Founded in 1932, the country of Saudi Arabia is relatively new in the world, though it is quite influential. While the country itself is a new player in world politics, the land it sits on has a rich and somewhat violent history that is worth understanding before planning a visit.
Saudi Arabia first became a player in world history when Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in 570 AD. In 622 he migrated to Medina, where he based his efforts to unify the tribes of Arabia under Islam. He was followed by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. Umar followed him, then Uthman ibn al-Affan and Ali abn Abi Talib. During this rule of the Caliphs, the Arabs expanded Muslim control throughout the Byzantine and Persian lands.
After these initial Muslim conquests, what is today Saudi Arabia fell into a period of tribal rule. This lasted throughout the Middle Ages. Medina and Mecca remained strong, and in 1716, the Ottomans took over the rule of these two principle cities, and again began expanding their kingdom, this time into the Persian Gulf. Throughout this period, most of the Arab peninsula remained in Ottoman control.
In 1744, the Saudi dynasty rose up in central Arabia under the leadership of Muhammad ibn Saud, a tribal ruler. The Saudi rulers contended with the Ottomans and the Egyptians for control of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1744, they created the first Saudi State around Riyadh, and pushed to control most of modern-day Saudi Arabia. The Saudi dynasty was routed by the Ottoman sultan, Mustafa IV, but was able to regain control in 1824. In 1891, the Al Rashid defeated the Al Saud family, driving the Saudis into exile in Kuwait.
By the 1900s, the Ottoman Empire was once again in control, and the Arab tribes were not happy about it. When the Ottomans went to battle against Britain and France in World War I, these global powers encouraged the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans in an attempt to create a unified Arab state. He was not successful, and when the British and French were victorious in the war, they forgot their promises to Hussein to establish an Arab state, putting control back in the hands of the Saudi dynasty, instead. Thus, the Ottoman rule was finally removed, but there was still no state that the Arabs could call their own.
The early 1900s was a period of several failed attempts to establish an Arab nation-state. Two kingdoms, the Hejaz and Nejd, were finally united in 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Abdul-Aziz. It was not until 1938 when oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia that Abdul-Aziz became economically successful. Since Abdul Aziz’s death in 1953, five of his sons have succeeded him on the throne.
It was the presence of oil that made Saudi Arabia an economically and politically successful country. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia relied heavily on the US to create its new government, in spite of the differences between the ideology and political structure of the two countries. However, when Arabia went to war against Israel in 1973, this relationship was cut off, as an oil embargo on the United States made diplomatic relations between the two countries difficult.
The late 1900s and early 2000s were a time of political violence throughout Saudi Arabia, due largely to the political difficulties of the entire Arabian peninsula. Terrorist attacks were common, and the various kings that came to the throne could do little to stop the radical Muslims who lived in and around the country. In 2005, King Fahd took over and began working hard to eradicate terrorism in Saudi Arabia, leading the people to hope for a more peaceful future.
- The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is largely arid, infertile desert land. This is what makes the presence of oil so important to the people. Without oil, they would have little in the way of natural resources.
- Islam is the country’s official religion, but it is the Saudi Islam that is largely influenced by westerners and is much different than the Islam practiced in other areas. However, no other faith is tolerated within the kingdom.
- Women in Saudi Arabia are under the protection and influence of the men in their lives, and they are not allowed to drive nor can they travel far from home without a male relative’s approval.
- Don’t expect to go to a wine tasting in Saudi Arabia. Alcohol in any form is prohibited.
- Saudi Arabia has no constitution. The Sharia, Islamic Law, serves as the sole governing document. All laws are based on the Sharia.
- Thursdays and Fridays are the weekend in Saudi Arabia, with the workweek running from Saturdays until Wednesdays.
- Saudi Arabia follows the lunar calendar, so their months and years are not the same as the western world.
- The people of Saudi Arabia are quite young, with 75 percent of the population younger than 35 years old.
- Mecca – One of Islam’s most sacred cities, the Qur’an requires those who can afford it to make a pilgrimage here, making it one of the most often visited cities in Saudi Arabia.
- Wadi Hadramawt – Do you wonder where the idea for the modern skyscraper comes from? These mud-built buildings soar taller than you would think they could, giving this site the name “Manhattans of the Desert.”
- Jeddah – This seaside city is a large cultural melting pot and the ideal place in Saudi Arabia to participate in the sport of people watching.
- The Empty Quarter – This is the largest sea of sand on earth, and here you can spy dunes the size of large ships, as well as the Arabian oryx, a rare and beautiful creature.
- Madain Saleh – This is one of the best destinations in Saudi Arabia, where you can see remnants of ancient civilizations, interact with pilgrims and even visit the stone carved temples of the Nabataeans of Petra fame, who called Madain Saleh their second city.
- Riyadh – Visit the Saudi capital to climb to the top of Kingdom Centre Tower or explore the history of Islam at the National Museum.
- Medina – The second of Islam’s sacred cities, pilgrims who come seeking Mecca will often also take a trip to Medina to see the land where Muhammad solidified the basis of the Islamic religion.
- Sakaka – The Al-Rajajil ruins are worth a trip to Sakaka if you appreciate ancient cities and the history they represent.
- Diryah – The city of Diryah has its share of ancient archeological sites, including the At-Turaif District, a World Heritage Site.
- Al Khobar – This seaside city has a beautiful boardwalk, pier and wharf for you to explore.
How to Get Cash
- To exchange your money, try a moneychanger, not a bank. Most town centers have a money changing bureau where you can get a fair rate. No commission is normally charged at these centers, but you should always ask first. You can also exchange your money at top end hotels, but you will pay unnecessary fees to do so.
- Most restaurants, shops and medium to large hotels take credit cards. However, if you are planning to take a tour, you may need cash, as many tour operators do not accept credit cards. Outside of these larger locations, Saudi Arabia is largely a cash based society.
- ATMs are easy to find in most major cities, but if the ATM is associated with a smaller bank, it will not take your foreign card. Look for SABB, ANB and Samba logos for an ATM.
- You may be able to find Western Union locations in larger cities if you face a cash crisis. This is an expensive way to get cash, but it can be worth it if you find yourself stranded.