New book shines light on life — and death — of Abdullah bin Saud Al-Saud 

DUBAI: In April 1818, Ottoman forces under the leadership of Ibrahim Pasha – the eldest son of Egypt’s Ottoman governor, Muhammad Ali Pasha – began besieging Diriyah. The culmination of a seven-year campaign against the Saudis, the siege would result in the defeat of the First Saudi State.

Saudi forces held out for six months before Abdullah bin Saud Al-Saud, the fourth and final ruler of the First Saudi State, sued for peace. In exchange for his surrender, he requested that Diriyah be spared. Instead the city was razed and he was sent to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), where he was executed.

En route, he passed through Cairo, where he met his triumphant enemy, Muhammad Ali Pasha, for the first and only time. Their meeting was witnessed by an Englishman called John Bowes Wright, a well-connected and politically attuned traveller. It is Wright’s unpublished account of their meeting that historian Michael Crawford drew for his book “The Imam, the Pasha and the Englishman,” published by Arabian Publishing earlier this month.


Engraving of Abdullah bin Saud by Louis Haghe published in 1834. (Supplied)

“I have always been interested in the fate of Imam Abdullah because he seemed to have been erased from much of history, even though he had been a champion of his people, his religion and his country,” says Crawford.

Bowes Wright’s account of the meeting takes the form of a letter to his oldest friend and regular correspondent, Joseph Lamb, a Newcastle coal merchant. “There was a slight melancholy in his countenance, but mingled with a firmness and dignity suited to his situation beyond anything I had ever seen,” Bowes Wright wrote of Abdullah bin Saud. “His dark face was rather long and worn; he wore a red shawl wrapped around his head and a loose brown and white camel robe, and in every respect he looked, as he was, a perfect desert chief.

The letter not only provides a first-hand account of Abdullah bin Saud’s courage and composure, but also allows for comparison with the narrative provided by Abd Al-Rahman Al-Jabarti, a famous Egyptian historian who also recorded the meeting between the two rivals. While Bowes Wright’s letter reveals an acceptance of the reasoning of his Ottoman hosts, Al-Jabarti was more sympathetic to Abdullah bin Saud.


Early 20th century photograph of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. (Provided)

Why was Bowes Wright present at the meeting? Probably as a publicity stunt, Crawford suggests.

“I think Muhammad Ali thought, ‘Well, this is my big moment. The enemy I have been fighting for seven years has been defeated. I will have my meeting with him. I want this to be publicized in Europe.’ There were no journalists in those days, so I think he just said to the British representative (in Cairo), “Bring someone with you – any elderly travelers you could accommodate – and they can attend the meeting.”

At the center of the meeting was the issue of treasures stolen from the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina in 1807, before the reign of Abdullah bin Saud. The Ottomans, especially Sultan Mahmud II, wanted to know where the missing treasure was. Some of them, including emeralds, other jewels and volumes of the Holy Quran, were returned by Abdullah bin Saud. The location of the rest remains a mystery.


The ruins of Diriyah, the first Saudi capital, seen from the runway to Riyadh in the early 20th century. (Provided)

“Of course, ‘theft’ depends on who you believe owned them,” Crawford says. “The Ottomans obviously felt they owned most of it, and the Saudis believed they were there to serve the religion, and if the jihad needed funding, or the people needed money simply to survive, then they could draw on that . And the interesting thing is that Al-Jabarti actually agreed with them, which is really remarkable.”

Crawford, who grew up partly in the Middle East and served for the British government in Saudi Arabia between 1986 and 1990, wrote the book to shed light on a lesser-known period in the Kingdom’s history. He also wanted to draw attention to Abdullah bin Saud himself, whose execution has always troubled him.

“He was basically a soldier,” Crawford says. “His father (Saud bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud) was much more of a politician, one of those great men of the Middle East famous for their generosity and extravagance. Everyone loved him, admired him and so on, but he was an extremely harsh and authoritarian figure. I think Abdullah was perhaps less complete; more a soldier, much less a politician. Maybe he didn’t understand how to keep the tribes on his side and I think his strategy was probably wrong. He retreated too quickly to Najd and I don’t think he had the same kind of hold on people that his father had. But he was brave and did his absolute best.”


Muhammad Ali Pasha by Auguste Couder. (Provided)

Could the result have been different? Could the First Saudi State have survived?

“Considering how extensive the Ottoman supply lines and logistics were, if he had managed to keep the main tribes on side, then I think he could have blocked the Ottomans at Qasim, or even before Qasim,” suggests Crawford. “But he couldn’t keep them on side and, of course, many of the tribes were quite flattered by Muhammad Ali’s attentions. They received shawls, cloaks, swords and all the gifts he needed. It’s all recorded in Egyptian documents. If he (Abdullah bin Saud) had been a greater personality, or more generous, or had a greater hold on people’s imaginations, as his father did, perhaps the state would have survived longer. But in the end, the Egyptian machine had much greater resources and Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim, as a combination, were quite brutal.”


The Al-Saud Palace in Diriyah – photo taken in 1937. (Supplied)

Crawford’s interest in the history of the Kingdom began when he was studying at Oxford under the British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani. “Nobody wrote about it,” he says. “Everyone wrote about the Levant. He was about Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and the big cities, and no one was writing about Saudi Arabia. Indeed, there was a rather dismissive attitude towards the history of the Arabian Peninsula: “There is not much there, there is no material.” And that’s actually not true. There is a phenomenal amount of material, it’s just that no one had really concentrated on it apart from George Rentz and (Harry St John Bridger) Philby, whose books were completely unreadable.”

If nothing else, Crawford hopes his book encourages a deeper understanding of the Kingdom’s history.

“I think it’s important for people to have some sort of understanding of the country’s origins. I have been writing Saudi history since 1982 – in a somewhat specialized way, I admit – but this was an opportunity to try to bring some of it back to life.”

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