WHEN Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdur-Rahman al-Faisal Aal Saud, the present King of Arabia, was just past his twentieth year, he took a band of forty of his brothers, cousins and their servants, stole into the central Arabian city of Riyadh in the dead of night, took the garrison by surprise, killed the governor and proclaimed to the stupefied townsfolk that a Saud had come back to power in the city of his fathers. This spectacular coup took place in the year 1900. It hurled Ibn Saud into the political arena of the desert and placed his foot on the first rung of the ladder that was to lead him to mastery of the Arabian peninsula and his present key position in Near Eastern affairs.

Ibn Saud was born in this city of Riyadh in 1880. His family had fallen on evil days. When his great-great-great-grandfather, Muhammad Ibn Saud, ruled in the valley around Riyadh in the first part of the eighteenth century, a certain religious reformer had come to him for sanctuary. This reformer was Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, a man of great and fanatical piety, who was offended in his soul at the corruption fallen upon Islam and resolved to revive the word of the sacred Koran in its primitive virtue. The preaching of Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab and the swords of Ibn Saud's forebears conjured up a dominion throughout the length and breadth of the peninsula and offered a direct challenge to the Ottoman Empire. But the Turks roused themselves and swept away the creation of the Wahhabis; and once again the desert became a cockpit of petty tribal feuds and persistent bloodshed, intrigue and assassination. When Ibn Saud was born, Riyadh lay under the heel of Ibn Rashid, a capable and ruthless Bedouin chief.

At the time of Ibn Saud's birth his uncles and his father, Abdur Rahman, were engaged in an internecine struggle for the privilege of leading Riyadh in revolt against Ibn Rashid. But eventually Ibn Rashid made up his mind to wipe out this nest of vipers: exile became the portion of Abdur Rahman, who fled south with his family. After enduring the wild and primitive life of the desert tribes as long as he could, he obtained Turkish permission to settle in Kuwait, on the Persian Gulf, where he brought up his children in the unwavering belief that it was their mission to recreate the empire of Saud the Great. As for himself, the strength had gone out of him and he resigned himself to a life of exile.

Ibn Saud never resigned himself. After an unruly childhood among the tribes, he passed his adolescence lounging about the cafés and streets of cosmopolitan Kuwait. He was growing up into a gigantic, swaggering buck with inexhaustible physical vitality, an indomitable will to power, and a determination to restore the ancient luster of his family and take the rule of the land into his own hands.

The coup at Riyadh in 1900 was the first step; but the subsequent ascent was a continuous struggle. From that time on he was to have no peace, and until the final consolidation of his power he lived under the strain of incessant and indeterminate warfare. It was as difficult to hold the Bedouins together for any length of time as it is to make a lasting monument of grains of sand. But though he was never at rest anywhere in his widening domain, he retained a firm hold over the nucleus of his following. He was a full-blooded giant, a combination of uncompromising ruthlessness and capricious generosity which made him the idol of those who clung to him. He understood the desert people well, and kept steadily extending and tightening his grip on them. His enemies, at their best never more than raiding Bedouin chieftains, were worn down by his magnetism, vitality and patience, and one by one they were eliminated as effective contenders for an Arabian hegemony to which, indeed, they had never aspired. By 1912 he had removed the last opposition to him in Nejd, when he crushed an insurrection generated by his cousins (the so-called Araif clan), and so accomplished his transition from the status of a Bedouin sheik to that of a state power. He had become the sovereign authority in his own land, and from this vantage point could survey the world about him.


Ibn Saud never forgot his father's teachings. He was determined to unite not only Nejd but the whole of Arabia under his own rule. He was persuaded that Arabs could once again be great, but for this they had to be inflamed by an idea that would purge away their incessant bickerings, stabilize their shifting allegiances and weld them into a people. That had happened once before under the inspiration of the camel-driver Muhammad, the One Sent by God to unite his children and magnify them in Islam. And it had happened once again, and once again had led to power, when the Arab Calvin, the luminous Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, cleansed the desert life of its amiable impurities.

Just as his great ancestor had given the neo-prophet Abdul Wahhab a sword with which to fulfill his burning words, Ibn Saud determined to mold these Arabs of his into unity through an idea borne by the sword. Two things were necessary: first, a lambent idea; and then a radical transformation in the material pattern of their lives.

Nomadic rootlessness is the central fact in Arabian life. Society in the desert does not have a solid body. Aside from the coastal cities and the isolated towns in the center of the country civilization is spread out thin. Except in a few favored spots, the cultivation of the land is wearisome. The "freedom" of the nomads is in reality a brute compulsion created by the barrenness of the land. The Bedouins move from one poverty-stricken pasture ground to another in order to keep alive. Government must be imposed on these scattered wanderers across appalling distances. Each community is a law unto itself, separated from its fellows by vast spaces.

It was this unyielding land and this wayward people that Ibn Saud set himself to rule. He laid a relentless hand on the stiff necks of the quarrelsome desert dwellers who never before had been tranquillized, and constrained them within a wholly alien discipline. History's verdict may confirm the statement he himself is reported to have made: "Let no man tell me what to do with the Bedouins, for I alone know how to deal with them."

One of his ways of dealing with them was to exploit their very unruliness. He turned each tribe into an overseer of the next, and made each chief responsible not only for the behavior of his own tribe but for that of his neighbor's. Each sheik was called upon to punish his neighbor for any infraction of the law; and the neighbor was required to attack him in turn for any remissness in such punishment. If both were negligent, the King's wrath was visited on them both. But the real foundation of his power was the agrarian policy he instituted in 1912, after suppression of the Araif revolt gave him the internal security essential to any further development. He deliberately set out to resolve the immemorial contradictions between town and pasture by settling the Bedouin population and destroying tribal organization from the roots up.

There was a close connection between this material reorganization and the spiritual idea which he adopted as the motor force of the transformation. Since there was no immediate economic drive in the desert towards this agrarian resolution of nomadism, the tempestuous Bedouins had to be given the reality of an idea. Now although Ibn Saud had been brought up as a strict Wahhabi Moslem, he had never fetichized the public observance of religion. But by 1912 he came to the conclusion that the binding force for the

agricultural colonies in which he was determined to settle the Bedouins could only be a revival of the austere precepts of his ancestor's patron, the first Wahhabi.

Wahhabi priests and preachers were sent out to warn the tribes of the menace of the infidel (which meant all non-Wahhabis) and to summon them to joint action in defense of the one true religion. The converts to the new dispensation were called Ikhwan -- the "Brotherhood" in obedience to God.

The wells of Artawiya, in the northeast corner of Nejd, were chosen as the first refuge of the faithful. The inhabitants of the consecrated colonies were to have neither kith nor kin nor tribe: the only link with their fellows was to be the Brotherhood, which spread its mantle over all professing its principles without distinction of tribe or class. The supreme authority was the Shar, the corpus of Islamic law, which was to supersede all other law. The center of the community was a small mosque built by the settlers themselves, aided by Ibn Saud's pinched treasury. Around this they slowly raised a number of mud huts and began to till the soil. The hamlet slowly but steadily grew to a village and then to a town, with a population in 1930 of more than 10,000. It also became the center of a group of a hundred or more towns and villages scattered throughout the vast desert spaces of Nejd. According to an estimate made by Ameen Rihani, there were 73 of these colonies in existence in 1927, with a total population considerably above 100,000 and a standing army of 50,000 men. These figures have since gone up.

The bulk of Ibn Saud's regular army consists of this Ikhwan manpower. Indeed, this had been one of the principal results envisaged by his whole agrarian policy. Each colony weakens its parent tribe, and at the same time constitutes a permanent addition to the general agricultural prosperity of the country. But above all each community is a bulwark of the religious fervor which in Arabia passes for national spirit.


The growth and consolidation of Ibn Saud's power during the first decade of the twentieth century was achieved at the expense of his Arabian rivals. In these internal conflicts foreign influence always played a rôle. The entire Near East is a colonial area, and sooner or later any power arising in it runs up against the powers of the world outside. In the past, Arabia's shield had been her remoteness and her unloveliness. Now, unlovely though she remained, modern science had brought her nearer the hearts of the Great Powers.

The Turks had contented themselves with preserving a certain order within the peninsula and demanding no more than a reasonable degree of subservience. Ibn Saud saw that although he might be able to conciliate them for a time, sooner or later he would clash with their sovereign pretensions. And inevitably, as his power spread, the Turks began depending more and more on those Bedouin chiefs who saw their own positions menaced by the successes of Ibn Saud.

Effectively present, also, was the British Empire. From Ibn Saud's point of view, the British had the merit of being powerful and, what was more important, remote. They were opposed to the Turks and the Germans, and they could promise more. Ibn Saud could not avoid the displeasure of the Turks; but he did his best not to block off any possible channel of future friendship with the British.

In the years before the World War the feuds among the Bedouins became intermingled with the larger conflicts without. The friction between Ibn Saud and the old enemy of his family, Ibn Rashid, never died down; and, in addition, Ibn Saud's central position ultimately brought him into conflict with one Hussein Ibn Ali, a Turkish functionary and grandson of a dislodged Meccan Sherif. Hussein had spent his childhood years among the tribes of the Hejaz and most of his adult life in the courts of Istanbul. In 1908 the Sultan Abdul Hamid, involved in the difficulties which preceded the end of his reign, bestowed the Sherifate of Mecca on Hussein, then sixty years old. At this time Hussein's aims seem to have been quite modest and conventional. He merely desired to aggrandize himself and achieve a humble distinction in the service of the moribund Turkish Empire, whose northern mainstay, the House of Rashid, rent by fratricidal strife and weakened by a succession of incompetent rulers, could no longer vouch for the enclosure of the Wahhabi power. An uprising in the Asir province, south of the Hejaz, provided Hussein with an admirable opportunity to display his devotion to his Turkish patrons and his personal qualifications for replacing the Rashidite house. He crushed the subversive movement promptly and vigorously, and the Turks were led to hope that he might serve their purpose in central Arabia as well.

But the World War was casting its long shadow across the desert. Germans and British were pressing in closer and closer on the Near East. In the spring of 1913, Ibn Saud came into direct diplomatic contact with the British for the first time. The Turks, with the help of Hussein and the Rashid, were manœuvring to seal him up in the Nejd, and in order to forestall them Ibn Saud abruptly invaded the Hasa, on the Persian Gulf, and seized the Turkish garrison at Kut. The position of the Turks was so gravely compromised that they were compelled to conciliate Ibn Saud by an agreement to provide him with cash and weapons, while simultaneously arranging for a counterweight to him by doing the same for Ibn Rashid. Ibn Saud for his own part was engaged in sounding out the British. After an exchange of formal courtesies with him at Uqair, the British Government decided that in spite of the risks afforded by the proximity of the Wahhabis to the sea it might turn them into an effective obstacle to the rapidly growing German influence in Turkey's Arab provinces. In the winter of 1913-1914, accordingly, Captain W. H. I. Shakespear, the Political Agent at Kuwait, visited Riyadh. This marked the beginning of a rapprochement between the Wahhabis and the British, though succeeding events were to nullify its effects.


Apart from a certain tortuousness of motive, one of the chief complications afflicting British policy in the Near East was the fact that it was executed by so many authorities. Because of this, the tactics used were often contradictory, even though the real objective with respect to the Arabs was simple. Nothing reveals this confusion better than the British juggling with Hussein and Ibn Saud.

The handling of Arab affairs at the outbreak of the First World War was formally divided between the Government of India, acting through the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force and its Political Officer, Sir Percy Cox, and the military authorities in Egypt, headed by Sir Reginald Wingate at Khartum and Sir Henry MacMahon at Cairo. At first, the Indian Government was entrusted with the supervision of Arab affairs as far west as Suez and Aquabah, as well as with the Mesopotamian campaign, but early in 1915 the extreme vulnerability of Suez and the Red Sea made it necessary to define the spheres of the two departments more clearly. The Indian authorities were left to look after Arabia all the way round to Yemen and the Asir, while Sir Henry Mac-Mahon became responsible for all operations in the Red Sea as far south as Jiddah, the port of Mecca.

The only thing the British wanted to do with the Arabs was to turn them against Turkey. But the Indian Government and the Egyptian military pursued the same object by different and, as it turned out, opposed means. Sir Percy Cox, the Chief Political Officer of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, attempted to secure an alliance with Ibn Saud, whereas Sir Henry MacMahon instituted negotiations with Hussein. The Indian Government staff was undoubtedly more intimately acquainted with the Arab scene and the relative strength of the contending parties, but its superior insight was nullified by its habit of lifeless routine. In the ancient feud between the two departments, moreover, Whitehall had always been closer to Cairo than to Delhi, and so it was the Egyptian staff which determined British policy in the Near East.

Sir Percy Cox sent Captain Shakespear to see Ibn Saud, and it was finally agreed that the latter should attack Ibn Rashid, who had declared his allegiance to the Turks the moment the war began. The Wahhabis took the field in January 1915, and the battle with the Rashid's forces was joined a few days later at Jarrab. Here something happened which, though trifling in itself, was to exercise a mischievous effect on British policy and change the course of history in the Near East. The Wahhabis were defeated and Shakespear, in a display of great personal bravery, lost his life. This battle was merely an isolated clash in the desert, and its loss was insignificant; but the Wahhabi setback discouraged Sir Percy Cox from pressing the alliance with Ibn Saud. Instead, Sir Percy concluded a treaty of friendship with him at the end of 1915, which lowered him to the level of half a dozen petty sheiks along the gulf and eliminated him as an instrument against the Turks.

The youthful British staff in Egypt were responsible for taking up once again the weapon of Arab coöperation. They hit on Hussein Ibn Ali as the man to raise a banner against the Turks. In 1916, there was a definite settlement by which the British agreed to recognize Hussein as the ruler of a vast territory comprising almost all Arab lands east of Sinai and south of present day Turkey (with some reservations concerning French interests) and to look with favor on his assumption of the Caliphate, in return for a revolt against the Turks in the Hejaz, to be instigated by Hussein and his sons. The insurrection began the same year, with the romantic Faisal as its figurehead and genius.

This conjured up a new Arab movement, and an Arab Bureau was set up as a special war secretariat of the Egyptian High Commissioner for the coördination of all operations and propaganda relating to it. This Arab Bureau was made up of vigorous and original young men, of whom T. E. Lawrence was the most distinguished. It steadily encroached on the functions of the Government of India, and directed the Arab policy of the British Government until the end of the war.


Arabian affairs were in a state of turmoil when the conflict ended. Of the three important Arabian powers, Ibn Saud was in the worst position. Hussein had not come out too badly. His dreams of a vast Arab empire had not been realized, but he was the monarch of the independent Kingdom of the Hejaz, acclaimed by the European Powers, and invited to become an original member of the League of Nations. The House of Rashid was also regarded by the British with a good deal of sympathy, partly because of the old passion for a formal balance of power and partly because of the prejudices of various British officials, such as Gertrude Bell and Colonel Leachman, in favor of maintaining the bloody but picturesque dynasty as a makeweight against the dour Wahhabis.

Britain's Arab policy after the war was a matter of catch-ascatch-can improvization. There was no clear-cut design against Ibn Saud; but it was evident that what was taking place in a haphazard but effective enough way was the formation of a belt of Sherifian states which would lock up Ibn Saud in the inner desert. Hussein was ruler of the Hejaz. The British backed his son Faisal for the throne of 'Iraq. Trans-Jordan was presented to Faisal's brother, Abdullah. And the Rashid, Ibn Saud's hereditary enemy, ruled in Hail. Ibn Saud realized that this anti-Wahhabi league would incarcerate him behind an enormous arc reaching from Mecca to Basra, and in two vigorous operations he pulverized the edifice which was emerging as the mutilated version of the Arab Bureau's earlier and more elaborate designs.

First of all, he decided that the total elimination of the House of Rashid was necessary to his own security. At the end of 1921 he laid siege to Hail. The reigning monarch was puerile and many of the townsfolk were sympathetic, so the siege was a short one. The reduction of the Rashidite capital drove a formidable wedge between the Sherifian states at their weakest point.

The British were now on the second leg of their misguided course. Whereas previously they had consistently underestimated Ibn Saud's strength, they now misconceived his temperament. Perceiving that a final and decisive settlement of Arabian affairs would have to be made, they called a conference in Kuwait in November 1923. This conference might well have brought about some sort of equitable rapprochement, but aside from its being slighted by every member of Hussein's family but Faisal, the Colonial Office stifled the meeting at the outset by presenting Ibn Saud with a series of demands which were too absurd for any possible acceptance.

The failure of the Kuwait conference and the stopping of the British subsidy in the spring of 1924 left Saud quite free to act against the last of his Arabian rivals, Hussein, whose rash presumption in snatching at the Caliphate cast aside by the Turkish National Assembly in March 1924 had inflamed the Wahhabis. The lengthy conflict with Hussein now came to a head quickly. Bands of Wahhabis were wandering restlessly about at this time, seeking a pretext for action, and more or less by accident a column of them suddenly turned up at Taif, a summer resort near Mecca, where Hussein's eldest son Ali was stationed with his troops. The mere sight of the fanatical Wahhabis sent them flying. By the middle of October 1925 the Wahhabis were in Mecca.

Their ultimate victory had been a foregone conclusion since the Taif disaster, and in the fall of 1925 a British mission was sent out to come to a final understanding with Ibn Saud. After much procrastination and many false starts, the British Government bowed its head to what it could no longer avoid and recognized that Ibn Saud was the master of Arabia. Perhaps the fundamental defect in British policy towards the Arabs was its failure to realize that the Ikhwan movement had brought about a qualitative change in desert affairs. The Wahhabi state as resuscitated by Ibn Saud possesses a cohesiveness lacking in the Bedouin régimes with which the British had been accustomed to deal. They did not see that in spite of its apparent atavism Ibn Saud's religious revival was the beginning of a westernizing movement. At first, to be sure, its unappetizing fanaticism seemed no more than a recurrent spasm of Semitic orthodoxy; it was difficult to detect its material aims. But from the long view it may be said that Wahhabism created the conditions necessary for the modernization which its founder might have abhorred, since in order to eradicate the disintegrating tendencies of the tribal wilderness Arabia had to be given "the boon of discipline to control the license of her primeval chaos." Ibn Saud's régime was not distinguished by power alone. The changes which it wrought in desert life made his power more durable than that of his opponents. This was the fundamental reason for his victory over Hussein. Although he spent the greater part of his life among the most insular of the Arabs, while Hussein lived much of his in Istanbul, Ibn Saud was the one who was aware of the twentieth century and its material developments and who adapted them to an authentically Arab framework.

In spite of Hussein's parochial limitations, his personality had a good deal of bite. His children, however, were at best never more than plausible Levantines. Faisal -- romantic, charming, majestic Faisal -- remained an obedient puppet throughout his career. Abdullah, now the Emir of Trans-Jordan, is frankly uninterested in exercising the power which he holds by virtue of British subsidy and British policy. But ever since Ibn Saud took power he has been the real, not the titular head of his people: he rules by virtue of his own right arm.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is spread out over 700,000 square miles, but its inhabitants do not exceed four or five million. This fantastic disproportion between space and population has been one of the difficulties in the way of Ibn Saud's creating a modern state. His government is an absolute monarchy, though modified by the fact that in the desert a man can rule only through the respect of his subjects. While doing his best to placate the religiousity of his extremist Wahhabis, he has gone ahead with his program of Europeanization as quickly as possible. He has established the King's Writ to such an extent that his country has the lowest police expenditure of any in the world. The governing élite which advises him is largely made up of Syrians, 'Iraqis and Egyptians due to the fact that the people of Nejd and the Hejaz have come into close contact with Europe only recently. Energetic efforts are being made to exploit the country's extensive mineral resources, especially the oil in the Hasa, and to reclaim great desert areas through irrigation. Elements of modern finance, modern agriculture and modern hygiene have all struck root, and are gradually tending to bring the primitive inhabitants into the stream of modern civilization. The impact of these innovations has been felt in the desert as well as in the towns.

Arabia is still mainly a wilderness, however, where men meet unencumbered by the frills of civilization and where personality remains a decisive political factor. Ibn Saud is a man of overwhelming physical presence. His huge and well-proportioned body radiates enormous vitality. His bearded lips, full and delicate when he is in good humor, become a quivering white line when he is aroused. His smile is quick and charming, his rage volcanic. His face is swarthy and aquiline, and though his sixty-odd years have given him spectacles and impaired his vision, his features have not lost their vigor. His gestures are graceful and expressive, and he uses the staff which is always in his hands to lend emphasis to his speech. He has a great voice, which can either roar or coo. A voluble and witty talker, he loves conversation; he is a shrewd and resourceful debater, with the urbanity of a Parisian and the downright abruptness of a cattle-rancher. He has an extraordinary capacity for combining limitless passion with an absolutely detached and cold-blooded realism. He is a man of enduring patience and inflexible purpose -- altogether, a formidable man.


The British Empire is now engaged for a second time in a World War in which the Near East is a vital strategic and economic factor. Despite their backwardness and limited numbers, the Arabs occupy a position of fundamental importance. Arabicspeaking peoples are scattered along half the coasts of the Mediterranean and encompass the junction of three continents. The Arabic language ties together a nationalist movement of great potential force. Although outside of Arabia the nationalist revival is not religious, nevertheless, for obvious reasons, the Arabs are the object of Moslem sympathies everywhere. This is especially important in India, a huge reservoir of men and materials which will become more and more of a factor in world affairs regardless of the outcome of this war. And the Moslems of India are their country's most active and warlike inhabitants.

Ibn Saud's attitude toward the war is clear. He is primarily an Arab and a Moslem. He must detest the Axis. But he has never loved the British, and although what he knows of Americans has made him sympathetic, what he does know is not very much. He has made alliances with the British out of necessity and self-interest, not because he considers them free from machinations or deceitfulness. He admires them, but his admiration is curbed by an acute appreciation of the point at which his own interests diverge from theirs. In turn, he has only contempt for most Arab politicians, whom he regards as corrupt, impious and overweening. He has made no secret of his congenital incapacity to accept any authority but his own. In any reorganization of the Arab world it will not be possible to ignore him. He will support the cause of the United Nations only in so far as it guarantees justice, freedom and opportunity for the Arabs.

Today the dominion of the British in the Near East is gravely threatened. The friendship of the Arabs has seldom been enthusiastic, and it now is farther than ever from being a matter of course. The British are aware that concessions would be both seemly and prudent. Concrete plans for such conclusions are of course hard to arrive at in the midst of a tremendous struggle, and British intentions with respect to the Near East are veiled in indecisiveness and confusion.

But an interested eye can occasionally perceive signs of the emergence of a shapeless entity referred to as an Arab "federation." In the vagueness necessarily characteristic of postwar projects today, one of the few likely things is that Ibn Saud is not being considered in connection with such a federation. The way the word is being used indicates that it is meant to imply a cluster of hand-groomed, federated "states" bound together solely for the greater convenience of London. To pursue such an aim would be to repeat the error of Lawrence and the persistent delusion of the Turks which made them cling to the idea "divide and rule" when it was division which made rule impossible. A federation which excluded the strongest and most vital power in the Near East would serve neither Arab nor British purposes.

It is not only the British Empire which is interested in the welling-up of the Arab national spirit, but any Power of world stature. The United States has been wrenched out of its indifference to even the remote parts of the world. The United States and the British Empire are being bound more and more closely together in the fortunes of war and peace. Americans are waking up to the existence of places and people so exotic that up to a short time ago scarcely their names had been heard of. Africa and Asia are now within the widening American horizon, and in the waste expanses of the Arabic-speaking world Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, despite his country's remoteness, looms up as a tower of strength.

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  • JOEL CARMICHAEL, a former Oriental Scholar at Oxford who has travelled widely in the Near East and is now in the Office of the Coördinator of Information at Washington
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