The Saudi state is currently undergoing reforms that are unprecedented in modern times, but the history upon which this state is built goes a long way back.
Founded in 1902 by King Abdulaziz Al Saud and ruled thereafter by his heirs until the present day with King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the throne, the current Saudi state is commonly known as the Third Saudi State. Two states established by King Abdulaziz’s ancestors had preceded the present one: the First State (1744-1818) was founded by Muhammad bin Saud, and the Second (1824-1891) by his grandson, Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad Al Saud. This legacy shows that the rule of the Al Saud family, which began from their city of Diriyah, is deeply rooted in a long history of 350 years (if we are not to count the emirate of the First Founder’s ancestors, which started in 1446). Throughout this long history, many events and battles had to take place for the current state to take shape.
The First Saudi State began from the town of Diriyah, which was its capital city, and expanded to become the largest Islamic state after the Abbasid state. It extended from the Euphrates River in the north to Yemen and Oman in the south, and from the Arabian Gulf in the east to the Red Sea in the west. Following fierce battles with the Ottoman Empire during the height of its power, the region of Najd became a theater for large military operations commanded by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha, in the form of military campaigns and advanced weapons unknown to the people of Najd at the time. Still, the descendants of the First Founder fought with all their might to defend their land, with the help of knights from the region. Eventually, the Ottomans were victorious. Thus ended the First State with Ibrahim Pasha’s seizure of Diriyah. But the descendants of the First Founder never forgot their emirate and patiently awaited the day they could restore their ancestor’s rule.
In 1824, the founder of the Second Saudi State and grandson of Muhammad bin Saud, Turki bin Abdullah, a valiant knight known for his vision and patience, reunited his loyal followers into an army and began taking back power and recapturing the regions that were under his ancestor’s rule. Due to the destruction of Diriyah, Turki chose Riyadh as the capital city of his state. He was succeeded by his distinguished son, Faysal, but the disputes and struggles that arose between his sons soon tore apart the state.
Upon returning from Kuwait, where he had been in exile with his father after the end of the Second State, King Abdulaziz, longing to return to Najd and Riyadh, came back with a goal in mind: establishing the Third State. Carrying a deep love for his land and people, he became the commander of a large army comprising fighters from many different tribes: Mutayr, Ajman, Anazah, Otaibah, Harb, and others. The tribesmen of Najd had the boldness and courage of knights and were loyal to the Al Saud family. They drove back Persian attacks and tried to bring together tribes and unite regions. This army, called “Ikhwan,” or The Brethren, fought under the banner of uniting Muslims. They have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood organization we know today, for the latter was established in Egypt in 1928, nearly two decades after the founding of the Third State. There are no historical, ideological, or political links between the Ikhwan and the Muslim Brotherhood. In this context, I recall King Abdulaziz’s famous response when he refused a proposal by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to establish an office for his organization in Saudi Arabia. He told him: “We are all Muslims, and we are all brothers,” clearly indicating that the situation of Muslims is stable and they need not be categorized or affiliated to parties.
King Abdulaziz was blessed with wisdom in dealing with tribes and Allah bestowed his blessings on him in his efforts to form a great army. The Ikhwan moved across the Arabian Peninsula to unite its regions under the banner of King Abdulaziz, including the region of Hijaz, home to Mecca and Medina, which were finally brought back to the people of the Arabian Peninsula. After earning the title of Sultan of Najd and Hijaz, King Abdulaziz became the King of Saudi Arabia on 23 September 1932, which now marks the Saudi National Day.
The three Saudi States were established as civil states that abide by the Sharia in a divided, dispersed environment, whose unity was near impossible. Today, the Saudi Government has successfully revived the country’s history by creating an annual commemoration of “Founding Day” on 22 February, the day King Muhammad bin Saud established the First Saudi State.
Saudi Arabia has a rich history and legacy that even its people could not fathom. With archeological antiquities and ancient kingdoms dating back to thousands of years ago, this historical land carries a legacy of ancient times and civilizations that is finally being unveiled to its own people and the world.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.