Masmak Fortress rises like a golden cliff in the heart of the old quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. Seemingly impregnable, with high slanting walls and four watchtowers, it presents a forbidding face to would-be attackers. But here, in the dead of a cold January night in 1902, one person led his men in a daredevil mission. His name was Abdulaziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud – later known as King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. With his warriors, he scaled the city walls using a palm tree trunk as a ladder, overwhelmed patrolling soldiers, and prevailed over the city garrison. In doing so, he restored the honor of the House of Saud, which had ruled the city for much of the previous 150 years.
For a decade, Abdulaziz had dreamed of taking back Riyadh. In 1891, his father, Abdul Rahman, then ruler of Riyadh, was forced out of his city by the invading forces of his family’s historical rivals, the Al Rasheed, following the ill-fated Battle of Mulayda. For the next two years, he and his family endured a perilous nomadic existence with the Murrah, a Bedouin tribe in the Rub al Khali, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter. Here, Abdulaziz sheltered in a black goat-hair tent, survived on a diet of camel milk, dates and bread, and learned the fighting skills that would serve him well in the years to come.
After two years on the run, the Saud family was given protection by the ruler of Kuwait, and it was from his coastal kingdom that Abdulaziz marched for Riyadh at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the history of Saudi Arabia started with Abdulaziz’s victory in the battle of Masmak Fortress, the story of his family’s rise to prominence started long before that, in the early eighteenth century. In 1726, Muhammad Ibn Saud – a trader and horse dealer and forefather of the modern House of Saud – became emir of Diriyah, a small city north of Riyadh in a narrow, verdant valley called Wadi Hanifa where palm trees defy the beating sun. Two years before, the horse who would be remembered as the Godolphin Arabian, one of the forbears of all thoroughbreds, was born a few days ride to the south.
For the next 18 years, Muhammad’s rule was unremarkable. But in 1744 the fortunes of the House of Saud were transformed when the Emir allied with Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, an Islamic scholar, to unify the wide and divided land of Arabia under one flag. By the end of the century, the Saud family ruled a vast land that stretched from the Arabian Gulf in the East to the Red Sea in the West.
This might have continued, but in 1803 the Saudis seized control of the holy cities of Mecca, where the prophet Muhammad was born, and Medina. This action drew the ire of the Ottoman Emperor in Istanbul, who ostensibly ruled the Arabian Peninsula. He ordered Muhammad Ali, his viceroy in Egypt, to take back the holy cities. This was done with brutal efficiency, and the Ottomans did not stop there: pushing further into Saudi territory, they devastated Diriyah, smashing the palace as well as the stud where 300 of the finest Arabian horses were said to be stabled. By 1818, the Saudis had been chased from their ancestral home. The ruins stand today, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Saudis moved their capital to Riyadh, where they enjoyed an uneasy rule for 73 years until Abdulaziz’s father was forced to take his family into exile. After Abdulaziz stormed Riyadh in 1902, he began recapturing other territory that had once been ruled by his family. For the next 30 years, he and his followers fought 52 battles: his rivals included Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, who aspired to be recognised as the King of the Arabs and who won the backing of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – during the Arab Revolt in the First World War. During this turbulent time, Abdulaziz became known as The Last Horseman, a sobriquet for being the last ruler to lead his army into battle on horseback.
King Abdulaziz, left, at the races in Riyadh in 1938
It was now that Abdulaziz struck his own deal with the British, who were looking to safeguard their interests in the region, considered a vital conduit to the empire in India. He made an immediate impression on Gertrude Bell, the travel writer: ‘He is a man of splendid physique, standing well over six feet, and carrying himself with the air of one accustomed to command,’ she wrote.
After the war, Abdulaziz moved swiftly to control the main regions of the Arabian Peninsula. By 1921, he had captured Hail, a city to the north of Riyadh, and in doing so, he became the Sultan of Nejd, a region that encompassed Riyadh and Hail. Five years later, he added another title to his name: King of Hijaz, a region that included Mecca and Medina. He now ruled a vast swathe of the Arabian Peninsula and, to put his family’s personal stamp on the territory, he announced the creation of a new sovereign state in September 1932, unifying the separate kingdoms of Nejd and Hijaz under the name Saudi Arabia, a reflection of the rich history of the founding family.
It is hard to believe now, but when Saudi Arabia was created it faced enormous financial challenges.
Three years earlier, the Wall Street Crash had seen billions of dollars wiped off the New York Stock Exchange. It triggered a global recession, and the devastating impact was felt in the oases of the Arabian desert. At that time, the Saudi economy was highly dependent on the Muslim Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy lands in Mecca. In the late 1920s, some 130,000 pilgrims visited Mecca for the holy rituals, but the numbers fell down by 1931 to fewer than 40,000. The impact on the young Kingdom’s economy motivated the King to seek a more secure economic structure.
It was then that Charles Crane, an American businessman and philanthropist, walked into his life. Long interested in Arabia, Crane initially travelled to Egypt in search of the perfect Arabian stallion to take back to America. There, he met Sheikh Fawzan al Sabik, King Abdulaziz’s ambassador and the proud owner of a celebrated stud farm. The two men struck up a rapport, and Sheikh Fawzan offered Crane a stallion and a mare as a gift. In return, Crane offered to pay for the services of an engineer, who would search for mineral riches under the sands of Saudi Arabia desert.
King Abdulaziz accepted the offer. It had long been speculated that valuable minerals lay beneath the Arabian desert. The reports by Crane’s engineer were sufficiently optimistic to encourage interest from both Standard Oil of California, and the Iraq Petroleum Company. An auction for the concession was coordinated by Henry St John Philby, an Englishman and Muslim convert, a confidante of King Abdulaziz. It was won by the American firm, which had struck oil in neighbouring Bahrain in 1932 and which agreed to pay £50,000 in gold (about $3.5m in today’s money) for the right to search for oil.
The deal was signed in 1933, just a few months after the founding of Saudi Arabia. It took a long five years before the gamble of the Standard Oil executives started to pay off: the company’s subsidiary, a forerunner of Aramco, started producing commercial quantities of oil on the coast of the Arabian Gulf. In Dharahn, near the fishing village of Dammam, miners opened their seventh well, and it turned out to be a real gusher.
With King Abdulaziz’s newfound wealth came power and the leaders of the world’s great nations started beating a path to his door. American entrepreneurs were the pioneers of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Yet the US government was slow to appreciate the potential of the Kingdom. That changed in February 1945 when President Franklin D Roosevelt, returning home from his summit with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Yalta, secretly invited King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy, then anchored in the Suez Canal. This summit resulted in the historical treaty that established a long-honoured friendship between the two countries, still influencing international relations till this date.
For the rest of King Abdulaziz’s life, Saudi Arabia enjoyed stability and rising prosperity. When he passed away in 1953, at the age of 78, his heritage was a stable and rich country, with oil revenues amounting to $100 million a year. But, for all his success, there would be no fanfare, no funerary monument, no pyramid to mark his life. In keeping with his family’s traditions and religious believes, the first king of Saudi Arabia – father of all six kings who have ruled since – was buried in an unmarked grave.
On his return from Yalta in 1945, President Roosevelt invited King Abdulaziz on board the USS Quincy. They talked oil and defence. The rest is history…