Archaeological evidence points to ancient trade ties between Yemen and the NE African coast. However, little is definitely known of Arabian history in the period preceding the oldest inscriptions discovered—those dating from c.1000 B.C. In those times much of SW Arabia was divided among the domains of Ma'in, Sheba, and Himyar. Political unity in Sheba seems to have been hastened by Darius's conquest of N Arabia.
No ancient power ever attempted the complete conquest of Arabia because of the formidable obstacles of crossing the deserts. Rome invaded (24 B.C.) N Arabia but soon withdrew, although for a long period it held N Hejaz. Ethiopia, during its great expansion under the Aksumite kings (see Aksum), twice (A.D. 300–378 and 525–70) held Yemen and the Hadhramaut. In 570 the Sassanids of Persia drove out the Ethiopians and established a short-lived hegemony over the peninsula.
Arabia was briefly unified after the founding of Islam by Muhammad, the prophet of Mecca, in the 7th cent. His dynamic faith, furthered by his successors, reconciled the warring Arab tribes and soon sent them out on a career of conquest. They overran N Africa and SW Asia and gained control of Spain and S France until they were stopped in the west by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel in 732 and in the east by the Byzantine Empire c.750. However, the tremendous territorial expansion of Islam diminished its exclusively Arab character, and the need for a more centralized administrative center led to the transfer of the seat of the caliphate from Medina to Damascus. Independent emirates arose in Yemen, Oman, and elsewhere. In the 10th cent. a semblance of unity was imposed by the Karmathians, a Muslim sect, but in the 11th cent. anarchic conditions again prevailed.
After the discovery of the route to India around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, European powers were attracted to Arabia as a site for trading bases. The Portuguese seized Oman in 1508 but were driven out in 1659 by the Ottoman Empire, which attempted, but never with complete success, to control all Arabia. Great Britain established a physical presence in Arabia in 1799 by occupying Perim Island in the Bab al-Mandeb; and in 1839 the Ottoman Empire lost Aden to the British. In 1853 Britain and the E Arabian sheikhs signed the Perpetual Maritime Truce, by which the Arabs agreed not to harass British shipping in the Arabian Sea and recognized Britain as the dominant foreign power in the Persian Gulf. The truce confirmed the temporary truces of 1820 and 1835; the sheikhdoms were thus called the Trucial States.
Arab nationalist opposition to the Ottoman Turks was aroused in the mid-19th cent. by a rekindling of the Wahhabi, a reform movement within Islam; it waned toward the end of the century. Just before World War I, Ibn Saud revived Wahhabi ideology, and during the war he signed a military pact with Britain against the Turks. His strongest rival, Husayn ibn Ali of the influential Hashemite family, led a successful revolt against the Turks in the Hejaz and set up an independent state there. After the war, however, the Saud family prevailed in a violent struggle against Husayn and other Arab families, and Ibn Saud was proclaimed king of the Hejaz in 1926. In 1932 the Hejaz and outlying areas were incorporated officially into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Hashemites were rewarded for their war efforts on behalf of the Allies by being installed in Transjordan and Iraq. Between the world wars, Britain was the dominant foreign power in Arabia, holding protectorates over the Arab sheikhdoms. The post–World War II era witnessed a significant decline of Britain's presence, culminating in the withdrawal of British military forces E of Suez in the late 1960s.
Both the United States and the USSR sought to fill the vacuum created by Britain's withdrawal from the oil-rich, strategically important peninsula. By the early 1970s, however, the Arab nations were asserting their independence with growing success, primarily due to the enormous oil revenues brought to many of the Arabian countries. The Arab oil boycott in 1973, marked by international oil price increases (particularly notable in the United States), exemplified growing Arabian economic power. By the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia had acquired complete control of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), which had first discovered oil there in the 1930s and was previously owned by American firms. The economic power of the Arabian countries has continued to grow as oil exports have increased. These countries account for some of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Although they were only peripherally involved in the Arab-Israeli Wars, Arabian oil interests were dangerously threatened as a result of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). The area became directly involved militarily and territorially after Iraq invaded Kuwait in Aug., 1990. (see Kuwait and Persian Gulf War).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.