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Saudi Arabia

Modern Saudi Arabia is the third kingdom under the Saʿūd ruling family in contemporary history. It was formally proclaimed in 1932 by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Āl Saʿūd, and is ruled by his descendants, although a 1992 law, updated in 2006, expanded the potential pool of successors. In 2005, the government estimated the number of Saudi citizens to be nearly 28 million, although unofficial sources disputed these figures. In 2006, approximately 8 million foreigners, primarily from other Arabic-speaking and Asian countries, worked in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia occupies eighty percent of the Arabian Peninsula and includes four distinct geographical and cultural regions that were united through conquest by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Eastern Province on the Gulf coast, also called al-Hasa after the oasis of that name, is one of the kingdom's most fertile areas as well as the site of its oil industry and the home of the Shīʿī minority population; estimates of the Shīʿī population range from 400,000 to 800,000. The Asir is an agricultural region in the southwest with cultural ties to Yemen, with which it shares a common border. The Hejaz (Hijaz) on the Red Sea contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the focus of pilgrimage for centuries. Its population is ethnically mixed but predominantly Sunnī. Finally, the Nejd in central Arabia is bounded on three sides by deserts. It is the homeland of the ruling Saʿūd family and the fountain of the Unitarian Wahhābī movement, which provided the rationale for conquest of the peninsula in the eighteenth century and again in the twentieth and shaped the religious character of government and society under the rule of the House of Saʿūd.


The Unitarian movement, pejoratively known as Wahhabism, sprang up in 1747 following an alliance between a chieftain of southern Nejd named Muḥammad ibn Saʿūd, and a religious reformer of Nejd, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. In his teachings ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb stressed the necessity of upholding the essential oneness of God in ritual practice, opposing the custom of praying to saints which was widespread on the peninsula, especially among Shīʿī and Sūfīs. He opposed saint-worship on the grounds that a worshiper who sought such intercession attributed to the saint powers that should only be ascribed to God. This, he believed, was polytheism.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb emphasized the necessity to conform with the laws of the Qurʿān and the practices exemplified in the sunnah of the Prophet, as interpreted by the early scholars of Islam. These views meant that the ultimate goal of the Muslim community was to become the living embodiment of God's laws on earth. Toward that end, he encouraged religious education, which pleased the devout Muḥammad ibn Saʿūd. Moreover, ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb's philosophy complemented the political ambitions of the secular leader, because the reformer called for obedience to a just Muslim ruler. Thus emerged a community of believers in which an oath of allegiance was bestowed on a just Muslim ruler who ensured the application of Gvod's laws. For Nejdis, the union between the ʿulamāʿ and those who held political power was and remains the hallmark of a true Islamic government.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and Muḥammad ibn Saʿūd propagated the former's ideas and began a wave of expansion that culminated in the conquest of most of the Arabian Peninsula by the beginning of the nineteenth century. This first empire was crushed by Egyptian forces in 1818, and its capital at Diriyah was destroyed. Henceforth the territory under the control of the Saʿūd family and the descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, who took the name Āl al-Shaykh (literally, the family of the shaykh), shrank to the area of southern Nejd. The social, religious, and political agenda set forth in Unitarian ideology, however, remained firmly rooted throughout Nejd, to be revived at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1902, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Saʿūd, a descendant of the first Saudi rulers of Nejd, captured the city of Riyadh, which was then under the control of the Āl Rashīds, and began a wave of conquest that reached a decisive stage in the defeat of the sharifian Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz in late 1924. Replicating the method of his ancestors, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz accomplished his goal by promoting Unitarian ideology on the popular level, sponsoring Qurʿānic education, mosque preaching, and missionary teaching in remote villages and among the Bedouin, and by creating a military force, the Ikhwān (Brotherhood), inspired to conquer by religious faith.

The Ikhwān came into being after 1912, when ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz appropriated a movement that had begun among the Bedouin to abandon the nomadic way of life and settle in agricultural communities where, the former nomads believed, they could become true Muslims by fulfilling God's laws. The settlements were called hujar (singular, hujrah), related to hijrah (hegira) the Prophet's emigration from Mecca to Medina, and connoting migration from a land of unbelief to the land of belief. By moving to a hujrah the former nomads committed themselves to a narrow and literal interpretation of the sunnah, enjoining public prayer, mosque attendance, and gender segregation while condemning music, smoking, alcohol, and technology unknown at the time of the Prophet. The settlers were zealous followers of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb's ideas, but, being inexperienced farmers, they were also receptive to the subsidies of food, cash, arms, and agricultural equipment offered by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz. In return, the former nomads joined the Ikhwān, the brotherhood of fighters who formed the backbone of ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz's army, and the hujrah settlements became in effect military cantonments in the service of his expansion.

By reviving the notion of a community of believers, united by their submission to God and his laws, the Unitarian ideology fostered under ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz forged a sense of national identity among ethnically and tribally diverse peoples of the peninsula. Importantly, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ruled in consultation with the ʿulamāʿ, practiced what he preached, and insisted that faith in Islam and obedience to a just ruler were what held his kingdom together. Although his successors after 1953 deemphasized the country's identity as inheritor of the Unitarian legacy, religious practices nevertheless retained their legitimizing value. A visible conformity in dress, public deportment, and public prayer, all remain in effect. Most significantly, the Unitarian legacy is manifest in the social ethos that assumes government responsibility for the collective moral order in society, from the behavior of individuals to that of institutions, businesses, and the government itself.

Institutionalization of Islam.

Today, the legitimacy of the monarchy continues to rest on the partially valid premise that the House of Saʿūd rules in consultation with the ʿulamʿ. While pursuing the agenda of a developing nation with numerous nonreligious institutions, the monarchy strives to serve the interests of religious constituencies, and it does so through specific religious organizations institutionalized within the state power structure.

The most influential religious body in the kingdom is the state-funded Council of Senior ʿUlamāʿ, headed after 2003 by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh. A primary function of the Council is to provide religious approval for policies determined by the government. For example, education for women, which began in 1960 under King Faysal, was approved by the ʿulamāʿ in spite of fierce public opposition, with a determination that female education was acceptable provided that it was compatible with woman's Islamic roles as wife and mother. As another example, when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was besieged in 1979 and more than sixty participants were sentenced to death after perfunctory trials, the Council of Senior ʿUlamāʿ sanctioned the mass beheadings. In 1990, when King Fahd decided to invite American forces to defend the Kingdom against a putative attack by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Council was called on to provide Islamic approval for the monarch's decision; the Council subsequently issued a fatwā (legal ruling) stating that the Qurʿān allows a ruler to seek assistance in order to defend against outside aggression.

Religious police, known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and funded through the Ministry of the Interior, help to enforce guidelines on public morality issued by the Council, as well as enforcing rules that many regard as arbitrary and capricious. For example, they monitor the closing of shops at prayer time and seek out alcohol and drug offenders, but they also monitor men's and women's dress in public, non-Muslim religious services, and social interaction between men and women in cars, public places, and sometimes even in private homes. Because of many social changes in Saudi Arabia, including the rehabilitation of several thousand clerics after 2001, the estimated 10,000 Commission members in 2006 were increasingly under pressure to curtail their zealotry. ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz insisted that Commission enforcers were not above the law, and that their privileges could be curtailed.

Even though the Saudi monarchy supports a conservative social agenda, the kingdom has still been affected by the rise in Islamic conservatism that has swept the region. This sentiment has been inspired by a number of factors, including a reaction to the cultural incursion of the West brought on by massive development and the resulting breakdown of traditional family structures, the presence of foreigners in the kingdom, disaffection with the West, and the influence of Iran and its call to export Islamic revolution, the 2001 U.S. war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Especially important in the rise of Islamic conservatism has been a downturn in the Saudi economy, combined with an overabundance of educated youth whom the economy cannot absorb, although periodic oil-price fluctuations allowed Riyadh to adjust. Still, economic volatility meant widespread unemployment, particularly among university-educated youth.

Unemployed graduates of religious colleges in particular—said to number some 400,000 in 2005—have been attracted to the politics of neo-Wahhābī groups, which are also known as Salafīyah (those who wish to purify the Sharīʿah from the innovations of scholarship that occurred after the first three centuries of Islam). These groups make the same demands for social justice that Islamist groups in other Arab countries make: they seek employment opportunities with decent wages, a fairer distribution of wealth, better access to health and education facilities, political participation, and accountability in government. In addition, they insist on strict enforcement of rules, such as gender segregation and public modesty, that promote Islamic moral values and the enactment of Qurʿānic punishments (ḥudūd) and Islamic banking (to comply with the Islamic ban on usury).

Gulf War.

The U.S. war against Iraq in 1990–1991 marked a turning point in the rise of both Islamist sentiment and opposition to the absolutism of the Saudi monarchy among Western-oriented liberals, religious conservatives, and human rights and minority-group advocates. Many Saudis of various religious and political persuasions opposed the invitation to American forces and advocated instead a nonviolent Arab solution to what was regarded as a regional problem. Opposition voices pointed out the incompetence of the Saudi military in spite of huge expenditures lavished on sophisticated training and equipment even at a time of cutbacks in funding for social programs. Moreover, religious conservatives resented the presence of non-Muslim foreign soldiers, especially women, on Saudi soil. Moreover, the Gulf War placed an international spotlight on the absolutism of Saudi rule and exposed the kingdom's shortcomings with respect to human rights. This signaled an opportunity for numerous interest groups with conflicting political objectives to demand political reform.

The initial response of the government was to allow the more radical Islamist voices to speak out while backing a conservative social agenda. In this way, Riyadh was able to intimidate Western-oriented liberals, who sought an opening up of the political process, while appeasing the conservative mainstream. For example, in November 1990 a group of Saudi women staged a public demonstration demanding the right to drive cars. In a move that received widespread public approval, the government responded by punishing the participants for promoting what the ʿulamāʿ called un-Islamic behavior.

During the Gulf War, petitions were sent to the king demanding a constitution, a consultative council, an independent judiciary, and equality among all citizens regardless of ethnic, tribal, sectarian, or social origins. The petition was signed by secular leaders, university professors, and religious leaders; signatories to a follow- up petition asking that the proposed consultative council be empowered to evaluate all laws in light of the sharīʿah even included members of the Council of Senior ʿUlamāʿ. The king's response was to announce that government reform was in the planning stages. A year later, in March 1992, the monarch announced the establishment of a “Basic Law” of government and a Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shūrā), but the announced changes, called “empty reforms” by the human-rights organization Middle East Watch, did not extend the decision-making process to diverse interest groups. In fact, the 1992 edicts reinforced the power of the House of Saʿūd, illustrating how the ruling family intended to exercise its mandates. Two subsections of the second chapter of the Law contained the most controversial, and ill-defined, lines. Article 5, Section b stated that “rulers of the country shall be from amongst the sons of the founder, King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Āl Saʿūd, and their descendants,” and that “the most upright among them shall receive allegiance according to the Holy Qurʿān and the Sunnah of the Prophet (Peace be upon him).” In October 2006, ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz once again revolutionized the succession process when he decreed that a committee of princes would vote on the eligibility of future generations of kings and heirs. Although the contemplated system was not to come into effect until the current heir apparent—Sulṭān ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz—acceded to rulership, it was telling that a formal committee, the Hayʿat al-Bayʿah (Allegiance Commission), was envisioned for the process. By institutionalizing this process, as well as others pertaining to rule by the House of Saʿūd, the monarch made certain that only sons and grandsons of ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz would rule the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The end of the Gulf War period nevertheless saw a dramatic rise in the activity of Salafīyah groups and Shiʿahs as well as of human-rights proponents, and this preoccupied Riyadh. To counter the rise in opposition from religious groups the government strengthened the allegiance of the Council of Senior ʿUlamāʿ while increasing the repression of dissident voices. In 1993, for example, seven members of the council who had expressed sympathy with some Shīʿī and Salafī demands were replaced by scholars considered more sympathetic to the monarchy. In May of that year, a human-rights organization called the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights was formed to gather information from citizens about human-rights abuses. The committee's declaration, signed by scholars who declared themselves to be ahl al-sunnah (people of the sunnah) and loyal to the Saudi state, met with criticism from the council, which issued a statement declaring that the organization was superfluous because the sharīʿah already provides for human rights, and that it was offensive to the government that upholds the sharīʿah. The signatories were subsequently harassed, several were arrested, and others went into exile.

To meet the challenges facing Saudi society and fearing that its own support for conservative religious causes abroad had fueled conservative opposition at home, Riyadh banned contributions by private citizens for religious activities outside the kingdom. This indicated a major reversal of long-standing Saudi policy aimed at elevating the House of Saʿūd to a position of undisputed leadership in the Islamic world: in 1986 King Fahd assumed the sobriquet of Custodian of the Two Holy Places, once used by his father and formerly by the Sharīf of Mecca. He and his predecessors, furthermore, had provided generous funding for the building of mosques and the distribution of Qurʿāns, emergency aid, and welfare funds to Muslims abroad and had established and funded international organizations promoting Muslim solidarity, such as the Muslim World League and Organization of the Islamic Conference.

National Dialogue.

The 2003 U.S. war on Iraq sent shock waves throughout the Gulf region but especially Saudi Arabia because of the kingdom's custodianship of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. Riyadh remained conscious of its responsibilities to the Muslim world but especially towards its Sunnī adherents. Still, the desire for political reform did not spread through the entire ultraconservative ruling family, as petitions joined the supplications addressed to the monarch and the heir apparent. Since early 2003, prominent Saudi reformers, led by ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥamad, argued that the best way to counter the spread of Muslim extremism was to transform the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Remarkably, Saudi reformists adopted pacific steps, bordering on the reverential towards the ruling family. Although their demands were spectacular—challenging the ruler's absolute power—ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz deemed it necessary to meet with leading petition signatories, and authorized well-thought-out dialogues as a partial rejoinder. Starting in late 2003, several National Dialogue rounds were held to discuss, at times with unabashed frankness, sensitive questions. Saudis from all walks of life debated religious differences, education concerns, causes of extremism, gender matters, and municipal elections. King ʿAbd Allāh welcomed these dialogues and embraced their recommendations, pledging to devote appropriate resources to implement them. It was a cathartic experience that highlighted the level of awareness at the top of the kingdom's hierarchy.

Municipal Elections.

National Dialogues set the tone for fundamental changes facing Saudi Arabia. The logical next step was the introduction of electoral processes which was unhurriedly laid out starting in Riyadh on February 10, 2005. Conservative, proclerical candidates won most seats, illustrating the intricacies of democratization, and while half of the 178 municipal posts would eventually be appointed by government minions, a significant precedent was established when ordinary Saudis flocked to polling stations, leading Saudi observers to foresee universal suffrage elections for the Majlis al-Shūrā before long. The leaders of the House of Saʿūd responded to public demands by accepting the idea of political participation, even if the process was not entirely transparent.

The challenge to Saudi rulers in the twenty-first century is to maintain their Islamic identity in the eyes of Saudi Arabia's conservative society, while satisfying a younger population's growing desire for economic and social justice.



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