Saudi Arabia State Formation in the Middle East

State formation in Saudi Arabia centered on two main aspects – a traditional tribal society based in Najd and drastic socio-economic and political changes that occurred in the twentieth century. The process of the Saudi state formation is traced back to the period between 1744 and 1822, whereby tribes would be organized to form a chieftaincy, which acted as a political organization (Kostiner 227). Such tribal groupings re-emerged between 1823 and 1891.

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However, the contemporary Saudi state formation process started in 1902 under the leadership of Abd al-‘Aziz A1 Sa’ud (Ibn Sa’ud). The initial stages of state formation involved power-sharing deals among tribes and town dwellers under the authority of an urban-based ruler, who sat at the top of the chieftaincy. This form of social organization was not only common in Saudi Arabia, but it was also widely spread across the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, the urban-based ruler, through the chieftaincy, ensured that different segments of its structure were autonomous together with coordinating a collation based on ad hoc and personal arrangements among different leaders of the tribes. Therefore, the ruler relied heavily on the tribes to ensure the cohesion and expansion of territories for the growth of the state.

Ibn Sa’ud became the ruler of Saudi Arabia in 1902, and with the help of tribal leaders, he initiated the state-building process by taking different measures as demanded by the circumstances at the time. Tribes assumed some military roles by offering security to trade convoys and protecting the Saudi chieftain from his enemies. Besides, tribes created value systems based on the tribal segmentary organization to support the Saudi chieftaincy.

According to Kostiner, “Political decentralization, minimal administration, kin-related political behavior, social solidarity, and economic cooperation, and territoriality based on tribal grazing zones were values shared by both nomadic and sedentarized populations, whose loyalties and settling patterns were cut by segmentary lines…These values affected state formation in its different stages” (227). Ultimately, the modern Saudi state formation underwent two phases, with the first one running between the late 1910s and the 1920s, and the second one started from the 1960s and extending to the 1970s. Each period was characterized by drastic changes, thus forcing the state to adjust and adapt to the emerging occurrences.

The Main Idea from the Author

The central idea that Kostiner discusses throughout the chapter is that tribal society and values were important elements in the formation of the state in Saudi Arabia. The formation of the modern Saudi state can be traced back to 1902 when Ibn Sa’ud re-conquered Riyadh, his hometown city. He became the urban-based ruler and effectively the leader of the Saudi chieftaincy. Initially, power was shared among tribes, with each having a chieftain.

Tribes played military roles and established value systems that were used as the guiding principles on how social organization would be conducted. According to Kostiner, tribes were thus “regarded as the executors of the religious Wahhabi cause and had a strong influence on the foreign relations of the Saudi chieftaincy” (226). However, tribes were secluded from the Saudi power structure, which was mainly dominated by the Sa’ud family and few other individuals trained in religious sciences. As such, tribal chieftains did not hold any administrative posts in the Saudi power structure. However, the tribes shaped the process of forming the Saudi state, as argued by Kostiner.

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After the fall of the second Saudi state in 1891, Ibn Sa’ud learned important lessons on unifying and leading people to achieve the set objectives. The failure of the second Saudi state was caused by rivalry between tribal factions. Therefore, when Ibn Sa’ud rose to power in 1902, he sought to ensure cooperation among the different tribes coupled with the sophisticated handling of foreign relations with the surrounding powers, such as the British.

However, the emerging Saudi state was a renewed version of chieftaincy. With the growth of transit trade, the locals started demanding for improved and structured government, and Ibn Sa’ud expanded his territory to al-Ahsa (Kostiner 228). Besides, World War I changed the governance dynamics in the region as local chieftains aligned with the different warring sides. For instance, Ibn Rashid formed an alliance with the Ottomans, while the British supported Ibn Sa’ud.

The war shaped the course of the Saudi state formation significantly. Tilly argues that every “state’s particular brand of war-making depended on three closely-related factors: the character of its major rivals, the external interests of its dominant classes, and the logic of the protective activity in which rulers engaged on behalf of their own and dominant classes’ interests” (71).

In this case, the British wanted to control the spread of the Ottomans by establishing blockades in Red Sea ports. This strategy aimed at preventing goods and supplies from reaching Ottoman forces in areas such as Mesopotamia and the Hijaz (Kostiner 228). However, these developments created unpredicted problems for Ibn Sa’ud, and the responses to the emerging problems dictated the state formation process.

The rudimentary nature of the Saudi chieftaincy could not handle the changes brought by the war. For instance, tribal groupings wanted more self-reliance away from the Saudi chieftaincy and thus associated with their newfound economic allies along the emerging trade routes. Besides, tribal groups started agitating for the control of the new trade centers, and this aspect created animosity among chieftains.

Therefore, Ibn Sa’ud responded through a two-pronged approach. The first strategy involved territorial expansion in the quest to capture new strategic and commercial areas and subdue other chieftaincies through military exercises. The second approach entailed internal consolidation to counter the unreliability of the traditional tribes and create space for the integration of the conquered territories as the state prepared for a post-war era. As such, Ibn Sa’ud was moving from the chieftaincy aspect by adopting more state attributes of governance (Kostiner 228). However, the basics of chieftaincy remained intact, and they were used in the new unifying movement of conquest.

Kostiner posits, “In fact, under these circumstances, tribal power and the tribal value system were unprecedentedly salient in the Saudi state…Tribes shaped the dynamics of expansion” (229). As the warring tribes escalated conflicts across Saudi Arabia, Ibn Sa’ud was concerned that the region would be ungovernable. Therefore, in 1920, he started a campaign of war and occupation. This scenario captures the essence of how wars help in making states. According to Tilly, “Those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw the multitude of advantages of money, goods, deference, access to pleasures denied to the less powerful people” (70). Ibn Sa’ud succeeded in subduing the different dissenting tribes and consolidated the state formation process.

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However, the expansion process brought new challenges to the Saudi chieftaincy. For example, the conquered tribes became increasingly disloyal to Ibn Sa’ud and his administration. Besides, the Saudis were expected to maintain working relationships with Britain and other western entities, hence the need to establish a stable government. With new territories, the administration enjoyed more economic opportunities, and the British gave tens of thousands of sterling pounds under the subsidy to the Najd program. However, this financial aid program was stopped in 1924, and Ibn Sa’ud had to look for other ways to grow the economy (Kostiner 232).

The state-attributes of the chieftaincy grew, and “for the first time, a process of major centralization was undertaken that gave the Saudi entity one clear characteristic of a state, namely, the superiority of the central government over other groups and institutions in society” (Kostiner 233). Ibn Sa’ud then created an administrator before being crowned the King of Hijaz and Najd in 1926 and 1927, respectively. The concept of territoriality developed, and borderlines were drawn to demarcate the state of Saudi Arabia. However, the new government started practicing what North calls the predatory theory (249) to exploit the ruled people for the benefit of the ruling class through high taxation. Rebellion arose in the Hijaz, but the fully established government subdued the dissidents.

Ultimately, the formation of a new government and economic systems did not create new value systems. The Saudi regime remained a patrimonial polity characterized by personal rule and handpicked administrators based mainly on family ties. However, tribal values continued to influence Ibn Sa’ud’s polity, thus effectively leaving the old social structure intact. Policy development relied on tribal infrastructure for decision-making. While Ibn Sa’ud’s administration allowed the formation of different institutions, the real power rested with him as he advanced chieftaincy practices. A ceremonious privy council was formed, but it mainly consisted of the King’s close confidants, sons, and family members, such as Faysal, his brother.

The administration started buying loyalty from the different tribes using subsidies in what Tilly would term as racketeering, whereby governments would “offer protection against evils that they themselves would inflict or at least allow to be inflicted” (75).

With all the mentioned shortcomings, Kostiner argues that tribal values helped the state to remain functional in a society that was undergoing drastic changes (245). Therefore, tribal society and values shaped the course of state formation in Saudi Arabia as military and socio-political power instruments.

Alternative Perspective

While the view that the Saudi state-building was hinged on tribal society and values seems plausible, another perspective emerges to explain the events that culminated in modern Saudi Arabia. Renan argues that the “modern nation, therefore, is the historical result of a number of facts that have converged in the same direction” (4). In some cases, unity is achieved through a dynasty, as it happened in France. In other instances, the unity comes by the persistence of an overcoming spirit to conquer feudalism, as in Germany and Italy (Renan 4). Through defeats, Italy was unified, and Turkey fell due to its victories.

Renan claims that a “nation is above all else a dynasty representing an ancient conquest, one first accepted and then forgotten by the mass of the people” (4). However, Renan continues to argue that nations can exist without dynasties, and even those that are formed through patrimony can break free from such ideologies (5). These arguments offer a different perspective that could be used to explain the state development in Saudi Arabia.

Following Renan’s point of view, it could be argued that a confluence of social, political, cultural, and economic factors, happening concurrently or intermittently, led to the development of the Saudi state. For instance, historically, the Sa’ud lineage would assume leading roles among Saudi tribes. Individuals from the Sa’ud family led the first and second Saudi states of 1744-1822 and 1823-1891, respectively.

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Therefore, the formation of the third state by Ibn Sa’ud from 1902 to 1953 and the subsequent inheritance of the throne by his brother, Prince Faysal, was an expected outcome. While Kostiner would explain this phenomenon from a tribal perspective, it could also be seen from a social point of view. The social structure and patrimonial nature of leadership in Saudi Arabia allowed the Sa’ud family to rule and oversee the formation of the state.

Politically, World War II contributed significantly to the course that the Saudi state formation process took from the 1940s onwards. The British and the Ottomans were using Saudi Arabia to expand their interests.

Consequently, the state was divided along political and economic lines. For instance, the British supported Ibn Sa’ud while the Ottomans formed an alliance with Ibn Rashid. Consequently, the country was falling apart, and thus the chieftaincy had to assert its authority and create a functional government to prevent further societal divisions and chaos. Ultimately, a government was formed, thus shaping the state formation process in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, tribal groupings played insignificant roles in determining the outcome of the war between the British and the Ottomans.

Economically, as the government started to grow, it had to be funded. At first, the British offered aid through the subsidy to the Najd program, even though it was suspended in 1924 (Kostiner 232). Afterward, Ibn Sa’ud started exploring other means of funding his government, and taxation was one of the options. Through the predatory theory, as explained by North (248), the government started exploiting its subjects by imposing high taxes to fund its activities.

Consequently, the structure of the state continued to take shape with the establishment of legal and monetary institutions to allow the smooth operation of the government. As such, as in the case of the political aspect, the economic factors contributed to the shaping of the development of the Saudi state independent of the tribal groupings. Therefore, it suffices to argue that Kostiner’s view on the Saudi state development is one of the many explanations of what might have happened in the country.

My Argument

From my perspective and understanding of Kostiner’s work and other course materials, I think the Saudi state development was a function of social, economic, cultural, and political factors. The Sa’ud family rose to power by virtue of being part of the hierarchical ruling class. By the time Ibn Sa’ud was born in 1881, his family had already tried to establish state governance in Saudi Arabia twice. Therefore, he easily seized power in 1902 by re-conquering Riyadh, his hometown city, and expanding territories with time.

In the 1920s, a formal form of government was required to rule over people based on the societal dynamics at the time. Numerous revolts were being experienced, and the region would have descended into chaos and become ungovernable if a functional government had not been put in place. The world “economic crisis of the early 1930s dealt a severe blow to the Saudi economy” (Kostiner 236). Consequently, Ibn Sa’ud was forced to create institutions to oversee the monetary welfare of the country.

During the Second World War, the evolving Saudi state was caught in power struggles between the British and the Ottomans. This aspect deepened the divisions across the country, thus necessitating the strengthening of the government structures to ensure cohesion in society. In the post-war era and with the death of Ibn Sa’ud, Prince Faysal took over the leadership of an already formed and functional state. He strengthened the institutions that define a state and sought international relations as the government of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the Saudi state development process occurred through socio-economic, cultural, and political aspects.


Nations take different routes to statehood, and the involved processes could be interpreted from different perspectives. In the case of Saudi Arabia, some authors, such as Kostiner, argue that tribal societies and values played a central role in the shaping of the state formation process. Based on this argument, tribal groupings informed decision-making at the different stages of state development, starting from 1744 when the first attempt was made to unite and govern the country.

However, the process could be explained using alternative views, such as Renan’s arguments. In this case, the state development process is a confluence of different historical factors. My opinion is that social, cultural, political, and economic aspects converged at different times throughout the history of the Saudi state formation process to create the modern state of Saudi Arabia.

Works Cited

Kostiner, Joseph. “Transforming Dualities: Tribe and State Formation in Saudi Arabia.” Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East, edited by Philip S. Khoury and Joseph Kostiner, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 226-252.

North, Douglass. “A Neoclassical Theory of the State.” pp. 248-259.

Renan, Earnest. “What is a Nation.” pp. 1-11.

Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital and the European States, A.D.990-1990. Blackwell, 1992.

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