The Rule of Abd Al Aziz

The Rule of Abd Al Aziz

The capture of the Hijaz complicated the basis of Abd al Aziz's authority. The Al Saud ruler was fundamentally a traditional Arab clan leader who held the loyalty of various tribes because of his spectacular successes. But Abd al Aziz was also a Wahhabi imam who held the intense loyalty of the Ikhwan. When he became the ruler of Mecca and Medina as well, Abd al Aziz took on the responsibilities of Khadim al Haramayn (servant of the two shrines) and so assumed an important position in the wider Muslim world. Finally, by maintaining his authority under pressure from the Western powers, Abd al Aziz had become the only truly independent Arab leader after World War I. Thus, he had a role to play in Arab politics as well.

In establishing his state, Abd al Aziz had to consider the various constituencies that he served. He made some effort to gain world Muslim approval before he moved into the Hijaz. Once the Hijaz was under his control, he submitted to the world Muslim community, even if only rhetorically, the question of how the area should be ruled. When he received no response, he held an informal referendum in which the notables of the Hijaz chose him as their king. In the Hijaz, Abd al Aziz restrained the more fanatical of his Wahhabi followers and eventually won the support of the local religious authorities, or ulama.

Other Muslim countries were not at the time in a position to challenge Abd al Aziz. Most of the states lived under foreign rule or mandate, and two of the countries that did not, Iran and Turkey, were in the midst of secular reforms.

Abd al Aziz had problems at home, however. The first and most serious of these was the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan had no tolerance for the concessions to life in the twentieth century that Abd al Aziz was forced to make. They objected to machines, particularly those used for communication, such as the telegraph, as well as to the increasing presence of non-Muslim foreigners in the country. They also continued to object to some of the practices of non-Wahhabi Muslims.

Most important, the Ikhwan remained eager to force their message on whomever did not accept it. This led them to attack non-Wahhabi Muslims, and sometimes Wahhabi Muslims as well, within Saudi Arabia and to push beyond its borders into Iraq. Whereas the first sort of attack challenged Abd al Aziz's authority, the second caused him problems with the British, who would not tolerate the violation of borders that they had set up after World War I. It was largely because of this second concern that Abd al Aziz found himself obliged to take on the Ikhwan militarily. When the Wahhabi forces continued to ignore his authority, he waged a pitched battle and defeated them in 1929.

The way that Abd al Aziz put down the Ikhwan demonstrated his ability to assemble a domestic constituency. Throughout their history, the Al Saud had no standing army; when the family had a military objective it had simply assembled coalitions of tribes and towns, or such groups as the Ikhwan. In facing the Ikhwan Abd al Aziz did the same thing. He went out into the country and made his case in what resembled large and small town meetings. He talked not only to the people who would be fighting with him, but also to the religious authorities, seeking their advice and approval. If the ruler wished to battle the Ikhwan, could this be sanctioned by Islam? Or might the Ikhwan's demand to continue their jihad have greater justification?

In the late 1920s the majority sided with Abd al Aziz, setting the foundation of the modern state. The ruler built on this foundation by taking into account the interests of various groups. He continued to consult the ulama and, if he disagreed with them, to work to change their opinion. The best example was the battle Abd al Aziz fought to set up radio communications. Like the Ikhwan, the ulama first opposed radio as a suspect modern innovation for which there was no basis in the time of the Prophet. Only when Abd al Aziz demonstrated that the radio could be used to broadcast the Quran did the ulama give it their approval.

Abd al Aziz was careful not to make more enemies than necessary--and he tried to make those enemies he had into friends. One can see this clearly in his handling of his two rivals from World War I, the Rashidi of Hail and the Sharif of Mecca. After conquering Hail, Abd al Aziz reestablished the marriage links that his ancestor, Turki, had first forged between the two families by marrying three of the Rashidi widows into his family. He made a similar effort to gain the favor of the Hashimites after taking the Hijaz. Rather than expelling the family as a future threat, Abd al Aziz gave some of its members large tracts of land, enabling them to stay in the area and prosper.

Abd al Aziz also assured himself the continued loyalty of those who had been allied with him by granting them what favors he could. This was difficult, however, because the new Saudi kingdom had little money in its first twenty years. Najd had never been prosperous, and during the previous century its leaders had become almost dependent on the British to help them through recurring periods of famine. The British had been helpful throughout World War I, but when the political situation in Arabia stabilized, they became less inclined to support Abd al Aziz.

The conquest of the Hijaz and the pilgrimage revenues that went with it made Abd al Aziz considerably better off. With the recession in the 1920s and 1930s, however, pilgrimage traffic dropped, and Saudi income from the pilgrimage was reduced by more than half. Accordingly, there was little that Abd al Aziz could do in the 1920s and 1930s except to dole out what money he had in the traditional tribal manner. As many as 2,000 people would eat daily at Abd al Aziz's table, but this was the extent of the services that his government could provide.

The event that was to change all this was the discovery of massive oil reserves in the kingdom. Oil was first found on the Persian side of the Gulf before World War I and then in Bahrain shortly afterward. Geologists suspected that they would find oil in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia as well; so in the early 1930s, British and United States companies competed for the rights to develop that oil. The firm, Standard Oil of California (Socal), won and struck small pockets of oil fairly quickly. By the end of the decade, Socal discovered enormous deposits that were close to the surface and thus inexpensive to extract.

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