The Man They Called Ibn Saud

June 28, 2012 Topics: DemographyHistoryIdeologyReligion Regions: Saudi Arabia

The Man They Called Ibn Saud

Mini Teaser: Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray’s biography probes the life of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, a giant of a man with a powerful force of personality, forged the often-warring tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into the country of Saudi Arabia.

by Author(s): Sandra Mackey

Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior Who Created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012), 608 pp., $29.95.

HE WAS a giant, physically and politically. He was an extraordinary leader who took the bedouin ethos and wrapped it in the puritanical sect of Wahhabi Islam. He was the legendary Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, who in the first quarter of the twentieth century linked together the disparate tribes of the Arabian Peninsula to create the country of Saudi Arabia.

Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray have collected the facts, assembled the myths and illuminated the mysteries of this man, pulling it all into a compelling biography titled Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior Who Created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The book presents a vivid portrait of a leader who rose out of the wilderness of central Arabia to reign over a frail state to which Westerners today, whether they know it or not, owe a measure of their lifestyle and security.

The prime example of how little Westerners know about this man is reflected in the title, Ibn Saud, which means “son of Saud.” In Saudi Arabia, he is known as Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Yet to reach a Western audience, the authors evidently succumbed to the name assigned to him by British imperialists—Ibn Saud. But to the Saudis, this is the equivalent of referring to each of the founding father’s successors—Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah—as Ibn Abdul Aziz. Still, bowing to Western ignorance does not detract from the value of the book or its explanation of why Abdul Aziz now ranks as an important figure of the twentieth century.

Darlow and Bray approach the life of Abdul Aziz from two perspectives—first, the internal challenge of molding a country out of the competing families and tribes of the vast Arabian Peninsula; and, second, the external challenge of balancing the outside forces exercising their power in a weak, poverty-stricken and isolated region. Surmounting both, Abdul Aziz secured his kingdom, but his heirs still face the challenges of unity and governance as well as of the world beyond their wealthy desert kingdom.

The Najd, the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, is an ancient land. For centuries, it was starved for resources, which threatened the survival of even the fittest. Individuals found their security not in government but within their families and tribes. After the seventh century CE, religion, while failing to provide security, established a moral and legal system embraced by most.

Islam came out of Mecca, a town that sat at the juncture of two important trade routes. One ran south to north from Yemen into Syria, while the other extended east to west across the Arabian Peninsula, from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. There, the Prophet Muhammad called those outside the elite to social justice, compassion and community in the name of Allah, the one true god. Thirteen centuries later, Abdul Aziz would issue the same call.

Yet Abdul Aziz’s story is more the story of his family than of religion. At some point in the late fifteenth century, his ancestors moved from the western coast of the Persian Gulf to Diriyah, an oasis within a wadi not far from today’s Riyadh. Acquiring wells and date gardens as well as engaging in small trade and finance, they prospered. Gaining in stature, they acquired a distinguished family name—Al Saud. In 1745, the emir, Muhammad Ibn Saud, the reigning head of the family, joined his interests with Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a wandering theologian crying out against the degeneration of the social order due to deviation from the fundamental doctrines laid down by the Prophet. By the 1790s, Muhammad Ibn Saud, campaigning under the absolute dictates of Wahhabism, controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1803, he and his religious warriors took Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. But soon they were ejected by the Ottomans.

The empire of the Al Sauds reached its apogee in 1810, when their Wahhabi warriors once again held Mecca, took control of much of the western coast of the Persian Gulf, advanced deep into Yemen, and marched toward the gates of Baghdad and Damascus. By 1815, the Ottomans had once again torn their empire apart. They took the leader of the Al Sauds to Istanbul, where he was publicly beheaded and his body thrown into the Bosphorus. In 1846, his son, Faisal Ibn Turki al-Saud, resurrected the empire. It collapsed in phases between 1871 and 1876, as Faisal’s four sons fought each other over the right to lead. These two periods—one of empire, one of disintegration—shaped the vision of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud.

ABDUL AZIZ was born in Riyadh in 1880 amid the bloodletting among his uncles. Following the death or exile of his older brother, Abdul Aziz’s father, Abd Rahman, emerged as the head of the Al Saud family. But he could not hold on. In the dark of night in 1891, Abd Rahman put ten-year-old Abdul Aziz in a bag slung over the back of a camel and fled Riyadh to escape a coming attack by the Rashids, a rival family allied with the Shammar tribe of the northern peninsula. (To add to the name confusion, under the style now used by his successors, Abdul Aziz would be Abdul Aziz Ibn Abd Rahman al-Saud.)

The family eventually settled in Kuwait, the sheikhdom on the Persian Gulf under the protection of Britain. Yet Abdul Aziz spent his adolescence with the nomadic Al Murra tribe that lived in and around the Rub’al Khali, the forbidding Empty Quarter. Riding and raiding with the Al Murra, he internalized the bedouin life, learning its strengths and weaknesses, codes of conduct, skills, tactics and attitudes. He also learned from the Al Murra how a bedouin leader without money could exercise his authority by presiding over a well-ordered tribal community.

By 1896, Abdul Aziz had come out of the desert to sit at the feet of Mubarak, the sheikh of Kuwait. As part of Mubarak’s campaign against the Rashids, Abdul Aziz in 1902 seized his family’s ancestral capital of Riyadh and established himself in the small walled town in the heart of the Najd. The young Abdul Aziz’s authority stemmed in part from his stature. At six feet four inches tall, he stood a foot above those he sought to lead. Beyond size, he radiated genuine charisma, pulling people to him like a magnetic force. Bundling it all in the theology of the Wahhabis underwrote his legitimacy. Calling the religious leaders together, he announced:

You owe nothing to me. I am like you, one of you. But I am appointed to direct the affairs of our people in accordance with the book of Allah. Our first duty is to Allah and those who teach the Book of Allah, the Ulema. I am but an instrument of command in their hand. Obedience to God means obedience to them.

As Abdul Aziz extended his territory northward toward Qasim, the challenge of bringing followers to his flag became more difficult in an atmosphere of competing tribal loyalties. Employing Islam, Abdul Aziz used religious conquests to secure his political conquests. Religious scholars and the mutawwa, the zealous enforcers of Wahhabism, proselytized Wahhabi theology and rituals in preparation for Abdul Aziz’s claim to political authority. In return for their service, he put the ulema and the mutawwa on salary and recognized their absolute authority in all religious matters. The religious leaders, in turn, acknowledged his absolute discretion in political matters. Little has changed since then.

Nevertheless, tribal politics remained the essential element in rebuilding the empire of the Al Sauds. When not fighting wars, Abdul Aziz toured the far-flung parts of his growing domain. Traveling with his treasury stowed in a tin trunk, he delivered gifts, moderated disputes and fed his subjects, all acts that rendered his authority tangible. Still, between 1908 and 1910, tribal revolts broke out in his northern territories. Upon losing a battle to Abdul Aziz, his rebelling subjects expected vengeance. Instead, he gathered his opponents and addressed them as beloved subjects who had strayed. He promised that so long as they remained loyal to him, he would ensure they would be protected and live in peace. He frequently took wives from among the virgins of the tribes. After the wedding night, he usually sent the bride and everyone else back to their families and villages to recount what they had seen of his justice.

During the first decade of his rule over Riyadh, there was another force at work in the Najd. A group of roughly fifty men from the Mutair and Harb tribes, two of the noblest bedouin tribes, established an agricultural community based on a communal life and strict adherence to the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. They became the “Ikhwan,” or “the brethren.”

Abdul Aziz quickly recognized the potential of the Ikhwan as an element of stability. Communities of settled farmers could be expected to put a much higher value on stability than nomadic bedouins eking out an existence by wandering the desert and raiding rival tribes. Thus, he began making grants of money, seed, equipment and building materials to new Ikhwan settlements. He also paid for additional preachers and religious instructors. But just as Abdul Aziz provided for them, he expected them to reciprocate by supplying him with conscripts for his territorial battles. In October 1924, components of the Ikhwan, without direction from Riyadh, claimed Mecca for Abdul Aziz. But soon the Ikhwan became a force unto itself. In the Hejaz, the zealots harassed pilgrims making the hajj whose behavior and customs didn’t comport with Wahhabi practices. In the East, Ikhwan raiding parties charged over the borders of Iraq and Kuwait, disrupting Abdul Aziz’s relations with regional powers.

Acting as the sheikh of a tribe, Abdul Aziz summoned the leaders to Riyadh. Over weeks, he tirelessly received his dissident followers in his majlis, plied them with food and reached into his tin trunk to gather coins to meet their requests. In the end, most—but not all—Ikhwan leaders returned to their settlements as loyal subjects. Having pacified the majority, Abdul Aziz struck the rebels.

In early 1929, central and northern Arabia became the scene of widespread guerrilla warfare as the rebelling Ikhwan attacked villages, caravans and tribes loyal to the king until Abdul Aziz defeated them in the last great traditional bedouin battle fought from the backs of camels and horses. Although mechanized warfare would soon thereafter come to the Arabian Peninsula, Abdul Aziz continued to rule as a tribal sheikh. His majlis was where his subjects came to bring their grievances and collect their due as members of their king’s tribe. To hold the system together, Abdul Aziz physically appeared in all parts of his kingdom, putting enormous demands on his time and limited resources.

BEYOND TRIBAL politics, Abdul Aziz also faced the challenge posed by great- power rivalries of the Ottoman Empire and Britain in the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Mubarak of the small sheikhdom of Kuwait reigned as a master of manipulation, playing off one great power against another. When Abdul Aziz returned to Kuwait from his years with the Al Murra, Mubarak invited him to sit in on his audiences. In his role as protégé, he met traders, merchants and travelers as well as government representatives from England, France, Russia, Germany and the Ottoman Empire. In expanding his education beyond religion and tribal rivalries, he also sharpened his perceptions of the imperial powers—their aims as well as their relative strengths and weaknesses—as he watched Mubarak skillfully play one against the other. One thing became clear: if Abdul Aziz wanted to restore the empire of the Al Sauds, he would need the goodwill and protection of the British along the west coast of the Persian Gulf. At the same time, he came to understand that he must avoid provoking armed intervention against him by the Turks. Consequently, in the years prior to World War I, Abdul Aziz continually kept the region’s two established great powers in confusion. The Turks knew Abdul Aziz was courting Britain along with themselves, and the British knew that every time he approached them for support, he had, at the same time, pledged to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire his unswerving loyalty.

Abdul Aziz benefited from a string of British imperial officers responsible for the Persian Gulf who considered him the most gifted leader of the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. None acted as a greater advocate for Abdul Aziz than the young William Shakespear, who came to Kuwait as political resident in 1909. On meeting Abdul Aziz for the first time, Shakespear discovered that he displayed none of the xenophobia or narrow-minded fanaticism commonly associated with Wahhabis. He also recognized that Abdul Aziz was a political realist.

Although Abdul Aziz sought British naval protection, London’s goal on the Arabian Peninsula was not another protectorate. It was to maintain good relations with Turkey and thus thwart German, French or Russian designs on Britain’s Indian empire. London also feared that any friction with Turkey and the caliphate might inflame anti-British sentiment among Muslims in India. In this thinking, Abdul Aziz seemed merely the weak ruler of an isolated minor statelet.

But in 1913, Shakespear warned his superiors that Abdul Aziz intended to move out of the Najd into Hasa and Qatif. Since both fronted on the Persian Gulf, Britain would be forced into relations with him whether London wanted them or not. As predicted, Abdul Aziz did take Hasa in 1913. With it came the continuing need to balance one great power against the other. To Turkey, he gave his personal assurance that he remained “an obedient servant of the Sultan,” promising to maintain order in the province and expressing his willingness to serve as governor on the sultan’s behalf. To Britain, he said his ambition was to reclaim his family’s ancestral lands, not interfere with the coastal emirates with which Britain had treaties. Again he asked Britain to give him financial and naval protection from the Turks. London refused.

In March 1914, Britain and the Ottoman Empire reached an agreement in which the two imperial powers divided the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. London took the territory running southwest from Qatar in the East, across the Rub’al Khali and along the northern borders of Yemen and the Aden protectorates to the Red Sea. Everything to the north of the line, including all of the Najd, Hasa and the Hejaz, belonged to Istanbul. With London determined to reach an agreement with Turkey that would protect Britain from the Persian Gulf to India, the British wooed Abdul Aziz to Kuwait, where he was cornered and forced to submit to the Anglo-Ottoman Treaty.

Then fate intervened in the form of World War I. Britain and the Ottoman Empire now were on opposite sides, and Whitehall sent Shakespear to enlist Abdul Aziz as an ally. Rather than joining the British war effort, wily Abdul Aziz decided to play for time. Shakespear reported to London that Abdul Aziz would not move to make matters “either easier for us or more difficult for the Turks as far as the present war is concerned, until he obtains . . . some very solid guarantee of his position, with Great Britain practically as his suzerain.”

By December 1915, the two parties, which had been dancing around each other for a decade, now reached out to each other. Abdul Aziz needed British protection against the Ottomans, the Hashemites and the Rashids. He also needed British arms and money to deal with tribal revolts inside his territory. Britain needed to neutralize any potential ally of Turkey in the face of appalling casualties on the western front and the disaster unfolding in the Dardanelles campaign. Yet, when London decided to back the Arab revolt, it turned to the sharif of Mecca, not Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud.

In 1908, the Ottoman sultan had appointed Husayn Ibn Ali as sharif of Mecca. For eight hundred years, the post of sharif, protector of the two holy cities and the holy places, had been filled by a member of the Hashemite family. As strife between the Young Turks and the sultan escalated in the lead-up to World War I, Husayn continued in his post, exercising considerable autonomy. Thus Britain judged him the most effective face of the British-financed Arab revolt against the Turks. Once more, Abdul Aziz’s position dropped from a significant force to a minor figure within the game of great-power politics. Worse was to come.

After World War I, the British put the Hashemites, rivals of the Al Sauds, on the thrones of Transjordan and Iraq. They also continued to maintain their protectorates along the Arabian Peninsula’s eastern coast. France seized Greater Syria. With no other countervailing weight to put on the scales, Abdul Aziz feared for the independence of his kingdom. Then the oil prospectors came calling in the 1930s. Turning his back on mighty Britain, Abdul Aziz placed his potential oil resources in the hands of America, a country far away that carried little history of imperialism. Throughout the remainder of his reign, the United States provided Saudi Arabia the protective cover Abdul Aziz needed to ensure his kingdom’s sovereignty.

ABDUL AZIZ Ibn Saud died at his palace in Riyadh on November 9, 1953, at the age of seventy-three. He carried into death all the scars of his battles to build and defend a kingdom encompassing most of the Arabian Peninsula, from the southern borders of Iraq and Jordan to the northern border of Yemen, and from the east coast of the Red Sea to the west coast of the Persian Gulf, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He left it to the Al Saud name, his forty-three sons and the Wahhabi ulema. He also bequeathed the wealth that his negotiations with international oil companies had delivered and the security that the United States provided.

But he also left his country, his people and his heirs with the flaws of his legacy. Abdul Aziz never made the transition from tribal sheikh to head of state. Nor did he ever differentiate between the resources of the sheikh and the resources of the government. Tormented by the fear of family infighting that destroyed the first Al Saud empire, he established a system of succession to the throne that today endangers the very family it was designed to protect. On the death of the founding father, his oldest son, Saud, became the king. Since then, Saud’s brothers, one by one, have succeeded to the throne through a byzantine system operated by the family and legitimized by the Wahhabi establishment. Although the House of Saud has avoided a rupture, the system has proved problematic. Saud, weak and corrupted, was forced out by the family. Faisal, the most revered of the kings who followed Abdul Aziz, was assassinated by his nephew. Khalid, regarded by his subjects as a kindly sheikh, reigned while his brother Fahd ruled. As crown prince and king, Fahd pushed development and shunned the bedouin ethos and religious piety of his predecessors. It is the current king, Abdullah, combining the attributes of a great bedouin sheikh, pious Wahhabi and cautious reformer, who comes closest to the model of Abdul Aziz. He is now in his late eighties and in poor health. Through his death, the House of Saud escaped the succession of the long-time defense minister, Sultan, who was detested by most Saudis. That leaves Prince Nayef to succeed Abdullah if the pattern holds. As head of the dreaded security services, he claims neither the charisma nor the respect earned by Abdul Aziz, Faisal and Abdullah. He is also seventy-nine years old.

If not after the death of Abdullah, then soon the House of Saud must move to the next generation. That will let loose all of Abdul Aziz’s fears about family conflict. Who will lead this next generation? Where will his legitimacy come from, since the Wahhabi ulema are now seen as servants of the state, not defenders of the faith? How strong is the tribal system after four decades of rapid development? How willing are the Al Sauds to open up the political and economic system in which they have always operated as the state itself? How strong are those who trace their theology back to the Ikhwan?

In 1979, the heirs of Abdul Aziz faced their own Ikhwan revolt when religious militants seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca. Another modern rendition of the Ikhwan came to life on September 11, 2001, when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who brought down the towers of New York’s World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon were Saudis striking the protectors of the House of Saud. Others have inflicted and continue to plot acts of terrorism against the kingdom and its ruling family.

The heirs of Abdul Aziz face their founding father’s same imperative to balance internal pressures against external forces. The long-standing defense alliance with the United States rid Saudi Arabia of the threat of Saddam Hussein in 1990–1991, but the presence of American forces in the kingdom also required that the House of Saud lessen its security dependence on its long-time protector. In response to internal opposition, American forces have been pushed farther beyond the horizon and out of sight of those who adhere to strict Wahhabism. With Iraq removed as a counterbalance to Iran by the 2003 American invasion, the House of Saud now also faces the threat of Shia Iran, whose population is three times that of Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic has ties to the Shia in the kingdom’s eastern province and an ideology that calls into question the whole concept of monarchy in a Muslim state.

To grasp the character of Saudi Arabia and what the future might hold for it, any thinking Westerner must understand Abdul Aziz. Darlow and Bray have brought him to life for those who perhaps know the name Ibn Saud but not the man who forged one of the pivotal countries in the world today out of the rock and sand of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia’s importance is not only due to its oil; the kingdom’s history as the birthplace of Islam and its geographical position astride so many of the world’s major trade and communications routes render the Saudi Arabia of today, unlike in the time of Abdul Aziz, a vital player in a strategic region.

Sandra Mackey is the author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom (W. W. Norton, 2002) as well as other works on Middle East politics and culture. Her most recent book is Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict (W. W. Norton, 2008).

Pullquote: At six feet four inches tall, he stood a foot above those he sought to lead. Beyond size, he radiated genuine charisma, pulling people to him like a magnetic force.Image: Essay Types: Book Review