Once Upon a Time in Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as David Cameron begrudgingly explained in a recent interview with Jon Snow, has managed to nose itself into a unique global position — an ally, a friend and the centre of Middle Eastern intelligence for the West. However, how many people understand just how such a nation arrived at this crucial niche? Especially when you consider the persistent reports of human rights abuses from within the kingdom — public beheadings, amputation and floggings for such terrible crimes as ‘fornication’ or ‘witchcraft’ — and from without, with the US backed bombing campaign of Yemen and the ruthless oppression of the democratic Bahrain uprising in 2011.

And yet at the same time, there has been plenty of other news about the UK’s overt (and covert) relationship with the regime: billions of dollars in arms deals; royal visits with the British monarchy; corrupt voting schemes between the two nations in order to bolster Saudi’s position within the UN Human Rights Council. Derision has rightly fallen on the UK government for enhancing a state that beheads its citizens for practicing sorcery, onto the global stage for human rights.

But why? Why do we have this cosy set up? Yes, there is the obvious lure of oil, but the Saudis don’t have exclusive access to the black stuff, with other oily nations seemingly ignored or even viewed as enemies (look to Venezuela). So why do our decision-makers bend over backwards to accommodate this brutal dictatorship?
In the 1740s, the geographical area we now know as Saudi Arabia was more or less a plateau for warring Bedouin tribes. Ibn Saud, the ancestor of the modern Saudi family, was just one of many desert leaders, raiding other tribes and vying for geographical supremacy. But a 1741 encounter with an exiled cleric named Adl al-Wahhab, forged a partnership that would alter the fate of the whole Middle East.

1740 arabia

Map of Arabia, 1740

Al-Wahhab was not your everyday Muslim. He saw the 18th century understanding of Islam that surrounded him as a regressive, backwards step towards polytheism, or as he called it, Jahiliyyah — referring to the indigenous nomads of the Nejd, who still lived a pre-Islamic life, and were commonly considered barbarians.

The cleric saw everything that had been added to Islam from around 950-1000 AD, as a false path that needed to be reversed and its religious doctrines abolished. Al-Wahhab’s interpretation also warned anyone who showed the slightest resistance to his teachings, or who failed to follow them to the letter, that this proved them to be non-Muslim. And according to Wahhabi laws, you should convert or be slaughtered. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated; it was to have major repercussions…

Adl al-Wahhab was, I suppose, just one in a very long line of religious fanatics, but Ibn Saud saw something much more in his extreme preaching, something he realised could lend him an edge over the other tribes of the region and potentially offer him the opportunity to seize the peninsula.

The traditional raids of neighbouring tribal villages was, until Adl al-Wahhab’s affiliation with the House of Saud, done for wealth and conquest. But now, with the fanatical cleric under Ibn Saud’s wing, the raids became Islamic crusades, leading to thousands of violent executions in neighbouring territory.

Word of the bloody raids soon spread and before long Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab’s brutal reputation was striking fear into villages and cities throughout Arabia. They soon acquired much of the peninsula, giving the populations they conquered a simple choice: convert to Wahhabism or die. Reports of the massacres of thousands, such as at Karbala in 1801, instilled yet more fear into surrounding settlements, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both of which capitulated under the panic and fear created by Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab, with little or no resistance.

These were the salad days of Wahhabism. The glory days, that are taught as such in Saudi schools to this today. Alas, for them at least, they didn’t last long.

The first quarter of the 19th century saw the Saud-Wahhab forces annihilated; first by the Egyptians, and then again by the Turks. Their people however, held out together in the desert, and importantly, so did their Wahhabi culture.

For the next 100 years the Ottoman Empire hung over the peninsula, whilst the Sauds fought battle after battle with neighbouring tribes, once again vying for dominance. The years of persistent battle eventually caught up with them, when in 1891 they were finally defeated, with the Saud family escaping to exile in Kuwait.


Around 10 years later, Abd-al Aziz, the then House of Saud leader, came out of exile determined to reclaim the peninsula. In doing so, he used much the same tactics as his historical ancestors, Ibn Saud and al-Wahhab, namely fear under the banner of jihad. But there were two other important aspects to Aziz’s strategy that can’t be overlooked: the Ikhwan project, and the support of the British.

A major part of Abd-al Aziz’s strategy for reclaiming the peninsula, was to extend Wahhabism, through radical teaching, into the surrounding Bedouin tribes. The traditional tribesmen were considered theological ‘blank slates’ by the House of Saud; primitive and unenlightened, the Jahiliyyah were opened up to Wahhabi conversion by Saudi clerics with the zeal of Christian missionaries in Africa.

The Ikhwan were used to attack tribes and other Houses whom resisted, and once again as with the first Wahhabi uprising, their particularly vicious habits of cutting the throats and beheading non-convertors began to spread fear throughout Arabia.

From 1913 until the late 1920s, the Ikhwan was Abd-al Aziz’s army. They won conquest after conquest, claiming the land and feeding the militia with more Wahhabi conversions, whilst similarly feeding the fear which gripped the land with more mayhem and killing.

The British Government began courting Abd-al Aziz when it became increasingly clear, with each victory he gained, he would emerge as ruler of a vast portion of Arabia. The British rulers had much to protect in the vicinity, with the Sykes-Picot Agreement being discussed at the same time. Aziz knew he needed the British in order to authenticate the nation, and therefore to embed Wahhabism into the Kingdom.

In 1915, whilst the eyes of the world were on the Dardanelles, France and Belgium, Ibn Saud signed the Darin Treaty, where he agreed to become part of the British protectorate.


One of the main problems with having a huge army of religious fanatics, is they can be hard to bring to heel. It had been positively encouraged to raid any non-Wahhabi settlements prior to the treaty, but when the Ikwhan made attacks on other British protectorate (namely Transjordan), the British was forced to have stern words with Abd-al Aziz. Even before the treaty was signed, a movement within the Ikwhan had formed, one that was unhappy with Abd-al Aziz and, as they saw it, his personal neglect of Wahhabi customs. They were angered by his sudden tolerance of the people who, until recently, were deemed heretics. The signing of the Darin Treaty and Abd-al Aziz’s growing acceptance of Western modernity (cars, telephones and machine guns were being introduced) was felt to be in direct conflict with the Wahhabi doctrine, which rejected non-traditional ways of life and would never agree to become subordinate to an imperial power.

By the late 1920s, and after gaining both Hejaz and Nedj, Abd-al Aziz was finding the rift within the Ikwhan a concern that could no longer be ignored. The splinter movement had grown far beyond a splinter, and had intensified their jihadi attacks on Transjordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The self proclaimed King of Hejaz and Nedj, knew that something had to be done.

It came to a head at the Battle of Sabille in 1930, where Abd-al Aziz seized his opportunity. The Ikwhan rejected modern weapons, and were helplessly decimated by the machine gun fire (supplied by the British) of Abd-al Aziz’ remaining army. They were cut to pieces by the onslaught, in what was also a warning to anyone else who challenged the King’s rule. What remained of the Ikwhan was absorbed by what would eventually become The Royal Saudi Landforce. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born, and just six years later prospectors struck jackpot amounts of oil within the kingdom.


The Ikwhan has drawn two more recent imitators. The first came in 1979, when Islamic purists, revolting against the modernisation of the Saudi state, laid siege the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They saw themselves as ‘true’ Wahhabi, whilst the state had allowed itself to become corrupted with modern ideas, such as educating women. They also wanted to ban TVs, start hating the West again and to kick out any non-Muslims living in the kingdom. The siege lasted just over two weeks, when the Saudi Army got the religious clearance to storm the mosque. Both sides took heavy casualties but eventually the insurgents were tear-gassed out of the mosque, and either killed or captured.

The vast majority of the insurgents were executed, but at the trial of the group leaders, the ulama (the religious most senior clerics and scholars that bore much influence in court) showed great leniency, despite the many laws, both Islamic and state, they had defiled.

The truth was the ulama majority agreed with most of the extremists’ ideology. In fact, the supreme response to the siege by the Saudi state was to hand more power to the ulama, which in turn issued stricter Islamic code upon society. So the second Ikwhan may have lost the battle, but it could be argued they won the war.


The second incarnation of the Ikwhan needs no introduction. IS (or ISIS) are extremists whose clever use of the internet, cold-blooded brutality and military proficiency has catapulted them into the centre of global affairs.

Isis fighters, pictured on a militant website verified by AP.

The conditions created by the West’s war-sanctions-war policy in Iraq since 1991, left the country utterly broken, and a fertile breeding ground for extremism. John Pilger recently wrote, “Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture.” I’d like to add another aspect to distance and culture: time.

The British were well aware of the Wahhabi culture within Saudi Arabia throughout their early relationship. Indeed, one of their officials even converted. Yet, seemingly, at no time did it ever occur to anyone – or if it did, they failed to voice it above a whisper – to be concerned about supporting the regressive and violent culture of Wahhabism. Even a rudimentary sociological examination would have shown in flashing-red-neon the obvious self destructive seed lying at its heart, that would grow intertwined with the success of the state. One can only assume that they chose to turn a myopic eye.

We continue to ignore most of the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia, the bombing of Yemen, the cruelty to its own people, its funding of Wahhabi extremists all over the world, in exchange for — according to David Cameron — Middle Eastern intelligence on terrorist threats. Seeing as how almost all the funding and arming of terrorism comes from within the kingdom, I guess they are in a good position to give accurate advice.