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RetroSaudi: The Founder

November 10, 2017

My RetroSaudi series  – which features unpublished material I wrote about Saudi Arabia thirty years ago – starts at the beginning, or at least at the beginning of what we know as Saudi Arabia.

In Britain, many monarchs can lay claim to have founded the English component of the United Kingdom as a modern nation. Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and the first Elizabeth all have a shout, depending on how you define modernity,

But in the country that is named after a family, only one person qualifies for the title: Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud, also known as Ibn Saud.

Then (1987):

A fitting way to begin a series of glimpses at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to start with its first king. Nobody who visits the Kingdom can fail to notice the nation’s founder, pictured in his declining years, beaming benevolently from the wall of every government office and public building. A symbol as potent in this land as Lenin in the USSR and Mao in China, and no less revered or reviled, depending on whether the person thinking about him benefited or suffered from Abdulaziz’s often ruthless conquest of the Arabian Peninsula.

I sometimes wonder whether he is portrayed on those public walls as an aging, sedentary gentleman, rather than in his vigorous prime, erect in every sense of the word (he had fifty-four sons and innumerable daughters, innumerable because nobody bothered to count them), to avoid unflattering comparisons with his portly successors, the present king and his younger brothers, who appear on the walls beside him.

Certainly he was a hard act to follow. Truly a large man, physically, in his personality and in his achievements, Abdulaziz also had the benefit of the Arabian tradition of storytelling to enhance his legend. No television cameras were on hand when he recaptured Riyadh in 1902 from the Al-Saud’s deadly rivals, the Al-Rashid. We read of his exploits in the official hagiographies, heavily-embroidered anecdotes by Arab admirers, or the romanticised journals of English adventurers such as Harry St. John Philby, father of Kim.

No such rosy legends surround the present crowd. Like the first amphibians that emerged from the primordial swamp, the sons of Abdulaziz hesitantly cope with their new environment. Self-consciously attempting to adapt to the harsh scrutiny of the modem media, they try to project an heroic image for the TV cameras.

The Saudi news bulletins faithfully record every ribbon cutting, every airport greeting ceremony, every conference on sewage treatment and every police graduation day graced by one of the noble few. Alas, they have been encouraged to believe that the more public exposure of members of the family the more honour and admiration will accrue.

I don’t think so. I believe that the more sophisticated the Saudis become the more they will laugh at their ponderous rulers and their endless ceremonies. It’s a pity, because the Royal Family have done Abdulaziz proud in propagating the dynasty he founded; there are now over five thousand direct descendants. What’s more, the Al-Saud have done a creditable job in steering the Kingdom on a stable course while all around erupts in flames of conflict. They just need better public relations.

However the family chooses to project itself in the future, it’s unlikely that the official line will allow any deviation from the theme that the Arabia of today would be no more recognisable without Abdulaziz’s contribution to its history than the film industry without Hollywood. It’s hard to argue with them about that assertion.

Now (2017):

I might have added at the time that the TV coverage of all those ceremonies was usually accompanied by a stirring rendition of Colonel Bogey, which to us Brits at least, inevitably brought to mind Adolf Hitler’s deficiency in the testicle department.

The three main men at the time were King Fahad, his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, and Prince Sultan, all of whom were somewhat corpulent. I didn’t mention Faisal, perhaps the most effective of the sons of Abdulaziz, who had what Shakespeare would have described as a “lean and hungry look”. More about him and Abdullah later.

I think the key message I was trying to put across was that despite the unsophisticated and often downright clunky PR, the royal family projected and achieved stability over a long period. But one person’s stability is another person’s inertia, and decades of “holding the line” have contributed to the sense that things must change – and fast.

Now, it seems, they have a smooth PR machine, but have they lost the stability? Has evolution been replaced by revolution?

Would Abdulaziz – the man who on his deathbed made his two eldest sons swear not to fight each other – be looking down in horror at the arrests of brothers and cousins?

Perhaps. He certainly would have admired the ruthlessness of the current Crown Prince. But I suspect that he would be reserving judgement until the consequences of Mohammed bin Salman’s actions become clear.

Finally, a story about Abdulaziz. When the King had the first telephone line installed between Riyadh and Jeddah, the religious sheikhs denounced this innovation as the work of the devil. He asked them whether the devil would tolerate the words of the Koran being transmitted through the phone. They had to admit that he would not. So the King arranged to call the sheikhs in Riyadh from his palace in Jeddah. And he recited the Koran. Hence perhaps the significance of the phone in the picture above, and evidence that he was not just a warrior king, but a man with political finesse when need be.

Further reading: Abdulaziz was by all accounts an extraordinary man. I’ve read a multitude of books about Saudi Arabia, but out of all of them Robert Lacey in The Kingdom, originally published in 1981, writes most compellingly about him. Still well worth the read.  For a thinly-disguised fictional account of the rise of Al-Saud, I recommend Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt trilogy, which I reviewed a few years ago. Here are the links for my reviews: – The Trench and Cities of Salt.


  1. Robert Lacey permalink

    Dear Steve,

    Another lovely piece — and thanks for the kind mention.

    Best wishes,

    Robert x x


  2. My pleasure Robert. What a shame that The Kingdom (according to Amazon at least) is no longer in print. Perhaps your publisher will think again in light of recent developments…. S

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