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Saudi Arabia: Major player on world stage

BEING the cradle of Islam, Saudi Arabia has an important place in the Muslim world. Moreover, it is the largest economy in the Middle East and plays a significant role in stabilizing the international energy market by ensuring adequate oil supply. Ever since its unification in 1932, under the strong leadership of King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, the Kingdom has been making continuous endeavors along with other countries to promote global peace and stability.

Saudi Arabia’s history spans nearly three centuries, and has gone through three stages. The first Saudi state reportedly began with the alliance between Imam Mohammed Bin Saud and Imam Mohammed Bin Abdul Wahab in 1744. The third stage had begun with King Abdul Aziz regaining control of Riyadh after a well-organized and decisive battle in 1902. The King and his trusted men continued their campaign to unify the Kingdom and brought all the present day provinces into a unified modern state for the first time in its history.

Saudi Arabia traces its roots back to the earliest civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula. Over the centuries, the peninsula has played an important role in history as an ancient trade center and the birthplace of Islam, which is the fast spreading religious faith in the world with over 1.5 billion followers. Since King Abdul Aziz established the modern state of Saudi Arabia in 1932, its transformation has been astonishing. In a few decades, the Kingdom has turned itself from a desert nation to a modern, sophisticated state and a major player on the international stage.

Strategic location

Located between the two great centers of civilization, the Nile River Valley and Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula was on the crossroads of the ancient world. Trade was crucial to the area’s development; caravan routes became trade arteries that made life possible in the sparsely populated region. The people of the Peninsula developed a complex network of trade routes to transport agricultural goods highly sought after in Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and the Mediterranean Basin. These items included almonds from Taif, dates from Qassim and Madinah, and aromatics such as frankincense and myrrh from the Tihama plain.

Spices were also important trade items. They were shipped across the Arabian Sea from India and then transported by caravan. The huge caravans traveled from what is now Oman and Yemen, along the great trade routes running through Saudi Arabia’s Asir Province and then through Makkah and Madinah, eventually arriving at the urban centers of the north and west. The people of the Arabian Peninsula remained largely untouched by the political turmoil in Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and the eastern Mediterranean. Their goods and services were in great demand regardless of which power was dominant. In addition, the Peninsula’s great expanse of desert formed a natural barrier that protected it from invasion by powerful neighbors.

The Birth of Islam

Around the year 610, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, a native of the thriving commercial center of Makkah, received revelations from God or Allah through the Angel Gabriel. The Holy Qur’an, which he received from Allah and his life and teachings (Hadith) form the basis of Islam. In 622, learning of an assassination plot against him, the Prophet led his followers to the town of Yathrib, which was later named Madinat Al-Nabi (City of the Prophet) and now known as Madinah. This was the Hijrah, or migration, which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Within the next few years, several battles took place between the followers of the Prophet and the pagans of Makkah. By 628, when Madinah was entirely in the hands of Muslims, the Prophet had unified the tribes so successfully that he and his followers reentered Makkah without bloodshed.

The Islamic Empire

Historically, Saudi Arabia has occupied a special place in the Islamic world, for it is towards Makkah and Islam’s most sacred shrine, the Holy Kaaba, located inside the Grand Mosque there, that Muslims throughout the world turn devoutly in prayer five times a day. An appreciation of Islamic history and culture is therefore essential for a genuine understanding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its Islamic heritage and its leading role in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Less than 100 years after the birth of Islam, the Islamic Empire extended from Spain to parts of India and China. Although the political centers of power had moved out of the Arabian Peninsula, trade flourished in the area. Also, a large number of pilgrims began regularly visiting the Peninsula, with some settling in the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. These pilgrims facilitated the exchange of ideas and cultures between the people of the Peninsula and other civilizations of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Today, the worldwide community of Muslims, which embraces the people of many races and cultures, numbers well over 1.5 billion.

The emergence of Arabic as the language of international learning was another major factor in the cultural development of the Arabian Peninsula. The Muslim world became a center for learning and scientific advances during what is known as the “Golden Age.” Muslim scholars made major contributions in many fields, including medicine, biology, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, arts and literature. Many of the ideas and methods pioneered by Muslim scholars became the foundation of modern sciences. The Islamic Empire thrived well into the 17th century, when it broke up into smaller Muslim kingdoms. The Arabian Peninsula gradually entered a period of relative isolation, although Makkah and Madinah remained the spiritual heart of the Islamic world and continued to attract pilgrims from many countries.

The First Saudi State

In the early 18th century, a Muslim scholar and reformer named Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdul Wahab began advocating a return to the original form of Islam. Abdul Wahab was initially persecuted by local religious scholars and leaders who viewed his teachings as a threat to their power bases. He sought protection in the town of Diriyah, which was ruled by Muhammad Bin Saud. Abdul Wahab and Muhammad Bin Saud formed an agreement to dedicate themselves to restoring the pure teachings of Islam to the Muslim community. In that spirit, Bin Saud established the First Saudi State.

By 1788, the Saudi State ruled over the entire central plateau known as the Najd. By the early 19th century, its rule extended to most of the Arabian Peninsula, including Makkah and Madinah. The popularity and success of the Al-Saud rulers aroused the suspicion of the Ottoman Empire, the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa at the time. In 1818, the Ottomans dispatched a large expeditionary force armed with modern artillery to the western region of Arabia. The Ottoman army besieged Diriyah, which by now had grown into one of the largest cities in the Peninsula. Ottoman forces leveled the city with field guns and made it permanently uninhabitable by ruining the wells and uprooting date palms.

The Second Saudi State

By 1824, the Al-Saud family had regained political control of central Arabia. The Saudi ruler Turki Bin Abdullah Al-Saud transformed the capital to Riyadh, some 20 miles south of Diriyah, and established the Second Saudi State. During his 11-year rule, Turki succeeded in retaking most of the lands lost to the Ottomans. As he expanded his rule, he took steps to ensure that his people enjoyed rights, and worked for their well-being. Under Turki and his son, Faisal, the Second Saudi State enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, and trade and agriculture flourished. The calm was shattered in 1865 by a renewed Ottoman campaign to extend its Middle Eastern empire into the Arabian Peninsula. Ottoman armies captured parts of the Saudi State, which was ruled at the time by Faisal’s son, Abdul Rahman. With the support of the Ottomans, the Al-Rashid family of Hail made a concerted effort to overthrow the Saudi State.

Faced with a much larger and better equipped army, Abdul Rahman Bin Faisal Al-Saud was forced to abandon his struggle in 1891. He sought refuge with the Bedouin tribes in the vast sand desert of eastern Arabia known as the Rub Al-Khali, or the Empty Quarter. From there, Abdul Rahman and his family traveled to Kuwait, where they stayed until 1902. With him was his young son Abdul Aziz, who was already making his mark as a natural leader and a fierce warrior for the cause of Islam.

Modern Saudi Arabia

The young Abdul Aziz was determined to regain his patrimony from the Al-Rashid family, which had taken over Riyadh and established a governor and garrison there. In 1902, Abdul Aziz, accompanied by his 40 followers, staged a daring night march into Riyadh 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, Abdul Aziz captured all of the Hijaz, including Makkah and Madinah during 1924-1925. In the process, he united warring tribes into one nation. On Sept. 23, 1932, the country was named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an Islamic state with the Holy Qur’an as its constitution.

King Abdul Aziz (1932-1953)

The legendary King Abdul Aziz was a remarkable visionary leader, who set Saudi Arabia on the road to modernization. During his rule, King Abdul Aziz started building the country’s infrastructure. He established roads and basic communications systems, introduced modern technology, and improved education, health care and agriculture. Although King Abdul Aziz never traveled beyond the Arab world, he was a highly sophisticated statesman. Foreign leaders and diplomats who met him were impressed by his integrity and honesty. He was famous for dispensing with diplomatic niceties in favor of frank and candid discussion. He was well known for keeping his promises, whether given to a simple Bedouin or to a world leader. These qualities enhanced his stature as a reliable and responsible leader.

King Saud (1953-1964) ascended the throne following his father’s death in 1953. He continued his father’s legacy, creating the Council of Ministers and establishing the Ministries of Health, Education and Commerce. One of King Saud’s greatest successes was the development of education; under his rule many schools were established in the Kingdom, including its first institute of higher education, King Saud University, in 1957. King Saud also made his mark globally. In 1957, he became the first Saudi monarch to visit the United States. In 1962 he sponsored an international Islamic conference that led to the formation of the Makkah-based Muslim World League.

King Faisal (1964-1975) , the third king, was a visionary innovator with a great respect for tradition. He initiated the first of a series of economic and social development plans that transformed the country’s infrastructure, especially industry, and set the Kingdom on a path of rapid growth. He also established the first public schools for girls. He was a central force behind the establishment of the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1971, which is the second largest organization after the United Nations with 57 Muslim countries as its members. Throughout the turbulent period of the 1960s and 1970s, which included two Arab-Israeli wars and the oil crisis of 1973, King Faisal was a voice for moderation, peace and stability.

King Khaled (1975-1982) succeeded King Faisal in 1975. His reign was marked by a remarkable growth in the country’s physical infrastructure. It was a period of enormous wealth and prosperity for Saudi Arabia. During his time, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed in 1981, an organization that promotes economic and security cooperation among its six member countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

King Fahd (1982-2005) was the longest serving ruler of Saudi Arabia. He adopted the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Under his reign, Saudi Arabia continued its tremendous socioeconomic development and emerged as a leading political and economic force. King Fahd was central to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy and promote private enterprise and investment. He restructured the Saudi government and approved the first nationwide municipal elections, which took place in 2005. He launched major expansion projects for the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. In 1981, he proposed an eight-point plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and give the Palestinians an independent state. During his rule, Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990 and the King played a key role in putting together the international coalition that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

King Abdullah (2005 – 2015) became the King following the death of King Fahd on Aug. 1, 2005. His international diplomacy reflects Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in defense of Arab and Islamic issues and for the achievement of world peace, stability and security. Peace in the Middle East and the plight of the Palestinians were of particular concern to King Abdullah. His proposal for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, presented at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002, has been adopted by the League of Arab States and is known as the Arab Peace Initiative. At the International Counterterrorism Conference in Riyadh in February 2005, he called for greater international cooperation to fight terror.

King Salman

Salman Bin Abdul Aziz is the seventh king of Saudi Arabia. He took charge as the new ruler of Saudi Arabia on Friday, Jan. 23, 2015 soon after the death of King Abdullah. During his 56-year tenure as governor of Riyadh, the capital city witnessed tremendous progress in all sectors. During the past months, King Salman has taken a series of decisions to strengthen the economy and enhance the Kingdom’s position in the world.

King Salman has visited a number of countries, including the US, UK, China, Japan, Pakistan and India. His recent visit to the US and meeting with President Barack Obama were significant in boosting Saudi-US relations. In March 2014, he paid an official visit to China and signed a number of agreements between the two countries. In September 2014, he visited France as crown prince and held talks with President Francois Hollande and senior French ministers to strengthen cooperation in defense, education, security, health and economic sectors. In November 2014, he led the Kingdom’s delegation to the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. Saudi Arabia was the only Arab country to attend that summit conference.

In his keynote speech after ascending the throne, King Salman said his government would follow the straight path, based on the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah, without deviating from the policies of his predecessors. Since 1956, Prince Salman has chaired various humanitarian and service committees that provide relief from natural and man-made disasters. For his humanitarian services, he has been awarded many medals and decorations, including awards from Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Morocco, Palestine, the Philippines, Senegal, the United Nations and Yemen and the King Abdul Aziz Medal of the First Order.