ARABIA, with its broad steppes and deserts and its scattered oasis settlements, is under normal conditions a lawless land. Here tribe has fought with tribe, nomad has plundered villager, since before the dawn of recorded history. Occasionally, however, a preëminent leader has succeeded for a while in establishing at least an outer semblance of political unity and social order. Such a leader is Abdalaziz ibn Saud. Twenty-eight years ago he was an exile from his own country in Al Kuwait, but he has since succeeded in establishing an "empire" that comprises nearly the entire peninsula. Only a man of altogether extraordinary ability could have accomplished this. Will he be able to preserve his empire against disintegration?

The empire of Ibn Saud has been created for him by religious missionaries, the Ekhwan, who have forged it by propaganda and the sword. Indeed the bond that holds together the heterogeneous elements of his empire is entirely religious. Furthermore, the Ekhwan have felt under compulsion to propagate their faith beyond the borders of Arabia proper. The supreme master of these fanatical missionaries is Feisal ibn Dawish, whom Ibn Saud cannot afford to oppose. Feisal's agents have attacked the territories of the British and their allies in the vicinity of Al Kuwait on the Persian Gulf as well as near Al Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea. They have raided Transjordan and French Syria and even the settled regions of Iraq. Ibn Saud now finds himself in a position in which he is unable either to stop further progress of the Ekhwan or to abide by the pledges that he has made to the British.

As late as May 20, 1927, Ibn Saud, spiritual and temporal head of the Wahhabites, signed a treaty with Great Britain, in which the latter recognized him as independent king of the Hejaz and of Nejd and its Dependencies. Recent rumors from the Orient have announced that he has proclaimed a Holy War against the British and is marching with his warriors into the British mandated territories of Transjordan and Iraq. Are these alarming rumors true? If so, what has brought about the break between Ibn Saud and the British? If they are not true, what is the real situation in Arabia?


The house of Ibn Saud has ruled in Nejd -- the interior of Arabia -- since 1747, when Mohammed ibn Saud pledged himself to protect the rising sect of the Wahhabites. Mohammed ibn Abdalwahhab (1703-1791), founder of this sect, tried to revive primitive Islam and to abolish all later innovations -- such as the religious orders, the communion of the saints, the veneration of shrines, and luxurious living. Being persecuted, he found protection with Mohammed ibn Saud, whom he proclaimed Imam, or spiritual and temporal leader of his followers. The latter called themselves Mwahhedin, worshippers of the "only" God. Their foes, however, gave them the nickname Wahhabiyyin or Wahhabites, adherents of Ibn Abdalwahhab. The doctrine of the Wahhabites represents the ancient religious belief of the nomads, especially that of the camel breeders. With their support Ibn Saud, who by blood belongs to the powerful group of Aneze tribes, succeeded in introducing their puritanical religion into the oases and settlements and in founding an empire which at the beginning of the last century extended over almost the whole of Arabia and included the two holy cities of the orthodox Islam, Mecca and Medina.

Upon the insistence of the orthodox Moslem community, the Caliph, who was at the same time Sultan of Constantinople, induced Mehmed Ali, governor of Egypt, to expel the Wahhabites from the Hejaz, to destroy their capital, and to eliminate their doctrine. Mehmed Ali succeeded in the two former tasks but was unable to eradicate a doctrine that had its roots in the very nature of the desert. After 1840, when the Turko-Egyptian army evacuated Arabia, the Wahhabites again gathered together and their Imam, Feisal ibn Saud, partially restored the realm of his forefathers, establishing his new capital in the oasis of Ar Riyadh.

The dignity of the Wahhabite Imam is hereditary among the kindred of Ibn Saud, yet neither the first born son of an Imam nor the oldest among his kindred is necessarily recognized as Imam. For this position that kinsman is selected who shows the greatest capacity. In case there is no preëminent leader the kinsfolk split up into hostile groups. This happened after the death of Feisal ibn Saud in 1865. He left four sons: Abdallah, Mohammed, Saud, and Abdarrahman, the first and third of whom soon engaged in a civil war for the supreme office of Imam. This situation was made the most of by the Turks, who immediately seized the coastal zone of the Persian Gulf for a distance of about 270 miles, and by Mohammed ibn Rashid, ruler of Hayel in northern Nejd, who, with Turkish help, extended his supremacy over the domains of his former overlord, Ibn Saud, and appointed (1892) Feisal's son, Mohammed, prince at Ar Riyadh. Meantime Mohammed's two brothers who had brought about the decline of their father's house -- Abdullah and Saud -- had died, and the youngest brother, Abarrahman, fled from the interior of Arabia and found shelter with the lord of Al Kuwait. It seemed as if Ibn Rashid and his supporters, the Turks, would succeed in putting an end to the house of Ibn Saud and in suppressing the Wahhabite doctrine.

At the close of the nineteenth century the eyes of the political world began to turn towards Arabia. The effects of pan-Islamic propaganda were being felt not merely in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but in other oases and settlements. In order to strengthen this movement the Caliph, or Sultan, ordered the establishment of a telegraph line and that a survey be made for a railway from Damascus to Mecca. The Germans chose Al Kuwait as the eastern terminus of their Baghdad Railroad and as their principal port on the Persian Gulf, insisting that the Turks should aid them by consolidating Ottoman power and influence along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf as well as in the interior. These endeavors seemed to be contrary to British interests, and the British political officers on the Persian Gulf undertook to check the Turko-German influence by supporting its adversaries. Among the latter was Abdalaziz ibn Saud, first-born son of the exiled Abdarrahman, who was then living in Al Kuwait. Abdalaziz ibn Saud, a clever and far-seeing man, longed for the reëstablishment of his forefathers' empire and sought supporters and helpers everywhere. By procuring various advantages for the caravans of his fellow countrymen, who preferred the harbor of Al Kuwait to those in the Turkish administrative district of Nejd, he gained many grateful friends. The economic situation in the interior of Arabia, meanwhile, was steadily growing worse and worse, and, furthermore, the weakness of the successor of Mohammed ibn Rashid encouraged opposition among his own kinsfolk. All this led inevitably to civil strife and to a general loosening of the bonds of order and peace throughout the wide territory of Ibn Rashid. The Wahhabites tried to regain their former preponderance and looked for leadership to their exiled Imam, Abdarrahman, and to his energetic son, Abdalaziz ibn Saud, commonly known briefly as Ibn Saud. The British took the opportunity to secure the fidelity of both and provided Ibn Saud with means necessary for his goal.

About Christmas, 1901, Ibn Saud with a small but well equipped troop left Al Kuwait and early in January, 1902, reached the vicinity of Ar Riyadh, the capital of his forefathers' empire. Supported by pre-warned friends and adherents within the oasis, he annihilated the garrison of Ibn Rashid, occupied Ar Riyadh, and called the Wahhabites to a Holy War against all who opposed their Imam, his father Abdarrahman. This call was answered enthusiastically by the Wahhabites, and with their aid the lost dominions were progressively recovered.

From the civil wars and from the Turkish oppression which had ensued the Wahhabites had gained a firm conviction that they must set their religious goal before the secular interests of their Imam. They were firmly convinced that it was their duty to concentrate every effort upon propagating the true faith among the neighboring unbelievers, or orthodox Moslems, and to fight against all foreign influences in Arabia. The arch-enemies of the Wahhabite creed were -- according to them -- the Grand Sherifs of Mecca, but the Turks and British, as foreigners who were endeavoring to dominate Arabian affairs, were hardly less abhorrent to them. All these enemies must be resisted with word and sword. The Wahhabite felt under a moral obligation to expound his doctrine to his Arabic neighbors. These new Wahhabites must then be protected against those who persevered in their hostility to the true belief, and the obstinate must be compelled to accept the genuine Islam.

Those Wahhabites who were ready to devote themselves to these ends formed a Brotherhood, the Brethren, or Ekhwan, pledging themselves to propagate their faith and to defend their country. Beginning their activity in the northeastern corner of Ibn Saud's realm, in the years from 1908 to 1912 they built their first center in Al Artawiyya. This watering place had been regularly visited by nearly all the bands of raiders coming from Iraq or Jebel Shammar to loot the Wahhabites. As it is located within the territory of the powerful Mteir tribe, the head chief of this tribe, Feisal ibn Dawish, became leader of the Ekhwan and head of Al Artawiyya. Similar cantonments were erected along all the boundaries of Ibn Saud's empire and in all the oases where the inhabitants failed to demonstrate their allegiance to the Imam. Peaceful missionaries spread the doctrine, and the warlike Brethren protected them and their new disciples, widening the influence of their spiritual and temporal head, Ibn Saud.

Feisal ibn Dawish, who from chief of the Mteir tribe became supreme master of all the Ekhwan in Arabia, received from the Imam the honorific title "Sharp Sword of Ibn Saud" and was the real promoter of an unparalleled advance of the Wahhabite creed and of Ibn Saud's power. It was Feisal ibn Dawish and his Ekhwan who in 1913 expelled the Turks from the administrative district of Nejd and opened to Ibn Saud access to the ports of the Persian Gulf. Seven years later, in 1920, Feisal and his Ekhwan helped Ibn Saud occupy the fertile eastern part of Asir and later (October 21, 1926) induced Hasan Al Idrisi, lord of the western Asir, to acknowledge Ibn Saud's Protectorate and to deliver to him the Red Sea harbors. Feisal with his Ekhwan was instrumental in finally subduing (1921) the state of Ibn Rashid and in extending Ibn Saud's influence to the borders of Palestine, Transjordan, and Syria. After due preparation of the natives by the Ekhwan missionaries, Feisal constructed several Ekhwan cantonments in the eastern part of the Hejaz and on January 8, 1926, at Mecca, Ibn Saud was proclaimed King of the Hejaz.

This event marked the culmination of the religious propaganda of the Ekhwan. In Arabia only the Hadhramaut coast and Yemen lay without the Wahhabite sphere. Feisal would have attacked these regions also if access to them had not been barred by the horrible Ruba al Khali desert. Although the north-western part of Yemen bordering on Wahhabite Asir is permeated by Ekhwan missionaries, their influence is hardly sufficient to assure success in a campaign against this region. Quite the opposite is the case in the northeast and northwest of Arabia. There the Ekhwan have thousands of adherents among the tribes of Al Kuwait, Iraq, and Transjordan, and the cantonments of the Brethren are well equipped. Feisal and his Ekhwan yearn to add these territories to the empire of their Imam. The Imam himself, however, has tried until recently to hold back the zealots and to prevent the further spread of the true belief.


Must Feisal with the Ekhwan obey the commands of the spiritual and temporal head of the Wahhabite community or the dictates of the Wahhabite doctrine? What are the reasons which have led to disagreement between Ibn Saud and his "Sharp Sword"?

Transjordan and Iraq form British mandated territories and British armored cars and airplanes protect their boundaries, boundaries which Ibn Saud was compelled to accept in order not to lose the moral and material support of the British. Without this support neither he nor Feisal could possibly have achieved the conquests of which they are justly proud. The British supplied Ibn Saud with arms, ammunition, clothing, and gold, and he in turn equipped Feisal and the Ekhwan. British arms were used against the unfortunate King Husein (one of the founders of the League of Nations), and British arms are, perhaps, to be turned against the inhabitants of the British mandated territories. According to the terms of agreement of Al Ajer and Hadda, however, it is manifestly the duty of King Ibn Saud to prevent an attack on these territories, since he has pledged himself to respect the boundaries and to restrain his subjects from violating them. These boundaries, however, agree neither with the physiographic features nor with the territories of the individual tribes. For instance, the Sirhan depression, northwest of Al Jauf, is divided between Nejd and Transjordan, and the territory of the Rwala tribe lies partly in Nejd, partly in Transjordan, and partly in Syria. There are many Wahhabite clans of Transjordan, Iraq, and Al Kuwait who long to be united with the Wahhabite community of Arabia and to pay the zeka taxes to Ibn Saud. The latter finds it difficult to refuse the allegiance of these foreign Wahhabites and to forbid the Ekhwan from protecting their oppressed brethren beyond the frontiers. The Mteir (to whom Feisal ibn Dawish belongs) and other neighboring tribes formerly traded in Al Kuwait, but in 1920 a fortification wall was built around this harbor and heavy duties were imposed on commerce passing through it. The tribes demand that the duties be abolished and that Al Kuwait be incorporated in the Wahhabite empire. Their demands are supported both by the numerous Wahhabites of Al Kuwait and by Ibn Saud himself, who asserts that Al Kuwait once belonged to the realm of his forefathers. Nevertheless, he has pledged himself -- under British compulsion, it is true -- to acknowledge the boundaries of this state, which in reality is a British colony.

The difficulties of Ibn Saud caused by the Ekhwan are increased by the resistance of the inhabitants of Mecca, Medina, and Jidda. In 1925 Ibn Saud, promising to accord to the Hejaz complete autonomy under the guidance of representatives of the Islamic world, invited the various Islamic peoples to send representatives to a Moslem Congress. This Congress was held in 1926, but the representatives were not allowed to interfere in the administration of the Hejaz and though they decided to meet again the following year at Mecca, King Ibn Saud did not invite them a second time. This caused him the loss of many friends in the Islamic world, especially in India, and strengthened the propaganda of the exiled King Husein and of his sons, Abdallah, Emir of Transjordan, and Feisal, King of Iraq. The inhabitants of the holy cities despise their Wahhabite overlords as barbarians and heretics, and the Wahhabites, especially the Ekhwan, charge their Imam, Ibn Saud, with great leniency toward the unbelievers in Mecca and Medina and toward the foreigners, especially the British in Jidda. In order to forestall the threatened revolts in 1927 King Ibn Saud was obliged to imprison or to exile many of his former adherents, an action which only served to make his other opponents the more cautious and persevering.

Among his own kindred he has many open and secret foes. The descendants of his uncle Saud are plainly against him, and about a year ago there came news from Nejd that the King had been attacked by his own brother, Mohammed. Neither of the King's sons equals him in ability, and his kinsfolk are looking for another to replace him and save his house from a new and probably final decline.


The present situation of Arabia is altogether different from that of a century ago, when the Turko-Egyptians were trying to destroy the house of Ibn Saud and eradicate the Wahhabite doctrine. Then Arabia was bordered by the feeble Ottoman Empire. Today it is enclosed by the mighty power of Great Britain. The harbors of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf can be closed by British navy, and British soldiers in Transjordan and Iraq can prevent any caravan from proceeding into the tilled countries. British trucks and airplanes can carry British weapons far into the desert and punish any violation of British interests. British arms, however, can never force any reconciliation between the clashing interests of Ibn Saud, of his Hejaz subjects, and of the Ekhwan under Feisal ibn Dawish.

Ibn Saud's empire is based neither on blood relationship nor on nationality. Its clans and tribes are of varied descent and know nothing of the concepts of territorial patriotism or nationality. The interests of the settlers are very different from those of the nomads. The former despise the latter as barbarians, yet fear them and are dominated by them. The only unifying bond is the religion of the Wahhabites. This creed is well adapted to the mentality and spiritual outlook of the nomads, but runs counter to the customs of the settlers.

According to the belief of the Wahhabites the preservation and promotion of their creed should be the ultimate purpose of their Imam. The Ekhwan are his apostles and the pillars of his empire, and their supreme master, Feisal ibn Dawish, has a deeper and wider influence than the Imam himself. Yet within Ibn Saud's empire there are two other states based on very different religious beliefs: the Hejaz state founded on the orthodox Islam and the Idrisi state in the Asir erected on the rather heretical teachings of Ahmed Al Idrisi. It was comparatively easy for the Ekhwan to impose their belief on the Idrisites, yet it is hardly possible to do the same in the Hejaz without stirring the ire of the orthodox Moslem world.

The propagation of the Wahhabite creed beyond the boundaries of Ibn Saud's empire, though requested by many of the inhabitants of those countries as well as by the Ekhwan, and though it would be welcomed by the Imam himself, is barred by the British. Thus foreigners and unbelievers appear to the Wahhabites as enemies of their creed and all who deal with them are looked upon with suspicion. Since the Imam himself is obliged to deal with foreigners and to yield to their demands, he himself comes under disapproval. The issue, however, must be fought out between the Imam and his Ekhwan alone. Any foreign interference would render his situation more difficult and would hasten the dismemberment of his empire.

A solution of the problem from the British point of view might be found were Great Britain to avail herself of the present trouble by disregarding the Ajer agreement of December 2, 1922, as well as the Hadda agreement of November 2, 1925, which established the present fictitious boundaries of Iraq and Transjordan, and by confining Ibn Saud's empire to its physiographic and historic limits. These limits should begin on the Red Sea at Haql, about twenty miles south of Al Aqaba, and thence run east along the southern base of the Shera mountain range and the northern confines of the Nefud and outlying sand tracts as far as the ancient station of Al Oqoba on the Pilgrim Road. Beyond this the boundary should run in a generally easterly direction as far as the Persian Gulf. Such a frontier would have a direct relation not only to the physiography but also to the history of the regions traversed, since it would coincide approximately with the northern edge of the Biblical Hawila as well as with that of the classical Arabia Felix and of the Nejd. In the watering places and oases of Soragh, Al Mgheira, Al Jauf, Al Bweitat, Al Lifiyye, Selman, and Al Buseyya garrisons might be stationed and equipped with radios and riding camels. Aided by airplanes, these garrisons could easily check all raids of the Wahhabites across these boundaries and secure life and property of both settlers and nomads living in the classical Arabia Petraea, Arabia Déserta, and Babylonia. Al Kuwait ought to be left within the territory of Ibn Saud since it is essential for the sustenance of the neighboring tribes. As this new boundary would coincide approximately with the limits of territory occupied by the great Bedouin tribes, the present frequent complaints of the dismemberment of these tribes and of the consequent violation of territorial rights would, perhaps, be partially silenced.

In the history of Arabia many "empires" have been brought together by religious leaders, but not one of these "empires" has survived the religious movement that gave it birth. In every case a religious struggle has been essential to preserve any measure of unity in a state made up of so many heterogeneous elements. The coming of peace and quiet has always marked the beginning of dissolution.

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  • ALOIS MUSIL, Professor of Oriental Studies in the Charles University, Prague; leader of extensive explorations in Syria, Northern Arabia and Mesopotamia; author of several works.
  • More By Alois Musil