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The Arab War ~ Chapter Four


[Arab Bulletin, 12 January, 1917]

episode in the Mesopotamian campaign no less picturesque to the onlookers than it was significant to those who have studied the course of Arabian politics. For the past century the history of the interior of the peninsula has centred round the rivalry between the Emirs of Northern and Southern Nejd, Ibn Rashid and Ibn Saud. When Abdul Aziz, the present representative of the house of Saud, was a boy of fifteen, the power of the Rashid touched its zenith; the great Emir Mohammed, Doughty’s grudging host, drove the Saud into exile and occupied their capital, Riyadh. For eleven years Abdul Aziz ate the bread of adversity, but in 1902, the Sheikh of Kuweit, on the Persian Gulf, himself at enmity with the Rashid, saw in the young emir a promising weapon and gave him his chance. With a force of some eighty camel riders supplied by Kuweit, Abdul Aziz swooped down upon Riyadh, surprised Ibn Rashid’s garrison, slew his representative and proclaimed his own accession from the recaptured city. The story of his bold adventure is part of the stock-in-trade of Bedouin reminiscence — the arrival of the tiny band at dusk in the palm-gardens south of the town, the halt till nightfall, the scaling of the palace wall by Abdul Aziz and eight picked followers, the flash of steel which roused and silenced the sleeping foe and, at dawn, the throwing open of the city gates to the comrades of the victor.

    The struggle was not over with the capture of Riyadh. In a contest, renewed year after year, Abdul Aziz recovered the territories of his fathers and made for himself a name which filled the echoing deserts. At length, in 1913, his restless energy brought him into fields of wider political importance. He seized the Turkish province of Hasa, formerly an appanage of Riyadh, ejected the Ottoman garrisons and established himself on the seaboard of the Persian Gulf. He was already on terms of personal friendship with Captain Shakespear, our Political Agent at Kuweit, and nothing was more certain than that his appearance on the coast must ultimately bring him into direct contact with Great Britain; but before the difficult question of his precise relationship to Constantinople had been adjusted, the outbreak of war with Turkey released us from all obligation to preserve a neutral attitude. In the winter of 1914 - 1915, Captain Shakespear made his way for the second time into Nejd and joined Ibn Saud, who was marching north to repel the attack of Ibn Rashid, engineered and backed by the Turks. The two forces met in Sedeir in an indecisive engagement in which Captain Shakespear, though he was present as a non-combatant, was wounded and killed. We lost in him a gallant officer whose knowledge of Central Arabia and rare skill in handling the tribesmen marked him out for a useful and distinguished career. His deeds have lived after him.

    Ibn Saud’s connection with us has received public confirmation in a durbar of Arab sheikhs held at Kuweit on November 20, where he was invested with the K.C.I.E. On that memorable occasion three powerful Arab chiefs, the Sheikh of Muhammerah, who, though a Persian subject, is of Arab stock, the Sheikh of Kuweit and Ibn Saud, Hakim of Nejd, stood side by side in amity and concord, and proclaimed their adherence to the British cause. In a speech as spontaneous as it was unexpected, Ibn Saud pointed out that, whereas the Ottoman Government had sought to dismember and weaken the Arab nation, British policy aimed at uniting and strengthening their leaders, and the Chief Political Officer, as he listened to words which will be repeated and discussed round every camp fire, must have looked back on years of patient work in the Gulf, and seen that they were good.

    Ibn Saud is now barely forty, though he looks some years older. He is a man of splendid physique, standing well over six feet, and carrying himself with the air of one accustomed to command. Though he is more massively built than the typical nomad sheikh, he has the characteristics of the well-bred Arab, the strongly marked aquiline profile, full-fleshed nostrils, prominent lips and long, narrow chin, accentuated by a pointed beard. His hands are fine, with slender fingers, a trait almost universal among the tribes of pure Arab blood, and, in spite of his great height and breadth of shoulder, he conveys the impression, common enough in the desert, of an indefinable lassitude, not individual but racial, the secular weariness of an ancient and self-contained people, which has made heavy drafts on its vital forces, and borrowed little from beyond its own Forbidding frontiers. His deliberate movements, his slow, sweet smile, and the contemplative glance of his heavy-lidded eyes, though they add to his dignity and charm, do not accord with the Western conception of a vigorous personality. Nevertheless, report credits him with powers of physical endurance rare even in hard-bitten Arabia. Among men bred in the camel-saddle, he is said to have few rivals as a tireless rider. As a leader of irregular forces he is of proved daring, and he combines with his qualities as a soldier that grasp of statecraft which is yet more highly prized by the tribesmen. To be ‘a statesman’ is, perhaps, their final word of commendation.

    Politician, ruler and raider, Ibn Saud illustrates a historic type. Such men as he are the exception in any community, but they are thrown up persistently by the Arab race in its own sphere, and in that sphere they meet its needs. They furnished the conquerors and military administrators of the Mohammedan invasion, who were successful just where Ibn Saud, if he had lived in a more primitive age, might have succeeded or failed (just as in a smaller field he may fail), in the task of creating out of a society essentially tribal, a united and homogeneous State of a durable nature. Mohammed el Rashid was the classic example in the generation before our own. He has been dead twenty years, but his fame survives. Like him, Abdul Aziz has drawn the loose mesh of tribal organization into a centralized administration and imposed on wandering confederacies an authority which, though fluctuating, is recognized as a political factor. The Saud have, in the palm-groves of Riyadh and oases of their northern and eastern provinces, Qasim and Hasa, wider resources, greater wealth and a larger settled population than the Rashid, and their dominion rests, therefore, on a more solid foundation; but the ultimate source of power, here, as in the whole course of Arab history, is the personality of the commander. Through him, whether he be an Abbasid Khalif or an Emir of Nejd, the political entity holds, and with his disappearance it breaks.

    If the salient feature of the Kuweit durbar was the recognition by the assembled Arab chiefs of the good will of Great Britain towards their race, it was the presence of an unchanging type of desert sovereignty, among conditions so modern that they had scarcely grown familiar to those who created them, which gave Ibn Saud’s visit to Basrah its distinctive colour. In the course of a few hours the latest machinery of offence was paraded before him. He watched the firing of high explosives at an improvised trench and the bursting of anti aircraft shells in the clear heaven above. He travelled by a railway not six months old and sped across the desert in a motor-car to the battle-field of Shaaibah, where he inspected British infantry and Indian cavalry, and witnessed a battery of artillery come into action. In one of the base hospitals, housed in a palace of our good friend the Sheikh of Muhammerah, he was shown the bones of his own hand under the Roentgen ray. He walked along the great wharfs on the Shatt el-Arab, through the heaped stores from which an army is clothed and fed, and saw an aeroplane climb up the empty sky. He looked at all these things with wonder, but the interest which he displayed in the mechanism of warfare was that of a man who seeks to learn, not of one who stands confused, and unconsciously he justified to the officers who were his hosts the reputation he has gained in Arabia for sound sense and distinguished bearing.

    ‘It is good for us’, said the Sheikh of Muhammerah, as the two chiefs took their leave, ‘to see your might.’ Those who heard him may well have found their thoughts reverting to a might greater and more constant than that of the War Lord, and looked forward to the day when we shall expound the science of peace instead of the science of destruction.

G. L. B.