Fugitives in the Land of Their Fathers



For centuries the land which we now know today as Saudi Arabia had remained a land unknown and feared by outsiders. Although European and Asian seafarers had for centuries visited its shores, had established trading posts, built harbours and fortresses and even stationed garrisons around its coasts, even in Abd al-Rahman’s day, extremely few Europeans had ever ventured more than a few miles inland. In the whole of the nineteenth century, up until the time when Abd al-Rahman  and the Saudis fled from Riyadh in January 1891, only three Europeans penetrated into the heart of Arabia, so far as Riyadh. Najd and whole of the centre of Arabia remained an impenetrable and forbidding mystery.

The one serious attempt to conquer Arabia began in 26 BCE when the Roman Emperor Augustus, having subjugated Mesopotamia, defeated Cleopatra and taken possession of Egypt and its Red Sea coast, dispatched Aelius Gallus with instructions to cross the Red Sea and either win over the Arab nation as a client state or subjugate it by conquest. Augustus was motivated both by a desire to outdo the achievements of Alexander and by reports, going back over many generations, that the Arabs were very rich as a result of their trade in aromatics, gold, silver and precious stones. But Gallus’s attempt to invade and conquer Arabia failed. Betrayed and misled by his locally recruited guides, his army became lost in the desert and was decimated by disease.

One place where Roman influence seems to have taken hold was Meda’in Saleh (known as Thamud after the people who inhabited it) in the northwest of the peninsula on the old spice route running up from the south along the Red Sea coastal plain through Medina. The Qur’an refers to the people of Meda’in in Saleh as “Companions of the Rocky Tract”. Their city stood in a valley about 2000 feet above sea level, cut into reddish and yellow golden rocks surrounded by sheer cliffs. Although many inscriptions and other artefacts have been found dating from earlier periods, today most of the tombs and domestic dwellings that survive at Meda’in Saleh date from between the second century BCE and the second century CE. Recently designated Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Meda’in Saleh has been described as the sister to Petra in Jordan. Were it not for the fact that many devout Saudi Muslims consider the place to be cursed and so will not visit it, it would surely be as famous as its sister city, Petra.

By the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, 570 CE, the two dominant powers in the region, were Byzantium (formerly the Eastern Roman Empire) and Persia. Both of the dominant regional powers had by this time adopted monotheistic religions. Byzantium was Christian, Persia Zoroastrian. Under the Byzantines, the land of Palestine had become largely Christian, although well established Jewish communities continued to live both there and throughout Mesopotamia, even in Arabia itself. However for the majority of Arabs living away from the few cities, spiritual life continued to be centred on the tribe. For nomadic peoples, living extremely hazardous, hand-to-mouth lives roaming the wastes with their flocks, searching for pasture and sustenance wherever they might find it, it was only through the tribe, through co-operation and absolute loyalty to the group that they could hope to survive. All law and dedication was centred on the tribal group. The tribe itself, based on blood and kinship, was sacred. Notions of individual survival beyond the grave, of a personal afterlife, did not exist for these people. The only immortality a man or woman could hope for was through the on-going survival of their kin, their tribe. The result was a deep but dignified personal fatalism, an acceptance and stoic endurance of whatever chance, weather or other circumstance fate might bring. Often hungry, the nomad replaced the settler’s concern for material possessions with an absolute dedication to the life and well-being of the group. The tribes could not afford to support castes of priests or shamans. Their role in tribal life was filled by the poets who sang or recited in verse, extolling the tribe’s virtues and retelling its time honoured stories. Poetry occupied an extremely important place in the life of all Arabs and poetry itself was often seen as magical; a poet in the act of reciting was commonly regarded as being possessed by the djinn, a supernatural spirit of the landscape. The Arabs of the desert viewed the new religions, the monotheisms adopted by the settled peoples of the north and far south, with deep suspicion.

However, to the Arabs living in the few cities, those monotheisms, and the empires associated with them, represented progress, modernity, relative wealth and well-being. Yet, while many probably accepted that there was probably one god who was more important or powerful than others, at the time of Muhammad’s birth, most of the Arabs of the peninsula, even the city dwellers, remained nominally polytheists, their gods representing or associated with those forces which were most important to their lives: fertility, health, love, death, rain and so on. As with the Bedouin, illnesses or particular places might be associated with malevolent spirits, the djinn or with the displeasure of a god. By making votive offerings to the appropriate god or at a suitable shrine one could hope to influence that god in one’s own favour. As well as places believed to be cursed or associated with evil spirits, there were also sacred places, trees, springs, valleys, rocks thought to be holy, to be associated with a particular god or legendary event. Archaic rituals were enacted at shrines erected in such places. The most revered of all such shrines was the Ka’aba at Mecca. Mecca was a thriving city, its success based on trade and its position at the intersection of two important trade routes– the one running along the western coastal plain from Yemen north into Syria, the other crossing it from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Muhammad ibn Abdallah was a relatively successful Meccan merchant, the orphaned son of a respected local clan. By the time he was forty, he had gained a reputation for kindness to the poor and to slaves, and for the fact that despite his family’s relative wealth, he ensured that he and his family lived modestly. Muhammad had developed an annual ritual for himself. During the ninth month of every year, called Ramadan, he would withdraw from the town and his family and climb to a cave at the summit of a nearby mountain. There, in solitude, he would devote himself to prayer, fasting, giving alms to the poor and spiritual exercises. During Muhammad’s annual spiritual retreat to the mountain-top cave in Ramadan 610, something extraordinary happened. He said that one night he had been visited by the Angel Gabriel, not some pretty luminous, winged and robed ethereal being of the kind familiar in later Western art, but an overwhelming, towering presence. This figure commanded Muhammad to recite. When he refused, protesting repeatedly that he was “not a reciter”, the Angel simply overwhelmed him by his presence, squeezing him until he heard himself proclaiming the first words of the Qur’an, “the Recitation”. Like some Old Testament prophets before him, Muhammad was not uplifted by his vision but terrified. Further visions followed.

It was not until 612 CE, two years after his first vision that Muhammad began to preach. Even then he did not believe that he was founding a new religion but simply bringing the old faith in the One God to the Arabs. Most of the people Muhammad preached to, already believed, as the Christians and Jews believed, that Allah, or God, had created the world and that on the last day He would judge humanity. God had sent the Christians and Jews their own scripture or revelation, now Muhammad had been entrusted to bring the Arabs their own scripture and revelation in their own language. Arabs referred to the Christians and Jews as the People of the Book but, as most of the Arabs to whom Muhammad preached were illiterate, the Scripture God gave to them through Muhammad was delivered as an ongoing sequence of recitations (or Qur’an). These ‘recitations’ collected together, would come to form the Holy Qur’an. Later there would also come to be collections of Hadiths, reports of the deeds and sayings of Muhammad and his close companions. There would also come to be a series of Sunnah, sanctioned practices, procedures or actions.

The Qur’an did not seek to supersede or replace the other religions ‘of the Book’ but to bring the Word of the One God to Muhammad’s people, the Arabs. His message was the same as that of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus, all of whom are specifically cited in the Quran. What mattered was not whether you were a Jew or a Christian but the quality and totality of your surrender to God. According to a well known Hadith Muhammad declared that the faith he preached was based on five pillars. The first and most important was, and is, the submission by man or woman of their entire being to God, expressed in prostrations on the ground that a Muslim is required to make five times a day together with the profession (shahadad or bearing of witness) to Islam’s central tenet: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet’. The others relate to giving alms or charity, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and fasting during Ramadan. Some versions of the Five Pillars include another alongside prayer, jihad, which means ‘exerting oneself in the path of God’, by such acts as giving charity, freeing slaves, challenging oppression, armed struggle against injustice and creating space in which the Faith and Muslims may flourish. The core teaching of what came to be called Islam, which literally means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’ in the specific sense of to the will of God, was a call to social justice, practical compassion and a spirit of true community. In many ways Muhammad’s message looked back to the old virtues of the nomadic tribal community, to values that seemed to have become lost in the urban life of Mecca. Unlike Christianity, where acceptance of a specific set of beliefs or doctrines were of central importance, in Islam as in Judaism, the central requirement was that people live and act in a specific moral way and undertake a set of prescribed duties.

After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, his followers elected his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, Caliph. A number of tribes attempted to secede from the confederacy created by him, but over the next two years Abu Bakr subdued their revolt and went on to unite almost all the tribes of Arabia. Now united in the Muslim Ummah, instead of fighting among themselves the Arabs moved on to achieve a series of astonishing victories. In 637 they defeated the army of the Persian Empire and in 638 captured Jerusalem. Within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death they controlled an empire which stretched east across the former Persian Empire to the Himalayas and Central Asia, west across North Africa, both through Spain to the Pyrenees and up into France as far as the Loire River at Tours. The leader of this formidable Muslim army was named Abd al-Rahman. Al-Rahman’s advance into Europe was only halted in 732 when a Christian army, reportedly numbering up to 60,000 footmen under Frank Charles Martel decisively defeated Abd al-Rahman’s even larger army of Saracen horsemen near Poiters. Fourteen years earlier, outside Constantinople, the Arab advance into the Byzantine Empire toward the Balkans had also been halted.

Although the Muslim advance into Europe had been checked, the next hundred years saw a series of great cultural and scientific advances in the Islamic civilisation. Under the Qur’anic injunction to look, see, learn and understand, Muslim scholars made more scientific discoveries in this time than in the whole of previously recorded history. The works of Greek scholars were translated into Arabic. The Sharia, God’s law revealed to guide humanity, was codified into a unified system and the Hadith and authoritative reports of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet and his close companions anthologised, so that together they would form a coherent body of Islamic law. But as trade and industry blossomed the elite increasingly came to live in luxury separated from the ordinary people. Now the rulers of a large empire, the Caliphs and their entourages lived in splendid isolation and elaborate pomp like absolute monarchs, with vast harems and courtiers kissing the ground whenever they came into the Caliph’s presence. All this was in sharp contrast to the days of the Prophet when the only being in front of whom a man prostrated himself was God. But as more and more of what passed for normal became harder to square with the egalitarian ideals and religious message of Muhammad, tensions and splits began to appear inside the Muslim religious community.

One in particular, which started in 644 over the appointment of the fourth Caliph, Uthman, resulted in full scale civil war. Over time this led to a lasting division within Islam extending well beyond its immediate causes into a range of doctrinal, philosophical and administrative differences. This rupture, between the Sunni followers of Uthman, and the Shia followers of his rival, Ali, has been likened by some commentators to the split between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity.

Over the centuries following the defeat of Abd al-Rahman at Poiters, the lands of the Muslim Ummah became divided into separate kingdoms each under its own Amir, thus weakening Muslim power still further. In 1099 the Christian army of the First Crusade re-captured Jerusalem, the third holiest city of Islam after Mecca and Medina, massacred 30,000 Jews and Muslims and established Christian kingdoms in Palestine and along the eastern fringe of the Mediterranean. Ninety years later the Muslims, under Saladin, retook Jerusalem. They were to hold it for the next eight hundred years, well into the lifetime of Abd al-Aziz.

Early in the fourteenth century a new Islamic power started to rise on the borders of Europe, the Ottoman Turks. Aided by a well disciplined slave army, the Janissaries, they seized most of the old Byzantine Empire and in the 1370s began to advance into the Balkans. In 1389 they defeated the Serbian army at Kosovo Field, sowing seeds of a deep seated and on-going hatred of Muslims among Serbs.

Over the next sixty years they annexed Serbia, laid siege to Belgrade and advanced up the Black Sea coast into the Crimea. In 1453 the Ottomans captured Constantinople itself, which would thereafter become known as Istanbul, and three years later they took Athens. Over the next century they went on to besiege Vienna and, although they failed to take the city, subjugated the whole of Hungary, much of Georgia, Moldova and the southern Ukraine.

As a result there were now three major Islamic empires, the Safavid Shia Empire centred in Persia, the Mughal Empire in India and the Ottoman Empire ruling what is today Turkey, Syria and much of North Africa. There were also other lesser Muslim kingdoms further afield. The fact that the Safavid (Persian) Empire was composed mainly of Shias whereas the Ottomans were mostly Sunnis greatly intensified the schism that already existed in the Islamic faith. This led to an intolerance and aggressive sectarianism between the Sunni and Shia that sometimes led to orgies of bloodshed by both sides.

As with the earlier empires, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans, none of the three powerful Muslim empires had penetrated beyond the peripheries of the Arabian Peninsula itself. But in 1524, having conquered Egypt and seized the title of Caliph, the Ottoman Sultan, Suleyman I (Suleyman the Magnificent) and his successor crossed the Red Sea, took possession of Mecca and Medina and also established their rule in the fertile eastern lands bordering the Persian Gulf. Yet even then the Ottomans, by now probably the greatest power in the world, did not attempt to penetrate the interior of Arabia even though they laid claim to sovereignty over the whole peninsula.

In 1683 the Ottomans were back outside the gates of Vienna, but again they were repulsed. The defeat marked the start of a series of reverses. The other Islamic empires also started suffering setbacks. With the coming of the Enlightenment, the states of Western Europe began growing in wealth, military strength, industrial and organisational know how.

By the early 1740, the Al Sauds, who had moved inland from the Gulf about two hundred and fifty years earlier, had become the Amirs of Diriya. Diriya was a small urban settlement of small farmers, merchants and tradesmen, minor religious scholars and slaves consisting of about seventy families, or perhaps seven hundred people in all. Lying about ten miles north of Riyadh in the southern half of the Wadi Hanifah, Diriya was just one, and not particularly distinguished, among a number of similar small towns in Wadi Hanifah and surrounding area. The wadi itself, notable for its many springs and wells, its abundant supply of good, clean ground water and fertile floor, runs for about eighty miles from the northwest to southeast between steep, jagged, often precipitous, rock strewn sides of varying height, in some places less than 300 feet high and in others more than 3000 feet. Wadi Hanifah lies at the heart of the loosely defined region of central Arabia known as Najd.

The Sauds had moved inland from the Gulf Coast about two hundred and fifty years earlier and were quite possibly among Diriya’s original founding families. As well as owning a number of wells, some cultivated land and date gardens in and around the oasis, the Sauds were merchants and small-time financiers, putting up the money to fund trading journeys by other local merchants. But these factors alone would not have been sufficient to gain them the level of respect needed for their fellow Diriya residents to accept them as Amirs. To be an Amir was not a hereditary thing; an Amir was not the same as a Shaikh or tribal elder. An Amir was the person a community, town group of towns or small region was happy to accept as their leader. He was in effect the head of an entity amounting in modern terms to a political formation. So for a succession of members of the Saudi family to have become Amirs of Diriya, they must, in addition to a certain wealth and material standing, have displayed distinct qualities of political leadership, skill in things as mediation, a capacity to organise and the courage needed to lead the defence of their community against attacks by other neighbouring amirates or marauding tribes. However, the fact that the title of Amir was not hereditary meant that the person holding the title was always open to challenge, both by other members of the same family who felt that they could gain enough support among other members of the community to hold the position or by outsiders. During the early years of the eighteenth century a number of Saudi Amirs of Diriya had faced such challenges. For a few years they were actually deposed by members of a powerful tribe from way out to the east beyond Najd altogether.

Ever since their defeat outside Vienna  in 1683 the Ottoman’s influence had begun to decline. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Arabia. Yemen had become completely independent. Mecca and the Hijaz, though still nominally under Turkish rule, had fallen under the control of various local noble families. The relative control and stability of Ottoman rule had been replaced by instability and increasingly rapacious demands made on the indigenous population by these local rulers. Money collected in taxes, instead of going to pay for the administration and security of an area, was increasingly confiscated for their own use by local sultans, district and provincial rulers. Landowners and merchants were frequently executed just so that a local official could confiscate their property. Because of the extortionate demands made upon them, small farmers and peasants had begun to leave the land and abandon agriculture upon which so much Ottoman prosperity had been built. With the land falling into disuse and decay, famine and disease became rife. Populations declined and large tracts of land, many settlements and villages became deserted. Raiding nomadic tribes came to dominate the trade routes, decimating not only the income of merchants but ruining the lucrative returns made by people living in Mecca and along the pilgrimage routes from pilgrims undertaking the annual Hajj. In the east, along the Gulf coast, even nominal Ottoman control was ended when the remaining Turkish garrisons were driven out by the most powerful local tribe, the Bani Khalid.

The loss of Ottoman authority, while not affecting the interior of the Arabian Peninsula directly, nevertheless had a powerful destabilising impact. By the early 1740s, the general loss of security in the surrounding areas, decline in trade with their neighbours and consequent loss of prosperity, repeated raids by nomadic tribes and a series of incursions from amirates to the east and west had combined to produce a strong sense of anxiety among the peoples of Najd. It was in this unhappy atmosphere that a new voice began to be heard.

The voice was that of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. A deeply religious young Muslim scholar, he was the son of a distinguished family of local theologians and Islamic jurists. He had recently returned to Najd from an extensive journey around the Islamic Middle East studying with a range of highly respected Islamic scholars. He was an intense young man, a master of logic, a skilled and precise debater and an able and prolific writer. Returning home to al-Uyaynah, a small town about fifteen miles northwest of Diriya, he began to preach. His message was radical, but one which people in Najd, insecure and ill at ease, were ready to hear. He preached a return to the founding principles of Islam as originally preached by Prophet Muhammad and to the ideals of the first Muslim ummah. The present ills of Najd and the wider Muslim world were, he proclaimed, the result of straying from the pure message of Muhammad, from absolute belief in the oneness of God and the doctrine of monotheism. The roots of the degeneration in the social order, of corruption, oppression and injustice, were to be found in a widespread departure from Islam’s absolute and fundamental founding doctrines. Wahhab believed strongly in the importance of living one’s religious beliefs in both one’s public and private lives. He preached a return to Islamic concepts of social justice, to respect for women, the poor and protection for human life and property, the strict application of Islamic law and conformity with Muhammad’s own religious practice. He attacked all forms of corruption, bribery, hypocrisy and oppression. The remedy for the current, essentially socio-political ills of Al-Uyaynah and the wider Najd was a return to strict adherence to Islam’s fundamental founding principles.

At first Wahhab’s message was well received by the rulers of Al-Uyaynah and by its people. He seemed to be preaching a return to the values of community and justice that many hankered for, with the result that Wahhab  was able to enter into an agreement with the Amir under which the Amir would support Wahhab’s call for a return to strict Muslim values and conformity to prescribed religious practice in return for Wahhab’s support in the Amir’s drive to unite all of Najd under his leadership. All went well until Wahhab and the Amir started to put some of his religious prescriptions into practice. The first clash with local people came about over the issue of sacred trees. Around Al-Uyaynah there were a number of special or “sacred” trees on which people would hang offerings or treasured possessions as a way of requesting a blessing or interceding for some particular favour from the deity. To Wahhab this was idolatrous, a serious and visible departure from the doctrine of there being only one God. So taking his example from the Prophet Muhammad, he sent his followers to start cutting the trees down. This sent shock waves around the small community, appearing to signal a disturbing intolerance and extremism. He followed this by destroying with the support of the local Amir and his soldiers, a particularly cherished local tomb belonging to one of the original companions of Muhammad. To Wahhab this tomb breached Muslim doctrine because it honoured a human being than God. Both the tomb and trees he believed might lead people into superstition, animist belief or the worship of objects, beings or spirits other than the One God, Allah. In committing these acts Wahhab was seen by people who did not accept his teaching as trampling on their own most sacred beliefs and traditions. He also seemed to many to risk antagonising the local spirits upon whom they relied for protection. Of course to his followers these acts by Wahhab were inspiring. They could be seen as akin to those of the Prophet when he destroyed the idols around Ka’aba-the act which had led to Muhammad’s exile from Mecca and the forming of the original ummah in Medina.

The final break between Wahhab and the people of Al-Uyaynah came about over a woman who confessed to repeated and unrepentant acts of adultery. After repeated questioning of the woman and her reasons, Wahhab finally responded to the urging of the local Ulema (respected Islamic scholars who fulfil a similar role in Islam to that played by the clergy in Christianity) and ordered that the woman be put death by stoning in accordance with the example set by Prophet Muhammad in a similar case. By these acts, the felling of the trees, the destruction of the tomb and now the stoning of the woman, Wahhab had antagonised a range of local leaders and ordinary people. By his actions and the acclaim he was now receiving from his followers he threatened to undermine the authority of both the religious leaders and the important men of the town. Alarm spread beyond the town to other powerful tribal leaders and Wahhab was forced to leave Al-Uyaynah and seek refuge fifteen miles away, in Diriya.

Wahhab already had followers among some members of the ruling al Saud family and so knew that he was likely to receive a friendly reception in the town. As a result in 1745 Abd al-Rahman’s great-great grandfather, Muhammad ibn Saud, the Amir of Diriya, entered into an alliance with al-Wahhab. Muhammad ibn Saud was to remain Diriya’s political leader but bolstered by the religious authority of al-Wahhab. In return al-Wahhab was to be recognised as the final authority in all religious matters. Together they would embark on a campaign of expansion, gathering more people within the fold of the reformed faith. Their alliance was to lead to the creation of the first Saudi theocratic state.

Their programme of expansion began by Wahhab inviting the leaders of surrounding communities to join his movement. Those who were willing to do so would enter into a formal alliance under which they and their followers accepted the doctrine of the absolute oneness of God and the leadership of Muhammad ibn Saud. If a community or its leaders rejected one or more invitations from Wahhab to join the movement and refused to enter into religious debate with him they would be declared “unbelievers”. Only then could they become subject to jihad, a holy war. The fighting force employed by Muhammad ibn Saud to make those who continued to refuse to join al Wahhab’s religious community submit,  was initially composed mainly of men aged between sixteen and sixty conscripted in Diriya and its immediate neighbourhood. As the Sauds and their religious movement (Wahhabis, as they came to be called pejoratively by their opponents), grew in size and became stronger, increasing numbers of the leaders invited by al-Wahhab to join him did so voluntarily. As often as not this was not so much out of religious conviction as out of self-preservation and the knowledge that al-Wahhab and the Sauds together constituted what the Arabs called “a House of Strength”.

But despite their initial successes, al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud knew that if they were going to gain real control over the interior of Arabia, they were going to need to enlist the nomadic Bedouin, who were regarded by most Arabs as the true, original Arabs from whom they had all sprung. Living as they did remote, harsh lives wholly dependent on the weather, chance, their own stamina and resourcefulness, Islam had made little impact despite the fact that most of them were probably notionally Muslims. Guided mainly by the sun and the stars as they drove their flocks across the empty desert wastes in search of water and the scant fast-fading patches of pasture that would spring into brief life following one of the very infrequent, short bursts of rain, it is not surprising that the Bedouin continued to place their faith in the tried and tested gods that they could identify with their needs and the universe they knew and could see around them. Their spiritual values, commitment and ideas of the sacred continued, as they had for thousands of years, to be centred on the tribe. They preserved cults of the ancestors, would make sacrifices to them and seek their intervention and assistance when they needed help or a favour from the Almighty. They would still invoke the local djinns and seek guidance from the magicians and clairvoyants before embarking on any hazardous undertaking. To al-Wahhab the Bedouin tribes were a prime target for conversion to his vision of pure Islam.

For Muhammad ibn Saud as well, in his quest for expansion by conquest, the Bedouin were a vital potential military resource. An essential part of sustaining life for the Bedouin was the ghazzu or raid. When a tribe ran short of food, as it often did, the men of the tribe would mount a raid on another tribe or settlement. Mounted on camels or horses, brandishing swords or guns and riding like the wind, throwing up great clouds of dust from the animal’s hooves, they would suddenly appear from out of the desert, behind a dune or hill, and fall without warning on some poor unsuspecting farmer, herdsman, group of travellers or settlement, swiftly drive off some of their livestock, snatch what they could of their possessions and disappear into the desert as fast as they had appeared. There was rarely any serious bloodshed or fatalities on either side as that would lead to a blood feud between the tribes involved and the aim of the raiders was to take enough of their opponents’ possessions to sustain their own tribe’s lives, not to kill the people they raided. The ghazzu was a recognised part of tribal life and had been raised almost to the level of a sport. The Bedouin were widely recognised throughout Arabia as its premier warriors.

The first military actions in Muhammad ibn Saud and al-Wahhab’s expansion amounted in effect to nothing much more ambitious than a series of glorified ghazzu. A swift raid, an ambush by a few dozen men, some camels or sheep driven off or property looted. The proceeds would be distributed a fifth to Muhammad ibn Saud and the rest to those who had taken part in the raid. With the growing success, scale and frequency of these raids, Muhammad ibn Saud was able to finance his nascent but growing state and reduce his reliance on other forms of tax or tithes. He was also able to start providing better support for the poor, reduce injustice and root out corruption. All this was in line with al-Wahhab’s interpretation of a return to Muhammad’s uncontaminated message and also increased support for Muhammad ibn Saud and al Wahhab’s rule. The fact that the ghazzu was carried out in the name of “purified religion” conferred upon them a prestige and air of authority which they could not otherwise have achieved. All of which facilitated Muhammad ibn Saud’s ongoing expansion and helped to undermine resistance in those towns and tribes that he and al-Wahhab had not yet gathered into their fold.

All monotheisms can tend towards fanaticism simply by virtue of their exclusivity. If there is only ‘one god’ and ‘one right way’ then any other god, series of gods or system of beliefs must be ‘wrong’, ‘sinful’, would need to be purged and their adherents converted, punished or made to submit. The narrower the religious prescriptions of a particular monotheism or branch of that monotheism and the greater the rigidity of its religious practices, the more it is likely to be to fanaticism and intolerance. And so it quickly proved with the Wahhabis. They quickly gained a reputation for being particularly harsh in their treatment of other sects or branches of Islam, such as the Shia. Wahhab regarded such people as polytheists and deviationists from the pure Muslim religion as laid down by Muhammad. If, having heard al-Wahhab’s appeal, they did not respond, they would be branded as infidels and treated accordingly. Because Muhammad had said that other “People of the Book” should be shown tolerance, Christians and Jews were usually treated more leniently than Muslims who refused to submit to Wahhabism. Although they were subjected to a tax, Christians and Jews were allowed to continue to pray in their own way provided that they did so in the privacy of their homes.

As Wahhabi control was extended over a wider and wider area they gained a reputation, in part deserved but also much exaggerated by their opponents and detractors, for their cruelty and fanaticism. It was a reputation which would endure and spread well beyond Arabia. Whenever they invaded a place they would smash all the tombs, destroy the shrines of saints, chop down sacred trees, impose strict Wahhabi forms of worship and implement Islamic shari’a law and punishments in all their rigour. Over the next twenty years almost all of Najd was incorporated within Muhammad ibn Saud’s and al-Wahhab’s religious military confederacy through a combination of military conquest and alliances, often reinforced through intermarriage between members of the Saudi family and members of the ruling families of the other amirates.

Despite continued resistance from some neighbouring towns, including Riyadh which was not brought into the Saudi confederation until 1773, when its Amir was defeated in successive battles and forced to flee, the extension of the Saudi state accelerated under Muhammad ibn Saud’s successors. By the mid-1790s, his son Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula down to the borders of today’s Oman and Yemen in the south, all of the eastern coastal region of Hasa bordering the Persian Gulf and had started harrying the Hijaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

But as they continued their conquests, expanding still further the area they controlled, the Saudi Wahhabis came into steadily greater contact and, inevitably, conflict with the outside world. Isolated and largely insulated for centuries from the world beyond their fierce deserts and barren sun-scorched mountains, they could have little or no concept of the power and organisation of the emerging European empires, of their military might and modern weaponry, nor of the advances in science, industry, commerce and ideas wrought by the Age of Enlightenment. This ignorance, compounded by early successes against the Ottoman Turks who were distracted by insurrections closer to home, would engender in the Wahhabis a dangerous over-confidence. This growing belief in their own military invincibility was exacerbated still further by their religious zeal. The Wahhabi warriors were inspired by the conviction that their cause was holy, that they were engaged upon Allah’s work of converting infidels, disciplining idolaters and enforcing God’s law. Nowhere was this conviction greater than when they began their campaign against the Hijaz and the Ottoman Sultan’s appointed ruler in the region, the Sharif of Mecca. They were outraged by the Ottomans’ religious practices, their gaudy clothes and outward show, by the Ottoman nobility’s way off life, their arrogance, arbitrary rule, corrupt courts and open sexual perversions.


In 1798, when Wahhabi attacks into Iraq and around Basra provoked the Ottoman Empire, the Governor of Baghdad sent a combined force of fifteen thousand troops and local tribesmen to attack the Wahhabi capital. But the Saudis succeeded in defeating the Governor’s army outside the Hasa stronghold of Hofuf and two years later mounted a fresh series of attacks, this time in the south. In 1800 they seized the important oasis trading centre Buraimi and started attacking Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. But in doing so, they now threatened Britain’s vital interests, control over the sea routes to their empire in India and their trade routes and commercial interests in the Persian Gulf and Persia. For the moment, distracted by the Napoleonic war in Europe, Britain did not respond. But in due time, she would.

By now believing themselves more or less invincible, in April 1801, 10,000 Wahhabis attacked the Sh’ite sacred site at Karbala in Iraq and massacred 5,000 Shias, many of them women and children, and destroyed the ancient tombs, including the tomb of The Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn. This horrified not only all Shias but many other Muslims as well. Later in the same year the Wahhabis further extended their control in the west, taking the city of Taif in the Hijaz and slaughtering the inhabitants. Then in April 1803 they seized Mecca itself. Tombs which had become the objects of Muslim pilgrimage were destroyed, new Wahhabi religious leaders installed, religious practices reformed, treasures from The Prophet’s tomb seized, public prayers for the Sultan prohibited and pilgrimage halted for all Muslims except those who professed the Wahhabi doctrine. From now on, the Wahhabis proclaimed, responsibility for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina would be theirs and not the Sultan’s.

By their acts in Mecca, Karbala and elsewhere the Wahhabis had now succeeded in outraging almost the entire Muslim world beyond the Arab peninsula itself. Not only had they antagonised the vast majority of the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, they had inflicted a grave insult upon the Sultan himself. As a result the Sultan, despite continuing problems nearer to his capital in Istanbul, immediately dispatched a force of Turkish troops to the Hijaz and had the Saudis ejected from Mecca. A few months later, in the autumn of 1803, the Saudi Amir himself was assassinated inside the mosque in Diriya by a man whose entire family had been murdered by the Wahhabis at Karbala.

Undeterred, the following year the Saudis returned to the attack in the Hijaz, extended their operations in the north and by the end of 1805 they had retaken Mecca and conquered the whole of the Hijaz all the way westwards to the shores of the Red Sea. By 1809-10 their armies had almost reached the gates of Baghdad and Damascus, advanced deep into North Yemen and had taken control of Oman. They even imposed duties on British ships of the East India Company trading across the Arabian Sea and through the Persian Gulf between Bombay and Basra. But now, their original alliance, their theocratic empire had reached its apogee. Not only they had amassed a greater area of territory than they could control, they had made a whole host of enemies, some of whom could exercise the kind of military power which the Najdis, shut off from the outside world for centuries, could barely imagine, let alone match.

Already alarmed by the threat posed to their interests by growing Saudi power, the British had dispatched warships to protect their trade routes in the Indian Ocean. In 1809, in an exemplary display of power intended to strike fear into anyone who contemplated allying themselves with the Wahhabis, the Royal Navy bombarded the Omani port of Ras al Khaima near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, landed troops, destroyed the shipyards, blew up the warehouses, razed the town to the ground and massacred its inhabitants.

In 1811 an Egyptian army of the Ottoman Empire landed on the Red Sea coast and captured the port of Yanbu. Although the Saudis immediately counter-attacked and defeated them, in 1812 a fresh Egyptian army invaded and seized Medina and early the following year took Jeddah, Mecca and Taif. Meanwhile in the south, the Wahhabis were routed and forced to withdraw completely from Oman. Although the Saudis mounted a number of successful counter-attacks-one against the Egyptians in the west being led by a woman called Ghaliya,  whom the Egyptians immediately branded as a sorceress who had put an evil eye upon them; the Wahhabi success was short lived.

The forces now aligned against them were simply too great and by 1815 Egyptian troops had regained control of most of Hijaz and Asir in the southwest. Finally in 1818 the Egyptians dispatched an army of almost 3500 cavalry and 4500 infantrymen, plus artillery, sappers and engineers against Najd itself. Regularly re-supplied with food, munitions and reinforcements, the Egyptians systemically subdued settlements and fortified towns across Najd and along the length of Wadi Hanifah until they reached Diriya itself. They surrounded and started to bombard it, killing many of the inhabitants including a lot of members of the al Saud family. Realising that their position was hopeless the Saudis surrendered. The Amir, Abdullah ibn Saud was taken to the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, publicly beheaded and his body thrown into the sea, the other surviving members of the al Saud family wee exiled to Egypt. Diriya and all its fortifications were completely destroyed.

The destruction of the Wahhabi state triggered widespread rejoicing across much of the Muslim world. There were fireworks displays in Cairo and Istanbul. There was particular joy in the Shia heartland, Persia, and even parts of the Arabian Peninsula itself. Nowhere was this greater than in Mecca and Medina where the Wahhabi ban on Muslims, other than those professing their own puritan beliefs, had deprived people in the holy cities of much of their lucrative income from pilgrims making the annual hajj to the sacred sites. Many other tribes across Arabia, especially those who had allied themselves with the Sauds only reluctantly out of self-interest or self-preservation, were relieved to see the back of them and their stern religious and moral code.

However, the Egyptians rapidly squandered this reservoir of goodwill. They destroyed the walls and fortifications of every village and town in Najd. Members of noble families and the leaders of those who had fought on the Saudi side were killed all across Arabia, some being tied to the mouths of cannons and blasted apart, and their families’ lands confiscated. Crops were uprooted, trees chopped down, possessions looted, all the horses stolen and unjust taxes imposed. As a British officer, Captain George Sadleir, who travelled across central Arabia in 1819 observed. The Egyptian commander’s campaign amounted to a series of barbaric atrocities and violation of his sacred duties. Soon the Sauds’ former subjects were wishing for a return to the stability and security, no matter how austere, they had enjoyed under the Wahhabis.

Captain George Sadleir of the 47th Foot arrived in Arabia in May 1819 on a mission. The British, having been alarmed at the growing power of the Saudi state were delighted to see it crushed but, in keeping with their policy of trying to make sure that no one power ever became strong enough to pose a serious threat to their interests, were now concerned to ensure that the Wahhabis did not make a comeback but also that Egypt and the Ottoman Empire would not now pose a new threat. Sadleir’s mission was to carry a personal message of congratulations upon his defeat of the Wahhabis to the Egyptian leader, Ibrahim Pasha, from the Governor General of India, Lord Hastings, and to try to persuade the Egyptians to enter into an alliance with Britain. Under the treaty that it was Sadleir’s mission to propose, the British navy and the Egyptians would work in conjunct to make sure that the Sauds and Wahhabis never again posed a threat to either of them. The British navy was to stamp out piracy in the waters around Arabia and ensure that no other power threatened the region’s maritime trade routes, while the Egyptian army was to assist the British in establishing a series of strategically placed garrisons in ports along the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf and to ensure that the Sauds and Wahhabis could never again come to exercise control over the Arabian mainland.

When Sadleir did finally catch up with Ibrahim Pasha outside Medina in September their discussions came to nothing. So with no agreement Sadleir went to Jeddah and finally sailed back to Bombay in January 1820. Although he had failed in his intended mission, Sadleir had in the process become almost certainly the first European ever to cross the whole Arabian Peninsula and the first person to bring out a firsthand account of the people and life in the heart of Arabia since the luckless Roman general, Aelius Gallus, almost nineteen hundred years earlier. Arrogant but conscientious, the geographical and solar observations and descriptions recorded by Sadleir during his frustrating journey across Arabia would remain for near on a century almost the only reliable source of information available to later travellers.

Although Sadleir’s mission failed, its aims remained the basis of British policy in the region for the next hundred years and would play a major part in the life and fortunes of Abd al-Aziz. Unable to reach agreement with the Egyptians, over the next few years the British through a combination of military action and treaties with local amirs, established a position of dominance throughout the Persian Gulf, in the Indian Ocean and along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. At the same time, the Egyptians, having as they thought reduced Najd and the central regions of the Arabian Peninsula to impotence, withdrew most of their forces. Now, while remaining in nominal charge of the whole area that had belonged to the Saudi state, they concentrated the remaining forces they kept in Arabia in the Hijaz, so ensuring their continued control of the holy cities, the safety of pilgrims making the hajj and the Ottoman sultan’s hold on the caliphate.

Over the next few years Najd and much of central Arabia was reduced to a state of virtual anarchy, riven by local wars and feuds within the families of many of the local amirs. But in 1820, Turki, a cousin of Abdullah ibn Saud, the Amir beheaded by the Turks, escaped from captivity in Egypt and began secretly to make his way to Najd. After living in hiding for a couple of years, in 1823 he began to make himself known to the people of Najd and started to build up a fighting force. Profiting from the unpopularity of the Egyptians, he quickly gained control of a number of settlements in and around Wadi Hanifa and by 1824 had succeeded in establishing himself in Riyadh which, following the destruction of Diriya, had become Najd’s capital. Turki would turn out to be the great-grandfather of the boy Abd al-Aziz. One of Turki’s first actions on taking control in Riyadh was to build a new mosque and construct the strong town walls and palace from out of which Abd al-Rahman and his family were to escape almost seventy years later. With Turki now firmly in control, stability began to return to Najd and with it many of those who had fled. One of these returning refugees was the grandson of al-Wahhab. He strengthened Turki’s authority still further by issuing messages to faithful Muslims throughout Najd that called upon them to reject the polytheistic practices of ‘so called Muslims’ and return to the ‘genuine Islam’. However , Turki was careful to ensure that the cruel fanaticism which had been associated with the first period of Wahhabi power did not re-surface.

By the 1830s, Turki had re-established Saudi control over much of the territory ruled by his grandfather Muhammad ibn Saud except for the Hijaz and parts of the south. However, he was weakened by the growing dissension within the Saudi family, and in May 1834 he was murdered coming out of Friday prayers in the mosque in Riyadh by assassins engaged by his cousin, Mishari, who then attempted to seize power. For nine long years after that Najd was wracked by civil war, during which time no fewer than four different members of the Saudi family displaced and replaced each other as rulers. For a period of three years, from 1838, the Egyptians returned and re-asserted their control. Finally in 1843, Turki’s eldest son, Faisal, succeeded in regaining undisputed ascendancy. One of his most loyal allies throughout these long war-torn tears had been Abdullah ibn Rashid, who amongst his many other deeds had himself killed Mishari with his own sword. The Rashids were the leaders of the powerful Shammar tribe, whose capital was the ancient oasis city of Ha’il, almost five hundred miles northwest of Riyadh and an important stopping on the caravan route from Iraq, Syria and Persia to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In recognition of Abdullah ibn Rashid’s loyalty, Faisal gave him rule of the whole Shammar region from the northern end of the wadi Hanifah up to the great Al Nafud Desert bordering Iraq.

Over the next decade and a half Faisal set about regaining control over the rest of the territory that had been controlled by Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad forty years earlier. However, he was careful not to provoke an all-out conflict with either the British or the Ottoman Empire, continuing to pay nominal tribute to the Ottomans in the north and the Egyptians in the Hijaz. Although in the south his troops re-took Buraimi, he held back from attacking important ports along the Persian Gulf and Omani coasts which had recently been seized by Britain in order to be better able to protect her important trade routes to her growing empire in India and the Far East. Faisal was aware of the power of British arms and astute enough not to risk provoking their use against him.

Despite ongoing clashes with some of his tribal neighbours, Faisal brought about a return of stability and prosperity to his territory. People were once again able to go about their lives without fear for themselves or their property. He also developed a profitable international trade in exporting pedigree Arab horses to surrounding countries and beyond. But throughout the 1850s while Faisal was restoring the fortunes of Najd, the Shammar, though still Faisal’s allies and still headed by the Rashids, were also gaining in strength. More distant, but no less significant, the British were establishing a virtual hoop of alliances, backed when needed by Royal Navy patrols, armed interventions and British military garrisons, with almost every ruler around the entire coastline of the Arabian Peninsula from Oman in the south, round Cape Musandum at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and all the way up the east coast northwards almost to the mouth of the Euphrates. More ominously still, by the end of the 1850s, dangerous rifts had once again started to open up within the al-Saud family itself. The most serious was an increasingly bitter rivalry between Faisal’s eldest son Abdullah backed by Faisal’s third son, Muhammad, and his second son, Saud, His fourth son, Abd al-Rahman (the future father of Abd al-Aziz) was only born in 1850 and so was still too young to be actively involved.

In 1862 William Palgrave, a Catholic with a penchant for disguises, who had undergone instruction in a Jesuit seminary after converting from the Church of England and now entertained ideas of converting Muslims and Jews to Christianity, became the first European to succeed in reaching Riyadh. Palgrave travelled into Arabia from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine disguised as a Syrian travelling doctor. His purpose in making this extremely dangerous journey was “to fill up blank” in European knowledge of the vast interior of Arabia. Palgrave succeeded in his self-imposed task to an extraordinary degree for generations to come. He has also provided us with a unique detailed and personal portray of the Najd and Riyadh as it was in the last years of the reign of Amir Faisal.

Because of Palgrave’s own religious zeal, one should treat his observations on Wahhabism and Muslim religious practice with caution, but he does record one particularly enlightening conversation he had in Riyadh with a leading Wahhabi scholar who was married to a descendant of al-Wahhab himself. Palgrave asked the old scholar which were the “great” sins and which were the lesser ones. The old scholar said that “The first and great sin is giving divine honours to a creature”.

Palgrave replied that “of course the enormity of such a sin is beyond all doubt. But if this be the first, what must be the second; what is it? “Drinking the shameful, smoking tobacco”, came the unhesitating answer.

“And murder, and adultery, and false witness?” Palgrave suggested. “God is merciful and forgiving“, rejoined his friend; that is, these are merely little sins. “Hence the two sins alone are great, polytheism and smoking.”

Less than two-and-a-half years later Riyadh received three more British visitors who this time did not hide their true identity or purpose. They were Lt. Colonel Lewis Pelly, Her Majesty’s Political Resident in the Gulf, and two Royal Navy Officers, a Dr. Colville and Lt. Dawes. They were members of the British government in India, based at the British Residence at Bushire on the Persian side of the Gulf. They landed in Kuwait in February 1865 and travelled on camels south to Riyadh. Taking care not to be observed they took bearings, estimated distances and collected plants and rock specimens as they went.

Pelly’s purpose in visiting Riyadh was to try to reduce what was perceived by the British as Saudi animosity towards them, negotiate a treaty with Faisal to assist in suppressing piracy and the slave trade in the Persian Gulf, and to warn him off making any further attacks on the Oman and Gulf coast shaikhs with whom the Britain had signed treaties of protection. Pelly found Faisal pleasant but while he was prepared to help in suppressing piracy, he remained inflexible on the other major issues which were central concern of Pelly’s visit. He told Pelly that he wanted friendly relations with Britain but insisted that he had sovereignty over the whole Eastern Arabia and the coast from Kuwait at its northern end all the way down to Sur on the Indian Ocean coast at the extreme eastern tip of Oman and beyond into Yemen “which God has given us . . . Be Arabia what it may, it is all ours.”

In December 1865 Faisal died and the state was plunged into long and bloody confusion as all four of Faisal’s sons fought for his throne.Between April 1871 and the end of March 1876, Riyadh had no fewer than six different rulers, one following the other in violent and disorderly succession. As Faisal’s sons, together with the greedy assortment of other branches of the Saudi family and ever shifting alliances of neighbouring tribal leaders fought each other for supremacy, Faisal’s former kingdom disintegrated.

As Saudi power became weaker, neighbouring rulers seized their chance to become stronger. Subject tribes and local rulers seceded from Najd and became independent, formed alliances with other local leaders or placed themselves under the protection of more powerful leaders and tribes.

Meanwhile the great powers increased their grip on the whole region. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had rendered the region much more accessible to the European powers and greatly increased the strategic and trading importance of the entire peninsula. As a result, the Ottoman Empire, even though still riven with dissension and revolt much closer to home, restarted its authority in the area. In 1871, the Ottomans occupied Asir in the southwest of the peninsula, bordering Yemen and the Red Sea, and Hasa, bordering the Persian Gulf and almost as far north as the mouth of the Euphrates. Although the Ottomans, wishing to conserve their military strength, pulled their forces in Hasa back to Baghdad, a few years later, they appointed a governor, supported by the promise of their military backing, to rule for them.

During the 1880s, the British, through their government in India, came steadily to exercise almost total control over the whole of the Persian Gulf, turning it in effect into a British inland lake. They also came to dominate the trade of the amirates and sultanates around all of southern and eastern Arabia. In 1882, the British sent troops to occupy Egypt.

Closer to Riyadh itself, it was the Rashids, rulers of the Shammar, who benefited most from Najd’s collapse into civil war, integrating more and more of the surrounding territory and tribes into their domain.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud was born into the bloody chaos that was Riyadh in 1880, the second son to the Amir Faisal’s youngest son Abd al-Rahman and Sarah Sudairi, a daughter of the Duwasir tribe from the south of Najd.

By courtesy: Ibn Saud by Michael Darrow and Barbara Bray; Published by Quartet Ltd in UK, 2010


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