Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Epic Saudi struggle for unity remembered on Founding Day

Photo/Saudi Press Agency
Photo/Saudi Press Agency
Short Url:
24 Feb 2024 02:02:32 GMT9
24 Feb 2024 02:02:32 GMT9

This week, Saudis are celebrating the 297th anniversary of the founding of Saudi Arabia. In 1727, Imam Mohammed bin Saud, a forefather of the Saudi royal family, became ruler of Diriyah, then an obscure small agricultural hamlet in Wadi Hanifah, the 120-km valley along which many towns similar to Diriyah are located.

Imam Saud died in 1765 and was followed by his son, Abdulaziz. During their rule, they unified most of the Arabian Peninsula for the first time in its history. By the time of Abdelaziz’s assassination by a foreign agent in 1803, the Emirate of Diriyah’s control had swelled to some 80 percent of the peninsula, or more than 2 million sq. km. Saudi Arabia’s borders have stayed nearly the same since then, despite brief interruptions.

Unifying Arabia was unprecedented, given its fragmented political and tribal structure and vast territory. In the early 18th century, there were hundreds of autonomous towns, villages and cities throughout Arabia with no central authority to keep the peace between them. Within just an 80-km radius from Diriyah, there were about a dozen principalities that were constantly fighting with each other. At times, towns were changing hands in a matter of years. In the desert between these independent towns, nomadic tribes held sway, exacting tributes from passing caravans and raiding villages when they needed to. They also served as soldiers for hire for rival town chiefs hoping to subdue their neighbors.

The great 19th century historian Othman bin Bishr chronicled the events around the time the new state was established: In 1721, marauding tribes from the east besieged and pillaged Diriyah and nearby towns. He commented on the devastation caused by the artillery employed by the raiders, apparently previously unknown in tribal wars in that area.

Apart from tribal raids and constant clashes between neighboring towns, Bin Bishr reported deteriorating economic conditions, as trade was frequently disrupted by wars and agriculture was affected by recurring droughts. In 1716, there was a famine in towns near Diriyah. In 1724 and 1725, he reported a severe drought that led to famine in the same area. In 1726, an epidemic killed most of the inhabitants of a town about 30 km north.

Unifying Arabia was unprecedented, given its fragmented political and tribal structure and vast territory

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

These were the conditions when Imam Saud started his reign in 1727. He became determined to end this chaos and began building alliances, appealing to the leaders of nearby towns first and then moving in all directions. In 1744, he enlisted the help of a religious reformer, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahab, and gradually consolidated the fragmented armies of towns and villages, together with tribal warriors, into a powerful force that safeguarded the newly founded union.

Bin Bishr reports the transformation of security brought about by the new state. Pilgrims, trade caravans and other travelers felt safe over long distances, even when laden with gold and treasures, and without paying tribute or in fear of highway bandits, a remarkable contrast with previous times.

The new state’s successes encouraged other principalities to join or enter into alliances with it. These included regions previously under nominal Ottoman control, such as the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and the eastern provinces.

Spanish explorer and spy Domingo Francisco Jorge Badia y Leblich witnessed the ceremonies when Makkah joined the new state in 1805 and wrote an account of that monumental event. As control of the holy cities was instrumental in the Ottomans’ bona fides as the paramount Muslim power of the time, they became determined to fight the Saudi state. They had tried to snuff it out earlier, through Ottoman forces based in Baghdad and allied tribes in Iraq, but their repeated campaigns in the late 18th century failed to make a dent in the Saudi state’s power.

However, after Makkah formally joined the new state, Constantinople dispatched three large and organized campaigns. The first two expeditions (1811-1814) failed, despite the skewed balance of power in their favor. The third campaign lasted two years (1816-18) and succeeded in reaching Diriyah, laying siege to it for six months and finally destroying the town and ending the Saudi state 91 years after it was proclaimed in 1727. The three campaigns were marked by extreme brutality and destruction, leaving an indelible stain in the Saudi collective memory, with people recounting the bloody battles their ancestors fought in those wars. The destruction is still visible in the ruins of Diriyah.

Pilgrims, trade caravans and other travelers felt safe over long distances, even when laden with gold and treasures

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

But the defeat of 1818 did not end the Saudis’ ambition to unify Arabia. Having tasted, for the first time in history, the fruits of unity and integration under the First Saudi State, they were determined to try again. They regrouped in 1824, when Imam Turki bin Abdullah established himself in Riyadh, the new capital, ending the short-lived foreign control of the city. The Second Saudi State was beset by internal feuds, allowing Turkish vassals to end its rule again in 1891, sending the last ruler, Imam Abdul Rahman, King Salman’s grandfather, into exile.

However, 11 years later, his son Abdulaziz was able to establish Saudi rule for a third time. He reconquered the capital Riyadh in 1902 and, over the following three decades, was able to reunify Arabia once more. In 1932, Abdulaziz, King Salman’s father, was proclaimed king of Saudi Arabia.

The Ottomans were not the only threat to Saudi rule. Britain became concerned with the growing influence of the First Saudi State in the 18th century, as the Emirate of Diriyah extended its borders to the Gulf and established close ties and alliances with local rulers. Britain took full advantage of the Ottoman-Saudi wars and systematically weakened Saudi influence in the Gulf, at times using extreme force. The fall of Diriyah helped Britain entrench its hegemony in the Gulf.

Saudi-British rivalry continued for another 100 years, managed through a series of limited agreements along the way that were meant to keep Saudi influence in check. In 1927, the Treaty of Jeddah finally placed Saudi relations with Britain on a permanent footing, as London fully acknowledged Saudi independence.

Besides being the custodian of Islam’s holy places, Saudi Arabia is today a leader of the Muslim and Arab worlds. It is a political and economic powerhouse, among the top 20 world powers. For the first time in its history, the land is safe, secure and prosperous. Its unification provides an important lesson on the fruits of unity and integration. This achievement owes a lot to the ambitious and strategic vision of the wise leaders of the small town of Diriyah nearly 300 years ago.

• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1

Most Popular

return to top