Abdul Aziz ibn Saud understood the utility of being a British puppet early on. By surrendering to the British, he secured vital support that brought the entire Arabian Peninsula under his family’s control.
Before the outbreak of the WWI, Turkey had already lost many of its possessions in North Africa and Europe. Italy had invaded and occupied Tripolitania (Libya) in 1911; Greece grabbed Macedonia and Crete the following year and Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina in Eastern Europe were lost by 1913. When the war broke out, Turkey under the Young Turks joined hands with Germany, much to the chagrin of Britain whose conspiracy had brought them to power in the first place. But ever the masters of intrigue, the British went to work on their Arabian allies. A Captain Shakespear was dispatched to secure ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud’s support at the end of 1914. Shakespear met an ignominious death in the company of Ibn Saud’s hordes in the Battle of Jarrab against al-Rasheed’s forces in early-1915. Thus ended ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud’s contribution to the British war effort in WWI. Much of eastern Arabia was also slipping out of his control in 1916.
But at the time, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was still a minor figure in Arabian politics and British designs. Hussain ibn ‘Ali, the Sharif of Makkah, commanded much greater authority. Between July 1915 and January 1916, British High Commissioner to Egypt, Henry McMahon promised London’s support for Arabian “independence” after the war, in return for a Hashemite attack, with Britain’s help, on the Turks. “The Arab Revolt,” as it came to be called, not only proved the undoing of the Turks but also of the Arabians themselves since the British had no intention of honouring their pledges. While promising Sharif Hussain the throne of the “whole of Arabia,” the British also pledged to give Palestine to the Zionists through the infamous Balfour Declaration of November 1917.
In a December 1915 meeting between ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud and Percy Cox, the British political resident in the Persian Gulf, whom ‘Abd al-‘Aziz met for the first time, the Anglo-Saudi friendship treaty was signed. The treaty recognized ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s “authority” in the Najd, under British protection. Military protection as well as British superintendence of his foreign policy formally co-opted ‘Abd al-‘Aziz into the British orbit. Guns and money were now offered to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz as well — £20,000 annually in cash, later to be increased to £60,000 — for attacking Turkish allies in eastern Arabia. A year later, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was the newest satellite at the gathering of British clients in the Kuwait Darbar presided over by Percy Cox. In the Hijaz, Hussain ibn ‘Ali’s forces with British advisors were busy sabotaging the Hijaz Railway while ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s bedouins were attacking Turkish allies in eastern Arabia, all in the service of British imperialism (or the “infidels” as the Wahhabis would call them).
But those who serve masters other than Allah (swt) can experience sudden change of fortune. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz also discovered this in early-1918 when British policy once again shifted to supporting the Hashemite army that was about to enter Damascus. He had to do with much less in British guns and money but beggars can’t be choosers. Western intrigue and especially the Anglo-French conspiracy for the Muslim East came into the open after the Bolsheviks accidentally stumbled upon the Sykes-Picot agreement following overthrow of the Czar in Russia in November 1917. The Anglo-French treaty had been worked out in February 1916 between Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France, totally contradicting the promises made to the Arabians to entice them to rebel against Turkish authority.
‘Abd al-‘Aziz, however, knew his family history well. If his forefathers had struck a potent combination with the Wahhabis more than a century ago and captured Makkah and Madinah, albeit briefly, could he not repeat the feat, perhaps with some refinements? Using guile, he turned to his Wahhabi Ikhwan, then based in al-Artawiyah. From 1912, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had cultivated and settled them in and around Riyadh, especially near Ghot Ghot. The Otaybah, Mutayr, Ajman and a number of other tribes were brought in, not with promises of money, but religious “purification” and zeal. Had the Ikhwan known that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was on the payroll of the British “infidels,” they would certainly have rebelled against him and if successful, even beheaded him. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz knew that there were two kinds of wars: political and religious. The former involved compromise but in the latter one, it was either “kill or be killed.” There was no compromise, certainly not as far as the Ikhwan were concerned.
At the end of the war when Britain told ‘Abd al-‘Aziz that they were terminating his subsidies, he felt extremely disappointed. The British had kept him and Sharif Hussain on their payroll to prevent them from fighting each other. This would have resulted in unravelling all the gains Britain had made in the Muslim East. While they did not fulfill their promise to make Hussain ibn ‘Ali the king of all Arabia, the British installed one of his sons, ‘Abdullah, as the amir of Transjordan and another, Feisal, as the king, first of Syria and later Iraq in 1921. At the end of 1921, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz requested a meeting with Percy Cox, in hopes of getting a raise in his subsidies. This meeting took place at Uqair but ‘Abd al-‘Aziz returned disappointed. Instead, in the autumn of 1923, the British foreign office informed both ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and Sharif Hussain that their subsidies would end by the spring of 1924.
But before this came into force, Mustafa Kemal, the new dictator of Turkey, announced in March 1924 abolition of the khilafah that was in any case a nominal entity. Sharif Hussain, then in Transjordan (now called Jordan), immediately proclaimed himself khalifah. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz realized that this was his opportunity, for Hussain’s proclamation would not be viewed with favour in the Muslim world. First, Husain ibn ‘Ali was known as a British agent who had led the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottomans. This was something the Muslims could not forgive. Second, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud’s own links with the British were less well known since he was still an obscure figure in Central Arabia. Thus, he could claim to get rid of Sharif Hussain on behalf of the Muslims and earn their gratitude.
This development, of course, suited the British well. Hussain had already become troublesome after the British reneged on their promise to make him the king of the whole of Arabia. His sons had nearly wrecked the Cairo Conference in 1921 by walking out. The British now favoured ‘Abd al-‘Aziz over Hussain to become the ruler of the Hijaz. For Britain, it simply meant a change of faces but an arrangement through which the feelings of the Muslims worldwide would be assuaged. Thus, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was given the green light to attack Makkah. Without British support, Hussain ibn ‘Ali’s forces were no match for those of Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan.
The latest Saudi assault on Makkah began, again, with the massacre of the inhabitants of Ta’if in September 1924. This was a repeat of the Saudi slaughter in 1802. Estimates about the number of people killed in the latest assault ranged from 400 to 900. It was carried out without mercy. All male inhabitants were put to the sword, even those who had sought refuge in masjids. They also destroyed the masjids after beheading their captives there. When the news reached the residents of Makkah, it struck terror in their hearts. The slaughter shocked the 70,000 or so pilgrims who were assembled for Hajj. They condemned “the Wahhabites’ savagery” in the strongest possible terms. A year earlier, in July 1923, Ibn Saud’s forces had attacked and massacred nearly 5,000 pilgrims from Yemen. With such news and the slaughter perpetrated by Ibn Saud’s men at Ta’if, the majority of Makkah’s residents fled to Jeddah. The remainder barricaded themselves inside their homes as Ibn Saud’s hordes continued the pillage, destroying tombs, shrines and masjids.
Many of his men came armed with British supplied guns while in ihram. The Saudis, in the name of “purifying” Islam from idolatrous accretions, themselves violated many of the fundamental commandments of the Qur’an — sanctity of the Haram, safety of the hujjaj (the guests of Allah – Â), and prohibition on carrying weapons while in ihram. When Makkah fell to Ibn Saud, he was quick to issue a disclaimer to any personal designs upon the throne of the Hijaz or the khilafah. He said, “I have no intentions of extending my territory beyond my possessions in Najd, but it is my duty to rid the Hedjaz [sic] and my people of the cruelty of the Sheriff [sic].”
This, like many of his previous pledges was designed to placate the feelings of Muslims worldwide. Muslims were appalled by the cruelty perpetrated by the forces of Ibn Saud against innocent, defenceless people. The contradiction in his statement was obvious. While disavowing any claims on the Hijaz, he was, at the same time, claiming to speak on behalf of its people. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s pledge to the world’s Muslims would prove as hollow as his promise to the Wahhabi Ikhwan who, as his foot-soldiers, fought to establish Ibn Saud’s rule in Makkah and, on December 5, 1925, in Madinah. Hussain ibn ‘Ali, already old and thoroughly dejected, fled from Makkah to Jeddah from whence he was taken on an old British steamer into exile in Cyprus.
‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud had arrived to control the Haramayn using the cloak of religion but with the help of Britain. The British plan of controlling the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah through a trusted “Mussalman agent” had finally been realized through Ibn Saud. In January 1926, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz declared himself king of the Hijaz in the company of the imam of al-Masjid al-Haram.
In taking this step, he said he was forced to do so because of the “indifference of foreign Muslims” to his several requests for advice on the holy places. The proposal to take on the title of king, however, he said had come from the “merchants and notables of Jeddah” which he readily accepted! Only 14 months earlier he was swearing against having any intentions to the throne of the Hijaz, vowing not to extend his “…territory beyond my possessions in Najd.”
This is a modified version of a chapter from Zafar Bangash’s book, The Makkah Massacre and the Future of the Haramain, 1988.