Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Saudi Arabia - Cradle of the Arab race

It's hard to study the history of Saudi Arabia without making reference to the historical context of the rest of the Middle East.  I picked Saudi as my first Middle Eastern country for a good reason - because this is where it all started.  By that I mean, Islam, the growth of an Arab identity and the influence of oil-rich nations on the global politics of the late twentieth century. 

In preparation for this learning journey, I watched Lawrence of Arabia, the 1960's epic starring Peter O'Toole and Egyptian-born Omar Sharif.  It covers an interesting period in the history of the Middle East, when the British were conspiring with Bedu tribes of Arabia, to overthrow the oppressive yoke of the Ottoman Empire and establish a united and, according to Lawrence, independent Arabia, with Britain's support.  A major historical theme of the movie is the fact that Lawrence helps unite disparate tribes from different parts of the Arabian peninsula.  The concept of a united Arab identity is, in many ways, an historical construct and the real picture is a lot more complex, with tribal and religious loyalties taking precedence over the idea of nation.

In the same way as Hinduism has long been associated with ethnicity in India, Islam too was very much the religion of the Arabian people.  The main difference is that, whilst Hinduism is still predominantly practised by people of Indian origin, such was the appeal of Islam that a mere 20% of Muslims now live in the Arab world, with approximately 203 million Muslims in Indonesia and half a billion Muslims in Pakistan/India/Bangladesh.  Although the holiest Islamic sites of Medina and Mecca are in Saudi Arabia, the centre of Islamic culture has shifted around since the time of Mohammed to cities like Damascus (under the Umayyad's) and Baghdad of the Abbasid.  Delhi, Cordoba, Cairo and Constantinople have all had their golden ages of Islam and even a city like Samarkand in Uzbekistan, where I spent two years, has played its part in the development of Islamic culture and sciences.

I find the history of the Middle East fascinating.  European involvement in Middle Eastern affairs goes back to the days of the spice trade.  The Portuguese occupying the island of Socotra (in Yemen), securing their safe passage to India.  The Dutch stealing Arabian coffee beans and introducing a craze to 17th century Europe.  It would seem as though Saudi Arabia has bobbed along through all of this, taking a sceptical interest in regional affairs, often divided between the politics of the Gulf states and Iran, on one side of the country, the influence of Egypt and Africa on the other.  The change came in the 1920's, when the royal Saudi family of Riyadh managed to gain control of most of the Arabian peninsula, uniting the various nomadic tribes in, what was to become, a definitive Saudi Kingdom. 

Both the US and Britain have actively supported the national integrity of Saudi Arabia.  Even more so, when oil was discovered in the late 1930's and American interests moved in to make a quick buck and get the Saudi oil wells open for business.  King Faisal was a key figure in the OPEC oil embargo in 1973.  The major oil-producing countries found that they could treble the price of oil overnight and that affluent Western nations would still pay the price.  The result was an unprecedented explosion of wealth in the Middle East, for the oil-rich nations, naturally, and even the labourers coming from poorer neighbouring countries, who could send their wages home and create mini economic booms there too. 

I'm not sure anyone could have guessed how quickly things would change in the Kingdom and Riyadh, a city of 150,000 people in the 1960's, now has a population of 5 million!  Saudis enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world, have become notorious for their immense wealth in a way that, more recently, the Russian oligarchs have caught the world's attention.  The ruling Saudi families can send their children to the world's most exclusive universities.  Obesity is a pressing issue for a country hooked on American fast food. 

Of course, there is a downside to all of this - the exploitation of immigrant labour, the repression of women and LGBT people, the emergence of shadowy fundamentalist groups and the uncompromising hold that the ruling Saudis have on the country's governance.  Who only knows what the future has in store for this highly-influential nation, I guess the oil will run out some day? 

Image credits:

The satellite image of the Arabian peninsula is from Wikimedia Commons from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) Project.  The image is more than 5 years old and is, therefore, in the public domain.

The beautiful picture of King Fahd Road in Riyadh (one of the wealthiest addresses in the country) was shared with us on by flickruser Ayman Aljammaz who is from Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.  Ayman is a very talented photographer and you can see more of his images at
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