Close Window


"The Kingdom"

From: Chapter 5, Faisal, World Leaders Past and Present.

The new nation of Saudi Arabia soon received diplomatic recognition from the other countries of the world; again, the Soviet Union was first. Faisal embarked on a diplomatic tour of European capitals. This time, he visited Moscow in acknowledgement of the Soviets' recognition of the new Saudi nation and toured the Soviet Union's southern republics, where many of the people are Muslim. Nevertheless, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union would never become warm. Unlike the Muslims of Egypt and Syria, who would later be strongly influenced by Soviet communism, the Saudis would always remain firmly opposed to any system of government that endorses atheism, the denial of the existence of God. As king, Faisal would view the Soviet Union as an enemy and a dangerous presence in the Middle East.

Faisal's 1932 European trip was made for diplomatic purposes, but it also brought him a new wife. He had already been married twice, but both marriages were made for political purposes, as was often the case among Saudi princes and princesses; marriage was regarded as a good way to seal an alliance or to heal a rift between enemy clans. Faisal's first wife had borne his oldest son, Abdullah. His second wife had been a member of the powerful Jaluwi clan, allies of the Saudis from the time of the capture of Riyadh. This marriage had produced two more sons, Khalid and Saud. Some of Faisal's eight daughters were born during these marriages as well, but information about Saudi princesses is considered private and is rarely available outside the family.

Faisal's third wife was a young woman he met in Istanbul, Turkey, on his way home from his diplomatic tour. Her name was Iffat al-Thunayan, and she was the niece of Ahmad al-Thunayan, who had accompanied him on his trip to London in 1919. She and her mother had lived in Turkey for years.

Her father had recently died, but the inheritance of some land he owned near Taif was in dispute. Iffat's mother, hearing that the Saudi king's third son was passing through Istanbul, called on him to ask for his help in straightening out her property claim. Faisal was much taken with his visitor's daughter and invited both women to come to Jidda, where it would be easier to resolve the dispute. Soon after their arrival in Jidda, Faisal married Iffat.

Faisal is generally believed to have settled down with Iffat, living quite happily with her alone. Her influence on the life of Saudi Arabian women was to be a great one, and she alone, of all the Saudi royal wives, was called queen by the people, even though that formal title does not exist in Saudi Arabia.

Faisal and his new wife maintained a number of residences. They made their home in Mecca in the viceroy's palace, and from there Faisal administered the affairs of the province. When he had time, the prince pursued his reading of Arab poetry and religion, and he often said how pleasant it was to read the Koran in the Prophet's own city. He had little time for such scholarly pleasures, however, because he also spent much time in Jidda, acting as foreign minister. There he set up his offices in a palace that the people soon referred to as the Viceroy's Lodge. His home in Jidda was a modest villa outside the city.

He also maintained a small palace in Riyadh, which had been made capital of the new nation. This palace was built, like all the buildings at that time, of mud-brick, with thick walls for coolness, many small courtyards so that the members of the family could find privacy, and a majlis, or council room, where the head of the household served coffee to visitors and advisers every evening.

The 1930s were a time of happiness for Faisal as he enjoyed his marriage with Iffat and administering his portion of his father's kingdom in the dual role of viceroy and foreign minister. He settled disputes between merchants and the ulema. He held his own with foreign diplomats. Above all, he sharpened his negotiating skills as a fund-raiser, seeking loans from other nations.

At this time, Saudi Arabia's only sources of income were the head tax, a small yearly payment required of every citizen, and the taxes and fees paid by Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Ibn Sa'ud had enjoyed his cash subsidies from the British. He spent the money lavishly and without much thought for the future, hosting huge banquets daily to feed as many as 300 guests and rewarding wandering poets with handfuls of gold coins. Now that the British aid had ended, he needed money simply to maintain his kingdom. Faisal, his foreign minister, was too smart, however, to accept foreign loans that would tie Saudi Arabia too closely to other nations. Ibn Sa'ud, therefore, was forced to look elsewhere for a source of cash, and he found one right under his feet.

Oil had been found in great quantities in Iraq years before. For some time, geologists had speculated that oil might also lie nearer the Persian Gulf in Arabia. Some places in Nejd, especially in the al-Hasa region near the coast, were known to have springs of pitch, a form of petroleum tar that wells up from beneath the ground. These seepages of pitch usually meant that petroleum deposits were nearby. In the early 1930s, Ibn Sa'ud permitted severed geologists to survey parts of his kingdom. He knew that they were looking for oil, but he did not expect them to find it—nor did he fully understand how valuable it might prove to be. "Just find me some wells of water for my people," he begged the geologists, and he was delighted when they did so.

By 1932, the presence of these geologists in Arabia had given rise to rumors that oil had been found there. Several foreign companies became interested in getting the Saudi oil concession, a form of contract in which a foreign company provides the money and skill necessary to extract the oil and shares the profits with the country that owns it. At this time Harry St. John Philby, the British diplomat who had become a Muslim and now lived in Saudi Arabia, entered the picture.

Philby orchestrated a bidding war that pitted the British against the Americans. Companies from both countries sent representatives to Jidda, but only Philby was allowed to approach the king directly. He knew that Ibn Sa'ud did not really care who got the concession, so long as he got the best price for it. The king, in fact, doubted whether the oil really existed. After months of negotiation, during which Philby bustled importantly from Jidda to Riyadh and back, each side made its final offer. The Americans, a team of companies headed by Standard Oil, offered a down payment five times greater than that offered by the British. The U.S. companies were willing to pay about $250,000—and they agreed to pay in gold coins, the only kind of money that Ibn Sa'ud really trusted.

Philby passed the American contract on to Abdullah Suleiman, the king's finance minister, who read it aloud to Ibn Sa'ud. As he droned on through clause after clause of fine print, the king dozed off. When Suleiman fell silent, the king awoke with a start. He turned to his roomful of advisers and asked whether they approved of the contract. As he expected, they all nodded yes. "Very well," he told Suleiman. "Put your trust in Allah and sign." And that was the beginning of Saudi Arabia's petropower and petrodollars.

Ibn Sa'ud was pleased to get the concession money, but he did not expect anything further from the oil deal. Engineers and equipment arrived along the Persian Gulf coast, and the slow work of hunting for oil began. In the meantime, affairs on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula occupied the king's attention and drew Prince Faisal into another war.

The Saudi clan had long been on friendly terms with Imam Yahya. He was the ruler of Yemen, the country on the southwest coast of Arabia. In the spring of 1934, however, war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

There are two contradictory accounts of why the war started. The Saudis claim that tribes from Yemen were raiding settlements in Asir, which was now part of Saudi Arabia, and that Ibn Sa'ud attacked Yemen only to protect his own people. The Yemenis claim that Ibn Sa'ud was greedy to expand his territory and that Yemen was the only part of the Arabian Peninsula the Saudis could attack without getting into trouble with the British. The border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen had never been clearly demarcated; for generations Yemeni tribes-people had wandered through the region to graze their herds or carry out raids.

Whatever his motives, Ibn Sa'ud sent his army south toward Yemen in two columns. The first, under Faisal, marched along the Red Sea coast and captured the city of Hodeida. The second, under Saud, marched across the inland mountains. Three British warships anchored offshore near Hodeida to protect the East Indians who owned businesses in Yemen but were British subjects. Faisal's troops kept good order, however, and there was no looting or violence. Saud had more trouble. His troops, accustomed to marching and fighting on the flat plains of the desert, were not at their best in the steep and rocky gorges of the mountains. The snipers of the hill tribes halted his progress well short of Sana, the capital of Yemen, which was his goal.

Faisal was certain he could take Sana without difficulty, and he was about to begin the attack when he received a message from the king telling him to withdraw. Faisal ignored the telegram and continued his advance, the only time in his life that he would defy his father. But his defiance was shortlived: When a second message arrived, Faisal called a halt.

Saudi legend abounds in speculation about the contents of the king's second message; some versions even have Ibn Sa'ud threatening to cut off his son's head if he did not obey. No one is sure what it said, but it must have been something very forceful—Ibn Sa'ud did not tolerate disobedience—and it prompted Faisal to retreat to Hodeida. There he learned that his father and Imam Yahya had agreed on peace terms. The border between the two countries was subsequently marked out officially, and Yemen had to pay Saudi Arabia an amount equal to the cost of the war.

Despite Ibn Sa'ud's momentary displeasure, Faisal was viewed as a hero for his successes in the Yemen campaign, and upon his return he was greeted with full honors by his father. Faisal's performance also served to point out Saud's lack of success in Yemen. The outcome of the six-week war was a better boundary in the south of the kingdom—and greater dissension between two of its princes.

The next five years passed fairly quietly for Faisal. He went about his business in Mecca and Jidda, with occasional trips to foreign capitals. But all the while, events elsewhere in the world were coming together in a way that would soon transform Arabia and the Middle East forever.

The first major event was the discovery of oil in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Americans had drilled six holes into a rock formation called Dammam Dome, the place that seemed to be the most likely site for petroleum deposits. Six wells had come up dry. A seventh well was dug, and initially it appeared equally unpromising. But the geologists decided to dig just a little deeper, and in March 1938 their patience was rewarded. Well Seven proved to be the lucky well. The drillers struck oil that flowed freely and fast. Saudi Arabia was in the oil business.

Ibn Sa'ud paid his first visit to the refinery, called Ras Tanura, as the first tanker load of Saudi oil was leaving the little harbor. He admired the wells, the pipeline, and the drilling equipment. Then he rode back to Riyadh, singing and shouting poetry with his brothers and sons in a half-dozen cars, clutching some of the $1 million he had received from the oil company in celebration of the strike. Immense wealth seemed just over the horizon.

But before it could materialize, world events interfered. In September 1939, World War II broke out, and with European and American tankers needed for wartime work, the young Arabian oil industry ground to a halt. The war also affected Saudi Arabia in a second way: the problem of Palestine, where an uneasy relationship between Jews and Arabs had already erupted into fighting on several occasions over the previous decade.

Jewish emigrants from Europe had been settling in Palestine since the late 19th century, viewing their immigration as a return to Zion, their ancestral home. Until they were expelled from Palestine between A.D. 70 and 135 by the Roman Empire, the Jews had lived in Palestine for centuries. The conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine began in the late 1800s, with the birth in Europe and Russia of the Zionist movement, which saw the return of Jews from around the world to their ancient homeland in Palestine as a religious, cultural, and moral duty—and as a means to escape the chronic anti-Semitism of Christian society in Europe.

When the first Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine, they found the region uncrowded and undeveloped, and many people thought that there was plenty of room for the Jewish newcomers. The Ottoman Turks, who then ruled Palestine as a remote outpost of their huge empire, welcomed the Jews on the grounds that they would help develop the region. By 1900, about 78,000 Jews lived there, making up 1 percent of the Jewish population of the world. But the Arab population of Palestine, about 650,000 strong, was becoming increasingly concerned. The Arabs—who had lived in Palestine for centuries and also thought of it as a holy land—wondered just how many Jews were planning to arrive.

In return for Arab assistance in World War I, when Britain conquered the Ottomans' Middle Eastern lands, the British promised Arab leaders that the former Ottoman colonies would be given their independence. At the same time, however, Britain made another promise: In return for the wartime aid of wealthy and powerful Zionist leaders, Britain assured the Zionists that it would favor the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine after the war.

It was obvious, of course, that Britain could not possibly keep both promises. As Jewish immigration increased in the 1920s and 1930s, so did Arab resentment. The Jews felt that they had a right to live in the land that had been their ancient home and the birthplace of their faith. The Arabs, on the other hand, felt that the land was theirs, because they had been its sole inhabitants for many centuries before the Zionists arrived. A peaceable solution seemed impossible. Violent incidents, such as bombings and assassinations, became increasingly frequent on both sides; in addition, both the Arabs and the Jews frequently attacked the governing British. In 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and began the full-scale persecution of Jews in that country, pressure to create a formal Jewish homeland in Palestine increased.

Of all Saudi Arabians, Faisal in his role as foreign minister probably had the greatest awareness of events in Palestine and Europe and what they might mean for Arabs everywhere. Early in 1939 he led a delegation of Arabs to an unsuccessful Arab-Jewish conference in London, and he was the only Saudi who was used to thinking in international terms. But once World War II broke out in September of that year, the British had more pressing concerns than that of finding a solution to the problem of Palestine.

Saudi Arabia did not enter the war. Ibn Sa'ud insisted on remaining neutral, in spite of the efforts of some of his advisers to draw him into the conflict as an ally of Germany. The war caused financial troubles to the Saudi government and hardship to the people because the country's oil income was cut off, and the number of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina decreased sharply. The wily king waited patiently to see which side offered him the greater advantage. When the Germans asked for permission to open an embassy in Jidda, Ibn Sa'ud granted it. But when the British agreed to help Saudi Arabia by providing wartime aid amounting to $1 million, the Germans were asked to leave. It is probable that Faisal counseled his father to bend his neutrality in the direction of the Allies.

If so, Faisal was wise. Had Saudi Arabia favored the Germans, it might well have been attacked by the Allied forces. As a neutral friend of the Allies, however, it remained in the good graces of the eventual victors. Even before the war ended, the United States made a gesture of friendship—probably aimed at protecting its claim on the Saudi oil fields. The American government invited Ibn Sa'ud or any member of his family to visit the United States.

The idea of the visit had originated a year or two before, when an American diplomat in Cairo happened to hear that Prince Saud had expressed a wish to see America. But when the official invitation was received in Riyadh, Ibn Sa'ud decided that Saud was not to go. Instead, he sent Faisal and his younger brother Khalid (who had been named after the brother who had died in infancy many years before). Although the decision was based on the younger princes' ability to get along with foreigners, it cannot have helped to heal the discord between Saud and Faisal. It pleased Faisal, however, who had already discovered that the good-natured, even-tempered Khalid was his favorite traveling companion.

The princes and their entourage arrived in Miami by airplane and then went on to Washington, D.C., the first stop on their itinerary. They were received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and honored with a state dinner at the White House. Faisal later met privately with the president. It is not known what the two men discussed, although they must have talked about the growing Arab concern over events in Palestine. But what most concerned them was the U.S. decision, made a few months previously, to provide loans and aid to Saudi Arabia.

The United States had shown no desire to give money to the Saudis until the middle of World War II, when the U.S. government began to fear it was running out of Texas oil, which was being pumped out at the rate of nearly 4 million barrels a day to support the war effort. The feeling quickly grew among statesmen that America should guard its own reserves by cultivating the friendship of nations with oil to spare. One result of this feeling was the prompt approval of a $33 million loan to Saudi Arabia.

After they had completed their visit to Washington, Faisal and Khalid went to New York, where they stayed at the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Their presence caused something of a dilemma for the hotel management. As always, Faisal was accompanied by Murzouq, his black slave and lifelong bodyguard; Khalid's slave-bodyguard was also in the party. When the royal entourage arrived in the hotel's elegant Wedgewood Room for dinner, Faisal and Khalid expected their slaves to dine with them as they had done since childhood. Fearful of causing an international incident, the hotel agreed—and two Arabian slaves became the first blacks ever permitted to eat in the Wedgewood Room.

While in New York, the princes were like any other tourists, eager to see what the big city had to offer. They visited the top of the Empire State Building, the Stock Exchange, and the Statue of Liberty. Then they took a cross-country train to the West Coast, where they spent a week in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their hosts, officials of the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco), escorted them to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and a Hollywood film studio. Returning east, the Arabian party stopped in Detroit, where the princes tried to buy 14 cars for their relatives at home; they were disappointed to learn that, under wartime regulations, only 2 cars could be shipped out of the country.

They spent another few days in Washington while Faisal and State Department officials ironed out the details of the loan. The prince once again brought up the subject of growing unrest among the Arabs of the Middle East over Zionism in Palestine. Then, although his plans called for him to return to Saudi Arabia, the prince decided to visit England, which was then under almost daily attack by the German air force.

The Arabians arrived in London in November. As they were driven to their hotel through the blacked-out city, they heard the sound of bombs falling not far away. Their escort asked if they would like to be driven to a nearby bomb shelter, but the princes hurriedly agreed that they would put their trust in Allah and stay above ground. They remained unhurt that night and throughout their visit, which included an audience with King George VI at the bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace. A few days later they flew to Gibraltar, then stopped briefly in the North African Arab nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt before returning to Riyadh after a three-month absence.

Ibn Sa'ud himself became interested in meeting Roosevelt and in early 1945 invited him to a meeting at the Suez Canal. The Saudi king and his entourage were taken aboard a U.S. destroyer while Roosevelt arrived on another ship to meet them. It was only the second time the king had left Arabia; the first had been during World War I, when he went to Iraq to see some British army camps.

The meeting between the Saudi king and the U.S. president proved to be something of a culture shock for both Arabs and Americans. The Americans were startled when Ibn Sa'ud's cook tried to lead 100 live sheep onto their ship, claiming that the king could not eat food from little cans and that he would certainly invite the sailors to a mutton feast every night. Finally, the cook and the ship's captain agreed on seven sheep for the king's use, and the cook promptly set about slaughtering and skinning one on the deck. The sailors were alarmed when the king's coffee servers kindled their open fires in the gun turrets near live ammunition. When the Saudis conducted their five-times-a-day ritual of facing Mecca and praying, the ship's compass was used to determine the precise direction for the prayers.

For their part, the Arabs were interested in the ship's armaments and in other aspects of American culture. They were shown a patriotic documentary film about the war in the Pacific, and Ibn Sa'ud worried about the possible harmful effects of movies on his people's religious devotion. He would have been far more worried if he had gotten wind of what happened below deck that night; hearing that a Hollywood comedy was being shown to the crew, Prince Muhammad wangled an invitation for himself and his brothers. The Arab princes sat in the front row of the mess hall and watched Lucille Ball scampering around a men's college in her underwear.

On the serious side, the meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Sa'ud, with Faisal at his side, betrayed a deeper clash of cultures. The two men talked about Palestine and about the Jews, millions of whom had been killed in Hitler's concentration camps. When Roosevelt asked whether the king agreed that the Jews deserved help, the king's answer was brief and to the point: "Give them the choicest lands of the Germans."

The truth of the matter was simply that the king, like all Arabs, was firmly opposed to the idea of a Jewish nation in Palestine. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had to face the political reality that American Jews strongly supported the creation of the Jewish state. The president felt, however, that Ibn Sa'ud's viewpoint should be heard, and he agreed to the king's suggestion that a delegation should be sent to the Western nations to explain the Arab point of view.

Roosevelt and Ibn Sa'ud parted on friendly terms. The king was confident that the American president understood his views on Palestine and would not support the Jews against the Arabs. Faisal, with more knowledge of international diplomacy and political realities, was not so sure.


Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Stefoff, Rebecca. "'The Kingdom'." Faisal, World Leaders Past and Present. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1989. (Updated 2007.) Modern World History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE53&iPin=WLPPF05&SingleRecord=True (accessed February 9, 2016).

Other Citation Formats:

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
American Psychological Association (APA) Format

Additional Citation Information


Return to Top

Record URL: