SAUDI ARABIA - II
Uploaded on March 15, 2018
Aal-e-Saud: Builders of a Modern Nation State
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
In the early years of his rule, sometime in 1930s, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud confided in a Western writer that he was fed up with rampant tribal raids on each other and on pilgrim caravans. He said he had been praying to Allah to send some rain so that the raiders could get busy with some form of agriculture and stay away from raids, which were desperate acts to find a living in brigandage, stealing neighbouring tribes’ cattle, looting pilgrims and trading caravans. The raids would often cause injury to both raiders and defenders, if not always death, in which a blood feud would ensue, just as it did before the advent of Islam, in the Jahiliyah, the age of ignorance.
People unaware of the region’s history would wonder whether it had relapsed into Jahiliyah after centuries of Islam. The answer is both Yes and No. Yes, because these raids were virtually the same in their outward appearance as the ghazu of pre-Islam; and No, because people still believed in Oneness of God, the prophethood of Muhammadur Rasulullah (PBUH) and akhirah. But, otherwise it had fallen into Jahiliyah practices of raid and plunder.
If you think it incredible, please look at the Hajj travel documents of your grandparents or great grandparents. These documents carried an advisory by British government authorities in India that asked Hajjis to travel in larger caravans and avoid taking the land route via Iraq as they could be looted by Bedouin raiders on way. It advised Hajjis to travel by ship to Jeddah and take only approved routes inland.
Before King Abdul Aziz took over and consolidated his authority all over Saudi Arabia, marking the new state’s boundaries and settling the thinly and widely dispersed population of diverse tribes in a new national identity, going for Hajj was a highly dangerous, even fatal, enterprise for foreign pilgrims travelling to this land. As late as in our grandfathers’ pilgrimage in the first two decades of the 20th century Hajjis from India thought they might not return from the pilgrimage. Dying from cholera, or plague, small pox, or some mysterious fever was always likely.
Michael Wolfe writes in One Thousand Roads to Mecca:
Getting to Mecca had never been a picnic. Perhaps the most brutal irony of all, repeated in account after account, is that until about 1930 the nearer pilgrims came to their hallowed goal, the more dangerous life became for them. Raiding clans like Banu Harb and Banu Utayba, who made travel through Hijaz a living hell, appear often in these pages. These and other Bedouine tribes derived their wealth by extorting from traders and pilgrims passing through their territories and by raiding the caravans mercilessly when they could not pay.
Writings from late 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century often talk about such raids and the unfortunate experience of being looted. However, by the end of the 20s of the last century as King Abdul Aziz settled in his position as a ruler of entire Saudi Arabia and consolidated his rule over a huge territory, lawlessness was gone forever and every tribe across the land was brought into a huge network of subjects of a rising nation state under a popular monarch.
Such consolidation of territory and authority would have been almost unimaginable under any other leader. A conglomeration of loosely federated or mutually hostile tribes is just the opposite of a nation state, because narrow tribal identities and systems of governance have nothing in common with the overarching national identity that is larger than a traditional tribal identity, with entirely different political organisation and system of governance. King Abdul Aziz devised a political system that fully respected personal identities, tribal identities, Islamic traditions and distinct tribal usages.
Within a couple of decades, Saudi Arabia became a regular nation state, a process that required centuries in other regions to evolve. Through a rare mixture of tact, affection and respect for his people as well as the strictness of a disciplinary father, the King ended all vestiges of lawlessness, anarchy and criminality of the trouble-makers. The mutual respect and affection between the ruler and ruled was so great that leaders of tribes often called him by his first name. They trusted him so much that all of them spontaneously set out to obey the orders he sent them via messengers.
Although the British had signed an agreement with him, they surreptitiously tried to foster an uprising in the early years of his rule in the areas close to the Iraqi border. They had distributed a huge amount of freshly printed British pounds and supplied a large number of Enfield rifles to the prospective rebels and had promised to create another state for them between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on Saudi territory. King Abdul Aziz tactfully fought back this British attempt to cut his kingdom down to size.
By 1932, when he became the king of entire Saudi Arabia, he had put the new nation state on a sound footing. In 1938 oil was discovered in the country, and by the end of the World War II, the country was set on the path to a new, prosperous economy. By the time he died in 1953, he had created one of the best welfare states of the world as well as a fast growing economy, with first world infrastructure, standard of living and a highly capable internal and external security system, the best amenities and an abundant supply of food, drinks and health services.
His legacy of custodianship of the two Haramain Sharifain passed on to his sons who, in their own time built and expanded the Haramain to an amazing degree. Hajj and Umrah are no longer perilous as they are performed in air-conditioned comfort, with abundant fresh food to eat and clean water to drink as the security system is constantly on watch to prevent any possible harm to pilgrims, or to Saudi citizens. The rulers have also inherited King Abdul Aziz’s concern for the wellbeing of the entire Muslim Ummah, which no other Muslim country has been able to do.
(To be continued)