Lewis Loflin openbox desktop
Webmaster Homepage

The Saudis - Middle East Mafia

by Lewis Lipkin

In the course of building their modern kingdom, the Al Saud famiy produced several extremely gifted "Godfather-like" chieftains. These men, sharing the ancient bedouin traditions, were outstanding leaders and generals. Perhaps more important was their grasp of the Arab variety of "Real-politik," which enabled them, by consummate deception, to defeat both their Arab and Western antagonists, while still being considered a constructive element in the world. Their use and control of Islamic religious forces to further their aggrandisement resurrected the conquering spirit of Mohammed, a force, which today could represent their most serious threat to the West.


In the second half of the 18th Century the still sparsely populated Nejd region of the Arabian peninsula, though dominated by the Bedouin, was essentially disorganized and without political direction. Officially, it was part of the declining Ottoman empire, but there was insufficient Turkish presence to exercise anything like a government. No single one of the effectively independent Bedouin tribes was driven by motives other than the traditional habits of intertribal raiding and retaining control of their tribal oases. There was nothing in the region's politics (if the tribal brawling can be called that) which would make for consolidatiom of tribes into a serious military force. Hostilities and alliances came and went, in many instances because of the fancied insult of a sheikh. Extensive differences in local Islamic religious practice also promoted the semi-chaos in the region. Click here for the note on the Bedouin.


The conjunction of two remarkable men, a Bedouin tribal headman, Muhammad ibn Saud, and a refugee religious reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, provided the catalyst to energize the Bedouin. The result was the rapid conquest of most of the Arabian peninsula and a breaking out into adjacent Mesopotamia - an explosion very reminiscent of the explosion of Arab force under the prophet Mohammed 1100 years before.

Ibn Saud had exercised the Bedouin virtue of hospitality and extended shelter to the refugee. It would appear that Muhammed ibn Saud, in supporting Abd al Wahhab, had recognized the potential force of Wahhab's puritanical religious message as the spark needed to inflame his and other tribes to the state of conquering fanatics. They sealed their common goal with a family agreement, uniting their children in marriage.

Abd el Wahhab's program was to restore what he perceived as the original Moslem religious practice of the prophet Mohammed's time. In his eyes, the Shi'ite veneration of their successive Imams was the worst form of heresy. The worship of objects such as relics or physical objects at historic religious sites, including the tomb of Mohammed himself at Medina, was equally unallowable. As with so many religious reformers, adherence to the Wahhabi program was a matter of "believe or die." The program with its fatal alternative found favor with ibn Saud. The Library of Congress Country Study on Saudi Arabia presents the program this way:

"This association between the Al Saud and the Al ash Shaykh, as Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and his descendants came to be known, effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab's teachings, a Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. The ruler, conversely, is owed unquestioned allegiance from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. THE WHOLE PURPOSE OF THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY IS TO BECOME THE LIVING EMBODIMENT OF GOD'S LAWS, AND IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE LEGITIMATE RULER TO ENSURE THAT PEOPLE KNOW GOD'S LAWS AND LIVE IN CONFORMITY TO THEM.[emphasis added]" (Saudi Arabia - A Country Study - Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/satoc.html)

It is clear that it was also the duty of the Saudi/Wahhabi emissaries to propapagate the Moslem faith among the unbelievers - both Moslem and non-Moslem. The ultimate aim was (and is) conversion of all to Mohammedanism by persuasion or by force if necessary, and further, to the Wahhabi form in which religion and state are an inextricable unity. The world system envisioned by the Saudi/Wahhabi family oligarchy has never be renounced but has sometimes been downplayed. Click here for the note on Wahhabi Theology.


The family agreement for Wahhabi support of Saudi aggrandisement and Saud support of Wahhabi doctrine was sealed by a contracted marriage between their children, ibn Saud's son and Abd al Wahhab's daughter. Conversion by conquest started off well and Muhammad ibn-Saud became known as Emir (the first) before his death in 1765. Click here for the note on geography.

The son, the first Abdul Aziz, received the title of Imam from his father-in-law, thus making him spiritual as well as political leader of the Saudi/Wahhabi movement. A remarkable leader and general, he conquered Riyad for the first time and before the turn of the century was ruler over the whole Nejd, including the Quasim area (home of their future enemies, the Rashidi) and the al-Hasa (whose incredible oil riches awaited 20th century discovery). The first Saudi empire, comprising a large part of the peninsula, was built almost from scratch.

The Wahhabi policy became of significance to the wider Moslem community when, in 1801, the Saudi/Wahhabi armies fought their way out of the peninsula to Kerbala (in what is now Iraq), the scene of the martyrdom of the Shi'ite Imam, Hussein, second son of Ali. Over the centuries, Kerbala had become a shrine, fabulously enriched by votive offerings of the Shi'ite pilgrims. The Saudi armies (under Abdul Aziz son, Saud ibn-Saud) sacked the town, slaughtered the populace, destroyed Hussein's tomb, and carried the loot back to the Najd.

When, in reprisal, Abdul Aziz was assassinated by a Shi'ite, his successor, Saud ibn-Saud, continued the string of conquests with the invasion of the Hejaz. Mecca was occupied, and numerous images and otherwise objectionable non-Wahhabi objects destroyed. Bloodshed in Mecca was considered an extreme sacrilege, even though it has been repeated on several occasions beginning with its capture by Mohammed himself, when he destroyed the array of polytheistic idols which marked this ancient site of pilgrimage. The Wahhabi presence in the holy city constrained the types of prayer and worship at what remained of the mosques. Click here for the note on Islamic Sects.


The first Saudi Empire reached its zenith with the conquest of Medina in 1803. With Wahhabis at this site of Mohammed's tomb, it became impossible for Moslems to offer prayers there for his intercession. It was not only the Shi'ites who were infuriated by the capture and Wahhabi dictates. The entire Moslem world found the restraints on observance imposed by the Wahhabis in the holy cities intolerable.

At the time, real power in the Ottoman empire was fragmented in its periphery. Clearly, while under nominal Ottoman authority, the Saudi/Wahhabi juggernaught could not be halted by the mere command of the Sultan in Constantinople. The closest real military power lay in Egypt which was then under the relatively newly appointed pasha, Mehemet Ali. (Incidently, this was the same Mehemet Ali who later figured in the Damascus Affair of 1840 - the first use of the infamous blood libel against the Jews in a Moslem country.)

The Egyptian armies under Mehemet Ali's son, Tusun, recaptured Mecca and Medina, in the course of which Saud ibn-Saud was killed. His son, Abdullah (the fourth Emir), sued for peace after the Egyptians had invaded the Nejd itself. In typical Bedouin fashion, Abdullah later refused to meet the conditions agreed upon. Conflict was resumed. An Egyptian army under Mehemet Ali's other son, Ibrahim, defeated a Saudi/Wahhabi force at Wija, where all prisoners taken were put to death. In the end, after a six month siege in 1818, the Saudi/Wahhbi home base of Dary'iya was taken and razed to the ground. The Emir Abdullah and his remaining 200 followers were captured. Their reward was transport to Constantinople where in the best Moslem tradition, after 3 days of degradation in front of the people of Istanbul, they were beheaded in public.


A son of Abdullah, Turki, survived the disaster and, in 1824, raised a revolt in the Nejd, establishing his base in his new capital, Riyad. The rapid but partial reconquest of the Saudi Empire reflected the persistent Wahhabi influence among the local Bedouin tribes. The sphere of influence that he established was protected in part by the nominal tribute payed to the Sultan via the Egyptians. The Wahhabi component of Saudi power remained a critically important factor. As described in Saudi Arabia - A Country Study - Library of Congress:

"Within their sphere of influence, the Al Saud could levy troops for military campaigns from the towns and tribes under their control. Although these campaigns were mostly police actions against recalcitrant tribes, the rulers described them as holy wars (jihad), which they conducted according to religious principles. The tribute that the Al Saud demanded from those under their control was also based on Islamic principles. Towns, for instance, paid taxes at a rate established by Muslim law, and the troops that accompanied the Al Saud on raiding expeditions returned one-fifth of their booty to the Al Saud treasury according to sharia (Muslim Law) requirements.

"The collection of tribute was another indication of the extensive influence the Al Saud derived because of their Wahhabi connections. Wahhabi religious ideas had spread through the central part of the Arabian Peninsula; as a result, the Al Saud influenced decisions even in areas not under their control, such as succession battles and questions of tribute. Their influence in the Hijaz, however, remained restricted. Not only were the Egyptians and Ottomans careful that the region not slip away again, but Wahhabi ideas had not found a receptive audience in western Arabia. Accordingly, the family was unable to gain a foothold in the Hijaz during the nineteenth century." Saudi Arabia - A Country Study - Library of Congress, (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field DOCID+sa0018)

After 10 years of rule, Turki was murdered and was succeeded by his son Feisal.

The history of the Arabian peninsula in the remainder of the 19th century was even more bloody and violent than the usual run of Bedouin/Arab feuds and wars. Feisal was deposed and for a while replaced by his brother Khalid. Feisal escaped from his Cairo prison and displaced his brother. Intra-family rivalries, betrayals, sudden reversals of fortune and much bloodshed ensued. This continued for almost a quarter century until, in 1889, Feisal's 3rd son, abd ar-Rahman, finally overcame his brothers and became the 15th Emir.

The instability of the period of interregnum allowed the development of a new power in the Nejd. In the city of Hail and the surrounding area, the Rashid clan developed a power that was to extend control over Riyad itself. Abd ar-Rahman, the 15th Emir, was soon (1891) expelled from the Saudi capital. After several years of wandering and hiding with his first son, Abd el Aziz, he finally found refuge in Kuwait.


Like his namesake, the second Abd al Aziz was a great and courageous leader and general. His skill in the machiavellian maneuvering among the various British interests, the Persian Gulf sheiks, and the Hashemites of the Hijaz is unequalled in recent history. His accomplishment in founding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its unique family governing system has had a most ominous effect on the Middle East and consequently the rest of the world.

The years spent in the haven of Kuwait were for Abd al Aziz a time of preparation for reconquest, first of the Nejd, and then of the major part of the Arabian peninsula. Despite the military defeat of Saud by the Rashidi, Wahhabism had a persistent hold on the people of the peninsula. This in part counteracted the damage to the Saudi image due to the Rashidi defeats. Raids into the Najd based in Kuwait and in the eastern al Hasa region met less popular resistence because of the the local Wahhabis. Repeated successful raids enhanced the reputation of the Saudis, until finally in 1902, Abd el Aziz captured Riyad. The "offical" account is a somewhat romantic story of Bedouin daring and guile, involving a female helper, who betrayed the governor. Click here for details.

The official version does not include the traditional Muslim crowd-convincing finale - the throwing of the severed head of the betrayed and defeated garrison commander to the mob, a gesture which brought a quick pledge of allegiance. In this way of declaring rulership, he was following the centuries old Arab/Bedouin habit of announcing a change of state.

The capture of Riyad was a multiple triumph for Abd el Aziz. He was proclaimed the 16th Saud Emir and the Imam of the Wahhabis, thus echoing the roots of the now two-centuries old family compact. To Aziz himself it was the attainment of a prime Bedouin objective - revenge for the shaming of his father, ar-Rahman, by defeat at the hands of the Rashidis.


In the years leading up to World War I, the Arabian peninsula presented a set of complex political problems to the Saudis. There were their traditional enemies, the Hashemites in the Hejaz, and the soon-to-be resurgent Rashids to the north. In addition, violent changes among the rulers of Kuwait injected a further complication in Arabian politics. Further, the still extant Ottoman Empire in the person of the Governor of the al-Hasa region added to Aziz's difficulties. Finally, the role of various adjacent zones of influence of the Great Powers, building up to the war, made for difficulties in the way of Saudi survival and expansion.

An early item on Abd al Aziz's agenda was the permanent elimination of the Rashidi power. In typical Bedouin fashion this was pursued by a series of raids which resulted in the partial capture of Qasim as well as most of the remaining Nejd. After a year or more of Bedouin-style raiding the Saudi/Wahhabi forces succeeded in killing ibn-Rashid. As a result, the Shammar tribe - the largest of the bedouin tribes - was added to the Saudi adherents.

The real consolidation of strength required the allegiance of the many Bedouin tribes, with as little overt conflict as possible. As the Library of Congress Country Study on Saudi Arabia describes it:

"..... promoting Wahhabism was an asset to Abd al Aziz in forging cohesion among the tribal peoples and districts of the peninsula. By reviving the notion of a community of believers, united by their submission to God, Wahhabism helped to forge a sense of common identity that was to supersede parochial loyalties. By abolishing the tribute paid by inferior tribes to militarily superior tribes, Abd al Aziz undercut traditional hierarchies of power and made devotion to Islam and to himself as the rightly guided Islamic ruler the glue that would hold his kingdom together." (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sa0044)

The hostility of the Hashemites was of long standing. Before Abd al Aziz could deal with that definitively, a revolt of two dependent tribes was instigated by his cousins. Twichell, in his description of the rise of the Saudi State, notes the use of the stick without need of a carrot.

"...ibn Saud [Abd al Aziz] hurried south where at the village of Hariq he met and defeated the conspirators. He proceeded to Laila.... where he tried and pronounced death sentences upon the nineteen captured leaders. Having executed eighteen by the sword in public, ibn-Saud pardoned the nineteenth, ordering him to go and inform his friends both of the clemency and stern justice of ibn-Saud. The story of Laila spread with good effect throughout the country." (Twitchell, p. 95)

With the onset of World War I, the situation in the peninsula grew even more complex. Turkey's German ally antagonized Turk and Arab alike. Abd al Aziz, as part of the settlement at his return to the Nejd, had acknowledged Turkish overlordship, and this made him a German ally. In view of uncertain outcomes, he decided to cover the possibilities by a secret agreement with the India-based British Colonial officers, who were led by Percy Cox. Their agreement to a future revolt by Aziz against the Turks was funded by a generous annual subsidy. The goal of these Colonial officers was to obtain as much of Mesopotamia as possible, both as a protection of the overland route to India, and as a ballast for overflow Indian Sunni Moslem population. The creation of a large Arab kingdom was the last thing in Percy Cox mind. Abd al Aziz aided the Indian office aims significantly by his attacks on Turkish forces in southern Mesopotamia.

At about the same time, convinced of Turkey's ultimate defeat and fragmentation, the British Foreign Office in Egypt and the Sudan began to lay plans for a post war Egyptian-Sudan-Arabian viceroyalty. This would equal the Indian Raj in imperial importance. The plans included annexing Egypt and the supplanting of the Sultan in Constantinople as Caliph by the Hashemite Hussein ibn Ali. Hussein was Sherif of Mecca, and with his claimed Fatimite descent, a likely replacement. Hussein, in return for a future Arab revolt (which he claimed would be throughout the Arab world) against the Turks, was given a very generous annual subsidy - more than 50,000 pounds. Hussain's expectations from the British were inflated by a series of indefinitely-worded letters (The MacMahon Correspondence). The second of these letters contained an ill-defined territorial committment by the British, which if put into effect, would make him the future ruler of all Arab lands, i.e., Syria (which included Palestine and the Lebanon at the time), Arabia and Mesopotamia. It was this piece of British duplicity that muddied the promise of the Balfour declaration by providing a pro forma, though absolutely illegal, basis for Arab claims to all of Palestine.

Initially, the Hashemite Hussein did not know of Cox's treaty with Abd al Aziz, nor did the Saud know of the British Hashemite agreements. Further, neither Arab client knew of the Sykes-Piquot agreement, which divided Arab territories into British, French and Russian zones of influence. British duplicity was later revealed by the Russian revolutionaries who published the many secret wartime treaties and agreements among the Allied governments.

Briefly, the Hashemite revolt agains the Turks was a fiasco. There were some minimal successes with British naval assistance in the Hijaz itself, but in place of the promised hundreds of thousands of Bedouin Arab warriors, Hussein's son, Feisal, was able to lead a bare 3-4,000 in the drive on Damascus. Even there the charade that Allenby's staff had planned for the taking of the city by the Arabs failed when an unwitting British brigade preempted the capture. Nonetheless Feisal and his Bedouin were left in charge, a situation that postwar France would forcibly change.

In the isolation of the Nejd, Abd al Aziz was able to employ Wahhabism to build a new tool for the conquest of Arabia and beyond. It is not clear whether Aziz began the Ikhwan movement or took it over in its earliest stages. The Ikhwan brotherhood was made up of fanatic converts to Wahhabi Islam. They formed a series of agricultural settlements that were simultaneously military cantonments subsidized by Aziz. The subsidies considsted of arms, seed, tools and some money. Each cantonment had a mosque. Aziz directed the colonies on (for him politically and for the Ikhwan, economically) profitable raids. By 1915, there were of the order of 200 hundred such colonies, and they could produce a force of over 60,000 at Aziz call.

At the end of the War, Aziz in his goal to gain all of Arabia and beyond, was faced with the problem of the British Persian Gulf protectorates. His solution was to raid one or the other of them, until warned off by the English. He then would negotiate for gains in territory. This was repeated several times, and in each case the border of the Nejd and al Hasa was eventually adjusted in the Saudi's favor. By this time, the presence and importance of oil in the Gulf region was known. He could not then attempt a complete takeover of any of the emirates, but could and did see to the expansion of his gulf coast province, al Hasa, by his raid-and-partial retreat techniques. At the same time he was able to convince the English that although he constituted an occasional problem, he could be expected to conform in a crisis. His patient restraint toward the Hashemites was a case in point.

The British in Egypt soon realized that their hoped for take-over of Syria was impossible. The French were determined to extend the scope of their control to the full League of Nations mandate over all Syria. The Bedouin army then holding the Damascus area of Syria under unofficial British aegis would have to be supported by troops or abandoned. The imperial shortage of men and money at the time left no choice at all. They left the Hashemite Faisal to face the French troops from Lebanon alone. He was soon expelled, but the English made sure he would be available for future employment by giving him sanctuary. Several years later, in a marked shift in India's Colonial Office policy, he was made King of Iraq.

In 1922, British Colonial and Foreign officers met in Cairo under the chairmanship of Winston Churchill. It was then that the major portion of Palestine - all of the land east of the Jordan - was cut away - and named Transjordan. Jewish settlement anywhere within it was prohibited. Churchill, in seeking a temporary custodian for this almost unoccupied territory, settled on the Hashemite Faisal's brother, Abdullah. It did not take very many years to further violate the original mandate and make Abdullah king of Transjordan, of course under British protection.

At the end of the war, Hussein, the Sherrif of the Hijaz proclaimed himself "King of the Arab Countries" and made attacks upon towns in western most portions of the Nejd. Abd al Aziz had dispatched Wahhabi missionaries to the threatened areas and Hussain's ill-considered attacks were repulsed. The feud continued to smolder until Aziz completely occupied the remnants of the Rashid territory and until Hussein claimed the Caliphate for himself. Saudi diplomacy had already gathered support from Indian and other Moslem leaders. Aziz could then unleash the Ikhwan for the conquest of the Hijaz. This conquest though rapid created problems in the rest of Islam because his fanatic warriors were strongly inclined to limit worship in Mecca and Medina to forms which Wahhabis considered within Islamic law.

The Ikhwan as good Wahhabis were troubled by Aziz' encouraging the use of modern machinery and methods of communication in Arabia. The early influx of non-Muslims (largely as technical personnel) into Arabia was a further bone of contention between Abd al Aziz and the Ikhwan.

Most important, the Ikhwan remained eager to force their message on everyone. This led them to attack non-Wahhabi Muslims, and sometimes Wahhabi Muslims as well, within Saudi Arabia. They pushed beyond its borders into Iraq against orders. Their anti-foreign activities within the Nejd challenged Abd al Aziz's authority. Their unauthorized raids into Iraq and Transjordan caused problems with the British, who would not tolerate violation of the borders they had set up after World War I. Abd al Aziz was obliged to take on the Ikhwan militarily.

Abd al Aziz did not undertake the suppression of his former allies without help. In his battle against the Ikhwan he had the aid of British armored cars and several airplanes flown by British pilots. The pliability and reasonableness that he had shown over the years was rewarded by the English. He had become the best bet to secure stability in the Arabian peninsula. Over the years until World War II and after, the British, basically unable to deal with the subtleties of Arab policy, continued to back their bet on Aziz in particular and the so-called Arab nationalist movement in general.

Aziz excelled at the construction of popular support, usually employing a religious motif in his solicitations to various groups. He was even able to bring around the resistant higher clergy - the ulama - to his program of modernization. In this connection, the comments in the section on Nation Building in Saudi Arabia - A Country Study - Library of Congress are of interest.

" The way that Abd al Aziz put down the Ikhwan demonstrated his ability to assemble a domestic constituency. Throughout their history, the Al Saud had no standing army; when the family had a military objective it had simply assembled coalitions of tribes and towns, or such groups as the Ikhwan. In facing the Ikhwan Abd al Aziz did the same thing. He went out into the country and made his case in what resembled large and small town meetings. He talked not only to the people who would be fighting with him, but also to the religious authorities, seeking their advice and approval. If the ruler wished to battle the Ikhwan, could this be sanctioned by Islam? Or might the Ikhwan's demand to continue their jihad have greater justification?

"In the late 1920s the majority sided with Abd al Aziz, setting the foundation of the modern state. The ruler built on this foundation by taking into account the interests of various groups. He continued to consult the ulama and, if he disagreed with them, to work to change their opinion. The best example was the battle Abd al Aziz fought to set up radio communications. Like the Ikhwan, the ulama first opposed radio as a suspect modern innovation for which there was no basis in the time of the Prophet. Only when Abd al Aziz demonstrated that the radio could be used to broadcast the Quran did the ulama give it their approval." (Nation Building - Saudi Arabia - A Country Study - Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sa0020)

In the 1930's, Abd al Aziz formally declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He was successful in creating a new army which was only one third Ikhwan, the rest being corps of trusted Bedouins and a special Royal detachment. He was also successful in suppressing revolts in the Asir province (lying between the Hijaz to the north and Yemen to the south), and to repel, with British assistance, an effort of the Italian Facisti to convert the Yemen into an Italian dependency, which would have allowed them to gain control of the southern Red Sea and the short sea route to India.

Abd al Aziz fathered many sons - as many as 47 according to one account (Lindsey, p. 125). The kingdom of his creation is now run as if it was a family business. As becomes the head of a family organization, Aziz capably divided the administration of the several provinces among the elder of his offspring (retaining the home power base province of the Nejd as the exclusive perogative of the King and prime minister). He also employed them as heads of government departments. Among them are the present day Crown Prince Abdullah. The Ambassador to the United States and close friend of President George W. Bush, is his grandson, Bandur, the son of Prince Sultam. By the time of Abd al Aziz's death in 1953, Saudi Arabia had become the leading source of petroleum in the world. His raid-and-retreat tactics of the 20's had paid off.


Bey, Essad, (translated by Helmut L. Ripperger), Mohammed. London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1938.

Garfinkle, Adam, "Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived". Hoover Institution-Stanford University Press: Policy Review # 120, Aug-Sept 2003, pp 61-71.

Hudson, Michael C., Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Lindsey, Gene, Saudi Arabia. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991.

Torrey, Charles Cutler, The Jewish Foundation of Islam. New York: Jewish Institute of Religion Press, Bloch Publishing Company, 1933.

Twitchell, Karl Saben, Saudi Arabia: With an Account of the Development of Its Natural Resources. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.


Saudi Information Source, an official Saudi government source.

Library of Congress Area Handbook Series - Saudi Arabia. This is a very good starting point for detailed study.

Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th Edition. This is on line material from the database.

CIA World Fact Book on Saudi Arabia. This is the Central Intelligence Agency's Fact Book on Saudi Arabia.




The Bedouin

The Bedouin mindset derives from the strong allegiance to and dependence on family and tribe, a trait rendered even more important by the arid environment of the desert. As in some other patriarchal societies, the young were inculcated with respect for the elder, and consequently, obedience. The ability to withstand pain and to show courage were necessary for survival in such a society. Keeping "face" was another imperative; one so strong that open lying was warranted to keep one's face from becoming "black."

It was particularly important that the young man identify his interest with the family's, and therefore to conform to the will of the eldest, or sheikh. Tribes were formed by related families.

"The Bedouin were feared and respected and their values served as the ideal for all other peoples of the Arabian peninsula. Their values were expressed in proverbs such as 'Better to die with honor than to live in humiliation,' and 'Nothing humiliates a man like being subject to someone else's authority' " (Lindsey, p. 49)

A major asset of a family or tribe was the pasturage and water of one or more of the few Arabian oases. The volatility of inter-tribal relations sometimes resulted in battles for control of a vital asset while at another time, the same asset might be rented or even loaned to the former rival tribe.

Other opportunities for the Bedouin to display courage and family dedication were in raids, both on other tribes and on the scattered agricultural villages at the deserts edge.

"...They [Bedouin tribes] took great pride in demonstrating their manhood and bravery by the good clean fun of stealing from each other. Their favorite pastime was raiding enemy tribes and carrying off their herds of camels and horses. All able-bodied men and boys participated in the raids which were usually held in the spring when there was grass for grazing. The raids took several months and covered very long distances to make it difficult for their victims to retaliate. When raids were successful, the spoils were divided among the raiders during the victory celebration. Songs were improvised that grew into legends describing the cunning and bravery of the raiders..." (Lindsey, pgs. 48-9)

The seclusion and patchy arability of the Najd provided an incubating environment for both the myths and the sociology of the Bedouin. Bedouin of the Najd were not completely self-sufficient. Traditionally, items such as iron tools, hemp rope, etc., were obtainable from the agricultural settlements. Both trade and raid were practiced. Bedouin reluctance to engage in hand-dirtying manual work, especially farming has maintained the distinction between settlement dwellers and nomads until recently. The intermittent predatory/dependent behavior of the Bedouin tribes on the settled agricultural areas predates Mohammed and and persisted into modern times. These traditions and the memories of ancient glories of the successful raid seem to be deeply embedded within the present day Saudi ruling elite. This persistence is a looming problem for the future of all non-Saudis.

Understanding of Saudi attitudes toward the rest of the world is dependent on understanding their Bedouin roots. As Lindsey clearly states:

"To Westerners, Saudi behaviour appears that of a paranoid schizophrenic. This is because the Saudi mind set is based on Bedouin values, and feelings about the West are ambivalent. Saudi behavior patterns differ from those in the West in eight major, interrelated areas: pride, sensitivity, distrust, emotionality, vengefulness, perception of time, intentionality and dishonesty." (Lindsey, p. 311)

He goes on to give multiple examples of each of these behavior patterns. A sample of his remarks on vengefulness are particularly significant.

"The Saudi mind set is programmed for vengeance. For thousands of years, the Bedouin khamsah [the blood feud] was the vehicle for retaliation. When the Bedouin were converted to Islam the Sharia provided for retaliation as the 'right of man.' Retaliation is used to save or regain face, to right wrongs, and to get even. It is the motivation for verbal attacks, physical attacks, murder, raids, and war. If a Saudi feels that he has been insulted or slighted, he will seek revenge. It is his right, his tradition, and his duty!" (Lindsey, pgs. 316-317)




Wahhabi Theology

The Founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, was a proponent of a puritanical and extremely conservative version of Islam. Much of his doctrine derived from his study of a 14th century scholar, ibn Taimiyya. He had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and studied Islamic law in Medina. His observations in the holy cities and in his travels convinced him that most Moslems had deviated from what he considered the primitive purity of the faith proclaimed by Mohammed. It was a sin against the unity of Allah to pray to Mohammed and ask his intercession, as was prayer to Islamic saints. Excessive luxury and inadequate attention to charity were equally to be condemned, as was a failure of those in authority to truly fulfill their responsibilities.

After years of rejection he found support from a local notable, Muhammad ibn Saud, of the town of Dary'iya. A family agreement was cemented by the marriage of his daughter to the son.(Some versions would have it that the daughter was married to Muhammad ibn Saud himself.)

"Central to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab's message was the essential oneness of God (tawhid). The movement is therefore known by its adherents as ad dawa lil tawhid (the call to unity), and those who follow the call are known as ahl at tawhid (the people of unity) or muwahhidun (unitarians). The word Wahhabi was originally used derogatorily by opponents, but has today become commonplace and is even used by some Nejdi scholars of the movement.

"Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab's emphasis on the oneness of God was asserted in contradistinction to shirk, or polytheism, defined as the act of associating any person or object with powers that should be attributed only to God. He condemned specific acts that he viewed as leading to shirk, such as votive offerings, praying at saints' tombs and at graves, and any prayer ritual in which the suppliant appeals to a third party for intercession with God. Particularly objectionable were certain religious festivals, including celebrations of the Prophet's birthday, Shia mourning ceremonies, and Sufi mysticism. Consequently, the Wahhabis forbid grave markers or tombs in burial sites and the building of any shrines that could become a locus of shirk."

"...Under Al Saud rule, governments, especially during the Wahhabi revival in the 1920s, have shown their capacity and readiness to enforce compliance with Islamic laws and interpretations of Islamic values on themselves and others. The literal interpretations of what constitutes right behavior according to the Quran and hadith  have given the Wahhabis the sobriquet of "Muslim Calvinists." To the Wahhabis, for example, performance of prayer that is punctual, ritually correct, and communally performed not only is urged but publicly required of men. Consumption of wine is forbidden to the believer because wine is literally forbidden in the Quran. Under the Wahhabis, however, the ban extended to all intoxicating drinks and other stimulants, including tobacco. Modest dress is prescribed for both men and women in accordance with the Quran, but the Wahhabis specify the type of clothing that should be worn, especially by women, and forbid the wearing of silk and gold, although the latter ban has been enforced only sporadically. Music and dancing have also been forbidden by the Wahhabis at times, as have loud laughter and demonstrative weeping, particularly at funerals." (Wahhabi Theology - Saudi Arabia - A Country Study - Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sa0044)





The shape of the Arabian peninsula resembles an axe-head, projecting edge-downward into the upper Indian Ocean. For the most part the land is desert and scrub, with only about 1% arable. There are no perennial rivers or streams, only dry wadis which contain runoff water for a short time after the very rare rainfall.

The northern side of the peninsula - roughly the northern border of the present day Saudi State - is bordered by (going from west to east) Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The other limits are the sea coasts: the Red Sea in the west; the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea portion of the Indian Ocean in the south. To the east the land faces the Persian Gulf, the Straight of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.

On the Western side of the peninsula, the northern half constitutes the Hijaz, which extends to the northeast to meet the western side of the central Nejd. The Hijaz is the site of the holy city of Mecca, a site of pilgrimage long antedating even the Mohammedan conquest of the 7th century. The Red Sea port of Jiddah has provided access to Mecca, especially Africa. Medina, the other Moslem holy city, is also within the Hijaz, lying about 100 miles to the north of Mecca. Al Ta'if, the Saudi summer capital, is just southeast of Mecca. The peninsula's western highlands rise gradually southeastward through the region of the Asir, which is the southernmost portion of the Kingdom.

The western highlands, reaching their maximum height in the independent country of Yemen, extend to the sea, around to Aden and thence over the eastern half of the southern coastlands, a region also known as the Hadhramut. The eastern half of the southern peninsula is the independent state of Oman which includes land around to the eastern extremity of the peninsula on the Gulf of Oman. The northern borders of Yemen and Oman are still an unsettled issue with Saudi Arabia.

From the Strait of Hormuz northwestward, within the coastal lowlands, there is a line of independent states, which are in one sense, relics of the 19th century British protectorates: the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dabi, Qatar and Bahrain. From the base of the Qatar peninsula, northward to the southern border of Kuwait is the Saudi al Hasa region, the major source of their oil and their Persian Gulf coast. It is the site of several newly constructed cities: Al Hufuf, Ad Dammam.

Within Saudi Arabia, the southern most third is the Rub al Khali desert - the Empty Quarter. It is almost completely without a population except for occasional Bedouin.

The heart of the Saudi kingdom, the Nejd, extends from the north of the Rab al Khali to the northern border with Iraq. In its north central area, nearly 450 miles east of Medina, is the capital, Riyad. This city is one of the fastest growing in the world, and is the central hub of the now extensive road network. A few miles to the west is the ruins of al Dar'iyah, the original Saudi home.About 400 miles to the northwest is Hail, the Rashidi headquarters in the last century. This town is in a portion of the Nejd known as al Qasm. Finally it should be noted that place names of cities or towns in the time before World War I were most likely simple mud walled villages rather than a town or city in the Westen sense.




Islamic Sects

It is a tradition that the prophet Mohammed said that Islam would be fragmented into 73 sects of which the members of only one would attain salvation. Over the violent course of Islamic history many more than the 72 heresies have arisen, and some have disappeared. The actual numbers as well as their interrelations are not always clear.

The foundation of Islam is the Koran and the hadith. The latter is a collection of traditions concerning the life and behavior of the prophet. These are considered part of the revelation. Like the Mishnah, the hadith originally were oral and were only later reduced to written form. Some non-canonical hadith were constructed to support a particular sectarian viewpoint.

For Islam in general (but not for all sects), there is also the ijma, a kind of consensus or universal agreement.

The major division within the Muslim world today is between the Sunni majority and the Shi'ites. Both groups have contributed to the multiplicity of sects.

Soon after the death of Mohammed, the monolithic politico-religious structure of Islam began to fragment. The major initial break away group, the Shi'ites, are traditionaly said to have diverged because they believed that the leadership should be hereditary rather than elective, which was the position of the majority Sunnis. This essentially politically-based split then acquired doctrinal and religious overlays, which very soon became much more prominent than the succession question.

Following the murder of the third Caliph, Othman, Ali went through the "elective" process, although his claim to leadership in Islam was based on his family connection - he was the husband of Fatimah, a daughter of Mohammed. Objectively, Ali was a poor leader and was unable to hold his followers together. The very earliest sectarian breakaway was by a group of Ali's adherents who faulted him on his violation of a Koranic injunction concerning arbitration of disputes. Ali defeated this group, but the remainder became the Kharijites. This sect came to believe the Caliph could be of any family and should be elected by the entire Arab-Moslem community. They further believed that the Caliph could be deposed if he was a sinful man. Within this group, some developed ideas about an Islam without a Caliph at all. The Kharijites were fanatical Moslem believers and although there is no direct connection to the Wahhabis of today, their view of the duties to bring all Moslems to a primitive purity of worship was very similar.

Ali was murdered by a Kharijite in revenge for his defeat of the breakaways. His sons, first Hassan, the elder, and then Hussein, were regarded by the adherents of the hereditary principle (soon to be known as Shi'ites) as the true successors to the Caliph, rather than Moawiya, the first of the Omayyad dynasty. Hassan was induced to retire from contention, but Hussein persisted in claiming the Caliphate. His shameful murder on the field of Kerbala provided the tinder to inflame the Shi'ites. Though the enemy had ground the body of Hussein into the ground, Kerbala became the most sacred spot in for pilgrimage and worship by Shi'ites. They would even allow a Kerbala pilgrimage to substitue for the hajj. The Shi'ite calendar includes 10 days of mourning for Hussein on the anniversary of Kerbala.

According to the Shi'ites, Ali was the first Imam. They amend the Moslem declaration of faith with the assertion that Ali is the vice-regent of Allah. The sons of Ali, Hassan and Hussein, are revered as the 2nd and 3rd Imams. The surviving son of Hussein, Zain ul Abidin, is the 4th. The remaining Imams up to the 12th were his lineal descendants. The 12th Imam is said to be in hiding or "occulted" and will return when Allah wills it. In the meantime, generally accepted outstanding scholars serve (especially in Iran where Shi'ites predominate) as "legitimate theologians" to whom obedience is obligatory and whose authority in doctrine is unquestioned. The latest of these was the Ayatolla Khomeni.

Various subgroups of the Shi'ites hold varying views of the nature of Ali and his successors, such as the Ghaliites, who believe in the divinity of the imams and believe that Allah can change his mind. They of course look forward to the return of the 12th imam, but they also believe in the transmigration of souls.

There are many offshoots of the Shi'ites, such as the Ismaili, who consider ibn Ja'far (the 6th Iman) as having not died and who will return. The subgroup who believed his son Ismail (not in the normal succession of Imams) succeeded him. This is the origin of the sect of Assassins.

Dervishes are not a particular sect, but rather represent religious fraternities, of which there are very many. Some such groups are examples of Moslem mysticism. Again, the term Sufi, or Sufism, is not a particular sect but refers to the mystical tendency in Islam that goes back to Mohammed himself. There are considerable Kabbalistic and Christian admixtures in the belief of many Sufi groups.




Official Version of Capture of Riyad

When he was twenty-one, Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) decided to move on Riyadh.

"The difficulties of taking Riyadh with so small a force were obvious and intimidating. Abdul Aziz asked for volunteers to accompany him in the execution of a plan which seemed to have only its boldness to recommend it.

"With forty of his devoted friends, he left Kuwait in December 1901 (1318/19 AH) and reached Riyadh in January. The account of Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud)'s assault on the Masmak fort and his retaking of Riyadh from the Rashid is perhaps the most dramatic of all the stories of modern Arabia. In its daring and determination, it was a sure indication of the true character of the man who was to found the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

"Under cover of night, together with his cousin (Abdullah bin Jelawi) and several other volunteers, Abdul Aziz stealthily made his way to a part of the city wall which he knew they could easily scale, with the help of grappling irons, unobserved. The wall he chose was adjacent to the house of a man who had served Abdul Rahman, Abdul Aziz' father, some years before when the Al Saud had still ruled in Riyadh. When the wife of this man realized that the son of Abdul Rahman had come to reclaim his birthright, she vouchsafed some useful information about Ajlan, the Emir of Riyadh, the man Abdul Aziz would have to oust.

"Once within the walls of Riyadh, and with the benefit of this woman's information, the small group quietly made its way to an empty house close to Ajlan's residence. They entered the empty house, climbed to the roof and, by leaping from one roof to the next, they reached Emir's residence. There they waited.

"At dawn, after prayers, Ajlan emerged from the Mosque into the street. With his quarry in the open, Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) gave vent to a loud battle cry and sallied forth from Ajlan's residence to attack. Ajlan fled, with Abdul Aziz and his companions in hot pursuit. Quickly cornered, the Emir defended himself briefly until the sword of Abdullah bin Jelawi cut him down.

"The garrison of Riyadh was utterly demoralized by the unexpected attack and the death of their leader. Assuming that such an assault could have been mounted only by a large and well-equipped force, and perceiving that the population of the city welcomed the return of the Al Saud, they surrendered without further resistance." (Saudi Arabian Information Resource - http://www.saudinf.com)

Gateway Pages for this website:
  » General Subjects
  » Archive 1   » Archive 2   » Archive 3
  » Archive 4   » Archive 5   » Archive 6
  » Archive 7   » Archive 8   » Archive 9