Saudi Arabia's history includes the distinct whiff of frankincense, the rise of a persistent and proud nomadic Bedouin heritage and the wealthy legacy of black gold. But all this pales into insignificance compared to the birth of Islam in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For the 14 centuries since then, as the call to prayer has echoed out across the Kingdom, an intricate interplay of religion and politics has been taking place, and it continues to this day.

Ancient Arabia

The myriad kingdoms and empires that grew from the desert sands of Arabia before the Prophet Muhammad all had one commonality: frankincense. Ancient gods were placated with holy smoke and the peoples of Arabia got very rich providing frankincense to eager worshippers in ancient Egypt, Persia and Rome. One of the most intriguing groups from these trading states was the Nabataeans: Bedouin clans who gathered at the extraordinary rock-hewn twin cities of Madain Saleh (Saudi Arabia) and Petra (Jordan).

The phenomenal explosion of Islamic-inspired armies out of Arabia shattered the weary Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, but following the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, Arabia slumped into torpor again and was economically insignificant to the sophisticated Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, whose capitals were now elsewhere. Arabia was only saved from irrelevance by the spiritual significance of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Trade caravans still crossed the desert, linking the cities and small towns of the Hejaz and the interior with the great cities of the wider Islamic world, but in 1517 the powerful Turkish Ottomans, under Salim I, invaded Arabia and took control of the two holy cities. The capture of the region by non-Arabs was a most unwelcome development in the eyes of those residing in the peninsula.

Wahhabi Islam & the Al Sauds

In 1703 a man was born in the insignificant oasis village of Al Uyaynah in Wadi Hanifa of central Arabia. The man, Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Wahhab, would ultimately transform the lives of all inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula. After a period of itinerant religious scholarship, Al Wahhab returned to Al Uyaynah and preached his message, calling for the purification of Islam and a return to what he perceived as the original values proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad.

Al Wahhab’s reform agenda was initially successful, and he converted the local sheikh to his message. But the severe punishments Al Wahhab meted out to those he accused of sorcery, adultery and other crimes unnerved the local authorities and he was exiled. Al Wahhab sought refuge in Diraiyah, 65km from Al Uyaynah, where he was granted protection by Mohammed Ibn Al Saud, the local emir. Al Wahhab provided religious legitimacy to the Al Sauds, who in turn provided political protection for Al Wahhab. Together they built a power base that relied on the formidable combination of politics and religion.

With growing anger throughout Arabia that the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were under non-Arab Ottoman control, the Saudi-Wahhabi emirate began to expand rapidly. Upon his death, Al Saud was succeeded by his son Abdul Aziz, who captured Diraiyah’s rival city in central Arabia – Riyadh – in 1765. In 1792 Al Wahhab died, but the inexorable expansion of the Saudi-Wahhabi emirate continued.

In 1803 the Saudi-Wahhabi army finally marched on the holy cities of the Hejaz and defeated Sherif Hussain of Mecca. The Saudi-Wahhabi emirate was recognised by the Mecca authorities, whereupon this first Saudi empire stretched from Al Hasa in the east to Hejaz in the west and Najran in the south.

The Birth of Saudi Arabia

The situation didn’t last long. Ottoman sultan Mahmoud II ordered his powerful viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, to retake Hejaz in the sultan’s name. Supported by many Arabian tribes who resented domination by the Saudi-Wahhabis, Mohammed Ali’s armies successfully captured Mecca and Medina in 1814 and conquered the Saudi-Wahhabi stronghold of Diraiyah on 11 September 1818. Mohammed Ali topped off his triumph by executing Abdullah Ibn Al Saud (Abdul Aziz’ successor).

The Al Sauds spent the rest of the 19th century fighting the Ottomans, rival tribes and themselves for no apparent gain. The decisive battle for the future of modern Arabia came in 1902, when a 21-year-old Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Ibn Al Saud (Ibn Saud) and his small band of followers successfully stormed Riyadh under cover of night and daringly captured the fortress.

With deft diplomacy and the momentum of a successful military campaign, Ibn Saud orchestrated a conference at which Arabia’s Islamic clergy condemned Sherif Hussain (ruler of Mecca) as a mere puppet of ‘The Turk’. Sherif Hussain promptly responded by proclaiming himself king of the Arabs. In 1925 the Saudi-Wahhabis took Mecca and Medina; the following year Ibn Saud proclaimed himself king of the Hejaz and sultan of Najd, and on 22 September 1932, Ibn Saud announced the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Power of Oil

In 1933 Saudi Arabia signed its first oil concession. Four years later, the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) discovered commercial quantities of oil near Riyadh and Dammam. In 1943 US president Roosevelt established the Kingdom’s political importance by telling the world that it was vital for the defence of the USA.

In 1964 King Faisal began to provide his subjects with a stake in the economic benefits of oil. He introduced a free health service for all Saudi citizens and began a building boom that would transform Saudi Arabia from an impoverished desert kingdom into a nation with a modern infrastructure.

In response to the USA’s unconditional support for Israel, Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo in 1974, a move that quadrupled oil prices globally and reminded the world of the country’s importance given the planet's dependence on oil.

While oil has made it one of the richest nations in the world, Saudi Arabia has always acknowledged that it is finite, and in April 2016, it did so formally when the country's Saudi Vision 2030 was announced. The primary objective: to divert Saudi Arabia's economy away from its current overreliance on oil revenue. It is the biggest admission by the Gulf nation that soon this source of riches will indeed run out.

A Kingdom of Contradictions

In 1975 King Faisal was assassinated by a nephew, and the throne formally passed to Faisal’s brother, Khaled. In 1979 the Grand Mosque of Mecca was hijacked by 250 fanatical followers of Juhaiman Ibn Saif Al Otai, a militant Wahhabi leader, who claimed that the Mahdi (Islamic Messiah) would appear in the mosque that very day. During two bloody weeks of fighting 129 people were killed. In 1980 riots broke out in the town of Al Qatif (the heart of the Kingdom’s 300,000 Shiites) – these were brutally repressed. Both events hinted at the simmering tensions lying beneath Saudi society.

When King Khaled died in 1982, his brother Fahd became king and made it a priority to prove himself a moderate and reliable friend of the West. In 1986 he proclaimed himself the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’, a title that confirmed Saudi sovereignty over Islam's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in a bid to bestow legitimacy upon the Saudi royal family in the eyes of the wider Islamic world.

However, this legitimacy was undermined when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Saudi Arabia allowed foreign military forces to operate from Saudi soil. In 1991 a petition calling for reforms and greater openness was sent to King Fahd by liberal intellectuals. It was quickly followed by a contrary petition from conservative Islamic scholars – this struggle within Saudi politics continues to this day.

In 1993 Fahd suffered a major stroke and the reigns of the Kingdom fell into the hands of then Crown Prince Abdullah, his half-brother. Abdullah had to negotiate the 9/11 terrorism events in the US, which saw several Saudis implicated, and he promised religious and educational reforms in its wake. After Fahd died in 2005 and he became king, Abdullah also oversaw the first major shift in Saudi attitudes towards women. Women were allowed to take part in the Olympics for the first time and he gave them the right to vote for municipal councils. Abdullah's half-brother, and current king, Salman, inherited the throne aged 79 following Abdullah's death in 2015.

Salman's reign has been notable for his crown princes. His half-brother Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was appointed to the post, before swiftly being replacing by his nephew, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Two years later, Prince Nayef was gone and replaced by King Salman's son, Mohammed Bin Salman, who is the driving force behind the country's current social and economic reforms, and widely regarded as the true power behind the throne.