The House of Sa'ud
November 1999

Commentary by Rick Francona

Flag of Saudi ArabiaSaudi Arabia, a kingdom that occupies the major part of the Arabian Peninsula--owner of the world's largest proven oil reserves--is named for the family that founded it - the House of Sa'ud. 

The House of Sa'ud is part of the larger 'Anizah tribe that has traditionally inhabited the area of the Najd, located in the central part of the peninsula. The name itself comes from the founder of the tribal branch, Muhammad bin Sa'ud, often called "Ibn Sa'ud" or "son of Sa'ud." Ibn Sa'ud was a fierce desert warrior who in the 1700s allied himself with an ultraconservative religious leader named Muhammad 'Abd Al-Wahhab-who was also his father-in-law. His conservative brand of Islam is often referred to as Wahhabism, and is the basis for the strict customs followed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today. 

Early History 

By the early 1800s, the House of Sa'ud had consolidated its leadership of most of the Arabian Peninsula, and ruled from its family home in Diriyah, located just outside present-day Riyadh. However, the specter of this conservative power base on the peninsula concerned the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans marched on, and destroyed, the town of Diriyah. The city remains much as it did after the battle in 1818. 

In the 19th Century, a struggle for leadership on the peninsula arose between the Sa'uds and their long-time rivals, the Rashids. By now, the House of Sa'ud had established itself in Riyadh, but were forced out by the Al Rashid who had allied themselves with the all-powerful Ottoman Turks. The Al Sa'ud were forced into exile, eventually settling in neighboring Kuwait. The refuge offered by the ruling Sabah family in Kuwait created a close bond between the two families that last even today. 

Modern Saudi Arabia 

A descendent of Ibn Sa'ud named 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Al Sa'ud was born in Kuwait in 1880. When he was 21 years old, 'Abd Al-'Aziz set out from Kuwait to recapture all the lands taken from his family by the Al Rashid almost a hundred years earlier. 

In 1902, a legendary battle took place in Riyadh at the Musmak fort-the main stronghold of the ruling Al Rashid tribe. The battle ended the rule of the Al Rashid and ushered in the return of the Al Sa'ud to the central Arabian Peninsula. The fort still stands in Riyadh, with spear and sword marks visible as a reminder of the kingdom's often-bloody history. After assuming the leadership of the House of Sa'ud from his father, 'Abd Al-'Aziz began expanding his power throughout the peninsula, uniting the various tribes throughout the Najd. He then moved on the Hijaz and Asir regions. 

The Hijaz was under the control of the House of Hashem. In 1924, the Sharif of Makkah (Mecca), a Hashemite, declared himself the Muslim caliph. This outraged the conservative 'Abd Al-'Aziz, who denounced Hussein and launched a series of attacks against the Hijaz. By 1926, the Hashemites had all been forced into exile, most going to Jordan, where Hussein's son 'Abdullah had been installed on the throne by the British in return for Hussein's support against the Ottoman Turks during World War One. 

The Asir fell to 'Abd Al-'Aziz shortly thereafter. On September 23, 1932, 'Abd Al-'Aziz proclaimed the area under his control the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an Islamic state. The Saudi flag symbolizes the tenets of the Kingdom: the Arabic words that are the basis of Islam (There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God) and a sword reminding all that the kingdom was created by force of arms. The king ruled until his death in 1953. The king had 20 wives and 68 children, 45 of which were sons. An important and lingering legacy of 'Abd Al-'Aziz is the fact that he set up succession to be chosen from his sons, by his sons. There was to be no direct line from father to son to grandson. 

The Successors 

King 'Abd Al-'Aziz's son Sa'ud succeeded him upon his death in 1953. Sa'ud ruled in a period of passive benevolence, with American and British influence expanding in the kingdom. As western ideas migrated into the kingdom and the new commercial class began to demand reform and change, it became apparent to the Sa'ud family that King Sa'ud was not able to cope with the demands for change and to maintain the absolute dominance of the monarchy. The family engineered Sa'ud's replacement with his brother Faisal. 

Faisal became king in 1964. Faisal ruled until he was assassinated by a mentally ill member of the Sa'ud family. It was under Faisal's rule that Saudi Arabia became an economic power and a major player in Middle East affairs. Much of this is due to Faisal's support for the oil embargo of 1973-74 and the increase in the price of oil. 

King Khalid came to the throne in 1975. He was regarded as a weak leader and deferred on most decisions to the collective wishes of his more assertive brothers Fahd and 'Abdullah. 

The current monarch, King Fahd, succeeded Khalid in 1982. Fahd was the first Saudi monarch to refrain from the use of the title "King," insisting that he be referred to as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," Makkah and Madinah. This is significant as the social contract and the legitimacy of the regime in Saudi Arabia is based on Islam. Fahd has been in failing health, and much of the day-to-day administration of the kingdom is handled by Crown Prince 'Abdullah. 

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