The Situation in Arabia


’CONCERNING the situation in Arabia,’ says the Arab, ‘the Knower is God’; and he is a rash man who attempts to untangle its many threads. Still more foolish is the one who hazards a prediction as to what future developments will be. But of the importance of the inquiry there can be no doubt; for Arabia, however small in population, is large in influence. The million and a quarter square miles that are reckoned as her territory may possibly give a meagre support to four million people; but after journeying for days on end without meeting a soul, the traveler is inclined to doubt whether even that number could be mustered. Arabia, however, is the centre of Mohammedanism, and Mohammedanism is a brotherhood enrolling over two hundred and fifty million people—the most troublesome part, by far, of the ‘white man’s burden.’

The centre of this great brotherhood is the territory of the Hejaz on the coast of the Red Sea, and the two cities, Mecca and Medina, which that territory contains. Every year pilgrims come by scores of thousands to these cities. Tens of thousands come from India, where the British Raj rules over sixty millions of the followers of Mohammed. Thousands come from Java, where the Dutch flag floats over many millions more. Crowds come from all over North Africa, where Great Britain, France, and Italy are finding their most difficult colonial problems. Pilgrims come from Singapore, and from the Philippines, from Central Asia and Turkestan, and even from Russia.

This pilgrimage is no mere formality in the lives of these Mohammedans. A few years ago the pilgrimage from Kuweit, a small city of fifty thousand on the Persian Gulf, was composed of over a thousand men and women. The day of their departure, as that of their return, was practically a legal holiday. The man who has made the pilgrimage is a Thirty-third Degree Mason for the rest of his life. He is one of the élite. However poor and disreputable, he is a Hajee, and his name is spoken with respect.

Nothing in the whole world is so revered by the Mohammedan as those two cities. He knows no patriotism; nearly everywhere he is ruled by aliens; but all that patriotism means to us, and much more, he finds in his religion. His great world-brotherhood is bound together in a solidarity that nothing seems to shake. I remember well an Arab in Bahrein telling me with great interest of the work of his brother, who is a religious teacher among the Mohammedans of the Philippines. Some years ago some mosque grounds in India were trespassed upon by government order in constructing a road. The Mohammedans in that city were furious, as were the Mohammedans in Bahrein, several thousand miles away.

A British officer told me of the shock he received during the Mesopotamian campaign, on seeing the Mohammedan soldiers under his command humbly kiss the hand of one of their prisoners, a Seyyid, or descendant of Mohammed, who had been fighting in the Turkish army. He opined that the military situation was jeopardized by such an attitude, and he was not mistaken.

It is a capital mistake to imagine that these two sacred cities can be tampered with from outside in any way whatever, without stirring up a flaming protest from the whole Mohammedan world. Mohammedanism is perhaps the proudest religion in the world, and all the affection and religious pride of its devotees centre in those two cities. Losing Constantinople will be a great humiliation, but it will not compare with seeing Mecca and Medina pass under foreign suzerainty. In attempting to understand the political situation in America or Great Britain, the major factor must be recognized as pride of race and nationality; and exactly the same statement is to be made of any effort to understand the present situation in Arabia, and throughout the Mohammedan world as a whole.

The situation before the war was complicated enough. The Turks ruled over the Hejaz, including Mecca and Medina. Their rule, although outrageously inefficient and bad, was tolerated because Turkey was a Mohammedan power. Pilgrims were looted and robbed and murdered, and the cities themselves were notorious pest-holes of disease and wickedness. The Turks ruled over Yemen in South Arabia also, and maintained a show of authority in Hassa and Kateef, two rich provinces on the east coast. The Turkish garrison was driven out of these latter provinces two years before the war; but by the simple expedient of investing the Arab sheik, who took their place, with a Turkish order, and appointing him governor of that district, Constantinople maintained the shadow of its political claims.

The British owned the Persian Gulf. They policed it, and maintained political agents in its ports. They surveyed it and charted it, and had treaties with the various Arab tribes whose territories touched its waters. British influence was extended so judiciously and so effectively that Germany, in spite of the most strenuous efforts, was unable to get a foothold; and even Turkey, trying continually to extend her area of influence southward from Busrah, had little or no success. Great Britain did not want Arabia in those days — at least, not officially. She was interested in maintaining the status quo in Persia, and in protecting India. The various political agents stationed in the different ports were more energetic and aggressive than their superiors, and, working out from their various stations, succeeded in forming friendships and unofficial alliances with the inland Arabs, which were of very great value when the war broke out.

Inland, among the Arabs themselves, the tribes have been divided for the past seventy-five years between the rival camps of Bin Rasheed in the north, and Bin Saoud in the south. As the war broke out, the Saoud family was in the ascendant. They were led by such a chief as appears only once in centuries. Perhaps never since the days of the early caliphs has Arabia had a ruler of his calibre. He gained the throne after the true Oriental fashion, by murdering its former occupant, and began a reign of great power. The Arabs love to tell of his long, terrible marches, where men by the dozen would drop from their camels, asleep from sheer fatigue and exhaustion. His standard tactics were to imprison everyone in the capital city who hailed from the district at which he intended to strike; then, starting immediately, he would march with his whole army at a pace no messenger could hope to equal, and strike his enemies when off their guard, routing them utterly, and, it may be mentioned, looting them clean. Under his rule, life and property in inland Arabia have become as safe as they are in America or Europe; and in the provinces so long misruled by the Turks, property has risen to three times its former value.

It was this man who, with three hundred soldiers, drove a Turkish garrison of two regiments out of Hassa, assuming the government himself. The smaller garrison of Kateef fared likewise, and as a result, Bin Saoud’s prestige in Arabia was enormously increased. The Turks sent an officer to investigate the situation; but apparently his report was unfavorable, for they decided to invest Bin Saoud with a Turkish Order, and appoint him Governor of Hassa and inland Arabia. For some months before the war the Turkish flag was hoisted every Friday over all the forts of that district.


In those days six years ago, a movement was beginning in inland Arabia, to which no one gave much attention — namely, that of the ‘Ichwan,’ a small fanatical brotherhood of Mohammedan Puritans, who had for their object the training of the Bedouins, or desert Arabs, in the more careful observance of religious rites. Those who qualified as teachers wore a white headdress as a badge of their office. The movement spread beyond all the expectations of its founders. One of its cardinal doctrines is that raiding or looting or otherwise injuring a ‘ brother’ is a crime of the gravest sort; and as a result the movement worked as a steadily strengthening bond, uniting the discordant tribes of inland Arabia into a coherent and fanatical whole.

The war brought many changes. The Germans sent missions to Persia and to Afghanistan. Their commercial representatives intrigued with slight success throughout the whole Persian Gulf; but in inland Arabia they attempted nothing, for Bin Saoud, in whose hand the whole of that country lay like a small coin, decided to throw in his lot with the British. This decision took no small amount of courage, for he stood almost alone in all that country in his conviction that the Allies would eventually be victorious. When Turkey entered the lists, pressure on him was increased, but he was steadfast in his loyalty to the British. To fit him for more effective military coöperation he was granted a subsidy of seventy-five thousand rupees a month — approximately twenty-five thousand dollars.

In the early part of the war anti-British feeling ran very high in Arabia, especially in those parts which were in any degree under Persian influence. The bazaars were full of weird and grotesque tales, always of German victories. Paris was taken by the Germans times without number. I remember that one rumor had Paris given to Persia to secure her active participation as an ally of Germany. ‘That,’ said one shrewd old Arab, better informed than most of his compatriots, ‘would be a camel riding on a rooster.’

Through all this time, while the first Mesopotamian campaign was blundered through to its ignominious close, inland Arabia, however restive and however anxious to get into the fight against the English ‘Infidels,’ remained officially loyal and absolutely quiet. Bin Saoud continued to consolidate his power. He remained unshaken in his confidence of eventual British success. He was wise enough not to waste his strength in foolish fighting, and succeeded in so building up friendship between his own country of Nejd, and the Shemmar country of Bin Rasheed, that the old feud practically disappeared. The Ichwan spread further and further and became more and more powerful.

Eventually the tide turned, and his confidence was abundantly justified. On the ruins of the old Mesopotamian failure, there was pushed to success a new campaign, which marked the permanent disappearance of the Turk from Arab politics. Mesopotamia passed under the domination of the British. On the western side of Arabia, the British financed and assisted a revolt of the Shereef of Mecca, who was the local representative of the Sultan of Turkey. British help made the revolt a success, and the Hejaz campaign became an integral part of the Allied campaign for « Syria and Palestine. The two sacred cities thus passed out of the control of Turkey, as did the Province of Yemen in the South.


The war ended with a totally new situation. Turkish and German influence are gone. For the Arab the outside world is composed of Great Britain, and in a small degree, of France. The sheikhs of Bahrein and Kuweit and Oman have names, and names only. They are negligible when we consider the present situation. As things stand to-day, there are two men of importance in Arabia. One is the Shereef of Mecca, whose successful revolt from Turkish rule was really a British military manœuvre, camouflaged. The Shereef is not himself a leader of force. He has never been able to command the loyalty of his own subjects, to say nothing of the turbulent Bedouins outside. His present success and position are the result of British gold, and of very little else, if Arab opinion can be trusted. Just how much money has been spent on the Shereef, it is not possible for any ordinary man to say; but making all possible allowances for exaggeration, the amount must have been enormous.

The other man in Arabia is Bin Saoud. When a world is divided between two men, each anxious for all of it, a delicate situation is created. Bin Saoud rules pretty well all Arabia properly so called, except the small strip governed by the Shereef, and the southern coast. The fanatical inland Bedouins follow him with a devotion that is past all description. A born ruler of men, he has succeeded in uniting Central Arabia as it has not been united for centuries. The wild Bedouins of the desert and the more mercenary and luxurious Arabs of the towns are alike in their loyalty. Under his rule, life and property have become safe, and such prosperity is enjoyed as Arabia never dreamed of before.

But the real power in Arabia is held by neither of these. The Bedouin brotherhood of religious fanatics that began so unostentatiously ten years ago has grown like a green bay tree. Thousands and tens of thousands are enrolled under its banner now. However imperfectly they may be instructed in the tenets of their faith, nothing is lacking in their fanatical enthusiasm. Bin Saoud is their political and religious head, and it is they who make him strong. These men, in their furious desire for martyrdom in the cause of God, bring to mind the lurid days when men of this same race, inspired by the same sort of wild fanaticism, threatened to carry the flag of Mohammedanism over the whole of Europe. Their eagerness for martyrdom seems to increase with their increasing numbers.

Until recently the Shereef looked upon these unkempt desert warriors with great contempt; but he has learned a lesson. The inhabitants of one of his border cities ‘got religion.’ They decided to join the Ichwan, and to transfer their allegiance to Bin Saoud. There was considerable correspondence over the matter, but eventually the Shereef moved out against them, at the head of an army of some ten thousand men, several thousand of whom were trained Turkish soldiers, and with machine-guns, and field artillery that it took a thousand camels to draw. Bin Saoud deputed the Ichwan of one nearby city to rally to the help of their new comrades, while more extensive forces were gathered. The more extensive forces were never needed. Before Bin Saoud himself arrived on the ground, his advance guard of red-eyed fanatics had utterly routed the Shereef, and carried his machine-guns and artillery back as a present to Bin Saoud. ‘Oh, yes,’said Bin Saoud’s brother Abdullah to me gleefully, ‘the next time you come to Riadh we will show you the whole thirty-five machine-guns. We did not leave a single one behind. And we got nearly all their cannon too.'

As I write this a new tribe, the ‘Ajman,’is being received into this fold of bloodthirsty fanatics. The conditions imposed are an interesting commentary on the force of the extraordinary religious enthusiasm that inspires these men. The Ajman have distinguished themselves in times past by their incorrigible enmity toward Bin Saoud and all that is connected with him. The tribe is to be divided into small fractions and transplanted, a fragment to one inland city, and a fragment to another, to be instructed in religious things and to settle permanently there. Some sixty-five of these new cities for religious instruction and nurture have been founded, and some of them number far over ten thousand inhabitants.

Perhaps nothing in the whole life of the Arab has such a hold on his heartstrings as his tribal connections and tribal territory. All that is to be given up. He is to give up his roving life and settle down in one of these cities and spend his energy in being a religious zealot. The military power that this arrangement puts into the hands of the central ruler is obvious. It might not be particularly formidable, arrayed against a European army, with armored cars and aeroplanes and modern artillery; but against anything in Arabia it would be utterly invincible.


The equilibrium in Arabia at the present moment, is extremely unstable. The British have set up the Shereef of Mecca in his present position. What they hoped to accomplish by his revolt from Turkish rule is fairly obvious. Theoretically the Caliph, who is the successor of Mohammed, is the temporal as well as the spiritual ruler of all Mohammedans, and actually he does exert an enormous influence over them, whatever flag they may be under. No one can be Caliph who does not rule over the Hejaz, thus acting as Warden of the Holy Cities; and for centuries the Sultan of Turkey has been universally recognized by Mohammedans as their Caliph. Now if the Shereef of Mecca could be assisted in a successful revolt, and be made independent, his claims to the Caliphate would be far stronger than those of the Sultan of Turkey, inasmuch as the Holy Cities would be in his hands. Therefore, he would bo universally acclaimed as Caliph in the Sultan’s place. Just what military advantage would have accrued, even if the scheme had proved a success, it is not easy to see. It is possible that the task of picking the bones of the Turkish Empire might have been somewhat more pleasant, inasmuch as the strenuous protests of the Mohammedans in India would have been less in evidence.

Of course, it did not succeed. Nothing but the stupidity of a military commander could have imagined that it would. The Shereef is execrated in India, to a degree almost past belief. In some places it has become a disgrace instead of an honor to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. He is held in semi-humorous contempt all over Arabia. His hopes of being acclaimed as Caliph are laughed at or cursed, according to the temper of the individual commenting on them. Not a single voice of approval is heard in all this chorus of condemnation.

The reason that the plan failed is perfectly simple. It failed because it was a British scheme. The Shereef’s revolt was a British military manœuvre and his present position is maintained by British money, and everybody knows it. The British are universally hated by Mohammedans — in India, in Arabia, in Persia, in Egypt, and in Central Asia. They ought not to be, for the Mohammedan communities in every one of these countries have benefited enormously by what Great Britain has done for them. It is not because of any discreditable actions or unwise policy that they are hated. Great Britain’s work in Egypt and India is perhaps the finest example of constructive statesmanship that the world has ever seen. She is hated because people who are the proudest in the world cannot endure being ruled over by those of an alien stock and an alien faith. Being ruled over politically is bad enough, but a subtle attempt to rule over them religiously in this sort of camouflaged way is worse; indeed, it is intolerable. The enterprise has gained for Great Britain increased hatred on the part of Mohammedans everywhere.

In the meantime the Shereef sits on a very insecure throne. He rules in the Hejaz, and has been given Damascus and Aleppo and some of Syria as well. His money enables him to purchase the services of a certain number of Bedouins and thus to keep the Hejaz clear of actual brigandage. How long it will do even that much is very doubtful. His subjects in Syria are said to be really loyal; but, on the other hand, he has succeeded in making the whole Ichwan movement his bitter enemy. He has absolutely forbidden its members to make the Pilgrimage to Mecca, and apparently has taken great satisfaction in writing insulting letters to Bin Saoud, their leader. In spite of his anathemas, the movement has grown, until now a mere fraction could wipe out his whole government almost overnight. The world has in it few more bitter and pitiless hatreds than that of the Ichwan for the Shereef. Even to a complete stranger, they are perfectly frank in declaring their intention of killing him just as soon as they can lay hands on him. It was only the flat prohibition of Bin Saoud that prevented this very thing happening six months ago, after the Shereef’s defeat at their hands.

Bin Saoud receives some three hundred thousand dollars a year from the British as a subsidy, and it is commonly reported that this subsidy was stopped for a month or two when he left to chastise the Shereef. His hold on the Ichwan depends largely on having a large amount of money to spend on presents and hospitality, and it is interesting to see the really enormous proportions to which this hospitality has grown. No Bedouin ever goes away from that guesthouse unfed or unrewarded. The presents given must average close to five dollars in value for the ordinary visitor; and of course, to chiefs and those in high position much more expensive presents are made. The amount of expenditure that this necessitates can be imagined from the fact that Bin Saoud is frequently entertaining from a thousand to fifteen hundred guests.

As long as this can be kept up, Bin Saoud can probably keep his grip on the situation; but it is a much more tenuous grip than is supposed. Once the subsidy from India is stopped, because of economy in Simla or for some other reason, he must find other ways of maintaining his leadership. The Shereef’s head, and the purification of the Holy Cities may be expected to serve as the first one. In these days of speculation and confusion as to the Caliphate, Bin Saoud would probably have no objection to the lightning striking in his direction, although he is far too wise a man to advertise any such ambition now. When the psychological moment comes, if it ever does, the first necessity will be spectacular independence of Great Britain, or, better still, hostility to her. Control of the Holy Cities will be a sine qua non, of course. Peace in Arabia hangs on a slender thread, and as to the future, ‘The Knower is God.’