Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Frontline's 'House of Saud' - History

I watched the Frontline special, House of Saud, last night. As a primer on Saudi history it would be hard to beat. There wasn't much new in the show but the images, especially the archival footage from the early 20th Century, were great. Some pictures are worth a thousand words. If you haven't yet seen it I do recommend it, though at two commercial-free hours it is rather long.

I have my criticisms of course, which I will detail in the next few post. First, Frontline did not give enough of the history of the Saud clan or the Wahhabi sect. The show began with the Saud family, lead by Ibn Saud, forming an alliance with the Wahhabist Ikwan and conquering the penninsula in the early 20th Century.

However, the Wahhab-Saud alliance goes back to the mid-1700s. Stephen Schwartz writes of this in The Two Faces of Islam: "By 1788, the Wahhab-Saud alliance controlled most of the Arabian Penninsula. (Starting in 1792 they extended) their raiding over the next three years to Medina, Syria and Iraq. These campaigns saw mass murder and rape of Shi'a Muslims as well as abherents of the Hanafi and other legal schools rejected by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab."

The Wahhab-Saud war against Shi'ism was particularly gruesome. Schwartz writes of their "extraordinary hatred" of Shi'ism. In 1801, the Saud-Wahhabists sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala, now in Iraq. In Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, Hamid Algar writes: "According to some accounts, the raid took place precisely on Muharram 10, the day on which Shi'is gather to commemorate the his martyrdom (Imam Husayn). If such was the timing of the assault, it must have been deliberately chosen to inflict maximum insult and pain on the Shi'is."

Algar then quotes a "matter-of-fact account of the atrocity" by a Saudi chronicler.

"The Muslims [i.e. the Wahhabis] scaled the walls, entered the city by force, and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes. Then they destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn by those who believe in such things. They took whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings. ... They stayed in Karbala for no more than morning, leaving around midday with all the property they had gathered and having killed about two thousand people."
These attacks on the Shia holy cities were a great shock to the Shi'a. Indeed Yitzhak Nakash, in The Shi'is of Iraq, says these attacks were a major factor in the rise of Shi'ism in Iraq. At that time Shi'as were a minority based mainly in the holy cities. The Shi'a lacked "a tribal army" to defend their shrines. "The Wahhabi attacks of Najaf and Karbala reinforced the sectarian idenity of the Shi'i ulama and increased their motivation to convert the tribes."

At this point the Wahhab-Saud alliance posed a threat to the Ottoman Empire, recently stunned by Napolean's invasion of Egypt. In 1811, Sultan Mahmed II dispatched Muhammad Ali Pasha, the overlord of Egypt and an Albanian tough guy, to subdue the Wahhab-Saudi rebels. Muhammad Ali was ruthless and brilliant. After an initial defeat he used artillery and, in Schwatz's words, "swept through western Arabia. ... Al Sa'ud's men fled before the punitive advance of the Ottoman army." Captured Wahhabi leaders were sent to Istanbul "where they were paraded through the streets before being executed, their severed heads posted in the imperial precincts." By 1818 the seat of Saud power was destroyed and the fouth Saud leader was sent to Istanbul and executed.

But like this was only a temporary setback for the Wahhabist Sauds. Which leads to my second criticism of the show. They ignored the role of the British in the rise of the House of Saud. By the later half of the 19th Century, the British were encroaching on Ottoman territory and were looking for local clients. The Saud clan was restless and looking for a patron. Algar: "The first contact was made in 1865, and British subsidies started to flow into the coffers of the Saud family, in ever growing quantity as World War One grew closer." In 1915 Ibn Saud agreed to a treaty, making his domain a British protectorate.

WWI destroyed the Ottoman Empire and left a power vacuum in the penninsula. Here is where Frontline begins the story. But it wasn't as simple as Ibn Saud and his Ikhwan allies riding around on camels conquering the Arabian Penninsula. Ibn Saud was aided in his conquest by a sinister British former colonial official and Muslim convert, St. John Philby (yes, the father of Russian spy Kim Philby). Philby Sr. served as an advisor, a sort of consigliere to the Saud ganster family, until his death in 1960. Strange that Frontline should leave out such an intriguing and pivotal figure.

As Frontline states, by 1925 the Saud family had conquered Mecca and Medina and united the Arabian Penninsula. However, Frontline glossed over what this entailed. Algar: "The second Wahhabi-Saudi conqest of the penninsula came at a cost of some 400,000 killed and wounded. In cities such as Ta'if, Burayda, and al-Huda, straightforward massacres were carried out by the Ikhwan. The governors of the various provinces appointed by Ibn Saud are said to have carried out 40,000 public executions and 350,000 amputations in the course of subduing the penninsula." Said Aburish, in The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, supports these figures adding that "the Ikhwan did not take prisoners." He claims that over a million people fled the territories conquered by Ibn Saud, becoming refugees in neighboring countries.

Frontline had nothing to say about the resistence to Ibn Saud. Aburish: "Between 1916 and 1928 there were no fewer than 26 anti-House of Saud rebellions by the Bedouins and each of them ended with the Ikhwan-led forces of Ibn Saud indulging in mass killings of mostly innocent victims, including women and children." Some tribes "show the after-effects of these massacres to this day, for there is a gap of a whole generation."

Frontline also gave little attention to the destruction of the Ikhwan, saying simply that Ibn Saud "crushed" them. How? Remember that the Ikhwan enabled Saud's conquest of the penninsula. Where did he suddenly get the power to crush so mighty a force? With British-supplier equipment, including armored personnel carriers. In a Saudi version of The Night of the Long Knives, the Ikhwan suffered a major defeat at the village of Sabila. Five thousand Ikhwan were killed. The survivors tried to flee to British-held Kuwait and Iraq but they encountered RAF air raids (which in the open desert you can imagine were quite devastating). The final few hundred Ikhwan surrendered and were handed over to Ibn Saud who imprisoned them.

This brings us to 1932 when Ibn Saud proclaimed himself King of Saudi Arabia, the only nation in the world named for a living family. I will continue my criticisms of the Frontline episode in subsequent posts.
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