Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Crucible of Terror - Part 1

. Most westerners know comparatively little is about Saudi Arabia and the House of Saud which rules it. Yet western powers - first Britain, then the United States - have been instrumental in elevating the House of Saud to the position it currently occupies and in maintaining its rule against all odds. In return, the House of Saud has acted in support of western policy objectives in the region although it's recent refusal to assist with lowering the price of oil are a good indication of how conditional that support can be. However, they are hardly ideal partners in a ‘war on terrorism’ that, ideologically, has been wrapped in ‘democratic’ packaging. It is a cruel despotism and worse it provides ideological and logistical succor to the most extremist forms of Islam.

All this belies the family's rather humble origins as one tribe amongst the many vying for power and influence on the Arabian peninsula; in 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud was a tribal chief and ruler of Dir’aiyah (a village now on the outskirts of the current Saudi capital, Riyadh). He allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a conservative religious thinker; Wahhab gave his name to Wahhabism. Wahhabism was and is a particularly puritanical version of Islam that put a stress on the purity of religious practice, conservative social standards and the unity of one god.

From their base in Dir’aiyah the Saudis (here meaning members of the Al-Saud tribe, not Saudi Arabians) expanded their influence steadily through the region. A clutch of cities fell under their domination. However, the area was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali, a governor of Cairo and Ottoman satrap, was instructed by his masters to put down the irksome Saudi insurgency. Eventually his son, Ibrahim Pasha, drove the Saudis back to Dir’aiyah, which in 1819 was razed to the ground. Though the Al-Sauds surfaced again in 1845 - ruling Riyadh until 1891, when it fell to the Al-Rashid family - they were eventually driven into exile in Kuwait.

However, by the end of the 19th century the star of the Ottomans had waned. All of its borders were threatened. The Balkan countries rose in open revolt and, encouraged by the big European powers, started to create a whole patchwork of rival nation states. To the east, tsarist Russia was encroaching on its territory, defeating the Ottomans in 1877. Britain and France looked to extend their empires in the near-east. Britain successfully invaded Egypt in 1881 and France invaded Tunisia during the same year. Internally, the Caliphate was wracked by dissent and bureaucratic intrigue.

Thus, by the time World War I broke out in 1914, the ‘sick man of Europe’ was already on its last legs. The eventual victory of France, the United States and Britain against the Triple Alliance sealed the Ottoman Empire’s fate. Its territory was part of the spoils of victory. The Middle East was divided into British and French protectorates.

Meanwhile, the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz Abdel Rahman Al-Saud (or Ibn Saud), had begun to claw back the land lost by the Al-Sauds. He recaptured Riyadh in 1902. In doing so he gave an early indication of his personal ruthlessness and the carnage that was to follow his ascension to power. He spiked the heads of his enemies on the city gates and burned over 1,000 people to death. Despite this early success, Ibn Saud recognised that he needed sponsorship from a major imperial power if he was to prevent a repeat of the debacle of the previous century and finally defeat the Al-Sauds’ tribal enemies.

Initially, he sought sponsorship from the sultanate of Turkey, but he was rebuffed and forced to look elsewhere. Britain had signed a treaty with Faisal Al-Saud, Ibn’s grandfather, in 1865, and so it had had some contact with the Al-Sauds previously. Now, Britain wanted allies in the region to give it a foothold within the territory of the decaying Ottoman Empire. The more allies it had, the greater its share of the Ottoman booty would be. Ibn needed Britain’s logistical and military aid to decisively defeat and subjugate his enemies. From the point of view of both parties it was a marriage made in heaven.

Contact was thus established in 1904. Britain agreed to advance Ibn Saud small subsidies, but beyond that did little. These subsidies were used to expand and maintain colonies of Wahhabi fanatics, the Ikhwan, which would later form the backbone of Ibn Saud’s conquering army. World War I saw the Al-Sauds’ tribal enemies, like the Ibn Rasheeds, siding with Turkey. Ibn Saud thus attacked them with Britain’s blessing. Small subsidies became larger and a gaggle of advisers, alongside what was then advanced military equipment, were despatched to assist Ibn Saud’s advance.

Afforded a decisive advantage by Britain’s backing and able to make use of Ikhwan fanaticism, Ibn Saud was able to bring the whole of eastern Arabia under his control by 1917. Britain’s vision of Arabia’s fate following Turkish defeat was clear: in the words of Lord Crewe it wanted “a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty”. For his part, Ibn Saud, was, by and large, happy to acquiesce.

However, another British protégé in the region, the Hashemite monarch, King Hussein, was far from content. He had taken western Arabia, but was less servile than Saud and was not keen on British “suzerainty”, much preferring to exercise his own over an enlarged, independent and unified Arab nation. Rather than directly attack its erstwhile ally, Britain gave Ibn Saud free reign to do the job. As Britain had pledged itself in 1915 to defend Ibn Saud’s territory, he was fighting a war that he could not lose. By 1925 the Hijaz, an area that included Mecca, Medina and the most urbanised parts of Arabia, had succumbed to his armies.

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