In Part 1 and Part 2 (as well as the entry Are Wahhabis Sunnis? Chechnya Conference and Saudi Anger), we got an overview of the life and thoughts of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abdl-Wahhab, and his close ties with the Saudi family since his initial contact with them.
In Part 3, we want to provide an overview of the history of Saud family, because of the very close ties between Wahhabism and the Saudi regime.
As soon as the pact between the Saud family and M. ibn Abd al-Wahhab was agreed upon, they started spreading their movement and going from one town to another to eradicate anything that was not aligned with ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings. People could either flea or fight. Let me spare you the gruesome details of what occurred next and simply say that, at the end of these attacks, the remaining towns and tribes had rallied around this new movement. Like most Islamic movements throughout history, one of the main objectives of ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his movement was the annihilation of Shi’ism for religious and political reasons. (In fact, part of the reason why he had left al-‘Uyayna in the first place was that it was close to al-Hufuf, which was a Shi’i stronghold.)
When ibn Saud died in 1765, his son Abd al Aziz, who was also ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s son-in-law, continued in the same path. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab died in 1792. In 1801, they attacked the Iraqi city of Karbala, a Shi’ite city through and through, where the shrine of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Holy Prophet, is located.
The city was sacked and pillaged, and the shrine directly attacked and partially destroyed. By 1803, Saudis and Wahhabis had taken over much of Hijaz. Abd al-Aziz was killed in 1803 (according to many sources, as a revenge to his attacks on Karbala.) His son Saud al Kabeer then ruled from 803-1814. They went to Mecca, destroyed many of its artefacts, domes, graves, and anything that Muslims held dear and honoured, because of its historical value and because of their love for the Prophet and his family. For instance, they destroyed the dome of Khadija, the wife of the Prophet,
as well as the dome that marked the location of the birth of the Prophet. They went to Medina, they removed the decorations that were placed on the grave of the Prophet, which enraged Muslims worldwide.
(I make a point to highlight the destruction of Karbala, and Medina, including the famous cemetery Jannat Al Baqi’ in 1926, because it will help the reader understand the recent destruction of historical and archeological sites. see here and here for instance.)
The son of Saud al Kabeer, Abd Allah, ruled from 1814 onward.
The destruction of Mecca and Medina was nowhere near that of Karbala, but it was the move that attracted attention to what they were doing at world level. Access to Mecca and Medina was now controlled by the Wahhabis, and no one in the rest of the Muslim world agreed with the destruction of Islamic shrines and vestiges carrying such historical and spiritual value. The Ottomans saw this as an act of clear defiance, but they were not in a position to attack themselves due to the declining weakness of their empire, so they asked Muhammad Ali, their commander in Egypt, to attack on their behalf.
The latter asked his son Tusun to attack in 1816. The Saudi-Wahhabi coalition was defeated by Muhammad Ali’s army in 1818, the Saudi capital Ad-Diriyyah was destroyed and Abd Allah was captured and brought to Turkey. Some scholars in Turkey asked him to convert his beliefs to theirs so that he may be spared, and he agreed. But the Turks insisted on executing in front of Hagia Sophia, beheading him, and shooting his head from a canon to reaffirm their authority.
The Ottomans controlled the region until their empire required more men to fight the Europeans, so their numbers decreased, and Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad (1755-1834) was able to return to the city of Riyadh, and accepted to be its ruler while openly being under the Ottomans. In 1834, he was assassinated by a distant cousin, and was succeeded by his son Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah Al Saud (1785 – 1865). He ruled to 1838, then was forced into exile by the Ottomans who wanted to see another member of the Saud family appointed, only to reclaim the rule in 1843 until his death, thanks to a close alliance with Al Rashid family, who were rewarded with extensive intermarriages. Infighting among Faisal’s four sons kept going until their rule was ended by the Battle of Mulayda in 1891. Abdul Rahman fled with his family, who were only able to come back in 1902 when his son, Abdulaziz (who is known mostly as Ibn Saud nowadays) reconquered Riyadh.
During the time they were away in Bahrain then in Kuwait, Abdul Rahman did everything in his power to promote Wahhabism in order to recreate the Saudi Dynasty. (See this informative article) Abdulaziz was trained by the Kuwaiti royal family religiously, politically, and militarily. Fighting between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia allowed Abdulaziz to reconquer Saudi Arabia and kill his enemies. He spread his rule quickly over the land, and allowed a little bit more tolerance and autonomy towards the Shi’ites for instance. This is due to a change in policy over conquered peoples, to better control them. Following the First World War, he was able to expand even further, effectively ruling over what is called today Saudi Arabia.
At this time, the US had infiltrated much of Saudi Arabia through missionary work, especially by opening up medical clinics. In neighboring countries, anti-imperialist revolts were taking place in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, and the UK was trying to create the Jewish homeland in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration. Apart from the UK establishing clear borders between Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, only some infighting affected the internal stability of Saudi Arabia at that time. In 1923, the Saudis/Wahhabis had officially captured the holy lands, which had officially been in the hands of the Hashemites (Shia) for centuries until then.
Jack Philby, (aka Harry St John Bridger Philby, aka Sheikh Abdullah Philby), the father of the double agent Kim Philby (Harold Adrian Russell Philby), is considered by some as the real founder of Saudi Arabia. After being dismissed for sexual misconduct by the British Civil Service, he was recruited by the MI6 in 1915. In 1917, Jack met with Abdulaziz to create a new alliance, and to become from that point on, the very close advisor of Abdulaziz. Philby converted to Wahhabism (in 1930), passed information to Abdulaziz, and tricked the Hashemite Hussein bin Ali into defeat at the his new Saudi partner and friend.
Philby wanted to exact revenge on the British because they had not recognized his efforts and merit (including not allowing him to negotiate the oil deal), so in time, he helped connect the Saudi elite to the American elite through the pretext of foreign investment to explore for oil.
During Jack’s time in Arabia he became great friends with Ibn Saud who eventually became the first King of Saudi Arabia. They became such good friends that King Ibn Saud Aziz presented his 16 year old daughter, Rozy Al Abdul Aziz, to Jack in marriage during November, 1945, and they had four children. During this time, Jack became a Muslim and was known as Haji Adbullah.
The Hashemites were led by Hussein bin Ali who was himself trying to lead a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The British, who were now at war with the Ottomans, had promised him support against the Ottomans, but never really recognized him as king, and when he refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, or recognize the Paris settlements, and rejected the Balfour Declaration, they supported ibn Saud and the Wahhabis against him, in part because
- the British thought that it would help them take over Iraq –Syria-Jordan, and because
- ibn Saud was seen as capable of controlling the Wahhabis if this was ever needed, and ensuring that the pilgrimage would take place without problems, which important for the British.
(see Britain, the Hashemites and Arab Rule: The Sherifian Solution)
Until that time, the only source of revenue for the Saudis was from the pilgrimage to Mecca and the visits to Medina. The discovery of oil and the realization of its industrial and economic potential was happening at that time. I will not go into the details here, but much of the oil was actually discovered in areas that were controlled by the Shi’a and other minorities, and the Saudis forcibly took it, leaving nothing for the inhabitants of those regions, who live in poverty until this day. Iran’s oil was split between the UK and the Soviets, and Sykes-Picot Agreement had made Iraq, Syria and Palestine under the exclusive control of France and the UK.
The 7 largest oil companies in the US united with the American government, negotiated a deal with the UK, and created the Iraq Petroleum Company, that gave them 24% of all oil extracted from the Iraq, Syria, Iran and Palestine in return for not exploring for oil anywhere else.
The economic downturn of the time was felt in Saudi Arabia as well, and the king feared that the Europeans would come do as they please in Saudi lands, as they were now doing from Turkey and all the other neighbouring countries. So he gave the US exclusive right to mineral exploration in his lands. Karl Twitchell led the exploration of oil, which was finally found on the island of Bahrain in 1932 by another group. The Saudi king then forced a bidding war, in which the US ultimately triumphed. In 1933, Philby was the intermediary in the negotiations between the Saudis and SOCAL (Standard Oil of California) of a 60-year exclusive contract to explore and extract oil – this was the beginning of ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company), which the U.S. State Department classified as the richest commercial prize in the history of the planet. It was only in 1937 that substantial oil resources were found by the US on Saudi land. The Saudi king forced another bidding war between the Japanese, Germans and the US, which Germany won this time. But as the war went on, the US’s need for oil increased, and in 1943, Roosevelt declared that defending Saudi Arabia was as important as defending the US.
The United States under President Franklin D. Roosevelt was interested in cultivating the friendship of Arab countries because of the need to protect US petroleum interests, and in particular, Roosevelt was interested in the friendship of Saudi Arabia. According to some sources, King Ibn Saud was interested in a plan for a Jewish state that was formulated by his adviser and confidante, British archeologist and diplomat Harry St. John Philby (father of cold war spy Kim Philby). This plan was put to Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders. Eventually the US administration became interested. At the beginning of July 1943, US Secretary of State Cordell Hull gave Colonel Henry Hoskins (not Harry Hopkins, as stated in some accounts) a directive from Roosevelt ordering him to proceed to Saudi Arabia to ascertain whether Ibn Saud “would enter into discussions with Dr. Chaim Weizmann or other representatives selected by the Jewish Agency for the purpose of seeking a solution of basic problems affecting Palestine acceptable to both Arabs and Jews?”
Hoskins met King Abdul Aziz on Aug. 14, 1943, but according to Hoskins, Saud rebuffed the Philby plan and what he claimed was Weizmann’s proposal to bribe him. Later, Roosevelt met Saud in February 1945. On board the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez canal, President Roosevelt tried to persuade Saud to acquiesce to a plan for Jewish emigration to Palestine, but Saud was adamant in his opposition. One week before his death, in a letter dated April 5, 1945, Roosevelt promised King Saud that he, as president of the United States, would take no hostile action against the Arabs and that the United States would not change its basic policy toward the Palestine issue without prior consultations with both Arabs and Jews.
Roosevelt’s policy was reversed by his successor, Harry Truman.
The US reiterated its support to Saudi Arabia repeatedly in many ways as events in the region took place, every time, costing them the trust of the populations of all the neighbouring nations. This includes the time when Roosevelt promised the Saudi king in person that the US would not support Israel at the expense of the Arabs in 1945.
Letter From President Roosevelt to King Ibn Saud, April 5, 1945
GREAT AND GOOD FRIEND:
I have received the communication which Your Majesty sent me under date of March 10, 1945, in which you refer to the question of Palestine and to the continuing interest of the Arabs in current developments affecting that country.
I am gratified that Your Majesty took this occasion to bring your views on this question to my attention and I have given the most careful attention to the statements which you make in your letter. I am also mindful of the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago and in the course of which I had an opportunity to obtain so vivid an impression of Your Majesty’s sentiments on this question.
Your Majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American Government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews. Your Majesty will also doubtless recall that during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.
It gives me pleasure to renew to Your Majesty the assurances which you have previously received regarding the attitude of my Government and my own, as Chief Executive, with regard to the question of Palestine and to inform you that the policy of this Government in this respect is unchanged.
I desire also at this time to send you my best wishes for Your Majesty’s continued good health and for the welfare of your people.
Your Good Friend,
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
ABDUL AZIZ IBN ABDUR RAHMAN AL FAISAL AL SAUD
King of Saudi Arabia
In 1967, as the Six Day War started, the Egyptian president Nasser said that the US had provided air cover for Israel…
The oil exporting nations used the oil for political bargaining, and this would happen a lot from that point on. Some say that the use of oil as a weapon was the idea of Philby.
But more importantly for our purposes here, the populations of the region lost faith in the ability of their nationalist, secular, (pan-Arabic) movements in the face of any external dangers and threats. The most representative of all nationalist movements was that of Egypt, which was the model to be followed by the other nations, and yet, it was embarrassingly defeated by Israel in 1967, and again in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. A stronger, more capable alternative had to be found. For many, this was Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist monarchy.
As conflicts arose and the US sided with the enemies of the Arabs every time, Saudi Arabia threatened and implemented oil embargoes, but always came through by selling enough oil to allow the Americans to continue their operations and ensure their own survival and self-interest. That is why they are considered by most Arabs as having no loyalty or value except their own self-preservation. And the Saudis were always able to play cards that gave the impression that have satisfied and fulfilled their duties. For instance, they sided against godless Marxist communism, because Christian capitalism is closer to Islam… They stood up for the Palestinian brothers, but they also ensured that the US gets the oil they need despite the embargo. They funded operations against Soviets in Sudan, Zaire, Chad, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia… while also funding organizations that are considering terrorist by the Americans…
Khomeini’s revolution in Iran forced everyone to rethink their game plan.
He had been able overthrow a stable and powerful monarchy swiftly, and what happened in Iran could happen to Saudi Arabia. Iran was now in a position to become the regional power. Iran has a crushing Shi’ite majority, and there are very significant Shi’ite majorities in the Eastern part of Saudi Arabia (as well as Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen) who have always considered the Saudis to be American puppets. A religious leader and his followers seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca, on November 20, 1979, in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. Although this attempt never had a real chance of succeeding, Saudi Arabia knew that it was basically being criticized by Iran and its sympathizers from the outside, as well as internally by its own population. Everyone was in agreement that Saudi Arabia not religious enough, or not religious at all (according to the many who believe that they are only Muslims in appearance, and couldn’t care less about religion…). Saudi Arabia had no choice but to prove everyone wrong.
Saudi Arabia and the CIA worked closely with Pakistan to fight the Soviet expansion especially in Afghanistan through “Islamic fighters.” Hundreds of millions of dollars in arms transfers were now being supplied to the area. Most of the funding was given to those who could
1) put the most religious spin on the fighting
2) propagate the Wahhabi version of Islam, and
3) fight any Iranian influence or presence: those were Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The Soviets retreated in 1988, and this was seen as a major victory for the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
When there were no longer any wars to fight in the name of Islam, the tens of thousands of fighters who reintegrated normal society after years of military activity, could not find in Saudi Arabia and other societies and lifestyles the Islamic values that they had been told they were fighting for. Saudi Arabia continued funding all sorts of activities in Africa, Yemen and even Latin America, and purchased nuclear-capable missiles from communist China…
That is when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Kuwait is a tiny country, and Saudi Arabia is just a few steps away… Saudi Arabia and the US agreed to station 500 000 American troops at the border with Kuwait, in case Saddam continued his advance.
This was not well received by the Saudi population and much of the Muslim world, who saw this move as the King’s seeking the aid of disbelievers (the US) against another Muslim (Saddam). The king got a religious verdict, a fatwa, from Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti as he always does in these matters, but it was too little too late because it was after the fact, and only further proved that the Mufti is a political appointment serving the interests of the monarchy.
This further fueled the activist Wahhabis, because they are the only channel through which people can funnel their opposition and frustration. Bin Laden had offered to use his men to stop Saddam, but this was rejected by the Saudis. As his critiques became louder, he was exiled to Sudan, which fueled Wahhabis further.
Throughout the nineties, religious authorities released statements asking to cleanse Saudi Arabia from any values or presence of non-Islamic elements, supervising the government, stopping foreign aid to atheistic regimes such as Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, etc. and a number of terrorist attacks took place against American as well as Saudi interests, on Saudi ground. King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, and Abdullah took over all the functions.
In 1996, Bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, and used it as a recruitment center, from which he organized attacks that hit the interests of many parties at the same time.
As attacks continued, and Saddam threatened again, the Saudis sought the help of Americans, only to see the attacks continue further… in 2003, they disallowed the stationing of US troops on their territory. Wahhabism was growing further in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world, fueled by anti-Western and anti-American sentiments, often related to the cause of Palestinians. Depending on which version of the events you ascribe to, the September 9/11 attacks are considered by many analysts as the culmination of all of this…
While about one third of the oil the US needs comes Saudi Arabia, which represents about 20% of the Saudi production. In return, American military funding to the Saudi regime between 1950 and 2006 represents about 40 billion dollars…
stay tuned for Part 4!
- Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present)
- Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Achcar. Perilous Power: the Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy: Dialogue on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice.
- Rachel Bronson. Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.
- Thomas Lippman. Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia.
- Nick Turse. The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.
- Also, writing of Jack Philby, Chaim Weizmann, etc…
see all the articles of Making Sense of Wahhabism series: