Wahhabism, colonialism, and ancient Saudi Arabia

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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Today, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia celebrates its Founding Day. Since that day almost 300 years ago, Saudi Arabia’s long, great history has been filled with moments of prosperity but also moments of state collapse. Because I am an avid history reader, I find that our yesterdays can help us understand our today and predict our tomorrow.

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The commemoration of Founding Day inevitably raises several debates: was the Saudi state a necessity three centuries ago? Is it true it was founded with the aim of fighting polytheism (“shirk” in Arabic)? Has it really never been colonized by major powers? How did it deal with international conflicts?

In 1727, the foundations for a new state were built in the town of Diriyah in the Arab Peninsula, at the time home to dozens of microstates. There had been no central state established since the end of the Rashidun Caliphate. Then came Muhammad bin Saud, successfully eliminating the microstates in independent towns and cities and creating a new, large state.

Fleeing the nearby town of Al Uyaynah, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab sought protection with bin Saud, knowing only he could shield him from harm.

Historically, Sheikh Abd-al-Wahhab played an influential role as a religious reformist and as one of Imam Muhammad bin Saud’s men. However, his biography and role were manipulated in the following eras. Najd and the Arabian Peninsula were portrayed as lands of semi-polytheists of which he was the savior. His biography was recounted with such exaggeration it came close to match the biography of the Prophet (PBUH): his call for oneness, his ostracization and migration from Al Uyaynah to Diriyah, his call for Islam, and the wars he waged in its name.

The version closer to reality, though, is that the Sheikh was a scholar, and the peoples of Najd and the Peninsula were not polytheists.

The glorification of his story aimed not at sanctifying the Sheikh himself, but rather those clerics that came after him. Certain groups exaggerated his story in a bid to bestow upon themselves legitimacy to take or partake in power. The state did not, in fact, extend its authority to the different parts of the Arabian Peninsula until after the passing of Muhammad bin Saud and his successor, Abdulaziz bin Saud. Throughout his rule of four decades, Abdulaziz had not given the Sheikh a role or used his assistance. It was in that period that the state prospered, then it expanded north toward Iraq and Syria under the third King, Saud bin Abdulaziz, becoming the largest Arab state since the Abbasid rule.

With the rise of the extremist movement in the last few decades, a narrative sanctifying the Sheikh and inflating his role prevailed. The extremists prohibited the suggestion of any different narrative. In his Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “The History of Najd Prior to the Wahhabis”, Dr. Uwaidah Metaireek Al-Juhany recounts that period during which Najd was claimed to be a polytheist land. As any dissenting opinion would likely be met with persecution, Al-Juhany requested that the University of Washington hold off the publishing of his dissertation for another five years. He later found a translation of his dissertation was published in Beirut in a book under his name.

In the thesis, which is still deemed an important reference about that era, we discover that the establishment of a central state to unite the dozens of microstates in the fragmented Arabian Peninsula aimed not at spreading Islam, in lands where everyone was Muslim. Instead, the goal was to stop aggressions, looting, and famines in the microstates, mired by conflicts over power and resources, and build a central state instead, as in everywhere else in the world.

What about the three centuries in which, it is said, the state was not spared colonization, unlike the other countries of the region? There may have been no colonization as in the Levant by European armies, but the Ottomans did invade the land for many years. They colonized large parts of it for decades and were either fighting directly or supplying weapons to other parties in Al-Ahsa, Hijaz, the north, and the south. The English were also present, symbolically, directing the forces of the Sharif of Mecca. They were all driven out during the 30 years of unification battles, which, contrary to popular belief, were not only internal battles.

Power and balance in international relations were a delicate process, especially in the pre-WWII era. The British and Germans, and to a lesser degree, the Soviets, were competing to bring Saudi Arabia aboard their alliances. Thus, King Abdulaziz, founder of the third Saudi state, sought to establish a balanced relationship with the major powers, but the British Empire was still the most dominant in the region.

The King gave the oil concessions to the United States, which had no military presence; sought to buy weapons from Hitler's Germany, which were delivered to him through other countries, as well as from Italy; and maintained diplomatic relations with Moscow, which was becoming more preoccupied with its domestic issues under Stalin and did not want to anger Britain, either.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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