The House of Saud: A Brief History of the Family That Owns Saudi Arabia

The history of Saudi Arabia is the tale of its ruling house, going back some 600 years.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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A view of Saudi Arabia from the air.
A view of Saudi Arabia from the air.Credit: Reuters
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The history of Saudi Arabia and its ruling dynasty are one. The two are inseparable. In fact, the country’s name, Saudi Arabia, means "Saud’s Arabia."

The House of Saud can trace its history to the founding of a town named Diriyah (now part of the capital city, Riyadh), by a Bedouin chieftain named Mani al Muraidi in the 15th century.

Muraidi's descendants remained undistinguished rulers of the small town and its surroundings for centuries. Then, in the mid-18th century, his great-great-great-grandson, Sheikh Muhammad bin Saud made an alliance with a pious Muslim Sunni revivalist named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The two families formally bound their fates together through the marriage in 1744 of Bin Saud’s son, Abdul Aziz, with al-Wahhab’s daughter.

At that point, the two families, now united in strength, began a holy way to purify Arabia of the various Muslim sects that had splintered off from orthodox Sunni Islam over the years since the death of Muhammad (in the year 632).

Blood and brotherhood

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, right, meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015. Credit: Reuters

By sword and alliances, Abdul Aziz managed to gain loose control over most of the Arabian peninsula and even beyond, founding what is known as the First Saudi State. The state, centered in Diriyah, was ruled by his male line, which from then on called themselves Al Saud - (the House of Saud), after Abdul Aziz’s father. (Saud is simply a Quranic given name, meaning “happy” or “blessed”.)

The First Saudi State reached its zenith under the grandson of its founder, Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad. He was assassinated in 1803, then shortly after his accession to the throne, his son and successor Abdullah bin Saud found himself facing a joint Egyptian-Ottoman invasion. In 1818 his armies were defeated, his capital of Diriyah was sacked, and he was taken to Istanbul, where he was beheaded. Thus ended the First Saudi State.

However, a Second Saudi State would soon follow, though it would prove less illustrious. In 1821, Abdullah bin Saud's son Turki managed to stage a successful revolt. He formed a small kingdom centered on Diriyah, and established the city of Riyadh by it as his new capital.

But Turki was to be assassinated in 1834 and the kingdom, beset by civil war, assassinations and and attacks by the Al Rashid clan, a rival to the Sauds, barely stayed together.

In 1887 Turki’s grandson Abdul Rahman bin Faisal managed to wrest control of the kingdom and its capital Riyadh from his bickering kinfolk - only to be defeated in the Battle of Mulayda by the Rashids in 1891.

Saudi's newly enthroned King Salman helps carry the body of King Abdullah during his funeral in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 23, 2015.Credit: AP

Bold raids and stolen camels

Abdul Rahman bin Faisal went into exile, staying with a number of Bedouin clans until eventually settling in the territory of the Al Sabah clan in Kuwait. This is where his son Abdul Aziz would launch his career, which would lead to the founding of the modern nation of Saudi Arabia.

As a young man, Abdul Aziz led raids into the territory of the Rashid clan and their allies, stealing camels and other valuables. In 1902, he led a daring attack at the head of a mere 40 warriors and managed to regain control of the fortified city Riyadh - his father’s former capital.

Hearing of the bold raid, former allies of the Sauds rallied to their support, which in turn led the Rashids to appeal to the Ottomans for support. Civil war ensued, which dovetailed into World War I.

In the local arena, WWI pitted the British against the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the entire Middle East. The British, in an attempt to weaken their foe, supported Abdul Aziz, giving him cash and munitions to press his attacks on the Rashids and their ally, the Ottomans.

By the time the war ended, the Arabian peninsula was effectively parsed by the British into kingdoms ruled by their wartime allies. The two most important of these kingdoms were the House of Saud, headed by Abdul Aziz, which controlled the Nejad (east Arabia), and the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hijaz (west Arabia), ruled by Hussein.

The two kingdoms fought for control of the peninsula, but the Hashemites had been allied with England as well, the British would not let Abdul Aziz destroy the neighboring kingdom. The war petered out with no conclusive end – at that point.

Then, in 1924, the Sauds attacked the Hashemites again, and after a decisive victory in 1925, annexed the Hijaz (including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) into their kingdom.

In 1932 Abdel Aziz declared himself King of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, which he and then his sons (his 22 wives have given him many) have been ruling ever since. The oil, which is the kingdom’s source of wealth, was discovered in 1938.

On Friday, when King Abdullah, Abdel Aziz’s 10th son, passed away, he was succeeded by his brother, Abdel Aziz’s 25th son, Salman, the new king of Saudi Arabia. Long live the king.

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