Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ibn Saud and the Foundation of the Kingdom (1902-1946)

In 1891 and 1892, the Ottomans, helped by the Al Rashid, their local allies in the northern Nejd, destroyed the second Saudi-Wahhabi state. Most of the Al Saud family fled, mainly to Qatar and Kuwait. But from 1902 onwards, Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, famous as "Ibn Saud", began rebuilding his family’s power in the Nejd.

Repairing the railway track near Maan, 1918. Source: Imperial War Museum © IWM Q 60116

Ibn Saud revived Wahhabism among the tribes, relying on a religious and military movement called the Ikhwan, to reconquer adjacent areas. The British administration in India supported them too, as useful allies against the Ottomans on the Gulf coast. They helped the Saudis to expand into eastern Arabia in 1913.

Arab Independence under British Control

On the other side of the Peninsula, the Ottomans strengthened their control of the Hijaz by building a railway line southwards from Damascus to Madina and Mecca (the link to Mecca was never completed).

It presented this as a patriotic project intended to provide transport for pilgrims, but the line also had a military aim: to allow troops to be moved quickly to the two holy cities. Politically, the Hijaz was a province of the Ottoman Empire governed by the ‘Grand Sharif’ of Mecca, a Hashimite, one of the Saudis’ greatest rivals.

Other members of the Hashimite family moved to Istanbul, or the Ottomans moved them there as security. Hussein bin Ali, born in Istanbul in the 1850s, eventually became a member of the Ottoman Council of State, and after the Turkish Revolution of 1908 bargained his way into becoming Grand Sharif himself. He arrived in Mecca at the end of the year.

Map of the Hijaz railway linking Damascus and Mecca. Source: Fanack

From Mecca, Hussein extended his influence into the interior, bringing conflict with Ibn Saud. It was a rivalry between warlords, although both had a wider ideological audience. There were Wahhabi supporters in India and at the same time Arab national societies and parties were established across the Middle East, many of them in exile.

Al-Fatat (short for the ‘Young Arab Society’) started in Paris in 1909 to push for Arab independence within a federal Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Administrative Decentralisation Party was formed in Cairo in 1912. The following year it called an Arab Congress in Paris to demand decentralisation of power to the provinces (vilayets), though not separation from the Empire.

In August 1913 a group in Basra, in southern Mesopotamia, called for an independent Arab government there and the overthrow of the Committee of Union and Progress that ruled from Istanbul. Secret organisations among Mesopotamian officers in the Ottoman army also sought independence for Iraq.

When the First World War began in Europe (with the Ottoman Empire as member of one of two opposing coalitions), Hussein demanded that the Ottomans should appoint him hereditary governor of the Hijaz. He started contacts with secret Arab nationalist societies and with the British in Egypt.

The British hoped to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, to allow the navy of their Russian allies access to the Mediterranean. In early 1915, the British and French landed armies at Gallipoli. That failed, so the British began negotiating with Sharif Hussein to attack the Ottoman Empire from the rear.

In July 1915, Hijazi forces expelled the Ottoman garrison from Mecca, but Turkish troops held out in Medina throughout the war, supplied by the Hijaz railway. Hussein proclaimed himself King of the Arabs.

The British encouraged Sharif Hussein but he wanted a more definite commitment. The British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, made contact: the famous Hussein McMahon Correspondence promised support for Arab independence in exchange for revolt against the Turks. But it was vaguely worded. It promised:

“to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories.”

It was also territorially limited. Modern-day Lebanon and northwestern Syria, with large Christian and Muslim minorities,were excluded from the ‘Arab area’:

“The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation.”

Hijaz railway
Inside a railway carriage on Hijaz railway, 1908. This picture shows the mix of passengers on the line – including men wearing the Turkish-style tarbush (fez) and the Arab-style headscarf. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Arab independence without British control was not what the British intended. The British only ever recognised the Sharif as ‘King of the Hijaz,’ not of all the Arabs.

The British sent military support to the Hijaz. T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) helped tribes from the desert who had been attacking the railway since before the war started and devised the capture of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea in July 1917. That opened the way for the Australian and British armies to cross from Egypt into Palestine.

The Hijazis, assisted by Lawrence, were unable to force the Ottoman forces out of Madina, but their troops occupied Damascus in September 1918. This allowed Hussein’s son Faysal to make contact with notables and Arab nationalists there.

But while the British War Office and Foreign Office were supporting Sharif Hussein in Mecca, the British administration in India was backing Ibn Saud. In December 1915, the government in New Delhi recognised Ibn Saud as the independent ruler of Nejd and provided him with guns, ammunition and money.

The Hussein-McMahon correspondence was not the only set of secret negotiations over the fate of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In 1915, the British and French secretly agreed to divide the Arab-speaking provinces into respective spheres of influence.

The British took control of Iraq and Transjordan and the French of Syria and Lebanon. These were known as the Sykes-Picot agreements, after the two officials responsible for the plan. In 1917, the British agreed with the British Zionist Federation to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Finally, and crucial in the economic long term, there were a series of arrangements for dividing up Middle Eastern oil.

The Role of Oil

Before the beginning of the twentieth century, there were few cars, no planes, and the chemical industry was quite small. William Knox D’Arcy, an Australian mining entrepreneur, won a concession to explore for oil in Iran in 1908.

His company, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) found it hard to raise capital and find markets after it struck oil in Southwest Iran in 1908. But demand from the military was growing, particularly from European navies, because the ability to refuel at sea gave warships far greater range.

In 1912, the British Royal Navy shifted entirely to oil, but the British controlled very few territories that could produce large amounts of oil. In 1911 the British government had given APOC a contract to supply oil and in 1914 it bought half of the shares and got two members on the board with the right of veto.

This worried the German government, which was negotiating with the Ottoman Empire to explore for and produce oil in Mesopotamia. Before the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was more stable than Iran and its government wanted more control over its assets, with no one country completely dominant. So it insisted that an international consortium should exploit Mesopotamian oil.

Therefore it turned to an Armenian oil engineer, Calouste Gulbenkian, to put one together. It was called the Turkish Petroleum Company and its shares were divided between APOC (50 per cent), Royal Dutch Shell (25 per cent), and Deutsche Bank (25 per cent).

Gulbenkian wrote into the agreement that he would receive 5 per cent of the annual profits in perpetuity. The companies also agreed on a settlement that included the famous “self-denying ordinance” – within the territories of the Ottoman Empire as a whole. They would only work together and would not compete. All exploration stopped at the beginning of the war.

The post-war division of the Arab territories

British War Office sketch map of the proposed divisions of Arabia, 1921. This map was appended to a memorandum of 19 February 1921 by Laming Worthington-Evans, the Secretary of State for War (1921-1922) on the formation of a proposed Kingdom of Mesopotamia (i.e. Iraq). It included areas of the Arabian Peninsula whose status had not yet been decided. Source: UK National Archives

In 1921, the British War Office, led by Secretary of State for War Laming Worthington-Evans, prepared a map showing how the region should be politically divided up, to take account of all the promises. The Sykes-Picot Agreement gave the French Syria and Lebanon, and the British Palestine (as an international mandate).

Transjordan and Mesopotamia were superimposed on an Arab State as mentioned in the Hussein McMahon Correspondence. Thus, both the British and French areas (Syria and Iraq) were enclosed within the red line marking the frontiers of the Arab state. The whole enterprise was very ill-considered.

The Hashimite family benefited from this. Faysal bin Hussein tried to have himself declared King of Syria in 1920, and when that failed in the face of French opposition, the British appointed him to the new throne of Iraq. The British also appointed Abdullah, his brother, as Amir of Transjordan, the territory lying to the east of the mandate in Palestine.

However, the Hashimites lost their base in a large area to the south, which was left unassigned and included the Nejd, Hijaz, Yemen and Eastern Arabia.

Consolidation of Al Saud Rule

That area was dealt with in the next few years, when the Al Saud absorbed most of the rest of the Peninsula bit by bit. In 1921, Ibn Saud’s forces conquered Hail in central Arabia, the power base of their great rivals, the Al Rashid.

The Hashimites tried to rebuild their prestige after the new republican government in Turkey abolished the Caliphate in 1924. Seizing the moment, Sharif Hussein declared himself Caliph in place of the Ottomans, but it was Ibn Saud who triumphed in reality. When Hussein banned the Wahhabi Ikhwan, Ibn Saud’s most militant supporters, from the Hajj, they fought back. In September 1924, the Ikhwan took Taif.

In December 1925, King Ali bin Hussein surrendered, and Ibn Saud declared himself King of the Hijaz and then king of the Nejd. The Arab nationalist flag that the Hashimites had used was replaced by Ibn Saud’s flag that epitomised his Islamic ideology – the declaration of faith in white on a green background.

By 1930, all local emirates in central Arabia had vanished. At the Treaty of Taif in 1934, Yemen kept its independence by handing over the northern part of its territory, Asir, to Saudi control. In 1932, the two kingdoms of Nejd and the Hijaz were united as Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, it shared borders largely with British-protected states on the fringes of the peninsula: Transjordan and Iraq in the north, Aden and its hinterland in the south, Oman and Kuwait in the East and a string of sheikdoms along the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

Despite his victories, Ibn Saud’s powers in the Peninsula were quite limited. The Ikhwan rejected “unbelievers”, not only inside the Peninsula but beyond it. This proved to be a threat to Ibn Saud’s rule.

In December 1922, the British had made an agreement with Ibn Saud on the border between the Nejd and the new Kingdom of Iraq. The tribes in this desert area were not settled, so a separate protocol had to deal with their access to waterholes.

In the protocol, a separate neutral territory was declared on the border between Iraq, the Nejd and Kuwait, giving all local tribes access to water. Even so, raids across the frontier did continue, supported by the Ikhwan. When Ibn Saud tried to stop them, it undermined his authority. In 1926, Ikhwan fighters attacked Transjordan and Iraq.

Inside Saudi Arabia, the Ikhwan were appalled by what they saw as the ‘lax morals’ in the Hijaz. They set up the Society for Encouragement of Good & Prevention of Evil that began a campaign of moral purity. They mandated whippings for opening shops at prayers, and smoking.

The Ikhwan also disliked modern developments such as the telegraph. They threatened Ibn Saud’s authority not only locally, but also his relations with the British government. Clearly, if the Saudi state was to survive, it would need to rein the Ikhwan in.

Ibn Saud used two political methods to impose control. Firstly, he relied on members of his family, which he extended through strategic marriages and by appointing his sons to key positions. Secondly, he created a new army and, in 1929-30 used it to crush the Ikhwan. While it ended border raids and internal political opposition for the time being, the Ikhwan would come back to haunt Saudi Arabia half a century later during the Great Mosque crisis of 1979.

A further problem was money. The state was not wealthy. Revenue came from small taxes levied on commerce in the Eastern Province and revenues from pilgrims visiting the Hijaz, as well as British subsidies. But the recession of 1929 put an end to that.

The recession also shaped the development of oil production, which would eventually make Saudi Arabia very wealthy indeed. Saudi Arabia produced no oil yet, and there was a slump in the demand for oil and its price. The price began to fall in 1926 and by 1928 the international oil industry was in crisis.

Crude Oil Price 1918-39

Oil cartel

In 1928, Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) struck oil in northern Iraq. IPC was a restructuring of the Turkish Petroleum Company that replaced German and Turkish participation with French and American companies. The new partners were Anglo-Persian, Royal Dutch/Shell, the Compagnie Française des Pétroles (CFP, later Total), and a consortium of US companies (including Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil Company of New York, Gulf Oil, the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company, and Atlantic Richfield Co.).

Each of the four parties would receive a 23.75 per cent share of all the crude oil produced by IPC. Calouste Gulbenkian kept his 5 per cent of the profits. At the Ostend Conference in 1928, members of the new consortium agreed to keep a condition of the original TPC partnership: that they would not act independently of each other within the former territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Gulbenkian defined this area with a line he drew with a red pencil on a map of the Middle East. The Red Line Agreement included the whole of the Middle East between the Suez Canal and Iran, except for Kuwait. It determined the future of oil in the Middle East.

The Red Line agreement as given in the text of the Ostend Conference, 1928. This is clearly a tidier version of Gulbenkian’s explanation, but it preserves the red colouring of the line itself and includes an explanation of its direction by referring to treaty agreements of the defunct Ottoman Empire. It is one of the foundation maps in the history of the oil industry in the Middle East. Source: Biblioteca de Arte / Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian

In reality, IPC had no interest in expanding its operations outside Iraq, with poor economic conditions and a low oil price. The companies had a strong incentive to limit production to force up the price of oil, but this necessarily cut the income of the producer states. For Saudi Arabia, it meant that none of the companies participating in IPC would explore for oil in the Peninsula. The IPC cartel was a huge blow to Ibn Saud.

Harry St John Bridger Philby (1885-1960) in Arab clothes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Saud had turned for economic and political advice to Harry St. John Philby, a former British civil servant who had converted to Islam and had become an anti-imperialist. Philby introduced Ibn Saud to an American millionaire named Charles Crane who had a deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the Middle East. In 1931 Crane went to Saudi Arabia and told Ibn Saud that he would search for water and minerals. Instead, Crane found oil. But IPC would not exploit it.

There was a way out, though: nothing prevented companies that were not members of the cartel from seeking their own deal with Saudi Arabia. In 1928, Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) secured a concession to search for oil in Bahrain and, in 1933, they won a concession from the Saudi government in the eastern province of al-Hasa.

In 1936, Texas Oil Company bought into the Saudi subsidiary of SOCAL. In 1938, as the world was coming out of the depression, SOCAL struck oil at Dammam. It had found the biggest oil field on earth.

Dammam No. 7, the first commercial oil well in Saudi Arabia, which struck oil on March 4, 1938. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At last, the Saudi economy began to develop. At this early stage, two families that originated in the Yemeni region of Hadramawt began to prosper in the service of the new Saudi State – the bin Mahfouze family turned their money-changing business in Mecca into the National Commercial Bank (the current Saudi National Bank) and Mohammed Awad bin Laden, a one-time porter in Jeddah who had serviced the pilgrimage trade, moved into construction.