For someone in his seventies, Abdul Aziz was still muy hombre – very much a man – thought Laurence Grafftey-Smith, who, as British minister, had frequently to do business with the old king in the late 1940s. Tall and deep-chested, Abdul Aziz looked ‘impressively square-cut’, in the minister’s eyes. “He still had more than the mere remains of great physical strength, and the gentle hands and charming smile that made many love him.’

So Grafftey-Smith was surprised one day to find the old king weeping. Abdul Aziz had just learned, he told the British minister, that ‘there were as many as 5,000 Jews living in the city of New York.’

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

Grafftey-Smith had always suspected that Abdul Aziz was weak on figures over a thousand, and he had good reason to know the true proportions of New York’s ethnic mix, since Great Britain had just delayed a policy initiative in Palestine in deference to President Truman’s anxieties over the mayoral elections in that city.

But the minister guessed that adding more zeros to the old man’s statistic would only increase his sorrow, and Abdul Aziz had grasped the point in any case: the Americans he had originally welcomed to Arabia as businessmen who would confine themselves to making money and who, in the 1930s, had been happy to leave local politics to the Arabs, had turned out, in the 1940s, to be committed to a disruption of the Arab world more drastic and permanent than any of the meddlings of the election old imperial powers.

Great Bitter Lake

Great Bitter Lake

America’s support for the Jewish struggle to establish the State of Israel in the years after the Second World War did not chime with President Roosevelt’s Great Bitter Lake assurances to Abdul Aziz. But the dying president, under the spell that the Sa’udi king managed to weave around all who met him, had been too eager to please, since Roosevelt was as unaware of American political realities as his successor Truman turned out to be. Roosevelt knew well that when it came to election time any American president had ‘to answer to hundreds of thousands who were anxious for the success of the Zionism,’ and electioneering in 1944, he had publicly endorsed the Zionists’ Biltmore Program. Roosevelt shared America’s general sympathy for the holocaust’s survivors’ wish to plant themselves in the Middle East, and his hope for Palestine before his death seems to have been that he might somehow arrange a conference between the Jewish leadership and Arab figures like Ibn Sa’ud to hammer out a compromise.

It fell to Harry Truman to discover that compromise was impossible in the much to Promised Land. When Britain gave up on the whole peck of troubles and dumped Palestine into the lap of the United Nations in 1947, America supported the UN plan to partition the country into separate Jewish and Arab areas. But the Arab states rejected partition totally, holding out for an independent Arab Palestine in which the Jews would have to take their chances as a minority.

‘If you want to be generous, then be generous out of what you possess,’ declared Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, head of the Sa’udi delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1947. Faisal expressed astonishment that members of the US Congress, who were at that moment resisting the entry of Jewish and other European refugees into their own country, should be urging, ‘uncontrolled and unconditional immigration into Palestine as if that country had no owners and as if her rightful inhabitants had no say in the matter.’

‘What would be the position of the United States Government and the American people at large, were the parliament of some foreign country to pass a law which urges opening the gates of immigration to Jewish and non-Jewish refugees … simply because the United States is vast and can absorb millions of people?

Gentlemen, try and put yourself in our place today…’

Arab arms and guerrillas poured into Palestine. The Jews fought to defend and to extend the area granted to them by the United Nations, and, as the last of Britain’s troops withdrew, the situation degenerated into total war.

‘The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination,’ Dr. Weizmann told Harry Truman in April 1948, and by that stage of the conflict he was right.

The State of Israel came into existence at 6:00 p.m. on May 14, 1948, and at 6:11 p.m. President Truman announced its de facto recognition by the United States of America.

Faisal bin Abdul Aziz was outraged. He had been booed and spat upon in New York by Jewish demonstrators – an experience he never forgave or forgot – and on the strength of private State Department assurances he had worked hard to persuade fellow Arab delegates to the UN that American would not, in the last resort, endorse partition or a sovereign Jewish state – only to be left looking like an American stooge, and a discarded stooge at that. The fact that President Truman had overruled his pro-Arab State Department advisers for personal and political reasons did little to salve Faisal’s sense of betrayal, and he urged his father to break off links with America at once.

League of Arab States

League of Arab States

But Abdul Aziz ignored him. While mobs in other Arab countries stormed American legations in furied demonstrations, and their governments blustered of economic war against the USA, Sa’udi Arabia confined itself to expressions of ‘shock’, sent a token force to join the armies of the Arab League in Palestine, and declined to take up the unused portion of a $15 million loan from America’s Export-Import Bank.

It was a slap on the wrist after decades of big talk, and, in this first serious testing of the US-Sa’udi Arabia relationship, State Department officials discovered, with some relief, that, when it came to events outside Arabia’s frontiers, their Sa’udi partners had a very realistic ‘sense of what they can an cannot do.’

David Niles, and aide to President Truman and to Roosevelt before that, put it more brutally: ‘President Roosevelt said to some of us privately he could do anything that needed to be done with Ibn Saud with a few million dollars.’

If that sounded cynical, it almost paraphrased Abdul Aziz’s response when Iraq called on him to cut off his oil sales and declare economic war on America over Israel. “Give me $30 million,’ he said, ‘and I’ll join you.’ Abdul Aziz had become the hostage of his oil revenues.

Gaza Strip

Gaza Strip

Prince Faisal and his militant younger brothers felt humiliated. But Sa’udi Arabia scarcely proved itself more self-interested in the first Arab-Israeli war than Egypt – who secured for itself the Gaza Strip – or than Abdullah of Transjordan – who exploited the efforts of the allied Arab armies to pocket Arab Palestine for himself, enlarging his territories on to the west bank of the Jordan River by over 2000 square miles. The first combined Arab assault on Israel provided in 1948-9 a model for all the others to come in its mutual mistrust and individual self-seeking; and Abdul Aziz’s halfhearted commitment had much to do with his unwillingness to further the ambitions of his ancient Hashimite enemy.

The Sa’udi king, said Grafftey-Smith, was always susceptible to two sorts of gossip – rumors of new aphrodisiacs, and dirt about Abdullah of Transjordan – and Abdullah’s annexation of Arab Palestine and half of Jerusalem justified Abdul Aziz’s worst suspicions. When Abdullah sought international recognition in 1950 for his combined Palestinian and Transjordanian territories, to be known henceforward as the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan, his Arab brothers in Riyadh were conspicuous in their silence, and the news of Abdullah’s assassination at the hands of an Arab nationalist in 1951 elicited little pretence at sorrow.

By that date the Al Sa’ud were engaged in some empire building of their own, for on October 14, 1949 Sa’udi Arabia had officially notified the British government of her claim to nearly 50,000 square miles of the deserts stretching eastwards from al Hasa – a vast extension of the Sa’udi frontier as hitherto recognized. The Kingdom claimed land which stretched out along the Trucial Coast (UAE) towards the Strait of Hormuz in a bulge clipping large chunks off the territories which the rulers of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Muscat had long regarded as their own, and, since the only significant settlements in these suddenly coveted wastelands were the threadbare gardens, huts and palm groves that made up the oases around Buraymi, it was by the name of Buraymi that the Sa’udi demand, and the twenty-five year old dispute to which it led, came to be known.

The Sa’udi claim to Buraymi was couched in ancient and historic terms: Abdul Aziz’s Wahhabi ancestors had occupied the area for a time, some inhabitants of Buraymi had considered themselves Sa’udi subjects at certain periods in the last century and a half, and aged documents were dusted off to prove the venerable nature of ties alleged to link the oasis to the rulers of Riyadh.

But the dispute was not about history: it was about oil. Abdul Aziz’s American oil partners had come to suspect that substantial energy reserves lay below the drab sand and gravel plains of the Trucial Coast, and with that suspicion the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Buraymi suddenly discovered that their welfare was a matter of intense concern not only to the Al Sa’ud but even to powers like Britain and the mighty USA.

It was a measure of the success of America’s oilmen in Arabia that within the decade of their oil strike of March 1938 they were helping to shape the foreign policy of the Al Sa’ud. Before the strike, Standard Oil of California had sold a share in their Arabian concession to the Texas Oil Company in return for Texaco deals elsewhere, and after the Second World War the companies had decided to split more of the competitors in on their joint Arabian franchise. They needed extra capital and marketing outlets – and they also foresaw how much easier it would be to muster State Department leverage on the behalf if they represented a broader section of the American oil industry.

So Standard Oil of New Jersey (then Esso, now Exxon) and Socony-Vacuum (Mobil – later to become ExxonMobil) were allowed to buy in on the Sa’udi venture, and the whole partnership, known as the Arabian American Oil Company, Aramco, soon became the largest single American enterprise operating anywhere outside the US mainland. (Shares in Aramco were distributed to Socal, 30%; to Texaco, 30%; to Esso/Exxon, 30%; and to Mobil, 10%). It outstripped even Firestone Rubber in Liberia and the United Fruit Company in Latin America.

Aramco’s profits were phenomenal from the start. It was a poor year in which effective returns on capital invested fell below 200 per cent, since the company was able to supply its owners with crude oil significantly below the market price. Yet, for all its size and prosperity, the mighty conglomerate felt a certain vulnerability in its Arabian fiefdom, for it soon discovered that the Al Sa’ud could be remarkably exacting landlords – as landlords ten to be when they are running themselves into debt.

Never quite able to catch up on himself, Abdullah Suleiman was for ever securing larger and larger foreign loans against future oil revenues. But the interest on the loans, and the improvidence of his masters, outstripped the actual revenues when they finally came in, and, since, the Finance Minister found it impossible to be strict with Abdul Aziz, it was Aramco that he squeezed. Al Suleiman set up an aggressive inspection post at Dhahran to monitor Aramco’s expenses and production volume; the oil company was pressed to pay higher royalties, it was threatened with ‘income taxes’ if it refused, and in 1949 it was asked to surrender those areas of its concession that it had not explored so that they could be offered to other companies.

Almost anywhere else in the developing world, such arrogance on the part of a native regime would have received short shrift. But the size and mystery of Arabia, and the very real power that Al Sa’ud exercised inside its boundaries, prevented Aramco from treating the country like a banana republic. The oilmen felt constrained to behave in the Kingdom with a deference to local feelings uncharacteristic in their industry, and Aramco’s history was one of enlightened and political concession; all the water wells Ibn Sa’ud wanted; help with his Riyadh-Dhahran railway, which everyone but he wrongly considered a white elephant; generous education and social welfare facilities for local Sa’udi employees; the first 50:50 profit sharing agreement in the Middle East; and, in 1949, the claim on the Trucial Coast and its hinterland.

Buraymi

Buraymi

Enlisting Abdul Aziz’s help in the claim for Buraymi was a good way for Aramco to increase the king’s sense of partnership in their affairs, and it was also a necessary geographical exercise. In order to establish what territory it had been entitled to in the first place – and it rapidly discovered that no one knew precisely where Sa’udi Arabia’s eastern frontiers lay, least the Sa’udis themselves.

One answer was contained in the Anglo-Turkish Convention of 1913 which had fixed the boundary of ‘le sandjak Ottoman de Nedjd’ along a ‘blue line’ to the west of the Qatar peninsula; another possibility was the ‘red line’ which Abdul Aziz had himself proposed in 1935, while various ‘violet’, ‘brown’, ‘green’, and ‘yellow’ lines had also been discussed in the 1930s during some inconclusive negotiations with Britain – complicated, at one state, by a British minister who was color-blind. Yet all these boundaries, including Abdul Aziz’s own proposal of 1935, signally failed to include inside their limits the oasis of Buraymi where the oil was thought to lie, and so Aramco organized a team of Arabist scholars and researchers to see if they could come up with something better.

They did. Delving into two chronicles compiled by poets whom the Al Sa’ud patronized, Aramco scholars formulated a glowing version of early Sa’udi history – which, in the absence of any alternative sources and research, remains to this day the basis of our knowledge about Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and the early conquest of the Al Sa’ud. Then the Americans compared these chronicles with the records of taxes that the Governor of al Hasa had levied from time to time in the Buraymi area – to produce, eventually, a bulky three volume compilation which claimed not just Buraymi for Sa’udi Arabia but also some 200 miles of ‘beaches, banks and islands’ along the Trucial Coast itself.

Aramco’s scholars seized avidly on the Bedouin tradition of ‘boundaries in men’s hearts’ to support their case, claiming the Trucial Coast, for example, on the grounds that certain clans of the Beni Yas tribe, who fished and dived for pearls there, had given their allegiance at times to the Al Sa’ud.

‘The deserts of Arabia are not the plains of Picardy,’ explained the Aramcons, excusing themselves, as sophisticate scholars, for haggling over frontiers in the style of the unlettered Ikhwan.

But at least the zealots who had wreaked such havoc along the borders of Kuwait, Iraq and Transjordan in the 1920s had been Bedouin on the ground, with a genuine stake in traditional grazing routes and rights of passage. Aramco were a Western corporation anxious to secure a fixed asset, and concerned with nomadic traditions only in so far as they could use them to prove their own case. They ignored the intrinsic nature of the allegiance that lies in men’s hearts – that is a mobile thing – for the course of 200 years the inhabitants of Buraymi had inevitably shifted their allegiance in several directions, following the local power balance as it swung between the sheikhs and sultans on either side of them.

Abu Dhabi and Muscat/Oman had perfectly respectable tribal precedents of their own for claiming the oasis – not much stronger, but certainly no weaker than the Sa’udi claim. Nor did Aramco care to make much of the reason why the Al Sa’ud had originally coveted Buraymi: to levy taxes on the revenues of the slave market there, while still flourished in 1949 and was still dispatching caravans of slaves for service in Riyadh.

Thirty-three months after the formal Sa’udi statement of claim, the oilmen acted. Steering his way by Aramco maps, riding in Aramco trucks and stocked with Aramco supplies, a Sa’udi functionary from al Hasa, Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Utaishan, bumped across the 500 miles of desert from Hofuf to Buraymi and there proclaimed himself emir of the oasis.

Ibn Utaishan was accompanied by a staff of thirty to forty bureaucrats and armed policemen, and, since September 1st was the Eed al Adha, the new emir invited the local inhabitants to a series of feasts for which sheep were slaughtered by the score. Word soon spread of Ibn Utaishan’s extraordinary hospitality, Bedouin traveled for miles to enjoy it, and as they made their farewells they were very happy to put their thumbprints on the sheets of paper that the emir’s aides had set out considerately on a table beneath the palms. Few, if any, of the guests can have realized, as they trailed home fed and happy into the wastes, that their thumbprints and names would soon be on their way to Geneva as proof to and international tribunal that their lands and flocks and home should be consigned irrevocably to the sovereignty of Sa’udi Arabia.

It is not certain how much Abdul Aziz realized or cared what Aramco was doing in his name. Abdullah Tariki, later Sa’udi Arabia’s first Oil Minister, then a young official charged by Abdullah Suleiman with the monitoring of Aramco’s pumping, sales and royalty accounts, remembers accompanying Aramco executives to an early 1950s meeting with the old king, now crippled and almost immobile with arthritis in his palace in Riyadh.

It was Tariki’s job as interpreter to get across the details of the various tactical ploys for which the oilmen sought royal support, but it soon became clear that Abdul Aziz was taking in very little of what they said.

‘You are my friends, you are my friends,’ he kept repeating, beaming rather vacantly at the earnest Americans with all their complex proposals. ‘You can count on me. Anything you want, anything you want…’

It was a sad final scene for the Lion of Nejd. ‘Anything you want’ was his response to oilmen, to the American ambassador, to all the brothers, sons, wives and advisers as they came to him with their insatiable demands – and all that Abdul Aziz asked in return was for some medical assistance that would stop the pain in his knees and which, more importantly, would also revive his sexual powers. The kings’ forty-third and final son, Hamoud, had been born in 1947, and that child was a solitary arrival after four long and blank years filled with the desperate efforts of the royal physicians to revive the potency that had expired with a clutch of births in 1942 and 1943.

After the commander of the USS Murphy thought he had seen the last of the Sa’udis and all their sheep at Suez in 1945, he received a desperate call from one of Abdul Aziz’s doctors who had left the royal medicine chest on board, and, sneaking a look inside before returning it, one curious American officer discovered it to be filled with the most extraordinary array of aphrodisiacs.

‘I have my responsibilities,’ Abdul Aziz used to mutter, ‘I have my responsibilities,’ and he brooded as old age made it more and more difficult for him to fulfill them.

It had long been Yussuf Yassin’s special skill – and one key to his influence – to secure ever more luscious concubines for his master, and in the quest for rejuvenation the Syrian drove their ages lower and lower, on the ancient theory that some transfer of vitality can be sparked by contact with the flesh of barely nubile little girls.

But it was to no avail. There were occasional flickerings of the old lasciviousness. At one soirée towards the end, Philby remarked on the new medical use of frogs in the West to determine whether or not a woman was pregnant, and a hilarious and increasingly ribald conversation developed as to how precisely the frogs might discover this. Where the especially small and slippery frogs?

Abdul Aziz quite recovered his old gaiety, and soon afterwards one of the royal entourage quietly slipped a bottle of Orston tonic pills to Philby to secure his translation of the precise dosage required.

In 1947 Dr. E. A. White of the American Legation in Jeddah had give Abdul Aziz a thorough medical examination, and had been able almost to chart the kings’ life history on his body:

There are two exit and entry bullet wounds, anterior and posterior to the left iliac crest (the upper flank) … a saber scar on the medical plantar aspect of the right foot … The eyes reveal blindness of the left eye due to corneal scarring of trachoma … All teeth are intact and in excellent condition… The heart is not enlarged, pulse 76, blood pressure 158/90, sounds of good quality with a soft apical systolic murmur. The abdomen is soft and rather obese. There is a small umbilical hernia which has been present all his life.

Abdul Aziz was then seventy and Dr. White summed up his patient’s condition as ‘one of excellent health for a man of his age.’ The king’s only serious affliction was hypertrophic arthritis in his knees, and the doctor gave Abdul Aziz a life expectancy of at least 10 to 15 years.

But less than three years later, in April 1950, a special US medical mission to the Kingdom was reporting Abdul Aziz as ‘considerably aged and enfeebled’, ‘increasingly senile’ and confined permanently to his wheelchair.

The royal arthritis, which Abdul Aziz attributed alternately to ancient battle wounds and to bathing in cold water when he was a child, had struck him down cruelly, and the disability appeared to have afflicted his entire state of health, mental and physical, for the king did not even gesture to rise, but remained slumped in his wheelchair when greeting the American doctors, who included President Truman’s own personal physician, Brigadier Wallace H. Graham. ‘The fire’, wrote Philby, ‘had gone out of him.’

The king spoke in a low, hoarse and dejected whisper, he mumbled his words, and he had no appetite for food of any sort, subsisting on warm, slightly curdled camel’s milk, which he continued to drink from the same ancient chipped enamel mug he had always used.

Ramps were built in his Jeddah palace so that Abdul Aziz could be driven by motor car, if he wished, right up on to the roof to hold his majlis in the old style. But his attention wandered, he would fall asleep, and everyone would sit around in embarrassed silence, shy of continuing their conversation, and scared of waking the king from his slumbers.

One British diplomat, quite unaware of the problem and angry at delays he was encountering at some lower level in the hierarchy, voiced his annoyance to the chief of protocol. ‘Someone’s going to sleep around here,’ he complained, and the outrage he provoked required an apology at ambassadorial level.

There was an attempt in July 1950 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Riyadh’s capture with free mutton and camel feasts in every town, village and settlement in Sa’udi Arabia – an expense, wrote Rives Childs, ‘completely out of proportion to the already wretched state of the country’s finances’. But the celebration was ruined for the old king by the death on its eve of his beloved sister Nura. Then in the following year his bright young son Mansour, the Minister of Defense, also died, still only in his twenties.

Nearly blind in his good eye, practically immobile below the waist and wearing thick woolen socks and Western slippers to try to maintain the circulation in his ankles, Abdul Aziz took to spending more and more time in his harem, in the quarters of his favorite, Umm Talal, sipping coffee, gossiping gently of the past and slipping off into long reveries as he fingered nostalgically the 7-foot spear he still kept beside his bed.

He had little interest in the world around him. When Daan van der Meulen saw the old king in March 1952, the royal beard and mustache dyed black, the gaze dead and lusterless, the Dutchman was struck most painfully by the royal voice: the music had quite gone out of it.

An American oilman at the meeting tried to make conversation, telling the kind how he himself had just recovered from a serious illness and how he now saw how wonderful God’s world was, how beautiful the fair sex could be, and that what really mattered in life was not money or success but religion. Religion ranked above all other things.

The old Wahhabi was not impressed. ‘Tell him’, said Abdul Aziz witheringly to his interpreter, ‘that if he had been a Muslim he need not have fallen ill in order to understand what matters in life. We knew that long ago.’

Overawed by their father to the end, Abdul Aziz’s sons did prevail upon him in the final months to delegate some of his powers to Crown Prince Sa’ud and to a Council of Ministers formed in March 1953. In the blazing summer heat of that year, the seventy-seven year old king was flown south to the cool heights of Taif, lying on the wide interior-sprung mattress with which President Roosevelt’s DC3 had come supplied, and there, at the old Hashimite mountain resort, inside the palace of his second son Faisal, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Sa’ud died in the small hours of November 9th, 1953.

It was not, in truth, before his time. Abdul Aziz had outlived himself in many senses. The old man’s moldering away only six years into the ten to fifteen years that the American doctor had so confidently predicted for him in 1947 was not a consequence of some new illness, but rather a recognition that life held little more for him to give or to receive. Depression at his physical afflictions, sorrow at the deaths of those he loved, fury and confusion at debt in the midst of plenty and delinquency at the heart of his own family: a multitude of disillusionments contributed to the erosion of a great man’s will to live; Abdul Aziz preferred to join his Maker in that garden where fruit and camel’s milk appeared without the need for ledgers and budgets, and where he would never again fail to satisfy, or be satisfied by, the luscious houris who would wait on him morning, noon and night.

Abdul Aziz had invented a country, but when he died that country’s flag did not fly at half-mast, for the Sa’udi flag is inscribed with the word of God, and that word cannot be lowered to mark the passing of any an, even if he has done as much for his Creator as Abdul Aziz had. The Lion of the Desert would not have expected otherwise, for he wore his Master’s leash and collar to the end without chafing.

Nor can you today easily identify the last resting-place of His Majesty King Abdul Aziz, for, though a few plain flat stones were placed upon the spot where he was laid to rest in his simple shroud, there is no tombstone or grave monument to the greatest modern Wahhabi. His remains lie somewhere in the sun-bleached dust of a communal cemetery, his memorial in the hearts of his family and of his people.

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?