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The House of Saud – the early years

The origins of the House of Saud can be traced back more than 500 years. The Al-Sauds were traditionally associated with the central region of Najd, particularly the cities of al-Diriyah and, later, Riyadh. In the harsh and difficult world of the Arabian Peninsula, little changed over many centuries.

First and Second states of Saudi Arabia.

Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahab, a leading reformer of religious thought, was born in the early years of the 18th century. He called for a return to the basic principles of Islam as contained in the Qu’uran. He became known as Shaykh Muhammad and his followers called themselves ‘al-Muwahhidun’, meaning ‘those who affirm the Unity of God.’

Did you know?Shaykh Muhammad met much opposition to his teaching, which was seen as a threat to established patterns of authority. He took refuge in the city of al-Diriyah and formed a close relationship with the ruler, Muhammad ibn Saud. Together, the religious reformer and the astute tribal chieftain took their message and power into the surrounding area.

Abdulaziz, Muhammad ibn Saud’s very able son, succeeded him, captured Riyadh and within fifteen years had gained control of the whole of the Najd region. The Muwahhidun later crushed the tribes of al-Hasa, today’s Eastern Province. Abdulaziz’s son, Saud, took over his father’s role in 1803 and continued the struggle.

Within a few years the House of Saud controlled much of the Arabian Peninsula, including parts of Oman, and Yemen and the holy cities of Makkah and Medinah.

The Ottoman Empire

This expansion of Saudi power caused alarm in Constantinople, where the Ottoman Sultan considered the Arabian Peninsula as part of his Empire. He ordered Muhammad Ali, governor of the Ottoman province of Egypt, to mount an expedition to re-establish Ottoman rule over the two holy cities. After initial defeats, the governor’s son, Tusun, succeeded in re-taking Makkah. His second son, Ibrahim Pasha then arrived with an Egyptian army in Najd. Leaving behind him destruction and chaos, he returned to Constantinople with the Saudi ruler, Abd Allah (who had succeeded Saud) as a prisoner. He believed Al Saud was destroyed forever.

However in 1823, Turki ibn Abd Allah (a close relative but not the son of Abd Allah) saw the opportunity to counterattack. Turki ibn Abd Allah seized al-Dir’iyah without a fight and moved onto Riyadh. There he declared the re-establishment of the Saudi State with Riyadh as its capital.

In the eleven years of Turki ibn Abd Allah’s rule he recovered much of the old Saudi state, but the two holy cities remained under Ottoman control. His son Faisal succeeded Turki. He was captured and imprisoned twice by the Egyptians as they tried to re-establish control over the Najd but, each time, managed to escape and return home. His brave deeds won him great popularity. The Ottomans, although retaining control over the Hijaz, with the holy cities of Makkah and Medinah, were distracted by their own problems, and left Arabia to enjoy a brief period of prosperity and peace.

After the death of Faisal in 1865, rivalries and disputes over succession weakened Saudi unity. The Ottomans took advantage of this and occupied much of the eastern seaboard and the oasis of Al-Hasa. Landing at Ras Tanura (the present site of Saudi Aramco’s refinery and shipping terminal) in 1871, they marched 160 kilometres to Hofuf, the main town of al-Hasa. After quashing strong resistance from the Saudi governor, they took the fortress. They had ambitions to go onto Najd, but in fact went no further. Two events were to lead to a change in their plans.

The birth of Abdulaziz

The first was the birth of a son to Abd al-Rahman who had become the reigning head of the House of Saud. This son, ‘Abdulaziz ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman Al Sa’ud’, would later create the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and he became known to westerners as Ibn Saud. He was the 6th generation in direct descent from Sa’ud ibn Muhammad ibn Mugrin who died in 1725, and from whom Al Saud and Saudi Arabia take their names.


The second was the emergence of the al-Rashid tribe as competitors to the house of Saud. Based in north central Arabia, they had succeeded in installing a governor in Riyadh, which was in Saudi territory. Abd al-Rahman attacked Riyadh in 1890 and succeeded in capturing it. But Muhammad al-Rashid counterattacked and besieged the city, cutting down a large number of palm trees on which the townspeople depended. After forty days of indecisive fighting, a truce was arranged. For the first time ‘Abdulaziz’, still a young boy at this time, entered the story of the House of Saud.

Into exile

The truce soon broke down, leading to the defeat of the Saudis by Muhammad al-Rashid at the battle of Qasim. Sending his women and children to the safety of a friendly ruler in Bahrain, Abd al-Rahman went into the desert south of Riyadh. There he stayed among friendly tribes with his small band of followers, living on the fringes of the large desert area, the Rub’ al-Khali. Having no hope of retaking Riyadh, they went on to Qatar, Bahrain and eventually Kuwait. Mubarak al-Sabah. Abd al-Rahman and his son, Abdulaziz, stayed there for more than ten years, enjoying the hospitality of the Kuwaiti ruler.

Mubarak al-Sabah was an able politician and by observing his astute handling of international negotiations, young Abdulaziz was to learn diplomatic skills. However, his prime interest was concentrated on the Al-Rashids, who still occupied al-Hasa and were now allied with the Turks. In 1901, he decided to wait no more. He joined an initial raid with Shaykh Mubarak from Kuwait to Riyadh where they gained control of the city and held it for three months. Eventually, they had to retreat and Abdulaziz immediately began planning a second attempt. As he could only muster a band of forty men, his father tried to dissuade him. Sweeping aside his father’s arguments, he set off for Najd. The reclaiming by the House of Saud of its rightful position in Arabia had begun.

mOre For more information about the House of Saud:

To see historic photographs, have a look at www.dhahranhomepage.com Michael Crocker’s Camelot


Source of reference

Saudi Arabia’s Centennial issue of Aramco World.

Article adapted from Saudi Aramco and its World (1995) by James Parry

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