USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Arabia before Abdul ‘Aziz al Sa’ud

The fall of the Ottoman Empire left an especially acute power vacuum on the Arabian Peninsula. The British, as always, were primarily concerned with making sure the collapse of the Ottoman Empire didn’t lead to anyone threatening their naval interests. In accordance with their long-standing objectives (dominating world oceanic trade and easing the connection between London and India) Britain occupied the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, consolidating its power into the Aden Protectorate. With oil yet to be discovered in Arabia, there was no reason for the British to move into the desert as long as its interests on the coast and in the channels remained unthreatened.

But let’s back up and locate the originating spark that would grew and become the unifying force on the Arabian Peninsula, the doctrine of Wahhabism. In the late 18th century, the Arabian Peninsula had long been under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire had, like most long dynasties, experienced a certain weakening of its original zeal. Better said, the Ottomans’ first priority was never to develop and expand a strict version of Islam. Thus, in the context of a weakening central empire and creeping influence from the western world – together with a general malaise of religious fervor – a movement arose that sought to reinvigorate Islam with some of its “original” energy. Such was the mission of the preacher and religious reformer Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab, whose movement targeted primarily Muslims who he considered had fallen astray (it should be noted here that Wahhab was one of many reform movements at this time).  After Wahhab’s death in 1792, the movement continued under the leadership of the house of Sa’ud, which ruled over the Dar’ya region of the Arabian Peninsula. Under Sa’ud leadership, and animated by the puritanical Wahhabist religious ideals, the movement spread to much of Arabia, even capturing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Eventually, the Ottomans realized that they had a full-scale revolt on their hands and sent in their most capable military leader, the Egyptian Muhammad Ali, to destroy the movement and quell the revolt, which Ali successfully accomplished in 1818.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the House of Saud, under its charismatic leader ‘Abdul ‘Aziz al Sa’ud, had recovered from this defeat and was again advancing under the banner of Wahhabism. As much of the Middle East was moving in a direction of blending Western ideas and practices with traditional ones, Sa’ud was asserting a fundamental rejection of “modernity” based on a puritanical version of Islam. The Qur’an was the movement’s constitution. Shari’ah was the movement’s legal code.

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