King Ibn Saud King Ibn Saud

On 1 May 1939, after dinner with him in the new mess hall, I gripped briefly the scarred, long-fingered, sinewy hand of the first king of Saudi Arabia: Abdul Aziz ibn Abdur Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki as Saud.

To him it was a gesture of goodwill toward us Americans who had found oil in his land; to me it was a moment of deep respect tinged with deference.  By force of arms and consummate statecraft he had won undisputed and absolute sway over 865,000 square miles, a realm four times the size of France.  He looked the part.  Towering over my six feet, he was every inch the sovereign in dignity and commanding presence.  At the moment jovial, he smiled at me, but the furrows on his leathery tan face attested that for forty of his sixty-two years he had waged war and exercised masterly diplomacy to establish and to safeguard his kingdom.  The black patch over his left eye, full lips, prominent nose and scanty black beard gave him the look of a freebooter, but the deep-set, dark right eye asserted the authority of unlimited power and belied the kindness of his smile.

He was garbed as a paramount shaikh.  Most of his dark, long hair was covered by a red- and white- checked head scarf held in place by a two-tiered gold thread and black wool headdress - an emblem of high rank - ornate when compared with the plain black wool circlets worn by his followers.  A collarless, shirt-like robe of white cotton was buttoned at the neck and reached the feet shod in open-toed brown leather sandals.  Over his shoulders he wore a nut-brown, lightly woven, floor-length camels' hair cloak edged in golden passementerie that lent elegance to the flowing, long-sleeved garment.  At his waist hung a heavy dagger of deeply enchased massive gold, the blunt end of its broad silver-encrusted sheath turned at a right angle to the hilt.

Ibn Saud had followed some 200 miles of trails and had crossed barriers of treacherous sand in the journey from Riyadh, his capital, to Jebel Dhahran near the Persian Gulf.  He had accepted an invitation to open the valve of a pipeline at Ras Tanura, the newly constructed tanker-loading terminal some 25 miles north of our camp at Dhahran.  This symbolic gesture would start the flow of crude oil to fill a tanker making the first direct delivery by sea of 'Arabian Light' from mainland Arabia to Europe.

The arrival of the king and his party had been spectacular.  On either side of the windshield of his speeding black Chrysler sedan stood a very tall and black Somali soldier, long, vividly red robes flying in the wind.  Both were armed with a long sword in a black scabbard, a dagger, a pistol, a magazine rifle slung over crossed bandoliers.  This equipage was followed by some twenty open-bodied trucks filled with shouting, white-robed bodyguards brandishing weapons.

Tents were set up just south of the cluster of buildings of our camp, and soon cauldrons of rice and mutton were boiling to be served on yard-wide, round copper trays.  Evening prayer ended, feasting began.  Then a dance by long lines of solemn-faced, white-clad retainers who, planted in place and chanting monotonously, rocked from one foot to the other to the monotonous beat of a great drum.  From time to time one would step forward, lift his rifle, and fire into the air.

But that was sixty odd years ago.  Now free of other tasks after helping to find crude oil in many countries, I recalled that encounter and decided to learn more about the man.  He made such a strong impression that I can still recall every detail of our meeting.  I am not alone.  All those who have recorded their judgments concerning his aspect, personality and qualities of mind are unanimous in finding him exceptional in all three.  And their number is considerable.  I have consulted many of their writings in preparing this appreciation of a man who founded a kingdom that has existed for over a century in a land where no previous regime had endured so long.  Like the other studies of his eventful career, mine is chronological in describing the deeds of the warrior intent on recovering his ancestral holdings.  It differs in that I choose to discuss his qualities of mind and character apart, and to examine their effect on his governance of a land that had remained essentially unchanged since the time of Abraham.

Ibn Saud: King by Conquest Ibn Saud: King by Conquest

This book adds another to the many recitals of the Ibn Saud saga.  But it also attempts to evoke his persona, and to show how it, along with his physical, intellectual, and moral endowments, enabled him to recover his heritage.  The undertaking required perusal of the many books, reports, and journals written about him, and examination of his correspondence with peers and other governments.  Some of the accounts written by visitors to or members of his court and many of the books and articles by later biographers and commentators infer specific motives from his actions and statements or consider them as indications of traits of character.  The validity of these judgments is at best conjectural, in view of the man's high level of intelligence and the complexity of his commitments.

My conclusion is that no completely objective account of Ibn Saud's career or his person exists.  Many of these representations are more or less biased because of personal feeling or prejudice. None are truly objective because all human observation is inherently subjective and interpretative.  Small wonder that the narratives penned by chroniclers of the acts, words, or writings of Ibn Saud differ so much that the details of many incidents are lost in a dense fog of speculation.

A good example is the great disparity in the accounts of the death of one member of the long-time Saud enemy, the Ar Rashid family. There are at least three radically different versions of the events leading to his demise, which agree only in that it occurred before dawn from gunshot wounds at a site known as Raudhat al Muhanna.  Other uncertainties among a host include: Was the Riyadh exploit of January 1902 premeditated by Ibn Saud before his departure from Kuwait, or did he decide to attempt a coup only after the arrival of the troop at Ain Haradh?  What were the true reasons for his apparently inopportune withdrawal from the Qasim in the spring of 1905 and his subsequent journey to al Hasa in August?  Were the first attacks on the Hejaz in 1924 carefully orchestrated as most authors suggest, or were they haphazard as Philby insists?

Was his long association with the British only a ploy to insure their support and to gain a subsidy?  It is clear that his relation with at least two and perhaps several British officials was truly that of friendship and regard.  Yet in the First World War he avoided an active role in support of the Allies, and in the Second remained uncommitted until the outcome was clear.

I attempt to point out differences in the published accounts of some of the decisive moments in the life of this man and have assembled a number of the comments about and descriptions of his aspect and character.  One thing is certain.  All of his actions were intended to safeguard his dynasty against any eventuality.  He used every means his superior intellect could devise and exercised all of his well-documented charisma to that end.  The state he founded has endured for a century, and is still guided by his offspring, who hold their father and his achievements in deep respect.  The religious tenets he espoused are to this day the law of the land.

While collating information from publications about the man and his exploits, I found understandable diversity in the motivations ascribed his actions and deeds but could not comprehend the reasons for differences in affirmations of fact.  For example, until recently Ibn Saud's birth was widely accepted to have been in the year 1880, although two contemporaries who talked with him and later wrote about their experiences, Gertrude Bell and Amin Rihani, indicate without ambiguity that the year was 1876.  Lacey must be commended for obtaining confirmation of this date.  But like other authors he overlooks explicit statements about the age of the Saudi ruler in these earlier publications, although quoting from both of them on other matters.

I found it expedient in recounting the achievements of this remarkable man to discuss the Saudi state during Ibn Saud's lifetime - its nature, growth, and survival in spite of grave difficulties.  His masterly handling of foreign relations is reviewed at some length.  I relate how the first concessions were acquired and the effects of the discovery of oil in commercial quantities on the economy of this then mainly pastoral state, for without the exploitation of this vast store of energy his sons would not govern today.

The third and last portion of the main text is an attempt to depict the man as his contemporaries saw him and to evaluate his work.  It is followed by notes enlarging on or explaining thirty-one items of interest.  Three essays to enlighten the general reader and seven brief biographies or sketches of contemporaries important in Ibn Saud's career are appended along with an annotated bibliography.  In this work, judgments regarding the man and opinions concerning the writings about him and his contemporaries are my own.  Quantum animis erroris in est.