History and Government

History: The Arabian Peninsula was occupied by the Abyssinians before the sixth century AD. Around AD 576 they were driven out of the southern regions by the Persians, who made it a province of their empire. The year AD 622, which has been adopted as the beginning of the Muslim era, was significant for the flight of the Prophet Muhammad from his home town of Mecca to nearby Medina, where he organised his followers before launching a successful campaign to recapture Mecca. Many Arab tribes joined Muhammad before his death in 632 and afterwards the Muslims continued their expansion across the Arabian peninsula and into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia and westwards into Egypt and North Africa.

The towns of Mecca and Medina, both of which were thriving cultural and commercial centres before and after Muhammad, are the holiest cities of Islam and the Saudis take the responsibility for protecting their integrity with the utmost seriousness. Arabia was absorbed into the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, after the capture of Mecca by the Turks in 1517, but subsequent local rulers were allowed a great deal of autonomy. Under Turkish supervision, successive Sherifs of Mecca governed the territory of Hijaz, which covered the western part of the peninsula including the Red Sea coast as far south as Yemen, until the onset of World War I.

In 1914 the British armed forces chief Lord Kitchener offered the Sherif of Mecca a deal under which Hijaz would acquire independence, guaranteed by the UK, on condition that the Sherif supported the military campaign against the Turks. The Sherif accepted, and after the Turkish defeat, the Kingdom of Hijaz was recognised as independent at the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. On the other side of the peninsula, the leading potentate was Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdar-Rahman, better known as 'Ibn Saud', ruler of the province of Najd. In 1915, the government of India, then under British rule, recognised Najd and some other territories along the Persian Gulf as possessions of Ibn Saud. Throughout the 1920s, military clashes between Ibn Saud's troops and forces loyal to the Hashemite King of Hijaz, Hussein, grew more frequent as the decisive struggle for control of the peninsula took place.

The British and other Western powers switched their support between the two sides as it suited them. Eventually, Ibn Saud pushed out the Hashemites, and in 1926 was recognised as ruler of the Kingdom of Hijaz and Najd. In 1932 this became the United Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Hashemites were consoled with the thrones of Iraq and Transjordan (later Jordan). In 1933 the first explorations began for oil, vast deposits of which were discovered in the eastern part of the country. This set Saudi Arabia on the road to its current prosperity. Ibn Saud, who ruled as King until his death in 1953, used the accumulating revenues to develop a national infrastructure and basic state services. Political and social development in the kingdom, by Western standards at any rate, lagged somewhat behind economic developments: slavery, for example, was not abolished until 1962.

Ibn Saud's descendants comprise the dynasty which has since ruled Saudi Arabia. They are, like most Saudis, adherents to the Wahhabi sect which subscribes to Sunni Muslim doctrine, and Islamic laws are strictly enforced by the mutawwa (religious police). The oil search of the 1930s brought the USA into contact with Saudi Arabia for the first time and they quickly became the country's principal Western ally. Nonetheless, there was one issue on which Saudi and US policies were implacably opposed - Israel. Washington's consistent support for the Jewish state has been a constant source of friction. This became spectacularly clear in 1973 when Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the USA's staunchest allies in the region, led the OPEC cartel in trebling the price of oil overnight in response to the West's support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

The period of cool relations with the USA that followed came to an end with the revolution in Iran in 1979. Iran was perceived to pose a threat to Saudi Arabia for a number of reasons: the Shia branch of Islam followed by the Iranian mullahs is fundamentally opposed to the Sunni Wahhabi interpretation which prevails in Saudi Arabia; moreover, Iran is an important strategic force in the Gulf in its own right. For those reasons, as well as Arab solidarity, Saudi Arabia provided massive financial support - to the tune of over US$100 million - to Saddam Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq war which lasted most of the 1980s.

The Saudis were thus astonished in 1991 when following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it appeared that Saddam's forces were poised to strike south and occupy parts of Saudi Arabia. After initial doubts and furious debates within the royal family, the US-led UN coalition was authorised to base its forces in the country prior to the 'Desert Storm' military operation which drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait. US forces have remained in the country ever since then, with consequences (see below) that have only now become apparent. After the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait, the Saudis backed the US policy of 'dual containment' designed to keep Iran and Iraq in check.

By the turn of the millennium, the Saudis were becoming disillusioned with the strategy. In particular (along with most of the rest of the world) they had tired of US hostility towards Iran with whom they have developed close relations, especially over practical issues such as OPEC oil pricing. Second, there was growing internal dissent over the continuing presence of US bases on Saudi territory: this is one of the key positions of the Al-Qaeda organisation which has been held responsible for the 11 September atrocities in the USA. (The majority of the members of the 20-strong hijacking team were Saudi nationals). Third, since 1995, the ailing King Fahd has been effectively replaced by Crown Prince Abdullah who is generally cooler towards the West than Fahd. During 2001 and early 2002 (11 September notwithstanding) the Saudis have given a number of indications that they consider that the US forces in their country should be, at the very least, scaled down. That would also dampen anti-Western fundamentalist agitation, which is Abdullah's main problem since the economic difficulties caused by previous overspending, which he inherited in the mid-1990s have since eased due to relatively stable oil prices.

But the political future is uncertain. Abdullah belongs to the generation of leaders which have governed Saudi Arabia since the death of Abdul Aziz, and are now in their seventies: there is no clear line of succession and there may be a debilitating power struggle among the 6000 male descendants who now make up the House of Saud. The most likely victors are the branch of the family descended from one of Abdul Aziz's wives, bint Sudairi, who form a powerful 'clan within a clan'. Abdullah is not among them but there are a number of them who occupy important ministerial, administrative and diplomatic posts.

Government: Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no political parties. King Fahd, who succeeded in 1982, appoints a Council of Ministers to run day-to-day affairs. A consultative council (Majlis as-Shura), numbering about 60, has been established to advise the monarch; it has no formal powers.

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