Saudi Arabia



With over 20% of the world's proven oil reserves, Saudi Arabia continues to be important to the global economy. Join Active Minds as we tell the story of this complex nation. We will cover Saudi history, the recent generational transition of power in the Saudi Royal family, and the complicated role played by the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islamic thought 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 Saud 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 Saud family built its power in the 18th century by allying with the fundamentalist Islamic cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. The political partnership between the Saud family and fundamentalist Wahhabism has continued ever since.
  • Mohammed bin Salman became heir to the throne in 2017. In addition to being the Crown Prince, he is responsible for Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to reform the economy and reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil. He also serves as Defense Minister and in that role, he is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy that includes the war in Yemen and the diplomatic standoff with Qatar.
  • As it implements Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia will need to balance the conservative clergy’s desire to maintain traditional Sunni Islamic laws and cultural values with economic and social reform. As an example, although Saudi Arabian women are well-educated they live in a society where men are still the public and economic face of the family, and women are kept separated from the public sphere. On the other hand, one of the goals of Vision 2030 is to increase the participation of women in the workplace.
  • Terrorism continues to be a point of contention between Saudi Arabia and the United States--15 Saudis were directly involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks and Saudi institutions and charities continue to support of the spread of Wahhabism internationally.
  • Since becoming President, Trump has warmed the relationship with Saudi Arabia by making Riyadh his first stop on his first international state visit during which he announced a major arms deal. Saudi Arabia is also pleased with Trump’s more aggressive stance toward Iran and in Yemen.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the current US-Saudi Arabian relationship and the major economic and political factors impacting it.
  • What are the key factors in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and how is this feud playing out in current regional crises like Yemen, Qatar and Syria?

Reflective Questions

  • If you were to work in Saudi Arabia as a foreign national, how would you have to change your lifestyle?
  • Do you think conservative Islamic tradition and economic/social reforms can coexist?  Why or why not?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Lacey, Robert. Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Penguin, 2010. 448 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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  • Al-Sharif, Manal. Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening. Simon and Schuster, 2017. 304 pages. This memoir tells how one Saudi woman became an activist for women’s rights after being arrested for “driving while female.”  Her story gives the reader an inside look at what life is like for a woman in Saudi Arabia.
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  • Menoret, Pascal. Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt. Cambridge University Press, 2014. 263 pages. This book examines the alienation and politicization of Riyadh’s youth.
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