The Holy Alliance
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of "Wahhabism," an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to "pure" Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab's austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab's followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Saud forge endures to this day in Saudi Arabia.
By the 19th century, the Al Saud has spread its influence across the Arabian Peninsula, stretching from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf and including the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. But in 1818, forces of the Ottoman Empire sack the capital, Riyadh, and execute many of the religious and political leaders. Over the next eighty years the Al Saud attempt to reestablish their rule on the Arabian Peninsula without success.
| Explore more about Wahhabism, in this section of FRONTLINE's 2001 report, "Saudi Time Bomb?".
Abd al-Aziz and the Ikhwan
In 1902, a direct descendent of Muhammad ibn Saud, twenty-year-old Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, rides out of the desert with 60 of his brothers and cousins to restore the rule of Al Saud. He captures Riyadh, the ancient capital of the Saudi kingdom, but to conquer all of the Arabian Peninsula, he seeks the help of nomadic Bedouins, the Ikhwan, or Muslim brothers. Renowned warriors, the Ikhwan are also fervent Wahhabi Islamic puritans who want to spread their form of Islam throughout the Middle East.
Abd al-Aziz Captures Mecca and Medina, Crushes the Ikhwan
With the Ikhwan by his side, Abd al-Aziz captures province after province of the vast desert. He captures Mecca in 1924 and Medina in 1925, becoming the ruler of the Two Holy Cities of Islam. But the Ikhwan want to spread Wahhabism beyond Arabia and when Abd al-Aziz tries to restrain them, they rebel. To survive, Abd al-Aziz realizes he has to destroy the Ikhwan. But how can he, a defender of Islam, justify going to war against his Muslim warriors?
Abd al-Aziz seeks the approval of the ulama, the religious authorities, regarded as the moral guardians of the realm. With the ulama's endorsement, he crushes the Ikhwan.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud declares himself king and gives his name to the country: Saudi Arabia. To keep his new kingdom united, he marries a daughter from every tribe as well as from the influential clerical families -- more than twenty wives, although never more than four at one time, in accordance with the Quran.
These unions produce 45 legitimate sons and an unknown number of daughters (daughters are not counted). Abd al-Aziz then begins consolidating power away from the brothers and cousins who helped him conquer the peninsula in favor of his own sons. Every Saudi king since has been a son of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud.
| Explore the modern Al Saud dynasty's "Family Tree."
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. establish diplomatic relations, and in 1933 the first foreign oil prospectors arrive in the kingdom. The Americans pay $170,000 in gold for land concessions that turn out to contain the biggest oil fields on earth. Ignoring criticism that inviting foreigners into the kingdom is un-Islamic, and citing precedent in the Quran, King Abd al-Aziz invites U.S oil companies to develop Saudi oil resources. The oil companies and the Saudi government set up a joint enterprise that later becomes the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). Its shareholders include America's four largest oil corporations.
The Oil-for-Security Deal
By 1945, the U.S. urgently needs oil facilities to help supply forces fighting in the Second World War. Meanwhile, security is at the forefront of King Abd al-Aziz's concerns. President Franklin Roosevelt invites the king to meet him aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, docked in the Suez Canal. The two leaders cement a secret oil-for-security pact: The king guarantees to give the U.S. secure access to Saudi oil and in exchange the U.S. will provide military assistance and training to Saudi Arabia and build the Dhahran military base.
Also discussed at the meeting is the issue of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. King Abd al-Aziz acknowledges the plight of the Jews, but argues taking part of Palestine is unfair to the Palestinians. In a letter to the king that Roosevelt sends after their meeting, the president writes: "I will take no action which might prove hostile to the Arab people." But Roosevelt dies shortly after sending this letter and Vice President Harry Truman becomes president.
U.S. Recognizes the State of Israel
Prince Faisal, the King's second son, arrives in New York for the UN vote on the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Saudis are dead set against it. Prince Faisal is promised by Gen. George Marshall, one of President Truman's top aides, that the U.S. will vote against the proposal. When Truman decides to support Palestine's partition, Prince Faisal takes this as a personal affront.
In 1948, King Abd al-Aziz sends Saudi forces to join an unsuccessful effort to destroy the nascent Jewish state. Saudi Arabia has since never officially recognized Israel, and is technically still at war with it.
Prince Saud Becomes King
Before his death in 1953, King Abd al-Aziz designates his eldest son, Prince Saud, the next king and appoints his second son, Prince Faisal, minister of foreign affairs. But Prince Saud will prove an ineffective ruler. His reign will be marked by inattention to governance and misuse of money.
Reinforcing the U.S.-Saudi Alliance
The Middle East balance of power shifts after Gamal Abdel Nasser's overthrow of Egypt's king in 1952. Nasser proclaims himself a pan-Arabist -- a secular, socialist -- and allies himself with the Soviet Union against the West. Nasser also wants Saudi oil under his control, saying it belongs to all Arab people.
The U.S. moves to shore up support for Saud. President Eisenhower invites him for a state visit in Feb. 1957. Eisenhower wants to renew the lease on the Dhahran airbase, a useful strategic asset in the Cold War. Saud wants the money that the U.S. will pay to extend the lease. And he privately promises to suspend all aid to Egypt. To this day, the agreement that Faisal and Eisenhower sign constitutes the basis of U.S.-Saudi military cooperation.
But Saud soon spends the revenues from the Dhahran lease on luxury trips to Europe and falls out of favor with his own family.
The "Free Prince" Movement
In the late 50s, one of King Abd al-Aziz's younger sons, Prince Talal, begins a movement for political reform in the kingdom. In 1958, he drafts a new Saudi constitution to establish a national consultative council, a first step toward establishing a constitutional monarchy. But his proposal is rejected by King Saud and in 1961 he is forced from his position as transportation minister.
From exile in Egypt and Lebanon, Prince Talal announces the establishment of a royal opposition group comprised of some of his full brothers and other well-educated Saudis. It is nicknamed the "Free Princes." They continue to lobby for political reform, but without success.
King Saud Deposed
By the early 60s, King Saud is losing support everywhere and has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. The senior Al Saud brothers realize something has to be done and arrive at a consensus to replace Saud with a more capable leader. They go to the ulama, the religious authorities, and get a fatwa sanctioning Saud's abdication in favor of his half-brother Faisal. King Saud and his entourage quietly leave the country, and the ailing monarch spends his last years exiled in Athens, Greece, where he dies in 1969.
King Faisal begins a program of bringing the kingdom up to date, stressing economic development and educational improvements. During his reign oil revenues increase by more than 1,600 percent, enabling Faisal to build a communications and transportation infrastructure and set up a generous system of welfare benefits for all citizens. Even today, Saudi citizens do not pay taxes.
But almost every aspect of modernization brings the king into conflict with the religious establishment. For the ulama, innovation threatens Islam. To appease the conservatives, King Faisal allows Saudia Arabia to become a sanctuary for extremist Muslims from Egypt and Syria where the governments are cracking down on fundamentalist scholars and professionals. Faisal invites them to teach Saudi Arabia's youth. His decision will have far-reaching consequences; many of today's Saudi radicals studied under Egyptian and Syrian fundamentalists.
Partly due to his standing as a pious Muslim, Faisal is able to introduce cautious social reforms such as female education. In 1965, he approves the first television broadcast inside the kingdom -- a recitation of the Quran. Nonetheless, religious conservatives stage a large protest. When a nephew of the king is killed at the protest in clashes with the police, the king does nothing to punish the policemen. This decision will later have disastrous consequences.
The Arab-Israeli War
In the spring of 1967 war is brewing. President Nasser of Egypt moves troops to Israel's border and orders the UN out. Uniting against Israel, Faisal reconciles with Nasser. Fearing an attack is imminent, Israel launches a massive pre-emptive war. In just six days the bulk of Arab armies are destroyed and Arab leaders are humiliated. At Aramco's compounds, hundreds of Saudis riot against the United States. The Arab league pressures King Faisal to use Saudi oil as a weapon against the West.
The Arab Oil Embargo
In Oct. 1973, another Arab-Israeli war breaks out. Despite growing tensions, the Arab attack on Israel comes as a surprise. In the first day, Egyptian and Syrian armies gain considerable ground.
In the midst of the war, the U.S. airlifts supplies to Israel. The Arab League pressures Faisal for an oil boycott and Faisal acts, ordering Aramco to stop pumping. With Saudi oil kept off the market, world oil prices quadruple. President Nixon sends Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on an urgent mission to meet with Faisal. The Pentagon begins considering military options. Kissinger says oil is a national security priority, and if necessary, the U.S. will intervene militarily.
With the oil embargo having a major impact on the war in Vietnam, a secret solution is devised: King Faisal agrees to arrange for Saudi oil to be covertly supplied to the U.S. Navy. The oil embargo officially ends in 1974.
On the morning of March 25, King Faisal's past catches up with him. At a meeting with Kuwait's petroleum minister, one of the king's nephews, Faisal ibn Musaid, slips into the room. His brother had been killed by police at the 1965 protest against the introduction of television. Ibn Musaid shoots and kills the king. The assassination comes as a violent shock, especially because the killer is a member of the royal family.
As his father had decreed, King Faisal is succeeded by his half-brother Prince Khalid, who becomes the fourth king of Saudi Arabia.
The Oil Boom Years
During the reign of King Khalid, hundreds of billions in oil revenue pours into Saudi Arabia. The tiny population, estimated at four million and with only half a million literate males, finds it hard to absorb such wealth. The government begins a frenzied pace of buying and building. Foreign contractors flood in. Among those accumulating massive riches during these years are the bin Ladens, principal builders for the Al Saud royal family.
The boom also leads to widespread official corruption. Deals are riddled with influence peddling, bribes and oversize commissions. The Saudi royals, with their huge allowances, become notorious big spenders in Europe's casinos. Saudi leaders lose the credibility and respect of the country's religious conservatives.
Armed Zealots Seize the Great Mosque at Mecca
One of Saudi Arabia's most shocking events occurs the morning of November 20, 1979. Several hundred Saudi fundamentalists take over al-Haram, the Great Mosque at Mecca and the holiest site in Islam. The leader of the insurgents is Juhayman al-Utaybi, a direct descendant of the Ikhwan, the Wahhabi warriors who helped the Al Saud family take power in the early 1920s.
The radicals call for a return to pure Islam, and a reversal of modernization. Juhayman also accuses the royal family of corruption and says they have lost their legitimacy because of their dealings with the West.
The royal family again turns to the ulama, the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia, and the clerics issue a fatwa based on verses from the Quran that allows the government to use all necessary force to retake the Great Mosque. The standoff lasts for several weeks before the Saudi military can remove the insurgents. More than 200 troops and dissidents are killed in the attacks and, to set an example, over sixty of the zealots are publicly beheaded in their hometowns.
The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the Rise of Jihadis
Shaken by the seizure of the Great Mosque by radical fundamentalists, the royal family moves to increase its religious standing and starts implementing a more Islamist agenda. They begin pumping millions into religious education under the ulama. Saudi charities raise even more. New theological schools and universities are built to produce large numbers of clerics who teach Wahhabism as the only true form of Islam and preach jihad against infidels is the obligation of every true believer.
This same year, the Wahhabis find a rallying cause like no other: The Soviet Union, the godless Communist power, invades the Muslim nation of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. make a secret deal to contribute equal amounts to finance the Afghan war against the Soviets.
Thousands of young Saudis are sent to fight alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan For the next decade, some 45,000 young Saudi volunteers will trek to Afghanistan where they acquire military skills and come to believe that dedicated Islamic fighters can defeat a superpower. One of their leaders is Osama bin Laden.
Late-70s and early-80s
Military and Security Build-Up
In the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini's bitterly anti-American Shi'a fundamentalist revolution in Iran and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia strengthen their security relationship. Rising oil revenues allow the Saudis to increase military expenditures at all levels.
Fahd's Reign and the Iran-Iraq War
King Kahlid dies after a short illness and is succeeded by his half-brother Crown Prince Fahd. The new king will face economic constraints as oil prices decline in the late 80s.
Just as Fahd takes power, war breaks out between his two powerful neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Fahd befriends Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni, and gives him money and weapons to battle the Shi'a in Iran. But two years after the war ends, Saddam will invade neighboring Kuwait, with his eye on Saudi oil.
The Gulf War
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invades Kuwait, and moves its troops toward the border of Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden visits members of the royal family and offers his Afghan-trained mujahideen to help fight Iraq, but they don't take his offer seriously.
King Fahd turns to his U.S. allies for help. But can he, the Defender of the Two Mosques of Mecca and Medina, invite hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim "infidel" troops into the kingdom? Once again, the royal family turns to the ulama for a ruling or fatwa. With their approval, over half a million U.S. troops arrive in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries.
Saudi Women Demonstrate for the Right to Drive
With U.S. women soldiers in many parts of the kingdom because of the Gulf War, Saudi women decide to challenge restrictions on their rights, including the right to drive. In November,forty-seven Saudi women meet at the parking lot of a Safeway and drive their cars through the streets of Riyadh. The women are arrested by the religious police, but released the same night under orders of Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh.
The ulama calls their driving a depravity and issues the names and numbers of all 47 women, urging clerics to punish the women as they see fit. The Al Saud royal family publicly reasserts the ban on women drivers.
Religious Leaders Criticize King Fahd
A group of 107 Wahhabi religious figures sends a 46-page "Memorandum of Advice" to King Fahd criticizing the government for corruption and human rights abuses and for allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil. The document calls on the government to more strictly follow shari'a, or Islamic law, and end relations with Western governments. King Fahd dismisses seven of the 17 members of the ulama for refusing to denounce the memorandum.
Fahd Introduces the "Basic Law of Government"
Amid calls for democratic reform, King Fahd introduces the "Basic Law of Government," essentially the country's first written constitution. The first of the laws specifies that Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with a monarchy headed by the House of Saud. The Al Saud's control of government remains tight, but the new laws make some concessions to reformers. For example, a Consultative Council of 60 members appointed by the king is created to interpret laws and make recommendations on matters of state. The laws also establish the first municipal governments in the country.
Following the government's arrest of two Wahhabi clerics for anti-government preaching, several thousand protestors stage demonstrations in the town of Buraida. The clerics accuse the monarchy of corruption and betraying Islam by allowing U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula. The government admits to arresting over a hundred protestors; opposition groups claim thousands were seized.
The incident ends up forcing the government to cede more control to the Wahhabi clerics, but only if the clerics promise to support the government. The two Wahhabi clerics are quietly released from prison in 1999.
Four years after the Gulf War, U.S. troops are still in the kingdom. Osama bin Laden seizes on the issue and his followers go on the offensive. On the morning of November 13, 1995 a massive bomb shakes the U.S.-operated Saudi National Guard training center in Riyadh. Five American military contractors and one U.S. soldier are killed. Those arrested say they are inspired by bin Laden.
King Fahd Incapacitated
Following a series of strokes in 1995 and 1996, King Fahd is no longer able to run the government and Crown Prince Abdullah, Fahd's half brother, becomes the kingdom's de facto ruler.
Khobar Towers Bombing
On the morning of June 25,1996 a large truck bomb explodes at the U.S. military residence in Dhahran called Khobar Towers, killing 19 U.S. servicemen. U.S. law enforcement efforts to investigate the bombing are met with resistance by Saudi officials. Five years later, a federal grand jury will indict 13 Saudis and one Lebanese man for the attack.
Bin Laden Declares War on America
In his 1996 declaration of war against the Americans occupying the lands of the Two Holy Places, Osama bin Laden calls on Muslims everywhere to fight the Jews and crusaders. He also accuses the Saudi royal family of pocketing the national wealth.
The Rise of Arab Media
Arab satellite television begins broadcasting throughout the region, beyond the control of the Saudi monarchy. For the first time, Saudi citizens see for themselves reports of their country's shortcomings: the lack of civil rights, political freedoms, royal corruption. Disturbing images of the Arab-Israeli conflict become part of Saudis' daily viewing.
Throughout the 90s, U.S. efforts to forge a lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are unsuccessful. When the Saudis sense that the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, might abandon the peace process, they decide to take a more active role.
Crown Prince Abdullah's Letter
Frustrated by what he sees as a continuing pro-Israeli bias by the Bush administration and its predecessors, Crown Prince Abdullah sends an angry letter to President Bush on August 29, stating that if the U.S. does not behave in a more equitable manner toward the Palestinians, the Saudis will have to reconsider their long-standing alliance with the U.S. But before any measurable action can be taken on his complaint, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 occur.
September 11, 2001
The Saudi Response
At the official level, the Saudi government is appalled by the terrorist attacks in the U.S. and publishes a statement calling them "regrettable" and "inhuman." Although it is known almost immediately that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Al Qaeda plot are Saudi citizens, months pass before the Saudi government will admit it.
America's subsequent war on terror in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda deeply divides Saudis. But Saudi leaders quietly allow the U.S. military to use Saudi air bases for command and control operations.
Saudi militants captured in Afghanistan will make up the biggest segment of the population shipped to the prison camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. Forces Leave the Kingdom
Just days after Baghdad falls to U.S. forces in Iraq, U.S.Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrives in Riyadh to announce that U.S. troops will pull out of Saudi air bases. For more than ten years, the American presence in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques has been a rallying cry for Al Qaeda.
The Wake-Up Call
The fact that U.S. troops are withdrawing from the kingdom makes no difference to Al Qaeda. On May 12, 2003 Al Qaeda militants attack three compounds in Riyadh that house hundreds of foreign workers. Thirty-five people are killed, including nine Americans. Over one hundred are wounded. Shocked, Saudi society and the royal family begin to look inward and to question how their own citizens could have been behind the attacks.
Pressure for Reform
In early 2004, a group of prominent Saudi citizens, including attorney Bassim Alim, petition the government for constitutional reforms.
Prince Nayef, the minister of the interior, meets with them and insists that the petitions stop. Shortly after, many of the petitioners are arrested.
The Fatwa of the 26
At Friday prayers on November 5, 2004, twenty-six prominent Saudi clerics, including Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, sign a fatwa saying that Iraqis should rise up and oppose the Americans in Iraq. Many interpret the fatwa as encouraging all Muslims to go fight the Americans.
In Dec. 2004, a young Saudi medical student travels to Mosul, Iraq and detonates a bomb that kills 22 U.S. soldiers. To date, an unknown number of Saudis have traveled to Iraq to join the insurgency.
Islamist Violence Increases; Westerners Withdraw
From May 2003 to December 2004, some 100 people are killed in attacks by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Westerners are a prime target. In the summer of 2004, a BBC cameraman is gunned down while filming in a Riyadh street. Two days later, a U.S. defense contractor is shot to death in his garage. A week later, another U.S. defense worker is killed outside his home in Riyadh, and U.S. engineer Paul Johnson is abducted by terrorists and is seen being beheaded in a video that is put on the Internet.
In December 2004 an assault on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah leaves five foreign staff dead. Two weeks later, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior is car bombed. As of February 2005, thousands of Americans have pulled out of the kingdom and British Airways has suspended flights to the country.
On Aug. 1, 2005, King Fahd dies at the age of 82, and his half-brother Abdullah is officially named monarch. Today, King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family face the most severe challenge in its one hundred-year history and straining its oil-for-security alliance with the U.S. Ultimately, the Saudis believe an oil dependent America cannot afford Saudi Arabia's demise. The House of Saud believes it will survive.