About Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia first came into prominence since it’s the source of Islam (one of the world’s major religions). Mohamed (also spelled Muhammad), the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca circa 570 AD, and started preaching in that town in 610 AD. After migrating to the Arabian town of Medina in 622 AD, he and his supporters united the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the Islamic faith (creating a single Arab Muslim religious entity in that country). Nearly 30 years after Mohamed died in 634 AD, the Rashidun Caliphs and their Umayyad successors gradually expanded the spread of Islam outside of Arabia. Over time, the Muslim armies defeated the (Turkey-based) Byzantine Empire, destroyed the Persian Empire, and later conquered huge areas (as far west as the Iberian Peninsula, and as far east as India).
Under the Islamic faith and its teachings under its holy book (the Koran), every able-bodied Muslim must make a pilgrimage to the holy Arabian city of Mecca (during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah) at least once in their life. The Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in Mecca is where the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest site) is located, while the Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina is where Mohamed’s tomb is located. Due to that religion’s teachings, followers of the Islamic faith (regardless of their geographic location) have been trekking to Mecca since the 7th century.
From the 1500s until the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire had periodic control over the coastal areas of Arabia (both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf coasts). During that time, the central part of Arabia was ruled by an emerging local dynasty called the Sauds – in alliance with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (founder of the Wahhabi movement). Centered in the town of Riyadh, the Sauds’ bid for expansion into the coastal areas (especially the Red Sea coast) was periodically checked by the Ottoman forces. With encouragement from the British and French, Saudi and other Arab forces revolted against Ottoman rule during World War I. After World War I, the entire Arabian Peninsula was finally freed from Ottoman Empire, while the British and French divided up the rest of the Middle East (including French rule over Lebanon and Syria, and British control over Palestine (modern-day Israel), Iraq, Jordan and certain Persian Gulf areas like Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.
By 1930, the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was officially formed. Eight years later, vast reserves of oil were discovered along the country’s Persian Gulf areas. By the 1950s, Saudi Arabia became prosperous from its oil reserves. During the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, Saudi Arabia participated in a pan-Arab oil boycott against the U.S. and Netherlands (which drove up gasoline prices in USA to astronomical levels).
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which became a perceived threat against Saudi royal rule, helped drive that government into the U.S. sphere of influence. The political upheaval in Iran coincided with religious extremists seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca that year. By the early 1980s, Arabia began buying sophisticated military equipment and other arms from U.S. The Saudi government’s relations with USA were reinforced after the Iraqi military (under then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein) invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Arabia played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led Gulf War against Iraq (known as “Desert Shield”), by letting U.S. set up military bases on its soil (which enabled American forces to not only repel Saddam’s forces, but to invade portions of Iraq itself). In the early 2010s, Arabia was shielded from the “Arab Spring” protests that took various North African & Middle Eastern governments by surprise (from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf) – protests that toppled some of those governments. These days, Saudi Arabia’s continued role as a major oil power (which can lower or increase petroleum production) is followed by international investors worldwide, especially those concerned about a spike in prices to over US$100 a barrel. The U.S.’ recent use of oil exploration technologies (including fracking) has helped it become self-sufficient in oil in recent times, balancing global oil prices.
Since oil is Arabia’s main source of income, tourism has never been a priority for that government (apart from accommodating religious pilgrims visiting Mecca and other Islamic holy sites). In much part because of such visitor inflows, travel & tourism accounted for 9.4% of the country’s GDP. The Arabian government expects 22 million visitors by 2025.