Wahhābīism Strengthens in Saudi Arabia

In 1912, a militant Wahhābī group of young Islamic fanatics known as the Ikhwan emerged as a security threat in Saudi Arabia, where they conducted raids against the Hashemite monarchy. Appointing himself as their leader, Ibn Saՙūd eventually emerged as king of the Saՙūdis, but in 1926, the Wahhābī rejected some of Ibn Saՙūd’s modernist policies, and he put down the rebellion in 1929.

Summary of Event

Ibn Saՙūd’s remarkable career began in January of 1902, when as PrinceՙAbd al-ՙAzīz he led a surprise attack on Riyadh that retook the city for the house of Saՙūd. This daring exploit earned him two titles: the Imam of the Wahhābīs and the emir of Nejd (the central province of Saudi Arabia). The house of Saՙūd’s alliance with Wahhābīism began in the eighteenth century with the emergence of a puritanical preacher from Nejd named Sheikh Muḥammad ibnՙAbd al-Wahhāb who was taken up by Sheikh Muḥammad ibn Saՙūd. The two families were a powerful combination: Wahhāb’s spiritual zeal was promoted by ibn Saՙūd’s power, and the Wahhābīs continued to serve as spiritual advisers to the house of Saՙūd in modern times. Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
Religious movements;Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
Saudi Arabia;Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
[kw]Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism Strengthens in Saudi Arabia (1912-1929)
[kw]Saudi Arabia, Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism Strengthens in (1912-1929)
[kw]Arabia, Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism Strengthens in Saudi (1912-1929)
Religious movements;Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
Saudi Arabia;Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
[g]Saudi Arabia;1912-1929: Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism Strengthens in Saudi Arabia[03000]
[c]Government and politics;1912-1929: Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism Strengthens in Saudi Arabia[03000]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1912-1929: Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism Strengthens in Saudi Arabia[03000]
Ibn Sa{ayn}{umacr}d
Wahh{amacr}b, Mu{hsubdot}ammad ibn {ayn}Abd al-
Ibn Bij{amacr}d
Luwai, Khalid ibn
Duwish, Faisal al-
Suleiman, Abdullah
Philby, H. St. John B.

A group of evangelical Wahhābīs sprang up in 1912 who called themselves the Ikhwan (brotherhood); they established Wahhābī religious settlements focused on farming and prayer. Ibn Saՙūd realized that he could put the Ikhwan’s fervor to good use, and he made himself their leader. The Ikhwan’s usefulness, however, was mitigated somewhat by their extremism: They whipped backsliders and forbade simple worldly pleasures such as smoking and playing music. (One Ikhwan tribal chieftain even took a pair of scissors to Ibn Saՙūd’s long robe.) The Ikhwan gradually came to be perceived as a group that posed as many risks as benefits to the Saՙūdi ruler, and eventually they became a liability.

The Ikhwan soon became impatient with Ibn Saՙūd’s passive response to the British and to the Hashemite sharif Hussein bin Ali from Jordan, but in May of 1919, when the Ikhwan and Hussein’s army marched to the village of Turaba (near Mecca) for a major engagement, Ibn Saՙūd’s Ikhwan annihilated the Hashemites during a night ambush. Ibn Saՙūd’s troubles with his Turkish-supported enemy, the Rashid family, led to a vicious battle in 1915 in which Ibn Saՙūd’s army was humiliated, but in November of 1921, Saՙūdi forces at the northern village of Ḥāՙil triumphed for good over the Rashids.

In 1922, the British high commissioner in Baghdad, Sir Percy Zachariah Cox, met with Ibn Saՙūd and Faisal I, Faisal I king of Iraq, at the city of Oqair on the Gulf coast. Together, they devised modern Iraq’s system of borders. But Ibn Saՙūd coveted the Hijaz, the strip of the Arabian Peninsula running alongside the east bank of the Red Sea and containing both Mecca and Medina, and when Hussein banned the Ikhwan from making the hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), in June of 1924, three thousand Ikhwan warriors under Sultan Ibn Bijād and Khalid ibn Luwai overran Taif, the summer capital of the Hijaz. Ibn Saՙūd kept the Ikhwan from assaulting Mecca, and in December of 1925 he completed his rule over the Hijaz by assuming control of Jidda, the vital Red Sea port.

The Ikhwan realized that Ibn Saՙūd’s addition of the worldly city of Jidda to his kingdom meant a change from their old desert ways, and they soon instituted strict Wahhābī prohibitions on the city’s citizens. Ibn Saՙūd met this problem by lifting restrictions on the Society for the Encouragement of Good and the Prevention of Evil and by seeking approval from the Jidda elite by prohibiting the Ikhwan from entering the city. But when Ibn Saՙūd appointed a former Egyptian schoolteacher named Hafez Wahba as the new governor of Mecca, he embittered his Ikhwan leaders, Sultan Ibn Bijād and Khalid ibn Luwai.

In June of 1926, the Ikhwan created a crisis for Ibn Saՙūd by attacking a procession of Egyptian pilgrims, an act of banditry that strained Ibn Saՙūd’s diplomatic relations with Egypt for ten years. By this time, the Ikhwan’s power had grown to intimidating levels: The group occupied more than one hundred villages and boasted an army of more than fifty thousand men. Ibn Saՙūd’s ploy of removing them to the Nejd region in the east failed because the restless Ikhwan began probing north into the Hashemite lands of Transjordan and Iraq in 1927. Hostilities around the borders continued for two years, despite Britain’s attempts to contain the raiders. But Ibn Bijād’s ill-advised march on Iraq in February of 1929 collapsed in the face of British arms, and his three thousand troops retreated into the Nejd, where they stirred up bad feeling by plundering some of their Wahhābī brethren.

By this time, Ibn Saՙūd realized he had to suppress his undisciplined followers, and he mustered an army to meet the rebels at the village of Sibilla, north of Riyadh. Long consultations with the Ikhwan leader Faisal al-Duwish proved futile, and on the morning of March 30, 1929, Ibn Saՙūd’s troops decisively routed the Ikhwan in a dawn battle. Ibn Saՙūd generously allowed Faisal to go home, and although the aging upstart continued to plot against his enemy, his feeble schemes came to nothing.


With the Ikhwan troubles behind him, Ibn Saՙūd felt emboldened to expand his power by abandoning his twin titles as king of the Hijaz and king of Nejd and its dependencies, combining them into his title as king of Saudi Arabia. In doing so, he became the ruler of more than one million people in a country that permanently carried the Saՙūd name. Only friction with Yemen disturbed Ibn Saՙūd’s rule, but that annoyance was solved in 1934 when he sent his son Faisal to quell the Yemeni upstarts. Ibn Saՙūd was a profligate spender, and only the efforts of his financial adviser, Abdullah Suleiman, kept his economy afloat. A chain of events starting in the late 1920 would change the house of Saՙūd’s finances forever.

In 1911, the British government signed the first of a succession of treaties protecting their interests in oil exploration in the Middle East. However, Ibn Saՙūd’s prospects did not improve until June 1, 1932, when Standard Oil of California (Socal) drilled a productive well in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia achieved statehood in the same year, but by this time Ibn Saՙūd was already relying on the advice of the British-born opportunist H. St. John B. Philby (father of the spy Kim Philby), and in May of 1933, Ibn Saՙūd and Socal signed their first agreement. A permanent camp was soon built, and Saudi Arabia’s importance continued to grow: When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order enabling lend-lease money to Saudi Arabia on February 18, 1943, he said, “I hereby find that the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
Religious movements;Wahh{amacr}b{imacr}ism[Wahhabiism]
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Further Reading

  • Aburish, Said K. The Rise, Corruption, and Coming Fall of the House of Saud. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Describes aspects of Wahhābī fanaticism.
  • Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. Oneonta, N.Y.: Islamic Publications International, 2002. Identifies Wahhābīism as intellectually “marginal” and “non-Sunni.”
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A close reading of Muḥammad ibnՙAbd al-Wahhāb’s writings that concludes he is not the ideological father of the modern terrorist movement.
  • Habib, John S. Ibn Saՙud’s Warriors of Islam: The Ikhwan of Najd and Their Role in the Creation of the Saՙudi Kingdom, 1910-1930. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1978. Classic account of the Saՙūdi kingdom’s development.
  • Holden, David, and Richard Johns. The House of Saud. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1981. An excellent history of its subject. Chapter 7, “Reaping the Whirlwind, 1922-30,” is especially informative.
  • Schwartz, Stephen. The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saՙud, from Tradition to Terror. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Chapter 4, “Global Gamblers: The Wahhabi-Saudi Conquest of Arabia,” tells the story of Ibn Saՙūd and the Ikhwan. Schwartz’s relentless criticism of Wahhābīism is sharply rejected in Natana J. DeLong-Bas’s book.

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