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Ibn Saud and Saudi Arabia
Historical Note

With the dissolution of Christendom, European national identities emerged independently from the latter part of the Middle Ages and the following centuries. The Middle East remained dominated for several centuries by a single power, the Ottoman Empire, right up until the First World War. During the twentieth century the region has evolved as a patchwork of nations whose boundaries were largely defined by the colonial powers of Europe when they created their own spheres of influence.

In World War I, while Britain fought a seemingly interminable trench war against Germany on the Western front, there was a welcome breakthrough on another front. The emergence of an Arab insurrection offered the hope of overthrowing the moribund Ottoman Empire belonging to Germany’s ally, Turkey.

In 1916, Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, wrote to Sherif Hussein of the Hashemite line, agreeing to recognize and support his struggle for Arab independence in a territory stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Adding dramatic heroics to the Arab cause, Col. T.E. Lawrence reinforced the British promises with his own word, unaware that those promises were already being betrayed.

Britain, however, had a new favorite. As an ally Abdel Aziz Abdel Rahman Al Saud, known to history as Ibn Saud, had, above other tribal leaders of the Arabian desert, unique appeal. His need for weapons and finance was sufficiently unbounded to make him amenable to the will of the donors.

While Hussein was successfully fighting to clear the Turks from Mecca, Britain’s India Office secretly agreed to support Ibn Saud in making his own conquests in the same territory. The agreement broke the promise made to Hussein, whose small sin was that he was grudging in his acceptance of foreign aid. Hussein's greater sin was his belief in pan-Arab unity and independence, a concept that conflicted with Britain’s imperial ambitions. 

After World War I, the 1st Earl of Crewe, Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, pithily summed up his country’s objectives:

 “What we want is not a united Arabia but a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty.”

In the following years, Britain and France achieved the objective brilliantly by partitioning the Arab lands of the former Ottoman Empire into meaningless national boundaries according to Crewe’s dictum. During this time, Britain quietly supported Ibn Saud in a series of bloody conquests that in 1927 brought him recognition as King of Hejaj and Nejd, a title changed to King of Saudi Arabia in 1932. 

While the British used the title of “king” for the rulers they promoted for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the concept may have mystified the new subjects since the Arabic equivalent appears in the Quran only in reference to non-Muslim leaders.

Following the discovery of the oil reserves of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 1938, the United States of America, with its growing commercial ties, took over Britain’s role as protector of the Saud dynasty. For many years, largesse from the oil fields bought a complacent populace. Today, an oil-hungry West embraces an ally in the embarrassed knowledge that democratic change, should it come, is unlikely to produce an alternative more sympathetic..

A Foreign Policy is fiction and the events it imagines have not happened. Yet.


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