A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 24, 2014

Guest Post: Prince Charles' Sword Dance and the Early History of UK-Saudi Relations

We don't do many guest posts here, as most of the people I'd like to see post are too busy, and most who want to volunteer have agendas. I'm making an exception here because I thought this guest contribution by Paul Mutter was in keeping with my own penchant for using current events as a hook on which to hang historical narratives. And because I never posted about Prince Charles' sword dance last week, his little discourse serves as a commentary. Opinions expressed are his own, not mine or The Middle East Journal's.Michael Dunn 

Sword Dance

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at NYU. He has written for The Arabist, Souciant, PBS Tehran Bureau, Mondoweiss, and FPIF. He is doing his MA thesis on the GGC's responses to the Arab Spring.

It may seem ironic to see Prince Charles at a Wahhabi ceremony, seeing as how the Hashemites were originally the British favorites in the region. But the story of Sharif Hussein undone by the Ikhwan (Brethren) raiders of Ibn Saud is not simply one of Britain trading one native ruler for another when fortunes changed. British mistrust of the Hashemites (T. E. Lawrence's support for them notwithstanding) and wartime aid to the Saudis made their eventually triumph possible. Only after this did the discovery of oil seal the deal between the two powers.

Both Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and Sharif Hussein bin Ali were promised protectorate status and military assistance in exchange for fighting against the Ottoman Empire - for the Sauds, it took little inducement to do so because their greatest rivals in the Nejd, the Rasheeds, were in the Ottoman camp. Sharif, as is well known, sought to establish a new Arab country ranging across the region and taking in the Hejaz holy places his family had claim to (eventually declaring himself caliph in 1924 following Mehmed VI’s deposal by the new Turkish state).

Of course, problems arose from the fact that Ibn Saud was not going to simply satisfied with controlling the Nejd while the Hashemites received the Hejaz. The Eastern Province, at the time usually called "Bahrain" since that island was the liveliest and oldest locale in the area, was of minor consequence since its strategic oil reserves had not been gauged yet – exploration in that region would only begin in earnest in the 1920s. The real prize was the Hejaz.

Britain thought it could manage the rival Arab potentates and play them off of each other. Ibn Saud, though, generally got the better of a disinterested London and a much more supportive Raj. He skillfully exploited his 1915 agreement with the British envoy Percy Cox to let alone the Trucial States and Mesopotamia - which fell under the Raj's purview - to go after the hated Rasheeds and strengthen his position in the Hejaz among the Hashemites' rivals. As he won victories against his hereditary foes and the Ottomans, supported by British arms and funding, he was then able to win new treaty agreements that legitimized his gains.

His military successes might have all been for naught, though, had the British not had reservations about the Hashemites that tempered T. E. Lawrence's boosterism of the Sharif. The Saudi triumphs were acceptable moves in a game of playing one Arab clan against another.

Into the postwar era, some members of the British establishment expressed a preference for the Hashemites over the less cough House of Saud. An account of the Arab Legion written in the 1970s by a former British officer describes the Battle of Ziza, where a 5,000-strong Ikhwan raiding force into Transjordan was defeated by the RAF, as a success against those "[who] were determined to convert the people of Transjordan by the sword".

This battle, decided in 1924 by a handful of armored cars and biplanes, would presage an even more important event a few years later involving the Brethren and British arms.

In the meantime, during WWI, Hashemites were never fully accepted by the British establishment. Officials in India were set against the Sharif, disliking their lack of control over him and fearing his grand plans for the Arab world. They went with Ibn Saud in this partisan contest, favorably citing his claims that the Nejd would never kneel before Hussein, and accepting his assurances he had no designs on Mesopotamia or the Trucial States. Though other Arab leaders would decry his treaties with the British, Ibn Saud knew his position depended on honoring them – which caused no small amount of tensions among more ambitious Brethren leaders.

The two rival potentates traded barbs over their relatively piety and influence: Ibn Saud touted his Wahhabism, Hussein his dynastic claim to Mecca. But neither could sincerely accuse the other of “collaborating” with a colonial power: both did. The Hashemite record is better known, so linked to the exploits of T. E. Lawrence in popular memory, but the historian Scott Anderson notes that Ibn Saud was no different: "British India’s man in Arabia" is how he describes the future pater patriae. Saudi engagement with the Raj had begun as early as the 1820s, after the Ottomans destroyed the First Saudi State. The greatly weakened House - its patriarch was publicly executed in Istanbul in 1818 - sought British support in its intertribal conflicts thereafter. The Saudi royal family even took refugee in British Kuwait in the 1890s after a failed assault against the Rasheeds.

Perhaps British India also thought Ibn Saud's puritanism could never glue a people together like Hussein's credentials could, and whomever Wahhabism did glue together would be of no consequence in the Imperial order. Just another beduin to be managed. Perhaps that would have been true, had WWI not marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, nor had oil been found in the Middle East in 1902.

In any event, the Saudis proved colonial bureaucrats’ assessments wrong.

And Hussein was mistaken in assuming that a pan-Arab identity of his invention could smooth over the tribal, linguistic, and sectarian differences among the peoples he wished to incorporate into a kingdom. Hussein's son, Faisal I of Greater Syria, didn't last a year (1920) in Damascus, and Mecca was lost by 1924. Faisal brother’s Abdullah had to settle for the Transjordan after being dissuaded from marching on Damascus – ironically, it is this branch of the family, seen as the weakest, that has survived the longest in power despite threats within and without since the end of WWI.

But even in 1918, such events – the Iraqi and Syrian uprisings, the coming of ARAMCO, the Adwan Rebellion against British rule in Transjordan – were years off. The Eastern Province was not the energy larder of any power, and the UK was gaining control over half of the modern Middle East. What mattered was wartime expediency and managing new subject peoples. London and Cairo, influenced by T. E. Lawrence's reports, tended to favor the Hashemites over the House of Saud. The Raj's naysaying was not completely silenced, however, and British India more or less had its way in the end, since the UK did not come to the Hashemites' aid in the 1920s when the Ikhwan made their final push on the Hejaz.

Given the bias of the Raj, which was responsible for the Gulf region, small wonder that the British quickly reconciled themselves to the new Saudi reality after Battle of Jeddah (1925), when the Hashemites lost Jeddah and their abortive caliphate. Further British support was contingent on an end to Ikhwan raids into British territories, like the 1924 expedition halted at Ziza.

The Ikhwan eventually turned on their King because he had acceded to British demands to cease raiding into Transjordan and Kuwait in 1927 – whose borders the Ikhwan violated several times in the late 1920s.

Thanks to superior strategy and British-supplied equipment, though, Ibn Saud survived his levies’ rebellion.

In 1929, Ibn Saud's machine guns consignment and loyal Brethren factions smashed the massed cavalry of the rest. The "Ikhwan Revolt" soon ended in 1930 when its remaining leaders were interned in British Kuwait before being dispatched to Riyadh (and prison). Saudi Arabia began forming an army under a more bureaucratic control system to replace the decimated and resentful tribal levies with more loyal Brethren – who eventually became the Saudi National Guard that the present king, Abdullah, long commanded. British, and later  after WWII, American, assistance, helped build the Guard up.

What is ironic, given the role British armaments played in the Saudi unification wars, is that Saudi contracts are today helping keep British arms manufacturers afloat. According to Robert Lacey, since the 1980s, the Al-Yamamah arms deal (which in the end could be worth over US$80 billion, not including kickbacks) has stood between the life and death of British heavy industry.

Prince Charles may as well be performing that sword dance in tribute to his hosts' largesse to BAE. One wonders if such gestures were offered up to the Raj by the old king and his sons in 1932 when the battles finally ended and the modern Saudi state officially began.

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