Saudi Arabia: just enough background

In 1935, oil had not been discovered, and most of Saudi Arabia was poor and nomadic (the people moved from place to place). Through the 1960’s, animal husbandry was the most common source of income.

Then oil was discovered.

Now, Saudi Arabia is an ultra-wealthy oil economy under the control of a fundamentalist Islamist dictatorship. It probably is the the most powerful country in the Middle East and has the most repressive rights for women.

early years

A tribal leader named Abdulaziz al-Saud conquered a huge area, and then named it after himself. He and his sons have ruled Saudi Arabia ever since.

But, in order to keep power, he teamed up with a fiercely conservative group of Islamist fundamentalists known as the Wahhabis. The Wahhabis demanded a return to the “pure faith.”

The Wahhabis have been the glue that tied together three regions of Saudi Arabia: oil fields in the east, holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the west, and the desert in the middle.

The Saudi royal family and the Wahhabis need each other, as obedience to the royal family is a religious obligation.


The country’s oil wealth meant the government could afford to continue to prioritize religion over economic productivity.

But with the drop in the price of oil, new policies are being put into place by MBS (Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman) that include a commitment to tourism and education, for example. And, in order to encourage international investors in those areas, the Saudis know they need to modernize—which the Wahhabis hate.

That tension—modernization clashing with fundamentalism—is a defining characteristic of Saudi Arabia.

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