Death of Ibn Saud; November 9th, 1953

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Death of Ibn Saud; November 9th, 1953


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


ABDUL-AZIZ IBN ABDULRAHMAN AL FAISAL AL SAUD, creator of Saudi Arabia, was in his last years one of the richest men on earth. Born in 1880 into the ruling dynasty of Riyadh when it was still an obscure little mud-walled town in the middle of the desert, Ibn Saud grew up in an Arabia which was part of the Ottoman Empire, largely both hidden from and ignorant of the outside world and torn by tribal quarrels. He came to dominate it by shrewdness, audacity and the huge force and charm of his personality. His family were driven into exile in Kuwait when he was ten, but in 1902 he returned to storm Riyadh under his green battle-flag with a mere sixty or so desert Bedouin mounted on camels.

From there he went on to subdue the rest of Central Arabia. He stayed clear of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt in the First World War, but in the 1920s he look Mecca, Medina and Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, in 1926 proclaimed himself king and in 1932 renamed his realm Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, which covered most of the Arabian peninsula except for the Yemen and the Gulf sheikhdoms, subsisted on primitive agriculture and the profits of the pilgrim trade to Mecca and Medina. The first oil was produced in the 1930s and in the 1940s and '50s Saudi oil exports began to bring in colossal wealth.

The king recruited an English adviser, Harry St John Philby (father of the infamous Kim), who first went to Riyadh in 1917 with a British mission, but Ibn Saud ruled his kingdom directly in the old Bedouin manner until his death. His male subjects could approach him personally for help or for justice, and they did. He made full use of the fact that he was the hereditary imam, or leader, of the Wahhabi sect of Islam. …

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