Servant of the British Empire: On the founding of Ibn Saud’s kingdom

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King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al-Saud (L) speaks to US Secretary of State John Kerry before meeting at the King's private residence June 27, 2014 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: AFP-Brendan Smialowski)

By: Jafar al-Bakli

Published Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The sultan of Najd, Abdelaziz al-Saud bowed his head before the British High Commissioner in Percy Cox’s Iraq. His voice quavered, and then he started begging with humiliation: “Your grace are my father and you are my mother. I can never forget the debt I owe you. You made me and you held my hand, you elevated me and lifted me. I am prepared, at your beckoning, to give up for you now half of my kingdom…no, by Allah, I will give up all of my kingdom, if your grace commands me!”

This is all that Sultan Abdelaziz al-Saud could say in response to the reprimands from a British officer during their meeting at al-Aqeer conference, which began on November 21, 1922, and in which the borders between the Sultanate of Najd, the Kingdom of Iraq, and the Sheikhdom of Kuwait were drawn. The British reprimand came after Ibn Saud objected to General Cox’s decision to slice off parts of the Samwah desert and attach it to Iraqi territory, ignoring Ibn Saud’s claims to the areas.

The minutes of that meeting are contained in official documents drafted by the British political officer in Bahrain at the time Colonel Harold Richard Patrick Dickson (H.R.P. Dickson), which he dispatched to the British Foreign Office in London on October 26, 1922.

Four decades later, Dickson wrote his memoirs about the years in which he served as his government’s envoy in Arabian Gulf countries, published in London in the 1951 book Kuwait and Her Neighbours. The book retells the incident at al-Aqeer in details, as Dickson was present there in his capacity as Percy Cox’s aide and interpreter. Dickson wrote,

“On the sixth day Sir Percy … lost all patience over what he called the childish attitude of Ibn Saud in his tribal boundary idea [between Iraq and Najd]. It was astonishing to see the Sultan of Najd being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by H. M. High Commissioner, and being told sharply that he, Sir Perry Cox, would himself decide on the type and general line of the frontier. This ended the impasse. Ibn Saud almost broke down and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and brother, who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held, and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered…Sir Percy took a red pencil and very carefully drew in on the map of Arabia a boundary line from the Persian Gulf to Jabal Anaizan, close to the Transjordan frontier.” [1]

Dickson continues,

“Ibn Saud asked to see Sir Perry Cox alone. Sir Percy took me with him. Ibn Saud was by himself, standing in the centre of his great reception tent. He seemed terribly upset. My friend; he moaned, 'you have deprived me of half my kingdom. Better take it all and let me go into retirement.' Still standing, this great strong man, magnificent in his grief, suddenly burst into sobs.” [2]

The House of Saud and Britain

The relationship between Abdelaziz al-Saud and the British colonial authorities has always been marred by a lot of ambiguity and exaggeration, where facts mixed with misinformation. The official Saudi narrative, for example, downplays or avoids the British role in the founding of the Saudi entity. For their part, the narratives of the opposition against the House of Saud exaggerated this role, suggesting at times it was an intricate plot, and at others linking it to the alleged Jewish roots of the Saudi royal family. One may consider the book The History of the House of Saud by Nasir Saeed as a case in point for this propagandistic approach.

However, British documents – particularly those contained in the historical part of the Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman, and Central Arabia, the official guide authored by John Gordon Lorimer in the first two decades of the 20th century at the behest of the British India government – give us access to a more objective, logical, consistent, and fair account of the British role in the making of Abdelziz al-Saud’s kingdom. The correspondence included in the Gazetteer between British diplomats in the Gulf and their superiors in New Delhi completely invalidate the narrative that holds that the House of Saud’s third return to power in the early 20th century was an elaborate British plot.

The Gazetteer – which the successive British governments classed as secret/official business only for around 70 years – includes a series of correspondence that began in 1902, between Abdelaziz al-Saud and his father Abdel-Rahman, and the British political officer in Bahrain and the British political officer in Bushire. The goal of the letters was to woo the British and offer services to them. However, all Saudi overtures were ignored by Britain’s agents in the region. For an entire decade, the political officer in Bushire (none other than Major Percy Cox at the time) did not bother to respond or task any of his aides in the Gulf protectorates to respond to Ibn Saud’s letters, in which he offered to include his emirate in Riyadh with the sheikhdoms of the Trucial States protected by the British crown, which handled their foreign affairs. Abdelaziz even offered to accept a British political officer in Riyadh, just like the ones in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Muscat, who would have the power to dictate or veto policy.[3]

It seems that the House of Saud learned many lessons from when they lived under the protection of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah their exile in Kuwait. One of the most notable of these lessons was that an emir could not hold on to power in the Arabian Peninsula without the legitimacy and protection granted by the British Empire. Abdelaziz saw with his own eyes how one British warship, HMS Perseus, singlehandedly repelled the invasion of Kuwait by the army of Ibn Rashid, who was on the verge of taking Kuwait after defeating Sheikh Mubarak several months earlier in the Battle of Sarif in 1901.

What Ibn Saud did not realize, however, was that British calculations in protecting Ibn Sabah did not apply to him. Indeed, Kuwait had the most important natural harbor in the Gulf, while Riyadh was of no interest whatsoever to the British, being a remote village in the heart of the desert. Moreover, by extending its protection to Sheikh Mubarak, Britain wanted him to extend his sheikhdom northwards with the support of British warships, and deprive Ottoman Iraq at the time from having access to the sea under Kuwait’s new borders. This would have rendered the Gulf, with both its Persian and Arabian shores, a closed British lake.

The British aversion to the Saudis reached such an extent that when Abdel-Rahman al-Saud, father of Abdelaziz the new emir of Riyadh, was going to visit Kuwait in early 1905, orders were given to the British agent in Kuwait, Captain Knox, to avoid meeting the “Saudi imam.” In other words, there was a time when the British considered any direct contact with a Saudi prince anathema.

However, the system of British protectorates in the Gulf, which Abdelaziz wanted to be included in, deserves pause in order to understand the extent of submissiveness of the Arabian sheikhs vis-à-vis their British colonial master. English-language sources preserved for our benefit many meaningful anecdotes. One such story takes place in Bahrain, on November 26, 1903, when the Viceroy of India, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, arrived to the small Arab archipelago on board the HMS Hardinge, escorted by eight other British warships, to meet with Sheikh Isa bin Ali bin Khalifa.

Manama was the penultimate stop in Lord Curzon’s tour of the Gulf, which included Muscat, Sharjah, Bandar Abbas, and Kuwait. The ports of the small Arabian sheikhdoms were not equipped to receive Britain’s huge warships, so the visitors usually disembarked and headed to shore via small boats. The slaves belonging to the sheikhs would receive the boats with horses brought into the water, so that the European guests would not soil their shoes with the feces littering the beach. When the officers of the British navy descended from their ships, they would light cigarettes to mask the bad odors coming from the shore.

Lord Curzon and his senior officers had their own glorious reception from the sheikhs of al-Khalifa. What happened was that Sheikh Isa ordered his children to carry the white men on their own shoulders. But the Lord refused for anyone to touch him or carry him, and the sheikhs of al-Khalifa had no choice but to carry the lord over his throne made from gold and silver, which Curzon brought especially from India. [4]

Lovers’ quarrels

There are three reasons as to why Britain avoided relying on Ibn Saud in Najd initially, in the early 20th century. First of all, the Saudis had gained a bad reputation from a century earlier, as a rogue and extremist religious group that had fueled unrest, riots, and troubles as a result of their intolerance, ruthlessness, and appetite for expansion. The Wahhabi background also raised real doubts regarding Saudi ambitions that could threaten British possessions in the sheikhdoms of the Trucial Coast, if Ibn Saud prevailed in Najd.

The second reason was the need for Britain to appease Turkey at the time, which had a claim over Najd, as it wasn’t in Britain’s interest to further antagonize Istanbul by backing a Bedouin leader rebelling against it. British foreign policy calculated that the Ottomans were still in control of the Dardanelles, a key sea-lane to Russia.

Thirdly, Britain was averse to Abdelaziz because his adventurous bid to restore his ancestor’s kingdom and take it back from the hands of Ibn Rashid, the ally of the Ottomans, was more likely to fail at the time given the huge disparities between the two rivals. On September 3, 1904, the British political agent in Kuwait wrote to the British resident in Bushire saying that it was extremely unlikely for Ibn Saud to gain the upper hand without external help. He thus concluded that Ibn Saud was likely to be defeated, after which he would have no one else but Mubarak to help him as had happened in the past. The British agent then explained how Mubarak sent Riyadh weekly shipments of weapons, ammunition, and other supplies.[5]

Interestingly, however, the government of British India diverged with the Foreign Office in London in its Arabian Gulf policy sometimes. This was evident when the British Indian government turned a blind eye to Mubarak Al Sabah’s support for the new emir of Riyadh, Abdelaziz. The ambitions of the sheikh of Kuwait were no secret to New Delhi, and the fact that he had long been preparing to become the new master of Najd by manipulating the House of Saud. Mubarak thought that Abdelaziz was a puppet that he could move as he pleased.

In correspondence with the British resident in Bushire on June 24, 1904, the government in India decided that it was not in its interests to bar weapons from Ibn Saud, the rival of Ottoman-backed Ibn Rashid.[6] The indirect encouragement from the government of British India to Ibn Saud and direct encouragement of Ibn Sabah to fight Ibn Rashid, was compatible with traditional British policy of trying to create small rival tribal entities all under Britain’s control in the Arab sheikhdoms.

The contrast between the policies of London and New Delhi vis-à-vis Ibn Saud continued until just before the First World War, when the debate was settled in favor of the government of British India, as Turkey joined the axis of London’s enemies in the war. In September 1914, Britain finally understood that the Saudi Bedouin leader, who for 12 years never stopped writing letters of flattery to the British, deserved some attention. Thus the British Foreign Office decided to send former political agent in Kuwait Captain William Henry Irvine Shakespear – the only British official who had previously met with Abdelaziz – to negotiate a treaty whereby London recognized him as the ruler of Najd, Ahsa, Qatif, and Jubail and its moorings on the Persian Gulf, and pledge to protect him and his possessions, in return for Ibn Saud pledging never to violate an order related to foreign or economic policy without Britain’s consent, and to follow British guidance without reservation. [7]

Britain’s real goal was for Ibn Saud to harass its Ottoman enemy and their allies the House of Rashid in Ha’il, and for his forces to be a proxy army through which Britain would fight the Ottomans in southern Iraq until British forces arrive from India.

The British also had another demand, which was for Wahhabi clerics to issue a fatwa prohibiting Arab soldiers from serving in the Ottoman army, and calling on them to defect. Recall that Arabs were a majority in the Ottoman army in Iraq and the Levant. And indeed, the Wahhabi mufti found a pretext for such a fatwa, saying that Turkey had forged an alliance with the German infidels in the war, which is prohibited in the Quran. The fatwa helped immensely in Britain’s propaganda.

Accordingly, Sir Percy Cox decided to knight Emir Abdelaziz bin Saud on behalf of the British king, making him “Sir Abdelaziz bin Saud,” a title used in British official documents for a few years thereafter. However, Abdelaziz himself never used the title, and wore the medal for one day so that the British may take a picture, and never wore it again after that.

The conquests of the House of Saud and the British

Britain’s bid to enlist Abdelaziz al-Saud and his faction coincided if not predated the attempts of British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon (between July 1915 and January 1916), to recruit the Hashemites led by the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. However, the efforts with Abdelaziz faltered because of his humiliating defeat at the hands of the Shammar tribes in the Battle of Jarab on January 17, 1915, and his even bigger defeat six months later at the hands of the Ajman tribes in the Battle of Kanzan in which Abdelaziz was injured and his younger brother Saad was killed.

Abdelaziz became a lame duck, and he could not be counted upon in local matters, let alone global politics. The tribe of Ajman rebelled against him in northern Najd, and al-Murra tribe in southern Najd. All of Ahsa slipped out of his control, with the exception of Hofuf and Qatif, and his nascent sultanate began to unravel. However, Britain, fortunately for Abdelaziz, made true on the promises it had made to him when he signed the Treaty of Darin in Qatif, on January 26, 1915, and supplied him with 300 Turkish muskets and 10,000 rupees in 1915, and then an additional thousand muskets, 200,000 bullets, and 20,000 British pounds in 1916 (the amount rose to 60,000 pounds in the early 1920s.

No doubt, had it not been for that generous British support, the “King of the Sands” would not have been able to stand back on his feet and face his foes. He would not have been able to subdue the Ajman, retake Ahsa, or retake the Eastern Region of the Arabian Peninsula. The history of the Middle East in the 20th century could have been dramatically different, or written without any role for the House of Saud in it.

For thirty years after the Treaty of Darin signed between Ibn Saud and Percy Cox in 1915, that is until 1945, when the Saudi king signed a new treaty with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy, Abdelaziz was a faithful servant of the British Empire. The incident at al-Aqeer that Harold Dickson described, when the king sobbed and begged the British master, was therefore nothing odd.


[1] H.R.P. Dickson, Kuwait and her neighbours, part 1, p.281
[2] Ibid, p.282.
[3]John Gordon Lorimer, The Gazetteer, Historical Section, Part 3, p.1721.
[4]Lorimer mentioned in the Gazetteer additional details about the visits made by Lord Curzon to the Arabian sheikhdoms in the last week of November 1903, but British writer Robert Lacey mentions more amusing details in his book The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud
[5]Khaled Mahmoud al-Saadoun, Relations Between Najd and Kuwait (1902-1922 A.D.), p. 100.
[6] John Gordon Lorimer, The Gazetteer, Historical Section, Part 6, pp.3770-3776.
[7]Alexei Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia, p.238
It is worth noting that Captain Shakespear was killed in January 17, 1917 in the Battle of Jarab between the Saudis and the House of Rashid. Shakespear had eagerly offered to assist the Saudis with his experience in operating canons, but the Saudis were defeated and the Englishman was killed. The soldiers of the Shammar tribe severed his head and sent it to the Turks, who paraded it t the public, before they hung the helmet of the British officer on the gate of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, to expose the House of Saud’s collaboration with the English infidels.

Jafar al-Bakli is an Arab writer

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


we find the above narrative HIGHLY DUBIOUS. the perfidious albinos have the disgusting habit of great exaggeration especially when the subject matter relates to the "true/genuine indigenous people" and we say this with 1st hand experience. Some years ago we read that some scumbag thug goon brit jerk claiming that he was the only "white" aka shit among the indigenous people. Now, if you are to believe this BS he would the first one people would have attacked as the brits are hated everywhere they bastardized calling it imperialism - how anyone can call the abomination imperialism is for the psychoanalyst to figure out.

this scum her majesty's servant than went to cash in with writing a book and making millions in film as well.

we who know the truth, that there was NO WHITE SHIT present wrote to the slimebag asking him to provide - PROOF
the date/time/venue/city/photo/tape of the speech/anything that could prove that the goon was there - NOTHING!!
so when visiting history/historical facts the brit propaganda BS is the last thing to trust

they are and have always been CRIMINALS & RAPISTS
who else do you know will wear a crown with jewels stolen from peaceful innocent nations

I find myself quite appalled that you people see fit to discuss such unseemly toics. In my family, it is considered coarse and impolitic to discuss such matters at all. After all, there are standards to uphold. And in any event, as you know, to the extent that heretofore albeit notwithstanding, in a very real sense, as you know, clearly.
Perfidious Albion.
As ever the key factual matter is whether such treachery is a personal choice by one poor sinner or another or whether you can find a pattern of treachery (hence the nick-name of England I mentioned).
To prove a pattern, in effect a conspiracy, you must show how the parties met, what they said, what they agreed upon, what steps they took to carry out the agreement, etc., which often requires some participant to go over to the other side with the information, as with Manning or Snowden.
I think in the present case, the general pattern is apparent in a ubiquitous fact. What do US forces call, derisively, Afghans: the same term they used for Iraqis?
What, to make the same point, is the constitutional scheme of Israel, its fundamental legal idea?
Or, again, to bring this back to Lebanon, what is the dictate of the Taef Accord as to the make-up of Parliament?
Racist imperialism is the fundamental European legal idea. It is evident in five hundred years of history. What evidence do we see that it is changing?

Excellent stuff! What a good read the exploits of these Arabian hired thugs make. An Englishman such as myself should never forget, of course, the thuggery of the Saxe-Coburg Gotha family (William, Charles, Elizabeth, et al, going all the way back to when they were hired thugs themselves). But it's always useful to place such conniving, brutal thugish exploitation into the scheme of things, so that, insha'allah, people have no doubt what they're up against when they finally decide to rise up.

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