Profile of King Abdul Aziz

This paper was delivered by H.E. Dr Fouad Al Farsy, Saudi Minister of Information, to a conference in Pakistan convened in January 1999 to mark the 100th anniversary of King Abdul Aziz' retaking of Riyadh.


It sometimes seems that heroes are simply the creations of myth, that only through the eloquence of storytellers and poets can mere men be elevated to heroic status. It takes the singer of songs to enhance reality till the mundane can aspire to the epic.

The life of King Abdul Aziz is therefore all the more remarkable because a simple, unvarnished account of the man and his deeds immediately reveals a figure of immense stature. It is the life of a man whose early years, spent in exile, seemed inauspicious but who set about, as little more than a lad, restoring his family's birthright, dignity and fortune and who went on, against all the odds, despite conflicting tribal loyalties and the machinations of colonial powers, to build a Kingdom more or less the size of Western Europe.

The story has still more remarkable features. The man who is the subject of this article lived not some hundreds or thousands of years ago, but in our own century. And, unlike other powerful figures of our century, he did not found an oppressive dictatorship but a benign monarchy, based upon consultation and consensus, with the rights of every citizen guaranteed by strict adherence to his religion: Islam.

In recounting some of the main events in the life of Abdul Aziz, there is a danger that the battles and the victories will distract attention from his real claim to greatness. It was not his prowess in battle but his ability to bring about reconciliation after his victories which is his most striking attribute. Through the sheer force of his personality, through his magnanimity to those who opposed him and, of course, by means from time to time of judicious marriages, he achieved what seemed impossible. There are many instances where those who were his enemies became his most loyal supporters and his friends. That is perhaps one of the finest accolades that any man can merit.

***

The main events in the life of Abdul Aziz are well-known but worthy of retelling if we are to try to delineate the character of the man. Abdul Aziz's father, Imam Abdul Rahman, was driven from Riyadh by the Al Rashid. As a result, Abdul Aziz's early years were spent in exile, years in which the young Abdul Aziz learned many lessons which would stand him in good stead. He grasped the purity and strength of the harsh desert life. He became aware of the profound significance of the custom of hospitality in bedouin life. Above all, he learned that strength depends on unity and that the survival of the many depends on inviolable concepts of loyalty. In the building and then governing of a nation, Abdul Aziz had to deploy many skills but he never forgot the simple desert virtues which, in any circumstance, will stand a man in good stead.

Imam Abdul Rahman took his family first to Bahrain. In Bahrain, their host, Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, took an instant liking to the son of Imam Abdul Rahman, the young Prince Abdul Aziz, a liking which matured into a lifelong friendship.

From Bahrain, the Al Saud traveled first to Qatar and then to Kuwait where Sheikh Mubarak greeted them with great hospitality. There, in Kuwait, the family settled.

From the outset, Imam Abdul Rahman was determined that his son should be given a strict religious education. A religious teacher was given the task of teaching the young Prince to read and to learn and revere the Holy Qur'an. Although it is said that Abdul Aziz was initially fonder of hunting than of formal lessons, the self-discipline he learned at an early age remained with him throughout his life. His study of the Holy Qur'an led to a life-long delight in hearing recitations of the holy text.

As the years passed, Abdul Aziz's thoughts turned more and more to his ancestral home, the Nejd, and to Riyadh, the family seat.

In 1901, with his father's blessing, he gathered around him a small band of trusted companions and set out on what was to be one of the great epic adventures of the 20th century. After following a circuitous route designed to obscure their real objective, Abdul Aziz and his followers reached the outskirts of Riyadh in January 1902.

The difficulties of taking Riyadh with so small a force were obvious and intimidating. Abdul Aziz asked for volunteers to accompany him in the execution of a plan which seemed to have only its boldness to recommend it.

Once within the walls of Riyadh, the small group quietly made its way to an empty house close to the residence of the Amir, Ajlan. They entered the house, climbed to the roof and, by leaping from one roof to the next, reached the Amir's residence. There they waited. At dawn, after prayers, Ajlan emerged from the Mosque into the street. Quickly cornered, the Amir defended himself briefly until the sword of Abdullah bin Jelawi dispatched him. The garrison of Riyadh was utterly demoralized by the unexpected attack and by the death of their leader. Assuming that such an assault could have been mounted only by a large and well-equipped force, they surrendered without further resistance.

It is difficult to overestimate the risk Abdul Aziz had taken in attempting to recapture Riyadh. His victory which must have seemed uncertain before the event must have seemed insecure after it. Ibn Rashid, the leader of the Al Rashid, would not allow this affront to his power by the young scion of the House of Saud to pass unchallenged.

The retaking of Riyadh had demonstrated Abdul Aziz's boldness beyond any doubt. He was now to reveal that courage did not in any way preclude prudence and astuteness. First, he immediately ordered the strengthening of the city walls. After all, if he and a small band could breach the security of the city, the walls as they stood would surely afford inadequate protection against Ibn Rashid's army. To encourage a sense of urgency and to foster a sense of unity, Abdul Aziz himself helped in the construction work. Secondly, he sent for his family to join him in Riyadh. Apart from demonstrating his desire to see the Al Saud back in their ancestral home, the promptness with which he summoned those nearest and dearest to him sent a clear message to friend and foe alike. The young Prince who had recaptured Riyadh had no intention of relinquishing it. He intended to, and was confident that he could, hold the town - whatever Ibn Rashid decided to do.

The Al Saud reached Riyadh in June 1902. With them they brought the two young sons of Abdul Aziz, Turki and Saud. Saud was said to have been born on the night of Abdul Aziz's retaking of Riyadh. On his arrival in Riyadh, Abdul Aziz's father, Imam Abdul Rahman, was warmly welcomed by the people as head of the House of Saud but, recognizing the outstanding qualities of his son, he at once abdicated in his son's favor. Abdul Rahman retained the title of Imam but Abdul Aziz was now the ruler of the House of Saud.

In the following decades, Abdul Aziz faced many challenges and dangers. The fierce tribal loyalties of the Arabian Peninsula scarcely seemed to provide a fertile environment for creating a sense of national unity. And yet, with a combination of courage, judgment and compassion, Abdul Aziz slowly put together the building blocks of his kingdom, employing his unique personality in persuading the tribes to unite. In his book Lord of Arabia, H. C. Armstrong gives some insight into the effect Abdul Aziz had on those with whom he dealt;

Ibn Saud (Abdul Aziz) talked much and eloquently, but when he appeared to be giving most he was in reality giving little. As he talked he concentrated on the man [to] whom he spoke as if he were his one interest in life. He had a smile, irresistible, all-absorbing, which swept his listeners up with him, binding their judgment so that each one went away satisfied and only later found that he had come away empty-handed, and even then did not resent the fact.

***

The extension of his authority to the Eastern Region of the Arabian Peninsula provides another example of Abdul Aziz's qualities. In 1913, with immediate challenges to his authority (from both within and outside the Nejd) contained, Abdul Aziz turned his attention to the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula.

Of course, in 1913, no-one knew of the immense wealth that lay beneath the land in the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula. The dissolution of the once mighty Ottoman Empire which occupied that land was, however, clear to all.

Abdul Aziz understood that this shift in the balance of power in the region offered a unique opportunity. In Abdul Aziz's view, the Turks had no place on the Arabian Peninsula and, if it lay within his power, he determined that they should be expelled. He knew that the Ottoman Empire was preoccupied with uprisings in Europe and he correctly calculated that Britain, the other major power in the region, would not intervene. When Abdul Aziz met the British Agent in Kuwait, Captain William Shakespear, at Majma'a in northern Nejd, he told him frankly that the time had come for "the Nejd to rid itself of all shadow of Ottoman suzerainty and to drive their troops from al-Hasa". Abdul Aziz meant what he said.

As good as his word, he marched on Hofuf which was home to the Turkish garrison in al-Hasa. He knew that he would be well-received by the citizens, for he had established good contacts with the main merchants there who had been active in organizing support for his cause. With a troop of 300 carefully selected warriors, Abdul Aziz moved against the Turkish garrison which consisted of some 1,200 men. Under cover of night, some of the Saudi men mounted the battlements of Hofuf, entered the town and opened the western gate to allow their comrades to join them.

The Turkish soldiers, caught unawares, offered little resistance and retreated in disarray into the Kut, the inner fortification where ammunition was stored. There, after pondering their predicament for some hours, they surrendered.

Once again, Abdul Aziz had shown that a combination of determination and audacity could overcome seemingly superior forces. Just as he had retaken Riyadh, the capital of the Nejd, he now asserted the authority of the Al Saud over al-Hasa.

Abdul Aziz appointed Abdullah bin Jelawi as Governor of Hofuf. With the addition of al-Hasa to his domain, Abdul Aziz now held part of the Arabian coast and had thus unknowingly acquired about one quarter of the world's oil resources. Never before or since has such a valuable global resource changed hands with so little acrimony.

It is perhaps worth quoting Abdul Aziz own words, noted by Philby, on these early years in which danger and risk were his daily companions. In these words, we hear the voice of the young warrior;

Those were after all the best days of my life: the decisive phase, in comparison with which the rest has been easy-going: the years of struggle in the desert, with hunger and thirst ever present in company with danger: not a long period, ten years, perhaps, or a dozen in all; but every day of it full of enjoyment and good companionship, never to be forgotten.

The extension of his authority to al-Hasa illustrates both the challenges Abdul Aziz faced in outmanoeuvring the major powers in the region and his innate grasp of the political realities of any given situation. Abdul Aziz had never experienced colonial rule. The Arabian Peninsula had never been conquered and although, from time to time, foreign powers had exerted influence over some parts of the region, the proud people of the Peninsula had always retained their independence. It was perhaps this tradition of independence (which both he and those he led upheld) that helped Abdul Aziz to stand against the colonial powers in the Middle East and, with a single-minded sense of purpose, to find his way through the complexities of the international politics of the time.

***

In 1916, Abdul Aziz concluded a treaty with Britain, recognizing him as sole ruler of Nejd and al Hasa. This agreement gave Abdul Aziz the tacit right to eliminate the remaining power of the Al Rashid. By 1918, Abdul Aziz' authority extended to the outskirts of Hail, the capital of the Al Rashid. The next year saw clashes between the forces of Shareef Hussein of Makkah and the Ikhwan. Nevertheless, Abdul Aziz withheld his troops from attacking the Hijaz for he knew that the timing of the extension of his authority to the Holy Places and the manner in which it was brought about would be of very great importance to the Muslim world.

We gain another insight into the character of the man from the manner in which, in December 1924, now master of most of the Arabian Peninsula, he entered the Holy City of Makkah. He entered and performed the rites of pilgrimage, not as a warrior but as a pilgrim, bareheaded, in the white garb of the Hajji. He declined to occupy the abandoned palace of the Shareef of Makkah, preferring to pitch camp outside on the nearby hillside.

It was a simple act but it sent a powerful message to the Hijaz and the wider Muslim world. The new master of the Hijaz was a servant of God. He took Makkah not to occupy the palace of a man but to show respect to the Holy Places of Islam.

It was Abdul Aziz's first visit to the Holy City of Makkah and he knew that responsibility for the Holy Cities now lay with him. He moved swiftly to bring the rule of law to his new territory. Under the maladministration of the Hashemites, corruption had flourished in the Hijaz and lawlessness made the pilgrimage to the Holy Places an undertaking involving considerable risk to life and limb.

For several reasons, Abdul Aziz was determined to purge the Hijaz of corruption and banditry. It was in his nature to despise the venality in men that led them to betray justice for gain. He needed to show to the wider Islamic community around the world that pilgrims would be protected and their pilgrimage facilitated. Perhaps most important of all, he felt as deeply as a man can, the responsibility he had assumed for the Holiest Places of Islam, a responsibility he was determined to discharge.

The custodianship of the Two Holy Cities and ensuring that those who performed the pilgrimage were protected was for Abdul Aziz a primary responsibility. It was a responsibility he and his successors undertook with a total commitment.

***

The formal foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took place on 23rd September, 1932, when a majority of the world powers recognized the sovereignty of the new nation.

In 1933, a discovery to prove of the greatest political and economic significance was made. A survey of the new Kingdom's natural resources, commissioned by King Abdul Aziz, confirmed the presence of oil in the Eastern Province. By 1938, the exploitation of these oil fields, which still contain some 25% of the world's proven oil reserves, had begun.

In the course of his long reign, King Abdul Aziz gave studious attention to the development of international relations. In 1945, on board the U.S.S. Quincy, the Saudi King met the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (It was at that famous meeting that the American President gave his undertaking to the Saudi King that Arab interests in Palestine would not be sacrificed to Jewish aspirations for nationhood.) Also in 1945, King Abdul Aziz met the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

The economic and technical co-operation which exploitation of the Kingdom's oil demanded and a community of political interest in many areas ensured that the friendship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America, initiated by King Abdul Aziz, was to grow in succeeding decades. Despite political differences in some areas, most notably on the issue of Palestinian rights, that relationship still survives today.

In managing the domestic affairs of the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz was determined to remain accessible to his people, even when the population of the Kingdom had grown enormously and when affairs of state would have persuaded most men to place some barriers between themselves and men of lowlier rank. Abdul Aziz remained true to the custom of Arabia and the contract between the ruler and the ruled. On learning that well-meaning officials were withholding complaints addressed to him, he responded in the following terms:

Whereas we have been informed that some complaints are addressed to us through wireless or post offices are withheld from us, we hereby order that any complaint submitted to us by any person whatsoever shall be sent to us literally without change. Those concerned shall not delay it or reveal its contents to the person complained of, whether he be a governor or a minister, of low or high rank.

The decree ended:

We inform all our subjects that we are always ready to receive complaints; if any person submits his complaint to us, he who has been done an injustice will undoubtedly be given his full rights, and he who causes this injustice will be punished as he may deserve. By so doing, we discharge the obligation before God of a sovereign to his people. We pray God to bestow success and blessings on all of us.

The decree was signed simply "Abdul Aziz".

***

We now all know that, in his quest to build a kingdom, Abdul Aziz was spectacularly successful. He began with nothing, an exile from his own land. In attempting to unify the vast lands which became his Kingdom, he faced the seemingly insurmountable difficulties posed by the fractious tribes which peopled the Peninsula. As he extended his authority across the Peninsula, he had to contend with the Ottoman and British Empires which, while they had never conquered the Peninsula, were nevertheless powers to be reckoned with in the region. And yet, despite these obstacles, any one of which might have deterred a lesser man from even attempting much less fulfilling the goals he set himself, he succeeded.

Inevitably, in the retelling of any life, the author enjoys the benefit of hindsight. It is a benefit which the subject of the life was denied. At each step on the path, Abdul Aziz himself could have no certain knowledge of the outcome. Nevertheless, there was one certainty that permeated everything that Abdul Aziz said and his every action. It was his total submission to the will of God. This gave him his indomitable strength for he knew, whatever the outcome, he fulfilled God's purpose.

There are many descriptions of Abdul Aziz written by those who met him. Evidently, he was a man who impelled others to put pen to paper in an attempt to delineate the character of the man they had met.

Abdul Aziz' eloquence elicited the following description from a British Arabist, Gerald de Gaury, writing in 1934:

The King speaks forcibly and well, decorating his conversations with old Arab proverbs, Bedouin sayings and quotations from the Holy Qur'an. When he is speaking on diplomatic and political business he generally speaks at considerable length, arranging his facts to be noted by the listener in the clearest way, point by point to the climax, whereupon he leans back, shifts his position somewhat and smiles with appealing charm.

In his book, "Ibn Saud, Founder of a Kingdom", Leslie McLoughlin remarks

One of the most remarkable features of the life of Ibn Saud [Abdul Aziz] was his extraordinary skill in weighing up complex situations and taking or not taking decisive action. It was this skill which made Sir Percy Cox, who had over 30 years' experience of Gulf politics, say that he had never known Ibn Saud make a wrong move. Ibn Saud was certainly the most remarkable Arab leader of the twentieth century. Through his deep faith in God and by his quite extraordinary force of will, his energy, shrewdness, charm and farsightedness he founded a Kingdom where previously there had been a power-vacuum and incipient chaos.

Perhaps we should give the last word to Chambers Biographical Dictionary;

"Abdul Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia, [was] the outstanding Arab ruler of his time."

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