Sheba (Seba) is mentioned several times in the Bible, but with more than one genealogy.
Seba, along with Dedan, is considered a descendant of Noah‘s son, Ham (as sons of Raamah, son of Cush). Later on in Genesis, the names of Sheba and Dedan appear as sons of Jokshan, son of Abraham. Another Sheba is listed in the Table of Nations as a son of Joktan, another descendant of Noah’s son Shem. Are the Sabaeans then Hamites or Semites?
Several theories have arisen to help dissolve this conundrum. The Sabaean established many colonies to control trade routes, the variety of their caravan stations confused the ancient Israelites as their ethnology was based on geographical and political grounds not necessarily racial. Another theory suggests that the Sabaean hailed from the southern Levant, establishing their kingdom on the ruins of the Minaean Kingdom.
But whatever the exact genealogy, the most famous claim to fame for this biblical land is the tale of the Queen of Sheba who travels to Jerusalem to question King Solomon, arriving in a large caravan with precious stones, spices, and gold. The apocryphal Christian Arabic ‘Book of the Rolls’ (Kitāb al-Magāll, considered part of Clementine literature) and the Syriac Cave of Treasures, mention a tradition of a succession of sixty female rulers, up until the time of Solomon, after having been founded by the children of Saba (son of Joktan).
Josephus describes a place called Saba as a walled, royal city of Ethiopia, which Cambyses afterwards named Meroe, that “was both encompassed by the Nile quite round, and the other rivers, Astapus and Astaboras” offering protection from both foreign armies and river floods. The conquest of Saba was what brought great fame to a young Egyptian Prince — and simultaneously exposing his servile childhood — named Moses.
—Sheba, Biblical tradition (redacted from Wikipedia)
With both Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to north-east, bordered by Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, and south-east by Oman and to the south, Yemen, Saudi Arabia encompasses most (albeit predominantly inhospitable desert) of the Arabian Peninsula so that it alone, strategically, can boast both a Red Sea and a Persian Gulf coastline.
Ibn Saud (Abdulaziz bin Saud) founded the hereditary monarch that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 within three decades of his capture of the family’s ancestral home, later to become the kingdom’s capital, of Riyadh. Within Saudi Arabia are the two holiest places in Islam — Mecca and Medina (Jerusalem, Israel is the third holiest). Apart from these two cities, prior to being founded most of the Arabian Peninsula was populated by nomadic tribes.
Saudi Arabia’s modest 30 million population punch well above their weight economically, owing largely to the world’s sixth largest natural gas reserves, over and above the regional (and global) influence that is incumbent on the world’s largest oil exporter — exports that account for 70% of total government revenue.
The traditional Arabic modus operandi for expansion has been rapid-fire, hit-and-run type warfare. This proved most successful for Islam’s founder, Muhammad, and his followers, who rapidly expanded their territory as far as modern-day Pakistan and all the way to the Iberian Peninsula. The Arabian power base then shifted to these newly-conquered but well-established areas of Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul. And Saudi Arabia reclined to its more traditional tribal rule.
The emergence of the Saudi Royal family (Al Saud) occurred in central Arabia in the 18th century, when Muhammad bin Saud formed an alliance with the puritanical Sunni religious leader4 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (see Wahhabism). And this remains the basis of Saudi dynastic rule to this day. The Ottoman Empire as well as another local ruling Arabian family (Al Rashid) thwarted initial attempts at the formation of a Saudi state, respectively: 1744 in Riyadh and then 1824 in Nejd — the latter forcing the exile of the Al Saud to Kuwait.
Allied victory in World War I succeeded where a British-encouraged Arab revolt failed, and rather than tackling the Ottomans, Ibn Saud continued his focus on the Al Rashid, ultimately taking the Sultan of Nejd title, in 1921. With the help of the Wahhabism-inspired Ikhwan [Arabic: brothers], an Islamic religious militia led by Sultan ibn Bijad and Faisal Al-Dawish which had grown quickly after its foundation in 1912, the Hejaz also was conquered in 1924-25 so that Ibn Saud, on 10 January 1926, declared himself King of the Hejaz. A year later, he added the title of King of Nejd. Going in disparate and incongruent directions — Ibn Saud favouring modernisation whilst the Ikhwans went after the British protectorates of Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait — the two parties eventually turned against each other. Ibn Saud prevailed (see Battle of Sabilla) to unite the two kingdoms of the Hejaz and Nejd as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
One of the poorest countries in the world, in 1938 however, Saudi Arabia discovered she had vast reserves of oil along the coast of the Persian Gulf, and these were soon being developed by a US-controlled entity (Aramco). The rest of Saudi history can be summarised by economic prosperity and excess, interspersed with in-fighting (including murder) and more traditional rule, increasing xenophobia toward an increasingly larger expatriate workforce at the oil fields — and the gradual regaining of sovereignty over the oil fields themselves, complete by 1980. Naturally, rapid modernisation followed the vast oil wealth and the royal family continued to rule despite a simmering discontent particularly amongst a Shiite minority concentrated along the Gulf coast, but newly-emboldened by Shiite Persia’s Islamic Revolution. A further catalyst to enforcing stricter control was the seizing of the Grand Mosque by Islamist extremists enraged by the regime’s casual approach to Islam and their courting the West. Regaining control quickly, the government promptly executed those captured.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has given rise to terrorism including Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. As a predominant Sunni nation courting the West (selling them oil), Saudi Arabia is increasingly seen by more fundamentalist nations, particularly the Shiite-predominant Iranians (but also their Syrian and Lebanese allies), as traitors and apostates of the Islamic faith. This has helped to deepen the Sunni-Shiite schism that runs through most aspects of Islam.
Saudi Arabia is a fanatic Sunni country and is behind the growth of these fanatic regimes in the Middle East and behind the plans to change the educational system in the US to a more Islamic-friendly teaching program. The Sunni-Shiite feud is a 1400-year long battle over control of the Islamic turf and Caliph, or replacement leader in place of their prophet Muhammad. Originally there where 3 Caliphs and the fourth was Ali, Muhammad’s nephew. Ali married his cousin Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter) and his followers decided to replace the first 3 Caliphs – and so began the Shiite-Sunni schism. There is no forgiveness in Islam. This is a battle to the end.
85% of Muslims are Sunni whilst 15% are Shiite and are found in the “Shiite crescent” extending from Iran – Iraq – Syria through to Lebanon.
According to Global Firepower, “Saudi Arabia continues to play a major role in the Middle East region as one of its most modern and powerful [ranked 28th] military forces“. Critics will say that this albeit modern force, apart from a modest current involvement in Yemen, is not battle hardened.
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Featured Image: National Flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [Image: Wikimedia Commons]