King Abdulaziz bin
Abdulrahman Al-Saud

            These were the words of a monarch who forged a nation out of tribes spread across a vast land almost as large as Western Europe. They also reflect his governing style, for King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud saw himself  as a father to his nation, a ruler whose devotion to his subjects transcended familial and tribal boundaries and who dedicated his life to the well-being and advancement of his people.

The ruins of Dariyah, the seat of the First Saudi State, near Riyadh

            Uttered in April 1936, four years after King Abdulaziz had established the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, these words provide insight into the manner in which he ruled his Kingdom. That a head of state could be accessible daily to any citizen who showed up at his court with a grievance or a concern is not only unheard of at the turn of the 21st century, but also was unique at the time of his rule.

            This was government on a personal level, and King Abdulaziz had inculcated into his people the belief that any citizen had the right to expect his concerns to be addressed or his views heard by a person in charge, whether that person was the ruler of the city he lived in or the king.

The followers of King Abdulaziz on campaign in the desert carry standards bearing the Islamic Shahadah: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger."

            More importantly, this style of governing was the outward manifestation of a deep-seated tradition in the Saudi State: achieving consensus and harmony by various means, including through the daily court sessions that were open to the public or regular consultations held between the Saudi rulers and the leading citizens and religious scholars (see story, Page 15).

            While he certainly cherished and strengthened it, this tradition was not unique to King Abdulaziz and his era. This same style of government by consensus was practiced some 250 years ago by Muhammad bin Saud, who established the First Saudi State, and by every ruler who preceded and succeeded King Abdulaziz. It is still practiced today in modern Saudi Arabia.

            What has changed over time is the administration of government, not its values and traditions. Over its history, and particularly in the second half of the 20th century, the Saudi government has steadily evolved into a more efficient mechanism capable of dealing with the complex issues confronting a rapidly developing nation.

The walls of old Riyadh

            In the early days of Saudi rule in the First and Second Saudi States, extending from 1744-1818 and 1824-1891, respectively, the role of the ruler was that of patriarch, tribal chieftain and elder rolled into one: a benevolent personality who had the interests of his people at heart and would work to ensure the well-being of all his subjects.

            The founder of the First Saudi State, Emir Muhammad bin Saud set the tone of government for his successors. He institutionalized 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 (practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). A devout Muslim, he practiced the concept of shura (consultation) embodied in Islamic teachings and met regularly with notable citizens and religious scholars to discuss issues of importance to his people, in the running of his fledgling state in Najd which is in the central plateau of the Arabian Peninsula, and its relations with neighboring sultanates and tribes.

            His son, Abdulaziz bin Muhammad, ruled in the same style for 38 years. Unlike many other ruling families of their time, the Saudis were distinguished by their emphasis on holding open majlis sessions where every tribal chief and Bedouin could meet the ruler. By allowing free access to the independent-minded and self-reliant tribesmen and their leaders, Emir Abdulaziz and the other Saudi rulers managed to attract great following among the tribes beyond the Najd. By the early years of the 19th century, Saudi rule extended to most of the peninsula, including the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

The restored Masmak fortress in the capital.

             The success of the Saudi State under Emir Abdulaziz and his successors, Saud bin Abdulaziz and Abdullah bin Saud, aroused the suspicions of the Ottoman Empire, the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa at the time. In 1818, an Ottoman expeditionary force was sent to the peninsula, and armed with modern artillery and vast manpower, it advanced to the heart of Najd and laid waste to the Saudi capital of Dariyah.

            After the departure of the Ottoman forces, the Saudi ruler Turki bin Abdullah moved to reclaim his patrimony. He selected Riyadh, 20 miles from Dariyah, as the new capital and set about rebuilding the Saudi State. During his 11-year rule, Turki managed to retake most of the original Saudi territory and became famous as a just ruler. He sent directives to the governors of the Saudi provinces instructing them to hold daily majlis sessions, standardize weights and measures, and introduce steps to ensure the rights and possessions of all citizens.

The Holy Mosque in Makkah in the 19th century 

            The peace and prosperity continued under Emir Turki and his successor Faisal bin Turki, who ruled for 26 years, during which time agriculture and trade flourished. This period of stability and tranquility was shattered by a renewed Ottoman campaign to extend its empire into the peninsula. In addition to sending armies into the interior of the peninsula, the Ottoman rulers set up and funded other rulers to confront and undermine the Saudi State.

            Faced with an overwhelming show of force and resources, the last ruler of the Second Saudi State, Abdulrahman bin Faisal, struggled valiantly to resist foreign intrusion and restore peace and stability to his Kingdom. In the end, he 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, before moving to Bahrain and ultimately to Kuwait.           

            In the absence of Saudi rule, the central area of the peninsula degenerated into instability and bloodshed. Where once peace and prosperity had prevailed, intrigue and war broke out, shattering the lives of the Bedouins and the city dwellers alike.

A portrait of King Abdulaziz
bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud 
taken shortly after he reclaimed

            Among Abdulrahman’s followers into exile was his teenage son named Abdulaziz, a tall young man who was already distinguishing himself as a fierce warrior for Islam and a natural leader of men. Unable to contain his boundless energy in the confines of Kuwait City, he sought permission from his father to embark on what seemed like a suicidal mission: to head out leading a small force of men in an attempt to retake Riyadh. Traveling at night and away from the main caravan routes to avoid detection, he reached the city, which was garrisoned by a large hostile force, and recaptured it in 1902 with only 40 men.

            With Saudi rule firmly reestablished in their ancient capital, Abdulaziz began what turned out to be a 30-year struggle to reunite the tribes and city dwellers into what became the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

A photo of King Abdulaziz and some of his sons, including the Custodian of the
Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz (right, back row) and
King Saud bin Abdulaziz (center, back row).

            On Abdulaziz’s shoulders fell the task of not only forging a nation out of this vast land, but setting the tone of government for the future. He restored the state’s dedication to the pure teachings of Islam and its commitment to serving the citizens to the best of its ability. A few days before formally establishing the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in September 1932, King Abdulaziz sent a note to his son Saud, whom he was appointing as Crown Prince. In it he gave the young prince advice both as a ruler and as a father, urging him to devote his “life and every action to the cause of exalting the word of monotheism and supporting the religious faith mandated by Allah.” He went on to say: “You must be very active and serious in handling the interests of those whose affairs were put under your care by Allah by assuming faithfulness in public and private to administering justice unaffected by personal likes and dislikes,” and encouraged him to dedicate his life to the advancement of the well-being of his people.

A view of the center of old Riyadh in the early decades of the 20th century shows the main mosque and part of the souq (market).

            One of King Abdulaziz’s greatest qualities was that he would person-ally set an example for his followers on various issues of importance to him and his Kingdom. A deeply religious man, he set his religion above all else, performing the daily prayers, undertaking the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah, and applying the teachings of Islam not only to his personal life but also to the manner he governed the Kingdom.

            Between 1902 and his death in 1953, King Abdulaziz’s style of governance changed little, even as his Kingdom grew in size and importance on the global scene. Taking to heart the Islamic admonition to consult in all things with men of learning and experience, he held daily meetings that were attended by his advisors as well as ordinary citizens. Muhammad Almana, a Saudi Arabian who acted as court translator from 1926 to 1935 and was close to the King throughout that period, paints a vivid picture of King Abdulaziz’s daily routine.


Throughout his half century of rule, King Abdulaziz made himself accessible to his subjects and visitors, whether in the formal daily majlis (above), or in more casual surroundings, such as an outing in the desert (below).

            After performing the morning prayer and spending time reading the Holy Qur’an, the King would meet with a chamberlain who would give him a list of the people who had requested meetings with him that day “with petitions or particular matters they wished to raise with him. The King would first hold a private majlis for those whose business was of some importance. ... After this, the King held his general majlis. Anybody could attend, and there were usually between 80 and 130 people present. His Majesty would first recite a verse from the Qur’an and present an interpretation of it.  He would then choose some topic of national importance and speak about it for a time to the assembled company.  Finally, he would invite questions, whereupon the visitors were free to ask him about anything they liked. The proceedings were rather like a modern press conference, except that they were far less impersonal. ... In this way, each man could leave satisfied that he had received the King’s personal attention.” He adds that as the King traveled regularly throughout Saudi Arabia, he was accessible to all citizens who wished to meet with him and discuss any issue they desired.

             Another tradition that King Abdulaziz institutionalized was providing justice for all his citizens. In the early years of his rule, he had installed next to the gate of his palace a box whose key he alone possessed. An announcement next to the box encouraged citizens to place in the box any complaints they had against an official, adding: “Anyone who refrains from complaining of any injustice he suffers at the hands of an official, whether senior or low ranking, or any other, has no one to blame but himself.”

            This emphasis on the need to dispense justice required that the court establish a special department to handle complaints in the capital and in the governorates as the Kingdom expanded. King Abdulaziz required all his government officials to be as committed to this concept as he was. As an example, a delegation of foreign visitors was at the daily majlis of the governor of Hofuf in 1926 when a Bedouin approached the governor and complained that a young man had insulted and struck him. On the governor’s instruction, he was shown all the young men in his household, whereupon he pointed to one, who happened to be the governor’s son, who promptly admitted having committed the crime. The governor ordered his guards to hold his son down, and told the Bedouin to strike him with a whip. When the Bedouin refused to strike the son of the powerful governor, the governor himself took the whip and, as one of the witnesses later wrote, “with his own hand gave his son a sound whacking.” Turning to the people in the majlis, the governor observed: “If we do not begin with ourselves, we cannot be just to others.”

King Abdulaziz often met with his subjects and visitors in a tent in the desert.

            Zakat or giving alms to the needy is one of the pillars of Islam, and as such was a feature of King Abdulaziz’s rule. As he traveled throughout Saudi Arabia, the King would personally review the requirements of those in need and provide for them. In the beginning this involved giving money to the needy from the King’s personal treasury, but later evolved into a series of offices and departments set up exclusively for this purpose.

            As the years passed and the Kingdom grew in size and population, the old King instituted changes to his manner of government, though not its substance, to allow the state to deal more effectively with its duties and responsibilities. Asked shortly before he passed away in 1953 how he would describe his accomplishments, he is quoted as saying that he united the different parts 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.”

On two of his rare visits outside the Kingdom, King Abdulaziz met with the Emir of Bahrain Shaikh Salman Al-Khalifah (above, on left) and with King Faisal of Iraq (below, on left) to discuss bilateral relations and Arab solidarity. 

            That describes the essence of King Abdulaziz’s lasting contribution to the nation which he established through his sheer force of will and dedication to his religion and people’s traditions. He built the foundations of a constitutional regime based on the teachings of Islam and helped transform the art of governance in Saudi Arabia slowly away from tribal rule to one of modern government, all without shaking the foundations of society and at the same time maintaining the values and traditions it cherished.

            With the old patriarch’s passing, the Kingdom entered into a new phase, which required new mechanisms of government. While King Abdulaziz had senior advisors and ministers, he maintained no formal cabinet. In 1953, King Saud bin Abdulaziz established the Council of Ministers to facilitate the Kingdom's development, and in the 1950s and 1960s, 20 government ministries were established. Presently, the Council consists of the Prime Minister, who is the King; the First Deputy Prime Minister; the Second Deputy Prime Minister, who is also a Minister with portfolio; 21 other ministers with portfolio; and seven ministers of state.

            The rapid modernization of Saudi Arabia led to a re-evaluation of the country’s political and administrative system. Just as had his father before him, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz felt the need to revitalize the existing political system.

            The primary goal was to streamline the system to deal with the requirements of the nation on the verge of the 21st century. Taking into consideration the Kingdom's role in the Islamic world as well as its traditions and social fabric, the changes were made in total adherence to the Islamic religion. In 1992, King Fahd introduced the new Basic Laws of Governance, Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) and the Provincial Councils.

            In September 1993, King Fahd introduced new bylaws to the Council of Ministers System. Under these bylaws, the Council is responsible for drafting and overseeing implementation of the internal, external, financial, economic, education and defense policies and general affairs of the state. It functions in accordance with the Basic Laws of Governance and the Consultative Council. It is the final authority for the nation's financial, executive and administrative affairs. Its resolutions are not binding unless agreed upon by a majority vote. In case of a tie, the prime minister’s vote is the tie-breaker.

In 1945, King Abdulaziz met with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of Egypt, setting the tone for the close relations that have endured between the two countries ever since.

                 The Basic Laws of Governance identifies the nature of the state and its goals and responsibilities, as well as the relationship between the ruler and citizens. It defines the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an Arab and Islamic sovereign state, and states that its religion is Islam and its constitution is the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah.

            The King, who also acts as prime minister, ensures the application of the Shari’ah (Islamic law) and the state's general policy, and supervises the protection and defense of the nation. The Crown Prince is appointed by the King. Members of the Council of Ministers assist the King in the performance of his duties.

            The new bylaws introduced for the system in 1992 further explain that the purpose of the state is to ensure the security and rights of all citizens and residents. It emphasizes the importance of the family as the nucleus of Saudi society. The family plays a vital role by teaching its members to adhere to Islamic values.

            In defining the relationship between the ruler and the people, the system emphasizes the equality of all Saudi citizens. All are equal before God and in their concern for the well-being, security, dignity and progress of their nation. All citizens also are equal before the law.

Following his meeting with President Roosevelt, King Abdulaziz met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Fayyoum, Egypt.

            The primary function of Majlis Al-Shura is to advise the King on issues of importance to the nation. The concept of consultation with learned and experienced citizens is one that has long been practiced by Saudi leaders and has its roots in Islam. The late King Abdulaziz, who established the first consultative council in the mid-1920s, explained: “We have to follow what is stated in the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah in implementation of God's orders to consult others in the affairs of the moment.”

            In order to give the Council a more formalized and efficient mechanism, King Fahd restructured the system in 1992 to consist of a chairman and 60 members appointed by the King for a four-year renewable term. Its members represent the spectrum of Saudi society. King Fahd personally inaugurated the first session of the new Council on December 29, 1993.  In July 1997, when the Council began its second four-year term, a royal decree expanded the membership to 90.

King Abdulaziz on one of his frequent visits to the Eastern Province to inspect the oil facilities.

            Responsibilities of the Council include discussing regulations, domestic and international issues, and all other matters of public interest. It can request the participation of government officials at key meetings and apply for access to government documents. Reports and recommendations made by the Council are submitted directly to the King.

            One of the Council's first actions was to form eight specialized committees. Members were divided among the various committees based on their experience. These committees were for Educational, Cultural and Information Affairs; Health and Social Affairs; Foreign Affairs; Security Affairs; Organization and Administration; Islamic Affairs; Economic and Financial Affairs; and Services and Public Utilities. These were rearranged in June 1999 into 11 committees, whose membership was subsequently re-organized in May 2000.

            To further raise the efficiency of administration and to promote the continued development of the county’s provinces and their extensive social services programs, King Fahd promulgated new bylaws for the Provincial Councils. The new measure, he stated in a royal decree, is designed to “enhance the efficiency of administration and development in the regions of the Kingdom. ... preserve security and order, and guarantee the rights of citizens and their freedom in the framework of Shari’ah.”

During one of his visits to Dammam, King Abdulaziz meets with the daughter of one of the employees of Aramco, the precursor to the Saudi Arabian national oil company.

            The bylaws divide the country into 13 provinces and define their administrative structure, the manner in which they should be administered and the responsibilities of the governors and regional officers. In 1993, King Fahd named 210 members to the Provincial Councils of the country's 13 provinces. The councils deliberate on the needs of their respective provinces, work on the development budget, scrutinize future development plans and monitor ongoing projects.

            “We are confident that the system, with the grace of God, will be beneficial in the achievement of the well-being, progress and prosperity of the Saudi citizen, his country and his Islamic and Arab nation. The Saudi citizen is the main pillar of the development and progress of his country, and we shall spare no effort to achieve his happiness and welfare,” declared King Fahd.

            The governor and deputy governor of each province act as chairman and vice-chairman of their provincial council. Each council is composed of a minimum of 10 private citizens who are experienced in their respective fields. Each has specialized committees to deal with various issues of interest to the province. Reports issued by the Provincial Councils are submitted to the Minister of the Interior and passed on to the appropriate government ministries and agencies for consideration.

            In addition to these systems, Saudi Arabia has an extensive legal structure. The judicial system is based on the Shari’ah. In 1928, King Abdulaziz decreed the organization of the court system and the procedures to be followed. Over the years the judicial system (see story, Page 20) has evolved in a manner that reflects the state’s commitment to providing equal justice for all. Currently, the Majlis Al-Shura is reviewing proposals to clarify the procedures in the judicial process.

            While the procedures and mechanisms through which the Kingdom is governed have had to change over the past few decades to allow the state to deal effectively with the demands of a modern society, Saudi Arabia remains deeply rooted in the values and traditions held high by King Abdulaziz, whose personal style of rule was one of governing with the people. {short description of image}


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