Al Saud family.
Oil had already been found in Bahrain in 1932 and Al Saud granted economic concessions to the Standard Oil Company of California shortly after to begin test drilling in Saudi Arabia. By the end of the decade, it was becoming clear that not only did the country also have oil, but an awful lot of it.
World War II saw oil production jump as the allies gratefully bought up the oil pumping up from below the country. In 1939, Saudi Arabia exported $7 million worth of oil ($133.3 million today), but by 1953, that number had shot up to $200 million per year ($3.8 billion today). And let’s just say it has been steadily climbing almost ever since, except for some recent fluctuations.
In 1933, the Aramco (the Arabian American Oil Company) was formed and in 1988 it was privatised, keeping all profits within the kingdom, whereas before they had been shared. Over the years, several other oil or natural gas fields have been found throughout the country, making this barren desert Kingdom one of the richest places on the planet.
Family Drama & Modernisation
Now, who would have guessed that with such a torrent of money now pouring in that it wouldn’t take long for the family infighting to begin. When King Abdel Aziz died in 1953 he was replaced by one of his sons (of which he was said to have 37) Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Under the new king, spending became ever more lavish and despite the huge riches thanks to the new oil fields, foreign borrowing gradually climbed ever higher.
The country also started to take some tentative steps away from Wahhabism and towards modernisation or liberalisation depending on your point of view on this topic, which added to the growing sense of instability and faith in the king’s rule.
In 1964, the royal family acted together to depose Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and place his brother Crown Prince Faisal on the throne instead. King Faisal managed to retain the throne for just short of five months when he was shot twice in the head by his nephew Faisal bin Musaid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a public engagement.
The assassin was initially deemed insane, then not, and finally was convicted and beheaded in a square in Riyadh. I told you this story had some Game of Thrones to it, didn’t I! The motives behind it are still unclear to this day, with theories ranging from simple revenge for the deposition of the previous king, anger over his “small” allowance or even a supposed travel ban placed on him thanks to his tendencies to indulge in activities out of the country that were frowned upon within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And I bet you can probably guess exactly what those activities were.
From here things calmed down a little and King Faisal was followed by King Khalid, then King Fahd who ruled the Kingdom until 2005. During this period, economic development continued at a blistering pace, but it was an event in 1979 that left a painful mark on Saudi Arabia and caused it to lurch towards religious conservatism.
The Seizure of the Grand Mosque
On 20th November 1979, the unthinkable happened. At exactly 5 am, with as many as 50,000 people inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, between 400 and 500 insurgents unveiled their weapons and quickly seized the entire complex, killing two policemen in the process. Most of the worshippers were soon allowed to leave, but the insurgents took up defensive positions and prepared for battle.
The group that had taken over the holiest site in all Islam were led by a man called Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family, which he claimed were “corrupt, ostentatious and had destroyed Saudi culture by an aggressive policy of Westernization”. He also firmly wanted a return to the original ways of Islam, which included the banning of tv, the expulsion of non-muslims and generally speaking a much more hardline ideology.
For nearly two weeks, Saudi special forces, being advised by French GIGN units, battled the insurgents and gradually forced their way inside and on 4th December, the siege finally ended.
The fallout was immense with anger spreading well outside the borders of Saud Arabia. The response of the royal family was predictably severe. 68 insurgents who had survived were beheaded in eight different cities across the country but it was the social changes that would have the biggest impact on the country. While the actions in the Grand Mosque were seen as flagrant violations of the holy site, what came next actually swung Saudi Arabia further towards the kind of country the insurgents had been demanding. Instead of cracking down on religious extremism, the Saudi royal chose to pivot towards it as a way of keeping the peace and their control over the country.
Things started slowly with photographs of women in newspapers banned, then women on television. Next came the closure of cinemas and music shops while the school curriculum was changed to add more religious studies. Gender segregation, already heavily prevalent, was taken up another notch and the powerful religious police began enforcing the new laws with real zeal.
Today in the Kingdom
To call the last twenty years in Saudi Arabia eventful might not quite do it justice. Its most notorious son, Osama Bin Laden, became the most sought after terrorists on the planet after the attacks on 9/11 and the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi placed a huge strain on the U.S – Saudi relationship.
When the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015, it appeared as if the United States was inching towards one of Saudi’s biggest rivals in the region and coincidentally this was also the year Saudi Arabia began obliterating Yemen in response to a rebel Houthi uprising. This was a country it had had consistent issues with over the decades but considering the financial and military differences between the two, was about as imbalanced as you were ever going to get. Six years later, and with the death toll pushing a quarter of a million, the war is still ongoing and Yemen looks much more 15th Century than 21st.
While the oil is still flowing freely, the price has tanked when compared to ten or twenty years ago. Saudi Arabia is now trying to revamp itself as a tourist destination and green energy supplier but when you have somebody like Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, known as MBS, now the de-facto ruler to his ageing father’s throne that’s not so easy.
Saudi Arabia is a country that seems as if it wants to change but several incidents over the last 5 or 6 years have been hugely damaging. From the shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen, a blockade of Qatar, hacking Jeff Bezos’ phone, the massive royal family purge between 2017 and 2019 and the frankly unbelievable time in 2017 when MBS effectively took the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hostage and forced him to resign on live television.
The announcement that women are now legally allowed to drive was hailed by some as a huge step forward but that probably says more about just how far back that step was being taken from, rather than any kind glorious embracing of equality.
Saudi Arabia is certainly a country in transition, though it’s often not entirely clear in what direction it’s headed. The massive infrastructure projects on-going in the country, in particular the six economic cities being built from scratch, will certainly change the country’s landscape. The largest of these, the King Abdullah Economic City located on the east coast, is set to spread to 173 km² (66.8 sq mi) and should be finished soon with a cost in the region of $27 billion. It’s hoped the city will generate up to a million jobs while helping to diversify the country’s economy away from oil.
Exactly where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is heading is up for debate. Will Riyadh become the next Dubai? Or will we see the royal family once again retreat behind the banner of religion and consolidate power? The country seems to be doing its best at showcasing tentative steps towards some sort of liberalisation at least, but in truth, there is a long way to go and it’s not clear how far the royal family are willing to allow such liberal ideas to filter down into society. In recent decades the country has attempted to reign in its lavish spending, which has included some of the highest levels of welfare anywhere in the world, but trying to keep its restless population happy seems to be getting considerably harder.
Make no mistake about it, this is a country ruled by a royal family with an iron fist that works in conjunction with powerful religious clerics to maintain control. It has just about worked for nearly 100 years and the country has seen an astonishing transformation in that time, but what comes next is anybody’s guess.