Most westerners know comparatively little is about Saudi Arabia and the House of Saud which rules it. Yet western powers - first Britain, then the United States - have been instrumental in elevating the House of Saud to the position it currently occupies and in maintaining its rule against all odds. In return, the House of Saud has acted in support of western policy objectives in the region and, crucially, helped to ensure an almost constant flow of cheap oil. However, they are hardly ideal partners in a ‘war on terrorism’ that, ideologically, has been wrapped in ‘democratic’ packaging. It is a cruel despotism and worse it provides ideological and logistical succor to the most extremist forms of Islam.
All this belies the family's rather humble origins as one tribe amongst the many vying for power and influence on the Arabian peninsula; in 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud was a tribal chief and ruler of Dir’aiyah (a village now on the outskirts of the current Saudi capital, Riyadh). He allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a conservative religious thinker; Wahhab gave his name to Wahhabism. Wahhabism was and is a particularly puritanical version of Islam that put a stress on the purity of religious practice, conservative social standards and the unity of one god.
From their base in Dir’aiyah the Saudis (here meaning members of the Al-Saud tribe, not Saudi Arabians) expanded their influence steadily through the region. A clutch of cities fell under their domination. However, the area was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali, a governor of Cairo and Ottoman satrap, was instructed by his masters to put down the irksome Saudi insurgency. Eventually his son, Ibrahim Pasha, drove the Saudis back to Dir’aiyah, which in 1819 was razed to the ground. Though the Al-Sauds surfaced again in 1845 - ruling Riyadh until 1891, when it fell to the Al-Rashid family - they were eventually driven into exile in Kuwait.
However, by the end of the 19th century the star of the Ottomans had waned. All of its borders were threatened. The Balkan countries rose in open revolt and, encouraged by the big European powers, started to create a whole patchwork of rival nation states. To the east, tsarist Russia was encroaching on its territory, defeating the Ottomans in 1877. Britain and France looked to extend their empires in the near-east. Britain successfully invaded Egypt in 1881 and France invaded Tunisia during the same year. Internally, the Caliphate was wracked by dissent and bureaucratic intrigue.