Extending across most of the northern and central Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia is a young country that is heir to a rich history. In its western highlands, along the Red Sea, lies the Hejaz, which is the cradle of Islam and the site of that religion’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. In the country’s geographic heartland is a region known as Najd (“Highland”), a vast arid zone that until recent times was populated by nomadic tribes. To the east, along the Persian Gulf, are the country’s abundant oilfields that, since the 1960s, have made Saudi Arabia synonymous with petroleum wealth. Those three elements—religion, tribalism, and untold wealth—have fueled the country’s subsequent history.
It was only with the rise of the Saʿūd family (Āl Saʿūd)—a Najdi group for which the country is named—and its eventual consolidation of power in the early 20th century that Saudi Arabia began to take on the characteristics of a modern country.
The success of the Saʿūds was in no small part due to the motivating ideology of Wahhābism, an austere form of Islam that was embraced by early family leaders and that became the state creed. This deep religious conservatism has been accompanied by a ubiquitous tribalism—in which competing family groups vie for resources and status—that often has made Saudi society difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
Enormous oil wealth has fueled huge and rapid investment in Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Many citizens have benefited from this growth, but it also has supported lavish lifestyles for the scions of the ruling family, and religious conservativesand liberal democrats alike have accused the family of squandering and mishandling the country’s wealth. In addition, civil discontent increased after the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) over the country’s close ties to the West, symbolized notably by the U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia until 2005.
In the mid-20th century, most of Saudi Arabia still embraced a traditional lifestyle that had changed little over thousands of years.
Since then, the pace of life in Saudi Arabia has accelerated rapidly. The constant flow of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina (vast throngs arrive for the annual hajj, and more pilgrims visit throughout the year for the lesser pilgrimage, the ʿumrah) had always provided the country with outside contacts, but interaction with the outside world has expanded with innovationsin transportation, technology, and organization.
Saudi Arabia’s growing petroleum wealth has also wrought irreversible domestic changes—educational and social as well as economic. Modern methods of production have been superimposed on a traditional society by the introduction of millions of foreign workers and by the employment of hundreds of thousands of Saudis in nontraditional jobs. In addition, tens of thousands of Saudi students have studied abroad, most in the United States.
Television, radio, and the Internet have become common media of communication and education, and highways and airways have replaced traditional means of transportation.