Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



Having consolidated his power in Egypt, Mohammed Ali decided to go further afield and create a mighty empire. From 1811 onwards, he waged war continuously and within two decades the Egyptians had conquered almost all the countries of the Arab East.

Mohammed Ali fought, his first external war against the Wahhabis as a vassal of the Sultan. The Wahhabi raids had greatly disturbed the Porte, and the Turkish sultans, Selim III and Mahmud II, regarded the growing Wahhabi state as a serious threat to their authority in the Arab countries, but all their attempts to suppress Wahhabism were unsuccessful. Occupied with internal strife, the uprisings on the Balkans and the war against Russia, they could not muster enough men to combat the Wahhabis. Instead, they entrusted their pashas at Baghdad, Damascus and Jidda to do the job for them. The pashas, however, merely repulsed the raids, but did not assume the offensive. In 1811, Sultan Mahmud II was finally compelled to employ the powerful Egyptian Pasha, Mohammed Ali, to deal with the rebellious Wahhabis. Mohammed Ali consented all the more readily because the Egyptian merchants themselves were interested in a campaign against Arabia. Having incurred great losses through the cessation of pilgrimages and the trade connected with them, they contributed generous sums of money to equip the expedition. Mohammed Ali’s immediate aim was to seize Arabia and her riches, but ultimately he regarded Arabia as the key to Syria and Iraq. The Wahhabis were Mohammed Ali’s potential rivals in the struggle for the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Mohammed Ali accordingly despatched his sixteen-year-old son, Tusun Bey, at the head of a large expeditionary force (eight to ten thousand men) to conquer the Wahhabis. Tusun Bey’s adviser and the real leader of the expedition was Ahmed Aga, nicknamed Bonaparte, one of Mohammed Ali’s best generals. A merchant from Cairo by the name of El-Makhruki also accompanied the expedition. He was the chief supply officer and political adviser.

In September 1811, the Egyptians set out on their campaign. The infantry went by ship and the cavalry by land. Caravans loaded with water and provisions followed on their heels.

In October 1811, the Egyptians occupied Port Yenbo on the Arabian Peninsula and made it a springboard for their operations against the Wahhabis.

The war against the Wahhabis was a harrowing experience for the Egyptians. Many of them perished from the heat and the lack of water. They died of starvation and disease. The plague, cholera, malaria and dysentery thinned their ranks. Many soldiers went blind from the sun, others were swallowed up in quicksands or died from other causes while attempting to cross a desert that for centuries had been considered impassable.

The Egyptian army was surrounded by a hostile country and a hostile population. The Bedouin tribes attacked Egyptian patrols and caravans loaded with provisions. They cut off connections between the army’s front lines and the rear bases. Every town and village had to be taken by force. The Wahhabis believed firmly in the justice of their cause and they also had a considerable numerical superiority. The Egyptians had only eight to ten thousand men, while the Wahhabis had several times more. But the Egyptians had better weapons. They had modern artillery and skilled generals, trained in the school of Mohammed Ali. The war was fought with varying success and lasted for many long and arduous years.

In January 1812, the Egyptian army withdrew from Yenbo and proceeded to advance on Medina. In a narrow gorge near El-Safra, it was surprised by the Wahhabis and utterly defeated. Five thousand out of eight thousand Egyptians were killed and only three thousand returned to Yenbo.

Forced to seek a respite, the Egyptians used the time to demoralise the population in the Wahhabi rear. Their agents grudged neither money nor false promises to gain the support of the Hejaz towns and the leading Bedouin sheikhs. With their support and the reinforcements sent from Egypt, they again went into attack. In November 1812, the Egyptians seized Medina, and in January 1813 captured Mecca, Taif and Jidda. Thus the Hejaz was conquered. The conditions of the Egyptian army, however, did not improve. Nearly eight thousand soldiers died of the heat and disease. The population was unfriendly. The Wahhabis, who had retained their main forces, laid siege to Medina and launched a guerrilla war on the Egyptian communication routes.


At this crucial moment, Mohammed All decided to take over the expedition himself. In September 1813, he landed at Jidda with fresh forces. His first efforts were aimed at consolidating Egyptian positions in the Hejaz. He removed the Meccan Sherif, Ghalib, and appointed his own protégé in his stead. He put down all resistance and gave large sums of money to the Bedouin sheikhs. All attempts to penetrate deeper into Arabian territory, however, were unsuccessful.

In May 1814, Emir Saud died. Abdullah, who headed the opposition in the north, became the new emir. In the south, numerous Wahhabi forces were concentrated in the Turaba oasis, which controlled the road from Nejd to the Yemen. Turaba served as a strong point and base for Wahhabi operations in the south of the country.

Mohammed All was operating in the south of the Hejaz and in Asir. He personally led the fight against the southern Wahhabi forces and undertook many campaigns against them. On January 20, in the Battle of. Basal (east of Taif), the Egyptians crushingly defeated a 30,000-strong army of “southerners” under Faisal, Abdullah’s brother, and shattered the Wahhabis’ strength in the south. The Egyptians occupied Turaba and Bisha, but in May 1815, Mohammed Ali suddenly had to leave Arabia for Egypt, having temporarily abandoned the idea of seizing the Yemen.

The Egyptian forces in the north were commanded by Tusun Bey. He waged a persistent struggle against the forces of Abdullah, who had recruited men from all over Nejd, El-Hasa and Oman. In the spring of 1815, Tusun Bey inflicted a series of defeats on the Wahhabis and forced Abdullah to conclude peace.

According to the treaty, Nejd and Kasim were to remain under the Wahhabis and the Hejaz was to go to Egypt. Abdullah was forced to acknowledge himself the vassal of the Turkish Sultan and pledged subordination to the Egyptian governor of Medina. He also pledged to ensure the safety of the pilgrimages, to return the treasures stolen by the Wahhabis from Mecca and to abandon religious innovations, and to obey the Turkish Sultan’s summons without question.

After the conclusion of peace, Tusun Bey stationed garrisons in the chief cities of the Hejaz and left for Egypt. The first stage of the war was over.


The Wahhabis, however, could not reconcile themselves to the humiliating terms of the peace treaty imposed upon them by Tusun Bey. Nominally, they had accepted the terms of the treaty, but in reality they were already making preparations for a new war of liberation. Mohammed All and the Sultan did not confirm the treaty either. They felt the Wahhabi Emir, Abdullah, was trying to avoid obeying the terms of the peace treaty, namely the return of the Meccan plundered treasures and the journey to pay homage to the Sultan at Istanbul.

The war was resumed in 1816. Egyptian troops, accompanied by French military instructors and a detachment of mine layers, was sent to Arabia. At their head stood Mohammed Ali’s elder son, Ibrahim, an outstanding general and a man of iron will. Ibrahim decided to penetrate into the heart of Wahhabism, Inner Arabia, at all costs and strike at the heart of the movement. In the course of two years, Ibrahim’s troops besieged the chief centres of Kasim and Nejd one after another. They turned blooming oases into deserts, destroyed wells, cut down palms and burnt homes. The Egyptian soldiers murdered and raped. Those of the local people who were not killed died of thirst or hunger. Sensing the approach of the Egyptian troops, the population would abandon their homes to seek refuge in the more remote oases.

In 1817, in a war of extermination, the like of which Arabia had never known before, the Egyptians overran Rass, Buraida and Anaiza. They entered Nejd at the beginning of 1818, seized Shaqra and on April 6, 1818, they approached Deraiyeh, the fortified capital of the Wahhabis. On September 15, 1818, after a five-month siege, Deraiyeh ceased to exist. The Egyptians had razed the place to the ground. The people fled from the ruined city. The Wahhabi Emir, Abdullah, surrendered. He was sent to Cairo and then to Constantinople, where he was beheaded in December 1818.

Having destroyed Deraiyeh, Ibrahim’s troops went on to conquer Qatif and El-Hasa. The Emir’s relatives and the most important Wahhabi leaders were taken prisoner and sent to Egypt. Fortifications were demolished in all the towns of Nejd. The Egyptians celebrated their victory, and it seemed as though the Wahhabi state had been destroyed for ever.

In December 1819, Ibrahim returned to Cairo with the nucleus of his army. Egyptian garrisons remained in the towns of Nejd and the Hejaz. But the enemy was unable to suppress the opposition forces, nor were they able to gain possession of the country. The mountains and deserts of Arabia served as a refuge for the rebellious and were permanent breeding centres of the Wahhabi uprisings.


One result of the Egyptian conquest was that the greater part of Arabia was formally incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. But in reality, Arabia now belonged to Egypt.

The Hejaz was turned into an Egyptian province under the administration of an Egyptian pasha, Mohammed Ali’s appointee. The pasha appointed and removed the Meccan sherifs, who now exercised only illusory power.

The Yemen, the coastal towns of which had been occupied by the Egyptians in 1819, retained its autonomy. It was ruled by a Zaydite Imam who resided at San’a. He considered himself the Porte’s vassal and pledged to pay an annual tribute to Egypt. His power over the country was, however, nominal.

Many tribes and local rulers openly disobeyed the Imam. In the period between 1823 and 1826, the Egyptians undertook several campaigns against the Yemen, but were obliged to leave the country because of the Morean war. In 1834, they again occupied Yemenite Tihama and Taiz.

Egyptian deputies ruled Nejd. Everyone ignored the late Abdullah’s younger brother, Emir Mashar, Ibrahim’s appointee. The country was ruined and in great distress. Famine and desolation prevailed everywhere. Feudal and tribal dissensions were growing. In Shammar, Kasim and other regions, the local dynasties retained a certain degree of autonomy and manoeuvred between the Egyptian authorities and the insurgent Wahhabi emirs from the Saudi dynasty, who were keeping up the war against the invaders.

No sooner had Ibrahim withdrawn from Nejd than in 1820, a Wahhabi uprising, headed by a relative of the executed emir, flared up in Deraiyeh. The uprising was suppressed, but in 1821, the Wahhabis revolted again. This time they were more successful. The uprising was led by a relative of the executed emir, Turki (1821-34), who overthrew the Egyptian appointee, restored the Wahhabi state and transferred the capital from ruined Deraiyeh to the well-fortified Riyadh (in about 1822). The Egyptian troops sent against the Wahhabis perished from hunger, thirst, epidemics and guerrilla raids. Mohammed Ali was compelled to restrict the occupation of Nejd to Kasim and Shammar. The rest of Nejd was cleared of the Egyptian garrisons.

The Wahhabis restored their former domains and in 1827, drove the Egyptians out of Kasim and Shammar. In 1830, they recaptured El-Hasa.

In 1827, the Meccan sherif instigated an anti-Egyptian revolt, but was unsuccessful. The Egyptians, who had lost Nejd, managed to suppress the revolt and hold out in the Hejaz.

Mohammed Ali was too occupied with the events in Greece and Syria to care about Arabia. However, after the conquest of Syria he decided to recapture Nejd. To counter-balance Turki, he proposed a certain Mashari ibn Khalid as the pretender to the Wahhabi throne. In 1834, Mashari, with the support of the Egyptians, gained possession of Riyadh, assassinated Emir Turki and took over in his stead. His joy, however, was short-lived. Two months later, Turki’s son and heir, Emir Faisal, seized Riyadh, made short work of Mashari and proclaimed himself the head of the Wahhabi state.

This setback did not deter Mohammed Ali, who decided to go ahead with his plans to recapture Nejd and obtain access to the Persian Gulf. In 1836, a large Egyptian force headed by Khurshid Pasha invaded Nejd. The long, obstinate struggle ended in the victory of the Egyptians. In 1838, Emir Faisal was sent away captive to Cairo. The Egyptians captured Riyadh, El-Hasa, Qatif and even attempted to seize Bahrain.

The second Egyptian invasion of Nejd and the occupation of El-Hasa aggravated the already strained relations with Britain and was one of the reasons for the Eastern crisis of 1839-41. Mohammed Ali was drawn into a serious international conflict and in 1840, he was compelled to recall his forces from Arabia. The Wahhabis seized the occasion to overthrow Emir Khalid, the puppet ruler left by Khurshid Pasha, and restored their authority in Riyadh.


The Wahhabis’ defeat in the southern and eastern parts of Arabia greatly troubled Britain, who claimed complete supremacy in the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The East India Company looked on the area as her domain. The Company’s residence, its naval bases and fleet were located here, and it was unwilling to permit a single powerful state to gain access to the region. It was quite natural, therefore, that the Egyptian advance on the Yemen, the occupation of El-Hasa and Mohammed Ali’s plans to unite Arabia under his rule met with fierce resistance from the British, who intensified their expansionist activities in South Arabia and on the Persian Gulf, striving at all costs to strengthen their hold on the sea routes to India.

In 1819, the British offered Mohammed Ali their “collaboration” in “pacifying” the regions situated south-east of San’a, but their offer was rejected. Then they began to act independently. In December 1820, a British squadron bombarded the Yemenite port of Mocha and on January 15, 1821, imposed a treaty on the Imam. The treaty granted a series of privileges to British subjects in South Arabian ports. In 1834, the troops of the East India Company occupied the island of Sokotra, which later (in 1866) was turned into a British protectorate. Finally, in 1839, during a punitive naval expedition, the British seized Aden. The capture was given the guise of a commercial transaction. On the pretext of establishing a coal station, England “bought” the harbour and the village of Aden (at the time it had about five hundred inhabitants) together with the adjoining territory from the Sultan of Lahej. [The sultanate of Lahej had broken away from the Yemen and in 1728 had become an independent state.]

England then became engaged in a prolonged struggle against the local feudal rulers and the tribes of the Pirate Coast, or Jawassi, in eastern Arabia. The Jawassi were the Wahhabis’ allies. They engaged in sea trade and piracy. In the first decades of the 19th century, the East India Company waged a fierce sea war against the pirates. In 1811, Emir Saud proposed a peace treaty to the British, but the latter refused on the grounds that their only serious foe were the Wahhabis.

The situation changed in 1818, when the Egyptians gained access to the Persian Gulf, seized Port Qatif and advanced on Jawassi. The piratical sheikhs hastened to take refuge in Persia, but found themselves hemmed in on both sides. Ibrahim’s forces were advancing by land and a large British squadron turned up at sea. The squadron had the double task of smashing the pirates and stopping Ibrahim. Immediately after the capture of Hufuf by the Egyptians, the East India Company demanded that Ibrahim evacuate El-Hasa. Ibrahim refused and turned down British claims to the Persian Gulf. England, however, forestalled him, having sent her warships to the Wahhabi ports of West Oman and Bahrain. In 1819, the British squadron burnt the fleet of the Wahhabis’ pirate allies and in January 1820, forced the sheikhs of the Pirate Coast to sign a peace treaty with the East India Company.

The Jawassi sheikhs retained part of their fleet, but pledged themselves not to attack the ships of the East India Company. The treaty formally forbade piracy and slave trade in the Persian Gulf. In reality it placed the Wahhabi Pirate Coast (renamed Trucial Oman) in complete dependence on England. In the same year, the British forced the Sheikh of the Bahrain Islands to sign similar treaty and thus acknowledge his dependence on England.

One of the pirate towns, which had refused to sign the treaty was destroyed by the British fleet. Between the 1820s and the 1840s, England imposed a series of new treaties on the governors of Trucial Oman, Muscat and Bahrain. Claimingthat the Persian Gulf states had violated the treaties banning piracy and the slave trade, England seized the opportunity to interfere in their internal affairs and the Persian Gulf became little more than a “British lake.”

The intrigues of the British made it impossible for the Egyptians to gain possession of the Persian Gulf, particularly as they had no firm base in the rear of the Gulf, in Nejd. After the Wahhabi uprising of 1821, they gradually withdrew from Nejd and in 1830, from El-Hasa. It was not until 1839, after the second conquest of Nejd, that the Egyptians once again occupied El-Hasa, but they did not hold out for long. Having broken the might of Mohammed All in Syria, the British had rid themselves of a dangerous rival in the Persian Gulf.