Modern-Day Saudi Arabia During the First World War
Insights into a Contingent Era
During the war, this rivalry gave local rulers the opportunity to try to realise their regional ambitions by forming alliances. Nevertheless, the developments outlined in this article focus on a longer period of time. The redrawing of territorial boundaries in the Middle East – the most important outcome of the war for the region – only ended on the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1920s. The international conflict that was World War I offered local rulers on the Arabian Peninsula the opportunity to attract more attention and get more support than would otherwise have been the case. Here, too, it is important to remember that the war was a further escalation of developments that had already begun in the age of high imperialism, especially in the Gulf region. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after the war and the establishment of the British as the dominant foreign power in the region also shifted the internal balance of the Arabian Peninsula.
Political order on the Arabian Peninsula in 1914
At the start of the First World War, the Arabian Peninsula looked something like this: its extremities were ruled more or less directly by two opposing powers, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire. The former laid claim to the coastal region along the Red Sea, the area known as the Hejaz. The two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, are situated in the southern part of this region. The Ottomans also claimed the region bordering the Hejaz to the south, including Yemen, as part of their sovereign territory. The area stretching from the region around Aden to Oman and right along the coast of the Persian / Arabian Gulf to Kuwait, on the other hand, was under the control of the British, who sometimes ruled directly and sometimes entered into agreements with local rulers who granted them far-reaching rights in the field of foreign and defence policy in particular. Neither empire would have been able to expand its territorial sphere of influence as widely as it did without having made a variety of agreements with local rulers. These rulers were interested in defending and furthering their own many and varied interests and tried to ensure that they had the greatest possible room to manoeuvre by making contact with alternative powers.
One example was Muhammad al-Idrisi, the ruler of Asir, a mountain and coastal region situated between Yemen and the Hejaz. He initially made contact with the Italians and then concluded an agreement with the British in 1915 to end Ottoman dominance over the region and to protect himself against the Imam of Yemen, who himself was making territorial claims. In addition to the Ottoman administration in the holy city of Mecca, there was also the sharif, a local ruler who repeatedly saw himself as competing with the Ottomans despite numerous attempts to regulate their respective areas of responsibility. During the First World War, the Sharif of Mecca was Hussein bin Ali, who had been installed in the post by the Ottomans in 1908.
Further inland, the Ottomans could still more or less rely on the support of the emirs of Ha’il of the House of Rashid, which ruled the Shammar tribe, members of which were officially considered to be Ottoman vassals. For their part, the emirs saw the Ottomans more as powerful allies. Since the start of the twentieth century, however, a powerful adversary had been emerging in the shape of Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud (hereinafter referred to as ‘Ibn Sa’ud’). Although still a refugee in Kuwait at the turn of the century, Ibn Sa’ud succeeded in taking back the small oasis town of Riyadh from the Rashidi in 1902 and began to conquer larger parts of the interior of the peninsula in alliance with local tribes. This was the start of what is now known as the expansion of the ‘third Saudi state’, namely the establishment of an emirate (later a sultanate, and later still, in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) under the leadership of the House of Sa’ud and in close alliance with the scholars of Wahhabiyyah, a puritan form of Islam under the Al al-Shaykh.
The First World War on the Arabian Peninsula
Depending on the perspective from which it is told, the history of the First World War in the region varies considerably. One can, of course, tell it from the point of view of the official parties to the war, i.e. above all the Ottomans (who were at the time advised and militarily backed up by the Germans) and the British. Within these two perspectives, there are various popular hero narratives. Probably the best-known of all is that of Lawrence of Arabia, who supported the anti-Ottoman Arab Revolt of the Sharif of Mecca – also described as the ‘Great Arab Revolt’ from the perspective of Arab nationalism – as a British officer, starting in June 1916. However, the Ottomans had their own heroic stories as well. One of the Sharif’s opponents was General Fahreddin Pasha (Fakhri Pasha), commander of an Ottoman troop, who had to defend the Hejaz Railway and the city of Medina against the advancing troops of the Sharif. Also known as the ‘Lion of the Desert’ or the ‘Tiger of the Desert’, Fahreddin Pasha defended the city a full seventy-two days after the Ottoman capitulation, and ultimately had to be arrested by his own men and handed over to the victorious British. However, such stories of empires and heroes obscure many things, including the contradictions of imperial policy, the suffering of the people in the war zones, and the soldiers involved in the war. It also obscures the fact that imperial rivalries, accentuated by the state of war, opened up new options for local rulers. The purpose of this article is not to examine in great detail the genesis of the five independent states that existed for a short period after the war – Hejaz, Nejd, the Rashidi Emirate of Hai’il, Asir, and Yemen – but instead to attempt to illustrate these aspects on the basis of the central conflict of the time: the dispute between the local rulers of the Hejaz and the Nejd.
The British ‘Foreign Office’ (Cairo) versus the British ‘India Office’ (Delhi)?
It is abundantly clear that the British, who were fighting the Ottomans (allies of the Germans) in North Africa and the Middle East, were searching for regional allies. This was particularly true in a situation where such regional allies fitted with Britain’s overriding objectives of war. For example, Arab nationalists had gathered in the Syrian region, which centred on Damascus, at the start of World War I. They hoped, with the support of the Sharif of Mecca, to be able to replace Ottoman rule with a pan-Arab Empire. Initially, they constituted a small minority. However, the experience of war had already helped further undermine Ottoman legitimacy. The period was marked by a comprehensive mobilisation of young men (who were sent to the fronts and were either killed in battle or struck down by epidemics), the introduction of a war economy, the British naval blockade of enemy coastlines, the resulting food shortages the blockade caused, and the merciless crushing of any signs of possible resistance to Ottoman authority. In Mecca, not only was the pilgrimage of the winter of 1914/15 hampered by the war, a British naval blockade that sought to cut off the Ottoman troops from reinforcements forced the Sharif of Mecca to reach an agreement with the Ottoman governor about food supplies.
The Sharif of Mecca had set his sights on achieving his own objectives, namely the establishment of a pan-Arab Empire in the Arab Orient under his rule. He formulated this aim in a secret exchange of letters with the British High Commissioner in occupied Egypt, Henry McMahon, in the years 1915–16. McMahon was cautious enough to express a number of reservations with regard both to the local rulers with whom Britain was also allied, and to possible French claims in Syria. That said, it is unlikely that Hussein had any idea of the full extent of the Franco-British arrangements formulated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, a secret document that outlined the two countries’ war objectives. In view of British defeats, Hussein also tried his luck with the Ottomans, offering military support in exchange for the granting of extensive autonomy for the Arab areas he so ardently desired to control. However, this was viewed by the Ottoman governor in Syria as an attempt at blackmail and proof of Hussein’s disloyalty, which is why Hussein pre-empted an imminent Ottoman intervention in June 1916 by launching the revolt against the Ottomans.
Ibn Sa’ud had long been an open adversary of Sharif Hussein. This had to do with Ibn Sa’ud’s expansionist aspirations on the Arabian Peninsula. In this context, Mecca and Medina attracted Ibn Sa’ud, not only because they were particularly valuable as holy Islamic sites, but also because they were a comparatively large source of income due to the pilgrims that flocked to them (although the numbers making the pilgrimage plummeted during the war as a result of the blockades and other restrictions on marine travel). At the very least, they promised an income that was not reliant on the weather – a definite boon in a landlocked emirate that was scourged by regular droughts. The Wahhabi scholars and religious warriors who supported Ibn Sa’ud had their own very specific motivation for taking back the holy cities: they considered the veneration of the tombs of the Prophet’s contemporaries to be an abomination and wanted to put a stop to it. As far back as the expansion of the first Saudi state in the Hejaz (1803), they had destroyed mausoleums and mosques to prevent what they considered to be idolatry.
Interestingly, the British initially looked kindly on the rise of Ibn Sa’ud because he was an ally of Kuwait. They also held a number of friendly consultations with him right up until the First World War. This can be partially explained by the different interests of Britain’s India Office, which focussed primarily on the Gulf region, and its Cairo-based Arab Office, which concentrated on Egypt and the Mashreq and reported directly to the Foreign Office in London. These were the most important of the twenty British governmental institutions that were tasked with safeguarding Britain’s interests in the region.
The expansion of Ibn Sa’ud’s sphere of influence
When war broke out, Ibn Sa’ud proposed to the rulers of Kuwait, Ha’il, and Mecca that they should form an alliance both among themselves and with the European powers that would allow them to stay out of the war and retain their independence. When this alliance did not come about (the parties’ interests being too diverse), he began actively negotiating with the British, which was in line with his rivalry with the Emir of Ha’il (who was, as already mentioned above, an ally of the Ottomans). The resulting agreement, which was signed in 1915 and ratified by the British-Indian government in Simla in June 1916, guaranteed Ibn Sa’ud the territories of Nejd, Al-Hasa, Qatif, and Jubail, as well as the surrounding regions in return for his pledge not to make contact with third powers or to make concessions to them without the prior approval of the British. In return, Ibn Sa’ud pledged not to attack Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. This de facto protectorate agreement, which was made more palatable to Ibn Sa’ud by the regular payment of subsidies and the supply of weapons, made no mention of the western border of his territory.
When Hussein proclaimed himself King of Arabia in November 1916, it became increasingly difficult for the British to prevent an open conflict between him and Ibn Sa’ud. In particular, they encouraged him to advance on the Emir of Ha’il, only to thwart him at the last moment, just as victory was within his grasp. After the First World War, Ibn Sa’ud was no longer willing to hold back. In 1921, he conquered Ha’il, which led to serious border difficulties with the British (who were at the time running Iraq and Jordan as protectorates).
Between 1920 and 1926, Ibn Sa’ud’s troops conquered Asir, which had lost its significance for the British. Ibn Sa’ud forced Asir to sign a protectorate agreement along the lines of those used by the British. As a result of his opposition to the new order introduced by the British and the French and their extensive subjugation of the Middle East, Hussein also fell out of favour with the British, who had only recognised him as the King of the Hejaz. The resentment of the sharif regime, which was widely seen as exploitative, also grew among the people of the Hejaz. Once Ibn Sa’ud felt certain that the British would not intervene, he decided to attack the Hejaz in 1924. The campaign began in 1924 with bloody seizure of the city of Ta’if and ended in December 1925 with the capitulation of Medina and Jeddah.
In conclusion, the First World War, the Ottoman defeat, and the subsequent new order in the Middle East under the aegis of Britain and France did indeed provide an important framework for developments on the Arabian Peninsula. But can the Saudi expansion campaign primarily be seen as the result of British imperial politics, as one author claims? It would be more accurate to see it as the outcome of a complex web of different Arab and British interests. It is quite conceivable that, had the constellation been different, Hussein could have emerged successful from the local disputes. From a Saudi perspective, it is also conspicuous that, in terms of significance, the imperial context pales in comparison with the local players involved. And indeed, the context of the world war should best be described as a situation that opened up new opportunities for local rulers to form alliances that would help them realise their own power-political ambitions. The fact that there were limitations to these opportunities is illustrated by the Saudi-Iraqi border problems. After all, it was de facto the British High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox who drew the borders.
The people’s distress as a means of exerting pressure
In his correspondence with McMahon, the Sharif of Mecca demanded not only weapons and ammunition, but also a considerable quantity of food supplies: 20,000 sacks of rice, 15,000 sacks of flour, 3,000 sacks of barley, and 150 sacks of coffee and sugar, to be precise. This huge request for food was linked to the naval blockade that Britain had imposed on Ottoman territories. In the second half of 1915, when local grain stocks were exhausted, food prices in the areas cut off by the naval blockades began to rocket. Above all, famine struck: it was particularly bad between 1916 and 1918, and in some areas the situation was dire. The Arabian Peninsula was now completely dependent on imports. The Hejaz was privileged in that the Ottomans made every effort to guarantee supplies to ensure that the pilgrimages continued and the locals in the holy cities remained loyal. To do so, they even transferred vital reserves from Syria, and tried to obtain additional grain from Yemen.
The Austrian Orientalist Alois Musil, who visited the Arab tribes twice during the war as part of an official mission in an attempt to persuade them not to co-operate with the British, reported that the British were blockading the coasts of the Red Sea after the end of 1916. ‘Because transportation has been temporarily interrupted and food supplies disrupted following the attacks on the Hejaz Railway [by Arab rebels], the people living on the coast were starving and were forced to accept the demands of the English and declare themselves on the side of Ḥsejn [Hussein]. [...] In order to facilitate the supply of food, the civilian population of al-Medīna was evacuated in the spring of 1917, and only the Ottoman troops, who had food and ammunition for almost three years, remained there ...’ Musil’s description backs up the interpretation put forward by Linda Schatkowski Schilcher in the context of Syria, namely that the pro-British sympathies of many Arabs also had purely existential and material roots.
While many of the inhabitants were displaced to Syria, which was also struck by a famine, it seems as if others had no choice but to take to the road of their own accord. The biography of Muhammad Isa Abd al-Wahhab Safarji of Medina provides an insight into the calamitous situation in which refugees found themselves: ‘Fahri [the Ottoman commander] expelled the people of Mecca after he had seized their stocks of food [...]. Most of the people left, but the father, his mother, and his sister had nothing to travel with until relatives from Mecca sent them help. They travelled towards Mecca with a caravan, but the road was full of Ottoman troops who were concentrating on the hills and roads [...]. The caravan was forced to go to Malal and from there to al-Farish. The poverty, fear, hunger, and thirst were such that they suffered dreadful hardship along the way. They found the carcass of a camel on the wayside, and were so exhausted and hungry that they cut it up and ate it.’ On another occasion, a compassionate Bedouin took pity on them, saving their lives by sharing his food with them. In Yanbu and Jeddah too, compassionate people helped the refugees to reach Mecca. However, once they arrived at the home of their uncle, they quickly became ‘a heavy burden on him because the situation for everyone was so bad.’
is the director of the Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre for the Modern Orient, ZMO) in Berlin.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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