The Western Influence on the Formation of Saudi Arabia from 1902 - 1926

The area that is currently Saudi Arabia was originally part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, after the capture of Mecca by the Turks in 1517, but local rulers were allowed a great deal of autonomy and ruled their relative territories unhindered. ( 3) Under Turkish supervision, different Sherifs of Mecca governed the territory of Hejaz. Furthermore, this covered the western part of the peninsula including the Red Sea coast, including the holy places of Mecca and Medina, until the onset of World War I.

Saudi Arabia was one of the Arab states that emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Between the years 1919 to 1926, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud defeated a series of rivals to unify about 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula under his rule in what was called the “Kingdom of the Hejaz and Nejd.” (Kort 194) The last unsuccessful challenger was the leader of the Hashemite family, Hussein Ibn Ali who was the great-grandfather of Jordan’s King Hussein. (Kort 194)

Several important factors distinguish Saudi Arabia from its neighbors. Unlike other states in the area, Saudi Arabia has never been under the direct control of a European power. ( 2) It is during the period just prior to and following World War I that the West imparts the greatest impact on the formation of the current Saudi state. Tribal loyalties also play an important role in these countries and one of the leading tribal leaders in this period, Abdul Aziz, proved to be quite adept at playing the great powers of Britain and the Turkish Ottoman Empire against one another to suit the needs of his cause.

The founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia lived much of his early life in exile. In the end, however, he not only recovered the territory of the first Al Saud empire, but also made a state out of it. Abdul Aziz accomplished this by maneuvering among a number of forces. The first was the religious fervor that Wahhabi Islam continued to inspire. His Wahhabi army, the Ikhwan, for instance, represented a powerful tool, but one that was to prove so difficult to control that the he ultimately had to destroy it. (Lacey 219) At the same time, Abdul Aziz had to anticipate how all these actions would be viewed abroad and to handle the great foreign powers, particularly the British.

Abdul Aziz managed to complete the establishment of the Saudi state in three ways, “by retaking Najd in 1905, defeating the Rashidi clan at Hail in 1921, and conquering the Hijaz in 1924.” ( 1) To the first point of retaking the Najd, Abdul did what tribal leaders had been doing for centuries. He raised a small force from the surrounding tribes and began to raid areas under Rashidi control, which was north of his birthright of Riyadh. Then in early 1902, he led a small party in a surprise attack on the Rashidi stronghold in Riyadh in order to oust the tribe.

The successful attack gave Abdul Aziz a good start in Najd. But first he had to establish himself in Riyadh as the Al Saud leader and the Wahhabi Imam or political and religious leader. Abdul Aziz obtained the support of the religious establishment in Riyadh, and this relatively quick recognition proved the political force of the Wahhabi authority. Despite his relative youth, Abdul Aziz showed he possessed the qualities the tribes valued in a leader by taking Riyadh. Leadership in these countries did not necessarily follow age, but it respected lineage and, particularly, action.

By 1905 the Ottoman governor in Iraq recognized Abdul Aziz as an Ottoman client in Najd. The Al Saud ruler accepted Ottoman suzerainty because it improved his political position. All the while he courted the British for recognition and protection in order to rid Arabia of Ottoman influence. ( 3) Finally, in 1913, Abdul Aziz\'s armies drove the Ottomans out of Al Hufuf in eastern Arabia and without British assistance. This helped to strengthen his position in Najd.

In 1914, as the war was escalating and it looked as if the Ottoman Empire would enter the war, there was concern by Britain. It was a