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King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud

The founder of Saudi Arabia, King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud, changed the history of the Arabian Peninsula with a unifying religious faith, deft, inclusive politics, and a courageous and inspiring personality. Reestablishing his family's rule, he laid the cornerstone of a modern nation. 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud was in the sixth generation in direct descent from Sa'ud ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin, who died in 1725 and from whom the Al Sa'ud and Saudi Arabia take their names.

The founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia not only recovered the territory of the first Al Saud empire, but made a state out of it. Abd al Aziz did this by maneuvering among a number of forces. The first was the religious fervor that Wahhabi Islam continued to inspire. His Wahhabi army, the Ikhwan, for instance, represented a powerful tool, but one that proved so difficult to control that the ruler ultimately had to destroy it. At the same time, Abd al Aziz had to anticipate the manner in which events in Arabia would be viewed abroad and allow foreign powers, particularly the British, to have their way.

Abd al Aziz restored the family from virtual political extinction by reintroducing the crusading zeal of Wahhabi Islam. Abd al Aziz established the Saudi state in three stages, namely, by retaking Najd in 1905, defeating the Shammar clan at Hail in 1921, and conquering the Hijaz in 1924.

At the time of 'Abd al-'Aziz's birth in 1880 or thereabouts, central Arabia had fallen into political fragmentation, and the Al Sa'ud in Riyadh were engaged in a power struggle with the rulers of the city of Hayil, the al-Rashids. This conflict led 'Abd al-' Aziz's father, 'Abd al-Rahman, to evacuate his family from Riyadh in 1891.

Among Abdulrahman's followers into exile was his teenage son named Abdulaziz, a tall young man who was already distinguishing himself as a fierce warrior for Islam and a natural leader of men. Unable to contain his boundless energy in the confines of Kuwait City, he sought permission from his father to embark on what seemed like a suicidal mission: to head out leading a small force of men in an attempt to retake Riyadh.

In 1893, the Al Sa'ud were invited to Kuwait by its ruler, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Sabah. By now 'Abd al-'Aziz was a young man, conspicuously tall and strong, and he soon became great friends with Shaykh Muhammad's half-brother, Mubarak. After Mubarak seized power from his brother, 'Abd al-'Aziz was invited to attend the daily majlis, or royal audience, at which petitions were presented and grievances heard.

The seizure of Najd by the al-Rashids was a perpetual source of pain to him and his father, to whom he was very close. Najd had been central to the first and second Saudi states, and its loss engendered a deep sense of resolve in 'Abd al-'Aziz to act to recover his patrimony, to restore the Al Sa'ud to the leadership of central Arabia.

In the first phase, Abd al Aziz acted as tribal leaders had acted for centuries. Twenty-one-year-old Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud left Kuwait in 1901, determined to recapture all of the territory once held by his forefathers and to extend his protection over the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. In early 1901, 'Abd al-'Aziz joined a raid led by Shaykh Mubarak from Kuwait into the Rashids' territory and took advantage of it to attempt to seize Riyadh. He besieged its fortress and held the city for three months before withdrawing. After that, he immediately began planning for a new offensive.

Taking advantage of the fact that most of the Rashid forces were deployed in a counterattack against Kuwait, he undertook the daring raid in early 1902. In the beginning he was accompanied by 40 men, including members of his family. At the eve of the 5th of Shawwal the number of men accompanying King 'Abd al-'Aziz had increased to 63. Traveling at night and away from the main caravan routes to avoid detection, he reached the city, which was garrisoned by a large hostile force, and recaptured it in 1902 with only 40 men.

Welcomed as a returning leader, he later that day led Riyadh's inhabitants in prayer. Aware of the importance of keeping his grip on Riyadh, he immediately began repairs to the city walls. He also set about gaining the allegiance of the local populace and forged alliances with local tribes to undermine the Rashids' political power base. One of his first tasks was to establish himself in Riyadh as the Al Saud leader and the Wahhabi imam. Abd al Aziz obtained the support of the religious establishment in Riyadh, and this relatively swift recognition revealed the political force of Wahhabi authority. Leadership in this tradition did not necessarily follow age, but it respected lineage and, particularly, action. Despite his relative youth, by taking Riyadh Abd al Aziz had showed he possessed the qualities the tribes valued in a leader.

With Saudi rule firmly reestablished in their ancient capital, Abdulaziz began what turned out to be a 30-year struggle to reunite the tribes and city dwellers into what became the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Ibn Sa'ud was anti-Turkish, but also anti-British, anti-Sherifian, anti-Shammar and leader of the puritanical Wahhabi sect (who rejected all luxury and the worship of saints, including Mohammed). However, he was also anxious to be on the winning side.

By 1905 the Ottoman governor in Iraq recognized Abd al Aziz as an Ottoman client in Najd. The Al Saud ruler accepted Ottoman suzerainty because it improved his political position. Nevertheless he made concurrent overtures to the British to rid Arabia of Ottoman influence.

Ibn Rashid of the Shammar saw an alliance with the Turks as the best way to remain independent from the Sherif and from Ibn Sa'ud of Riyadh. Open conflict between Al Sa'ud and the al-Rashids ended with the death in battle of Ibn Rashid in 1906, and the al-Rashids withdrew to their power base in Hayil, in northwestern Arabia. Often, 'Abd al-'Aziz took wives from the ranks of those he had defeated. Such actions were primarily political, part of 'Abd al-'Aziz's overall strategy of inclusion rather than division. This even extended to the al-Rashids, who continued to skirmish with 'Abd al-'Aziz through the early 1920's. Ever mindful of the need to keep an eye on one's potential foes, 'Abd al-'Aziz later welcomed the surviving members of the al-Rashids into his court, where they remained and were treated well, as befitted their noble status.

'Abd al-'Aziz then turned his attention to other centers of opposition, and over the next few years, he personally led his men to victory on many occasions.

Following the Young Turk coup of 1908, the Ottomans abandoned their pluralistic and pan-Islamic policies, instead pursuing a policy of secular Turkish nationalism. The formerly cosmopolitan and tolerant Ottoman Empire began overtly discriminating against its non-Turkish inhabitants. Arabs in particular were faced with political, cultural and linguistic persecution. During this time, Arab nationalist groups in Syria, Iraq and Arabia began to rally. When the Ottomans entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers in 1914, they arrested many Arab nationalist figures in Damascus and Beirut. Arabs were further threatened by the construction of the Hijaz Railway, connecting Damascus and Mecca, which promised to facilitate the mobility of Turkish troops into the Arab heartland.

Desperate to court him once war with the Turks became a reality in 1914, the British Government engaged in a long-term strategic relationship that benefited both sides: British support aided the Saudis in their efforts to reunify the country, which meant driving the Turks from the region, and the rising Arabian polity that resulted meant that Britain could look upon a friendly government in a part of the world that the British regarded as essential to the defense of the centerpiece of their empire -India.

In 1913 'Abd al-'Aziz marched dramatically onto the international stage, seizing first the Turkish garrison at Hofuf and then the coastal towns of al-'Uqayr and Qatif, thus winning control of the Gulf coast. With this campaign, he brought into the Saudi remit an area that was, by virtue of its oil reserves, to provide unparalleled wealth for his nation in later years.

About this time, the Ikhwan movement began to emerge among the beduin. The Ikhwan movement spread Wahhabi Islam among the nomads. Stressing the same strict adherence to religious law that Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab had preached, Ikhwan beduin abandoned their traditional way of life in the desert and move to an agricultural settlement called a hijra. The word hijra was related to the term for the Prophet's emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622, conveying the sense that one who settles in a hijra moves from a place of unbelief to a place of belief. By moving to the hijra the Ikhwan intended to take up a new way of life and dedicate themselves to enforcing a rigid Islamic orthodoxy. Once in the hijra the Ikhwan became extremely militant in enforcing upon themselves what they believed to be correct sunna (custom) of the Prophet, enjoining public prayer, mosque attendance, and gender segregation and condemning music, smoking, alcohol, and technology unknown at the time of the Prophet. They attacked those who refused to conform to Wahhabi interpretations of correct Islamic practice and tried to convert Muslims by force to their version of Wahhabism. The Ikhwan looked eagerly for the opportunity to fight nonWahhabi Muslims--and non-Muslims as well--and they took Abd al Aziz as their leader in this. By 1915 there were more than 200 hujar in and around Najd and nearly 100,000 Ikhwan waiting for a chance to fight.

Relying on the Ottomans to maintain stability in the Middle East before the war, Britain had earlier disdained a pact with Abd al Aziz, but after Britain's declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire in October 1914, the British sought an alliance with the House of Saud. By a treaty signed in December 1914, the British recognized Saudi independence from the Ottoman Empire and provided Abd al Aziz with financial subsidies and small arms. As his part of the agreement, Abd al Aziz promised to keep 4,000 men in the field against the House of Rashid, which was associated with the Ottomans.

In 1915 Abd al Aziz had various goals: he wanted to take Hail from the Al Rashid, to extend his control into the northern deserts in present-day Syria and Jordan, and to take over the Hijaz and the Persian Gulf coast. The British, however, had become more and more involved in Arabia because of World War I, and Abd al Aziz had to adjust his ambitions to British interests. The British prevented the Al Saud from taking over much of the gulf coast where they had established protectorates with several ruling dynasties. They also opposed Abd al Aziz's efforts to extend his influence beyond the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi deserts because of their own imperial interests.

To the west, the British were allied with the Sharif family who ruled the Hijaz from their base in Mecca. The British encouraged the Sharif family to revolt against the Ottomans and so open a second front against them in World War I. Seeing an opportunity to liberate Arab lands from Turkish oppression, and trusting the honor of British officials who promised their support for a unified kingdom for the Arab lands, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs (and great grandfather of King Hussein), launched the Great Arab Revolt during the Great War. In 1916, the then Grand Hussein ibn Ali, proclaimed the independence Sharif of the Arabs. Although he initially assumed the leadership of all the Arabs, the lack of allied recognition and opposition from Imam Yahya of Yemen and ibn Saud of Najd, resulted in his recognition as King of Hijaz alone.

In this situation, Abd al Aziz had no choice but to focus his attentions on Hail. Bolstered by Ikhwan forces, Saudi control was extended to the outskirts of Hail, the Rashidi capital, by 1917. This caused problems with the Ikhwan because, unlike Mecca and Medina, Hail had no religious significance and the Wahhabis had no particular quarrel with the Rashidi clan who controlled it.

The Sharif family in Mecca, however, was another story. The Wahhabis had long borne a grudge against the Sharif because of their traditional opposition to Wahhabism. The ruler, Hussein, had made the situation worse by forbidding the Ikhwan to make the pilgrimage and then seeking non-Muslim, British help against the Muslim Ottomans.

When the Ottoman sultan, who had held the title of caliph, was deposed at the end of World War I, the Sharif took the title for himself. He had hoped that the new honor would gain him greater Muslim support, but the opposite happened. Many Muslims were offended that Hussein should handle Muslim tradition in such cavalier fashion and began to object strongly to his rule. To make matters worse for Hussein, the British were no longer willing to prop him up after the war. Abd al Aziz's efforts to control the Ikhwan in Transjordan as well as his accommodation of British interests in the gulf had proved to them he could act responsibly.

After the conclusion of the war, the victors reneged on their promises to the Arabs, carving from the dismembered Ottoman lands a patchwork system of mandates and protectorates. Armed conflict with the Saudis continued after the conclusion of the Great War, eventually forcing Hussein to give up his throne in favour of his eldest son, Ali. King Ali's younger brothers, Abdullah and Faisal, had become Amir of Transjordan (later King of Jordan) and King of Iraq, respectively. While the colonial powers denied the Arabs their promised single unified Arab state, it is nevertheless testimony to the effectiveness of the Great Arab Revolt that the Hashemite family was able to secure Arab rule over Transjordan, Iraq and Arabia.

Turkey's defeat in World War I left a political vacuum that 'Abd al-'Aziz had been readying himself to fill for some time. In 1919 the Ikhwan completely destroyed an army that Hussein had sent against them near the town of Turabah, which lay on the border between the Hijaz and Najd. The Ikhwan so completely decimated the Sharif's troops that there were no forces left to defend the Hijaz, and the entire area cowered under the threat of a Wahhabi attack. By 1920 he had assumed control over 'Asir in the southwest and over the al-Rashid stronghold of Hayil in the north. He was then able to turn his attention to the Hijaz, in which were located the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and the major port of Jiddah. Abd al Aziz restrained the Ikhwan and managed to direct them toward Hail, which they took easily in 1921. The Ikhwan went beyond Hail, however, and pushed into central Transjordan where they challenged Hussein's son, Abd Allah, whose rule the British were trying to establish after the war. At this point, Abd al Aziz again had to rein in his troops to avoid further problems with the British. The British-brokered 1922 Treaty of Uqair, which defined the boundaries of Iraq and Kuwait, was aimed primarily at containing Saudi expansion into territories ruled by Britain's protegés, a fact that is now often forgotten.

By 1924, when the Ikhwan had conquered the Hijaz, almost all the territory of the present-day Saudi state was under Abd al Aziz's authority. The Al Saud conquest of the Hijaz had been possible since the battle at Turabah in 1919. Abd al Aziz had been waiting for the right moment and in 1924, he found it. The British did not encourage him to move into Mecca and Medina, but they also gave no indication that they would oppose him. So the Wahhabi armies took over the area with little opposition. The Hashemites suffered a major blow when King Ali bin al-Hussein, the eldest brother of Abdullah and Faisal, lost the throne of the Kingdom of the Hijaz to Abdel Aziz bin Saud of Najd. Ali ibn Hussein, King of the Hijaz and Grand Sharif of Mecca, had experienced no success against ibn Saud and was himself forced to evacuate Mecca and Medina on 19 December 1925, so as to avoid bloodshed and profanation of the Holy cities. The loss, which was brought about by a partnership between Ibn Saud and followers of the Wahhabi movement, led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and brought to an end over one thousand years of Hashemite rule in Mecca.

When he became the ruler of Mecca and Medina as well, Abd al Aziz took on the responsibilities of Khadim al Haramayn (servant of the two shrines) and so assumed an important position in the wider Muslim world. Finally, by maintaining his authority under pressure from the Western powers, Abd al Aziz had become the only truly independent Arab leader after World War I. Thus, he had a role to play in Arab politics as well.

Abd al Aziz was careful not to make more enemies than necessary--and he tried to make those enemies he had into friends. One can see this clearly in his handling of his two rivals from World War I, the Rashidi of Hail and the Sharif of Mecca. After conquering Hail, Abd al Aziz reestablished the marriage links that his ancestor, Turki, had first forged between the two families by marrying three of the Rashidi widows into his family. He made a similar effort to gain the favor of the Hashimites after taking the Hijaz. Rather than expelling the family as a future threat, Abd al Aziz gave some of its members large tracts of land, enabling them to stay in the area and prosper.

On September 23, 1932, Abdel Aziz bin Saud proclaimed this territory the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and himself its king.

Abd al Aziz assured himself the continued loyalty of those who had been allied with him by granting them what favors he could. This was difficult, however, because the new Saudi kingdom had little money in its first twenty years. The event that was to change all this was the discovery of massive oil reserves in the kingdom.

Looking for a foreign company to help develop the Kingdom's oil reserves, King Abdulaziz chose not one of the many British firms that were already working in the region - in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain - but an American company, a choice made over the objections of Britain, then the dominant global power. The granting of the oil concession on July 7, 1933, to Standard Oil of California, which would evolve into the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), was followed in November of the same year by the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In February 1945, King Abdulaziz met separately with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill along the Suez Canal. The main topic of conversation was the future of the Middle East in the post-war era. The meeting between King Abdulaziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Febuary 14, 1945 set the stage for close Saudi-U.S. relations. While Ibn Saud was angered by the United States' acceptance of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, he overruled Prince Faisal's call for breaking diplomatic relations with America.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:39:25 ZULU