The roots of the state system of Saudi Arabia lie in the religious reform movement of the mid-18th century, which was called Wahhabism and was the key code of rules for the first Saudi kingdom.
The formation of Saudi Arabia as an independent and sovereign kingdom was a complex stage due to many nuances and difficulties that arose on the way of the monarchs and caused severe ethnic conflicts.
Since the inception of statehood, the country waged wars with other states, and one of the key factors that determined the external and internal position of the kingdom was religion. In order to strengthen its position, the country needed to keep its principles unshakable and adhere to the course on internal development to achieve sufficient power to repel any threats. As a result, the first Saudi state was founded as a full-fledged territorial unit with clearly defined borders, a form of government, and laws that determined the rules of responsibility and subordination of residents.
Religion became the key landmark for determining the course of the first Saudi state development and its recognition among existing eastern countries. As a result of alliances with other peoples, such a direction as Wahhabism was formed. This was the basic set of rules for the citizens of the kingdom, and following it was mandatory in the context of social, political, economic, and other fields.
The Union and Its Goals
The birth of Saudi statehood in the central region of the Arabian Peninsula, Nejde, was the result of an agreement to strengthen the power of the new kingdom.
The founders of the Saudi state were the local ruler of Dir’iyyah Muhammad ibn Saud and Islamic preacher Mohammed Abdel-Wahhab, who, in 1744, entered into an alliance to create a single powerful state (AlOboudi, p. 293). The union implied returning to strict Islamic monotheism and ushered in the Saudi dynasty. As a result, the power became a significant and influential territorial unit with clear borders and individual legislation.
Since that time, the Al Saud clan, with varied success, challenged the Ottoman Empire’s control of the Hijaz with the religious centers of Islam located there – Mecca and Medina (Aarts and Roelants, p. 6). The purpose of the union was to connect the parts of the tribes of central and eastern Arabia into a religious and political confederation. The method of achieving this goal was the dissemination of Wahhabi teachings and the power of Nejdian emirs to the entire Arabian Peninsula.
As a tactical plan, the path of conquest was chosen as a strategy of planting religion and strengthening domination in the east to expand the spheres of influence. Due to a sufficiently large army, the kingdom acted successfully, and the conquered territories increased fast and constantly (AlOboudi, p. 288). The Wahhabi teaching was promoted as key and was considered in the context of a single religion for all the conquered lands.
The Conquests and Their Consequences
Since the end of the 18th century, Wahhabi conquests became regular, and large territories were part of the kingdom due to its aggressive foreign policy and the unwillingness to compromise.
Islamic religious activists endured a fatwa according to which the followers of al-Wahhab were outlawed. By 1803, almost the entire coast of the Persian Gulf and the islands adjacent to it, including Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and most of Oman and Muscat, were subordinated to the Wahhabis (Aarts and Roelants, p. 7). The cruel principle of land conquest was condemned by many supporters of peaceful relationships among countries. However, the first Saudi state expanded rapidly and became increasingly powerful.
The army of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali was sent to suppress the Wahhabis, but it was defeated totally (AlOboudi , p. 290). However, after the second attempt, the Egyptians took Medina, and later they occupied Mecca, Taif, and Jeddah. They regained the annual pilgrimage to holy places, which was forbidden by the Wahhabis, and returned the Hashimites control over the Hijaz. These events became an occasion to doubt the sole leadership of the Wahhabi conquerors in the east and their ability to subjugate foreign lands unquestioningly.
Temporary truces and wars were held with varied success for the Wahhabis who were not ready to surrender the besieged cities. The Egyptian troops showed considerable resistance, and they managed to recapture part of the territories (Aarts and Roelants, p. 7). The confrontation reached its peak, and the skills of the troops, as well as the professionalism of military leaders, played a key role and could affect the balance of power and, therefore, the domination over the opponent.
The Fall of the First Saudi Kingdom
A long siege of Wahhabi fortifications led to the fact that the forces of the conquerors were significantly undermined, and ultimately, the empire fell.
Dir’iyyah was destroyed, and the entire territory formerly owned by the Saudis was annexed to the possessions of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali (AlOboudi, p. 295). This was the end of the Wahhabi rule and the overthrow of their regime that was characterized by aggression and the unacceptability of other religions. Ultimately, all the state leaders were executed, and the rule of the descendants of ibn Saud ceased.
However, despite the victory, Egyptian influence lasted only for a few years. Soon, the Wahhabis revolted and were led by Mizrahi ibn Saud, one of the relatives of the executed emir (Aarts and Roelants, p. 12). As a result, after the fall of the first Saudi kingdom, the second one was formed, which, in the end, lasted about the same. Thus, war and aggression were the causes of the difficult history of statehood formation in Saudi Arabia.
Today, the preserved part of Dir’iyyah is an important monument that is protected by the state as a significant historical place (Diriyah Gate Development Authority). Throughout the entire period of the country’s formation, many wars and civil conflicts took place, which led to the destruction of numerous architectural objects and Islamic shrines. In the era of the first Saudi kingdom, disagreements were particularly acute, and religious motives were key in the conflicts that took place on the territory of the state in the 18th-19th centuries.
Wahhabism was the key religious movement in the era of the first Saudi kingdom and was a set of rules denying any other faiths and encouraging new conquests for the spread of this teaching.
The formation of statehood took place in conditions of constant conflicts, and despite the numerous conquests of the Wahhabis, the empire they created fell in battles with their opponents, although further, the second kingdom arose.
The history of Saudi Arabian development is largely based on descendants’ experience, and today, the preserved historical monuments are a valuable legacy and a reminder of the long and difficult formation of statehood.
- Aarts, Paul, and Carolien Roelants. Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril. Oxford University Press, 2015.
- AlOboudi, Sharifah M. “NAJD, the Heart of Arabia.” Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2015, pp. 282-299.
- Diriyah Gate Development Authority. “Diriyah, the Jewel of the Saudi Kingdom, Proudly Looks Toward the Future as a Global Gathering Place.” Cision, 2019. Web.