Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia after Ibn Saud

After the Second World War, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, also known as Ibn Saud, and Saudi Arabia became more important on the world stage.

King Abdulaziz Al Saud
US President Roosevelt’s meeting with King Abdulaziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud) of Saudi Arabia on board the USS-Quincy in the Suez Canal, February 1945. Archives Snark / Photo12 via AFP


Three factors were at play: the establishment of the State of Israel and the exile of a huge part of the Palestinian population (the Nakba); the Cold War and the importance of Saudi Arabia to the Western alliance versus the growing Arab nationalist movement sympathetic to the eastern bloc; and the increasing wealth from oil.

These factors also influenced Saudi Arabia’s position among Arab and Islamic countries where Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina contrasted with socialist nationalism.

US Involvement

Until the Second World War, US governments had left the question of Palestine to the British. However, war made oil a vital commodity and once the United States entered the war as a British ally, Washington had to build diplomatic relations with the Arab states.

In 1943 the US State Department advised President Franklin Roosevelt to reassure Arab governments that the US was a friendly power. Two of Ibn Saud’s sons, Faisal and Khaled, went to the US, toured the country, and met Roosevelt.

On 14 February 1945, President Roosevelt met Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy, in the Suez Canal. This was the first time Ibn Saud had been to sea; he had only briefly left the Arabian Peninsula. The meeting became the basis for America’s longest close relationship with an Arab state.

Even so, Palestine was a point of disagreement: Roosevelt strongly supported the creation of a Jewish state, which Ibn Saud rejected equally strongly. Roosevelt promised to make no final decision about Palestine without consulting both Arabs and Jews. He also agreed to build a small airfield at Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia close to the town Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) set up to staff the oilfields.

Dhahran airfield opened in 1946 after the Second World War was over. In the context of the Cold War, the US government sought allies in the Middle East and provided arms to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, in 1948 the United States clearly backed the new State of Israel.

Although Saudi Arabia took no part in Arab military action during the Arab-Israeli War, the religious leadership firmly supported the Palestinians. The Saudis took back ownership of the Dhahran base in 1948 and agreed to lease the facilities to the Americans only on an annual basis.

Ibn Saud died on 9 November 1953, aged 77. Before his death, he designated his eldest son Saud bin Abdelaziz (born 1902) to become king, but he also named Saud’s half-brother, Faisal bin Abdelaziz (born 1906) as crown prince, hoping to head off the intense rivalry between the two.

When his brother came to the throne, Faisal served as prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs. King Saud inherited a kingdom lacking modern institutions and state bureaucracy. The growing wealth from oil was squandered on palaces and consumption, and only rudimentary modernization was undertaken.

Countering Dissent

The resulting political tensions took several forms. The 1950s witnessed the outbreak of several worker strikes in the eastern oil-producing al-Ahsa region. In the military, there were several coup plots, all of which were suppressed. And there were even opponents from within the extensive royal family. The Egyptian revolution of 1952 encouraged this opposition.

In American (and Saudi) eyes, President Nasser of Egypt was a dangerous ideological and political figure who inspired a growing anti-Western and anti-colonial mood in the Arab world. To deal with this threat, the Saudi government organised an ideological response from inside the kingdom and a diplomatic and strategic one internationally.

The ideological response was an intellectual attack on Pan-Arabism led by scholars (ulama) within the kingdom. In 1961 Abdulaziz bin Baz, a judge (qadi) closely aligned with the regime, wrote a long treatise entitled ‘Critique of Arab Nationalism in the Light of Islam and Reality’ which the government distributed widely in several Arab and Muslim countries. Ibn Baz criticised Arab nationalism for dividing the Muslim community by fragmenting it along racial lines and for separating religion from government and law.

The Saudi rulers realised that resisting Egyptian secularism and Arab nationalism needed an international effort, and in 1961 they set up the Islamic University of Medina. The following year, assisted by the religious establishment, they established the Muslim World League to mobilise international Muslim opinion against Egyptian influence.

Inside Saudi Arabia itself, twenty-two institutes for religious studies were set up during King Saud’s reign. Moreover, the unity of religion, government and law was strengthened by a massive expansion of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (also known as the ‘religious police’) by recruiting many more agents and hugely increasing its budget. That helped to ensure that the ulama retained an important position in the Saudi structure.

In the 1950s, the Saudi government adhered to the Western alliance, even though that clashed ideologically with the religious policies of the ulama. The pro-Western camp among the Arab states included Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Iraq and, despite historic rivalries with the Hashemite monarchs of Jordan and Iraq, Saudi Arabia.

Nasser’s Egypt rejected the Western alliance (the Baghdad Pact), associated itself with the Non-Aligned Movement, but bought arms from the Soviet Union and recognised communist China. In 1956, when the World Bank cut economic assistance to build the Aswan High Dam, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal.

Britain and France retaliated by invading Egypt, but Nasser marshalled international support to force them to withdraw. Nasser presented himself as the victor over imperialism, a popular Arab hero outside Egypt and a socialist who nationalised much of the economy at home. In 1958 an alliance with Syria created a single United Arab Republic (UAR) that seemed to threaten Saudi security.

Oil riches

In some ways, this was an unequal rivalry, because by the end of the 1950s, Saudi Arabia was becoming very rich. At the beginning of the 1950s, world demand for oil was flat while the US and Britain struggled with their economies. Seven major oil companies – the so-called ‘Seven Sisters’ – dominated the production and consumption of oil.

They were mostly American apart from BP, Royal Dutch Shell and the French company CFP. In 1950, the Seven Sisters controlled 85 per cent of crude production outside North America, the Soviet Union, and China. They also dominated the transportation, refining, and distribution of oil. The companies not only extracted oil, but through their networks of filling stations in the developed countries, sold it as well. That gave them control over its price.

In 1950, to protect its revenues, the Saudi government forced Aramco to renegotiate the production agreement, setting a 50-50 profit-sharing between the government and the company. This increasing government control would eventually lead to a total takeover.

Also, the concentration of known oil reserves in the world changed. In 1945, declared oil reserves in the Middle East accounted for around ten per cent of global production. But by 1960, reserves in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula equaled 25 per cent of world reserves.

The producing countries now had greater leverage and in September 1960 delegates from Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq set up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They sought ways to increase the oil price and respond to the dominance of the international oil companies.

Furthermore, they aimed at a uniform price of oil to safeguard individual and collective interests. The Saudi government was an enthusiastic supporter of OPEC. As the price moved upwards and exports increased by the 1960s, Saudi Arabia started to become very rich.

Growth of Saudi oil exports 1948-64.

Nasser’s leadership of the Arab nationalist movement collapsed when Syria seceded from the UAR in 1961. Then, in 1962, a coup in Yemen replaced the royalist regime and set up a Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Nasser intervened to support it, but Saudi Arabia supported the royalist survivors, so Nasser sent troops to support the YAR.

The war split the Arab states. Most lined up with Egypt; only Jordan explicitly sided with the Saudis. In the US, President Kennedy thought Saudi Arabia was out of step with the politics of the region and, fearing a more left-wing regime in Egypt if Nasser was defeated, he recognised the YAR. Among the Western allies, only Britain supported the Saudis, in a vain attempt to shore up British influence in southern Arabia.

These tensions divided the Al Saud ruling family. At the beginning of his reign, Saud spread power quite widely in the family, but he soon began to concentrate it, excluding his brothers and
cousins and relying on his sons and trusted companions. The Al Saud family developed two factions, one around King Saud and the other around Crown Prince Faisal.

Faisal’s faction included many members of the ulama, who preferred Faisal’s clear piety to Saud’s less ostentatious zeal for religion. They also disliked Saud’s preference for technocrats, some of whom were influenced by Pan-Arabism and left-wing ideas.

One of these technocrats was the king’s much younger brother Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, (born 1931). Saud made him minister of Finance in 1961. Talal proposed a radical political reform plan including a constitution and permanent closure of the US Dhahran air base. But the following year, Faisal struck back and, using King Saud’s poor health as a lever, won the support of senior ulama.

They declared the king unfit and made Faisal regent. Talal left Saudi Arabia and became the leader of a ‘Free Princes’ opposition movement, with a base in Cairo. In November 1964, Crown Prince Faisal, supported by many other princes, and by a large faction of the ulama, forced Saud to abdicate and became king himself. Saud died in Greece in January 1969, aged 67.