views updated


Descendants of Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Idrisi living in southwestern Arabia.

The principality of Asir has been important in the politics of southwestern Arabia. It was incorporated into the new state of Saudi Arabia in 1926 when Abd al-Aziz ibn Saʿud Al Saʿud established a protectorate over the realms of the Idrisi sultanate, as it was known at the time.

In the past, the two major towns of Asir, Abu Arish and Abha, have been the capitals of different families, or clans, accurately reflecting the fact that Asir is really two distinct areas. Geographically, economically, and culturally, much of Asir is a continuation of Yemen and, for most of its history, has been considered a part of Yemen. Nevertheless, when the imams of Sanʿa or of other towns, such as Saʿda, were weak and ineffectual, local Asiri notables declared their independence and carried on their own domestic and foreign policies. The most recent of these independent notables was Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali al-Idrisi, a grandson of Sayyid Ahmad al-Idrisi, the native of Fez who founded the religious sect to which the founder of the Sanusi belonged. Idrisi immigrated to Arabia and made his base at Abha; he wrested control of most of Asir from the Ottoman authorities in the early years of the twentieth century. He was able to obtain the support of the Italians in their campaigns for influence in the Red Sea region precisely because of his connection to the Sanusi, then established in the Italian areas in North Africa.

Idrisi attempted to expand his influence and territory at the expense of the imams of Sanʿa in the period before World War I. Specifically, he attempted to take Shaykh Saʿid, Luhayya, and HodeidaTihama port cities that would have enabled him to add the Yemeni Tihama to his realm. In this effort, he was at times assisted by Italian naval contingents in the Red Sea. During World War I, the British signed an agreement with him in an effort to limit the influence of Yemen, which refused to ally itself against the Ottomans. In return, the British gave him the Yemeni Tihama and other areas, which had to be wrested from Idrisi control by Imam Yahya in the 1920s. After his death, at Sabya, his descendants expanded the influence of the family by taking control of Abu Arish, which had been in the hands of a separate family of sharifs since the eighteenth century. The gradual takeover of Asir by Abd al-Aziz ibn Saʿud, however, ended the separate existence of the Idrisi state, which was reconfirmed in 1930.

Imam Yahya, however, continued to maintain that Asir, and especially its Zaydi and Ismaʿili populations, had been illegitimately removed from Yemeni sovereignty; this led, eventually, to a brief war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in which the latter emerged the victor. In the treaty of Taʾif (1934) the Yemenis recognized, albeit grudgingly, Saudi sovereignty over Asir, as well as over the Najran oasis. The treaty was renewed every twenty years until the United Republic of Yemen handed Asir over permanently to Saudi Arabia in 1995.

See also abd al-aziz ibn saʿud al saʿud; taʾif, treaty of al-; yahya ibn muhammad hamid al-din.


Dresch, Paul. A History of Modern Yemen. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Teitelbaum, Joshua. The Rise and Fall of the Hashimite Kingdom of Arabia. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

manfred w. wenner