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Volume 16, Number 1January/February 1965

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To Light A Flame

For a long half second the future of Saudi Arabia hung on a postern gate…

Written by David Howarth

In the autumn of 1901, a column of 40 men, mounted on camels, left the town of Kuwait on the shore of the Arabian Gulf and rode westward into the desert of Arabia. By day, a green standard was carried at their head, and by night a lantern on a staff. They were led by a man of 21, conspicuously tall, and already a veteran of desert raids and wars: 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd al-Rahman Al Faysal Al Sa'ud, the son of a royal house in exile.

In retrospect, their journey seems forlorn. The desert had always been perilous, and at that time, for them, was much more perilous than ever. Vast tracts of it had been the domain of the House of Sa'ud, but the young man's father had lost his throne through murder and trickery and battle; and for the past 11 years the desert had fallen under the sovereignty of a rival dynasty, the House of Rashid, the implacable enemies of the Saudis. Recently, the ex-ruler himself, together with the ruler of Kuwait, had organized an expedition of 10,000 men into the desert. It had ended in ignominious defeat and had proved that the nomads of the desert had lost their old allegiance to the Saudis and were willing to fight to the death for the Rashidis. So there was no place in the 700 miles of desert before those 40 men where they could hope to find comfort or safety, and any man they met could be reckoned as an enemy.

Yet they started, in the recollection of those who completed the journey, with eager anticipation. They themselves were Arabs of the desert or the desert towns and their ideals of sport were either hunting or raiding other clans. Since the fall of the House of Sa'ud, they had been confined in the coastal towns of Kuwait and Bahrain, and town life had irked them.

The men of the column expected no more than a winter's raiding, certainly exciting and probably profitable within the limits of the chivalry of the desert; but their leader had wider plans, dreams so ambitious, so youthfully romantic, and so unlikely to be fulfilled, that he did not tell anyone what was in his mind. He intended, with the help of his 40 men, to recapture his father's kingdom, and—an even higher aim than wordly power—to launch a crusade.

The heads of the House of Sa'ud had not only been rulers of an area of desert; they had also been the leaders, the Imams, of a strict Puritan offshoot of the Muslim world: the Wahhabis. This sect was founded by a holy man of the 18th century whose name was Shaikh Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab. He disapproved of the superstitions and luxurious living which had overgrown the Muslim creed since it was first proclaimed by Muhammad in the seventh century of the Christian era. He preached a return to the simplicity of the early religion, which had been founded entirely on the Koran (which Muslims believe to be the word of God revealed to Muhammad) and on the sayings and manner of life of the Prophet himself. For many years, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's reforms attracted nobody, and he led the life of a wandering scholar, but at length, about 1750, he won the support of the Saudi ruler of his time. With wordly and religious power combined, the Saudi domain, which had been no more than a petty shaikhdom, expanded until its raiding parties covered the whole of Arabia, and its doctrines were imposed on everyone it conquered.

It was in this creed that young Ibn Sa'ud, the leader of the expedition of 1901, had had his training, and high among its precepts was the command to wage war on all infidels and heretics. Foremost among the heretics—Muslims who were not Wahhabis—were the minions of Ibn Rashid who had seized his father's throne.

The journey began with several of the enjoyable raids his followers had expected. They were traveling light, carrying nothing but their rifles, daggers, swords, ammunition, dates, flour and water. The men and their camels had been chosen carefully. So they were able to descend on the camps of nomads and the caravans of merchants, to seize camels with impunity and carry off whatever could be carried; and by night, between their raids, they were able to range the desert over distances which only the hardest riders could have traveled.

This kind of sport was almost all that the men of the expedition would have asked of life, and Ibn Sa'ud himself was not too ambitious to enjoy it. But he can only have thought of it then as an early step in fulfilling his deeper secret hope: the hope of reviving the ancient loyalty of the tribesmen and lighting a flame of revolt which would spread through the desert and the desert towns. It had never been difficult to rouse the desert Arabs to fight, either through the hope of heaven or of plunder, or simply for love of fighting; and Ibn Sa'ud may well have expected to rouse them again by a series of raids so audacious and successful that news of them would travel, spreading both fear and admiration, and offering the people of the desert the choice of joining him or suffering at his hands.

But if this was his hope, it failed. From Kuwait, he first rode west and south, into the area which had been his father's. The first of his raids were against the very tribe which had rallied to Ibn Rashid and helped to defeat his father's recent expedition. Although Ibn Sa'ud and his men were able to keep themselves well provided by capturing all the necessities of life, very few of the Bedouins joined his column, and Ibn Rashid sent major forces to try to hunt him down.

He therefore turned eastward again, into the coastal area called the Has (al-Hasa), which was then under Turkish rule; but the Turks turned out their regular troops against him. Between the Turks in the east and hostile Bedouins of Ibn Rashid in the west, he was forced to ride farther south, until he came to the edge of the fearful desert within the desert which is known as the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter: an enormous tract of barren sandhills where even Bedouins rarely travel, where camels can find little pasture and where there were no more caravans and no more camps to raid.

At one time in the forced march to the south, the followers of Ibn Sa'ud had increased to 400 men, including the slaves whom the richer Bedouins had brought with them. But as he approached the Empty Quarter, with its promise of hard living and an end to booty, the force began to melt away again until he was left with no more than when he started. Somewhere on the verges of that melancholy land, he had to admit his failure and contemplate other plans; and his thoughts began to turn to the desert town of Riyadh.

Riyadh had been his father's capital, and there Ibn Sa'ud had been born and had lived till he was ten. It was one of the least accessible capitals of the world, nearly 1,000 miles from the cities of the Mediterranean shore, 250 miles from the nearest seacoast and protected against intrusion by both the desert, which no vehicle could cross; and the predatory habits of the Bedouins. In 1901 it was a town of more than 5,000 but less than 10,000 people, of mud brick houses cramped together, a dilapidated rambling palace, a fort and several mosques, surrounded by crumbling mud brick walls and dependent on its own oasis.

At the time Ibn Sa'ud was born, in 1880, quarrels among the early Saudi "rulers had reduced the kingdom to chaos and Riyadh to anarchy. It was terrorized by spies and counterspies of the rival factions and by the bloody fights that surged through the markets and alleys, fights in which the losers were hanged from the battlements.

This state of civil war made the kingdom an easy victim for Ibn Rashid, whose own domain adjoined it on the north. Between 1880 and 1890, Ibn Rashid captured Riyadh and beat the reigning Saudi several times. Even in war, however, the Arab princes were often guided by the Bedouin concept of chivalry, under which either victors or victims might ask the other, soon afterward, for hospitality and enjoy it without fear. So Ibn Rashid, each time he defeated the Saudis in battle, put one or another of them back in power at Riyadh, sometimes alone and sometimes with a governor from among his own men to keep them in order.

But pride, and the foolishness engendered by years of anarchy, impelled the Saudis again and again into battles with Ibn Rashid and at length Ibn Rashid's fury at their intemperance drove him to break the bonds of chivalry. He ordered his governor to get rid of the Saudi family once and for all. The governor invited all the men of Sa'ud to accept greetings on a feast day, but the Saudis were forewarned, and while they were sipping coffee and exchanging polite conversation with the governor, on a signal, they butchered the governor's retainers and tied up the governor himself and threw him down a well to die. Ibn Sa'ud, at the age of ten, took part. Such was his childhood training.

But this was the end of the rule of the House of Sa'ud. Ibn Rashid, in vengeance, laid siege to Riyadh, cut down its groves of palms and poisoned its wells. The townspeople, driven by thirst and hunger, threatened to turn against the Saudis; and finally the father of Ibn Sa'ud, with his wives and a few of his slaves and retainers, carrying his children in the saddle bags of his camels, fled from the town by night, to wander discredited in the desert until he was given sanctuary by the independent ruler of Kuwait.

When Ibn Sa'ud led his weary, disheartened band to the edge of the Empty Quarter, his family had been outlaws in Riyadh since he left it in such unhappy circumstances. In the intervening 11 years, Ibn Rashid had died, but his son, who is usually known by the same family name, had kept the people of the Saudi domain under strict control. The fire which Ibn Sa'ud hoped to light in their hearts had not kindled; their spirits were damped by fear of their present ruler. Those whom Ibn Sa'ud had met in conversation, rather than battle, had made it clear that he would never win a following unless he had already been proved to be a leader. More raids were not enough; and his raids so far, rather than rousing the Bedouins, had only roused Ibn Rashid to reprisals against anyone he suspected of harboring the raiders. Two courses were left: to go back to his father at Kuwait, defeated, or else to gamble the kingdom and his life in a single master stroke which would ring through the desert. There was only one possible place for a stroke which could be dramatic enough, and that was Riyadh.

Ever since the fall of the House of Sa'ud, Ibn Rashid had kept a ruthless governor and a garrison in Riyadh, and now that Ibn Rashid knew that Ibn Sa'ud was on the warpath, it was likely that the garrison would be alert and reinforced; so Ibn Sa'ud decided to wait hidden, alone with his 40 men, in the desert, avoiding meetings with other Bedouins, until he was sure that Ibn Rashid would think he was dead.

That decision may have had a religious motive, in addition to being a matter of Bedouin tactics. The month of Ramadan was approaching, when pious Muslims fast between dawn and sunset from the day of one new moon till the day of the next. By custom, travelers are excused from the fast, provided they observe it later on; but Ibn Sa'ud's Wahhabi principles, at that stage of his career, would not have let him make use of that dispensation. Yet, on the other hand, not even the Bedouins could lead an active life of hard riding in the desert while they were fasting; and besides, an attack on a town during Ramadan was foolish, because many citizens who fasted all day stayed up all night.

The wait was a harder test of his leadership than the raiding. From the traditional moment before each dawn when a black and a white thread of cotton could be distinguished, until the sun was below the horizon again, his men had nothing to eat or drink, and nothing to shelter them, and worst of all they had nothing whatever to do; and even at night, when the strictest of Muslims can make up for the day's distresses, they had no women and no comfort and no more than a mere starvation ration. At the end of Ramadan, by argument, persuasion and threats, and by putting the men on oath to follow him to whatever death he chose, Ibn Sa'ud still had the faithful 40 with him; but perhaps nobody ever searched the sky more eagerly for the first sight of the new moon. As soon as it was seen, he gave the orders to saddle the camels and march.

Riyadh was more than 100 miles away. Released from the dangerous boredom of the Empty Quarter, they rode out on a raid which became in later years a legend in modern Arabian folklore, and a story which Ibn Sa'ud was often asked to tell. While the end of Ramadan was still being celebrated by more peaceful people, they approached the town by night and concealed the camels, and continued on foot through the groves and gardens, silently in the darkness. When they came within sight of the walls he halted, and chose six men to come with him; and he told the others to wait till midday, and then if they had heard no news of him, to escape if they could and take the camels and ride to Kuwait, because by then he would either be victorious or dead.

Ibn Rashid had neglected the walls of Riyadh, and Ibn Sa'ud and his six companions scrambled over them, using a palm trunk as a scaling ladder, and entered the sleeping town without alarm. They were surprised to make their way in so easily, and Ibn Sa'ud had not thought what to do next; he believed his cause was God's and that God would guide him. But he led his men into the alleys he remembered from his youth. They were hushed and empty. In the center of the town the Rashids had built a fortress, and opposite the fortress gate, across a square, they had fortified a house where the governor, whose name was 'Ajlan, kept his women. Both of these strongholds were locked and barred, but next to the women's house there was another which belonged to a seller of cattle called Juwaysir. Ibn Sa'ud knocked on his door, and after a while a girl's voice answered: "Who are you?" And he remembered that Juwaysir had two daughters.

"I am sent by the Amir 'Ajlan," he said through the closed door. "He wants to buy two cows. I have to see your father."

The girl said: "You should be ashamed, son of a woman accursed. Does anyone knock on a woman's door at this time of night? Go away."

"Be quiet," Ibn Sa'ud said. "In the morning I shall tell the Amir and he will rip your father open."

This gruesome and plausible threat was heard by Juwaysir, and he hastily opened the door and Ibn Sa'ud seized him and scared him into silence. The daughters recognized the son of their exiled ruler and began to cry out a greeting, but he bundled them into the house and told his men to shut them in a cellar. In the moment of confusion Juwaysir escaped and ran away.

By then, the raiders had made a simple plan: to go up to the flat roof of Juwaysir's house and jump to the roof of 'Ajlan's and force an entrance there. But the gap was too wide. Instead, they jumped to another house, where they found a man in bed with his wife, tied them both up in their bedclothes, gagged the wife, and threatened them both with death if they made a sound. Then they waited, to see if Juwaysir had given the alarm. But the town remained silent. Ibn Sa'ud sent two of his men to bring in the rest who were hiding in the palm groves.

'Ajlan's house was a story higher than the others. They climbed on each other's shoulders, forced the roof door open and crept through the house, seizing the slaves of the household one by one, until they came to the bedroom which seemed to be 'Ajlan's. Ibn Sa'ud went in with his rifle; another man followed with a candle. There were two mounds in the bed, and he peered at them—but neither was 'Ajlan; one was his wife and the other was her sister. He unloaded his gun and prodded them, and they jumped up screaming. "Enough," he said. "I am 'Abd al-'Aziz."

'Ajlan's wife was a Riyadh woman and knew him. "What do you want?" she asked in terror.

"I want your husband, shameless woman, you who have taken a Rashid."

"I am no shameless woman," she said. "I only took a Rashid when you left us. What brings you here?"

"I have come to look for your man to kill him," he said.

"You may kill Ibn Rashid and all his people," she said, "but I could not wish you to kill my husband. And how can you deal with him? He sleeps in the fortress, with 80 men, and if he discovers you, you will never have the power to save your souls and escape from the country."

Ibn Sa'ud asked her when 'Ajlan would leave the fortress. "He will not come out until after sunrise," she said. The raiders locked her up with her sister and the slaves, broke a hole in the soft mud wall and brought the rest of the party in from the house next door. Then they settled down to rest, ate some dates and drank the governor's coffee, slept and prayed and wondered what they should do. They had come too far to retreat.

During that vigil while they waited for the dawn, their only thought was to lure the governor into the house and kill him there. With that in their minds they chose one of the men who was small enough, dressed him in the woman's clothes and left him to let 'Ajlan in when he knocked.

The others went up to a room above, where there was an opening from which the gate of the fortress could be seen across the square. It was a heavy studded wooden door with a very small postern in it, only two feet high, so designed that a man could only go through it head first, exposing his neck to the sword of the keeper inside.

After the call to prayer from the mosques of the town, when the raiders hidden within the house performed their own devotions, and, as the morning light refilled the square, the gate was opened, and servants began to bring out the governor's horses. The sight of the open gate was too much for Ibn Sa'ud. He jumped to his feet and ran downstairs, determined to rush it, shouting to some of his musketmen to cover him from the window. But while he was going down, 'Ajlan himself emerged with a dozen men, and the gate was closed behind him.

The fight was merciless. Ibn Sa'ud flung open the door of the women's house and charged across the square. 'Ajlan and his followers turned at the sound, and seeing him, the followers ran for the fortress gate and bolted through the postern one by one. When Ibn Sa'ud reached it, 'Ajlan was left alone. He had drawn his sword; Ibn Sa'ud had nothing but his rifle. 'Ajlan made at him, sword raised to strike. Ibn Sa'ud covered his face with his arm and fired his rifle point-blank, singlehanded, heard the sword clatter on the ground and knew he had wounded 'Ajlan. 'Ajlan plunged at the postern, Ibn Sa'ud caught his legs, and his own men pulled his arm. 'Ajlan gave Ibn Sa'ud such a kick in the stomach that he started to faint and let him go. For a half second then the history of Arabia hung on the postern gate. Before the defenders could slam it shut, a cousin of Ibn Sa'ud named 'Abd Allah ibn Jiluwi thrust himself into the hole and wriggled through. In the narrow gateway within, the defenders were too confused to decapitate him as he came, and he laid about him with his sword. Others followed and threw the main gate open, and the rest of Ibn Sa'ud's warriors swarmed in and started a bloody fight, outnumbered two to one, through the courtyards and towers of the fortress. They slaughtered half the defenders. Some fell or were thrown from the battlements. Ibn Jiluwi cut 'Ajlan down and killed him. Nearly 40 surrendered and were locked in their own dungeons; and before the morning ended, Ibn Sa'ud sent his men through the town to proclaim that God's will had been done, and the House of Sa'ud was master again in Riyadh.

David Howarth, former war correspondent and producer for the B.B.C., is the author of We Die Alone and three other books on World War II, and editor of the 1961 autobiography of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. This article is a condensation of the first chapter of The Desert King, a biography of the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz, published by Collins of London.

This article appeared on pages 1-7 of the January/February 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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