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In many ways, today’s Saudi Arabia is a study in contradictions: An ultraconservative country playing a leading role on the modern world stage; an uneasy ally of the United States; an ancient culture encompassed in a nation-state less than 100 years old. However, it was in the mid-1700s that the Saudi Arabia we know today truly began to take shape. Read on to learn about the modern origins of today’s Saudi Arabia, what has changed over the last 250 years and what has remained largely the same. 

Why It Matters

In the last two-and-a-half centuries, Saudi Arabia has become an important player not only in the Middle East but globally. Not only is Saudi Arabia becoming an increasingly popular destination for the leisure traveler, but it’s also becoming a hub for global workers, such as traveling healthcare providers preparing both for short-term and long-range tenures in the Kingdom. Because of its contradictions, to understand Saudi Arabia’s present, you must first understand its past. Whether you’re planning a trip to the region, preparing to travel to the Kingdom for work, or simply eager to know more about the world around you, we have the information you need to better understand the rich and complex story of this powerful nation.

The First Saudi State

The cultures emerging from the Arabian Peninsula are millennia old. In the ancient world, the Peninsula was a thriving trade center, and in the Middle Ages, it became the heart of the Islamic Empire. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the diverse cultures and peoples of the Arabian Peninsula were united through the alliance of the al-Saudi clan and the followers of the fundamentalist theologian, Muhammed ibn al-Wahhab, This was the dawn of the Wahhabi culture that continues to be the driving force of Saudi Arabian society and politics to this day, instituting the ultraconservative branch of Islam still practiced in Saudi Arabia.

The alliance between the al-Saud clan and the Wahhabis and the incorporation of the Arabian peoples into the Wahhabi culture in the mid-1700s is often referred to as the creation of the First Saudi State. For nearly 200 years, the First Saudi State worked to consolidate its political and cultural power, developing its particular identity as a unified Wahhabi religious state.

This identity is also due to the fact that the Arabian Peninsula happens to be home to two of the most important sites in the Muslim world, Mecca and Medina. In fact, the hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, is a requirement for all able-bodied Muslims with the financial means to make the journey. In a faith that even in the 1700s encompassed millions, the annual pilgrimage helped the First Saudi State capture the attention of the Islamic world—and beyond. Not only this, but the income generated from the annual pilgrimages also helped to enrich the young nation, making it one of the most prosperous in the entire region..

Wahhabi Culture and Traditions

If you want to understand the culture of Saudi Arabia today, then you have to go back to the 18th century and the spread of Wahhabism in the newly-formed First Saudi State. This brand of “pure” Islam was intended to rid the Peninsula of the so-called superstitions and non-Islamic traditions that the diverse desert-dwelling peoples were practicing. Wahhabism united these disparate cultures under a strict interpretation of the Qur’an and its laws, such as forbidding the consumption of alcohol and limiting the rights of women. These are traditions that continue largely unaltered to this day, though Saudi culture hasn’t been entirely immune from the encroachment of modernity. More and more Saudi women are entering the workforce, for example, particularly after winning the legal right to drive in 2018.

An Eternal Language?

The ascendancy of Wahhabism in the 18th century would seem to have frozen the emerging Saudi State in time, rooting the politics and culture in the beliefs and practices of an ancient faith. In a lot of ways, that’s true. Saudi Arabians today still speak the form of Modern Standard Arabic that was spoken in the 1700s, an Arabic that has, in fact, thrived largely unaltered since the Classical period of the Islamic Empire.

This is the Arabic of the Qur’an and of the region’s great religious, scientific, and literary texts. And that means that speakers and readers of Standard Arabic have direct access to their cultural history. They can learn from and enjoy the ancient writings in a language that is familiar and accessible. That’s something many English speakers would probably envy, given the immense changes that the language has undergone across the centuries—just ask any literature student trying to study Chaucer!  

Breaking New Ground

As conservative as the Saudi state may have been in the 18th century, that certainly doesn’t mean it was primitive. In fact, since the Middle Ages, the Islamic culture had led the world in learning, with advancements in science, mathematics, and technology that were the envy of the Western world. Nowhere is this more evident in the 18th century than in the area of medicine. While Europe and the young United States were being ravaged by epidemic diseases like smallpox and yellow fever, vaccination against infectious disease was widespread in the Arab world.

What It All Means Today

The First Saudi State ended in the 20th century when King Ibn Saud founded the Second Saudi  State, which was to become modern Saudi Arabia, in 1932. The discovery of oil on Saudi lands in 1938 went far to support Ibn Saud’s modernization efforts, as the Kingdom grew to become one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

But in a lot of ways, the new Saudi Arabia is very much a continuation of the First Saudi State and of the vast ancient traditions on which the State was based. That’s not surprising, really, given the power of tradition to bind people together and unite them under a shared sense of identity. Anyone who has ever served in the military, for example, understands how important tradition can be in promoting solidarity, support, and mutual understanding, especially in the face of adversity. And that is the power of modern Saudi Arabia—a growing global power defined and driven by a proud ancient culture.