Nestled in the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia, the two great centres of civilization, the Arabian Peninsula was vital to the thriving network of trade routes in the region. It was in Makkah, a thriving commercial centre, that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born. Around the year 610, Prophet Muhammad received a message from Allah, whereafter his following steadily grew. In 622, to foil an assassination bid, the Prophet led his followers to Madinah and by 628, having unified the tribes successfully, the Prophet re-entered Makkah without bloodshed.
Trade continued to flourish in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic empire thrived well into the 17th century before getting fragmented into smaller Muslim kingdoms. However, Makkah and Madinah continued to hold spiritual prominence in the Islamic world.
In the early 18th century, a Muslim scholar and reformer Shaikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab began advocating a return to the original form of Islam. Persecuted by local religious scholars and leaders, he sought protection in Diriyah, then ruled by Muhammad bin Saud who shared his vision of Islam. Diriyah eventually grew into one of the largest cities in the peninsula and in that spirit, bin Saud established the first Saudi state that prospered under the spiritual guidance of bin Abdul Wahhab. By the early 19th century, his influence extended to most of the Arabian Peninsula, including Makkah and Madinah. The popularity and success of the Al-Saud rulers unsettled the Ottoman Empire, the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa at the time. In 1818, the Ottoman army besieged Diriyah.
It took the Al-Saud family six years to regain the political control of central Arabia. Turki bin Abdullah Al-Saud transferred his capital to Riyadh, about 20 miles south of Diriyah and established the second Saudi state. Under Turki and his son Faisal, the State enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity until 1865 when the Ottoman armies again captured parts of the Saudi state, which was ruled at the time by Faisal’s son, Abdulrahman. With the support of the Ottomans, the Al-Rashid family of Hail made a concerted effort to overthrow the Saudi state. Abdulrahman bin Faisal Al-Saud was forced to abandon his struggle in 1891 and seek refuge with the Bedouin tribes in the vast sand desert of eastern Arabia known as the Rub’ Al-Khali. From there, Abdulrahman and his family travelled to Kuwait, where they stayed until 1902. With him was his young son Abdulaziz, who was already making his mark as a natural leader and a fierce warrior for the cause of Islam. He was just 12 years old when he arrived in Kuwait with his father.
Determined to regain his patrimony from the Al-Rashid family, accompanied by only 40 followers, 26-year-old Abdulaziz staged a daring night march into Riyadh in 1902 to retake the city garrison, known as the Masmak Fortress. This legendary event marks the beginning of the formation of the modern Saudi state.
After establishing Riyadh as his headquarters, Abdulaziz captured all of Hijaz, including Makkah and Madinah in around 1925. He also united Najd, Al Washam, and Gasim areas and, in the process, the warring tribes into one nation. The main objective of King Abdulaziz was to establish the rule of Islamic Law in the Kingdom according to the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Eventually, on September 23, 1932 the country was named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an Islamic state with Arabic as its national language and the Holy Quran as its constitution. The flag of the Kingdom is also telling – it is a green rectangle with a white sword and the words at its centre read, “No God except Allah and Mohammed is his messenger”.
The Arabian Peninsula had never been unified under a single political authority till this conquest, the only exception being the time of the Prophet Mohammed and the advent of Islam. The Kingdom has since been a monarchy ruled by the family of the Al-Saud. The political structure of the Kingdom differs much from the monarchies in other parts of the world – the United Kingdom, Sweden, Thailand and Japan are constitutional monarchies where the King (or Queen) is more of a titular head which is not the case in Saudi Arabia. Here, the King is the ultimate authority in all matters and has power vested in his hands by law.
The Kingdom’s basic law of governance confines the “dynasty right to the sons of the founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman Al Faisal Al Saud and the sons of sons. The most eligible among them shall be recognized as king, to rule in accordance with the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah.” It also mandates the citizens to pledge allegiance to the king on the same basis. It is the king who appoints the crown prince and may relieve him of his duties by royal decree.
From the beginning, King Abdulaziz, organized his Kingdom in a modern, progressive way. Saudi Arabia transformed phenomenally as oil exports ushered in financial resources. From 1938-1946, the annual government revenue averaged $14-16 million, and by 1950, it surpassed $100 million. The socio-economic conditions of the people in the state improved and resources made the development of the administrative institutions of the modern state possible. A decree signed by ‘Abd al-’Aziz brought a council of ministers into being in 1953 and a full range of ministries, including agriculture, water, communications, and health was created in the course of that decade. By the end of the 1970s, a powerful centralised state had been created based on capable administrative machinery. “The political leadership was now creating a eudaemonic basis to the state’s legitimacy, with benefits flowing directly to the population from the state – rather than through intermediaries,” writes Tim Niblock in his book Saudi Arabia – Power, Legitimacy and Survival.
King Abdulaziz was in power from 1932-1953, following which five of his sons took to the throne: Saud, Faisal, Khaled, Fahd and Abdullah. First was his eldest son Saud who acceded the throne in 1953 and ruled till 1964. The decade after (1964-1975) saw King Faisal bin Abdulaziz at the helm of affairs. King Khalid bin Abdulaziz succeeded King Faisal in 1975 and ruled till 1982. It was King Fahd bin Abdulaziz who adopted the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in 1982 and held the crown till 2005. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended the throne after the death of King Fahd and in 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (half-brother of King Abdullah) received the pledge of allegiance as king.
The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is next in line to the throne and it is worth mentioning that ‘Vision 2030’, the ambitious program of development for the Kingdom, was unveiled by none other than him. The role of the government in Saudi Arabia has grown significantly since 1932 to be in sync with the aspirations of its citizens.