Arab Revolt and the Founding of Saudi Arabia

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Mecca in 1787

Abdul Aziz captured Riyadh in 1773 and claimed all of Nejd (central Arabia). His son Saud ibn Abdul Aziz captured Mecca in 1803. By 1806, he controlled an empire that embraced Nejd, Hejaz (a province in western Arabia that embraces Mecca and Medina) and the al-Hasa oasis — most of present-day Saudi Arabia. This empire is sometimes called the First Saudi Empire.

The Ottomans were not pleased by this development. In 1812, an Ottoman force, under the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, was dispatched to the Arabian Red Sea coast. After a long struggle, the Saudi forces were driven out of Hejaz and back to Diraiyah, which fell to the Ottomans in 1818. Saud’s son was captured and taken to Istanbul and beheaded.

Following a six-year period of Egyptian interference, the Al Saud regained political control of the Najd region in 1824 under Turki ibn Abd Allah, who rebuilt Riyadh and established it as the new center of Al Saud power. Although they did not control a centralized state, the Al Saud successfully controlled military resources, collected tribute, and resisted Egyptian attempts to regain a foothold in the region. From 1830 to 1891, the Al Saud maintained power and protected Arabia’s autonomy by playing the British and Ottomans against each other. External threats were largely kept at bay, but internal strife plagued the Al Saud throughout much of the century. After the assassination of Turki in 1834, the family devolved into a series of competing factions. The infighting and constant civil war ultimately led to the decline of the Al Saud and the rise of the rival Al Rashid family; the Al Saud were driven out of Riyadh and forced to take refuge in Kuwait. [Source: Library of Congress, September 2006 **]

The fortunes of the House of Saud were revived when its leaders rose up and captured most of Hejd and Hasa by 1865. This is known as the second Saudi Empire. It was broken up by internal conflicts. In 1891, the Al-Sauds were driven out Nejd by the Rashids. They first sought refuge on edge of the Empty Quarter and were ultimately provided with a safe haven by the ruling sheik of Kuwait.

The modern history of Arabia is often broken into three periods that follow the fortunes of the Al Saud. The first begins with the alliance between Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and ends with the capture of Abd Allah. The second period extends from this point to the rise of the second Abd al Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern state; the third consists of the establishment and present history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 ]

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

Saudi Rule Within the Egyptian Sphere of Influence

Within their sphere of influence, the Al Saud could levy troops for military campaigns from the towns and tribes under their control. Although these campaigns were mostly police actions against recalcitrant tribes, the rulers described them as holy wars (jihad), which they conducted according to religious principles. The tribute that the Al Saud demanded from those under their control was also based on Islamic principles. Towns, for instance, paid taxes at a rate established by Muslim law, and the troops that accompanied the Al Saud on raiding expeditions returned one-fifth of their booty to the Al Saud treasury according to sharia (Muslim Law) requirements. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

The collection of tribute was another indication of the extensive influence the Al Saud derived because of their Wahhabi connections. Wahhabi religious ideas had spread through the central part of the Arabian Peninsula; as a result, the Al Saud influenced decisions even in areas not under their control, such as succession battles and questions of tribute. Their influence in the Hijaz, however, remained restricted. Not only were the Egyptians and Ottomans careful that the region not slip away again, but Wahhabi ideas had not found a receptive audience in western Arabia. Accordingly, the family was unable to gain a foothold in the Hijaz during the nineteenth century.*

The Al Saud maintained authority in Arabia by controlling several factors. First, they could resist, or at least accommodate, Egyptian interference. After 1824 when the Egyptians could no longer maintain outright military control over Arabia, they turned to political intrigues. Turki, for instance, was assassinated in 1834 by a member of the Al Saud who had recently returned from Cairo. When Turki's son, Faisal, succeeded his father, the Egyptians supported a rival member of the family, Khalid ibn Saud, and with Egyptian assistance Khalid controlled Najd for the next four years.*

Muhammad Ali and the Egyptians were severely weakened after the British and French defeated their fleet off the coast of Greece in 1827. This prevented the Egyptians from exerting much influence in Arabia, but it left the Al Saud with the problem of the Ottomans, whose ultimate authority Turki eventually acknowledged. The challenge to the sultan had helped end the first Al Saud empire in 1818, so later rulers chose to accommodate the Ottomans as much as they could. The Al Saud eventually became of considerable financial importance to the Ottomans because they collected tribute from the rich trading state of Oman and forwarded much of this to the Sharifs in Mecca, who relayed it to the sultan. In return the Ottomans recognized the Al Saud authority and left them alone for the most part.*

Ottoman Influence in Arabia

The Ottomans, however, sometimes tried to expand their influence by supporting renegade members of the Al Saud. When Faisal's two sons, Abd Allah and Saud, vied to take over the empire from their father, Abd Allah enlisted the aid of the Ottoman governor in Iraq, who used the opportunity to take Al Qatif and Al Hufuf in eastern Arabia. The Ottomans were eventually driven out, but until the time of Abd al Aziz they continued to look for a relationship with the Al Saud that they could exploit. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

One of the reasons the Ottomans were unsuccessful was the growing British interest in Arabia. The British government in India considered the Persian Gulf to be its western flank and so became increasingly involved with the piracy of the Arab tribes on the eastern coast. The British were also anxious about potentially hostile Ottoman influence in an area so close to India and the Suez Canal. As a result, the British came into increasing contact with the Al Saud. As Wahhabi leaders, the Al Saud could exert some control over the tribes on the gulf coast, and they were simultaneously involved with the Ottomans. During this period, the Al Saud leaders began to play off the Ottomans and British against each other.*

Whereas the Al Saud were largely successful in handling the two great powers in the Persian Gulf, they did not do so well in managing their family affairs. The killing of Turki in 1834 touched off a long period of fighting. Turki's son, Faisal, held power until he was expelled from Riyadh by Khalid and his Egyptian supporters. Then, Abd Allah ibn Thunayan (from yet another branch of the Al Saud) seized Riyadh. He could maintain power only briefly, however, because Faisal, who had been taken to Cairo and then escaped, retook the city in 1845.*

Faisal ruled until 1865, lending some stability to Arabia. Upon his death, however, fighting started again, and his three sons, Abd Allah, Abd ar Rahman, and Saud — as well as some of Saud's sons — each held Riyadh on separate occasions. The political structure of Arabia was such that each leader had to win the support of various tribes and towns to conduct a campaign. In this way, alliances were constantly formed and reformed, and the more often this occurred, the more unstable the situation became.*

al-Haram Mosque in Mecca was largely built by the Ottomans

This instability accelerated the decline of the Al Saud after the death of Faisal. While the Al Saud was bickering, however, the family of Muhammad ibn Rashid, who controlled the area around the Shammar Mountains, had been gaining strength and expanding its influence in northern Najd. In 1890 Muhammad ibn Rashid, the grandson of the leader with whom Turki had first made an alliance, was in a position to enhance his own power. He removed the sons of Saud ibn Faisal from Riyadh and returned it to the nominal control of their uncle, Abd ar Rahman. Muhammad put effective control of the city, however, into the hands of his own garrison commander, Salim ibn Subhan. When Abd ar Rahman attempted to exert real authority, he was driven out of Riyadh. Thus, the Al Saud, along with the young Abd al Aziz, were obliged to take refuge with the amir of Kuwait.*

Establishing Saudi Arabia

In 1902, Abd al Aziz laid the groundwork for the modern state of Saudi Arabia, while exiled in Kuwait, when he led a small force in a raid against the Al Rashid garrison in Riyadh, successfully gaining a foothold in Najd. From there, he cultivated his Wahhabi connections, establishing himself as the Al Saud leader and as a Wahhabi imam. During the next 25 years, Abd al Aziz gradually extended his authority. This slow process culminated in the conquest of the Hijaz in 1924. Thus, after nearly 40 years the Al Saud again controlled Islam’s most holy land. [Source: Library of Congress, September 2006 ]

Unlike most other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia existed independent of Western control. That autonomy had been achieved in large part because of the military strength of the radical Ikhwan forces, desert warriors organized by Abd al Aziz and dedicated to promoting Wahhabi Islam. With victory achieved, the Ikhwan expected a strictly Wahhabi state. Ultimately, however, Abd al Aziz moved to rein in the Ikhwan. He assembled a diverse and committed political coalition and was able to maintain a delicate political balance between religion and modernization. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became an official state in 1932 and subsequently faced severe economic constriction in the 1930s. Fortunately, however, following the worldwide depression, geologists made a discovery that significantly buoyed the region’s economic outlook—enormous and easy-to-access deposits of oil.**

Ibn Saud: the Strong, Virile Founder of Saudi Arabia

Ibn Saud

Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud (known as Ibn Saud in the West) is the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. While the Arab Revolt was going on in the west, Ibn Saud overthrew the Turks and unified the Arabs in the east.

The heir to the First Saudi Empire, Ibn Saud (born 1880, ruled 1926-1953) grew up in Kuwait, where he was living in exile, hoping to return and claim his right to rule Arabia. A poweful man, who was 6 foot 4, he was known for his courage, military skill and diplomatic skills.

Ibn Saud didn’t smoke, drink or gamble and is said to have been a very devout Muslim. He did have quite a sexual appetite. He is said to have had 120 wives (he managed to stay within the rule of Islam by only being married to four at one time) and reportedly has sex with three different women every night from age 11 to 72, except during battles. Many of his marriages were to reinforce his allegiance with his tribal allies.

Ibn Saud Captures Riyadh and Unifies Arabia

In 1902, the 21-year-old Ibn Saud left Kuwait with a band of 40 men to capture Riyadh, the home base of the traditional rivals of his family, the Al-Rashids. Ibn Saud and his men slipped into Riyadh, then a small town, on a cold January night and hid in a date grove. During the night he and six of his men quietly scaled the walls of Riyadh with grappling hooks. Once inside he quietly opened the gate for the rest of his men. During the night they hid in an empty house and drank coffee and ate dates.

The next morning Ibn Saud and his men attacked the Al-Rashid leader, Emir Ajlan as he emerged from Masmak Fort with 80 bodyguards. Although they were outnumbered two to one, Ibn Saud’s band killed the emir in a brief and fierce fight. One of Ibn Saud’s men threw his spear so hard into a door, its spearhead remains lodged there today. The members of the Rashid clan, demoralized by the death or their leader and fearing they faced a force larger than 40 men, surrendered and gave the city over to Ibn Saud. Ibn Saud’s father was so impressed by son’s courage he gave his authority to Ibn Saud

Ottoman gunboat Bafra sunk at al Qunfudhah in 1912

This was first of many victories. The rallying cry of the soldiers was: <br/> Come, O men of Riyadh, <br/> Here I am <br/> Abdulaziz ibn Abdulrahman <br/> Our House of Saud <br/> Your Rightful Ruler

In 1906, Ibn Saud took control of the entire Nedj region. By 1913 he had captured the Hasa region from the Ottoman Turks. He was able to unify Arabia and win the loyalty of Bedouins by helping them establish cooperative farming communities, know as “Ikhwaan”, which gave them security and reliable supplies of food. This stability also reduced the number of raids. In return the Bedouins offered their services as courageous and determined warriors. In 1921 Ibn Saud’s force of Bedouin fighters took the Jebelshammer, and moved on Mecca and the southern highlands of Asir.

Middle East in the 20th Century

Egypt and the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf were nominally under the control of the Ottomans but in reality they were protectorates of Britain. Although Turkish rule was weak there were few other alternatives. It is likely that region would have remained under Ottoman control decades longer if World War I had not occurred.

In the late 19th century the idea of Arabism emerged in part as an attempt to emulate the perceived achievements of European civilization and respond to European nationalist movements. In the 19th century and early 20th century, European-inspired liberal political and social thought flourished in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, Iran and Turkey.

The history of the Muslim world in the 20th century was largely shaped by up-and-coming groups and their relations to religion and the state and was influenced by the development of Islam, capitalism and socialism. In Muslim countries capitalism is often equated with corruption while socialism has many equalitarian principals but also is associated with atheist Communism.

There are also contrasts. The 1921 coronation of the Hashemite prince Faisal as king of Iraq took place, according to one report, on a throne quickly thrown together from old Asahi beer crates while, in 1926, the former stablehand Reza Khan Pahlavi was crowned shah of Iran with royal regalia made from of emeralds and pearls kept in wrist-deep in trays in Persian jewel vaults and selected by the jeweler Vita Sackville-West.

See Ottoman Turkey.

Arabia in the 20th Century

In the early 20th century, while many countries in the Middle East and North Africa were undergoing great changes due to modernization and European influences, Saudi Arabia remained locked in its Muslim past. Sharia law was rigorously enforced and the population was required to pray and fast during Ramadan.

At the beginning of the 20th century Saudi Arabia was still nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman government was corrupt and inefficient. The territories they controlled outside of Turkey didn't have much Turkish character and few people who lived there could even speak Turkish. Vast territories were empty desert occupied by Bedouin tribes that went about their business undisturbed by the Turks.

Saudi Arabia managed to avoid foreign rule most because during the colonial period it didn’t have anything that anybody wanted. However, the British had considerable influence. The first European to travel extensively in Arabia was John Philby, the father of the famous spy Cambridge-educated Kim Phliby. John Philby was the first European to explore the Empty Quarter. He was advisor for Ibn Saud.

Arab Revolt During World War I

The Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule was started by Sherif Hussein of Mecca with the aim of creating a single Arab state stretching from Syria to Yemen. The British wanted Arab help to put pressure on the Ottomans and to gain control of territory in the Middle East. The result was a two-year guerilla war known as the Arab revolt.

Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi

Allied liaison officers in the Middle East, most notably T.E. Lawrence, began encouraging groups of Arab tribesmen following Grand Sharif Hussein (Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi) , a descendant of Muhammad and the ruler of Mecca (1908-24), to rebel and fight a guerilla war against the Turks. Hussein was the patriarch of the Hashimite family that later played a role in the founding of the new countries of Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Hussein was based in Mecca. He had cobbled together a fighting forces made up of Bedouin warriors from western Arabia and deserters and escaped prisoners from the Ottoman army. He became allies with the British who promised him an independent Arab nation based in Damascus while they were making deals with the French to divide the region. Hussein’s forces were led by his four sons: Feisal, Abdullah, Ali and Zeid. They fought alongside British forces in the occupation of Palestine and Syria.

One of the principal Arab heros was a hawk-nosed Bedouin warrior named Auda abu Tayi. Once called "The greatest fighting man in northern Arabia," he boasted of killing 75 men with his bare hands before the revolt began. In his colorful life he was wounded 13 times and married 28 times. During feasts he offered guests rice and boiled lamb from a copper plate five feet across and coffee from brass coffee pots three feet high.

Letter to Ali ibn Husain from the British

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: Sir Henry McMahon: was British High Commissioner in Egypt and Ali Ibn Husain was the Sherif of Mecca during the First World War. In a series of ten letters from 1915 to 1916 McMahon tried to attract Arab support against the Ottoman Empire. The following excerpt is from a letter from October 24, 1915. The implied promise is of British support of an independent Arab state. [Source: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

Syrian resistance members hung in Marjeh Square in Damascus

“Letter to Ali ibn Husain” from Sir Henry McMahon (1915) reads: “As for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter:(1) Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.(2) Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability.(3) When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories. [Source: “Great Britain. Parliamentary Papers,” 1939, Misc. No. 3, Cmd. 5957]

(4) On the other hand, it is understood that the Arabs have decided to seek the advice and guidance of Great Britain only, and that such European advisers and officials as may be required for the formation of a sound form of administration will be British.(5) With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognise that the established position and interests of Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order to secure these territories from foreign aggression, to promote the welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries and the freeing of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, which for so many years has pressed heavily upon them.”

T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt

The Arab revolt against Turkish rule was started by Sherif Hussein of Mecca with the aim of creating a single Arab state stretching from Syria to Yemen. Lawrence called Hussein’s son Feisal “the leader who will bring the Arab Revolt to full glory” and described him as “very tall and pillar-like.” The two men formed a partnership with Lawrence acting as his assistant and a liaison between the British and the Arabs, and gave Feisal tips on being a charismatic leader necessary to unify and inspire the men under him.

Peter O'Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia

In the early stages of the revolt, Lawrence led a small force of Bedouin fighters through the mountains of western Arabia to meet a larger force outside Medina. He fainted regularly and ran high fevers from dysentery. In the middle of the journey two Bedouins got into a fight and one man was killed. Realizing that a cycle of blood feuds was the last thing he needed he decided to take matters into his own hands, and kill the killer.

Lawrence wrote: “I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with blood coming out in spurts...I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist” and then “shot him in the thick of the neck under the jaw.” Afterwards Lawrence was so shaken up he couldn’t get on his camel by himself.

Before a major offensive by the Arab forces against the Ottoman army, Lawrence asked the British government to lend him nine Rolls Royces for the attack. His request was granted and with the vehicles two enemy bridges were destroyed and two Turkish outposts were captured.

Ben MacIntyre wrote in the New York Times: “The Arab forces in 1916 were about as far from a conventional army as could be imagined, a fierce, unruly camel-―mounted collection of tribesman, with a strong inclination to feud, loot and desert. With British guns, sacks of gold sovereigns and Lawrence as their tactician, they would be molded into an effective guerrilla army.” [Source: Ben MacIntyre, New York Times, December 24, 2010]

The campaign included “the harassment of Turkish communication lines, the ingenious sabotage, the astonishing forays by camel behind enemy lines through the harshest terrain and the almost medieval brutality of Arab methods (Lawrence killed his own wounded men rather than leave them to Turkish torture). The pukka Englishman in Arab dress developed highly successful tactics of hit and run, using a small, mobile force, in what would now be called asymmetrical warfare.

Lawrence of Arabia and Attacks on the Turkish Railroad

Hejaz Railway

In March 1917, Lawrence’s group carried out their first attacks on the Hejaz Railway, which connected Medina with Damascus and was the main supply route for the Turks stationed in southern Arabia. Mounted on fast camels and aided by Lawrence, the highly mobile Arab blew up 79 bridges and an untold number of trains.

The railway line was key to keeping Turkish troops in Arabia supplied. Over the period of a year or so, Lawrence and his raiders "harassed the line, burning stations and blowing up trains, isolating the 10,000-man Turkish garrison. "Travel on the Hejaz Railway became so dangerous for those riding near the engine," wrote National Geographic journalist Luis Marden, "that seats in the rear of the train sold for five times the normal price." By April 1918, the Turks closed down the train from southern Jordan to Medina.

Lawrence did not watch from the distance, he was with his men on the front lines, avoiding bullets and sword blades. He sustained dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds. On mining the rails in 1917 at Abu and Naam stations: "We lay like lizards...upon the hill-top, and saw the garrison parade. Three hundred and ninety-nine infantry, little toy men, ran about..." On another raid in the area he helped his men under fire make it to the rail. "We made our camels kneel down beside it, and...performed a sunset prayer quietly...from a distance we passed muster, and the Turks stopped shooting in bewilderment. This was the first and last time I ever prayed in Arabia as a Muslim."

Lawrence and the Success of the Arab Revolt

Against tremendous odds, the revolt succeeded. On July 16, Lawrence and his raiders captured the Red Sea port of Aqaba in present-day Jordan after catching the Turkish garrison by surprise. The victory knocked out the last Ottoman stronghold on the Red Sea and provided a base for the Arabs to attack Damascus. In his book he wrote he rode a camel across the Sinai in 49 hours to deliver the news. Many scholars believe he made this up.

Arab Revolt

After this Lawrence was able to convince his British superiors that he was “the indispensable conduit through which arms and money must flow to the Arabs.” He also convinced the Arabs that he was committed to fighting for their independence not the strategic interest of the British. Even so he bribed Arab leaders (occasionally by mistake: once he sent £25,000 in gold to the wrong prince).

In late 1917 and 1918, while Lawrence’s forces continued to disrupt the Hejaz railway, Feisal’s army advanced northward. In September 1918, a Turkish column was slaughtered at Tafas, south of Damascus. Afterwards Turkish and German prisoners were massacred. The degree to which Lawrence was personally involved on this incident is of considerable debate.

On October 3, 1918, Feisal’s army entered Damascus after routing the Turks. But this was ultimately a hollow victory. The British denied them their kingdom. Lawrence wrote: “Had I been an honest advisor of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home” before having taken part on the revolt. Some of those close to Lawrence were rewarded. Lawrence was a friend of Churchill. He was instrumental in getting his friend Faisal installed as King of Iraq and his brother Abdullah as the king of Jordan.

Legacy of the Arab Revolt

The Arab Revolt had little affect on the final outcome of the World War I, but created the major players who would decide the fate of the Middle East after the war. The Arab Revolt made potential leaders out of Hussein and his two sons Faisal and Abdullah, all of whom were rivals of Ibn Saud, who was establishing himself as one of the most powerful men in Arabia, and who was also a British client.

members of the Arab Revolt felt betrayed by the post-World-War-I deal the British made with the French

After a failed effort to install him as leader of Syria, Faisal became the King of Iraq. Abdullah became the King of Jordan. After Hussein failed to go along with a peace agreement that divided up the Middle East among the British and French, the British put their support behind Ibn Saud, who defeated Hussein forces in 1924-25, took the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and became the leader of Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Revolt was unsuccessful in its ultimate goal, from the Arab viewpoint, of bringing independence to the Arabs in Arabia. In 1919, with Lawrence at his side, Feisal tried to make a case for Arab independence at the Paris Peace Conference but achieved little. Arabs say that ultimately the British lied to them and betrayed them by making a deal with the French. The Hejaz Railway was effectively put out business.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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