The emergence and downfall of Communists in Saudi Arabia

Kamel Al-Khatti
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It is not entirely clear how leftist ideas found their way to Saudi Arabia. The early leftists, who played active roles in the establishing years of the 1940s and 50s, did not provide us with clear information about how leftist ideas reached and prevailed accompanied with labor rights awareness, among oil workers in the east of the Kingdom.

Researchers, who have contributed studies and research papers on leftist ideas in Saudi Arabia, were unable to provide a coherent record about the identity of the element conveying these ideas to the oil labor society.

Although there is an opinion, not supported by any evidence, that says Saudi communists participated in the Middle East Communists Conference that was held in Batum in the Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1950. Another opinion lacking evidence alleges that communists from Bahrain and Iraq contributed in establishing a communist trend in Saudi Arabia.

However, the names of the non-Saudis who were arrested as a result of the 1964 security crackdown only brings up one Bahraini called Khalifah Khalfan who came to Saudi Arabia between 1958 and 1959, It was clear that he arrived to Saudi Arabia after the National Liberation Front was foundation, so I was convinced by the idea that Arabs contributed in establishing any communist party structure inside Saudi Arabia.

All these views that believe that the Arab and non-Arab elements had a great influence in the establishment stage is a traditional arrogant view of Arabs from outside the Arabian Peninsula towards the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula.

But these ideas certainly echoed after canceling the Communist International with almost two years, as I found no trace of those ideas before 1945. Thus, leftist ideas have taken their course towards Saudi Arabia in a different way than those adopted by Marxist-Leninist ideas in other Arab countries and regions such as Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco; In Palestine, Levant, Egypt and Iraq the studies and researches reveal the great role played by the Communist International in the establishment of communist parties, in particular the role of Jewish immigrants who had communist ideas before their immigration to Palestine after the end of the First World War.


The major crisis of Arab communist parties was the Soviet acceptance of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 to divide Palestine

Kamel al-Khatti

Local branches

Communist parties in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco were local branches of the French Communist Party, which was a member of the Communist International. Ironically, the leftist movement in Saudi Arabia, with all its components, has risen to an active level within a short period of time since the it first reached the national labor society, opposed to the majority of leftist movements in various Arab countries; where these movements currents have existed since the beginning of the 20th century, but these movements and currents took decades before they became active.

These beginnings of the communist movement in the Arab world have negatively affected the organizational capabilities of communist parties following the Soviets, in certain cases prevented them from being the central core that leads the struggle of the working class and put them in existential crisis when confronted with the great national rights. One of the most prominent dilemmas is the fact that the communist parties have abandoned the national bourgeoisies that led the national liberation from colonialism.

The concept of "class struggle against another" imposed on the communist parties to consider the national bourgeoisies as enemies without taking into consideration the objective conditions of the Arab world, The non-Arab leaders who led the early Arab communist parties played a major role in establishing the Bolsheviks and in resisting what was then known as the "nationalist chauvinist tendencies" among the Arab communists.

The major crisis of the Arab communist parties was the Soviet acceptance of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 to divide Palestine, which was accepted by the Arab communist parties according to the Soviet position. The other crisis was the Stalinist definition of the nation, which makes the Arab communist parties confront the Arab nationalist forces which believe that the Arabs have the characteristics of a one nation, and these characteristics is a sufficient motive to achieve the Arab unity.

This was not the case in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia did not enjoy this importance before the oil flow, the Ottoman Empire as well had lost its power and authority in the Arabian Peninsula. Only Hijaz, and eastern Jordan were under its authority after the beginning of the first world, Sharif Hussein was waiting for the opportunity to take over these areas from the Ottomans, and the opportunity came with the war, where he announced the launch of the Great Arab Revolution encouraged by the British promise to appoint him as Caliph for Muslims and King of the Arabs instead of the Ottomans.

In Gertrude Bell’s papers, entitles “the recent history of Iraq”, Miss Bell explains the positive role played by the Sultan of Najd Ibn Saud, Sheikh of Kuwait Bin Al-Sabah, Sheikh al- Muhammarah Khaza’l al-Kaabi, Sultan of Muscat, the sheikhs of the Trucial States and the sheikhs of Bahrain in controlling their citizens and preventing them from threatening the British interests during Britain's preoccupation in the Ottoman war.

Since the Arabian Peninsula did not know the major agricultural properties, did not know the feudal lordship in the agricultural relations, it has been devoid of the suitable environment in which socialist ideas or modern human rights may flourish, thus the tribal structures provided a state of relative stability during and after the First World War, while the progressive ideas did not reach the region until the oil industry was established.

Jordanian Noor Allah and the Egyptian Ahwani in the Saudi labor society

After this introduction, it is possible to say that the national working class in the oil industry has become subject to test its modern human rights awareness, after their formation experiencing a clear discriminatory policy applied by Aramco; this discriminatory policy of Aramco, put considers the white man as the Master who possesses all the authorities, enjoys full privileges and has the right to set his working hours, appropriate housing, advanced medical care, entertainment from sports venues, movie theaters and luxurious dining halls, entertainment, sports venues, movie theaters and luxurious dining halls, as well as extremely high monthly wages.

In contrast to the national and foreign non-American, Canadian and British employment, the discriminatory policy of ARAMCO has placed them in a lower position where unsanitary housing, low wages, lack of entertainment, medical care and a working day that is not limited to 8 hours in addition to other discriminations.

According to researchers’ speculation, and some participants’ diaries, Aramco has brought in thousands of Arab citizens who are fluent in English from Sudan, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Jordan and assigned them to translating, training and teaching national labor, which illiteracy was widespread among them; Aramco also brought in Italian citizens, some of whom were probably captives of the second world war.

These numbers, brought by Aramco, had some extent of human rights awareness either by experiencing unionist experiences and human rights protest movements, or that some of them were engaged in leftists organizations in their own country. I knew personally from one of the pioneers of labor activists that Mahmoud al-Ahwani, an Egyptian communist, and Abdullah Noor Allah, a Jordanian communist, worked for Aramco during the 1940s and 1950s, and that each of them conveyed in some way the ideas he had from his previous experience, to the Saudi colleagues who worked with them in Aramco, and influenced some of them.

Which could be a frequent case at that time. We note that the awareness of the importance of the trade union, the awareness of the strike as a pressure on the employer to have the rights, has grown steadily in a short period since the first strike in the mid-1940s, until the Great Strikes Movement in 1953. The strikes in 1953 were able to cause complete paralysis in the oil industry; the solidarity of the labor force forced the authorities to release the leading elements who were arrested due to the major strikes and imprisoned in the slave prison in Al-Ahsa. This led to establishing the Workers’ Committee.

After the death of King Abdul Aziz, King Saud issued a general amnesty, in which the expelled activists, such as Abdulaziz Al-Sunaid, returned to Saudi Arabia, King Saud also ordered to establish a permanent association for work and workers; directly linked to the Council of Ministers, headed by Abdulaziz bin Muammar, a “hiding communist” according to Western diplomatic reports, seems he has adopted the communist ideas during his college years at the American University of Beirut (Ibn Mu'ammar was arrested on May 2, 1955 and the Association was headed by Turki al-Ateishan, a senior official of the Eastern Province).

The Commission government officials, human rights activists and workers' representatives, it was found out more than one of them was influenced by or adopted leftist ideas, such as Abdul Aziz al-Sunaid, who came from Iraq with his experience as a member in the Iraqi Communist Party, and Abdul Rahman al-Bahijan, who seems to know these ideas and adopted them during his the time he spent in Britain for vocational training, Mohammed Hoshan, who received his university degree from the University of Baghdad, and Abdullah al-Jishi, who was educated in Iraq.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Kamel Al-Khatti is a Saudi writer and researcher.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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