The Family

Malise Ruthven

  • The House of Saud by David Holden and Richard Johns
    Sidgwick, 569 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 283 98436 8
  • The Kingdom by Robert Lacey
    Hutchinson, 631 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 09 145790 4

To date, the history of Saudi Arabia has largely been the story of its ruling family. No other modern state calls itself by its rulers’ surname and labels its citizens with it. Though there is now a governmental system of growing complexity, and inefficiency, with ministries, departments of state, royal commissions and so forth, power is still wielded in an arbitrary and personal manner. Every leading prince has his majlis, where ordinary citizens can meet him, take coffee and discuss their problems. But there are no corporate institutions or centres of power independent of the royal family. Even the formal majlis al shura (‘consultative council’), promised after the disturbances in Mecca and Qatif in 1979, has yet to come into being. Without us, the Al (family of) Saud seem to be telling the world, the state would not exist. Like it or not, they are probably right.

In theory, the Saudi state is an absolute monarchy. Under a royal decree of 1958, a Council of Ministers is responsible for the budget and internal affairs, but only the King can legislate, publish laws, treaties and concessions. A decree of 1961 forbids the formation of political parties, and prohibits the profession of any ideology other than ‘Islam’. Anyone engaging in ‘violent action against the state or the royal family’ is liable to execution. In practice, the kingdom is governed by a consensus of 31 senior princes, all of them (including the present King) sons of the late Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Saud (c. 1880-1953), the bedouin warrior who created the modern Saudi state.

None of this would seem extraordinary without the oil and the enormous weight of Saudi investment in the Western economic system. Saudi Arabia is the last great Muslim state to have been created in the classic manner, from an alliance between bedouin warriors and the men of religion. The first Saudi state enjoyed a comparatively brief existence in the 18th century, when the religious reformer Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab made a pact with Muhammad ibn Saud, Sheikh of Diriya, in central Nejd. Together, they pledged to restore the ‘purity’ of Islam as practised in the time of the Prophet, by purging it of all innovations and superstitious accretions, by executing adulterers, and so forth. Their fanatical iconoclasm brought them into conflict with the Ottoman and Persian empires and within a few decades the Saudi-Wahhabi state had collapsed, victim of internal family quarrels and foreign intervention.

The modern revival of Saudi fortunes is largely due to the genius of Abdul Aziz (also known as ‘Ibn Saud’ – a title comparable to ‘The O’Neill’ or ‘The MacTavish’). Starting out from Kuwait in 1902 with a band of about forty followers, he regained the stronghold of Riyadh from his family’s Turkish-backed rivals, the Rashids, and proceeded, by war and diplomacy, to recover all the former Saudi dominions and much else besides. By 1913, he controlled the Gulf coast from Kuwait to Qatar, having eliminated the Turks from el Hasa – now the Eastern Province, where, in the 1930s, the world’s largest oil deposits were discovered. In 1924, his ablest son, Feisal, added Asir, on the Yemeni border, to the Saudi dominions. By 1926, he had realised his final ambition, the conquest of the Hejaz, Islam’s holy land. The way had unwittingly been smoothed for him by the British, who had helped the local ruler, the Sherif Hussein, to remove the Turks. The Sherif was a vain and foolish old man with ambitions far beyond his ability. After some hesitation the Saudi conquest of the Hejaz was greeted with general relief.

As always, the alliance between religion and politics was unstable. The storm-troopers on whom Abdul Aziz relied for his victories, known as the Ikhwan (‘Brothers’), were bedouin from the Mutair, Utaiba and other tribes who were settled in cantonments modelled on the Prophet’s original military-religious Islamic state. Literalistic and imitative in their religious behaviour, the Ikhwan disposed of some fifty-five thousand armed men in more than a hundred settlements dotted around central Arabia. ‘I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies,’ wrote an Arab who saw them in action, ‘utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank upon rank with only one desire – the defeat and annihilation of the enemy. They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men, veritable messengers of death from whose grasp no one escapes.’

Though acknowledging Abdul Aziz as their leader, the Ikhwan refused to recognise any territorial limits to their power. The Saudi leader’s northern and eastern frontiers were controlled by the British, whose officials were invariably impressed by his charm and courtesy. Eventually his international undertakings (as well as personal inclination) obliged him to deal with his over-zealous supporters – not least because, after conquering the Hejaz, he was anxious to reassure a nervous Muslim world that the holy cities and their pilgrims would be properly cared for. The Ikhwan were beaten back by the British in Iraq and Trans-jordan; and after a revolt by two of their leaders, Abdul Aziz finished them off himself. Their armed units were disbanded and mostly absorbed into what became the Saudi National Guard. By 1932, the genie was back in the bottle, religion relegated to its proper place: a prop to the social order, not a force to threaten it. Abdul Aziz, who already described himself as King of Nejd and its Dependencies and King of the Hejaz, gave himself a new title – King of Saudi Arabia. In the eyes of the religiously militant it was a classic instance of ideological sell-out: instead of recreating the Islamic state of their dreams, the Ikhwan (like so many of their predecessors, from the time of the early caliphs) had been used to further the ambitions of a dynast.

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