Arabia and the Wahhabis

  By Decebal
Since the advent of Islam, Arabia has enjoyed an importance which was out of proportion with its demographic resources. For one thing, it contained the holy cities of Mecca and Medina which were the spiritual centers of the entire Muslim world. The Arabian Peninsula was also of great strategic importance due to its location which could control some of the major trade routes between East and West: being in between Europe, Egypt, India, Africa and Persia. In more modern times, huge reserves of oil have been discovered there. Therefore, control over the Arabian Peninsula has been an important concern of both Muslim powers such as the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Egypt, as well as Western powers, especially Britain, but to some extent also Russia, France, Germany and later the United States. On its territory, there were also some local Arab states, the most important of which were Hijaz (controlling Mecca and Medina) and Yemen to the south. In general, the Arab states along the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Gulf coasts were much more populous and rich than the states situated in the interior of the peninsula. This was due to the harsh climate and lack of water and food sources, which only allowed a very small population over a very large area.
What may seem as a paradox at first is that in the end, neither the external powers, nor the richer Arab states controlled the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula. That distinction will eventually belong to the humble kingdom of Nejd, based in the oases in the center of Arabia. At its origins, a tribal state which derived its revenues from raiding and taxing caravans, Nejd has been associated since the 18th century with a religious movement referred to as Wahhabism in the West. Named after its founder, Ibn Wahhab, its followers adhered to a very strict interpretation of Islam and considered most of the rest of the Muslims as "polytheists". They were extremely opposed to the worship of any saints, prophets, religious artifacts or places, aside from Mecca. They made it their duty to convert all Muslims to their interpretation of Islam, by any means available to them, be they violent or not. In time, Nejd overcame most of the other Arab states and tribal confederacies, as well as the opposition from foreign powers, to establish the modern state of Saudi Arabia.

The Arabian Peninsula is the religious center of the Muslim world and one of the world’s most strategically and economically important areas, due to its large reserves of oil. During its modern history, several powers have clashed over control of this area, most importantly the Ottoman Empire, Britain and also the United States and France. Given these conditions, a question arises: how did an obscure fundamentalist religious movement such as the Wahhabis, come to control and dominate most of the Arabian Peninsula and the modern state of Saudi Arabia?
There are four main reasons why the Wahhabi-dominated state of Nejd came to conquer and control most of Arabia. The first reason lies in the related factors of the geography of the Arabian Peninsula, the lifestyle of the inhabitants of Nejd as compared to other Arabs and the inherent difficulty in controlling Central Arabia. The second has to do with the Wahhabi ideology itself, which provided a powerful driving force behind its expansion. The third has to do with the opposition to Nejd itself, in that the major foreign powers were always at odds with each other, vying for control of the area and a balance of power was maintained for a long time, supporting the Wahhabis indirectly in moments when they were vulnerable. Finally, the kingdom of Nejd has had the benefit of several very able rulers, particularly as critical times in its history, which made the most out of the opportunities presented to them. 
Given the complexities of the politics involved and the changes in the Arabian theatre over a period of more than a century, a chronological approach is preferable, so as to avoid confusion. This will enable a reader who is not familiar with Arabian history to understand the context of the arguments presented. However, great insistence will be placed upon relating the historical events to the four factors mentioned above. Two of the four factors, namely the Wahhabi ideology and the geography, will be discussed separately, as they are common to the entire period of history discussed. The other two factors (the political interplay and the able Wahhabite rulers) are closely linked and change dramatically from the beginning to the end of the period in question. Therefore they lend themselves well to a chronological approach.
As far as the geography is concerned, the Arabian Peninsula is a very harsh environment. Practically the majority of its territory is covered by desert, or by inhospitable mountains. To the west of the peninsula, lie the Hijaz and Asir regions. Although still quite dry and inhospitable by most people’s standards, these regions benefit from the proximity of the Red Sea, and there is large amount of commerce being done there, which enables several large communities to exist. The most important of them is of course Mecca, the spiritual centre of the Islamic world, which derives most of its revenues from pilgrims coming for the hajj. Also very important are the holy city of Medina and the port city of Jeddah. Most of the population residing in these regions is urban, deriving their wealth from trade or from accommodating pilgrims, and is therefore quite peaceful by nature. To the south lies Yemen, a region where there is some agriculture, and a lot of commerce as well. In the north-east of the Arabian Peninsula, lie Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which are primarily seafaring and trading nations. By contrast, the center of Arabia is dominated by the large deserts of Rub Al Khali and Nefud, with some large oasis in between [Philby, 35}. It is in these oases that some Arab kingdoms arose, most notably Nejd, but also Jabal Shammar and Mutair. The harshness of the desert and the lack of food and water, were conducive to a nomadic lifestyle, which in general produces very hardy and harsh people. What’s more, the resources of the interior of the Arabian Peninsula were insufficient to feed the local nomad population, so the Bedouin tribes which composed it took to raiding settlements and caravans as a means of existence. Therefore, we have great a contrast between the coastal Arabs, who were mostly sedentary and peaceful, and the nomadic tribes of the interior, who were very hardy and warlike. The difficult environment of the desert, and its sheer vastness also made invasion by powers possessing more troops than the Bedouin very difficult. Even if, on occasion, powers such as Egypt or the Ottoman Empire have conquered the interior of the Arab Peninsula, they had a lot of trouble holding on to their newly conquered territories and invariable lost it to the nomadic tribes in a few years [Gold 136]. We can envision therefore the kingdom of Nejd as a group of tough, experienced warriors, very difficult to defeat on their own territory, and always ready to strike out at the richer, more peaceful communities lying on its borders. The major obstacle for them, historically have been other desert tribes; supremacy over them would mean eventual supremacy over most of the region.
The second factor in the success of the Najd kingdom is the ardor of the Wahhabi ideology, which became closely associated with it. The Wahhabi ideology is a fundamentalist form of Islam. By the time that Ibn Wahhab formulated his ideas, in the mid 18th century, the Arab nomads who lived in the desert had reverted to quite a few of the practices that they had followed before the advent of Islam a thousand years before, only in a form adapted to Islam. These practices, referred to by the Wahhabis as idolatry, included praying to Mohammed or other holy men instead of God, worshipping or making pilgrimages to holy buildings or places other than Mecca, using religious items such as rosaries and group worshipping. In addition, the inhabitants of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had by this time resorted to some very un-Muslim practices, such as drunkenness, prostitution and usury. The Wahhabi ideology arose as a response to these practices and its purpose was to eradicate them. In time, the Wahhabis also ascertained any weakness of surrounding Muslim states to these practices and believed themselves all the much stronger for fighting them [Vassiliev, 78]. The Wahhabi from of Islam was by its very nature very militant, since it regarded all Muslims who did not follow them as practically pagans who needed to be converted to true Islam. This made their followers very united, and imbued them with a great sense of purpose and passion. Not unlike the original expansion of Islam in the 7th century, the Wahhabi movement greatly benefited from this militant nature and from religious fervor [Gold, 89]. Had this movement occurred a few hundred years earlier, their impact could have been enormous. Due to the Wahhabis limited numbers, and the advent of firearms in the Middle East, their conquests were however limited. The original founder of the movement, Ibn Wahhab, made an alliance with the ruler of Najd, Ibn Saud, and Wahhabism has been associated with Saudi dynasty to this day. Even though after the defeat of the first Nadj kingdom by the Egyptians in 1818, the Wahhabi movement became somewhat less extreme, it has continued to inspire and propel the followers of the Saudis throughout their history. Therefore, the Wahhabi kingdom Nadj with its ideals of conquest and conversion, had some great advantages over its neighbors who were mostly motivated by tribal ideals (for the nomads), or by money and the need for security (in the case of sedentary communities).

Arabia became a very important strategic location after the original Muslim expansion in the 7-10th centuries. Control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was a critical issue for any Muslim ruler who had ambitions of controlling the Islamic world. The Turkish Sultan styled himself first and foremost "Protector of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina". Given the heterogeneous ethnic nature of the Ottoman Empire, it was very important to hold it together by religious means. Controlling those two cities conferred an air of legitimacy to the Sultan, in the eyes of the Muslim population living in his empire. The hajj also contributed greatly to a state’s welfare, as it generated enormous revenues every year [Lacey, 325]. During the early 19th century, Pasha Muhammad Ali, the ruler of autonomous Egypt, conquered Arabia as much for the prestige, as for securing the means to pay for the reforms he was undertaking in his country. Another very important player in the region was Britain. Driven by their obsession of securing the trade routes to India, the British felt that they needed to control a few key important locations in the Peninsula, or neighboring it, such as the Suez and the city of Aden (which controlled the Bab el Mandeb Straits). Their interests also lied in the Persian Gulf, for commercial reasons, and during the early 20th century in the stretch of desert joining Palestine and Basra, where they wanted to build a railway which could serve as a backup to the Suez Canal route to India. Other European powers, such as France, Germany and Russia, made diplomatic and occasional commercial forays in the region, fueled by their rivalry with Britain. The United States only became interested in the region once oil was found, which was after the Saudis united most of Arabia.
Since so many players were involved in the region, a complicated system of alliances, enmities and diplomatic relations resulted. The aims of the Muslim states and those of European powers were different, but they didn’t concern the interior of the Peninsula directly. The Muslim states generally regarded Najd as a potential or outright enemy, but Britain either regarded them as a potential ally, or wanted to ensure their neutrality in certain matters. Britain even went so far as to financially support the Wahhabis not to attack the Hashemite kingdom of Hijaz, while the latter was rebelling against the Ottomans during the First World War {Philby 389; Vassiliev 256]. Especially in the early 20th century the Wahhabi kingdom of Najd profited from rivalry between the various powers involved, strengthening itself financially and territorially, until it could finally strike out after the war, and hence after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
The Wahhabi Najd has also had the benefit of some very strong leaders, to guide it from virtual obscurity to domination, and to help it recover after some bitter defeats. The first example is Abd Al-Aziz (1765-1803), who first established the alliance between Najd and the Wahhabis, and who created the basis for the rise of the Wahhabis. Muhhamad ibn Abd al Wahhab actually approached another ruler, Uthman Ibn Muammar before he approached Abd Al-Aziz Saud with his vision of purifying Islam [Vassiliev 83]. Ibn Muammar turned al Wahhab down, but Abd Al-Aziz had the vision to understand the potential of this new teaching. Under his leadership, and that of his son Abdallah, the first Saudi kingdom of Nejd became a great power in Arabia, from its humble beginnings as just another tribe, to a powerful state controlling all of Central Arabia, the Hejaz and al-Hasa, extending from the Euphrates river in the north, to the border of Yemen in the south, and from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. Although the Egyptian military intervention in 1818 was to shatter its dominance, the Najd emirate had the benefit of another capable ruler, Turki, who took control of the situation, and reestablished the kingdom after the Egyptian retreat. This would have been a difficult undertaking for any leader, as the crushing military defeat had estranged most of the Bedouin who had previously followed the Saudis, and there was famine in Najd during that period. Most of Turki’s accomplishments were in peril after he was assassinated, leading to power struggles within the kingdom and to military threats from the outside. Just as it seemed that the emirate of Najd was going to be carved up by neighboring states, Turki’s son Faisal, reestablished the emirate and secured its place as a force to be reckoned with. By the time Faisal died, in 1865, he had reestablished a strong, economically stable kingdom, which while lacking the force of the first kingdom, was still an impressive accomplishment [Gold 132]. The most important ruler of the Najd kingdom is Abdul Aziz, who is simple referred to in the West as Ibn Saud. From the time he took power in 1902, to his death in 1953, he took Najd from a relatively minor emirate to a state of 2 million square kilometers and one of the most important countries in the world. He accomplished this using shrewd diplomacy and military daring. He also did a good job in managing the Ikhwan, a Wahhabi-inspired fanatic movement of Bedouins, who were an awesome force militarily, but who tended to be too extreme in their practices towards the population. The Ikhwan had to be satiated with the way religious matters were handled in the kingdom, but also they had to be kept out of the administrative loop, otherwise they could have destabilized the country [Almana, 223]. Overall, looking at the history of the emirate of Najd, one could say that they benefited from able rulers at critical points in their history, without which the state would have never achieved the prominence it has, or it would have disappeared from history entirely.

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