لا إله إلا الله: محمد رسول الله
La Ilaha Illa Allah, Muhammad Rasulu Allah
“There is no god but God: Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
——the Muslim creed as inscribed on the flag of Saudi Arabia
About the Saudi Speakers Bureau...
"We pursue this goal believing that knowledge and understanding bring light to the world, drive away the shadow of ignorance and lead us out of the dark land of misunderstanding. Embracing this position, we begin with a look at the long and varied history of Saudi Arabia, a rich, vibrant tale unique among the nations of the world."
Since that time, many Aramcons and former Aramcons have used information from the Speakers Bureau to make presentations all over the world.
For readers who have not visited the Speakers Bureau, we plan to share with you in this and coming issues of the newsletter some of the stories found there. We begin with an excerpt from a general overview of the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here follows Part I of what will be a multi-part series of articles on that important subject.
An Overview of the History of Saudi Arabia
Oasis in Saudi Desert
The Empty Quarter
What’s In a Name?
When people the world over speak of Arabs, Arabia, and Saudi Arabia, few non-Arabs realize the significant history underlying these words. Likewise, geographically, as a rule most people place Saudi Arabia squarely within a region referred to by common acclaim by English speakers as “the Middle East,” by French speakers as “la Moyen-Orient,” and by German speakers as “der Mittlerer Osten”—three terms in three languages sharing the same meaning. Again, few who use any of these variations give much thought as to why we call this part of the world just this. A curious person might rightfully ask two questions: the first, "The middle of what?” and the second, “East of where?”
The earliest known use of the word "Arab" dates from ancient Assyria in the ninth century BCE. Variations punctuate classical literature thereafter. The term is thought by some scholars to be derived from a Semitic root associated with nomadism. Signs of the use of the closely-related word "Arabia" followed soon thereafter. While describing ancient Egypt in the times of the pharaohs, the fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus—often referred to as the “father of history”—wrote of the geography of the neighboring land of Arabia:
From Heliopolis however, as you go up, Egypt is narrow; for on the one side a mountain-range belonging to Arabia stretches along by the side of it, going in a direction from the North towards the midday and the South Wind, tending upwards without a break to that which is called the Erythraian Sea...and where it is widest, as I was informed, it is a journey of two months across from East to West; and the borders of it which turn towards the East are said to produce frankincense. Such then is the nature of this mountain-range.
The term Arabia historically has referred not only to the Arabian Peninsula proper, but also variously to adjacent lands and waters, sometimes extending to the west as far as the Nile River, to the north as far as the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and to the east beyond the Tigris–Euphrates Rivers, covering the entirety of the area known to history as the “Fertile Crescent.”
Landscape on the Caravan Route
Map of Ancient Caravan Routes
In modern times, the term has been attached more narrowly to the world’s largest peninsula, a boot-shaped land mass bordered on three sides by water—by the Red Sea to the west, by the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the east, and by the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden to the south. This vast expanse, almost 1.3 million square miles (over 2 million square kilometers) in size,is the twenty-first century home to nine Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen. At 830,000 square miles (over 1.3 million square kilometers), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is by far the largest of the nine, roughly one-third the size of the continental United States, making it the fourteenth largest country in the world in terms of area.
Turning to another point of geography, we pose the question, How is it that we bundle together in our minds the countries of the Arabian Peninsula with a cluster of others to the north as far as Syria, to the east as far as Iran, and to the west as far as Egypt and refer to them collectively as the “Middle East?” This expression reflects a European perspective, owing its ubiquitous usage to the predominance in modern times of the western political powers with their western-leaning cultural viewpoints. Turning in the direction of the rising sun, Europeans considered the distant lands of China and Japan and Korea as being in the “Far East.” As a derivative of that mentality, by the nineteenth century they came to view Arabia as part of the “Near East” or, using this century’s current moniker of choice, the “Middle East.”
In 2004, the Group of 8 (“G8”) expanded the concept of the Middle East still further, declaring that there is a “Greater Middle East” extending to the west all the way to Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania on the northwest Atlantic coast of Africa. To the east, it reaches Pakistan and Afghanistan at the western borders of India and China in Asia. To the south, their vision now includes Sudan and Somalia. Later, the G8 expanded its definition still further, incorporating Turkey and the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus region and middle Asia into the mix. One dominant common element shared by all of the countries now included by the G8’s definition of the Middle East is their Islamic heritage. Another, with varied tones, is language.
Vintage Illustrated Map of Arabia
Map of Arabia According to Ptolemy
In his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence, widely known to history as Lawrence of Arabia, described the common heritage of the Arabs in this way:
A first difficulty...was to say who the Arabs were. ...Once it meant an Arabian. There was a country called Arabia... There was a language called Arabic, and in it lay the test. It was the current tongue [in 1916] of Syria and Palestine, of Mesopotamia, and of the great peninsula called Arabia on the map. Before the Moslem conquest, these areas were inhabited by diverse peoples, speaking languages of the Arabic family. We called them Semitic. ...Arabic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac were related tongues; and indications of common influences in the past, or even of a common origin, were strengthened by our knowledge that the appearances and customs of the present Arabic-speaking peoples of Asia, while as varied as a field full of poppies, had an equal and essential likeness. We might with perfect propriety call them cousins....”
A Saudi living in one of the four great cities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today—Jeddah, Makkah, Riyadh, and Madinah—could reasonably argue that his country, based on religion and history, deserves consideration as the center or middle of the world. Italy, France, America, and their brethren are from a Saudi’s standpoint the West, while India, China, Japan and their kindred nations to him are the East, leaving his own Arabian Peninsula as the central fulcrum upon which the world balances. Given the vital importance to the world economy of the vast oil and gas reserves located there, the Arabian Peninsula arguably is the pivot point of modern history. Today the Arabic equivalent of “Middle East” in common usage is “ash-sharq-l-awsat” (Arabic: اﻟﺷرق اﻷوﺳط). Regardless of our location or choice of direction and perspective, we all live in the same world and, in the eyes of the three great monotheistic religions that originated in Arabia—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—we are all children of one God.
Global View of the Expanded Greater Middle East
Map of the World Based on Herodotus
Labels like the “Middle East” are just that, labels. Look beyond labels if you truly want to understand another country or culture or people. Realize that labels are flat, two-dimensional objects, measured quantitatively by length and width. Life, in contrast, is multi-dimensional, adding the third quantitative element of height to the calculation as well as a host of qualitative factors as diverse as the earth around us. The richness of Saudi Arabia begins to come alive when we set aside simplistic labels and explore up close its many facets.