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The Foundation of Saudi Arabia and Its Evolving Relationship with Turkey (1926-1939)

“During World War I, unlike the Emir of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, who revolted against the Ottoman Empire by making an agreement with the British, the Saudis followed a ‘neutral policy’ and, after a while, completely dominated Arabia, establishing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Emergence of the Saudis

According to the generally accepted view, the Saudis are considered to be a lineage connected to the Anizzah, a branch of the Adnanites, but recent views, also adopted by the family, suggest they originate from the Banu Hanifa tribe. The name Saud comes from Saud b. Muhammad b. Mukrin b. Merhan, who belonged to one of the Banu Hanifa tribes living in Dura in today’s eastern Arabia.

The family later settled in the Dir’iyyah region, an area in the desert rich in water, suitable for agriculture, and well-fortified. It is understood that the family first took on the emirate of Dir’iyyah in 1720, and this became a permanent role from 1727 onwards. This process would lead to the foundation of Saudi Arabia.

Although the Ottoman Empire dominated the Arabian Peninsula from 1517, the administration of the region was left to the Sharifs of Mecca, and there was no interference with the traditional social structure and relationships of the Arabs. This situation led to many problems in the 18th century as state authority declined.

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Another significant development in the region was the emergence of Wahhabism in the same period. Named after Muhammad b. Abdul-Wahhab, who laid the religious foundations of this movement, Wahhabism is considered by its followers as a reform movement within the ‘Ahl al-Sunnah’ tradition, aiming to purify the religion from innovations.

Wahhabism, which emerged as a reaction to superstitions, is based on the principles of direct worship of Allah, declaring those who abandon obligatory duties as apostates, considering intercession by prophets and saints as polytheism, and regarding practices such as building tombs, lighting lamps, giving charity, and making vows as not permissible.

Born in 1703, Muhammad, upon facing opposition to his ideas, returned to Najd and then engaged in a struggle against practices he deemed polytheistic. With increasing opposition, he went to Dir’iyyah and managed to gain the support of Muhammad b. Saud.

According to the agreement, the Sheikh’s support for the Sauds would be reciprocated with their backing for the spread of Wahhabism. Thus, Ibn Abdul-Wahhab gained political power for propagating his faith, and the Sauds obtained religious support. After capturing today’s capital Riyadh, Al-Hariq, and Qassim, the Sauds also took over Ahsa.”

The Execution of the Saudis

Following their expansion policy into Hejaz, Wahhabi Saudis captured Mecca and Medina in 1806. In response to this development during the reign of Sultan Selim III, Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II appointed the Governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, to solve the problem. The Egyptian forces expelled the Saudis from Hejaz in 1813 and pushed them back to Najd, then under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, they advanced to Dir’iyyah in 1818 and destroyed the city.

The leader of the captured Saudis, Abdullah b. Saud, was brought to Istanbul and interrogated for three days. He was executed for the crime of “plundering the Prophet’s chamber” during the occupation of Medina. Although Emecen in his DİA article does not give details, Danişment notes that not only Abdullah but also his four sons were executed (Chronology, Vol. IV, p. 102).

Despite this, in 1824, Turki b. Abdullah defeated the Egyptian forces in Riyadh and reconsolidated the emirate. This structure would continue until the end of the century and would be known as the “Second Wahhabi State.”

Even though the territories dominated by the Saudis came under the control of the Ottoman central government, authority could never be fully established. The emir of the period, Faisal b. Turki, pleaded for forgiveness from Istanbul and maintained his rule. In return, he would pay taxes to Istanbul, read the sermon in the name of the Sultan, and officially be the governor of Najd.

Thus, the Saudis gained an official status. The Saudis, also active in the Persian Gulf, attracted the attention of the British. Predicting that the Saudis would become a threat, the Governor of Baghdad, Midhat Pasha, secured permission to take military action. Meanwhile, internal family conflicts continued.

The central government in Istanbul, seeing the Saudis as a major threat, began to support the Rashidis as a precaution. The Rashidis, belonging to the Shammar tribe, had their center in Ha’il. They held Riyadh from 1891-1902, and for this reason, Rashidi emirs were also called emirs of Najd.

The Saudis, expelled from Riyadh, went to Kuwait and received support from Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, who ruled there, and also established connections with the British. Later, with British support, they managed to recapture Riyadh from the Rashidis in 1902. This event is considered by the Saudis as the founding date of Saudi Arabia.

After the Rashidis, the Ottoman forces also failed against the Saudis. Following the policy of maintaining good relations with Istanbul, Sultan Abdulhamid II recognized the father, Abdurrahman, as “governor,” and his son Abdulaziz as the “emir of Najd and leader of the tribes.”

After the declaration of the Second Constitutional Era, the Unionists also failed to strike a blow to the power of the Saudis. Abdulaziz wanted to send representatives to the Ottoman parliament in the 1912 elections, but this was not accepted. On the other hand, he tried to settle his nomadic Bedouins, getting them accustomed to agriculture, and also taught them the Wahhabi doctrine.

Later, these groups, called the “Ikhwan” and forming the first military force of Saudi Arabia, were trained to adapt to the state system. Another important step by Abdulaziz was to expel Ottoman administrators and soldiers with British approval and capture Al-Hasa.

Since the Ottoman administration did not dare a military operation, they chose the path of agreement and on May 15, 1914, granted Abdulaziz b. Saud the title of “Governor and Commander of Najd.” This agreement also included a clause stating that the Saudis would assist the Ottoman administration in case of war.

The Saudis Instead of Sharif Hussein

During World War I, although the Ottoman administration sought support from the Saudis, Abdulaziz b. Saud remained neutral, using the possibility of Rashidi attacks as an excuse. In fact, this choice facilitated the British operations. The Rashidis, like some Arab tribes and leaders, sided with the Ottoman Empire throughout the war.

The other step of the Ottoman Empire was to send M. Akif to Arabia via the Special Organization. Sheikh Salih Tunusî and Mümtaz Bey, who had accompanied him on his trip to Germany, also participated in this journey, and meetings were held with Ibn Rashid and the Saudis.

According to a British report dated January 4, 1915, the Saudis were recognized as the “independent rulers of Najd and its surroundings,” and no change in their policy was noted. In 1916, the British officially recognized this status, supplied the Saudis with weapons, and allocated them a monthly allowance. The Saudis agreed to stay under British protection and not attack other groups under British protection.

Sharif Hussein of Mecca had established connections with the British before the war and rebelled against the Ottoman Empire at the behest of the British in June 1916. Capturing Mecca, Jeddah, and Taif, Hussein declared himself “King of the Arab Countries” in October of the same year.

Sharif Hussein, who gained great prestige with the surrender of Medina in January 1919, attacked the Saudis after making agreements with Imam Yahya and Ibn Rashid but was defeated by the Saudis in the summer of 1919. The British, who wanted to maintain the status quo for the time being, stopped the Saudis.

Hussein’s son Abdullah became the emir of Jordan in 1920, and another son Faisal, expelled from Syria, became the King of Iraq in 1921. The British then tried to mediate between Hussein and the Saudis by convening a conference in Kuwait but failed to achieve any results. These developments led the British to side with the Saudis over Sharif Hussein, who was uncompromising on the issue of Palestine.

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King Faisal

Faisal bin Abdulaziz

Seeking to fully control the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudis eliminated the Rashidis in 1921. Then in 1926, they captured Hejaz, including Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah, which were under Hussein’s control, and exiled the Sharif family. Certainly, the British no longer supporting Hussein played a significant role in the success of the Saudis.

While these events unfolded in the Arabian Peninsula, in Turkey, the sultanate was abolished and the republic regime was established following the National Struggle. Hussein, who had invited Sultan Vahdettin into exile, tried to seize the caliphate. After the abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, he declared himself “caliph” on March 7, 1924.

Ibn Saud, who could not accept this, invaded, forcing Hussein to leave Hejaz and go into exile in Cyprus in 1925. At this stage, the British mediated an agreement between the two sides. In 1926, Abdulaziz b. Saud declared himself “Sultan of Hejaz, Najd, and its dependencies.” The Republic of Turkey was one of the first states to recognize the Saudis with this name.

In 1927, the Saudis preferred the title “King of Hejaz, Najd, and its dependencies” instead of “Sultan.” The Soviet Union first recognized the Saudi state with this name, followed by the United Kingdom, France, and other Western countries.

After recognizing the Saudis, Turkey opened a consul in Jeddah. Hussein’s claim to the caliphate likely influenced this rapprochement. This policy of friendship also ensured the return of properties seized by Sharif Hussein to the Turks (Republican Archives (CA), 260.748.5, 6.10.1926).

Atatürk and the Saudi Kingdom

Another development closely followed by Turkey was the attempt to convene an international “Islamic Congress.” Ibn Saud had sent an invitation to Turkey for this (CA, 260.748.3, 22.12.1925). Turkey was represented at the congress held in Mecca in 1926 by Edip Servet (Tör) Bey, a former Unionist.

Although the congress made some decisions, due to reactions from the representatives of Egypt and India and discussions on “Wahhabism,” it disbanded without achieving any results. Indeed, the British Consul in Jeddah stated that “the Congress demonstrated how hopelessly divided Islam (Muslims) was and how little a Pan-Islamic congress could produce.”

Edip Servet Bey, who joined the congress late, also did not approve the decisions. This situation indicated that although Mustafa Kemal Pasha pursued a policy of rapprochement with the Saudis, he immediately reacted in situations contrary to secularism.

Correspondence in the Republican Archives also indicates that information reached Ankara about the Saudis “destroying sacred places and disrespecting the holy sites” (CA, 219.480.5, 24.7.1926).

In 1927, the United Kingdom confirmed the “royal” status of the Saud family with the Jeddah Treaty. In 1930, a friendship treaty was signed between Turkey and the Saudis. With this treaty, Turkey recognized the independence and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Najd and Hejaz established by the Saudis.

Despite these positive developments, when criticisms of “godlessness” started against Turkey in the Islamic World due to the revolutions, the government did not send a representative to the Islamic Congress held in Jerusalem in 1931.

In 1932, the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” was declared, unifying the regions of Hijaz, Najd, Asir, and Al-Ahsa under a single name. This marked the realization of the Sauds’ goal, which began in the 18th century, to establish a state and dominate the entire Arabian Peninsula, a feat achieved with the help of the British.

A significant indication of the friendly relations with the Sauds was the visit of the Saudi delegation, led by Emir Faisal, the “Governor-General of Hijaz and Minister of Foreign Affairs” and son of King Abdulaziz, to Turkey between June 8 and 23, 1932, following their European tour. This visit was seemingly intended to counterbalance the trip made by King Faisal of Iraq to Turkey a year earlier.

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Abdulaziz Bin Suud

During this visit, Emir Faisal met with Mustafa Kemal Pasha and was treated as a head of state in Ankara. At a dinner hosted by Pasha, all members of parliament and ministers participated, and Yunus Nadi, the owner and chief editor of the Republic newspaper, closely aligned with the era’s sole political party, wrote a laudatory article about the Saudis. In his statements, Faisal emphasized “centuries of unity, brotherhood of two nations, and friendship,” even mentioning that he “never felt like a stranger in Turkey.”

During the same period, the Republic and Evening newspapers published a statement by the Saudi War Minister, Jemal Pasha of Gaza, regarding the caliphate. His statement summarized the reasons for the rapprochement between the two states, stating his agreement with Abdulaziz bin Saud on the caliphate issue, indicating that the caliphate was “no longer a matter of concern” and that the fate of Sharif Hussein, who declared himself caliph, should be a lesson to all.

According to Jemal Pasha, when Abdulaziz bin Saud learned that Mustafa Kemal had abolished the caliphate, he turned towards Ankara and exclaimed, “Extend your hand so I may kiss it, Mustafa Kemal.” With the abolition of the caliphate and the closure of “nurseries of superstition” such as tekkes, zaviyes, and dergahs, Mustafa Kemal was revered as a sacred figure by the Wahhabis.

Despite Turkey’s secular structure, close relations were established with the Sauds during Atatürk’s era, who had overthrown Sharif Hussein and dominated the Arabian Peninsula. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the Saudis and sent a diplomatic envoy. Turkey also sent delegates to the Islamic Congress held in Mecca, and Abdulaziz’s son Faisal was well received in Turkey.

These friendly relations continued with the Saudis sending students to study engineering, medicine, and military science, and the Saudi administration chose to remain silent during the 1939 annexation of Hatay to Turkey.

Sources:

  • Bostancı, M. (2013), “The Establishment of the State of Saudi Arabia and Turkey-Saudi Arabia Relations (1926-1990)”, Gazi University Institute of Social Sciences Ph.D. Thesis, Ankara
  • Büyükkara, M. A. (2012), “Wahhabism”, DİA, Vol. 42, pp. 511-515
  • Kurşun, Z. (2009), “Saudi Arabia”, DİA, Vol. 37, pp. 581-584, “Saudis”, Vol. 37, pp. 584-587
  • Işık Bostancı, I. (2003), “Arabia and the Saudis Before the Declaration of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, Middle East Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp. 25-39.
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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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