ABD AL AZIZ IBN ABD AR RAHMAN AL SAUD, who had begun conquering territory in the Arabian Peninsula in 1902, proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. It was then, and remained sixty years later, the only nation to have been named after its ruling family. Fahd ibn Abd al Aziz Al Saud, who in 1992 had been ruling for ten years, was the fourth son of Abd al Aziz to become king since his father's death in 1953. Although the Al Saud kings ruled as absolute monarchs, their power was tempered by Islamic law (sharia) and by the custom of reaching consensus on political issues among the scores of direct adult male descendants of Abd al Aziz.
Islam was a pervasive social and political force in Saudi Arabia. Because there was no separation of religion and state, the political role of religious scholars, or ulama, was second in importance to that of the ruling Al Saud family. The close association between the ulama, advocating the strict Islamic interpretations of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, and the Al Saud originated in the eighteenth century and provided the dynasty with its primary source of legitimacy. The ulama acted as a conservative force in maintaining the traditional social and political values that characterized Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s.
Although Saudi Arabia was established as a country based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, the discovery of vast petroleum deposits led to significant changes in the role of religion. Since the 1950s, when oil revenues became abundant, Saudi rulers have sought to reap the economic benefits derived from oil resources while trying to minimize the political and social impact of change. Nevertheless, the transformation of Saudi Arabia from a relatively isolated, predominantly rural country into a wealthy, urbanized nation hosting tens of thousands of foreign workers inevitably produced tensions. From a political perspective, the most significant development was the emergence of a group of middle-class professionals. This important and highly educated group of Saudis generally resented the lack of opportunities for citizen participation in politics. Beginning in the 1960s, they tried to pressure the monarchy into creating an elective representative assembly. Saudi kings resisted demands for political liberalization by strengthening regime ties with the ulama, who tended to distrust the notion of popular government because of the implicit assumption that manmade legislation could be equal to sacred law.
Islam also was a significant factor in Saudi Arabia's foreign relations. The very close relationship that developed between the kingdom and the non-Muslim United States after 1945, for example, was partly a result of Saudi antipathy to the former Soviet Union's espousal of atheism. Beginning in the late 1950s, Riyadh and Washington shared similar misgivings about the ties that secular, republican regimes in the region established with Moscow. During the 1980s, the Saudis tried to counteract Soviet influence by providing military aid to Islamic groups that opposed secular governments in such countries as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). In addition, the kingdom gave generous economic assistance to the predominantly Muslim states of Africa and Asia in the expectation that recipient countries would support its overall policy goals. Despite this largess, however, Jordan, Sudan, and the Republic of Yemen (a merger of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic, North Yemen), three of the countries most dependent on Saudi foreign aid, failed to back the kingdom during its 1990-91 conflict with Iraq after the latter invaded Kuwait.
Saudi efforts to use Islam as a vehicle for rallying diplomatic support met with indifferent results because other Muslim countries generally did not base their foreign policies on religion. A notable exception was Iran, the kingdom's neighbor on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf. The shared Islamic heritage was not, however, a basis for Saudi-Iranian cooperation. On the contrary, the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution had brought to power Muslim clergy who espoused a version of Islam that Saudi ulama considered heretical. Moreover, Iranian officials throughout the 1980s denounced the Al Saud as corrupt and the institution of monarchy as un-Islamic. Consequently, the government of Saudi Arabia perceived Iran as a major threat to both domestic tranquility and regional security. Although Saudi Arabia remained officially neutral during the protracted IranIraq War (1980-88), it supported the war aims of its former political rival, the secular government of Iraq, by providing Baghdad with loans and grants totaling several billion dollars.
Saudi financial assistance neither defeated Iran nor won Iraq's gratitude. In 1984 Iran initiated attacks on tankers carrying Saudi and Kuwaiti oil, justifying its actions on grounds that the monetary aid extended to Iraq had made both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait de facto Iraqi allies. As the war spread to the Persian Gulf, Riyadh began to perceive that the continuation of the conflict posed a major security threat. The government thus felt relieved in 1988 when both belligerents, weary of fighting, agreed to accept a United Nations-mediated cease-fire. However, the cessation of Iran-Iraq hostilities provided the Saudis only a brief respite from concerns about regional security. Iraq soon turned on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia's close ally and neighbor. After Kuwait had resisted Iraqi demands for more than a year, Baghdad retaliated in August 1990 by dispatching its army to occupy and annex the small, oil-rich state. King Fahd's government, shocked and frightened, called upon the United States for help. In an unprecedented development, thousands of United States troops, under authority of several United Nations resolutions, were deployed to the kingdom beginning in August 1990. The country's ulama tolerated their presence after receiving the king's assurances that the foreign military personnel, among whom were several thousand women, would have minimal contact with Saudi civilians and be required to obey Saudi laws such as the ban on consumption of alcohol.
By the beginning of 1991, it had become obvious that the massive United States military presence in Saudi Arabia would not persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. The Saudi government and its Arab allies consequently agreed to join the United States, which also had obtained support from its European allies, to force a withdrawal. Iraq's appeals for Arab and Islamic solidarity against the United States intervention failed to impress the Saudis, who noted that the sharing of similar religious traditions had not prevented Iraq from invading Kuwait nor threatening their country. During the forty-three-day Persian Gulf War, Iraqi missiles struck Riyadh and several other Saudi towns, and the Saudi armed forces participated with non-Muslims and non-Arabs in the fighting against Iraq. The war, which ended with Iraq's military defeat in February 1991, demonstrated to the Saudis the impracticality of trying to base foreign policy on their vision of Islam. Convinced that the kingdom's security interests required the long-term containment of Iraq and convinced that Iran had the same objective, Riyadh put aside its reservations about Iran's adherence to Shia Islam and began the process of normalizing relations with Tehran
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