Foundation of the Saud Dynasty

Saudi Arabia, the only country named after its ruling family, and one that has thrived into the twenty-first century, was founded after the establishment of the Saud Dynasty, which hails from the harsh desert heartland of the Arabian Peninsula.

Summary of Event

For the past three thousand years, the Arabian Peninsula has been inhabited by Semitic-speaking people, making the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a relatively young nation that was not established officially until 1932. This large and diverse country covers 80 percent of the peninsula and comprises almost 1 million square miles, an area approximately one-third the size of the United States. Saud Dynasty
Maniՙ al-Muraydi

This vast landscape had been traversed by tribes whose cultures were largely reflective of nomadic Bedouin life and desert conditions. Occasionally, however, tribal members would settle along caravan routes and at oases (like that of Mecca) and develop villages. A tribal leader or family would sometimes establish rule over such settlements, as did the Saud clan in the oasis of Dirՙīyah.

The mercantile and pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina, both in the eastern Hejaz region near the Red Sea, were thriving by 622, the year of the Hegira (flight) of the Prophet Muḥammad (c. 570-632). Within a few years after the death of the Prophet, Islam had spread widely, and pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina increased greatly. Islamic political power, which was often accompanied by intellectual vitality, left the region, however. Under the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), Damascus became the Islamic capital, and under the ՙAbbāsid caliphs, the capital became Baghdad. By 900, the Islamic seat would move even farther from the Arabian Peninsula and, consequently, so did intellectual vigor. Thus, for almost the next one thousand years, Arabia, specifically the core area of what is now Saudi Arabia, was a largely isolated and uncultivated terrain where the way of life changed little from the time of the Prophet Moḥammad. It was during this time that the Saud emerged.

Little is known of the Saudis before the 1700’. Indeed, they and similar desert dwellers are sometimes referred to as a people without a history. It is known, however, that the Saud family in Arabia can be traced back to the fifteenth century, although their presence predates this. They hail from the harsh Najd Desert of central-north Arabia and have inhabited this extremely arid land, known for its Bedouin camel herders.

Some profess that the Saudis are descendants of the Bani Hanifah tribe, an oasis-dwelling people who lived in Riyadh (the current capital of Saudi Arabia), which was probably settled by the first millennium b.c.e. Many others trace Saudi genealogy to the Anazah, a large and powerful confederation of tribes known for their Arab lineage. The Anazah primarily were located in the central Najd region but also dwelled in parts of the western Hijaz, and members could be found scattered throughout the peninsula. The Anazah were subdivided into several tribes and within each were various powerful families, including the ruling families of what is now Kuwait (the al-Sabah) and what is now Bahrain (the al-Khalifah).

In 1446-1447, according to chroniclers, an ancestor of the Saudis, the Anazah tribesman Maniՙ al-Muraydi, founded the settlement of Dirՙīyah, which was approximately nine miles north of Riyadh. He perhaps came from Qatif, the second largest oasis of the eastern province, and with his son and their respective families began farming the lands around Dirՙīyah. Thus, from the fifteenth century on, it is likely that the Saudis were not Bedouins per se but instead were a sedentary group. Within the next few hundred years, apparently, they established themselves as a landholding merchant class of Najd and acquired cultivated land and wells around the Dirՙīyah settlement. Artisans inhabited the settlement, too.

Palm dates were the main crop of Dirՙīyah in the fifteenth century and throughout most of its history, but livestock was raised, too. Limited trading in the Najd took place usually in the northern and central regions, where routes were marked by pilgrims from Syria and Iraq traveling to Mecca and Medina. By 1300, however, many pilgrims found it easier to go around Najd’s inhospitable desert landscape and difficult mountain barrier. Dirՙīyah, in the southern Najd, was not located on a trade or pilgrimage route and thus remained quite isolated. There was, however, some trading between the Dirՙīyah Saudi village and settlements of eastern Arabia and Kuwait and Bahrain.

There is little doubt that the Saud clan was skilled at warfare. For centuries in Arabia, there had been ongoing tribal invasion, whereby neighboring settlements were raided for their animals and other booty. Counterraids and, at times, tribal feuds, followed. Battles were frequent, fought not only for booty but also to dispel boredom and the abject poverty of brutal desert life. Fighting was small scale, however, and since rules of Arabian chivalry were well respected, few individuals were seriously injured. Indeed, raids and battles were often viewed more as sport than malicious aggression.

As the leaders of Dirՙīyah, the Saud clan certainly would have coordinated supporters and would, in turn, have served as defenders during attacks. It is also likely that the Saud Dynasty spirited their own raids on Bedouins and other settlement people. In any event, they must have been successful at warfare, for leaders of the time had to keep fighting and winning to maintain their positions, and Saudi leaders kept their stronghold for centuries.

In the fifteenth century, the clan was not called “Saud,” which is actually a given, or first, name. Surnames were not used in Arabia, but one would be known as “ibn” or “bint” (son of or daughter of), followed by one’s father’s name. The eponym for the name “Saudi Arabia” is Saud ibn Muḥammad ibn Mughrin (d. 1725), an eighth-generation descendant of Maniՙ al-Muraydi, who became emir of Dirՙīyah in the 1710’. Mughrin was not a significant historical figure, but his son, Muḥammad ibn Saud, who became emir of Dirՙīyah in 1726, combined his power with that of the strict Salafi/Wahhabi Muslim Muḥammad ibnՙAbd al-Wahhab and established the first Saudi state.

The Saud Dynasty was unable to extend its power beyond the small village of Dirՙīyah, a settlement that may have had about seventy families only, beyond the fifteenth century. When joined with Wahhabi Islam in the early 1700’, however, the Saudis began their extraordinary feat of unifying under their banner the expansive terrain and the diverse tribes of Arabia.


The Saud Dynasty, made up of descendants of a powerful Arabian confederation, has survived for hundreds of years in one of the harshest environments of the Middle East, often without adequate sustenance or supplies, and certainly without luxuries. The early twenty-first century sees the Saudis, direct descendants of ancient Arab peoples and their cultures, living in Najd still.

The Saudis also were leaders of their region for generations, a remarkable amount of time in a place where, as a matter of course, loyalty was fleeting. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries, the Saudis of Najd have never been under foreign control and have experienced little, if any, outside cultural influence.

Further Reading

  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi. A History of Saudi Arabia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. An accessible, scholarly history written by a social anthropologist.
  • Peterson, J. E. Historical Dictionary of Saudi Arabia Asian Historical Dictionaries 14. Washington, D.C.: Scarecrow Press, 1993. An excellent dictionary that includes terms, people, regions, and brief histories. Extensive bibliography.
  • Vassiliev, Alexei. The History of Saudi Arabia. London: Saqi Books, 1998. The most comprehensive history of Saudi Arabia to date. Well cited, including many Russian sources.

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May, 1485-Apr. 13, 1517: Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars