Wahhabism and the Saud Family
In the 1700s, a Sunni Muslim named Muhammad Wahhab (1703-1791) traveled about the Ottoman Empire, comparing what he saw with what Islam was supposed to be according to the Koran. He began a new movement that denounced all influences in Islam that had developed after the writing of the Koran: luxurious living, Sufi influence, rationalism, visiting the tombs of saints and asking intercession of the Prophet or the Imams. Wahhab viewed the granting of godly powers to Muhammad and others as a violation of Islam’s strict monotheism. Wahhab’s movement labeled all other Muslims as polytheist. They called themselves “Unitarians,” or simply Muslims. Others called them the Wahhabi (Wahabi).
Wahhab was forced to flee from Medina, and in a more rural inland area — in the Nejd — he was adopted by the Saud family. With a combination of camel riding warrior power and Wahhabi religious zeal, the Saud regime spread across Arabia. In 1802 an army of 12,000 Wahhabi warriors attacked the Shia in the city of Karbala, slaying 4,000 of the city’s inhabitants and smashing Shia holy sites. In 1803 they attacked Mecca and, aware of the slaughter in Kabala, the Meccans opened their town to Saud rule. Against images, the Wahhabi warriors smashed opulent graves, and they forbade smoking. After taking power in Medina they smashed grave-sites again, including the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed. In 1813, the Ottoman sultan sent expeditions against Wahhabism. The defeated head of the Saud family was taken in a cage to Istanbul and beheaded.
By the late 1800s the Saud family members were refugees in Kuwait. In late 1901, a twenty-year-old member of the Saud family, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud was without a kingdom in Kuwait but with allies. At the age of 28 he rode from Kuwait with from 40 to 60 relatives and retainers, ready for combat. On a moonless night, January 15-16, ibn Saud and some of his men went over the wall of the compound at Riyadh and prepared for an assault at the main gate at dawn. Ibn Saud and his men killed defenders of the compound. The Rashid family, which had driven out the Sauds and killed the brother of his father, no longer were in possession of Riyadh. Ibn Saud was now in possession of his place of birth — a kingdom that measured 700 by 700 yards.
Ibn Saud was allied with Wahhabi warriors, with Bedouins called the Ikhwan — in Arabic the Brotherhood. Mounted on camels they helped Ibn Saud secure his position at Riyadh. Ibn Saud was an impressive figure and strong. There was security in alliances, contrary to what the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had claimed. Marriages helped in making alliances, and Ibn Saud made alliances.
In 1914, before the war, Ibn Saud allied himself with the Turks, agreeing that he should have relations with no other foreign power and be committed to joining Turkish forces in resisting any aggression. When war came Saud opted for neutrality and kept his options open. Then he allied himself with the British, who offered recognition of the middle of the Arabian Peninsula (namely the Nejd and Hasa) as his and that of his father before him and his descendants after him — with the proviso that he and his heirs not be antagonistic toward Britain. Ibn Saud agreed not to enter into relations with another foreign power and promised to come to the aid of Ibn Saud should he be the victim of aggression. Britain lent Ibn Saud £20,000, 1,000 weapons and 200,000 rounds of ammunition. Added to this was a subsidy of £5,000 per month. This strengthened Saud against a territorial rival, the Hashim (Hashimite) family, which in 1915 was allied with Britain’s enemy, Turkey.
Matters became more complicated for Saud in 1916, when the Hashim family broke with the Turks and went over to the side of the British — what became known as the Arab revolt. Britain began looking after the interests of both ibn Saud and his enemy, and the British would draw territorial lines that were not to his liking — especially regarding Kuwait. The Rashid family, however, remained allied with Turkey and supplied by Turkey and the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula. In May 1919 and in 1920, Ibn Saud marched against the Rashids. He defeated them in November 1921, showed them clemency and reconciled with them, marrying the widow of their now dead ruler. His territory now extended north to territory that the British had given to the Hashemite brothers whom they had made kings of Transjordan and Iraq.
The British responded to a raid by the Ikhwan into Transjordan with a ground and air attack that killed all but 8 of 1,500 Ikhwan. Ibn Saud kept his cool and submitted to a British decision regarding borders. The British gave him a free hand in the Hejaz and the Nejd. In 1924-25, Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi warriors drove Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the father of the Hashimite brothers in Iraq and Transjordan, from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. With the end of the caliphate in Turkey, Hussein had wanted recognition as caliph of all Muslims, his family, the Hashim, claiming to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, But on January 8, 1926, ibn Saud was proclaimed King of the Hejaz and Sultan of Nejd. Hussein fled to Cyprus and then went to Transjordan where his son was king.
The shrines in Mecca and Medina provided ibn Saud with a modest income. In 1926 he called a conference in Mecca, and delegations of Muslims from various areas of the Muslim world came. He introduced the delegates to his Wahhabi ulama. He charmed the delegates, and, thereafter, pilgrimages to Mecca were regular and grew in size.
The Saud family restored the allegiance of surrounding tribes through marriages. To keep his new kingdom united, he married a daughter from every tribe as well as from the influential clerical families — more than twenty wives, although never more than four at one time. Meanwhile, the Ikhwan warriors wanted to extend their Wahhabism beyond Arabia, and ibn Saud saw this as trouble and tried to restrain them. The Ikhwan were unhappy with ibn Saud. They believed that they had been insufficiently rewarded for their contribution to ibn Saud’s conquests. No Ikhwan had been made a governor in any Hejaz city. Ikhwan raids across ibn Saud’s frontiers had embarrassed ibn Saud, and the British responded again with their air force, pursuing the Ikhwan back into ibn Saud’s territory. The Ikhwan had created a disturbance at Mecca. They disliked ibn Saud’s association with the Christian English and his importation of devilish devices like the telephone. In 1929, Ikhwan revolted. The ulama exercised their moral authority and sided with Saud rather than the Ikhwan, whom they declared to be in violation of Islamic principals. Ibn Saud crushed Ikhwan resistance and built a National Guard.
In 1932 ibn Saud gave his name to the regions in Arabia that he had unified, calling it Saudi Arabia, and he declared himself King of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism remained a state sanctioned doctrine, and, because of Mecca, Wahhabism gained influence from India and Sumatra to North Africa and the Sudan. The Wahhabi (or Salifi as they prefer to be called) continued to adhere to simple, short prayers, undecorated mosques, and the uprooting of gravestones in order to prevent what they saw as idolatrous veneration. They avoided the kind of ostentatious spirituality that had become a part of Christianity when Christianity united with the Roman Empire. Moreover, they forbade the name of the Prophet Mohammed to be inscribed in mosques, and they forbade the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. Mohammed had claimed no godly powers. His original followers had not seen him as a god, and the Wahhabi did not want him celebrated like a god. Muhammad, as he himself is reported to have said, was just a messenger.
Oil and Geologists from the United States
In 1932 the newly formed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was austere and in debt. Its main income was its tax on pilgrims to Mecca, and this was in decline because of the Great Depression. In 1933, Saudi Arabia and the United States established diplomatic relations, and that year the kingdom granted a concession to Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) to explore and to produce oil. A commercially significant amount of oil had been discovered in Iran around 25 years earlier and in Iraq four years earlier. The Saudis were not very hopeful, but they had made their agreement with a U.S. company, which had the advantage of not being British — Britain being the dominant power in the region and not well liked by Saud. A U.S. company was chosen also because of King Saud’s impression of Americans, rising from a missionary doctor from the United States who tended people in the area, including King Saud and a handful of other Americans he had met in his kingdom.
In 1938, while searching for water, United States geologists in Saudi Arabia found oil instead — much of it. The largest known source of oil in the world were discovered. Needing people who knew how to develop and operate oil fields, ibn Saud invited U.S. oil companies to his kingdom, the king’s government facing criticism by some who believed that inviting foreigners to the kingdom was un-Islamic. Many in Saudi Arabia remained hostile to foreigners. The monarchy clung to practicality and set up a joint enterprise with a number of U.S. oil companies. In 1939 King Saud opened the valve for the first flow of Saudi oil to a naval oil-tanker, and in 1944 the joint enterprise was renamed the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco).
The Ikhwan (Brethren), a photo probably from the 1920s
King Saud, 1927, at fifty-one.
King Saud in 1945