Foreign Countries | Sa’udi Arabia: Chapter Two – Riches

July 25, 2008

The British went so some trouble to get their Rolls-Royce just right for Abdul Aziz. It proved impossible to fulfill Winston Churchill’s promise to the letter and present the Sa’udi king with the very first car off the post-war production line. Rolls-Royce were still just producing aircraft engines. But an almost unused Phantom III ‘All Weather’ convertible was discovered and refitted by Hoopers the coach builders for conditions in central Arabia: the cocktail cabinet was removed and replaced by a large silver bowl in which Abdul Aziz could perform his ablutions before prayers; the silver cocktail shakers were exchanged for vacuum flasks to store the king’s favorite Mecca drinking water; and the back seat, with room for three, was converted into one huge armchair, for the British had heard how the wheelchair given to the king by Roosevelt had proved unable to accommodate the generously proportioned royal stern, and they made sure their upholsterers took no chances. The cost of the remodeled automobile was £3281.17s.

Rolls Royce Phantom III Convetible

Rolls Royce Phantom III Convetible

When the limousine arrived in Jeddah in the summer of 1946, it appeared fit for a king in every respect, down to its green reflective paintwork, its gun rack, its wide running boards and the chrome grab handles which had been screwed to the exterior for the convenience of the royal bodyguard. All that remained was to deliver the vehicle to the king 900 miles away in Riyadh, and the British minister, Laurence Grafftey-Smith, Stanley Jordan’s successor and, like Jordan, an old Jeddah hand who had known the town in Hashimite days, chose for the trip one of his junior officers, David Parker, and Britain’s pro-vice-counsel in Jeddah, Cyril Ousman.

Ousman had first come to Jeddah in 1929 as engineer in charge of the town’s seawater condenser and, as a pillar of the expatriate community, he had go on quite close personal terms with Abdul Aziz and a number of the royal family. Now, in July 1946, Ousman tested the car and touched up its paintwork, and on August 9th he drove out of the town in style.

Enthroned in the back of the limousine was Ousman’s companion David Parker, and the two Britons bumped across the desert for five days, camping out along the way, to be received with delight by Abdul Aziz in Riyadh.

Prime Minister AtleeIt was Ramadhan, so the presentation of the car together with a letter from Britain’s new Prime Minister, Mr. Attlee, was made in the middle of the night. But as the old king, whose eyesight was deteriorating with every passing year, began to look around the vehicle, something appeared to be troubling him. He was not interested by the throne-like rear upholstery with its silver bowl and flasks, for only women sat in the back of cars. Men sat in the front beside the chauffeur – to this day the king and senior Sa’udi princes sit cooped up in the front seat of their long limousines – and, in all their modifications, the British made one crucial omission. They failed to switch the car’s steering from right-hand to left-hand drive. So King Abdul Aziz would have to sit on the left-hand side of his driver, the position of dishonor – and the moment the king realized this Rolls-Royce lost all its charm.

‘You can have it,’ he told his brother Abdullah, who happened to be with him at the time, and that was the end of Winston Churchill’s present to the King of Sa’udi Arabia.

Twenty years earlier a free Rolls-Royce, right or left-hand drive, would not have been received in Riyadh in such an offhand fashion. But already, by 1946, Abdul Aziz was becoming a rich man. The American navy had begun to buy Sa’udi oil in bulk before the end of the Second World War. Annual crude production had vaulted from less than ½ million barrels in 1938, to 8 million in 1944 and some 60 million by 1946 (when oil revenues alone totaled $10 million, while, with peace, pilgrim receipts picked up sharply as a backlog of foreign Muslims hastened to perform their hajj. The American government continued to provide aid – in the Middle East only Turkey received more assistance that Sa’udi Arabia – and, most important of all, Abdullah Suleiman had discovered that, with all the oil in the ground, the world was suddenly eager to lend him money.

Sa’udi Arabia had been heavenly in debt before oil was struck, but the effect of increasing oil revenues was not to reduce spectacularly to enlarge her borrowing. Under the pressure of insatiable royal spending, the Sa’udi Finance Ministry took all the loans that foreign bakers had to offer in the 1940’s, so that a dozen years after the Second World War the country was to find itself teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

History has tended to blame Abdul Aziz’s son and successor, Sa’ud, for the financial crisis that afflicted Sa’udi Arabia in the late 1950s. But by the time Sa’ud bin Abdul Aziz came to the throne in 1953 a formidable deficit had already been built up by his father.

The Tale of Abdul Aziz and the Gift Horse

When Abdul Aziz’s knees and legs started to give him pain in his old age, he went to Hofuf to get relief by bathing in the hot springs there, and during his cure on of the Hofuf citizens presented the king with a fine gray horse.

Abdul Aziz now only rode into motor cars, but he was delighted with the gift, and called for his vizier to bring him the great leather-bound ledger in which he still wrote down personally the details of the presents to be bestowed upon each of his visitors.

‘300 riyals,’ he wrote against the name of the citizen who had given him the horse, and that was many riyals more than the horse was worth.

But as the king wrote the figure down in his ledger, the nib of the royal pen got stubbed into the paper, and a little shower of ink blobs flew our across the page, turning 300 riyals into 300,000 – for in Arabic the zero is not written as an open ‘0’ but as a closed dot like a period.

The vizier drew his master’s attention to the row of little ink blots.

‘This figure, oh long life, should read 300 riyals, I presume, and not 300,000,’ he said.

The king studied the ledger carefully.

‘I see,’ he said, ‘that my pen has clearly specified 300,000. So that is what you must pay – and immediately. My hand has written it, and I will have no one say that the hand of Abdul Aziz is more generous than his heart.”

The generosity that had once been the mainstay of the Sa’udi polity became its bane as oil revenues started expanding in the late 1940s. When Abdullah Suleiman tried in March 1946 to draw up some sort of budget based on the first twelve months of oil royalties since the end of the war, he found that in the coming twelve months he would have a to balance expenditures of £17.5 million against revenues of only £13.2 million – which meant that Abdul Aziz would have to borrow £1 for every £4 that he spent.

Harry St. John Philby

Harry St. John Philby

But this rate of indebtedness was less alarming than some of the heads of expenditure that made up the £17.5 million. Philby enumerated them: £2 million on existing debts that had to be repaid; £2 million for the expenses of the royal garages; £1 million for court hospitality and entertainment; and just £150,000 for new schools and national education.

Philby tried to rationalize the royal spending when he talked to foreign visitors: the mud palaces that were Riyadh’s only signs of the new wealth flooding into the capital were, he explained, a sort of Arabian ‘New Deal’ project: the king was anxious to provide his subjects with work, and so he got them building palaces.

But this was plain humbug. Philby could plausibly have argued that Abdul Aziz was hoarding nothing for himself. The old king was never nouveau riche, and most of his wealth, apart from the cash that his sons spent on foreign luxuries, filtered down in one way or another to tribesmen and the bazaar, since the Arabian system of rake-offs at every level is a reasonably efficient wealth distributor. Philby could even have argued, and probably did, that Bedouin coming to Riyadh cared little for alien and impersonal ministries or school buildings and were much happier with endless palaces where they could visit each prince, chat, drink coffee, sleep and gorge themselves for days at no expense.

But to pretend that Abdul Aziz had Western notions of national development was ridiculous. In the eight years from the end of the Second World War until Abdul Aziz’s death in 1953, the only major public works that he provided from some $400 million of personal revenues were a railway from Dhahran to Riyadh, a jetty in Jeddah, some tarmac roads and a network of water wells. The old man’s imagination could not stretch any further than simple generosity. He just gave his money away, and when his son Talal came to see him in 1949, requesting permission to build a public hospital in Riyadh, the ageing king stared at the youth in astonishment. He could not imagine what the boy was getting at.

Talal, then Abdul Aziz’s seventeenth surviving son, just coming up to the age of twenty, explained to his father that he had discussed the subject with his brothers, and he produced a letter signed by more than a dozen of them from Khalid down to Naif (the modern Interior Minister who was then sixteen). Several of them had visited Western countries, and they had also seen the health and welfare facilities that the oil company was providing for its employees and their families at Dhahran. The royal family should offer the same sort of service in Riyadh, said Talal.

The old king’s eyes filled with tears as he listened. ‘Do you really wish to do that, my son?’ he asked, as though listening for the first time to some totally novel mode of behavior. ‘Is that what you want to spend your money? Then so be it. What could be more wonderful?’

But the hospital never got beyond the planning stage in Abdul Aziz’s lifetime, for the infrastructure of a modern centralized welfare stat was alien to a ruler who liked to show off his financial system by summoning sacks of gold up from the royal treasury.

‘That’s my financial system,’ he would say triumphantly, pointing at the bags of bullion surrounding him. ‘I ask for the money and it appears. What more do you need to know than that?’

As a young man Abdul Aziz’s strength had lain in his open mindedness, his readiness to accept innovation. In old age, the very reverse seemed the case. The Sa’udi king even declined to recognize his own national anthem, a ditty knocked out on the spur of the moment by the bandmaster of King Farouk of Egypt when it was discovered, shortly before Abdul Aziz’s arrival on a state visit in 1946, that Sa’udi Arabia had no anthem.

The old Wahhabi in Abdul Aziz rebelled at showing reverence to a piece of music – and to other new-fangled innovations. His state was a welfare state in his eyes. Anyone who came to his palace door for a meal received one, and until the day of his death in 1953 visitors to Riyadh remarked on the hordes of Bedouin living on royal charity in their tents around the town that still depended on water hauled from the ground in leather buckets.

Riyadh was still very much the desert settlement in which Abdul Aziz had been born and in which he had grown up.

‘One of the first things that strikes you in Riyadh,’ wrote R.S.F. Hennessy, one of the Anglo-American commissioners who visited Ibn Sa’ud in 1946 to ascertain his views on the escalating Palestine crisis, ‘is a curious prolonged musical note, which appears to come from the country all round you, like the faint after-hum of a bell of the sound of wind through telephone wires.’

It was the sound of wooden water wheels, screeching and gurgling endlessly as blindfolded camels plodded round in circles, dragging leather buckets from their earthen wells. The perpetual creaking and sighing of their timber ratchets made up a lullaby that must have soothed the baby Abdul Aziz to sleep in the 1870s – and babies for centuries before that. From the air, Hennessy discovered, Riyadh was still ‘a medieval walled city, surrounded by vivid greenery, and then start desert.’

The airport was a cleared sand strip, with a windsock and a few old tents where visitors were offered sweet mint tea and coffee. Every plane had to receive the king’s express permission to land or to take off. Passengers flying across the Kingdom from Dhahran to Jeddah had to disembark in Riyadh and wait in the tents there, sipping coffee, while a messenger drove into town to discover whether His Majesty required the plane to transport any of his family or possessions to Jeddah; if it was siesta time, then everyone waited until the royal slumbers ceased.

To the end Abdul Aziz fought to retain personal control over every aspect of a society that had, in truth, been too complex and widespread for one man to handle since the addition of the Hijaz in 1925. But his selectivity was bizarre. The king got to hear of lingering circumcision practices in a few south western villages that were barbarous indeed: the ceremony was delayed until adolescence, and the skin of the victim was peeled back not just from the head of the penis but right along and up the lower belly.

The image of such pain inspired Abdul Aziz to put things right with a fury he could never muster for the inefficiency and peculation of those around him, and so it was that in the late 1940s the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, then making a locust-control survey, came across three boys in a Tihama village, each nursing ‘a bundle of stained wrappings which concealed the suppurating stump of his right hand.’

The boys had suffered twice, first from the savage initiation ceremony in which they were deemed to have been willing participants, and then from the savage remedy with which Abdul Aziz sought to stamp it out.

The royal world-view defied the complexities of the mid-twentieth century. Abdul Aziz could not understand why the USA did not take advantage of her nuclear superiority to drop the atom bomb on Russia before the communists could make one of their own. His conviction that communism was evil involved the settled opinion that acts of incest could be witnessed frequently in the public parks of Moscow. And while the Sa’udi king allowed locust-control officers like Wilfred Thesiger to investigate the Empty Quarter, he was dubious of their efficacy. Bedouin tradition had it that locusts were spewed out of the mouths of fishes, and where could fishes be found among the sands?

It was not surprising that Marianne Likowski, a bright young American from Long Beach, California, who met and feel in love with an attractive Sa’udi in her class at Berkeley, should feel she had stumbled back into the Arabian Nights when she traveled to Jeddah in the mid-1940s as Mrs. Ali Alireza. Her new sisters-in-law came on board the Khedivial steamer to envelop her in a thick black veil, and she was whisked back to the family harem where her fifteen years of tedium, laughter and sisterhood became the basis of the fascinating and deservedly successful book she later wrote – Marianne Alireza – At the Drop of a Veil.

Thanks to Marianne Alireza, the outside world first gained some insight into the day-to-day reality of the life behind the veil, and the American also charted a little of that vast unknown hidden half of the Al Sa’ud, the women of the family, dominated in the late 1940s by the king’s sister Nura, then by his favorite wives, and after that by his daughters.

Abdul Aziz’s daughters today occupy the same special niche on the distaff side of the family hierarchy as their brothers do so in public. At weddings and family functions any bint (daughter of) Abdul Aziz takes precedence, lesser cousins and sisters-in-law deferring and bowing to them. They are tall and heavily built, most of them, like their father, and when women gather with women unveiled, the splendor of their costume is nothing less than regal.

‘Their billowy robes had gold embroidery and multi-colored sequins,’ wrote Marianne Alireza, describing a female majlis on one of the last pilgrimages that Abdul Aziz made to the Hijaz, ‘which made every inch of the garments glitter under lacy black out coverings. The sleeves were so tightly fitted from elbow to the wrist that I wondered how the got them on, until I was told that the sleeves are sewn onto the arm at each wearing and ripped each night when undressing.”

The princesses had with them their team of black slave girls, who straddled the mutton carcasses down the center of the tent at dinner time, tearing off strips of flesh which they tossed unceremoniously on to the platters of the mistresses. Then the American was taken to be presented to the old king himself, who impressed her properly, even from behind two substantial thicknesses of black georgette. ‘I thought he had the biggest hands I have ever seen.’

Abdul Aziz gestured continually as he spoke to his womenfolk, and to the black shape of the foreign wife that young Alireza had brought back with him, he had just one thing to say: “We hope that you become a Muslim.”

The old man meant it deeply. He could conceive no other meaning to existence, no alternative route to earthly contentment, and long and earnest were his attempts to persuade J. Rives Childs, US minister from 1946 to 1951, to accept the superiority of the Muslim arrangements for soul and body. Childs was to write his own memoirs of his time in Arabia, curiously parallel to, but eerily remote from those of Marianne Likowski/Alireza, who lived in Jeddah throughout the same period but could not even attend functions at her own legation if men were present. Childs describes how Abdul Aziz, in his efforts to demonstrate Islam’s superiority with regard to sexual matters, offered him a houri to enliven the lonely nights the American often had to spend in Riyadh.

Later Childs recounted the episode to his diplomatic colleagues in Jeddah, making it clear that he had refused the royal offer.

“Only an American would,’ sniffed his French counterpart with disdain.

J. Rives Childs was to spend more than five years in Sa’udi Arabia, and one pf his principal duties as the old king’s life drew towards its close was to assess the character and ability of Crown Prince Sa’ud, for the State Department was naturally apprehensive as to whether the son was the measure of the father.

But Childs found it difficult to give Washington any solid answer. ‘The Department must be aware,’ he minuted in July 1947, ‘that the patriarchal discipline maintained by the King at Riyadh does not trend to the expression of individual personality.’

So although, on one occasion, Sa’ud unburdened himself to the American minister, spilling out all his unhappiness at the waste and lack of constructive development in the country and urging Childs to talk firmly to his father about it, the crown prince finished up by begging that these personal opinions should not be attributed to him. As late as 1950, after Sa’ud and his English speaking younger brothers had one evening staged a well rehearsed program of speeches and skits for some American medical visitors, the crown prince asked the doctors anxiously not to mention the entertainment to the king when they were attending him the next day.

In the royal presence all the princes would sit on the extreme edge of the majlis submissively. If invited to come and speak with their father, they would creep forward, head bowed, to seat themselves not in the chair beside him but on the carpet at his feet – and that went for Sa’ud and Faisal, men well into their forties, as well as for their younger brothers.

Abdul Aziz’s strictness with his children was understandable, for one of the darker themes of his declining years was their inability to handle the bounty that he showered upon them. The upbringing and education of his sons simply had not prepared them for the sudden rush of wealth that permitted them to gratify almost any whim.

In June 1947 Prince Nasir bin Abdul Aziz held a party.

The fatalities would probably have been hushed up if they had not included one of the princes from the house of Rasheed. He had lived at the Sa’udi court since the fall of Hail, and his relatives presumed that the poisoning was deliberate – poisoning in the Rasheed family usually were. So two of his cousins stole away from Riyadh to take refuge in Iraq, and there the Hashimite authorities gleefully made much of the Al Sa’ud saturnalia.

The moment Abdul Aziz heard of the affair, he flung Nasir into prison, depriving him of his Riyadh governorship, and summoning a gathering of all his elder sons to watch while he belabored their errant brother with his walking stick. Nasir cringed on the carpet as his father rained down blows upon his back, and the Abdul Aziz harangues his sons, warning them against the dangers of departing from the principles of their forefathers.

‘Have things come to this?’ Philby reported the king as crying, ‘I would have doomsday now!’

The pity of it was that Nasir had, in earlier years, been known for his piety and rigidly abstemious habits which had, apparently, crumbled totally in the course of just one brief visit to the United States. A more elastic and forgiving creed than Wahhabism might have stood the strain of the young man’s American excursion and turned it into a gently broadening experience. But the rigid ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of the desert catechism allowed no compromise, and, failing to resist the culture shock, they had been totally swept away.

J. Rives Childs treated the tragedy with some insouciance, explaining to Washington how Nasir had sought ‘to telescope many lost weekends into one.’ The prince’s crime, thought the minister, was that of ‘transplanting Western customs too suddenly to Sa’udi Arabia’ – as if Wahhabism would, in time, adapt itself to the ways of the West, and whiskey would one day be swilled openly in Riyadh bars.

But sheikhs and ulema had, of course, no such vision of the future. The essence of their own dogma lay in its refusal to compromise, and the case of Prince Nasir suggested a sterile future for contacts between Wahhabism and the West: either hostility and confrontation in the Ikhwan tradition, or moral chaos in which the old rules were cast aside and no new rules took their place.

Another tragedy occurred in November 1951. Cyril Ousman, British pro-vice-consul and more than twenty years in Jeddah, had made many friends among local Sa’udis, entertaining them in his home, and serving them alcohol that non-Muslim foreigners were permitted to import in those days. Prince Mishari bin Abdul Aziz, aged nineteen and the eighteenth surviving son of the king, was at one such party, on the evening of November 16, 1951, when a row developed.

Mishari left, to reappear shortly afterwards carrying a gun with which he proceeded to spray bullets into the Ousman’s home. Mrs. Dorothy Ousman, secretary to successive British ministers, was shielded by her husband, but, as he pushed his wife to safety, Cyril Ousman was shot dead.

The pro-vice-consul was buried next day in Jeddah’s high-walled non-Muslim cemetery, where his simple marble gravestone can still be seen, and, though few people visit it today or even know of its existence, Cyril Ousman does have a memorial of which every non-Muslim in Sa’udi Arabia is well aware. In 1952 Abdul Aziz revoked the import concessions hitherto allowed to foreigners, and banned all alcohol totally from his kingdom.

Dorothy Ousman left Jeddah quietly, accepting Sa’udi compensation, on which she lives, in retirement in South Africa. Mishari was put in prison, saved from the death penalty by his royal status. There was nothing about the incident of which the Al Sa’ud could feel proud.

The oil bonanza churned up an ethical morass. Violence like Mishari’s proved an exception, but that was not the essence of the problem. Laziness, hypocrisy, shallowness, tastelessness, these were the creeping vices which oil wealth brought to corrode old decencies in post-war Arabia, since those inhabitants of the Kingdom who scrambled for the pleasure enticements of the West showed little interest in the traditions and disciplines that went with them.

America was a wonderful place, enthused one young man to Philby, and of all the things he had seen there the one that impressed him most was a glass-walled restaurant set below a swimming pool where you could eat your lunch while looking up at the naked legs of the ladies swimming past.

The Kingdom had survived adversity and impoverishment. Could it now survive prosperity?


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