Saudi Arabia



With over 20% of the world's proven oil reserves, the importance of Saudi Arabia to the United States (and the world) has been clear for some time. That does not mean, however, that Saudi Arabia's place in the world is simple or straightforward; far from it. Join Active Minds as we tell the story of Saudi Arabia. We will cover Saudi history, current international relations, and the complicated role played by Wahhabi Islam and Sunni Islam in the country and the region.

Key Lecture Points

  • Saudi Arabia came into existence in 1932 in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. Unlike previous Arab powers, the Saudi family arose not from the traditional trade routes on the Red Sea or Persian Gulf, but from the remote inland region, known as the Najd. The Saudi Family built its power in the 18th century by allying with fundamentalist Islamic cleric named Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. The political partnership between the Saudi Family and fundamentalist Wahhabism has continued ever since.
  • Currently, Saudi Arabia finds itself caught between traditional Sunni Islamic laws and cultural values and a push towards economic and social liberalization. Following reforms to its education system, Saudi Arabian women are now outperforming many men in a society where men were, and in most cases still are, the public and economic face of the family, and women are kept separated from the public sphere. This debate about modernism versus traditional values is made all the more significant by the fact that Saudi Arabia is the site of the two holiest Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina.
  • Terrorism continues to be a point of contention between Saudi Arabia and the United States, as 15 Saudis were directly involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Since 9/11, several other terrorist suspects have been of Saudi origin or have traveled through Saudi Arabia. Additionally, private financial support of terrorism originates from within Saudi Arabia.
  • Saudi Arabia’s economy is an oil economy. The oil industry makes up 45% of GDP revenues; thus, Saudi Arabia’s economy fluctuates with the price of crude oil. In a predominantly arid country, Saudi Arabia is struggling to transition to a diversified economy that promotes its services sector in addition to the petroleum industry.

Exploration Questions

  • What will happen as Saudi Arabia’s social and economic development continue and contradict cultural practices that have existed for decades?
  • Do you feel that conservative Islamic tradition and the modernizing economy and social environment can coexist? How?

Reflective Questions

  • If you were to work in Saudi Arabia as a foreign national, how would you have to change your lifestyle?
  • How many Americans do you think remember that so many Saudi nationals were involved in the 9/11 attacks? Did you remember?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Lacey, Robert. Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking Adult, 2009. 432 pages. The Kingdom delves into the paradoxes in Saudi society—where women are forbidden to drive but are more likely to attend universities than men—and why this nation yielded most of the terrorist team on September 11, Osama bin Laden and one of the largest group of foreign fighters sent to Guantánamo from Afghanistan.
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  • Bronson, Rachel. Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia. Oxford University Press, 2008. 384 pages. Bronson's addresses the history of the U.S.--Saudi relationship and the way that oil has affected it.
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