Saudi Arabia has long supported Islamic conservative groups. Yet the Saudis came out against the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt this year and against al Qaeda two decades ago. Yet the Saudis have no problem supporting Islamic radicals in Syria, including some who belong to al Qaeda. What is going on here? It’s simple. The Saud family has always supported Islamic radicals but only those who agreed that the Saud family should be in charge (of Saudi Arabia and as a leader of the Islamic world). Islamic radicals that changed their minds about this arrangement were crushed. Thus the Saudis supported al Qaeda until al Qaeda decided that the Sauds were not Islamic enough to be in charge. That led to a dispute in the 1990s that escalated in 2003 and, so far, the Sauds are winning. The Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt has always been hostile to the Sauds and that has been reciprocated. This was made worse by the fact that the current head of al Qaeda was once a leader in the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood. This was made worse as the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood won a recent election in Egypt and got cozy with Iran, the archenemy of Saudi Arabia and Sunni Moslems in general.
Iran is especially feared by the Sauds because the Iranians are not Arabs (but rather Indo-European, like most Europeans and Indians) and are openly hostile to the majority (80 percent) form of Islam (Sunni) espoused by the Saudis. The Iranians are Shia, a smaller (about 10 percent of Moslems) sect that conservative Sunnis consider heretics. After several major wars over the issue, for the last few centuries Moslem leaders have played down this antagonism. But the mutual hatred remains, and in the last few decades Iranian Shia leaders have become increasingly aggressive in claiming that Shia should control the Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as all that oil the Arabs now possess. The two holy cities are in Saudi Arabia and have been administered by the Saud family for nearly a century. Saudi Arabia also contains the largest oil reserves in the world. The Sauds want to keep things the way they are and have been increasingly aggressive in blocking Iranian moves. That’s why the Sauds support Islamic radicals in Syria, even though many of these Islamic terrorists want more radical Moslems running Saudi Arabia (and removing “Saudi” from the name of Arabia). Despite all this opposition the Sauds continue to hold firmly onto power. This is all because of one man.
Saudi Arabia was very much the creation of one man, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Born in 1876, his father Abdul Rahman (185?-1928) and the rest of the Saud clan were driven from the Saud hometown of Riyadh in 1891 by a rival clan. Taking refuge in Kuwait, Abdul Aziz eventually organized a small group of followers and retook Riyadh in 1902. This pleased his father immensely and Abdul Aziz was given more power and control over the family’s fortunes.
Abdul Aziz not only acted like the founder of a kingdom, he also looked the part. Standing nearly two meters (over six feet) tall, he had an athletic build, a hypnotic gaze, and an endearing demeanor. His hospitality, bravery, and diplomacy were legendary. He dispensed justice in a fair and wise manner. He was the kind of leader the Bedouin had little trouble following. Abdul Aziz also had a knack for turning enemies into allies. More importantly, in this part of the world, Abdul Aziz was a devout Moslem. This was his key asset in uniting the many tribes and clans of Arabia. Islam was the only thing all these, often antagonistic, groups could agree on. Moreover, the Sauds had been followers of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam since the 1700's and Abdul Aziz was strict enough in his religious practices to win the approval of the most orthodox Moslems.
Among the more orthodox were a warrior brotherhood called the Ikhwan. This group had been prominent in the early history of Wahhabism but had died out by the late 1800's. The original Ikhwan was drawn from settled Arabs. The early 20th century revival was among the nomadic Bedouin. When the new Ikhwan came to Abdul Aziz's attention, he first checked them out to make sure they were the real thing and then provided money, weapons, and other aid. With the support of the powerful and popular Abdul Aziz, the Ikhwan became the Saudi shock troops. The Ikhwan warriors were fierce and disdainful of death. They behaved as if they were reincarnations of the 7th century Arab warriors who spread Islam from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Ikhwan provided the glue that kept the Saudi alliance together during the 1920's as the Saudis conquered the remaining independent tribes and clans of Arabia.
By furnishing land (or, rather, oases and their invaluable water) for the Ikhwan warriors to build their fortified mosques, Abdul Aziz soon had (by 1917) 200 Ikhwan settlements populated by 250,000 people (60,000 of them warriors). But the fervor of the Ikhwan could get out of hand. The orthodoxy of the Ikhwan rejected most modern devices. Everything that was not mentioned in the Koran was suspect and subject to destruction by the Ikhwan zealots. The rifle was a curious exception.
Abdul Aziz proved himself once more when it came time to tame the Ikhwan. By 1926, the Saudi forces had defeated all those who stood in the way of Arabian unification (at least in terms of Saudi Arabia’s current borders). The holy cities of Mecca and Medina were taken, along with the Red Sea coast and Abdul Aziz judged it imprudent to attempt the conquest of the more populous Yemen, or the British protected emirates along the Persian Gulf states. Kuwait was left alone because of the aid the Kuwaitis had provided when the Saud clan was in need.
The British also guaranteed (and guarded) the borders of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The Ikhwan cared nothing for these restrictions. In response to that disdain, Abdul Aziz spent two years fighting the Ikhwan, eventually bringing them to heel without leaving lasting tensions in the kingdom. One of the principal means of keeping the orthodox Muslims on his side was to enforce a strict brand of orthodoxy in the kingdom. The "religious police" Westerners hear about are the modern day Ikhwan. But instead of riding off, rifle in hand, to destroy the non-religious, the modern day Ikhwan swing canes at anyone rash, or careless, enough to appear irreligious in public. These latter day are becoming more troublesome and very unpopular with most Saudis. If the Sauds decide to act, after consulting religious and tribal leaders, they will suppress the “Ikhwan” once more. In the meantime, the Saudis have placed more limits on the power of the religious police.
In 1932 Abdul Aziz declared the Saudi controlled lands to be the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For the first time in over a thousand years Arabia was, more or less, firmly united. Yemen and the Persian Gulf emirates, protected by the British, were acknowledged as free from any further attempts at Saudi conquest. For the next twenty years Abdul Aziz prepared his 20 sons (eventually to number 43, including those who died as infants) to carry on his work. This work, then as now, consisted primarily in safeguarding the Moslem holy places and keeping the Saud family in power.
Abdul Aziz conquered his kingdom as a religious act and it was as a servant of Allah that the Sauds would continue to hold it. At the official founding of the kingdom in 1932, there was as yet no oil wealth for the Saudis to contend with. The major oil discoveries did not come until the late 1930's, and significant oil wealth did not appear until a decade later (after World War II). Huge wealth did not arrive until the 1970s, when a newly formed (with Saudi assistance) oil cartel jacked up the price of oil and kept it high.
It was up to Abdul Aziz's sons to contend with the mixed blessings of oil riches while still maintaining the religious foundations the house of Saud was built on. All of the Saudi kings since Abdul Aziz's death in 1953 have been sons of Abdul Aziz. Following the Bedouin custom, each son, in order of birth (and the approval of a family council), first becomes the Crown Prince (the next king) and then king. The first son, Turki, died as a teenager during the influenza epidemic in 1919. The next son, Saud, became crown prince in 1932 (at age 30) and king in 1953. Saud had some of his father’s traits (he was generous and had over 50 sons) but little of Abdul Aziz's shrewdness. This awkward situation enabled some of the strengths of the Bedouin government system to assert themselves. When king Saud’s inability to effectively rule became more apparent, the next half dozen or so senior bothers held a series of "majlis" (combination dinner party, business meeting, and judicial proceeding common in Bedouin life) to figure out what to do. They also consulted the ulema (group of senior religious leaders) and a compromise was reached whereby the next in line (Faisal, born in 1904, declared crown prince in 1953) would assume most of the duties of king while Saud continued as a figurehead. Saud was never comfortable with this and, after years of vacillation, was finally persuaded to abdicate in 1963 (and went into exile with his sons). Faisal was quite different from his brother Saud. Faisal was a very exacting person, exercising a punctuality and precision Westerners do not usually associate with the Bedouin. But, as the Sauds have done regularly over the centuries, he was the right man for that period of the kingdoms development. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by a disgruntled nephew during one of his majlis (held to receive petitions for redress from any of his subjects). The next in line, Mohammed, had renounced his place in the succession in 1965. This was another feature of the Bedouin system. If a son did not feel up to the rigors of being king he could let it pass to the next in line. Sometimes an heir was persuaded to renounce the succession, but usually the heir in question knew himself well enough to make the decision without any prompting.
Khalid succeeded Faisal and died in 1982 to be succeeded by the 61 year old crown prince Fahd (two older brothers, Nasir and Saad, had given up their place in favor of Fahd in 1975). Crown prince Abdullah (born in 1923) became king in 2005 and remains in power. The remaining sons of Abdul Aziz are getting too old to rule and the next king is expected to be one of the grandsons. There are hundreds of grandsons of Abdul Aziz, many of them quite capable. It's up to the senior members of the Saud family to decide who the next king is and the choice will say much about where the kingdom, and Islam, is headed. The Sauds are expected to continue being the best friends and worst enemies of Islamic terrorists.