Saudi Arabia (officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)) is a Unitary Islamic absolute monarchy located in the Middle East constituting of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is bordered by countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, and Egypt, has an area of approximately 2,150,000 square kilometers, and a population of around 33 million. Saudi Arabia plays a major role in the context of Middle Eastern politics due to its status as the birthplace of Islam and the world’s only remaining absolute monarchy, as well as its relatively strong and diverse economy and alliances with many Western powers.
The history of Saudi Arabia can be traced back to 20,000 BCE when the earliest nomadic tribes settled in the area. Over the ensuing millennia, Saudi Arabia soon became a thriving trade center for Middle Eastern Empires such as the Achaemenid Empire, Byzantine Empire, and Sassanid Empire. Its cities of Mecca and Medina were both thriving trade posts by the end of the 6th Century CE. The history of Saudi Arabia entered into a period of immense change after the birth of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, in 570. By the time of his death in 632 CE, Muhammad was able to unite the various tribes of Saudi Arabia under a single religion and also worked to end many of the social injustices prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabic society. Despite Saudi Arabia’s spiritual importance as the home of Mecca and Medina, the territory became less politically important compared to other Islamic empires during this time period. Most of Saudi Arabia once again fell under a traditional tribal rule and the Sharif of Mecca who ruled the holy city between the 10th and early 20th centuries had to defer to the Abbasids, Egyptians, and Ottomans, who each conquered Saudi Arabia at various times over the centuries.
Saudi Arabia’s present-day royal family descends from Mohammad bin Saud, who established the first modern Saudi state near Riyadh in 1744 with a religious leader named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam observed in Saudi Arabia today. After Ottoman viceroy Mohammed Ali Pasha destroyed this first Saudi state in 1818, a second Saudi state was established in a much smaller area in 1824. In 1891, the Al Saud were exiled by the Al Rashid clan with whom they battled for control of the territory for decades. The Ottoman Empire collapsed after the 1918 Arab Revolt and end of WWI. The House of Saud reclaimed Riyadh from the Al Rashid in 1902 and eventually regained control of most of their former territory by the time King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud established the present-day state of Saudi Arabia in 1932. At the time, Saudi Arabia ranked among the world’s poorest countries, but the nation’s fortunes dramatically changed after vast Persian Gulf oil reserves were discovered just a few years later in 1938.
The current constitution of Saudi Arabia (known as the “Basic Law”) was adopted on January 30, 1992, and stipulates that Saudi Arabia is an absolute theocratic monarchy. The law states that the king must comply with Shari’a (Islamic) law and the Qur’an, and that the Qur’an and Sunnah are the main sources of law in the country. The recent Saudi government is headed by Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who assumed the post of crown prince in mid-2017. The controversy surrounding Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power are discussed in depth in this post: Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption purge