Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969

ARABIA IN 1870-1914


At the turn of the 19th century, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula were one of the most backward regions of the Arab world. The Arabian countries’ development was extremely slow. They were split up into a host of minor states and were dependent on Britain and Turkey.

The feudal mode of production prevailed throughout Arabia. Natural economy predominated in the interior. Notwithstanding the considerable growth of caravan trade and money-commodity relations within the framework of the feudal socio-economic formation, the internal market took shape very slowly. Inner Arabia was still a mediaeval country in the full sense of the word and external influences (trade with Damascus, Baghdad and Aden, and the pilgrimage caravans) were still so weak that they could not change the course of social and economic development.

Strong survivals of primitive-commual relations and of the slave-holding society still continued to exist within the predominantly feudal mode of production. In the northern part of the peninsula, in Nejd, the Hejaz and Shammar, slavery bore a domestic character. Slaves were used as servants or as the bodyguards of the feudal chiefs. In the south, in the Yemen, Hadhramaut, Oman and Bahrain, slave labour was used extensively in agriculture and in pearl-diving (for the underwater work).

At the end of the 19th century, the Arab countries were once again caught up in the whirlwind of international politics and became the target of imperialist expansion by the great Powers. Britain was endeavouring to strengthen and expand her influence over the greater part of the Arabian Peninsula; she was making a bid for absolute supremacy in these vast expanses and on the Arabian coast. Germany,as well as France and Russia, were trying to hamper British expansion and to gain a foothold in Arabia. Turkey was making feverish efforts to consolidate her power and prestige in the Arabian countries.

In contrast, forces inside Arabia were stepping up their activities to centralise the peninsula. As a means to this end, they made extensive use of the rivalry between the Powers and their struggle to gain possession of Arabia.


The colony of Aden was one of Britain’s key positions on the Arabian Peninsula. The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) had greatly enhanced its strategic and commercial significance. Aden had become one of the most prominent coaling stations on the sea route between Europe and India and a big centre of transit trade. The British had declared Aden a free port, and from here their goods were sent to all corners of South Arabia and to the African shores of Bab-El-Mandeb.

After the opening of the Suez Canal, Britain’s expansionist policy in the hinterland of Aden blossomed forth. In the seventies and eighties, the British considerably enlarged their South Arabian domains. They conquered one region after another, drowning the shores and islands of South Arabia in blood, bombarding unarmed towns and villages and bribing the corrupt feudal princes.

In 1869, the British occupied the sultanate of Lahej and, shortly after, subdued all the nine South Arabian principalities adjacent to Aden. The local proprietors were forced to sign unequal treaties and accept the British protectorate. In 1873, Britain forced the Porte to give official recognition to her conquests and, in 1905, concluded a special agreement with the Porte on the boundary line between the Turkish domains in the Yemen and the British domains in Aden. The Yemenese, however, especially the Yemenese Government, which had come to power through the uprising of 1904-11, refused to recognise the AngIo-Turkish boundary line. They regarded Aden and the adjacent territories as having been illegally wrested from the Yemen and sup-ported the South Arabian tribes’ struggle against British domination.

Simultaneously, Britain began the conquest of Hadhramaut. British warships constantly patrolled the waters of Hadhramaut. Under cover of the philanthropic slogan of suppressing the slave trade, they organised punitive expeditions and deposed any rulers who were not to their liking. One after another, under the muzzles of the British cannon, the sultans and sheikhs of Hadhramaut accepted the British protectorate. In 1886, the British had seized the Island of Sokotra and annexed it to their domains. In 1888, the Sul-tan of Mukalla from the Kuwaiti dynasty, the governor of the biggest feudal estate in Hadhramaut, signed a treaty on the protectorate.

By the outbreak of World War I, the British had imposed unequal treaties on twenty-three petty sultanates and sheikhdoms of South Arabia, establishing a protectorate over their territories and uniting them under the rule of Aden’s colonial authorities.


In 1871, in Oman, the oldest British colony on the Arabian Peninsula, the British finally managed to sup-press a massive popular uprising which had lasted for nearly ten years. When the insurgents’ leader, Azzan ibn Kais, fell in battle the British took over Muscat and placed their puppet Sultan Turki (1871-88) on the throne. With the help of the British fleet and sepoy bayonets, he meted out reprisals against the rebellious tribes and opposition elements which were working for their country’s independence. In 1886, a fresh uprising flared up in Oman. The insurgents laid siege to Muscat. Turki again appealed to the British and with their help managed to put down the uprising.

Turki was Britain’s “loyal” ally and granted her many new rights and privileges. Despite the Anglo-French declaration of 1862, Britain exercised what amounted to a protectorate over Oman. This protectorate was consolidated during the reign of Turki’s son and successor Sultan Feisal (1888-1913) by the conclusion of a new treaty of friendship, trade and navigation of March 20, 1891. According to this treaty, Feisal promised on his own behalf and on behalf of his heirs not to alienate his territory to any third Power.

France, who was backed by Russia, was opposed to the British protectorate. She accused Britain of violating the 1862 declaration on the grant of “independence” to Oman and demanded that Britain respect France’s rights. In 1893, the French attempted to set up a coaling station in Sur, but encountered Britain’s resolute opposition. The French Chamber of Deputies was indignant. To show their determination, French and Russian warships began making frequent appearances in the Ottoman waters. In 1893, the Russian cruiser Nizhny Novgorod arrived in Oman, where the crew was welcomed by the Sultan. In 1894, France established a consulate in Muscat and began supplying the Ottomans with arms. The French consul opened a register of “protégés” and began handing out French flags to the captains of the Ottoman feluccas.

A serious conflict was in the making. Sultan Feisal found himself between two fires. In 1898, with a French cruiser’s guns trained on him, the Sultan granted the French a con-cession for a coaling station. Britain’s response was to accuse Feisal of violating the treaty of 1891. In February 1899, a British squadron appeared off the shores of Oman and trained its guns on the Muscat Sultan’s residence. Frightened out of his wits, the Sultan hastened to submit. On February 16, he annulled the concession he had granted to the French and did everything else the British ordered. “Cordial relations” were restored between Britain and Oman.

France and Russia, however, would not give in. In 1900, the French cruiser Drome and the Russian gunboat Gilyak arrived in Muscat. Close on their heels came the Russian cruisers Varyag, Askold and Boyarin. In 1903, the French cruiser Inferne and the Russian cruiser Boyarin paid a second visit to Muscat to “impart courage to a people who live under the constant threat of an attack from the British.”

The British fleet, however, continued to remain in Oman. Moreover, in reply to the joint Russian-French naval demonstration, the British shelled and captured an Ottoman felucca which was sailing under the French flag. As in Fashoda, the threat of a serious armed clash forced France to retreat. The dispute over the concession was referred to The Hague International Tribunal and in 1904, after the conclusion of the treaty on the Entente, it lost its edge and passed into the background. The Hague Tribunal decided in Britain’s favour. France relinquished her claims on Oman and instead of the coaling station in Muscat, she received the right to use the one in Mukalla. In 1916, she also relinquished her rights to this coal station and, in 1920, closed her consulate in Muscat.

The Muscat Sultan’s servility to the British evoked wide-spread discontent in the region. In 1913, taking advantage of Feisal’s death and the succession to the throne of his son Taimur, another British puppet, the Ottomans rose in rebellion. The uprising was headed by the religious Moslem sect of ibadits (or abadits). The insurgents chose Selim ibn Rashid el-Harusi as their Imam and formed an independent state with the town of Nazwah as its capital. Within a short time the insurgents liberated the entire territory of Oman with the exception of Muscat and the coastal regions, which were defended by the British fleet, and began a pro-longed and persistent struggle against British domination and the Muscat Sultan. In 1920, the Muscat Sultan was compelled to sign a peace treaty and recognise the independence of the Oman imamate.


At the close of the 19th century, Britain did all she could to expand and fortify her positions in the Persian Gulf. With the help of her fleet she maintained “allied relations” with Bahrain and the principalities of Trucial Oman (the Pirate Coast). In 1871, the Bahrain Governor, Sheikh Isa, a British puppet, confirmed all obligations incurred under former treaties. The British promised to “defend” him against his own subjects and also against the Turkish and Iranian governments, which claimed sovereignty over the Bahrain Islands.

In 1880, Britain imposed the First Exclusive Agreement on Bahrain, which actually meant a protectorate although there was no mention of the word “protectorate.” According to this agreement, the Sheikh of Bahrain engaged not to grant concessions of any kind to other Powers, not to let them set up coaling stations, not to conduct diplomatic negotiations with them, not to establish consular relations and not to conclude treaties with any other Power except Britain.

In 1882, the British took over the Qatar peninsula and forced its governor to establish “allied relations” with Britain. Qatar passed under Britain’s control and, in 1916 was officially proclaimed a British protectorate.

In 1892, a Final Exclusive Agreement was concluded with Bahrain on the lines of the Anglo-Oman treaty of 1891. According to this agreement, the Sheikh of Bahrain engaged not to lease a single part of his territory to anyone but Britain. In the same year, the sheikhs of Trucial Oman concluded an analogous agreement.

In the middle of the nineties, fearing Russian and German plans to exit to the Persian Gulf, Britain shifted her attention to Kuwait, a barren strip of desert land adjoining Shat-al-Arab and Basra in the south. Kuwait was under the Porte’s sovereignty although there were no Turkish forces in the region. In 1895, the British suggested that the Sheikh of Kuwait, Mohammed ibn Sabah, establish “allied relations” with Britain like the other principalities of the Persian Gulf. Sheikh Mohammed declined Britain’s solicitations, upon which the British organised a plot. In May 1896, Mohammed and his retinue were assassinated and the reins of government were taken over by Sheikh Mubarak ibn Sabah, Mohammed’s brother.

Mubarak established ties with the powerful chief of the South Iraqi tribe muntafik, Sa’adun Pasha, and virtually ceased to obey the Turkish governor of Basra. On January 23, 1899, he concluded a secret agreement with Britain. It was secret in the sense that, as a mutasarrif, Mubarak had no right to enter into negotiations, to say nothing of the right to conclude international agreements. Mubarak exceeded his authority and secretly signed an agreement not to alienate his territory to anyone except Britain.

Having established control over Kuwait, Britain closed the ring of her domains in the Persian Gulf. This was the last link in the chain which turned the Persian Gulf into a “British lake.”


Kuwait’s transfer to British control sparked off a fresh international conflict. In 1899, the Germans received a preliminary concession for the Baghdad railway and sent an investigatory mission to Iraq to map the route of the railway. It had been planned to make Kuwait the terminus, and early in 1900, the German investigatory mission arrived on the scene.

Britain regarded the German mission’s arrival as a threat to her positions in the Persian Gulf. The British Ambassador to Constantinople, O’Connor, warned the Turks that the extension of the railway line to Kuwait would cause “local difficulties” and even lead to “intervention by foreign Powers.” Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, said in all earnestness that the western borders of British India were on the Euphrates. In one voice the Anglo-Indian Press, inspired by Curzon, suddenly began demanding a British protectorate over Kuwait.

The German press, in turn, and not only the German press, but German diplomacy also, protested at British plans to establish a protectorate over Kuwait. Germany declared that Kuwait was Turkish territory and, therefore, came under the Sultan’s sovereignty.

In April 1900, O’Connor informed the German Ambassador Marschall that Britain had concluded an agreement with the Sheikh of Kuwait, Mubarak, which would prevent him from granting concessions to the subjects of a third Power. An analogous statement was made in June 1900, by the British Ambassador to Berlin, Lascelles. The Germans decided that it was a question of some “private legal agreement,” some kind of British concession, and that the Deutsche Bank would buy this concession from British businessmen. When Germany learned the true state of affairs, she ordered her ambassador to Constantinople to “undertake all measures to consolidate Turkey’s rights to Kuwait.” “The settlement of any foreign Power in Kuwait, be it Britain or Russia, is unfavourable for us,” wrote the Deputy German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Baron Richthofen. “It threatens the entire German plan for the extension of the Anatolian Railway to the Persian Gulf. The first prerequisite for this project is Turkey’s command over the whole stretch from Haidar-Pasha to Kuwait. It is of imperative necessity, therefore, to demand a declaration from Sheikh Mubarak to the effect that he will not grant foreigners any territory or economic concessions until he supplies them with land, docks and so on for the Baghdad Railway.” In other words, Germany was pressing for the same exclusive rights in Kuwait that Britain had acquired.

In August 1901, Germany declared that she did not recognise Britain’s claims on Kuwait, to which Britain replied that she would settle matters with Turkey herself and that the question of Kuwait’s status did not concern Germany. The British were surprised that the Germans were more Turkish on this issue than the Sultan himself. Moreover, the British Foreign Secretary stated that there was not and never could be any mutual understanding between Britain and Germany on the Kuwait question. The two governments, he said, had opposite points of view on this matter.

While the talks were going on, the following events took place in Kuwait itself. In August 1901, at Germany’s demand, the Turks despatched troops to Kuwait to affirm the Sultan’s sovereignty. They were despatched by sea. When the transports with the troops arrived in Kuwait, they found a British cruiser at anchor there. The cruiser’s commander warned the Turks that if they dared even to put a single Turkish soldier ashore, the British would open fire and sink the transports. The Turkish ships turned back.

On September 6, 1901, Britain and Turkey signed an agreement on Kuwait. The terms of the agreement were as follows: Britain acknowledged Turkey’s sovereignty over Kuwait, but only on the condition that Turkey sent no troops to that country. Turkey, in turn, recognised Britain’s special interest in Kuwait and the Anglo-Kuwait agreement of 1899. In this way, Turkey’s vanity was satisfied since Kuwait formally remained under Turkish sovereignty and Britain’s claims were also satisfied since Kuwait virtually passed under British control.

In the meanwhile, Germany decided to withdraw to the background and play on Anglo-Russian differences over Kuwait.

Russia pressed for a compromise between Britain and Turkey on the Kuwait question. On the one hand, she shared Britain’s reluctance to let the Germans gain access to the Persian Gulf but, on the other hand, the Russians were displeased with the establishment of a direct British protectorate over Kuwait.

In December, 1901, an incident took place which aggravated Anglo-Russian differences. A mere three months after the conclusion of the compromise Anglo-Turkish agreement of September 6, the British suddenly violated the status quo. The commander of one of the British warships which regularly called at Kuwait ordered that the Turkish flag should be taken down from Sheikh Mubarak’s residence and that a new and unknown one, which they called the flag of Kuwait, should be hoisted in its place. Simultaneously, a British protectorate was proclaimed over Mubarak’s domains.

Britain’s actions evoked a storm of protest in the Russian press. The Russian Ambassador to Constantinople, I. A. Zinovyev, advised the Porte to appeal to The Hague International Tribunal. Early in 1902, the Russian cruiser Varyag and the French cruiser Inferne arrived in Kuwait. The Russian consul in Baghdad paid a visit to Sheikh Mubarak and presented him with a Russian decoration and gifts. Under pressure from Russia, Britain repudiated the action of her naval officer and declared that she intended to adhere strictly to the agreement with Turkey and to preserve the status quo.

Britain, however, had no intention of abandoning her plans in Kuwait. At the close of 1903, Lord Curzon made a demonstrative tour of the Persian Gulf countries, including Kuwait. The purpose of his trip was to show Britain’s determination to defend her positions in the Persian Gulf at all costs. The Entente Treaty of 1904 and the agreement with Russia in 1907 finally gave her the freedom of action which she had been waiting for so long. In 1904, a British political agent was installed in Kuwait and in 1907, Britain imposed a new agreement on Mubarak, making Turkey one of the foreign Powers.

In the end, the Turks were forced to acknowledge this as an accomplished fact. On July 29, 1913, they signed an agreement on the Persian Gulf with Britain, by which Kuwait was recognised as an autonomous kaza (type of territorial administration) with its own flag. Turkey engaged not to interfere in Kuwait’s internal affairs and recognised the Anglo-Kuwait agreement. Simultaneously, Turkey renounced her rights to Bahrain and Qatar. In ex-change for this, Britain recognised Turkey’s rights to El-Hasa, which was occupied by the Wahhabis at the time.

Soon after the outbreak of World War I, in November 1914, Britain declared Kuwait an “independent principality under British protection.”


The Powers’ struggle for Kuwait was closely inter-woven with the struggle of the Wahhabi dynasties, the Rashidis and the Saudis for hegemony in North Arabia. The Germans and the Turks were counting on the Rashidis, the rulers of Shammar. With their help, they hoped to get rid of the Saudis and the Sheikh of Kuwait, Mubarak, who was backed by the British.

By the end of the 19th century, Shammar had become the most powerful state in North Arabia. The Shammarite Emir Mohammed (1871-97), called “the Great,” had put an end to dynastic internecine strife and united both Jebel-Shammar and Kasim under his rule. In 1876, he declared himself a vassal of the Turks and with their support began a fierce struggle against the Riyadh emirs of the House of Saud. In 1884, the Shammarites routed the Nejd troops and seized Riyadh, where they installed their own deputy. The Saudi Emir, Abd ar-Rahman, Feisal’s younger son, acknowledged the Shammarites’ sovereignty and remained in Riyadh as the ruler of Arid (a central province of Nejd).

In 1890, an uprising flared up in Nejd and Kasim. The insurgents took over Riyadh and moved on farther to join the Kasim feudalists. These were the Emir of Anaiza, Zamil, and the Emir of Buraida, Hasan. In January, 1891, the Kasim levies were utterly defeated in a battle near Mulayda and Emir Abd ar-Rahman, who was on his way to help them, fled to El-Hasa and later to Kuwait. The Saudi emirate was completely liquidated [The Shammarites left the Saudi Emir Mohammed, who had devoted himself to flower growing, as the nominal religious head of Wahhabi Nejd.] and Nejd became a province of the large Shammar state.

At the height of the Kuwait crisis, the Turks decided to use the Shammarites to seize Kuwait. The British retaliated by forming an anti-Shammarite Bedouin coalition comprised of the Sheikh of Kuwait, Mubarak, the South Iraqi tribe muntafiq under the leadership of Sa’adun Pasha, and the Wahhabi tribes of mutair and banu murra, who had remained loyal to the Saudis. The Wahhabis were headed by Emir Abd ar-Rahman’s son, Abd el-Aziz, better known by his family name Ibn Saud. After the Shammarites had established their rule in Riyadh he and his father left their country. Ibn Saud had been seven years old at the time, but by 1900, he was a young man and his father felt the time had come for him to lead the struggle.

In the autumn of 1900, the 10,000-strong allied army headed by Sheikh Mubarak launched a campaign against the Shammarite Emir, Abd el-Aziz (1897-1906). Ibn Saud was entrusted with the task of making a feint in the direction of Riyadh. In February 1901, the Shammarites routed the allies and Ibn Saud, learning of their defeat in the desert, raised the siege of Riyadh and returned to Kuwait.

In the summer of 1901, the Shammarites reached Kuwait, which was guarded by British warships. With the British guns trained on them the Shammarites turned back. They passed through Nejd and Kasim, where anti-Shammarite uprisings, backed by British arms and money, kept flaring up. In December 1901, the British armed and sent to Riyadh a small force under Ibn Saud. The Riyadh population, which was oppressed by the Rashid feudalists, was ready to support any act which would liberate them from the Shammarites, and Ibn Saud’s small detachment had no trouble in capturing the city. (January 15, 1902.)

Describing the seizure of Riyadh, Philby relates a fantastic story that Ibn Saud is supposed to have told. It has the ring of an Oriental legend in the style of the tales from the Arabian Nights.

Philby writes that Ibn Saud took sixty Bedouin daredevils with him, leaving thirty horsemen on the hills near Riyadh with orders to hasten to Kuwait for help if there were no news from Ibn Saud within twenty-four hours. Another twenty horsemen were left in a grove on the outskirts of the Riyadh oasis. The remaining ten riders dismounted and penetrated into the city at night. They approached the citadel where the Rashid ruler of Riyadh, Ajlan, was staying. Ibn Saud knocked at the door of a house right next to the fortress gates. It was opened by a woman, whom they ordered to keep quiet on pain of death. Ibn Saud and his companions then herded all the tenants into a back room and took up their posts near the window, drinking coffee, and telling battle stories and reading the Koran all night long to keep awake. At dawn they saw the citadel gates swing open as Ajlan and his entourage came out to pray at the mosque. The Bedouins pounced on them from the window, slaying the whole entourage, including Ajlan. Taking advantage of the open gates they then seized the citadel and announced the renewal of the Saudi dynasty.

Having captured Riyadh, Ibn Saud fortified the city and began a struggle against the Shammarites. Between 1902 and 1903, he won back the entire southern part of Inner Arabia (Khardj, Al-Aflaj, Wadi-Dawasir) and by the summer of 1904, he had subdued Washim, Sudair and Kasim, thus restoring the Wahhabite Saudi emirate to its former borders.

Ibn Saud became such a powerful force that in 1904, the Rashidis appealed to Turkey for help. In May 1904, eight Turkish battalions under Ahmed Faizi Pasha arrived in Nejd. Most of the Turkish soldiers, however, died in the desert of the heat, of thirst, hunger and disease. At the end of 1904, the commander of the expeditionary corps himself and the remnants of his army were transferred to the Yemen. Left alone, the Shammarites continued the struggle for a time, but, in April 1906, were badly beaten by the Saudis. The Rashid Emir, Abd el-Aziz, was killed in the fighting. His successor, Mitab, hastened to conclude peace and acknowledged the Saudis’ right to Nejd and Kasim. The Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid, confirmed this agreement in an exchange of notes. The Saudis’ Wahhabi state was restored.


The Turks and their Shammarite allies were Ibn Saud’s chief enemies and he fought them till the Rashidis’ Shammarite emirate was completely liquidated. Although the British supported him, the Wahhabi state’s rapid growth and success began to worry them. The British were against the unification of the Arabian Peninsula and fell back on their traditional “divide and rule” policy. Everywhere they sup-ported the small princes and provoked tribal and feudal separatism. To rule the peninsula they had to take the weak princes into account. Ibn Saud was becoming a powerful force and he made no attempt to conceal his desire to see Inner Arabia united and the Shammarite emirate destroyed. An odd situation arose when the British began backing all sorts of feudal mutinies inside the restored Saudi state.

The feudal sheikhs and emirs who had marched with Ibn Saud when he began the struggle to restore the Saudi state now turned against him and formed mutinous coalitions. There were British agents in both camps. A British Intelligence agent, Captain Lichman, had ties with Ibn Saud and supported him. Another representative of British Intelligence, Gertrude Bell, later to play an important part in Mesopotamia and to rise to the rank of colonel in 1920, was connected with and supported the Emir of Shammar.

The British intrigues, the anti-Wahhabi coalition and the revolts did not destroy the Saudi state, but constant wars and uprisings hampered its development. Ibn Saud was unable to cope with the Shammarite emirate till after World War I. Jebel-Shammar was conquered only in 1921. On the other hand, with British approval Ibn Saud man-aged to expand his domains in the East on the shores of the Persian Gulf. El-Hasa, which had been under Turkish occupation since 1871, was seized by the Wahhabis in 1913 and annexed to the Saudi state.

The British had two reasons for supporting the Wahhabi campaign against the Turks. First, a world war was in the offing. Turkey, who was ruled by the Young Turks, was siding with Germany. The arrival of Turkish forces at El-Hasa also meant the appearance of German forces. This centre of German-Turkish influence in the Persian Gulf had to be destroyed and Ibn Saud was the man to do it. Secondly, Ibn Saud offered the British a fairly high price for the conquest of El-Hasa. He agreed to a British protectorate and promised to support Britain in the war. In December 1915, a treaty was signed according to which Ibn Saud engaged to refrain from all action against Britain, to co-ordinate his foreign policy with her, not to alienate his territory to other Powers, and to respect the integrity of Britain’s possessions on the Arabian Peninsula. Wahhabi Nejd remained under British protection until the treaty expired in 1924.

The British protectorate did not especially trouble Ibn Saud, who aimed at setting up a united and centralised feudal state in Inner Arabia. The British did not interfere with the Saudi emirate’s internal affairs. As though to make up for lost time, the Wahhabis with renewed energy set about inculcating their dogmas of Ian hid (unity) and found a ready supporter in the person of Ibn Saud, who regarded them as an obedient tool for dealing with feudal and tribal separatism, and for the radical reorganisation of Arabia’s traditional feudal and nomadic society.

In his home policy, Ibn Saud deliberately opposed primitive-communal survivals. He believed the nomadic tribes were the most destructive element standing in the way of Arabian unity. In 1911, on the Wahhabi teachers’ advice, he launched the ikhwan (brothers) movement against the nomadic tribes. He forced them submit to a strict discipline and forbade them to make predatory raids and to extract feudal tribute from dependent tribes. He pulled down the barriers between the free and the subordinate tribes and treated them all as equals, as ikhwans.

Simultaneously, Ibn Saud began creating communities for the nomads, whom he forced to settle on the land. This policy was conducted on a very broad scale after World War I. The first few communities had been set up prior to 1918. When they abandoned their former way of life, the nomad ikhwans broke off ties with their tribe. New ties were established inside the ikhwan communes based on mutual economic interests instead of blood relationship.

A spirit of religious intolerance prevailed in the ikhwan communes and later in the Wahhabi state. Wahhabis were not allowed to maintain close ties with non-Wahhabis, not even if these were their relatives. They could not mingle with foreigners and had to abide strictly to the moral and ethic rules of Wahhabism. The Wahhabi society gradually shut itself off from outside influences and drifted into a kind of isolationism.

The ikhwans together with their teachers became the main instrument of Ibn Saud’s home and foreign policy. The ikhwan settlements formed the base on which Ibn Saud built his new army. With their help he suppressed revolts, exposed plots and disarmed rebellious tribes. With their support he campaigned for a united Arabia and the formation of a single Wahhabi Saudi state.


After the opening of the Suez Canal, the Turks restored their authority in the Yemen and Asir. Prior to this, the extended lines of communication stretching across the Arabian steppes and deserts had made it virtually impossible for Turkey to support and supply her troops in southern Arabia. Turkish garrisons were stationed in only a few coastal regions of Tihama. The Yemen and Asir were virtually independent. The opening of the Suez Canal made it possible for the Turks to establish sea communications. In 1869, the Turks sent anexpeditionary corps to the region and subdued Yemenese and Asirian Tihama.

Taking advantage of this, Ali ibn Mahdi, the San’a Imam (the religious and secular head of the zaydites), who had become quite incapable of coping with the insurgent tribes, appealed to the Turkish troops for help. In 1872, Turkish troops penetrated into the mountain region of the Yemen, occupied San’a, the capital, and set up Turkish garrisons everywhere. The Yemen was declared a Turkish vilayet and the Turkish pasha arrived in San’a. Thus, 230 years after the first expulsion of the Turks, the Yemen again lost her independence and became a Turkish province. While they were at it, the Turks also seized Asir, whose ruler gave himself up and was executed.

In 1891, a big national uprising against Turkish domination flared up in the Yemen. It was headed by Imam Mohammed, a representative of the ruling zaydite dynasty of the Racites. The insurgents besieged San’a and encircled the Turkish garrisons in a number of other cities. The Turks were forced to despatch strong reinforcements under the command of Ahmed Faizi Pasha, who fought his way into San’a and raised the siege. Hoping to demoralise the insurgents, Faizi Pasha bribed the tribal sheikhs and promised them an amnesty, ruthlessly killing all who refused to obey him. While putting down the uprising the Turks destroyed about 300 settlements with all their inhabitants. Between 1891 and 1897, Ahmed Faizi “pacified” the country with a policy of sheer terrorism.

In May 1904, after Mohammed’s death, his son Yahya became the zaydite Imam. No sooner had he succeeded to the throne than he summoned the people to a fresh uprising. The zaydite tribes, who were suffering from drought, famine and the Turkish officials’ extortions, responded enthusiastically to his call and rose as one man, besieging and capturing the towns and villages where the Turkish garrisons were stationed. San’a, the capital, also surrendered to Imam Yahya, but he made a grave mistake by releasing the Turkish garrison there.

While Yahya was trying to settle the tribal disputes, the Turkish Government despatched reinforcements to the Yemen under the command of Faizi Pasha. Faizi reached Manakha without trouble, joined forces with the Turkish troops who had been released from San’a, and then occupied the capital without having fired a single shot. The Turkish Pasha, however, was suddenly faced with a new and unexpected fact. The Arab soldiers of the Turkish army refused to fight against their Yemenese brothers. Instead, they fraternised with the insurgents and began going over to their side. Uprisings flared up in the Arab units which had been sent to fight against the Yemen. Add to this the devastation wrought in the Yemen by war, drought, locusts and the terrible famine which took the lives of at least half the urban population and also struck the Turkish army, and one can understand why the Turks were forced to implore the Imam for peace.

A peace treaty was signed in 1908. The Porte accepted the basic terms dictated by Imam Yahya and virtually agreed to the Yemen’s internal autonomy. Two years later, however, military operations were resumed. In 1911, Yahya recaptured San’a and once again forced the Turks to consent to a peace treaty. But with the outbreak of the Italo-Turkish War, the Turks were unable to devote much attention to the Yemen and wrote all further struggle as useless. They recognised the Yemen’s full autonomy and engaged not to interfere in her internal affairs. Yahya acknowledged the Sultan suzerainty and agreed to the presence of the Turkish Pasha and a small contingent of Turkish forces in the Yemen. The compromise profited both parties. Relying on the Turks’ support, Yahya began a struggle against the British intrigues on the Yemen’s southern borders. The treaty was also of some advantage to the Turks. The Yemen was one of the few Arab countries which supported Turkey in World War I.

Things turned out differently in Asir. After the Turkish occupation of 1872, it was made into a sanjaq (mutasarrifiya) constituting part of the vilayet of the Yemen. In 1909, with Imam Yahya’s backing, an uprising flared up in Asir. It was headed by Emir Mohammed el-Idrisi, by birth a member of the Moroccan dynasty, which had ruled Asir since the end of the 18th century. In 1910, the insurgents completely cleared Tihama of the Turks and then advanced on Abha, the capital of mountainous Asir, which fell after several months of siege. In the summer of 1911, the Turks managed to subdue Asir, having resorted to Husein II’s (the Meccan Sherif) help. In the autumn of the same year, however, with Italian support, Idrisi once again provoked an uprising. His detachments continued to operate right up to the outbreak of World War I and actively sided with the British, with whom Mohammed el-Idrisi concluded a treaty of “friendship and alliance” in 1915.


After the expulsion of the Egyptians, the Hejaz became a Turkish province. This was a remote area of the Ottoman Empire, but the Turks felt more secure here than in any other region of the Arabian Peninsula. Turkish officials and garrisons were posted in the Hejaz. The local feudal rulers under the Grand Sherif, the theocratic ruler of the “holy cities” of Islam, were fairly loyal in their co-operation with the Turkish authorities. The Turks had preserved the Meccan sherifate, but had placed it in a subordinate position. The Turkish governors (wali) appointed and dismissed the sherifs as they saw fit.

While keeping up a show of obedience, the sherifs tried to fortify their own positions in the Hejaz. With this end in view they secretly opposed the Turks and supported the tribal uprisings against the Turkish authorities. Several regions of the Hejaz were actually controlled by the Bedouins, making the Turks’ presence in these regions unsafe.

In 1900, the Turks decided to undertake the construction of the Hejaz railway to consolidate their power in the Hejaz. The line was to begin in Damascus and pass through Transjordan to Medina and Mecca. The Turks planned to extend the line further south to San’a. Officially, the Hejaz railway was built for the convenience of the pilgrims and was presented as a holy deed. Donations towards its construction were collected in all the Moslem countries. The railway was regarded as wag” property, but it was built by German engineers. The chief constructor was engineer Meissner, who was known as Meissner Pasha in the Hejaz. The Hejaz railway pursued definite strategic aims and resulted in the consolidation of German influence in the Hejaz, the Yemen and on the Red Sea.

The British were fully aware of the Hejaz railway’s significance and did everything in their power to hinder its construction. The Bedouins and the Meccan Sherif, Aun ar-Rafik (1882-1905), fiercely opposed the construction works that began in 1904. The British secretly supported Aun’s intrigues and the Bedouin uprisings. One of the insurgents’ chief demands was that the works be abandoned. In 1905, Sherif Aun ar-Rafik died. Most likely he was deliberately removed. His successor, Sherif Ali (1905-07), continued his predecessors’ obstructionist policy, for which the Turks dismissed him from his post and banished him to Cairo.

In 1908, the Turks extended the Hejaz railway to Medina, but they were never able to take it as far as Mecca, to say nothing of San’a. The new Meccan Sherif, Husein II, did all in his power to stop the construction.

Husein II el-Hashimi became Sherif in 1908 at the age of sixty. He had spent his earlier years among the Hejaz Bedouins, but most of his life had been spent in Constantinople, where he had been the Sultan’s hostage. Husein II dreamt of becoming the Hejaz’s independent ruler and of extending his authority to other regions of the Arabian Peninsula. His scarcely controllable desire for independence irritated the Turks and was the cause of frequent conflicts between them that became more acute as time passed.

In the struggle against the Turks, Husein II decided to rely on the Arab Nationalists and British for support. In 1914, one of Husein’s sons, Feisal, established ties with the Young Arabs and the Damascene reformists. On the other hand, the representatives of the Decentralisation Party paid a visit to Husein II and several other Arabian rulers. In the spring of 1914, in Hail, the capital of the Shammar emirate, a meeting of representatives of the Arab Nationalists and Arabian rulers took place, during which an attempt was made to form a united Arab front to prepare for an anti-Turkish uprising.

Between February and April 1914, Abdullah, another of Husein II’s sons, held talks with the British Consul-General in Egypt, General Kitchener, and the British diplomatic agent, Storrs. Although the British refrained from any concrete promises, the very fact of such contacts laid the foundation for the Anglo-Hashimite rapprochement that was to play a vital part in World War I and in the great Arab uprising.