history saudi arabia

Written by Mohammad Mudasar Laghari 11:47 am

Digging Up the History of Saudi Arabia

In this very detailed and clear piece, Mohammad Mudasar Laghari connects the past and present of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom shrouded in mysteries. Discover the origins of the name of the Kingdom, the roots of Wahhabism, the finding of oil, and the army of flies, among others.
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About the Author(s)
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Mohammad Mudasar Laghari is a high school student pursuing his HSSC in Hyderabad. His areas of interest include history, political theory, international relations, and world affairs.

The Lost History of Saudi Arabia

In the early 20th century, the Arabian Peninsula was a desert inhabited by warring tribes, had an unbearably scorching climate, and consisted of small fiefdoms; the region had little to no role on the international scene. At a time when almost the entire world was witnessing enormous progress – economically, socially, technologically & politically – the area which we today call the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia lacked far behind the rest of the globe in almost every aspect.

Yet, no nation-state in the history of mankind witnessed such exceptional & expeditious advancement in its international/geopolitical influence and its economy as did the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom went from being a land with little influence on the stage of international relations to being the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East; an impressive metamorphosis for a desert, no?

Well, this was thanks to the discovery of a treasure hidden underneath Saudi soil – the discovery of a resource, albeit non-renewable, that was enormously valuable & would bring opulence to the Kingdom and the Royal Family – oil. The Kingdom’s ruling dynasty – the House of Al-Saud – consists of 30,000 princes, princesses and heirs. Wonder why? Well, if you’re a Saudi prince & are unmarried, your monthly allowance from the Royal Family will be limited.

However, if you get married, it will increase twofold. In a nutshell, the more wives & children you have, the more your monthly allowance will be. Pretty much sums it all up. Saudi Arabia is a dynamic country ruled by an absolute monarchy managed by democracy (with only the royals being eligible to vote), as no important decision is taken unless all members of the Royal Family reach a consensus.

However, before talking about anything else, let me begin by introducing you to the story of the man behind Saudi Arabia’s inception: King Abdulaziz bin Rahman Al Saud.

Abdulaziz Al Saud: The Saudi Progenitor

7 feet tall, a valorous warrior with an intimidating stare & a strong physique, Abdulaziz was a mountain of a man. He began his search for a kingdom in 1902 with only 60 men at his side, most of them being members of the Al-Saud family. Abdulaziz realized that the numbers he had were too few to establish a kingdom and that he needed the military prowess required to wage battles of conquest.

He then turned to a nomadic Bedouin tribe known as the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan were fierce, battle-hardened soldiers & unarguably the most notorious of their time in the Arabian Peninsula. The interesting part about the Ikhwan is that they belonged to the Wahhabi school of thought and to gather their support, Abdulaziz had to commit himself and his family to spreading their fundamentalist version of Islam. This explains Saudi Arabia being a Wahhabi state today.

The Ikhwan, when sitting around a bonfire at night, used to jokingly say that Abdulaziz had two swords – the sword of steel and the sword of flesh. With the sword of steel, Abdulaziz conquered vast territories by fighting the enemy in battle. However, with the sword of flesh, they said, he married a daughter of every tribal chieftain of the area he conquered – consequently including those tribes into the fold of the family.

He managed to produce forty-five legitimate sons & today, every King and Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was/is a descendant of Abdulaziz. By 1926, Abdulaziz, with help of the Ikhwan, had captured the sacred & holy cities of Islam – Mecca & Medina. For Abdulaziz, he had found the Kingdom he had dreamt of, but the Ikhwan weren’t willing to stop at just the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ikhwan wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate extending to all Muslim states around the world – a vision we can today say is similar to that of ISIS. When Abdulaziz barred them, the Ikhwan rebelled. Abdulaziz had to crush the Ikhwan rebellion one way or the other, but he could not do so by use of force.

Therefore, Abdulaziz managed to get a fatwa from the religious clerics – the Ulama, to be precise – which proclaimed that the Ikhwan, according to the Quran, hadith & the Islamic laws, had no right to rebel against their King, and if they do so, they are to be dealt with by force. Abdulaziz crushed the Ikhwan rebellion and in 1932, he established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, giving it his name ‘Saud’, and declared himself King.

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The Discovery of Oil

Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, Iraq and Bahrain, had discovered massive oil reserves underneath their soil. However, experts believed that the fields did not extend to Saudi Arabia. Then, one American philanthropist, Mr. Green, on his visit to Saudi Arabia, bemoaned the lack of access to water throughout the Kingdom.

As the philanthropist he was, Mr. Green decided to sponsor a geological survey of Saudi Arabia in the search of water so that if found, it can be made conveniently accessible to the common man. In the search for water, they found oil instead. King Abdul Aziz invited foreign companies to drill out the oil and on March 3, 1938, the Arabian American Oil Company – or ARAMCO – discovered what proved to be the largest oil fields on earth. Saudi Arabia has not been the same ever after.

King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

Most famous for his social reforms inside Saudi Arabia and the oil embargo of 1973, King Faisal has engraved his name on the pages of Saudi Arabian history forever. Unlike his munificent predecessor, King Saud, Faisal had struck a balance between his generosity & austerity; a quality which makes or breaks a monarch in the Arab world. Charming, vigilant and an intuitive ruler, his 11-year rule brought about exceptional economic prosperity and stability to the Kingdom.

Social Reforms Under King Faisal

In 1962, the King moved to outlaw the inhumane practice of slavery in Saudi Arabia, abolishing it altogether by issuing a decree. An estimated 1,682 slaves were freed, with each slave costing the Saudi government a whopping $2,000: the total cost being somewhere around $3,364,000.

Although Saudi Arabia was and still is to this date, a country with an egregious disregard for human rights, the move was widely appreciated by the international community as a step in the right direction & profoundly enhanced Faisal’s popularity. TV broadcasts were considered Haram (something against the teachings of Islam) in Saudi Arabia, for the religious conservatives believed that it was a ‘source of evil’ and contained images.

It remained banned in Saudi Arabia until the reign of King Faisal. He approved of TV broadcasts throughout the country, a decision in reaction to which the Ulama and the conservative sections of the population organized large protests throughout the Kingdom, urging the King to revoke the decision. In response, King Faisal made someone recite the Quran on live television, and then made a statement proclaiming: “The television is like a sword; one can use it for good purpose as well as for bad purpose.”

With Faisal’s smart justification, the noise faded away and a state of tranquility prevailed. However, the move for which he is to this date infamously remembered by the Ulama – the religious conservatives – and greatly commemorated by Saudi women was his decision to introduce schooling for females in Saudi Arabia. The Ulama & the fundamentalists among the population were enraged, deeming the decision against Islam.

Nevertheless, King Faisal stood his ground and if it were not for him, only God knows when the girls of Saudi Arabia would have gotten access to education – a fundamental human right.

The Oil Embargo

After a humiliating Arab defeat in the Six-Day War (the third Arab-Israeli conflict) and the subsequent fall of the holy city of Jerusalem, Faisal never smiled again. He remained staunchly anti-Israel throughout his life, a stance which earned him enormous respect among the Muslim world. During the period between the two wars (1967 and 1973), the tension in the Middle East was spiraling at an enormous pace and a fourth Arab-Israeli war seemed inevitable.

The King sent a letter to the then President of the United States, Richard Nixon, urging him that if the US did not intervene, another massive conflict was imminent, but the President paid little heed. In October 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli war or the Yom Kippur War broke out. Unfortunately for the Arabs, the war broke out in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The armed forces of Syria and Egypt largely consisted of Soviet weaponry; on the other hand, the Israeli army was armed with American weaponry. Thus, President Nixon concluded that it was in the best interest of the United States that Soviet technology does not triumph over American technology and hence lent its support to Israel and began airlifting supplies to the country.

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Under pressure from the Arab League, King Faisal acted. The King ordered ARAMCO to stop the pumping of oil and imposed an oil embargo upon the United States. Faisal’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. He had struck a devastating blow to the United States and at the most vulnerable time; the United States was at the time fighting a war in Vietnam and could not afford a disruption of its fuel supplies.

US fuel supplies in Vietnam were running dangerously low, and the price of oil in the international market had by now quadrupled. Faisal insisted that he had no intention of lifting the embargo unless some progress was made on the Palestinian peace process. The United States, desperately running low on fuel supplies, pressured Faisal and sent multiple diplomatic missions to the Kingdom until he finally lifted the embargo in 1974.

By then, the prices of oil had proliferated, bringing great wealth and economic prosperity to the Kingdom. Although no progress was made towards reaching a settlement on the Palestine problem, the oil embargo during King Faisal’s reign had a devastating impact on the war in Vietnam and was by far the most audacious move against the United States by any potentate in Saudi Arabia’s history. In 1975, King Faisal was assassinated by his own nephew and his reign came to an end.

The Appalling Disregard for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia

Let us now shift the conversation to the Saudi Arabia of today. Under the reign of the reformer-cum-tyrant Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, activists, writers and academics inside Saudi Arabia have been subjected to oppression never witnessed before. The Crown Prince has indeed brought about social reforms inside Saudi Arabia, but social reforms do not mean political freedom or freedom of expression.

Free speech – wherever it may be spotted in its history – has been suppressed unabashedly, entire generations of children have been indoctrinated and many graduates of theological schools/universities of Saudi Arabia have joined ISIS. The stories of Jamal Khashoggi and a plethora of other prominent Saudi activists send a clear message: if you speak, you will end up the same as them.

The Army of Flies

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the most Twitter users in all of the Middle East. The government could suppress and control domestic media, but how were they supposed to control Twitter – one of the world’s largest social media platforms and a haven for healthy political debates? Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), then, appointed a close aide, Saud-Al-Qahtani, to manipulate the Saudi debate on Twitter and various other social media platforms.

Qahtani was chosen for the position of General Director Center for Media Monitoring & Analysis. The team of Saud-Al-Qahtani, would then closely monitor all Saudi discourse on Twitter and would spot voices who were critical of the Royal Family. Qahtani then formed his notorious Army of Flies, whose job was to spam tweets which were critical of the Royal Family with pro-government and pro-MBS comments using hundreds of real, fake & bot accounts.

The impact this created was massive. A Twitter user from Pakistan, for example, if going through the comments of a tweet critical of the Saudi government, would find loads of people who – soldiers of the Army of Flies – abused the author of the said tweet (usually a Saudi activist or academic), and in the next lines would express their staunch loyalty to the King and the Crown Prince.

An average person, unaware of Qahtani and his team’s social media operations, would then come to the logical conclusion that a vast majority of Saudis are content with the Royal Family. The government even managed to somewhat infiltrate Twitter by developing ties with a Saudi engineer, Ali Alzabarah working at Twitter. Alzabarah, being an employee of Twitter, allegedly had access to the private information of Twitter accounts, i.e. their text messages, the people they were in touch with & just about everything else.

The Saudi government then, through Alzabarah, spied on anti-government academics, writers and activists. Alzabarah, however, was not alone and Twitter later fired Alzabarah along with two of his colleagues who were found to be complicit in the act. They were charged with ‘acting as illegal agents of Saudi Arabia’. This, along with many such incidents, precisely demonstrates the Saudi government’s utter hatred for free speech.

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However, it seems that spying on its citizens’ Twitter accounts wasn’t enough information for the Saudi government. The government then, following in the footsteps of China and various other countries, bought a hacking & tracking spyware from the notorious Israeli company named Pegasus. Through this spyware, the Saudi government spies on its dissidents abroad and have the ability to access all information on their smartphones.

How Saudi Indoctrinates its Citizens

When a child goes to school in Saudi Arabia, they aren’t taught science, history, physics, or math. Instead, from a very tender age, children are taught how the Jews, Shias and all non-Muslims are infidels & deserve to be killed; how Wahhabism is the purest form of Islam and how Jihad (a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam) is mandatory for every Muslim.

No wonder then, that fifteen out of the nineteen hijackers involved in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001 were Saudi citizens. However, this indoctrination isn’t only limited to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When the country was exploding with wealth – thanks to its oil reserves – and did not know how to spend it, the Kingdom initiated the export of Wahhabism to various Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

Setting aside other countries, let me tell you the figures of only one nation: Pakistan. In 1947, at the inception of the country, there were only 189 madrassas in Pakistan. By 2008, there were an estimated 40,000 madrassas – all of them being funded by Saudi Arabia – and only God knows how many more of these religious schools have been built in Pakistan by the time you’re reading this article. This Arabization led to a substantial increase in Pakistan’s Wahhabi population.

The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

A journalist based in Saudi Arabia, Jamal, remained a pro-government voice for the most part of his life and had some very good friends at the Royal Court. It was in December 2016, however, that Khashoggi had trespassed the red zone by making a statement which was somewhat against the newly elected US President at the time, Mr. Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump was a good friend of the Crown Prince MBS, who banned Jamal from writing, tweeting and appearing on television. Jamal moved to the United States where he began writing columns for The Washington Post – one of the most widely read newspapers in the United States with a large international audience.

The problem was that the columns he wrote were profoundly critical of the Crown Prince, who from day one, wanted to create a reformist-positivist image of himself in the Western world. Jamal’s continuous criticism on a national newspaper of the United States, with an audience extending to all corners of the world, had been tarnishing Mohammed bin Salman’s image in the Western world enormously.

Jamal had become a problem and they had to get rid of him. On 2nd October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was strangled to death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; his body cut to pieces and disposed of in the sewage. The Turkish authorities conducted a thorough probe into the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and with each passing day, more evidence against Saudi Arabia kept appearing.

So much so that in the face of all that proof, it had become an extremely daunting task for the Saudi authorities to deny the killing. President Trump declared the Saudi explanation for the killing ‘the worst cover-up in history’. Being a Washington Post journalist, Khashoggi’s murder managed to attract international attention and criticism, but nobody knows of the number of Jamals who have been strangled to death inside Saudi Arabia.


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