These remarks were written by the British traveler Gertrude Bell in a letter she wrote following a meeting at Basra (now in southern Iraq) in 1916. Never easy to impress, Bell was nonetheless clearly awestruck by her first encounter with a man who at that time was already shaping the history of Arabia and was later to become a significant player on the world stage. Although the meeting was essentially a political affair, it revealed much about the personalities involved, in particular the startling impact 'Abd al-'Aziz had on his British hosts. It worked both ways: In later years, he would amuse friends and relatives by recounting how the bossy and indomitable Bell had bustled about him in Basra, asking his opinion on every subject under the sun and prefacing her questions with a shrill "Ya 'Abd al-'Aziz!"
At the time, the British were intrigued by this man who was emerging as a potential leader from the turmoil and hardships of inner Arabia. Desperate to court him once war with the Turks became a reality in 1914, the British Government engaged in a long-term strategic relationship that benefited both sides: British support aided the Saudis in their efforts to reunify the country, which meant driving the Turks from the region, and the rising Arabian polity that resulted meant that Britain could look upon a friendly government in a part of the world that the British regarded as essential to the defense of the centerpiece of their empire—India. Yet throughout the years, 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud, commonly known to Westerners as Ibn Sa'ud, remained something of an enigma to the British. To this day, his personality and achievements are surprisingly little known outside the region in which he played such an instrumental role.
'Abd al-'Aziz's roots ran deep in the heart of Arabia. His family, the Al Sa'ud, traces its origins back more than 500 years. Traditionally, it has been associated with the central Arabian province of Najd, most particularly with the cities of al-Dir'iyah and, later, Riyadh. The family history is one of the most distinguished in Arabia, but like all noble lines, it was subject to the political inconstancies of the day. At the time of 'Abd al-'Aziz's's birth in 1880 or thereabouts, central Arabia had fallen into political fragmentation, and the Al Sa'ud in Riyadh were engaged in a power struggle with the rulers of the city of Hayil, the al-Rashids. This conflict led 'Abd al-'Aziz's's father, Abd al-Rahman, to evacuate his family from Riyadh in 1891.
By today's standards, conditions throughout Arabia were unimaginably hard. Life was often short and brutal. A forbidding climate and exceedingly inhospitable terrain meant that the area was virtually closed to all but the most intrepid of outsiders. Little had changed for centuries.
From his early years, 'Abd al-'Aziz had been exposed to the power politics and warfare of Arabia's ruling families. However, despite (or perhaps because of) the uncertain and lawless nature of the political context in which he grew up, he found enduring security and comfort in the Qur'an and in the discipline of regular prayer. This highly developed sense of faith, order and personal duty characterized his life, and it played more than an incidental role in his political success.
The Al Sa'ud initially took refuge with the al-Murra, a Bedouin tribe living in a remote and inaccessible area on the edge of the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, to the south of al-Hasa, an oasis in eastern Arabia. This experience of living among the al-Murra had a profound impact on 'Abd al-'Aziz's. It was from them, he would say in later years, that he derived his deep love of the desert, of horsemanship and of the simple values that sustained the Bedouin both physically and spiritually. Indeed, 'Abd al-'Aziz retained elements of the Murra dialect in his speech for the rest of his life, and he often turned to the desert for inspiration and solace.
In 1893, the Al Sa'ud were invited to Kuwait by its ruler, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Sabah. By now 'Abd al-'Aziz's was a young man, conspicuously tall and strong, and he soon became great friends with Shaykh Muhammad's half-brother, Mubarak. After Mubarak seized power from his brother, 'Abd al-'Aziz's was invited to attend the daily majlis, or royal audience, at which petitions were presented and grievances heard. At these frequently acrimonious, politically charged sessions, 'Abd al-'Aziz's saw at first hand the daily practices of government and international politics, and as he observed he had ample opportunity to reflect upon his own family's situation. The seizure of Najd by the al-Rashids was a perpetual source of pain to him and his father, to whom he was very close. Najd had been central to the first and second Saudi states, and its loss engendered a deep sense of resolve in 'Abd al-'Aziz's to act to recover his patrimony, to restore the Al Sa'ud to the leadership of central Arabia.
In early 1901, 'Abd al-'Aziz saw an opportunity. Joining a raid led by Shaykh Mubarak from Kuwait into al-Rashid territory, he seized Riyadh from the al-Rashids and besieged its fortress, al-Masmak. He held the city for three months before he was forced to withdraw. He immediately began to plan a new offensive, which was to lead to the event that has defined Arabia's history ever since.
Taking advantage of the fact that most of the al-Rashid forces were deployed in a counterattack against Kuwait, 'Abd al-'Aziz's correctly judged that this would be the most effective time to try and seize Riyadh permanently. In a daring raid, 'Abd al-'Aziz's and 40 men stormed the al-Rashids' garrison at Masmak fort early on January 15, 1902. (See page 12.) Overpowering those inside, the Saudis seized control of the city and, welcomed as a liberator, 'Abd al-'Aziz's later that day led Riyadh's inhabitants in prayer. Still only in his early twenties, he was now at the forefront of contemporary politics, and he had brought his family to the threshold of renewal.
Acutely aware that his family's hold on Riyadh must not be allowed to slip again, 'Abd al-'Aziz's immediately ordered the city walls repaired. He also set about gaining the allegiance of the local people, without which he knew he could not hope to stay in power. He understood that long-term political survival was based essentially on a delicate balance of force and persuasion: Force had been used to take Riyadh, and now persuasion would be required to hold it. He therefore set about forging alliances with local tribes in hopes of undermining the al-Rashids' political power base.
Success at diplomacy was backed up by arms, and bloody battles continued between the two warring families. Open conflict between Al Sa'ud and the al-Rashids ended with the death in battle of Ibn Rashid in 1906, and the al-Rashids withdrew to their power base in Hayil, in northwestern Arabia. 'Abd al-'Aziz then turned his attention to other centers of opposition, and over the next few years, he personally led his men to victory on many occasions.
His behavior in conquest was notable for its magnanimity: Reprisals were rarely allowed, and generally the vanquished were welcomed back as brothers. Often, 'Abd al-'Aziz's took wives from the ranks of those he had defeated. Such actions were primarily political, part of 'Abd al-'Aziz's overall strategy of inclusion rather than division. This even extended to the al-Rashids, who continued to skirmish with 'Abd al-'Aziz through the early 1920's. Ever mindful of the need to keep an eye on one's potential foes, 'Abd al-'Aziz's later welcomed the surviving members of the al-Rashids into his court, where they remained and were treated well, as befitted their noble status.
Feeling adequately secure at home in Najd, in 1913 'Abd al-'Aziz's marched dramatically onto the international stage, seizing first the Turkish garrison at Hofuf and then the coastal towns of al-'Uqayr and Qatif, thus winning control of the Gulf coast. With this campaign, he brought into the Saudi remit an area that was, by virtue of its oil reserves, to provide unparalleled wealth for his nation in later years. 'Abd al-'Aziz's's more immediate success, however, centered around his astute calculation that on the one hand, the Turks were so weakened as to be incapable of resisting his advance and, on the other, the British would be sufficiently concerned to start taking him seriously. This they did, as is clear from a report made to the India Office in 1914: "The Arabs have now found a leader who stands head and shoulders above any other chief and in whose star all have implicit faith."
Turkey's defeat in World War I left a political vacuum that 'Abd al-'Aziz's had been readying himself to fill for some time. By 1920 he had assumed control over 'Asir in the southwest and over the al-Rashid stronghold of Hayil in the north. He was then able to turn his attention to the Hijaz, in which were located the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and the major port of Jiddah. The weakened Hashimite regime that governed the region was eventually forced to concede to the more organized Saudi forces, and in 1927 'Abd al-'Aziz's was recognized as King of the Hijaz and Najd and its Dependencies, with Riyadh and Makkah as his two capitals.
These years also marked the beginnings of modern Arabia. 'Abd al-'Aziz's understood the potential advantages Western technology offered; the importation of a fleet of automobiles and, later, the building of airstrips gave him the means of reaching distant parts of his territory in a fraction of the time required previously. He also ordered the creation of an extensive information network based on the wireless telegraph, through which he was able to extend his "eyes and ears" across the country. However, some of his followers were less than enthusiastic, and their leader spent much time and effort explaining personally the value of the telephone in particular. 'Abd al-'Aziz finally overcame their opposition by inviting skeptics to listen to recitations from the Qur'an being read down the phone line.
The creation of a formal, modern system of government also dates from this time, with the establishment of the first ministries, although 'Abd al-'Aziz continued to exercise a high level of personal control over the activities of the state for the rest of his life. He was by now ruler of a dominion three times the size of France and, in 1932, proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It marked the culmination of a process started more than three decades earlier, and as King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud, he reigned over his people for an additional 21 years before his death in 1953. Since then, his heirs have continued to rule the country he established.
By any standards 'Abd al-'Aziz's achievements are astonishing. He rose from leader of an exiled clan to participant on the post-World War II international stage, which saw him meeting with both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to exchange views on issues of common interest, including the subject of Palestine. Inheritor of a fragmented and impoverished land, he welded the tribes into an incipient nation, imposing both central authority and, eventually, the rule of law. At the time of his death, Saudi Arabia enjoyed both unparalleled wealth and security, a situation directly attributable to 'Abd al-'Aziz.
Today, the scale and significance of 'Abd al-'Aziz's impact is even clearer than in 1953. Not only did he establish a new state, but he structured it to give it room for continued strength and development. Aware that the fledgling nation would be ill-equipped to function in the 20th century without industrial modernization, he was eager to embrace technology; however, he was no less aware that change had to be selective and gradual if it was to be accepted by the citizenry and be of lasting benefit. The well-known Arabist and historian Leslie McLoughlin pointed out that "it was the insight of Ibn Sa'ud that slow change without disabling disputes was better than speed of change with great disruption." Central to this process was the long search to expand the Kingdom's sources of revenue, and to this end, 'Abd al-'Aziz's granted the first oil concession as early as 1923. (See page 30.) Although this venture bore no fruit, it was the first step in an endeavor of lasting significance.
Paramount in his success were 'Abd al-'Aziz's's personal qualities. He was a complex character, and something of a paradox in the sense that he exhibited wide-ranging, often contradictory attributes. These frequently showed themselves in rapid succession, with fierce bursts of temper followed almost immediately by acts of great tenderness and compassion. But he commanded respect at all times, and by a combination of charm and authority secured the personal and political commitment of his people. The writer Amin al-Rihani noted how 'Abd al-'Aziz always found time to speak to those around him and was never at a loss for words on any subject at any occasion.
'Abd al-'Aziz was both a brave and a cautious man. His personal courage when leading his troops into battle is legendary, but it is equally well-established that he sought to avoid excessive bloodshed wherever possible. By breaking the historical pattern of strife and conflict, he was able to set his people on a new path of peace and prosperity, and his statesmanship set new standards for political behavior, ones that placed him apart from most of his contemporaries. His actions and personality ensured the long-term stability and prosperity that are hallmarks of modern Saudi Arabia.
'Abd al-'Aziz's's profound religious faith gave him a conviction and a self-confidence that propelled him toward what he considered the just destiny of his family and country. Yet he was aware of the diversity of the nation he was bringing together, and he repeatedly warned followers he considered overzealous that they must not replace dissent with division and retribution. The long-term impact of this notion of nation-building is only now becoming clear, as the world witnesses the disintegration of states in other parts of the world within which a sense of inclusion has broken down.
We cannot know for sure the direction Arabia's destiny would have taken had 'Abd al-'Aziz's not risen to such prominence. It is quite likely that the political divisions he inherited would have continued unabated under anyone of less forceful character and drive, and that Arabia would have remained a warring collection of disparate factions, spiraling into chaos and, perhaps, colonial domination. With such acute political insecurity, the economic gains made possible by the discovery of oil well might have been squandered and a unique opportunity for national advancement lost. Equally clear is the fact that the circumstances of the day called for leadership of singular ability. In 'Abd al-'Aziz, personal stature married with circumstance to produce a man who led his people from a fractious poverty into secure prosperity.
Free-lance writer James Parry served several years with the British Council in East Africa and Oman. He writes on the history and cultures of the Arabian Peninsula from his home in Norfolk, England.