The Western Influence on the Formation of Saudi Ar

abia from 1902 – 1926The area that is currently Saudi Arabia was originally part of the Turkish
Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, after the capture of Mecca by the
Turks in 1517, but local rulers were allowed a great deal of autonomy and
ruled their relative territories unhindered. ( 3) Under
Turkish supervision, different Sherifs of Mecca governed the territory of
Hejaz. Furthermore, this covered the western part of the peninsula
including the Red Sea coast, including the holy places of Mecca and Medina,
until the onset of World War I.

Saudi Arabia was one of the Arab states that emerged from the wreckage of
the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Between the years 1919 to 1926,
Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud defeated a series of rivals to unify about 80 percent
of the Arabian Peninsula under his rule in what was called the “Kingdom of
the Hejaz and Nejd.” (Kort 194) The last unsuccessful challenger was the
leader of the Hashemite family, Hussein Ibn Ali who was the great-
grandfather of Jordan’s King Hussein. (Kort 194)
Several important factors distinguish Saudi Arabia from its neighbors.

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Unlike other states in the area, Saudi Arabia has never been under the
direct control of a European power. ( 2) It is during
the period just prior to and following World War I that the West imparts
the greatest impact on the formation of the current Saudi state. Tribal
loyalties also play an important role in these countries and one of the
leading tribal leaders in this period, Abdul Aziz, proved to be quite adept
at playing the great powers of Britain and the Turkish Ottoman Empire
against one another to suit the needs of his cause.

The founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia lived much of his early
life in exile. In the end, however, he not only recovered the territory of
the first Al Saud empire, but also made a state out of it. Abdul Aziz
accomplished 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
was to prove so difficult to control that the he ultimately had to destroy
it. (Lacey 219) At the same time, Abdul Aziz had to anticipate how all
these actions would be viewed abroad and to handle the great foreign
powers, particularly the British.

Abdul Aziz managed to complete the establishment of the Saudi state in
three ways, “by retaking Najd in 1905, defeating the Rashidi clan at Hail
in 1921, and conquering the Hijaz in 1924.” ( 1) To the
first point of retaking the Najd, Abdul did what tribal leaders had been
doing for centuries. He raised a small force from the surrounding tribes
and began to raid areas under Rashidi control, which was north of his
birthright of Riyadh. Then in early 1902, he led a small party in a
surprise attack on the Rashidi stronghold in Riyadh in order to oust the

The successful attack gave Abdul Aziz a good start in Najd. But first he
had to establish himself in Riyadh as the Al Saud leader and the Wahhabi
Imam or political and religious leader. Abdul Aziz obtained the support of
the religious establishment in Riyadh, and this relatively quick
recognition proved the political force of the Wahhabi authority. Despite
his relative youth, Abdul Aziz showed he possessed the qualities the tribes
valued in a leader by taking Riyadh. Leadership in these countries did not
necessarily follow age, but it respected lineage and, particularly, action.

By 1905 the Ottoman governor in Iraq recognized Abdul Aziz as an Ottoman
client in Najd. The Al Saud ruler accepted Ottoman suzerainty because it
improved his political position. All the while he courted the British for
recognition and protection in order to rid Arabia of Ottoman influence.

( 3) Finally, in 1913, Abdul Aziz’s armies drove the
Ottomans out of Al Hufuf in eastern Arabia and without British assistance.

This helped to strengthen his position in Najd.

In 1914, as the war was escalating and it looked as if the Ottoman Empire
would enter the war, there was concern by Britain. It was a common British
concern that if the Ottoman Empire entered the war, they would launch an
attack against the Suez Canal. (Fromkin 100) Due to this concern there
were several of the British agents stationed in Egypt at the time who
determined to arouse the Arabians against the Turks.

In 1914 the British armed forces chief, Lord Kitchener, offered the Sherif
of Mecca a deal in which the Hijaz would acquire independence, guaranteed
by the UK, on condition that the Sherif support the British in the war and
oppose the Turks. (Columbus World Travel Guide 1) The Sherif accepted and,
after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hijaz was recognized
as independent in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

However, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, the British government
officials in India recognized Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud as possessor of the Najd
and some other territories along the Persian Gulf. In 1916, Abdul Aziz
concluded another treaty with Britain, which recognized him as the sole
ruler of Najd and Al Hasa. This agreement gave him the right to oust the
remaining members of the Rashidi family. He did so and by 1918 his
authority would reach the outskirts of Hail to the north and the capital of
the Rashidi family. ( 1)
Britain’s allegiances to two tribal leaders represent how disunited and
deceiving the British had become in their affairs with the Arabian people.

British government officials in Cairo and in India were making promises to
tribal leaders on each coast. The ultimate goal for the British was not to
occupy Arabia or to incorporate them into the empire but to keep others
from doing so. They did, however, see their assistance as critical in
keeping the Ottomans down. A further goal was to keep other powers such as
Russia out of the area as well. They were ignorant to what resources might
be there as were its inhabitants.

When Lord Kitchener made his promises to the Sherif of Mecca, promising to
make him Caliph or religious leader over all Arabia they had no idea the
impact this would have in the Muslim world. The British saw this as equal
to making him “Pope” of the Arab world. They did not understand that for
Muslims, the only law was Islamic or religious law and therefore the Caliph
was not merely the religious leader but the political leader and the
central figure. This action called for all Muslims to recognize the
authority of Sherif Hussein. For his chief rival, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, a
puritanical Wahhabi, this would be impossible.

Throughout the 1920’s, military clashes between Ibn Saud’s troops and
forces loyal to the Hashemite King of Hijaz, Hussein, grew more frequent as
the struggle for decisive control of the Arabian Peninsula took place.

Additionally, weak administration by the Ottoman Empire was making it easy
for the Arab tribal leaders to use this weakness to their advantage and
playing Britain against the Turks. To expand their influence the leaders
would tell tales to the British and the Ottomans to force attacks on their
rivals, win support or escape retribution. (Anscombe 172)
Furthermore, in the 1920’s, the Ikhwan movement began to emerge among the
Bedouin, or nomadic tribes. The Ikhwan movement spread Wahhabi Islam among
the nomads. Stressing the same strict adherence to religious law of the
Wahhabi sect, Ikhwan Bedouin abandoned their traditional way of life in the
desert and move to an agricultural settlement called a hijra. (Lacey 143)
The word hijra was related to the term for the Prophet’s emigration from
Mecca to Medina in the year 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. (Fromkin 425)
Once in the hijra the Ikhwan became extremely militant. Enforcing upon
themselves what they believed to be correct custom of the Prophet,
enjoining public prayer, mosque attendance, gender segregation and
condemning music, smoking, alcohol, and technology unknown at the time of
the Prophet. ( 3) 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 non-Wahhabi Muslims
and non-Muslims as well and they looked at Abdul Aziz as their leader. By
1915 there were nearly 100,000 Ikhwan waiting for a chance to fight. This
provided Abdul Aziz with a powerful weapon, but his situation demanded that
he use it carefully. In 1915 Abdul Aziz had various goals: he wanted to
take Hail from the Al Rashidi, 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. ( 4) The British, however, had become
more and more involved in Arabia because of World War I, and Abdul 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 Abdul 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 Sherif family who
ruled the Hijaz from their base in Mecca. The British actually encouraged
the Sherif family to revolt against the Ottomans, which opened a second
front against them in World War I.The British and other Western powers
switched their support between the two sides as it suited them. Eventually,
Ibn Saud pushed out the Hashemites, and in 1926 was recognized as ruler of
the Kingdom of Hijaz and Najd.

Winston Churchill conceded that certain promises had been made to the
Hussein tribe during the war. In the Cairo conference in 1922, they
decided on a solution. Churchill’s solution was, in effect, to buy off
Abdullah Hussein and to offer him a position in Transjordan, later to
become Jordan and to his brother Feisal came the governance of Iraq. At
the same time, Britain is imposing boundaries on Ibn Saud by establishing
the boundaries of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait.

Abdul Aziz was largely successful in balancing the Ikhwan’s interests with
his own limitations. 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 devastated the
Sherif’s troops that there were no forces left to defend the Hijaz, and the
entire area withdrew under the threat of a Wahhabi attack.

In spite of the fact there were no forces left to defend the hijaz, Abdul
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, Abdullah,
whose rule the British were trying to establish after the war. At this
point, Abdul Aziz again had to rein in his troops to avoid further problems
with the British.

There continued to be local opposition to the settlement of 1922. Whether
this was on religious or the fundamental assumptions upon which they based
their decisions, it never the less helps to explain the politics of the
region. In the Middle East, “there is no sense of legitimacy-no agreement
on rules of the game-and no belief, universally shared in the region, that
within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or
the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.”
(Fromkin 564) So at the end of this period there has not been a permanent
successor to the Ottoman rule put in place, even though that is exactly
what the British and Allies had thought they were doing. Fromkin puts forth
that one day there may be challenges to the very existence of Jordan,
Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. (564).

Through this, Abdul Aziz had to restrain the Ikhwan from attacking the holy
cities of Mecca and Medina where they felt real reform was needed. In
1920, he decided instead to look to conquer further south in the area of
Asir. The following year, 1921, he took his band of Ikhwan to complete the
ousting of the Rashidi in Hail which now fell under his control.

( 3) The last time his family had invaded the holy cities
of Mecca and Medina in the 19th century, disaster had followed and they had
angered many of the Muslims. This time Abdul Aziz would wait for them to
accept him.

Abdul Aziz even played his own Ikhwan army in that while they were
besieging the holy city of Medina. Abdul Aziz was smuggling food supplies
to the inhabitants. Earlier in the year of 1925, Abdul Aziz had been wise
enough to have the Wahhabi Ulema or religious leaders of the Nejd meet with
the religious sheikhs of the Holy City to settle the differences between
the religious factions.Abdul Aziz had proven, after this meeting, to not
be the fanatical they had feared. Instead he offered the religious
authorities a chance to occupy the same sort of pre-eminence in their own
community that the Ulema possessed in the Nejd. (Lacey 194)
The only point of contention was that Abdul Aziz was calling for an Islamic
Conference to incorporate the Muslims from Egypt and India. The intention
was to come to consensus on how best to administer the holy cities of Mecca
and Medina. The leaders of the Hijaz did not want foreign Muslims to have
a say in the regulation of the Holy Places. So in 1925, after no response
from Egypt or India, Abdul Aziz proposed the formation of the Majlis al
Shura, or local consultative committee that would rule with him. (Lacey
194) This committee incorporated the heads of the principal Meccan
families, the chief religious sheikhs and the more successful merchants
joined together.

The end of 1925 accomplished the final consolidation of the Arabian
Kingdom. In the prior three years, the Sherif had not been able to
maintain good relation with Britain or to competently administer the holy
cities of Mecca and Medina. Responding now to popular demand from the
people of Mecca, Abdul Aziz became the King of Hijaz and the Sultan of
Nejd. Abdul Aziz was very adept at his dealings with not only the Western
influences and quickly learned to play one against the other, but had
learned how to appease the Arab world he would come to rule.

Anscombe, Frederick F. The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation of Kuwait, Saudi
Arabia, and Qatar. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997
Columbus World Travel Guide
31, July 2003. 2003 Edition. Published by Emulate Me.

31, July 2003,
US Library of Congress- Country Studies, (public domain).

Fromkin, David. A Peace To End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East
1914-1922. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989
Kort, Michael G. The Handbook of the Middle East. Connecticut: Twenty-First
Century Books, 2002
Lacey, Robert. The Kingdom. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Metz, Helen Chapin. Editor, Saudi Arabia: Country Report. Federal Research
Division Library of Congress 1992
Saudi Arabian Information Resource
31, July 2003.