The Setting of Saudi Arabia

The Setting of Saudi Arabia

The title, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, uses the word kingdom, which is not an Islamic term. However, given the significance of religion in Saudi Arabia, it is clear that Saudis believe that ultimate authority rests with God (Allah). The Saudi ruler is Allah's secular representative and bases political legitimacy on his religious credentials.

Saudi refers to the Al Saud family, the royal house of Saudi Arabia, whose eponym is Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Mughrin. Saud himself was not a significant figure, but his son, Muhammad ibn Saud (literally, Muhammad, the son of Saud), conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula in the early eighteenth century. In almost two centuries since then, Muhammad ibn Saud's family has grown tremendously and, in 1992, the ruling house of Saudi Arabia had more than 4,000 male members.

Finally, Arabia--or the Arabian Peninsula--refers to a geographic region whose name is related to the language of the majority of its inhabitants. Before the era of the Muslim conquests in the mid-seventh century, some Arabic-speaking peoples also lived in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, and Christian Arab buffer states were established north of the peninsula between the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. As a result of the Muslim conquests, however, people of the peninsula spread out over the wider region that today is known as the "Arab world" and the Arabic language became the region's dominant language.

The desert is the most prominent feature of the Arabian Peninsula. Although vast, arid tracts dominate Saudi Arabia, the country also includes long stretches of arid coastline along the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and several major oases in the Eastern Province. Accordingly, the Saudi environment is not uniform, and the differences between coastal and desert life have played their part in Arabian history. Those living on the water have had more contact with other peoples and thus have developed more cosmopolitan outlooks than those living in the interior.

Saudi Arabia is the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula. It shares the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coasts with the Persian Gulf states, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq, so there are cultural and historical overlaps with its neighbors. Many of these countries rely on the authority of a single family--whether the ruler calls himself a king, as in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, or an amir, as in the gulf states. Tribal loyalties also play an important role in these countries, and large portions of their populations have only recently stopped living as nomads.

Several important factors, however, distinguish Saudi Arabia from its neighbors. Unlike other states in the area, Saudi Arabia has never been under the direct control of a European power. Moreover, the Wahhabi movement that began in Saudi Arabia has had a greater impact on Saudi history than on any other country. Although the religious fervor of Wahhabism affected populations of such neighboring states as present-day Qatar, only in Saudi Arabia was it an essential element in the formation of the modern state.

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