The Rise of Abd Al Aziz

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

Abd Al AzizThe founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia lived much of his early life in exile. In the end, however, he not only recovered the territory of the first Al Saud empire, but made a state out of it. Abd al Aziz did this by maneuvering among a number of forces. The first was the religious fervor that Wahhabi Islam continued to inspire. His Wahhabi army, the Ikhwan (brotherhood), for instance, represented a powerful tool, but one that proved so difficult to control that the ruler ultimately had to destroy it. At the same time, Abd al Aziz had to anticipate the manner in which events in Arabia would be viewed abroad and allow foreign powers, particularly the British, to have their way.

Abd al Aziz established the Saudi state in three stages, namely, by retaking Najd in 1905, defeating the Rashidi clan at Hail in 1921, and conquering the Hijaz in 1924. In the first phase, Abd al Aziz acted as tribal leaders had acted for centuries: while still in Kuwait, and only in his twenties, Abd al Aziz rallied a small force from the surrounding tribes and began to raid areas under Rashidi control north of Riyadh. Then in early 1902, he led a small party in a surprise attack on the Rashidi garrison in Riyadh.

The successful attack gave Abd al Aziz a foothold in Najd. One of his first tasks was to establish himself in Riyadh as the Al Saud leader and the Wahhabi imam. Abd al Aziz obtained the support of the religious establishment in Riyadh, and this relatively swift recognition revealed the political force of Wahhabi authority. Leadership in this tradition did not necessarily follow age, but it respected lineage and, particularly, action. Despite his relative youth, by taking Riyadh Abd al Aziz had showed he possessed the qualities the tribes valued in a leader.

From his seat in Riyadh, Abd al Aziz continued to make agreements with some tribes and to do battle with others. He eventually strengthened his position so that the Rashidi were unable to evict him. By 1905 the Ottoman governor in Iraq recognized Abd al Aziz as an Ottoman client in Najd. The Al Saud ruler accepted Ottoman suzerainty because it improved his political position. Nevertheless he made concurrent overtures to the British to rid Arabia of Ottoman influence. Finally, in 1913, and without British assistance, Abd al Aziz's armies drove the Ottomans out of Al Hufuf in eastern Arabia and thereby strengthened his position in Najd as well.

About this time, the Ikhwan movement began to emerge among the beduin. The Ikhwan movement spread Wahhabi Islam among the nomads. Stressing the same strict adherence to religious law that Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab had preached, Ikhwan beduin abandoned their traditional way of life in the desert and move to an agricultural settlement called a hijra (pl., hujar). The word hijra was related to the term for the Prophet's emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622, conveying the sense that one who settles in a hijra moves from a place of unbelief to a place of belief. By moving to the hijra the Ikhwan intended to take up a new way of life and dedicate themselves to enforcing a rigid Islamic orthodoxy. Once in the hijra the Ikhwan became extremely militant in enforcing upon themselves what they believed to be correct sunna (custom) of the Prophet, enjoining public prayer, mosque attendance, and gender segregation and condemning music, smoking, alcohol, and technology unknown at the time of the Prophet. They attacked those who refused to conform to Wahhabi interpretations of correct Islamic practice and tried to convert Muslims by force to their version of Wahhabism.

The Ikhwan looked eagerly for the opportunity to fight nonWahhabi Muslims--and non-Muslims as well--and they took Abd al Aziz as their leader in this. By 1915 there were more than 200 hujar in and around Najd and nearly 100,000 Ikhwan waiting for a chance to fight. This provided Abd al Aziz with a powerful weapon, but his situation demanded that he use it carefully. In 1915 Abd al Aziz had various goals: he wanted to take Hail from the Al Rashid, to extend his control into the northern deserts in present-day Syria and Jordan, and to take over the Hijaz and the Persian Gulf coast. The British, however, had become more and more involved in Arabia because of World War I, and Abd al Aziz had to adjust his ambitions to British interests.

The British prevented the Al Saud from taking over much of the gulf coast where they had established protectorates with several ruling dynasties. They also opposed Abd al Aziz's efforts to extend his influence beyond the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi deserts because of their own imperial interests. To the west, the British were allied with the Sharif family who ruled the Hijaz from their base in Mecca. The British actually encouraged the Sharif family to revolt against the Ottomans and so open a second front against them in World War I.

In this situation, Abd al Aziz had no choice but to focus his attentions on Hail. This caused problems with the Ikhwan because, unlike Mecca and Medina, Hail had no religious significance and the Wahhabis had no particular quarrel with the Rashidi clan who controlled it. The Sharif family in Mecca, however, was another story. The Wahhabis had long borne a grudge against the Sharif because of their traditional opposition to Wahhabism. The ruler, Hussein, had made the situation worse by forbidding the Ikhwan to make the pilgrimage and then seeking non-Muslim, British help against the Muslim Ottomans.

In the end, Abd al Aziz was largely successful in balancing the Ikhwan's interests with his own limitations. In 1919 the Ikhwan completely destroyed an army that Hussein had sent against them near the town of Turabah, which lay on the border between the Hijaz and Najd. The Ikhwan so completely decimated the Sharif's troops that there were no forces left to defend the Hijaz, and the entire area cowered under the threat of a Wahhabi attack. In spite of this, Abd al Aziz restrained the Ikhwan and managed to direct them toward Hail, which they took easily in 1921. The Ikhwan went beyond Hail, however, and pushed into central Transjordan where they challenged Hussein's son, Abd Allah, whose rule the British were trying to establish after the war. At this point, Abd al Aziz again had to rein in his troops to avoid further problems with the British.

In the matter of the Hijaz, Abd al Aziz was rewarded for his patience. By 1924 Hussein had grown no stronger militarily and had been weakened politically. When the Ottoman sultan, who had held the title of caliph, was deposed at the end of World War I, the Sharif took the title for himself. He had hoped that the new honor would gain him greater Muslim support, but the opposite happened. Many Muslims were offended that Hussein should handle Muslim tradition in such cavalier fashion and began to object strongly to his rule. To make matters worse for Hussein, the British were no longer willing to prop him up after the war. Abd al Aziz's efforts to control the Ikhwan in Transjordan as well as his accommodation of British interests in the gulf had proved to them he could act responsibly.

The Al Saud conquest of the Hijaz had been possible since the battle at Turabah in 1919. Abd al Aziz had been waiting for the right moment and in 1924, he found it. The British did not encourage him to move into Mecca and Medina, but they also gave no indication that they would oppose him. So the Wahhabi armies took over the area with little opposition.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress