Role of Turks and British in shaping Gulf history

Zekeriya Kursun

How many books do we have on the Gulf and particularly on Saudi Arabia, which we have been frequently discussing as of late? How many dissertations have been written on the subject at our universities? The answer to these questions is embarrassing. We have no more than a couple of books and, unfortunately nothing other than a couple of dissertations that show signs of plagiarism. In the past, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t be mentioned, because it was a “Sharia” state and talking about it was a taboo; now it is a Wahhabi country that has deviated from the religious path. Besides these, we have analyses prepared with the addition of a few-centuries-old British project theory.

If we were to ask, “What is the source of all these discourses?” I don’t think we would get more than two titles. Yes, part of what is happening in the region effects, hurts and frightens us. But unfortunately this is not enough to cover up our responsibility or, especially, our ignorance. We are yet to produce any further information on Wahhabism, which legitimizes the dominant class in this country, other than what was written by Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, and Eyüp Sabri and Süleyman Sefik who narrated from him. And since we have not been able to produce any further information, we chose the easy way out and clung on to conspiracy theories alone.

Birth of the Saudi state: If you please, let us look at the following headlines, which are each individual article subjects. Let us take a look and feel a little shame:

There is probably nobody who even remembers that the Saudi dynasty and Ottomans had ties, at least since the 17th century, and were wardens in Dir’iyah, Saudi Arabia in the name of the Ottoman Empire.

Let us also say that we didn’t hear about the Mecca emirs tasked by the Ottoman Empire to follow and silence Hanbali scholar Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab, who, toward the mid-18th century, incited the Saudi dynasty, dragged their feet and took advantage of the matter to get help from the center. And what should we say about the inadequacy of the Ottoman scholars and lack of foresight of the consultancy committee, who, in Ahmet Cevdet Pasha’s words, could not grasp the subject, in addition to the neglect of Ottoman governors, local administrators and Mecca sharifs when the matter grew and a military solution was needed?

If we know that the victory that helped Sultan Mahmud II gain the title “veteran” was Ibrahim Pasha’s takeover of the Wahhabi center of Dir’iyah in 1818, and him having Abdullah bin Saud sent to Istanbul and executed, then it will be easier to say that Egypt, an important trivet of the Ottoman Empire, was also lost to the Mehmet Ali Pasha dynasty because of this issue.

How many analysts do we have who know that following the 1840 London Protocol, Imam Faisal, from the family that returned to Riyadh after being intentionally released after fleeing Egypt or to spite Bab-i Ali (The Sublime Port), was assigned  to the Riyadh governorate by Sultan Abdulmejid on condition of paying tax to Jeddah?

How many books and articles do we have on this subject?

There isn’t anybody who also wrote that the service given by Imam Faisal in relation to road security and his efforts to prevent the British sea trade in the Gulf was internally supported from Istanbul.

When did the British step in?

In the 1870s, when a dispute arose between Imam Faisal’s sons, Saud and Abdullah, for the Ottoman Riyadh governorship, Saud requested help from the British, while Abdullah had requested help from the Ottoman Empire’s Baghdad governor. The governor not only helped him and restored his governorship, he also organized a major military operation with the emir of Kuwait on Saudi Arabia’s current oil areas, despite opposition from the British, and re-established Ottoman sovereignty there.

Do you know who this governor, that did not allow the British to go any further from the Bahrain island and turned Qatar into an Ottoman township is? It is Mithat Pasha, who is accused/known in our literature for British partisanship. If we were able to read his analyses even a little correctly, it is likely that today, our analyses would also be a little more sound. As a matter of fact, we would also know that this incident deactivated the British for a while in their regional operations and kept them waiting longer to establish relations with the Saudis. Meanwhile, I am not even mentioning the interesting story of Rakan, Mohammed bin Salman’s maternal great grandfather.

So, couldn’t Abdul Hamid II realize what was happening? The only thing done by Abdul Hamid II, who paid close attention to developments in all points of the state, was to support the Rashidi dynasty against the Saud dynasty. When the Rashidis threw the Sauds out of Riyadh, Abdul Hamid II did not eliminate the family members.

On the contrary, he gave them a wage and allowed them to live in Kuwait, where they would establish their first serious relations with the British. When Abulaziz bin Saud secretly returned from Kuwait to his homeland Riyadh in 1902, the signals of the clashes that would begin were given, but Istanbul could not do anything.

As a result of a military operation against the Sauds from Baghdad in 1904, trusting Ibn Rashid, or more correctly, certain advisers of the sultan, 2,500 soldiers, who are noted in our archives but are still not recorded in our history, died because of incorrect planning and tactic, famine, thirst and illness. Interestingly, the protection and provision of the soldiers deprived of logistic support in the Buraidah area in this process, was trusted to Abd-ulaziz bin Saud, who they went to fight against. Upon this, his father Emir Abdurr-ahman was appointed by Abdul Hamid II as the governor of Riyadh once again.

History continued its course and Abdulaziz bin Saud, who sent no deputies to Istanbul from his region despite being requested during the Second Constitutional Period, was given the title “pasha” and he was appointed the regional governor by the Ottoman Empire ahead of World War I.

My aim is not to legitimize the structure that has been standing in the Muslim world since the 18th century like couch grass. On the contrary, it is to show through the headlines mentioned above, which each need explaining, how the Saudi state appeared, that we do not know the role of the Ottomans/Turks in the Gulf, their policies that were stuck between weakness and the wisdom of the government, and their intricate relations, that we are discussing the issue on the wrong ground. The relationship between the Republic of Turkey and Saudi Arabia has an unknown dynamic dimension.

Let us not get into that now and make do with this much as we ask: Who has a greater role in the establishment of the Saudi state or states within history, Ottomans/Turks or the British? Our answer to this question will also reveal Turkey’s realpolitik role in the re-establishment stage of the Gulf and Saudi state.