History of Saudi Arabia (1774-2004)

The information below is a summary of the PBS Frontline documentary House of Saud. PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) is a non-commercial free-to-air television public broadcaster funded by the American people.


The information presented below is for educational and comparative purposes. None of it is personal opinion.

The Founder of Wahhabism and the Al Saud Tribal Family

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to “pure” Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab’s followers. 

Arabia was a place of warring tribes. There was no unity among the groups.

Arabia in 1900

Among the nomads, sheikhs and emirs was the family of Al Saud.

Abdul Aziz ibn Al Saud wanted to unite the tribes.

Abdul Aziz ibn Al Saud

In 1902, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud with 60 men rode out to begin his quest for a kingdom.

The Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood)

In order to unite the country, he needed the fighting skills of the nomadic bedouins known as the “ikhwan” (brotherhood). They were warriors who were also fervent Wahhabi puritans. The Ikhwan were living out Wahhab’s dreams. They believe that their version of Islam is the true version and anything other than their version was regarded as objectionable. They were also fiercely anti-Western.

Ikhwan warriors

Abdul Aziz partnered with the Ikhwan to unite Arabia and spread Wahhabism. With the Ikhwan troops, Abdul Aziz captured province after province of the vast desert. By 1926, they had captured the jewels of Arabia, Mecca and Medina, making Abdul Aziz the ruler of Islam’s holy shrines. This brought him substantial income from visiting pilgrims.

Mecca / Kaaba in 1926

The Ikhwan wanted to keep expanding their captured territories but when Abdul Aziz told them not to, they rebelled and accused him of abandoning Islam.

Ikhwan victory celebration

The Ikhwan questioned Abdul Aziz on things such as why he had his kids study abroad in Europe and why he brought in new Western technology such as the telephone. The Ikhwan saw these actions as against Islam.

Abdul Aziz with new Western technology to Saudi Arabia – the telephone

The Religious Scholars (Ulama)

If Abdul Aziz were to stay in power, he had to get rid of the Ikhwan. But as defender of Islam, he needed justification to go to war with his Muslim fighters. His solution was to win over the religious establishment in Riyadh – the Ulama, who were regarded as the moral guardians of the realm. Abdul Aziz asked the Ulama to judge between him and the Ikhwan. The Ulama looked into the Islamic laws. They scrutinized the holy Quran and the hadith and found that Abdul Aziz was right so they gave a fatwa that said that the Ikhwan were wrong and that the Ikhwan had no right under Islamic law to rebel against the ruler. In 1927, the Ulama’s role began to be used as a force to sanction politics. With the Ulama’s consent, Abdul Aziz crushed the Ikhwan.

King Abdul Aziz (1932 – 1953)

In 1932, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud declared himself king and gave his name to the country – Saudi Arabia.

King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud

To unite the kingdom, Abdul Aziz married a daughter of every tribal chief and produced 45 legitimate sons. Every Saudi king since has been a son of Abdul Aziz. How many daughters he produced is unknown. They are not counted.

King Abdul Aziz with his sons and daughters

Abdul Aziz gave a speech saying that in order to keep united and protect themselves, they all had to rally around one thing: the book of God (the Quran) and the traditions of the prophet.

King Abdul Aziz giving a speech

Digging for Water but Finding Oil

Abdul Aziz was aware that neighboring countries had great natural resources but most experts did not feel that the resources extended to Saudi Arabia. Then, in 1931, they were surprised. There was an American philanthropist, Charles Richard Crane, who came to Saudi Arabia. Abdul Aziz was complaining about the lack of water in the country. Mr. Crane sponsored a geological survey looking for water but instead he found oil.

But the only way to get the oil out of the ground was by inviting foreign companies into the kingdom and Abdul Aziz feared that inviting foreigners (or infidels, as Saudis regarded them) would be resisted by the Ulama. He invited them anyway.

King Abdul Aziz meeting with Western oil companies to discuss extracting oil

A religious scholar said that Abdul Aziz shouldn’t invite foreigners to the kingdom because it was against Islam. Abdul Aziz asked the scholar for proof. Abdul Aziz said that the prophet Muhammad used Jews and Christians and that he never said it was forbidden to use them. The scholar admitted that prophet Muhammad used Jews and Christians. Abdul Aziz replied saying that he was going to do the same.

King Abdul Aziz discussing with a religious scholar the legality of working with Jews and Christians for oil extraction

In 1933, the first foreign oil prospectors started arriving in the kingdom.

Foreign oil prospectors arrive in the kingdom

Abdul Aziz didn’t care who got the concession as long as they paid the money upfront. The British showed interest but it was the Americans who paid $170,000 in gold for a concession that would turn out to contain the biggest oil fields on earth.

Aramco: Arab-American (Oil) Company

The Arabian American oil company or Aramco was created to prospect for oil and market it. America’s 4 largest oil corporations became the sole shareholders.

Saudi and American (Aramco) meeting

The king still had little idea what riches Saudi oil would soon bring but by 1945, the US urgently needed oil facilities to supply its forces fighting around the world.

Extracting oil from the desert

For US President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), oil was a national security priority. Abdul Aziz agreed to meet Roosevelt but he brought with him people from all areas of Saudi society.

King Abdul Aziz meeting with US President Franklin Roosevelt

Abdul Aziz was joking with Roosevelt about how Roosevelt was lucky to easily move around in his wheelchair. Roosevelt replied, “if you like this wheelchair so much, I’ll give you one.”

King Abdul Aziz sitting in a wheelchair (gift) provided by Roosevelt

US Military Base in Dhahran and the Issue of Palestine

America needed to lease an airport and navy refueling station for its war against Japan. Abdul Aziz was concerned with the security of his country. Abdul Aziz requested the assistance of the US military and training. They agreed to construct the Dhahran military base. In return, the king guaranteed the US would always have secure access to Saudi oil. America got Saudi oil at cheap prices in exchange for protecting Saudi Arabia from all enemies. But then there was the issue of Palestine. Americans wanted Roosevelt to recognize the state of Israel in Palestine. Abdul Aziz said that the Palestinians and Arabs did nothing to the Jews but rather Hitler did. So, Roosevelt should give the best part of Germany to the Jews. Roosevelt replied saying that he would not make any decisions without first consulting with both sides, the Arabs and the Jews.

King Abdul Aziz and US President Franklin Roosevelt discussing the issue of Palestine

FDR then sent a letter to Abdul Aziz confirming their understanding. He said he would take no action that would prove hostile to the Arab people. Roosevelt died a week after sending the letter.

Letter from Roosevelt to King Abdul Aziz

By the time World War II ended, Harry Truman was president of the United States.

US President Harry Truman

Two years later, the United Nations met to vote on the partition of the Jewish and Arab states.

United Nations meeting to vote on partition of Palestine

Prince Faisal, the King’s 2nd son, arrived in New York confident the US would vote against partition. He had been told that by General George Marshall – former commander of the American Army and one of Truman’s top aides. When Truman decided to vote for the partition to create the state of Israel, Faisal took it as a personal affront.

Saudi Prince Faisal disappointed that the US voted to divide Palestine to create Israel

Saudi Arabia joined a failed effort to destroy the nascent Jewish state and it has since never officially recognized Israel and is technically still at war with it.

Saudi Arabian and Arab troops fighting Israel

Nevertheless, the king was more concerned with possible attacks from the Hashemites in Jordan and Iraq.

King Saud (1953 – 1964)

Just before his death in 1953, the ailing founder of the Kingdom started delegating power to his sons. His eldest, Prince Saud, who had accompanied Abdul Aziz in battles, was designated the next king.

King Abdul Aziz designates his eldest son, Prince Saud, to be king

His second, Prince Faisal, was to mind foreign affairs.

Prince Faisal, the 2nd eldest son of King Abdul Aziz

Abdul Aziz told the brothers that their unity would preserve his reign and preserve the unity and prosperity of the country. He warned them from separating.

Left: Prince Faisal, Right: Prince Saud

Saud was a pleasant and nice person but never said anything of substance. He loved the desert and had huge tents with every amenity possible – air conditioning and all the latest food from Paris and America.

A lavish tent in the desert full of amenities including air conditioning and Western food

Saud loved being the king but he was soft, not tough.

King Saud enjoyed hosting foreign dignitaries

He also enjoyed American hospitality. He became a regular visitor to Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province where the Americans lived very differently than the Saudis. Within the compounds, Americans lived like in the United States. Outside the compounds, they had to live like the Saudis. Americans had canned food but the Saudis had never seen canned food at the time. Saudi kids used to fight over who would get the empty cans as they were like toys to them.

American life in American living compounds in Saudi Arabia
A street sign in an American compound
American cheerleaders in an American compound
Americans playing in a swimming pool in an American compound
Santa Claus entertaining American kids in an American compound

Saudi kids were always glad to see the American come in, especially because of the chewing gum they brought which Saudi kids liked very much.

Saudi kids liked American chewing gum very much

The grandson of Abdul Aziz remembers when Aramco provided his father with a refrigerator. He and his friends would sit for 16 hours in front of it to see how water would turn to ice. It took 16 hours because every time they opened the refrigerator to see, it would lose some of its freezing impact. It was like magic when they saw a cube of ice.

The Saudis were making a lot of money from Aramco but they were spending it foolishly. The country was broke and they had to borrow money which they borrowed from Aramco. King Saudi was much criticized for his handling of finances. But little was known about his other weakness – a safely regarded secret which contributed to his downfall.

On one occasion, King Saud was with the vice president of Aramco. The king was tired so he was invited to the desert to do a little hunting and relax in the VP’s guesthouse. King Saud agreed.

King Saud talking to vice president of Aramco

When the king landed, one of the things they were unloading from the plane was hard liquor and whiskey which they put under the king’s bed. During the stay, the king would drink the stuff straight. The Americans didn’t tell anyone about the king’s drinking problem because the king was an important asset to the Americans.

King Saud arrives for a desert retreat with American executives in their villa

In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the king of Egypt.

Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrows King Farouk of Egypt and becomes president

The balance of power in the region had changed. Nasser aligned himself with the Soviet Union and proclaimed himself a Socialist and an Arabist. For both Saudi Arabia and America, this was a threat. The Cold War was at its peak with two might empires (the United States and the Soviet Union) at war with each other.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser aligns with the Soviet Union

The Saudis didn’t care nor want to get involved in socialism or communism or any other ideology. They had their own ideology which was (Wahhabi) Islam.

Nasser wanted Saudi oil under his control saying that it belonged to all Arab people.

Saudi Aramco oil facilities

US president Eisenhower invited King Saud and his entourage of 80 people to the US.

King Saud visits the US and is welcomed by US president Eisenhower
Sign welcome King Saud to the US

Eisenhower wanted a renewal of the lease of the Dhahran airbase which was important for the war. King Saud wanted the money that the US would pay to extend the lease. The Saudis also wanted tanks, planes and military training. Both sides came to an agreement.

King Saud meeting with American officials

King Saud spent much of the money from the Dhahran lease on luxury trips to Europe. A rift was fast developing with the family.

King Saud spent much money on luxury trips to Europe

The Americans were worried about Saudi Arabia because of King Saud’s behavior. They felt that if anyone was going to save Saudi Arabia, it would be Prince Faisal. The Al Saud brothers realized that something had to be done.

Prince Faisal concerned about King Saud’s behavior

In November 1964, the Saud brothers decided to go to the religious leaders (the Ulama) and they got a fatwa sanctioning the abdication of King Saud and Prince Faisal’s taking over the throne. King Saud and his entourage were quietly asked to leave the country. The ailing Saudi monarch spent his last years in Athens, Greece.

King Faisal (1964 – 1975)

Prince Faisal becomes king

King Faisal had a lot to do. But every attempt to bring the country up to date was bound to bring him into conflict with the Ulama. In their view, every innovation threatened Islam. Modernity meant Westernization. The Saudis wanted better lives but without sacrificing their own culture in order to be copies of French men or the English or false Americans.

Meager living conditions among Saudi general public

Faisal decided there should be girls schools but there was an uproar about it. Old fathers said who knew what would happen if girls got an education. Faisal responding saying, “in this case, don’t send your girls to schools and if the majority of the people in your village or town don’t want a girls school, then you won’t have one, but those who do want a school must have one.”

First school for girls in Saudi Arabia
School girls in Saudi Arabia

To reconcile the need to offer education to girls and to satisfy the desires of the Ulama, Faisal allowed a special department to create an educational curriculum designed specifically for girls.

King Faisal often had a hard time with the Ulama. One day, the Ulama decided to ban vanilla because vanilla extract had a little alcohol in it. That concerned the Americans as they would not be able to make ice cream and cake among other things. Fortunately for the Americans, Faisal allowed vanilla extract to remain available.

In order to keep the peace with conservatives, Faisal had to make Saudi Arabia a sanctuary for extremist Muslims abroad. When governments in Egypt and Syria cracked down on fundamentalist Islamic scholars, King Faisal invited them to teach Saudi Arabian youth. Many of today’s Saudi radicals studied under Egyptian and Syrian fundamentalists.

Egyptian and Syrian radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia

In 1965, religious conservatives staged one of their biggest protests when Faisal approved TV broadcasts in the kingdom which they considered a sin because they considered what was on TV to be images of people which, according to the hadith, it was forbidden to have images of live creatures as it could lead to idolatry. King Faisal decided to broadcast on TV someone reciting the Quran.

Saudis watching TV for the first time. The program was Quran recitation.

A nephew of the king, Prince Khaled, sided with religious conservatives. He staged a demonstration objecting to the introduction of TV on the basis that it was unIslamic. No more than 100 demonstrators headed towards the TV tower in Riyadh. They tried to break in and bring down the tower. They fired at the guards. The guards fired back and the prince was killed. The prince’s father (Faisal’s brother) told Faisal to punish the soldier who killed his son. Faisal replied saying that prince Khaled broke the law, fired at the police, the police fired back, and so the police are guiltless.

The first TV studio in Saudi Arabia

In the spring of 1967, war was brewing. Egyptian president Nasser was moving his troops to Israel’s border and ordered the UN out. Uniting against Israel, Faisal reconciled with Nasser.

Egyptian troops move toward Israel’s border for war

In an interview, when asked what Faisal would like to see happen in the Middle East, he said the first thing he wanted was the extermination of Israel.

King Faisal wanted the extermination of Israel

Fearing an attack was imminent, Israel launched a massive preemptive war. In just 6 days, the bulk of Arab armies were destroyed.

Israel defeats the Arab armies

After the fall of Jerusalem to the Israelis, King Faisal never smiled again. Arab leaders were humiliated.

After being defeating by Israel, King Faisal never smiled again

Nasser had accused the US of helping the Israelis. On Aramco’s compounds, hundreds of Saudis rioted against America.

Saudis rioted and destroyed American compounds

In 1967, the Arab League got together and told the Saudis that they were just a bunch of American stooges and that they didn’t even control their own oil. The Arab League pressured Faisal to use oil as a weapon.

Saudi oil to be used as a weapon / bargaining power

Between 1960 and 1970, the price of oil did not go up one cent. The value of an equivalent barrel of Pepsi Cola was more expensive than an oil barrel at the time. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia started to negotiate for the ownership of Aramco.

Faisal insisted that America do something about the Palestinian issue or there would be a deterioration in US – Saudi relationship.

King Faisal insists US president Richard Nixon help Palestine

In October 1973, another Arab-Israeli war broke out. The first day, Egyptian and Syrian armies gained considerable ground.

Egyptian and Syrian armies gain ground in another war against Israel

The Israelis were pressing the US because they were running out of supplies. The US didn’t want to be seen as responsible for the collapse of Israel. The Arab states, Syria and Egypt were armed with Soviet weapons. The US president didn’t want to see a triumph of Soviet weaponry over American weaponry. Ultimate, the US shipped supplies to Israel.

The US shipped war supplies to Israel

The president of Aramco (an American) was summoned to Riyadh to see King Faisal. Faisal was furious over what was happening. Faisal saw no solution but to boycott oil. Faisal ordered Aramco to stop pumping oil. Oil became scarce. Prices quadrupled.

Americans waiting in long lines to get expensive gas
Some places in America had run out of gas

US President Nixon sent Secretary of State Kissinger an urgent mission to Saudi Arabia. Faisal made it clear that he couldn’t lift the oil embargo until there was progress on the Palestinian issue.

King Faisal meeting with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Kissinger said the US cannot withstand having its oil supplied disrupted and if it becomes necessary, the United States would be prepared to intervene in Saudi Arabia to take over the oil fields. Kissinger’s statement was taken as a verbal warning. But according to a recently declassified secret British intelligence memorandum reveals that five months into the oil embargo, US military option was a reality.

A secret memo revealing that the US was planning on seizing Saudi oil fields

King Faisal replied saying that Saudis came from the desert. They’d been living on camel milk and dates and they could easily go back to living in the desert again.

The oil embargo was having a major impact on the US war in Vietnam. Fuel supplies were running dangerously low. The Americans told King Faisal that they were fighting communism and they needed Faisal’s help. In 1974, Faisal ended the oil boycott, but higher oil prices gave Faisal great wealth and status throughout the Arab world.

In March 1975, Faisal was receiving the then minister of petroleum of Kuwait.

King Faisal met with the Minister of Petroleum of Kuwait

He was called into the room by a nephew of the king, prince Faisal bin Musod, who was there to take his revenge as it was his brother who was killed by police during the 1965 TV tower demonstration.

Prince Faisal bin Musod, nephew of King Faisal

Prince Faisal shot and killed King Faisal. This was a shock, especially since the assassin was a family member, King Faisal’s own nephew.

The body of King Faisal being taken for burial

King Khaled bin Abdul Aziz (1975 – 1982)

In 1975, Khaled became king of Saudi Arabia. He wasn’t really interested in politics. He was more interested in talking about the desert and his hawks.

King Khaled

Saudi Arabia was enjoying an embarrassment of riches. With a tiny population estimated at only 4 million and only half a million literate male adults, it was hard to put to work an income of nearly a billion dollars a week. Saudi Arabia embarked on a rapid course of buying and building. Foreign contractors rushed in.

Saudi Arabia went on a spending spree under King Faisal
Construction projects everywhere in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia was booming. There wasn’t any work anywhere else for contractors. If you go out for a summer holiday for a few months, you’d come back lost because you wouldn’t recognize the city you had left. Things that would normally take 20 years were done in just a few months.

New buildings being built everywhere
New roads being built everywhere

Saudi Arabia was building 2 schools every 3 days. To Saudis, the debate at the time was: do we import foreign labor or do we wait and train our citizens?

Workers in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia decided to import foreign labor.

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia

This resulted in local Saudis not doing very much and most people doing work were expatriates. As of 2004, the population of Saudi Arabia was about 16 million but expatriates number about 6 to 7 million.

Imported cars in Saudi Arabia

Among those who accumulated sudden wealth during the boom time was the Bin Laden family becoming the principal builders to the royals.

The Bin Laden family became rich being contractors for the royal family

There was also massive amounts of official corruption. Much of it concerned Saudi purchases of Western military equipment. Deals were riddled with influence peddling, bribes and oversized commissions.

Royal Saudi Air Force plane

There was also real estate fraud. The main way to get money from the government into pockets of the princes was through land sales. Only the princes can register land in the desert as theirs. If the government needs to buy land for a project, they have to buy it from princes at astronomical prices of downtown New York or Tokyo at the time.

Government building in Riyadh

The Saudi elite became notorious big spenders in the casinos of Europe. The royals, with their huge monthly allowances, spend seemingly endless vacations there.

Saudi elite vacationing in Europe

Saudi leaders lost credibility and respect, especially among religious conservatives.

According to Dr. Saad Al Fagih, a Wahhabi dissident, Saudi leaders were corrupt in a moral and Islamic sense and in every sense. There’s no way they can reform and become faithful to the country let alone faithful to Islam. According to him, the only solution is to change the royal family.

Dr. Saad Al Fagih, a Wahhabi dissident

In 1979, the Shah of Iran, another corrupt absolute monarchy backed by the US, fell. It was overthrown in part by fervent Muslims. The Saudi Royal Family was concerned the same could happen to them. Many in Saudi society wanted to put the brakes on Westernization and modernization.

A modern mall in Saudi Arabia

On November 20, 1979, several Islamic radicals took over the mosque at Mecca.

The Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979

The royals went to the Ulama and the clerics issued a fatwa based on the verses of the Quran. The fatwa allowed the government to use all necessary force to retake the mosque. After an 18 day standoff, the Saudis routed the militants and 120 soldiers died.

Saudi cleric issuing a fatwa
Captured Islamic radicals to took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca

The leader of the insurgence, Juhayman Al Otaybi, was a direct descendant of the Ikhwan. Juhaymin and 62 others were beheaded.

Juhayman Al Otaybi

The Saudi Royal Family moved to increase its religious standing. Millions of dollars were diverted to religious education under the Ulama. They taught Wahhabism as the only true form of Islam and holy war against infidels as the obligation of every believer. New theological schools and universities were built to produce more clerics to help spread the word. Saudi charities raised millions more for the cause.

A new religious school in Saudi Arabia

They opened up mosques in London, Africa, the United States and Southeast Asia. That was seen as part of their responsibility as wealthy Muslims. They had to share that wealth with Muslims elsewhere and they had to be as supporting Muslim causes.

A Saudi-educated imam preaching at a mosque

In 1979, the Wahhabis found a rallying cause like no other. The Soviet Union – a godless, communist power – invaded a Muslim nation, Afghanistan.

A Soviet military vehicle in Afghanistan

Saudi Arabia and the US made a secret deal to fund an equal amount to finance the war. Thousands of young Saudis were sent to fight alongside the Mujahideen. For almost a decade, some 20,000 young Saudi volunteers made the trek to Afghanistan. There, they acquired military skills and came to believe that dedicated Islamic fighters could defeat a superpower.

Islamic fighters in Afghanistan

King Fahad (1982 – 2005)

In 1982, Crown Prince Fahad became king after his brother Khaled died of a heart attack. The Iran-Iraq war was raging on his doorstep.

King Fahad

Fahad befriended Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and gave him money and weapons to battle Shia Iran. 8 years later, the Saudis were not prepared for a sudden betrayal.

King Fahad gifting Saddam Hussein a gold rifle

Many Saudis didn’t know about Iraq invading Kuwait because they didn’t have satellite television and there was a total blackout of the news. They found out from relatives living in abroad. King Fahad felt that the problem could be solved with money but Saudis were not well-trained for combat. This exposed corruption, military contracts, and the inability of a sovereign state to defend itself.

Saudi military

During the first days of the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, Usama bin Laden offered his services to the Royal Family. He said he could bring his Mujahideen army, 15,000 – 20,000 strong, from Afghanistan to repel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait and that they needed no weapons as they were already very well-equipped. He said they just wanted to protect the holy lands: Mecca and Medina. But the Royal Family dismissed bin Laden.

Usama bin Laden

The Royal Family needed to allow hundreds of thousands of American troops into the kingdom to fight another Muslim country but, as everything in the kingdom revolves around religion, that could rile Islamic conservatives.

US representatives Dick Cheney, General Swartzkoff and Colin Powell met King Fahad and showed him satellite pictures of Saddam’s forces poised to move across the Saudi border. King Fahad asked the Americans to come.

Dick Cheney meeting with King Fahad

King Fahad went back to the Ulama and asked for a ruling (fatwa).

King Fahad and a member of the Ulama

The deal was concluded. More than half a million US troops started arriving in the kingdom and neighboring countries.

American troops in Saudi Arabia

But regardless of a fatwa, hardline Saudi imams protested. People broadcasted audio on the streets saying that Saudi Arabia had aligned itself with the enemies of God (Americans).

“We have allied ourselves with the enemies of God”

The US administration wanted to charge the Saudis for the war. America would be saving both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both very rich countries, and the US felt that the Saudis should contribute financially towards defense expenses. King Fahad was very nice and told the US to go to the finance minister and just ask for how much they think they needed. The costs were picked out of thin air as no one really knew how much it would cost. In some cases, the US gave figures that were just concocted on the back of an envelope. In the end, the US got enough money and probably a little more.

A US representative asking King Fahad to pay for America to protect Saudi Arabia by fighting Iraq

The Saudis spent some $50 billion dollars. They started the war with no national debt but ended it very much in debt.

Saudi women saw American women driving around Riyadh so they were inspired to do the same. They decided to meet at the parking lot of the Safeway supermarket in Riyadh at 3 PM.

King Fahad meeting with US President George Bush

Suddenly two dozen cars started arriving with the Pakistani and Indonesian drivers sitting on the sidewalk. The Saudi women included 6 doctors from the universities and teachers from public schools.

Saudi women driving in Riyadh

Within 10 minutes, the Mutawwa (religious police – guys with a long beard and short dresses) started swooping in on the demonstration. 47 women were arrested. The Ulama called the driving a source of depravity. The state news reminded everyone on TV that all women are absolutely prohibited from driving cars in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Any woman who violates this regulation would be penalized.

Saudi national news broadcast warning women about driving

In every city within the kingdom and every mosque, there was a list of violators with their phone numbers saying that the women who were riving were Westerners and against the will of the society. The title of the list was “The Names of the Fallen Women, the Advocates of Vice and Corruption on Earth“.

List of women who were caught driving in Saudi Arabia

The notice called upon clerics to punish the women however they saw fit.

Take whatever action you see fit

Meanwhile, Kuwait was freed from Iraq.

People celebrating the freedom of Kuwait from Iraq

The Saudis felt they were safe so they wanted US soldiers to leave but US soldiers remained in the kingdom because Saddam Hussein in Iraq did not want to give up power. This caused tension between the two countries.

American soldiers remained in Saudi Arabia

Usama bin Laden took advantage of this tense situation.

Usama bin Laden giving a speech

He and his followers would go on the offensive by exploding a bomb in Riyadh on Nov 13, 1995. Four American military contractors and one American soldier died.

Bombing targeting Americans in Riyadh

Usama bin Laden’s main enemy was the Saudi Royal Family. However, since America was supporting the Royal Family, Usama felt he could send a clearer message by targeting the American military in Saudi Arabia.

In 1996, another bombing in Khobar killed 19 American soldiers. US-Saudi relations were coming under increasing strain. At this time, King Fahad was incapacitated by a stroke.

Khobar Towers bombing

Saudis were able to get outside Arabic language TV broadcasts using satellite dishes. The programs were beyond the control of the royals. For the first time, Saudis were able to see for themselves what others saw as the shortcomings of their country. The people were exposed to reports of lack of civil rights and political freedom and royal corruption.

TV Satellite dishes on top of buildings

Crown Prince Abdullah would often watch satellite TV himself. While CNN would show an American audience an American reporter riding an Israeli tank, Aljazeera would show an Arab audience a Palestinian kid being chased or beaten up by an Israeli soldier. Gruesome images of the Arab-Israeli conflict became part of Saudi’s daily viewing. Saudi Arabia remained on the sidelines while supporting Arafat and militant groups like Hamas. But when they sensed US President Bush might abandon the Arab-Israeli Peace Process, Saudi Arabia took a more active role.

Palestinian civilians throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers

President Bush said that the Israelis would not negotiate under a terrorist threat and that Arafat should make an effort to stop the terrorist activity.

US President Bush telling Arafat to stop the terrorist activity

At that point, Crown Prince Abdullah sent a powerful message to President Bush saying that it was obvious that Bush decided to support Israel regardless of the consequences. He said that Saudi Arabia had to take actions that serve its interest regardless of how they may affect the interests of the United States.

Crown Prince Abdullah warning America about supporting Israel

Within 24 hours, President Bush sent a message to the Crown Prince describing his vision for the Middle East, two states (Israel and Palestine), shared Jerusalem, and fair settlement of the refugee issue but that these goals could only be done if the violence stops. The Crown Prince responded saying that that was a positive step and that Bush needed to articulate his message publicly, which Bush agreed to do two or three days before the Twin Tower attacks on September 11, 2001.

Terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001

The peace talks between Israel and Palestine stopped with the September 11 attacks. Some Saudis welcomed the attacks. People received messages on their mobile phones saying, “Congratulations”, followed by prayers to Bin Laden. They began to see Bin Laden as a hero. Some Saudis would even kill sheep and camels and invite their friends over for a feast to celebrate the attacks. When it became clear that 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis, that was a disaster and Bin Laden had made Americans see Saudis as the enemy.

When Americans invaded Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia quietly allowed the US to use Saudi air bases for command and control operations.

American soldiers in Afghanistan

But Saudi militants captured in Afghanistan would make up the majority of the prison population shipped to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Captured Saudi militants in Guantanamo Bay

The US also attacked Iraq and Baghdad fell in a matter of weeks.

Fallen statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq

Since the Gulf War, the American troop presence in Saudi Arabia had been a rallying cry for Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda made videos saying that the infidels (Americans) had invaded their homes.

“The infidels (Americans) have invaded our homes.” – Al Qaeda Video

After victory in Iraq, the American air bases in Saudi Arabia became empty.

Empty American air bases in Saudi Arabia

But that didn’t matter to Bin Laden. Two weeks later on May 21, 2003, Al Qaeda militants attacked 3 compounds in Riyadh housing hundreds of foreign workers.

Al Qaeda bombing in Riyadh targeting Americans

35 people were killed including 9 Americans. Over 100 were wounded. When Colin Powell visited Crown Prince Abdullah, the prince was in shock as he knew the bombing in Saudi Arabia was done by Saudis and no one else. Some members of the Saudi elite looked inward. They began to reevaluate the long-time deal under which the religious schools and universities were controlled by Wahhabi fundamentalists.

In an unprecedented act of self-examination, Tash ma Tash, Saudi Arabia’s most popular TV comedy show, was allowed to air a bold sketch about extremist teachers instructing students how to hate non-Wahhabis.

God allows us to shed their blood, and take their wealth and honor.
We have to instill in our hearts the fact that they are infidels; they are loathsome.

In the show, a moderate teacher decides to complain to the authorities at the ministry of education.

Hello. I’ve come to inform you about the ideas of some of the teachers in our schools.

When he gets there, he finds the teachers he’s come to complain about in charge.

TV show showing the Saudi Ministry of Education as the same radical teachers in schools.

The Saudi government has even moved against some of the most radical Islamic preachers. At the ministry of Islamic affairs, which oversees the country’s government-owned mosques, they have begun firing some imams. Around 1300 imams were dismissed from their duties.

Ministry of Government Affairs in Saudi Arabia

But independent Wahabbi fundamentalists have fought back.

“America will be destroyed gradually. American will be destroyed.”

A new privately-owned Saudi TV channel Al-Majd is dedicated to propagating their views.

Even on a daytime kids’ show, the message is often harsh and unambiguous.

“The wolf would keep his promise before the Jews would.”

The kid reads

The wolf would keep his promise before the Jews would. Father, send my greetings to the land of Jerusalem. And tell them that a martyr does not die when he is killed. Tell them about a people whose limbs, even when blown apart, will leap up and defend their honor.

And the show host congratulates the boy and tells everyone to give him a cheer.

“Give him a cheer”

Wahabbi clerics such as Sheikh Nasser Al Omar also opposed changing school curriculum. They believe Americans were interfering with Islam and the Saudi identity by promoting American culture, e.g. by raising expectations to empower women. In a previous version of the curriculum, a university textbook teaches students that men are superior and women are inferior.

The book titled “Defending Virtue” was written by a cleric on the council of the Ulama.

Textbook titled “Defending Virtue” written by the Ulama

It reads, “Man is physically perfect and has natural power. The female is inferior physically, mentally and emotionally.” Nasser says it was written by a great scholar to protect women. This book was used in teachings at the largest university in Saudi Arabia.

“Man is physically perfect and has natural power.”
“The female is inferior physically, mentally and emotionally.”

The Royal Family continues to resist any real efforts towards structural change. In early 2004, a prominent group of citizens petitioned the family for constitutional reform. The Minister of the Interior summoned them in and told them that they shouldn’t have meetings and congregations and that the government supports change in a more naturally evolving way and that nothing needed to be “fixed”. Shortly afterwards, a dozen reformers were arrested. Three are still in jail today.

Ministry of the Interior of Saudi Arabia

The continuing war in Iraq only helped strengthen anti-American radicals in Saudi Arabia. During the holy month of Ramadan, as the US advanced into Falluja, Iraq, senior Saudi clerics issued renewed calls for jihad against America.

“…God, destroy the infidels …”
“God, make victorious the fighters of Falluja …”
“I praise the jihad against the occupiers in Iraq.”
“We curse the Americans every night.”
” … and pray that Allah will annihilate them …”

An unknown number of Saudis have traveled to Iraq to join the fight. The suicide bomber who killed 22 US soldiers in Mosul in December 2004 was a young Saudi medical student.

US Soldiers in Iraq

Back inside Saudi Arabia, violence continues. Since the May bombing in Riyadh in 2003, over 100 people have been killed by Al Qaeda in attacks on compounds and oil companies across the country. Westerners remain the prime target. A BBC cameraman was gunned down while filming in a Riyadh street. Two days later, a US defense contractor was shot to death in his garage. A week after that, another US defense contractor was killed outside his home in Riyadh. And US engineer Paul Johnson was abducted by terrorists manning a fake security checkpoint. A video of his beheading was put out on the internet.

US engineer Paul Johnson abducted by Saudi terrorists

In December 2004, an all-out assault on the US Consulate in Jeddah left 5 foreign staff dead. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior was car bombed 2 weeks later. In 2005, thousands of Americans left the kingdom. The Royal Family was facing a severe challenge. The Saudis believe that America depends on Saudi Arabia for oil and therefore America can’t allow for the demise of the kingdom. The House of Saud believes it will survive.

Members of the Saud Royal Family