King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud

In the annals of the recent history of the Middle East, few events have had such a long-lasting and profound impact as one that took place some 250 years ago. In 1744 two men met in Dariyah, a town of mud houses and date palm groves, above Wadi Hanifah in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of that meeting the two formed an alliance to pursue ideals that set the stage for the establishment of a state that would later become synonymous with Islam, stability and prosperity and would enjoy recognition and influence in the far corners of the world.

During that meeting, Emir Muhammad Bin Saud, the ruler of Dariyah and the central Najd region of the peninsula, and Sheikh Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab, a Muslim scholar and reformer, reached a compact to dedicate their lives to restoring the pure teachings of Islam to the Muslim community. That meeting linked the lives of the two men and their descendants entirely to the pursuit of this lofty ideal, and in the process, established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The ruins of Dariyah

The most important result of that meeting was the institutionalization of a set of principles that has served as the main pillar of the Saudi State ever since - the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the sunnah (teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). This pillar, upon which every act of the State and its leaders have been based ever since, has provided an unshakable sense of continuity for the Kingdom, its rulers and its people, and has been the source of strength which has helped uphold the nation in times of peace and prosperity as well as adversity.

Fortified with the sense of commitment to a set of ideals laid down by God, the First Saudi State established by Muhammad Bin Saud prospered with the spiritual guidance of Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab, known simply as the Sheikh. Within forty years of that fateful meeting, Muhammad Bin Saud and his son and successor, Abdul Aziz, managed to garner the support of numerous tribes attracted to the rulers of Dariyah by the purity of Islam they upheld and the simplicity of their ruling style. By 1788, the Saudi State ruled over the entire Najd, the central plateau of the peninsula and, by the early years of the 19th century, over most of the peninsula, including the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

The ruins of Dariyah (top), the ancient Saudi capital and the renovated Masmak Fortress (above) in Riyadh are among Saudi Arabia's most famous historic landmarks.

Another of the attributes that attracted loyal followers to the Saudi State was the cohesion of the ruling family and the smooth transfer of power from one ruler to the next - unique characteristics at a time when most other ruling houses in the peninsula were steeped in factional fighting and grabs for power. In the decades following the fateful meeting between the two great men, the Saudi State continued to extend its influence in a stable manner as one ruler peacefully succeeded another.

The popularity of the Saudi rulers and their success aroused the suspicion of the Ottoman Empire, the then-dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa. In 1818, a vast expeditionary force armed with modern artillery, previously unseen in the peninsula, was dispatched to the western region of Arabia. Advancing to Najd, the Ottoman force besieged Dariyah, which by now had grown into one of the largest cities in the peninsula, and leveled it with field guns. Made permanently uninhabitable by the devastation wrought by the invading army, which fouled the water wells and even uprooted the date palms on whose fruit the inhabitants depended, the city was abandoned.

Shortly after the departure of the invading army, the Saudi ruler, Turki Bin Abdullah, transferred his capital to Riyadh, some 20 miles south of Dariyah, and established the Second Saudi State. To this day, Riyadh remains the Saudi capital. The ruins of Dariyah, named for the first Al-Saud to move to the Wadi Hanifah area from Qatif in the early 15th century - Mani' Al-Muraidi, known as Ibn Dar - have been preserved as a monument to the Saudi commitment to their just cause, refusal to be subjugated by foreign powers and resilience.

In addition to being considered a defender of the homeland against foreign invaders, Turki codified the laws that further strengthened public support for the Saudi State. During his eleven-year rule, Turki succeeded in retaking most of the territory lost to the Ottomans. As he expanded his rule, he took steps to ensure that the inhabitants of his far-flung Kingdom enjoyed rights, and he saw to their well-being. In a famous directive to the governors of the Saudi provinces, he instructed that weights and measures be standardized, instituted other practices to safeguard the possessions of citizens and introduced steps to ensure that all citizens had recourse to justice.

The traditional architecture of King Abdul Aziz's palace in Riyadh, seen here in the 1930s

Under Turki and his son Faisal, the Saudi State enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, with flourishing trade and agriculture. The calm was shattered by a renewed Ottoman campaign to extend its Middle Eastern empire into the Arabian Peninsula. Ottoman armies captured parts of the Saudi State inland as well as along the Arabian Gulf. With their support, the Al-Rashids of Hail made a concerted effort to overthrow the Saudi State. For the next 20 years, the Saudi rulers, including Abdul Rahman Bin Faisal, fought to resist foreign intrusion, eliminate the source of instability in the peninsula and restore peace and security to the Kingdom. Facing a much larger and better equipped army that enjoyed greater resources and manpower, Abdul Rahman Bin Faisal was forced to abandon his struggle in 1891 and seek sanctuary with the bedouin tribes in the Rub Al-Khali, the vast desert in eastern Arabia. From there, Abdul Rahman and his family traveled to Kuwait for shelter, where they stayed until 1902. Among his followers was his young son Abdul Aziz, already making his mark as a fierce warrior for the cause of Islam and a natural leader of men.

Traditional architecture inspired the modern buildings of the Qasr Al-Hokm, the capital's cultural, historical, commercial and social sector.

With the departure of the Al-Saud in 1891, the Rashid took over Riyadh and established a governor and garrison. To outside observers, the struggle appeared to be over, and the long rule of the Al-Saud forever ended. But to the inhabitants of Najd and other parts of the former Saudi State, the Rashid rule only brought into sharp contrast its shortcomings and highlighted the qualities that had made the Al-Saud popular.

During their short rule in the Najd, the Rashid demonstrated a penchant for intrigue and bloodshed that undermined the stability the Al-Saud had worked so hard and so long to build. Of the rulers of the House of Rashid, six were killed by relatives or committed suicide. Only the last two died of old age, after having surrendered to the Al-Saud.

By the turn of the century, the young Abdul Aziz was planning a strategy to regain his patrimony. His night march into Riyadh at the head of only 40 followers to retake the city garrison in 1902 is now legendary. So is his 30-year campaign to unite the warring tribes of Arabia into the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

King Abdul Aziz (seated at left) in Kuwait at the turn of the century.

Although King Abdul Aziz was one in a long line of Saudi rulers who preceded him, he stands out as a respected father figure for the people of Saudi Arabia, and those of the Arab and Muslim worlds. What set Abdul Aziz apart from other leaders was not only his ability to unite the Kingdom, but the manner in which he did so and the example he set for his successors and his people. The Hungarian historian M.Y.B. Gavriel wrote in 1936 that what elevated King Abdul Aziz above other leaders who had emerged from the Arabian Peninsula during recent history was that he had "all the characteristics of ethical leadership." He noted:"It is not his political and strategic success that distinguish him as a gigantic figure in the history of Arabia and that of the whole Orient; rather it is the moral greatness and the unyielding qualities of his character."

Riyadh's main mosque and adjacent souq (market) in the 1920s.

A pious man whose entire life was structured on the teachings of Islam, King Abdul Aziz was a leader of many outstanding qualities. Muhammad Almana, a Saudi Arabian who acted as the court interpreter from 1926 through 1935 and spent the entire period with the King, later wrote an insightful account of the great man and his life. He observed that among King Abdul Aziz's many attributes the first and foremost was his complete dedication to Islam, a quality whichwas to serve him and his people well. "His religious conviction gave him strength in many different ways," he wrote, noting that an important benefit was that with the growth of the Kingdom "there was never any danger of his becoming complacent or conceited." Indeed, King Abdul Aziz maintained a simple lifestyle to the end of his days. He continued to meet with his subjects face-to-face and listen to advice offered by any and all.

His second greatest quality in Mr. Almana's estimation was his generosity. "His benevolence was natural and unself-conscious, and he would give unstintingly, even when his own cupboards were empty...." Mr. Almana relates a story that once when traveling in the desert, King Abdul Aziz's vehicle became stuck in the sand and the King sat down nearby while it was being freed. A bedouin came on the scene and sat next to the King without recognizing him. He had heard that Abdul Aziz was passing through the area, and had come to the road in the hope of petitioning the King. After talking to the bedouin, Abdul Aziz arose to leave and gave the bedouin money, whereupon the latter said, "I salute you Abdul Aziz." When the King asked him why the bedouin assumed he was the King, the tribesman replied: "No one gives as generously as you." Almana points out that this event demonstrates not only King Abdul Aziz's generosity, but also the simplicity of his lifestyle where a bedouin cannot distinguish the King from among a group of men, and also his availability to any one of his citizens who could casually approach the ruler, sit by his side and talk as an equal.

Riyadh in the 1910s, two decades before it became the capital of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Foreign visitors to Riyadh noted the importance the King attached to honesty. This was especially disconcerting to dignitaries used to diplomatic niceties. When meeting the leader of a vast Kingdom, many were pleasantly surprised to see the straightforward way in which he spoke and dealt with issues.

As he was fond of telling such visitors to Riyadh, his greatest gifts to his nation were justice and security, qualities vital to the transformation that he and his sons would bring about in the Kingdom. In Makkah an old man handed a petition concerning some property to the King, who promised that the matter would be resolved. When the King returned to the Holy City the following year, the same man appeared claiming his grievance had not been addressed. Sending for his son, Faisal, who was governor of Makkah, King Abdul Aziz asked about the petition. When no trace of the petition could be found, "the entire government office concerned was turned upside down and ransacked until the petition was eventually discovered in an attic," relates Mr. Almana, who observed the incident. The official in charge was dismissed and the old man received satisfaction. This event demonstrated to the King's sons and government officials the importance he attached to seeing that any citizen had recourse to justice and that officials would be held responsible for dereliction of duty, however slight.

King Abdul Aziz meeting with Saudi and foreign dignitaries (top) and visiting the oil facilities at Dhahran (below).

One of the most noticeable achievements of King Abdul Aziz was the establishment of security and stability in the Kingdom. Prior to his unification of the country on September 23, 1932, the regions of the country not under his rule were racked by instability, with the powerful preying on the weak in the cities and the rural areas. In an article titled "A Decade of Progress in the Hijaz," Contemporary Review listed the tyranny, injustice and chaos that were rampant before King Abdul Aziz brought the western part of the peninsula, where the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are located, under his protection. Citizens used to be thrown in prison without reason and their property seized, "the country was overrun by thieves and brigands, and life and property were not safe. The different tribes were at war with each other, the pilgrims were overtaxed by the government and cheated, robbed and even murdered...."

The transformation that King Abdul Aziz wrought was dramatic. Within a few months of bringing the unruly areas under his protection, complete order was restored, thieves and brigands apprehended and feuds mediated. No traveler, whether a foreign pilgrim or dignitary, or a merchant carrying goods from one part of the country to another, had to worry about security again, even in the depths of the desert.

Till the end of his days, King Abdul Aziz dedicated his life to the service of Islam and his people. A visitor to Riyadh in the 1920s asked King Abdul Aziz about a poem on the outside wall of the building in which he met daily with citizens. The poem by Al-Mutawakkil Al-Laithy reads:

Although we are from a noble line,
We do not on that line depend.
We build as our ancestors built
And do as they did to the end.

He was told that the first two lines of the poem meant that although the Al-Saud come from a line of rulers, each King has to prove himself. But King Abdul Aziz confided in the questioner that he believed the last line should be altered to read "But we do more than they did."

This belief that each ruler should strive to do more for his nation and people than his predecessors did is one that King Abdul Aziz inculcated in his sons and successors. Asked how he would describe the story of his life shortly before he passed away in 1953, he is quoted as saying that he united the different fragments of the vast Kingdom into a cohesive nation, and "I opened in front of the people the doors of life, I prepared for them the ways for progress and I caught with them the train of civilization." That aptly describes the essence of King Abdul Aziz's accomplishment - he established a nation and brought about peace and security, laying the foundation for future progress.

King Abdul Aziz on his state visit to Egypt in 1947 (top) and with American and Saudi employees of the oil company, Aramco (above).

Though by the time most of his children were born King Abdul Aziz was already a powerful ruler of a vast and increasingly wealthy country, he raised them in a very structured and demanding manner. He once told a visitor: "I train my own children to walk barefoot, to rise two hours before the dawn, to eat but little and ride horses bareback" to develop their physical and mental strength.

As the first step in their education, his sons attended special schools where the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the sunnah were emphasized, and they were tutored in history. They were then sent off to live with bedouins in the desert, to learn the ways of the simple folk and appreciate their desires, concerns and rich culture.

Once back in their father's household, they were required to diligently attend Abdul Aziz's daily Majlis, meetings where he attended to the day-to-day affairs of the state and met with visitors, whether foreign dignitaries or citizens. Each of his sons was then given a responsibility in the affairs of the state, and his handling of it was monitored. These responsibilities grew as the young man demonstrated his ability to handle them. As a result, by the time King Abdul Aziz's sons reached the age of 20, they already had completed a rigorous training and accumulated years of experience in statecraft. As an example, Prince Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz headed an army sent to bring order to the Asir and represented his country in meetings with foreign heads-of-state in Europe by the time he was 15. Prince Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz had already proved himself in a number of capacities and was present at the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945.

In short, King Abdul Aziz instilled in his sons a respect for the teachings of Islam, a deep understanding and love for their rich culture and a commitment to serving the interests of the nation - but above all, he provided them with the guidance and skills vital to do so effectively.

Defining Saudi Arabia's outlook, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz, who is the fourth son to succeed King Abdul Aziz, once noted: "The Kingdom, through continuous work on the part of the government...undertakes to surmount all difficulties of whatever nature, to attain...a prosperous society, a society well-balanced culturally and intellectually, and based upon the teachings and spiritual values of Islam."

In the 43 years since the passing of King Abdul Aziz, his sons have worked diligently to lead the nation through the "doors of life," bringing about one of the greatest transformations in human history. Through judicious long-term planning, exacting implementation of plans, and the careful development and optimal utilization of the nation's human and natural resources, Saudi leaders have realized achievements in every field.

The founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 ushered in a new era of security and prosperity which has paved the way for the country's unprecedented development and progress in all social and economic areas (pictured here and below).

The primary emphasis of Saudi planning has been the development of the nation's human resources to enable all citizens to achieve their maximum potential and contribute to the country's growth and progress. When King Fahd became Saudi Arabia's first Minister of Education in 1954, there were fewer than 30,000 students in the country. Today, more than four million students are enrolled at 22,632 schools, and 306,584 citizens are pursuing higher education at seven universities and 83 colleges.

To ensure a healthy population, the Kingdom embarked on a similarly ambitious program to build a modern health care system. There are now more than 298 hospitals with 41,300 beds and 3,254 health care centers, compared with only a handful four decades ago.

While paved roads were a rarity in the Kingdom some 50 years ago, there are now more than 26,137 miles of highways and major roads. Roads are just one part of the modern transportation and communication infrastructure established to facilitate growth and development. There are now 21 ports, 25 airports and a sophisticated telecommunications network.

A string of desalination plants and power generation complexes feed the urban and industrial centers that have sprouted up all over the Kingdom. Where industrial facilities were once non-existent, there are now more than 2,300 factories and industrial complexes, manufacturing everything from vehicles to computer circuit boards for domestic consumption, and exporting products to over 70 countries around the world. Agriculture, once limited to tiny farms in oases, is thriving. Self-sufficient in many different farm and food products, the country now exports grains, vegetables and processed food.

Similar success has been achieved in social services, commerce, banking, sports, and in almost all areas of human endeavor. Taking strength from the example of King Abdul Aziz, as well as the cherished tradition of service to Islam and the people upheld by a long succession of Saudi rulers before him, the leaders of Saudi Arabia have achieved the impossible in such a short period of time. What has enabled them to do so has been the ability to remain firmly rooted in the teachings of Islam and their rich heritage while at the same time adapting to meet the challenges and demands of a modern world.

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