Read our exclusive interview with Sir Alan Munro about his experience as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. [
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Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 was not only an attempt to hijack by force that independent sheikhdom. It also delivered a set of severe shocks to Iraq’s much more substantial southern neighbour, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
These serious jolts, the effects of which are still at work, precipitated a number of sensitive issues for Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, for the nature of her political society, for her relations with the outside world, and for her finances, as well as calling into question her defence capability. Not least, the arrival of great numbers of foreign, and in particular non-Moslem, troops to help defend the Kingdom and drive Iraq out of Kuwait produced a major dilemma for the government and for public opinion in the face of the exclusive and conservative religious attitudes which remain deeply rooted in Saudi society. All these aspects were to have an important bearing on the Saudi handling of the Kuwait crisis.
From Britain’s point of view they had a direct influence on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the members of the remarkable military coalition to which she acted as host. They affected the work of diplomats, and conditioned the daily existence of the large community of British citizens who shared those difficult times with the Saudis and Kuwaitis and made their willing contribution on the home front.
To understand better the sensitivity and complexity of the background to this unprecedented exercise in co-operation which Iraq’s leader sprung so suddenly upon us all in Arabia in the high summer of 1990, it is important to have an idea of the spirit and the society of this unconventional Kingdom, which suddenly found itself propelled into the limelight it had always sought to avoid.
Saudi Arabia is not Sparta. For all their feuding Bedouin background, her people have experienced no more than skirmishes since 1932, when King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, known in the West as Ibn Saud, established the Kingdom as we know it today through a process of conquest and tribal consolidation. This began with a bold and successful raid in 1902 on Riyadh, right in the heart of the country.
The town was then a small mud-walled oasis in Nejd, the province from which the Al Saud family had governed the central deserts of Arabia since the middle of the 18th century. They had exercised their authority through military domination over the tribal confederations and scattered settled oases, buttressed by a spiritual leadership derived from their association with a rigorous Puritanism involving a strict interpretation of the teaching of the Koran and its associated Hadith, or traditions. This fierce reformist movement had taken hold among the peoples of central Arabia through the preaching of one Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a revivalist teacher who was invited under the protection of the ruling Al Saud around the year 1740; hence the term Wahhabis by which the adherents of this movement have come to be known, both within Arabia and further afield.
Building on this potent religious partnership, the Al Saud extended their sway out of their homeland in Nejd throughout much of the Arabian peninsula, including parts of the Gulf coast as far south as Oman, and northwards into the Ottoman-ruled territory of Iraq. In 1803 they occupied the Red Sea province of Hejaz, containing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which were governed on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople by an appointee from the Al Sherif family, descended from the Prophet Mohammed.
Al Saud rule within Arabia during the course of the 19th century was an uneven affair. They were four times driven out of the Nejd heartland and into exile by military expeditions organized by the Sultan, to whom, as holder of the Caliphate, a title which was anathema to the purist followers of the teachings of Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the Al Saud rule represented a twofold threat, political as well as religious, to Turkish influence. Their first and most significant defeat was at the hands of the Egyptian general, Ibrahim Pasha, who, acting on behalf of his father, Mohammed Ali, the Sultan’s viceroy in Egypt, and in response to an act of iconoclastic fanaticism carried out at the Prophet’s tomb in Medina by followers of the Al Saud ruler in 1810 on the occasion of the Hajj, or pilgrimage, undertook a prolonged and bitter campaign against the Al Saud and their Bedouin allies, which ended six years later with the destruction of the Al Saud capital, Dira’iyah, near Riyadh.
The family’s final exile occurred in 1885; weakened by rivalries and following defeat in the field by the Al Rashid of Ha’il, the second most powerful family within central Arabia who had joined forces with the Turks against the Al Saud, the Amir Abdul Rahman took refuge among the Bedouin in the Eastern Province of al Hasa. He subsequently lived in Kuwait in the mid-1890s, under the wing of its forceful ruler, Sheikh Mubarak al Sabah, whose small territory had benefited from British protection against Turkish and Al Rashid incursions for some 15 years.
It was from Kuwait and with the backing of Skeikh Mubarak, that the future King Abdul Aziz Al Saud set out in 1902 to recapture Riyadh from the Al Rashid, and so set in hand the restoration of his family’s rule and the eventual creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was thus a twist of historical irony, not lost on the present generation of the Al Saud, that when forced into summary exile by Iraq’s military strike in the early hours of 2 August 1990, nearly a century later, it should have been to the Al Saud that the Al Sabah of Kuwait turned for refuge, and were readily given shelter.
The 30 years between the recapture of Riyadh and the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 represented a remarkable achievement in statecraft on the part of King Abdul Aziz. Through an incessant series of military campaigns, tribal and dynastic alliances, religious persuasion, diplomatic confrontation and magnanimity, and above all sheer force of personality, he succeeded in forging a state over two million square kilometers in size. This involved the successive incorporation of the Eastern Province following the ousting of, and subsequent reconciliation with, the Al Rashid; the assumption of authority over the mountainous Asir on the southern Red Sea coast, largely through a campaign led by the future King Faisal and involving the puritanical Wahhabi fighting levies; and finally in 1925 the military takeover of the Hejaz and its holy places from a failing Sherif Husain of Mecca and his son, Ali. The consolidation of the Kingdom was rounded off in a frontier war with Yemen which culminated in the Treaty of Taif in 1934. The borders with Yemen were only partly delineated, however, a deficiency which was to fester in animosity that infected Saudi-Yemeni relations during the Gulf War.
A further remarkable aspect of King Abdul Aziz’s formation of his huge kingdom, when seen against the background of the extensive Western involvement in the politics of the Middle East during the first half of this century, is that it was achieved with a minimum of outside sponsorship or interference. The entry of Turkey into the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria prompted a relationship with Great Britain, through which Abdul Aziz was able to increase his control within Nejd as a result of a supply of weapons and a small British subsidy he was given to keep the Turks and their Al Rashid associates on the hop. The relationship was fostered in intermittent fashion by a handful of British officials.
Notable among these was Captain William Shakespear, the political agent in Kuwait, who lost his life when he accompanied Abdul Aziz’s forces into an inconclusive battle against the Al Rashid at Jarrab, south of Ha’il in 1915. Another influential figure was Sir Percy Cox, the political resident in the Persian Gulf base at Bushire, who negotiated agreements with Abdul Aziz in Qatif in 1917 and at Uqair in 1922. These accorded a measure of British military support, fixed an annual subsidy and settled disputed frontiers with the British-protected territories of Iraq and Kuwait. Most significant of all was Harry St John Philby, who was to remain a close adviser to King Abdul Aziz, though increasingly hostile to British interests, right up to the King’s death in 1953. So bitter did Philby become at what he regarded as Britain’s failure to back the Al Saud in the Arabian territorial stakes after the First World War that, according to the eye-witness account of one of King Abdul Aziz’s most senior sons, he went so far on one occasion in the late 1930s to urge the King to align himself with Nazi Germany. Abdul Aziz’s sharp reproof was to order Philby from the council chamber. These views earned Philby a spell of detention when he returned at the outset of the Second World War.
This early relationship with Britain was solid enough, but never particularly close. Until the ending of the Sharifian rule in the Hejaz in 1925, alliance with the Al Saud took second place in the scale of British interests in Arabia to support for the Hashemite rulers of Mecca. This partnership was notable during the First World War for the revolt against Turkish rule by the Arab forces of the sons of the Sharif who, with the support of British irregular units including Colonel T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), helped drive the Turks out of the Hejaz, Transjordan and Syria.
With the ending of British subsidies to both the Sharif Husain and Abdul Aziz in 1923, the Al Saud saw themselves with a free hand so far as British interests in the Hejaz were concerned. Their subsequent occupation of the Hejaz was recognized by the British government in a treaty signed at Jedda in 1927 when King Abdul Aziz for his part accepted the British-installed Hashemite rule in the new post-war kingdoms of Transjordan and Iraq, as well as British protection of the Gulf sheikhdoms. He also received backing from Britain in confronting a growing challenge to his authority at home from the puritanical Wahhabi contingents, whom he had recruited as the shock troops of his campaigns throughout Arabia. Some of these had begun to chafe at what they saw as restraints on their zealotry as Abul Aziz sought to absorb and accommodate the various elements of his new state. The subjugation of these fanatical warriors was the first major test of King Abdul Aziz’s authority, and it took force to achieve. Their legacy of aggressive piety has remained a powerful strand within Saudi society to this day, and was to resurface and call for sensitive handling when Western ‘infidel’ forces made their reappearance in the Kingdom as part of the coalition assembled in 1990 to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
This consolidation of the new Kingdom by King Abdul Aziz was undertaken in circumstances of financial impoverishment, and without the benefit of the vast oil income with which Saudi Arabia is associated today. Oil was only discovered in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 1938 and its revenues did not become significant until after the Second World War. But just as significant for the future was the role foreign competition for the original oil prospecting concession was to play in establishing close links with the USA, which have meant so much to the subsequent history of the Kingdom.
Ever since the discovery of a substantial oilfield on the island of Bahrain in 1932 by the American firm Standard Oil of California (SOCAL), following an ill-judged conclusion by the British-dominated Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) that no oil existed there, eyes had been cast across the narrow Gulf shoals towards the area of Dhahran on the Saudi coast, where similar geological structures might be found. IPC remained skeptical but, as dog in the Persian Gulf manger, felt constrained to compete with the Americans when a drawn-out round of bidding took place in Jedda in the spring of 1933. Abdul Aziz was prepared for the sake of his old association with Britain to see the concession go her way. But IPC were easily outbid by SOCAL. It is said that it was the British minister in Jedda, Sir Andrew Ryan, who himself advised the King to take the Americans’ offer, which started with over GBP 50,000 in gold – it would be money for nothing…
Although it took six years of prospecting and near despair before the Dhahran field was located, the subsequent record of Saudi Arabian oil production, in partnership until the mid-1980s with the American oil industry, has been prodigious. 1938 saw a mere half a million barrels produced, rising to 21 million barrels in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Amid the crisis of the Iranian revolution in 1979 Saudi production peaked at 11 million barrels a day, dropping to as little as one-third of this figure in the glut conditions of the mid-1980s. By the end of the Gulf War production had climbed again to over eight million barrels a day, and Saudi Arabia was estimated to have a quarter of the world’s oil reserves at her disposal.
It was the safeguarding of the American oil concession, as much as concern over the implications for the Middle East of East-West rivalry following the Second World War, which introduced an important political and military ingredient into Saudi-American relations from the mid-1940s onwards. In 1945 the US government decided to press ahead with the construction of a military airbase at Dhahran, as an earnest of longer-term American interest in Saudi Arabia. This same base, long since under full Saudi control, was to play a key part in the air war to recover Kuwait in 1991.
Thus by the time of his death in 1953 at the age of 77, and 51 years after he had reasserted the authority of the Al Saud by capturing the Riyadh citadel, Abdul Aziz succeeded in uniting and pacifying the greater part of Arabia, establishing a kingdom with the apparatus of modern administration, securing its economic prosperity, and setting a pattern for security and stability within a framework of foreign alliance. This was a phenomenal achievement by any standard. Moreover, it took account of the tribal traditions of Arabian society, and of the conservative and uncompromising religious strand that was such a predominant feature of popular attitudes and behaviour, particularly within the desert heartland of Nejd. This puritanical outlook, which to the outsider, whether Muslim or not, can amount to narrow bigotry, had seen some of its excesses curbed by force of arms when in the early 1930s King Abdul Aziz recognized that the fanaticism of his religious warriors was becoming a threat to the new state itself. But the King also realized that in this environment of piety the exercise of authority had to be shared with the religious establishment, acting through a council of clerical elders or ‘ulema.’ Thus religious fervour should become a force for stability within the Kingdom and not a focus of disruption.
In the 50 years since King Abdul Aziz’s remarkable reign, the four sons who have so far succeeded to the throne have carried forward their country’s development without seeking to challenge the pattern of centralized government which he bequeathed. The two most substantial reigns, those of King Faisal from 1964 until his assassination by a fanatic member of the Al Saud in 1975, and of King Fahd from 1982 to the present day, have seen oil wealth deployed to develop a modern economic infrastructure and a system of social welfare, as well as to build up a military capability that can at least stand guard over the Kingdom’s sprawling frontiers and serve as a first line of deterrence to potential hostility on the part of neighbours, who in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics over these last four decades have cast covetous or subversive eyes upon Saudi Arabia’s economic prosperity and political stability. The result for Saudi society has been an era of peace and a turning away from martial feuding. Perhaps uniquely among Arab states, military parades are not a feature on the Saudi public agenda.
This stability and security has had its price. Opposition among sectors of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Islamic society to what they see as an unwelcome compromise between the ruling Al Saud and an infidel West has continued as a latent factor in the political life of the Kingdom, erupting periodically in outbursts of protest, as occurred over the obtrusive presence of Western forces during the Kuwait crisis, and even by violence, as happened in 1979 when a group of fervid fanatics, led by a member of a prominent Bedouin family, Juhaiman al Otaibi, seized the Great Mosque of Mecca in the cause of millenarist reform and were only dislodged with considerable loss of life. It has generally been the custom of the Al Saud to meet these tides of puritan opinion, which have demonstrated renewed vigour since the shock of the Gulf War, with a blend of conciliation and concession, and only rarely to resort to force. The voice of the clerical establishment is not to be disregarded in the formulation of policy in Saudi Arabia, although at the end of the day the Al Saud hold to Erastian principles and insist on the final word.
Outside her borders Saudi Arabia has over the years made an art of financial diplomacy, whereby she has sought to avoid confrontation by buying off through judicious subvention those who might disturb her prosperous existence. As is the way of the world such responses have rarely earned gratitude. Envy at the wealth of Saudi Arabia and of her oil-producing gulf partners has become endemic in the popular attitudes of less well-endowed Arab states. This reflex had much to do with the degree of popular support which Saddam Hussein sough to exploit within the Arab world when he moved to seize Kuwait in August 1990. Yet the record of Saudi aid to her Arab partners has been far from parsimonious. Goaded by derogatory Iraqi propaganda in the early stages of the confrontation over Kuwait, the Saudi government broke with its customary avoidance of publicity for its regional aid and revealed that help accorded in crude oil and financial credits to Iraq during her ill-advised war with Iran alone, up to its armistice in 1988, had totaled over $25 billion.
Saudi diplomacy has, however, more to it than money. The past decade has seen the Kingdom coming out of its shell and taking a more assertive role in regional affairs, as King Fahd has set himself to work for the moderating of some of the more intractable and acute disputes which could threaten his country’s stability and put its cohesion and prosperity at risk. Of major local significance as part of this activity was the association in 1982 of Saudi Arabia and her five Arab neighbours along the western Gulf coast in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). This required putting aside of long-standing rivalries over issues of tribe and territory, the better to face a common threat of Iranian hostility during the Iran-Iraq war. Saudi Arabia’s hand has also been in evidence in problems on a wider Arab front, including a consistent and effective prompting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to adopt a less uncompromising position towards Israel. She has also assumed a leading role in working for an end to the Lebanese civil war. These are cases where Saudi Arabia’s style of private intercession has met with a measure of success.
But there are shadows which linger from the days of conquest, notably unresolved border problems with Yemen, and an edginess to relations with Jordan which has its root in King Abdul Aziz’s takeover of the Hejaz from the Hashemite forebears of King Hussein. Relations with Iran too are intrinsically precarious as a consequence of historical rivalry between Sunnism and Shi’ism, the two main branches of Islam. The puritanical Wahhabi elements within Saudi Arabia tend to despise Iran’s dominant Shi’ism, while the militant zealotry which has emerged as a prominent feature of Iranian policy since the revolution of 1979 has not hesitated to challenge Saudi Arabia’s jealously-guarded role as protector of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and host to the annual pilgrimage. On the other hand there is no tradition of ill-feeling between the Kingdom and Iraq. The tribes and traders of northern Arabia have long had close ties with Basra and Baghdad and, despite Saudi Arabia’s reservations over the wisdom of the quarrel Iraq’s leadership picked with Iran in the 1980s, her support was readily forthcoming. In Saudi eyes it was Shi’a Iran that posed the greater threat to the calm and prosperity of the peninsula.
Thus Iraq’s brutal seizure of Kuwait came as all the more of a shock from this Arab quarter. It aroused a profound sense of betrayal and anger in the minds of King Fahd and the Al Saud. This sentiment was widely shared within the Kingdom at large, mixed with a bewilderment at the possibility of a physical threat to their placid and insular existence. The sword emblazoned upon the Kingdom’s flag, and used to effectively by King Abdul Aziz in creating the nation, had been sheathed for nearly 60 years until Saddam Hussein obliged it to be drawn once again. Quite possibly the Iraq leader estimated that he could get away with intimidating a nation and a regime whose martial edge appeared blunted by comfortable and complacent decades of oil-fed plenty. If so, this was to be a serious miscalculation.
For the Saudi Arabia which was pitchforked in the eye of international crisis was a complex amalgam of pride and prejudice. To the outside world, and particularly in the West, the Kingdom had acquired a stereotyped image of a wealthy and arrogant society, wary of foreigners and their ways and inscrutable both in the process of government and in the conduct of private life. The Western press, too often frustrated at denial of access to see the country at first hand, sought in response to paint an exaggerated and inconsistent picture of Arabian Nights ostentation coupled with vivid accounts of family feuding, puritanical zealotry and harsh Islamic punishment. These caricatures tended to be unfair and grossly overdrawn. They missed the point that Saudi Arabia had remained since King Abdul Aziz’s day, and despite the materialistic effect of unforeseen riches, a society which took itself and its practice of religion seriously, to an extent not seen in the West for over 200 years. It was not a particularly hardworking society nor by any means a killjoy one, but it accepted a culture in which piety conditioned pleasure, rigorous laws received through religious tradition were strictly and systematically applied, and the influence of external cultures was widely regarded as pernicious.
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This last aspect, the source of an intolerance involving irksome and bigoted prohibitions and curbs on the activities of the multitude of foreigners who have found good employment in the Kingdom, was in large part due to the fact that alone among the countries of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia had never been protected, administered or even challenged by European or Western powers. She was ruled by a talented dynasty which could claim to have the longest suit of authority in all of Arabia, and had managed its fief in paternalistic fashion as a beneficial family co-operative. It has created the physical attributes of a modern and independent state within the cocoon of a confident and stable society which to outside eyes had its anachronisms, but which enjoyed strong cohesion within itself. The insidious and discredited currents of Egyptian-led pan-Arab republicanism of the 1950s and 1960s had been kept at bay. A wary and precarious compromise had been struck between the benefits of technology and materials comforts of Western culture on the one hand, and on the other a devout interpretation of Islam’s ethical code and the ‘Shari’a’ law through which this was applied. The give and take of this sensitive compact with the West and its ways, by which the Al Saud governed their desert kingdom, was to be put to the test by the Gulf War.