Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud

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Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (1880-1953) was an Arab political leader who founded the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. During his rule, from 1932 to 1953, much of the Arabian peninsula developed from a group of desert sheikhdoms to a politically unified kingdom with new wealth from oil fields.

Ibn Saud was born in Riyadh in the central Arabian principality of Nejd. He escaped with his father, Abd al-Rahman, to exile in Kuwait in 1891, when the rival Rashidi family seized Saudi lands. In 1902 the young Ibn Saud with a small number of warriors recaptured Riyadh in a daring raid.

Although the modern history of Arabia dates from the Saudi reoccupation of Riyadh, there was much history and tradition in the young sheikh's policy. Ibn Saud revived the family alliance with the Wahhabis, an 18th-century puritanical reform movement within Islam which had spread over central Arabia. Skillfully combining the Wahhabi religious zeal with his own personal charisma and political capability as a desert sheikh, Ibn Saud expanded his authority over most of the peninsula. Especially important were the Ikhwan, settled military and agricultural colonies which protected and extended the Saudi domain while beginning the settling-down process for the once nomadic Bedouin.

In 1913 Ibn Saud occupied the Ottoman province of al-Hasa on the Persian Gulf, a territory in which oil would soon be found. Two years later he accepted British protection and a financial subsidy in return for agreeing not to attack British interests in the gulf area or the sharif Husein ibn Ali of Mecca. The political ambitions of Ibn Saud and Husein inevitably clashed following World War I. While Husein had dissipated his resources in inefficient administration, in the Arab Revolt of 1916, and in a vain attempt to establish himself as king of all the Arabs, Ibn Saud consolidated his status and power in Arabia. In addition, the puritanical Wahhabis felt shame and contempt for the more worldly practices of the Islamic holy cities ruled by Husein since 1908. Ibn Saud also realized his need for the profits of the pilgrimage trade for his expansionist policies. In 1924, with Husein's self-proclamation as caliph as the last straw, Ibn Saud's forces besieged Mecca and forced his rival's abdication and exile. In 1926 Ibn Saud assumed the title of king of the Hejaz, a year later that of the Nejd; in 1932 he joined them in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 1933 Ibn Saud granted the first oil concession to an American company later known as ARAMCO, but the worldwide depression and World War II prevented much further development. Following the war, oil production and government revenues from oil royalties grew very quickly. Government income, synonymous with the King's personal funds, jumped from less than $1 million in 1920 to $7 million in 1939 to over $200 million in 1953, when Ibn Saud died.

Further Reading

There are several good studies of Ibn Saud: H. St. J. B. Philby, Arabian Jubilee (1953); Jacques Benoist-Méchin, Arabian Destiny (trans. 1957); and two studies by David Howarth, The Desert King: Ibn Saud and His Arabia (1964) and The Desert King: The Life of Ibn Saud (1968). K. S. Twitchell, Saudi Arabia (1947; 3d ed. 1958), and H. St. J. B. Philby, Sa'udi Arabia (1955), are good general histories. □