Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
MOHAMMED brought to the Arabic tribes of the desert, who had lived till then in a state of permanent feud and primitive paganism, the blessings of unity, political order and enlightenment. Under his leadership and that of his immediate successors, and under the impulse of a religious ideal, the Arabs of the desert for a short time held a position of the highest importance in the world's political arena. But the great Empire founded by Mohammed's successors grew much too fast and became much too vast for Arab cohesive and constructive forces. Very soon the Arabian peninsula -- after having established a permanent ascendancy for the Arab language and civilization outside Arabia proper -- relapsed into its primitive chaotic disorganization. Only after many centuries was it again awakened, this time by the religious impulse of Wahhabism.
A scion of the princely family which had embraced and propagated Wahhabism, Abdul Azis ibn Abdur Rahman, better known by the name of his family, Ibn Saud, has taken upon himself the task of organizing a stable and orderly government in Arabia and of transforming the unruly and illiterate nomads of the desert into citizens. He is striving, and with success, to divert the religious enthusiasm of his followers into modern social activity. Arabia has not only to organize, but also to enter the complex civilization which, having originated about two hundred years ago in Western Europe, is now on the way to becoming universal since the World War. At the beginning of the World War, Ibn Saud was still the Sheikh of Nejd, one of the major Sheikhs of Central Arabia but not more than that, unknown to and without any importance for the outside world or even the Arab world as a whole. Now, twenty years later, he is the undisputed lord over a strongly organized, united and cautiously but firmly modernized Arabia. The history of those twenty years has been no accident: long ago Ibn Saud conceived the scheme of a united Arab empire under his leadership, and the stage of fulfilment he has now reached represents for him only a transition to further achievements.
In 1914 four important Arab noble families could be considered as possible competitors for the hegemony of Arabia: the Hashimite Sherifs of Mecca; the Ibn Rashids in the northern part of the peninsula, with Haql as their capital; the Ibn Sauds in the Nejd; and the Imam of Yemen, who had successfully upheld his claims against the Turkish overlord. The first seeds of a new creed, of Arab nationalism in the modern sense, had just reached the secluded regions of Arabia and had stirred new thoughts and ambitions in the hearts of its princes. During many centuries Arabia had been a mere geographical name. In the nineteenth century a contest for the control of this vast territory set in between Great Britain, for whom it meant an important link on the road to India, and the Ottoman Empire, which, with its social and intellectual structure based on Islam, considered the possession of the Holy Places of Islam as the foremost title to its glory.
But Arabia itself had had no history and no consciousness of a common national destiny. Tribes fought against tribes, princes against princes, an up and down of individual and unrelated facts, meaningless except for the motives of momentary personal or tribal gains, without any general idea or ideal. Only in the twentieth century did things begin to change. The Arab princes began to act in the name of Arab nationalism; in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire the forceful Turkish nationalism of the Young Turks evoked the national consciousness of the Arabs; frequent revolts followed, secret societies were formed and the coöperation of the different princes and local leaders was sought. Ibn Saud, who had returned at the beginning of the century from exile as a very young man, first strove to reëstablish the rule of his family in Nejd, the birthplace of Wahhabism, which had been conquered by the Ibn Rashids, and to rekindle the ardor of the puritan and militant faith of Wahhabism. But soon he turned to wider aims: to unite Arabia as it had been at the beginning of the nineteenth century under his Wahhabi ancestors. In 1913 he took possession of the Turkish province of El Hasa, a coast strip at the Persian Gulf; by this conquest he entered the orbit of immediate British interests and in the following year a British officer was dispatched to open negotiations with him. At that moment the World War broke out: its two important results, as far as Arabia is concerned, were on the one hand the elimination of Turkish rule from Arabia and the establishment of British control or influence over the land route to India, on the other hand the definite and unexpectedly strong crystallization of Arab national sentiment and consciousness. The Hashimite Sherif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, had raised Arab national aspirations for freedom and unity from a world of dreams and hopes into the realm of political and diplomatic reality. His newly formed kingdom of the Hejaz was invited to sign the peace treaty of Versailles and to enter the League of Nations. He did not do it because the peace treaty had left Arab hopes unfulfilled and crippled.
Hussein ibn Ali, more than thirty years older than Ibn Saud, was a romantic conservative, full of the ancient wisdom and learning of the East and endowed with the rich imagination which mistakes rhetoric and dreams for reality. A direct descendant of the Prophet and head of the nobility of the Holy City, he wished to reëstablish the old glory of his race, faith and family by becoming King of the Arabs and Khalif of all Mohammedans. His fiery nationalism had induced him during the World War to rise against his overlord, the Ottoman Sultan, and his imagination led him to believe the vague promises of his wartime allies to whom the Arab army rendered conspicuous services by conquering Transjordan and Syria. Notwithstanding his disillusionment, he seemed in 1924 to have reached a new climax of his power. After the deposition of the last Turkish Khalif he proclaimed himself Khalif; his son Abdullah, an ambitious man of the old-time Oriental type, had become Ameer of Transjordan; his younger brother Feisal, different from his brother and equally outstanding by his character and intelligence, was King of Iraq, and negotiations were going on between Hussein and Great Britain about the formation of an Arab Federation including Hejaz, Transjordan and Iraq. But the same year marked the end of King Hussein's rule and ambitions. The British were glad to get rid of an ally who had become inopportune in his insistence upon their showing good faith; and Ibn Saud seized the opportunity to prove that he and not Hussein was the real leader and statesman of Arabia. The year 1924 was a decisive year in the history of Arabia. It marked the beginning of a new epoch: the active reëntry of the desert peninsula into world history, the effort of the nomad to adapt himself to the conditions of modern life and civilized society.
Before 1924 Ibn Saud had accomplished two important steps forward on his way: he had united Central Arabia by his victory over the Ibn Rashids, who since then live as virtual prisoners at his court, and he had introduced the most important reform ever undertaken in the desert: the settling of the nomad Arabs around the wells of the desert. His aim was to improve the economic and cultural situation of the nomad and to make possible a stable government, a permanent governmental structure. From time immemorial the desert nomads lived in the greatest poverty and illiteracy, in continuous insecurity and want. The transition from nomad to settled life means, however poor the condition of the settled Arab may seem to a Western observer, a distinct gain in security and in wealth. It gives the possibility of bringing him education and the elements of civilization in the proper sense of the word, the fundamentals of civic life. The settled colonies were founded around wells and springs, the soil was irrigated, the elements of agriculture taught, in the midst a mosque was built, the center of religious and social life and teaching. The higher Islamic Law, the Sheria, replaced the primitive tribal law. The nomad had always been Moslem in name more than in fact; his whole life was dominated by superstition and pre-Moslem traditions. The mosque became now a cultural center, imbuing the audiences with the spirit of a loyalty higher than that to the tribe. Those settled colonies became the backbone of Ibn Saud's army and the pivots of a stable government. Since time immemorial the desert had known only the passing power of personal leadership. The settled colonies could assure for the first time an objective and lasting order beyond tribal allegiance. The very foundations of nomad Arab society were radically transformed.
In the autumn of 1924 Ibn Saud's army moved against the Hejaz. His followers were chiefly driven by two traditional motives: the desire for booty and the religious fanaticism of the Wahhabi puritans against the Holy Cities with their relative luxury, corruption and deviation from the original faith. In that way their attitude resembled that of Protestant zealots of the seventeenth century against the Pope and Rome. Ibn Saud's aims and motives were different, but his great sense of statesmanship revealed itself again and again in his ability to make use of different situations and motives and at the same time to control and direct them. His victory proved easy enough, notwithstanding the opinion of European experts who (with the exception of H. St. J. B. Philby, war-time British envoy at Ibn Saud's capital) did not yet see in Ibn Saud the future Lord of Arabia. Within a few weeks Taif, the beautiful summer residence of the Meccan aristocracy, was taken, and then Mecca itself. In Taif the traditional massacre and looting followed. Ibn Saud was not present, but as soon as he arrived a sharp stop was put to all excesses of that kind and since then his nomad troops have behaved in an exemplary manner. Ibn Saud knew enough even to make his followers refrain from attacking what they considered unholy places and customs in Mecca. King Hussein abdicated in favor of his oldest son, Ali, and went into exile at Cyprus, where he lived almost forgotten for more than five years. Ali succeeded in holding Medina and Jidda (the port of Mecca) for more than a year. But the Wahhabis entered Jidda on December 16, 1925. Then Ibn Saud became the undisputed ruler of Hejaz and in Mecca, on January 8, 1926, added to his title of Sultan of Nejd that of King of Hejaz. A year later he changed his title to King of Hejaz and of Nejd and its dependencies.
King Ibn Saud's dominions now reached from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. The rival dynasties of the Ibn Rashids and the Hashimites ruled no more on the peninsula. To establish his complete hegemony there remained only one potential rival, the Imam Yehya of Yemen. In the cities in the Hejaz the Wahhabis had found a much higher developed urban civilization, in contact with all the centers of Mohammedan life; in the port of Jidda foreign consuls and merchants were established. A new outlook opened before Ibn Saud. And through his strong personality and his understanding of the essential currents of contemporary history a new Arabia was born. Before the Wahhabis had set out to capture Mecca a congress of the Ikhwan, the Wahhabi brotherhood, had justified the conquest by an appeal to the Arab nation, explaining Ibn Saud's desire to attain and to secure the complete freedom and unity of all Arab lands. But at the same time he had appealed to pan-Islamic sentiments and to the interest of all the faithful to have the Holy Places administered in an exemplary way. This appeal had brought him the support of the leaders of Indian Islam.
As soon as he was firmly established in the Hejaz, Ibn Saud convoked a Pan-Islamic Conference which assembled in Mecca in June 1926. In his declarations at the Conference he justified his attack against King Hussein by his wish to purify the cradle of Islam from all the iniquities and corruption of Hashimite rule. At the beginning of his expedition against the Hejaz, he had declared himself an agent of Islam to deliver the Holy Land from oppression and to leave it to the Mohammedans to decide about the future fate of the country. But, the conquest once accomplished, the situation had changed. Ibn Saud had become King of the Hejaz and was ordering its administration in accordance with his own ideas. He expected from the Pan-Islamic Conference only advice and help in facilitating and improving the pilgrim traffic in the Holy Land. The Conference, based on misunderstanding, ended without definite result. Originally intended to be the first of consecutive yearly conferences, it was never repeated. The Indian Moslems left it dissatisfied. Ibn Saud is a pious Moslem, but he is far from being narrow-minded and fanatic, and the dominant idea of his life never was Pan-Islamism; from the beginning he has been an ardent Arab nationalist. It was therefore easy for him after the failure of the Pan-Islamic Conference to devote all his attention to the problems of his kingdom and of the Arab nation as a whole. In his intention the Conference had to serve only one purpose: to strengthen the position of Arabia as the cradle of the faith and to encourage the pilgrimage, the main source of the economic life of the Hejaz. He had expected financial assistance for the construction of railways in the Hejaz to connect Mecca with Medina, and both cities with their ports, the towns of Jidda and Yanbo; and political assistance against Great Britain to force it to return to the Hejaz the district of Maan and Aqaba (which England had annexed in 1925 to Transjordan) and to restore the Hejaz railway which connected Medina with Damascus. But all those hopes remained unfulfilled. Ibn Saud became convinced that he had to rely only upon his own forces and those of the Arabs, however poor and backward they might be. His future task was set before him: to build a modern Arab nation.
Ibn Saud's easiest task, comparatively speaking, was the diplomatic consolidation of his new position. For the first time two Wahhabi princes left the peninsula, Ibn Saud's oldest son, Saud, to visit Egypt, and his second son, Feisal, to visit England, Holland and France. The first Great Power to recognize the new kingdom was Soviet Russia -- which was in accordance with Russia's traditional Eastern policy. Other states followed, and the consulates at Jidda were raised to the dignity of legations. Ibn Saud's relations with Great Britain were regulated by the Treaty of Jidda, concluded in May 1927 between Sir Gilbert Clayton as British envoy and Ibn Saud's son, Feisal. By this treaty the complete independence of Ibn Saud's dominion in all external and internal matters was recognized. Great Britain also raised the embargo on the supply of arms and ammunitions through the Red Sea which had existed up to then and which had been partly responsible for the military weakness of King Hussein of Hejaz. All the relations of Ibn Saud with the outer world were concentrated in Mecca and Jidda, where his son Feisal acted as viceroy and governor of the Hejaz. Modern forms of life and festivals entirely unknown in the desert developed under the growing impact of Western civilization. The anniversary of Ibn Saud's accession to the throne of Hejaz was solemnly celebrated every year by a military parade followed by a banquet. In the year 1933 Ibn Saud abolished the dual kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd and gave it a new name: it is to be known in the future as Saudi Arabia, and according to Ibn Saud's intention is the cradle of future united Arabia. But much more difficult than this outward consolidation proved the inner consolidation of the vast kingdom which stretched across the whole of Arabia from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.
Ibn Saud's greatest achievement consisted in bringing peace and security to the desert. Within a few months he had established complete order among the unruly tribes of the Hejaz. All over the desert feuds and robbery ceased. That meant not merely a success of the magic spell exercised by the King's strong personality. The nomad society of the desert is in a state of transformation. The economic existence of the nomad was until recently based chiefly on two sources: on the booty taken from caravans and hostile tribes, and on the income derived from the breeding and selling of animals, especially camels. The first source of income is being destroyed by ordered government; the second is being curtailed and slowly destroyed by the intrusion of mechanical civilization and means of transport, by the replacement of the camel by the motorcar. Only a short time ago the nomad could resist any efforts of ordered government as an equal; armies were not his superiors in armament and equipment and were certainly his inferiors in mobility and adaptability to the ways of desert warfare. Government today has at its disposal wireless and airplanes and other devices against which the nomad is powerless. On the other hand, the introduction of modern technical innovations makes possible for the first time the imposition of stable and permanent government. The motorcar since the World War has conquered every part of the earth. In 1924 there were in the Hejaz only three cars, all owned by the government. Ibn Saud introduced cars to facilitate the pilgrim traffic, and after a few years there were 1,500 motorcars in the Hejaz. But the car did not stop there--it penetrated into the interior and crossed the peninsula from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. The royal procession travelled in cars from Mecca to Riyadh, Ibn Saud's original capital in the Nejd. A motor car road is now being surveyed by the Iraqi and the Saudi Governments between Baghdad and Mecca to convey the pilgrims from India and Persia by this new quick way to the Holy Places. The Egyptian Misr airline carries pilgrims from Egypt within a few hours to Jidda, so that the whole pilgrimage which formerly took many weeks can be accomplished with the help of airplane and car in three days. In all probability in a few years there will be regular air connections between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq.
By introducing modern technical elements Ibn Saud tried to create new bases of economic life for the nomad and at the same time to stabilize and perpetuate his government. But for the same reasons his orthodox Wahhabi followers revolted against the reforms. These zealots of the desert had helped Ibn Saud build up his empire, they had fought for the puritan primitiveness of the desert and their desert faith, they hated cars, wireless and airplanes as inventions of the devil, as anti-religious witchcraft not foreseen by Mohammed and his companions. They were afraid of the new form of government which Ibn Saud wished to introduce with the help of modern machinery and which meant to them the end of the liberty and life of the desert as it had existed since time immemorial and as they had trusted that it would go on forever. Ibn Saud took the precaution of having the Ulemas of the Nedj, the learned men of the faith, assembled in Riyadh and having them declare the new machines as compatible with and allowed by Islam. But the old warriors, Ibn Saud's most faithful companions in the time of his rise to power, could not reconcile themselves to the new spirit. Ibn Saud understood that the principles of desert Wahhabism which had helped him to build his empire were in no way sufficient to consolidate and to rule that empire. Necessarily, the men who in the time of the conquest played the leading rôle had to be relegated to second place in the time of construction. The unrest created by this situation lasted for about three years. Ibn Saud showed here one of his most conspicuous virtues -- patience and forbearance, a wise magnanimity and an astonishing lack of savagery unlike many other great national leaders of our time. Again and again he tried to win over his opponents, led by Feisal ud Dawish; until finally he defeated them in a decisive battle in the Batin valley at the close of 1930. His rule had weathered successfully its most difficult trial. It was much easier for him to master a second revolt two years later, instigated from the outside and swept from Transjordania and the Sinai peninsula into the northern Hejaz. All hopes put by Ibn Saud's enemies on the disintegration of his kingdom by the old methods of the desert proved vain; his administration was different from any Arabia had known, and stronger.
Under Ibn Saud's guidance, the new wave of Wahhabi conquest is changing the nature of Wahhabism. Wahhabism is becoming flexible and adaptable to modern conditions. Ibn Saud teaches his Wahhabis moderation alike towards non-Wahhabi Moslems and non-Moslems. He has shown that he understands different levels of civilization and their requirements by separating the administration of the Hejaz from the administration of the much more primitive Nejd. He has given a constitution to the Hejaz. He has laid the bases of modern education, has invited Arabs from the more progressive parts of the Arab lands to fill important posts in his administration, and has sent students from his lands to study abroad. He conducts negotiations with foreign capitalists, preferably Moslem capitalists, for the opening of a state bank, for the construction of railways, for the granting of concessions for the exploitation of the mineral resources of his country, for the supply of electric power outside the two or three cities which possess it already. The pilgrim traffic has been put on a wholly different footing, extortions have ceased, prices are fixed for all services, good drinking water is provided, hospitals have been erected and hotels created. Ten years ago the Hejaz lived still the traditional life of the ages with its slow flow and its sweet charm, with its easiness, corruption and disorder. In the last ten years all is changed. And the ten years have been only a beginning, undertaken against all the odds and obstacles presented by the terrible poverty of the desert and the backwardness of its inhabitants. Now, once the foundations have been laid, progress can become much quicker in the second decade. This opened in the spring of 1934 by a new proof of Ibn Saud's outstanding statesmanship and military ability, given in his war against the Imam Yehya of Yemen.
From the beginning of his career Ibn Saud wished to achieve the independence and unity of all Arab lands. He realized -- as today all Arab leaders do -- that the poverty and backwardness of the Arabs can be overcome only by a pooling of all their strength and resources in a common effort towards progress and liberty. The peninsula cannot be modernized and arrive at a higher standard of life without the aid of the more civilized Arab regions on the Mediterranean coast, which also form the gateway for contact and exchange between Arabia and Europe. On the other hand, the Arabian desert alone preserves the real strength of the Arab race and will continue to supply the moral backbone and the political leadership of the united movement. The situation is very similar to that presented in the first part of the last century to Italian patriots: a partition of Italy between different dynasties and outside imperialist Powers, and a great divergence in the cultural and economic levels of the different parts of the country.
Ibn Saud's nationalism kept clear of all the pathetic rhetorics which are very often characteristic of Oriental nationalism and which replace strength and work by lyric sentimentality. In that he much resembles the other great king whom the Arab race has produced since the World War, King Feisal of Iraq, who like Ibn Saud was a son of the desert. Both were Realpolitiker who, in entirely different surroundings, had the European ability of working patiently, step for step, for the attainment of a far-off goal. There existed between the two dynasties a natural rivalry for the Arab leadership. Ibn Saud's victory over King Hussein has settled the question as far as the peninsula is concerned; but for those Arab lands which were mandated territories of the "A" category, the wise policy of King Feisal (which in 1932 achieved the complete independence of Iraq as a member of the League of Nations) made Baghdad the center of all hopes. Even after King Feisal's premature death the Arabs of Syria, Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq continue to look upon Feisal's young son and successor, King Ghazee, as the rallying point of the northern Arabs, who at a later date and by ways unknown at present will unite with themselves the Arabs of the peninsula.
Since establishing his hegemony over the peninsula, King Ibn Saud has pursued a policy aiming at the achievement of Arab union by a federation of Arab lands and princes under his leadership. In February 1930 he met King Feisal, and this meeting was soon followed by a treaty of friendship. It was more difficult to establish friendly relations with the ambitious Ameer Abdullah of Transjordan, but even in this case a treaty of friendship was signed in 1932. The important land of Asir south of the Hejaz was incorporated into Saudi Arabia in 1930, after being a protectorate for four years. The possession of Asir made Ibn Saud an immediate neighbor of the Imam Yehya, the King of Yemen. The Yemen, the Arabia Felix of the Romans, is the most fertile and most densely populated part of the peninsula, the winds of the Indian Ocean providing abundant rains. Imam Yehya is the head of a Shiite sect, the Zaidis, a most secluded and fanatical sect, hated and considered heretics by the Sunnis. The Imam is held a saint by his followers and rules as a theocrat. He is a powerful personality, but an entirely mediæval man, full of distrust against everybody and against all innovations, fanatical as a Moslem, and ambitious to extend the frontiers of his kingdom all over southern Arabia. During many years he followed with misgivings Ibn Saud's ascent to power. It was only due to Ibn Saud's forbearance that no clash between the two rulers occurred.
Imam Yehya claimed a number of frontier districts between Yemen and Saudi Arabia and supported the revolt of their inhabitants against Ibn Saud. After long negotiations, Ibn Saud was forced in the spring of 1934 to direct his army to reoccupy those parts of his kingdom which the Imam had occupied. Some European observers have wished to explain the armed conflict as a conflict between British and Italian policy in Arabia. They saw in Ibn Saud a British ally and in the Imam an Italian. There do actually exist treaties of friendship between Great Britain and Ibn Saud, and since September 1926 between Italy and Yemen; but no direct influence is exerted by Great Britain on Ibn Saud's policy, and the treaty of friendship between Italy and Yemen has in no way justified the hopes which Italy may perhaps have put in it. Italian influence and trade have not penetrated into the Yemen and the rivalry between the two rulers is in no way caused or fostered by the rivalry of the two European states.
The Imam had taken great care to reorganize his army with the help of Turkish officers and to supply it with modern equipment and arms. But the short war between Ibn Saud and the Yemen proved sufficiently that in the generally backward state of the Yemen and under its theocratic ruler an army cannot be imbued with the spirit to make it a match for Ibn Saud's warriors. In an astonishingly quick time Ibn Saud's troops under the command of his sons occupied both the disputed highlands and the coastal plain of the Yemen, and became masters of Hodeida, the most important port of Yemen. Ibn Saud's officials and police arrived a few days after the capture of the city, and the new administration worked smoothly. The way to Sana, the Imam's capital high up in the mountains, was now open for Ibn Saud's further victorious advance.
The whole Arab world had followed with the greatest attention the war between the two Arab princes. The World Moslem Congress of Jerusalem, which after its session in December 1931 had elected a permanent executive committee, sent a delegation to Mecca to help bring about peace. The president of the delegation was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Ameen el Husseini, the president of the Supreme Moslem Council of Palestine; the other members were Mohammed Ali Allubah Pacha, a former minister of Egypt, Ameer Shekib Arslan, the chief of the Syrian delegation at Geneva, and Hashim Bey el Athasi, the foremost nationalist leader of Syria. The dispatch of this very representative delegation to the belligerents was an entirely new departure in Arab politics and bore witness to the feeling of solidarity and unity in all Arab lands. In June 1934 peace was concluded at Taif, the famous oasis and summer resort near Mecca. Ibn Saud renounced all his conquests of undisputed Yemeni territory. The treaty was meant to strengthen Arab unity. It was therefore called in the preamble a "treaty of Moslem and Arab brotherhood, to promote the unity of the Arab nation, to enhance its position and to maintain its dignity and independence." Both parties declared "that their nations are one and agree to consider each other's interests as their own." The foreign policy of both kingdoms will be brought into line and harmonized so that both countries will act as one country in foreign affairs. Practically, it will mean a protectorate over the Yemen by Ibn Saud, the stronger and much more progressive partner. To underline the Pan-Arab importance and intention of the treaty it was published simultaneously in the capitals of the two belligerents, in Mecca and Sana, and in two other important centers of Arab political life, in Damascus and Cairo.
The desire, expressed in the treaty, "to form a united front against any attack on the Arabian peninsula" marks a distinct and what would ten years ago have seemed an almost incredible progress in Arab national consciousness. Only a few years ago both sides, the Wahhabis and the Zaidis, were regarded as moved only by the strongest sort of sectarian spirit and as alien to any broad national notions. Now the tribal and sectarian spirit has given way to a new consciousness. This is largely Ibn Saud's work. The peace treaty of Taif of June 1934 marks the definite entrance of Arabia into a new epoch of its modern history, a history which had begun ten years before with the capture of Taif by Ibn Saud's desert warriors.