It was the late summer of 1978, and, after six weeks of traveling through Greece, Turkey and Iran, I had just returned to the university town in the South where I was a tenured associate professor of history.  When I arrived home, I had almost forgotten that I had passed through New York City, glanced at the higher education employment section in the New York Times and had, purely on a lark, forwarded my resume to an address in Houston that was soliciting faculty and administrative staff for King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

Approximately three and one-half weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, I received a telephone call from the education attaché in the Saudi consulate in Houston, who inquired if I would be interested in flying to Texas for an interview.  I admitted that I was curious about Saudi higher education, and within five days I found myself flying from Birmingham to Houston.

I was met in Houston by a staff member of the Saudi consulate, and after a restful night at a five-star hotel in the River Oaks district, I was interviewed the following morning at the consulate and offered my equivalent faculty rank as well as administrative responsibilities in the area of institutional research, where my first project would be to convert the university, with its 20,000 students and twelve schools and colleges from the European annual system of academic administration to the American credit-hour system.

Later, when it came time to talk about compensation, I was offered a very attractive financial package and alluring fringe benefits, such as housing, utilities, medical coverage, the use of an automobile and annual transportation to and from the U.S.  What was particularly attractive was that I would have an annual vacation allotment of eighty days, during which I could indulge my addiction for travel by making stops while going to and from the U.S. by way of Europe and Asia.

After viewing some promotional tapes on King Saud University, I was dropped off at the airport late in the afternoon and encouraged to inform the consulate of my decision about their offer within a week’s time.  In the end, avarice and my desire for travel and adventure won out, and by early October I found myself flying by way of London to the Saudi capital city of Riyadh.

Arriving late in the night at Riyadh, I found the airport second-rate but the customs inspection the most thorough I had encountered at any international airport. After clearing customs and having my Bible confiscated, I was conducted to a nearby hotel and informed by my escort that I would need to hail a taxi in the morning and make my way to the university administration building to complete personnel requirements and officially join the university.

When I awoke the following morning and peered out the window of my hotel room, my initial impression was of a prevailing russet color. It was, of course, owing to Riyadh’s location in the arid and semi-barren region of the Arabian Peninsula called the Najd that almost everything seemed to be covered with a prevailing brownish cast.

After a taxi ride of twenty minutes, I found myself at the gates of the university administration building in the middle of Riyadh, which, at that time, counted a population of more than a million people.  Despite having all of my earthly possessions with me in several suitcases, the taxi driver assured me that I could safely leave them on the street while I transacted business with the university personnel office.  Indeed, when I returned after three hours, all my belongings remained intact. 

Later, while being driven to my new home in university housing, I noticed that it was not uncommon to see pedestrians, obviously on their way to banks, carrying good-sized bales of money tied up in twine.  Although I had a theoretical background in the Koran and Sharia law, my experience with leaving my luggage on the street and street scenes with large amounts of money being carried about impressed upon me some of the practical aspects of Islam having to do with thievery.

Dropped off at my new home in faculty housing, near the site chosen for the construction of a new three-billion dollar campus, I hardly had time to inspect my new quarters before my thoroughly jet-lagged system went into shutdown mode, and I fell fast asleep.

Thus ended my first full day in Saudi Arabia, as I began the six years of my career in higher education in which I would experience my greatest challenges, but it would also be a time during which I would grow immeasurably by learning to live in and adapt to a culture far different than any I had previously encounter


                                                                        THE FUNDAMENTALS OF LIFE IN SAUDI ARABIA

As a newly-arrived expatriate in Saudi Arabia, I could not escape a feeling of newness.  Owing to the construction that one encountered almost everywhere in Riyadh, the skyline of the city was dominated by immense cranes that were being utilized in raising a modern city in the middle of an oasis surrounded by desert terrain.

Along with the erection of multi-storied office buildings and outsized shopping malls that would rival the dimensions of any in the United States, it seemed that practically overnight an infrastructure was being put into place, with super highways and high-speed rail transportation taking form.  Oil revenues were having a decided impact in a few years’ time, while previous centuries had tended to bypass the tribal peoples who inhabited the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula that was once thought by most Europeans and Americans to be a useless wasteland.

In prior history, most contact with the outside world was through the annual hadj, or pilgrimage, which saw thousands of the Muslim faithful journeying to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  But, by the 1970’s, thousands of young Saudis, through the largesse of their government, were studying in leading universities in Europe and America and were returning home to take their places as faculty on relatively new campuses, such as King Saud University, where I had recently been employed.

For a society that was just lately entering the 20th century, the physical progress was fast and furious; and, occasionally, I found myself wondering if the human element would be able to keep pace with such rapid material advancement.  Furthermore, Saudi Arabia was a newcomer to the family of nations, having only assumed its current status as a monarchy, presiding over slightly more than 860,000 square miles of the Arabian Peninsula since 1932.

The name of the country as expressed in Arabic literally means the Arabian Kingdom of the Saud family.  As I would learn, there were 5,000 princes of the royal Saudi bloodline, and government in the Kingdom could only function by consensus of the Saud family.

The Sauds had been dominant in the central region of the Arabian Peninsula for generations and, in the 18th century, had allied themselves with a fervent Sunni Muslim preacher named Muhamad Abdul-Wahab.  Thus was born the religious-secular alliance that the Sauds would eventually ride to power.

In the late 19th century, the Sauds had fallen on hard times; and, owing to a power struggle with the politically prominent Rashid family, had gone into exile in Kuwait.  By the early 20th century, however, the forceful, legendary figure of Abdul-Aziz Ibn-Saud would emerge to triumphantly lead the family back to Riyadh and the Nadj, which would serve as a base of operations from which he would emerge as a king and gradually put together the territories that would comprise his kingdom. 

Keeping in mind that divorce and remarriage in Islam were comparatively clear-cut and uncomplicated matters, Ibn-Saud would achieve a multitude of marriage alliances with the desert aristocracy that would cement his hold on his territory, producing 70 legitimate sons who would spawn the line that would eventually produce the 5,000 royal princes who hold forth in Saudi Arabia today.

What could not be obtained by alliance was conquered.  By World War I, Ibn-Saud had broadened his control to include large swaths of eastern Arabia; and, availing himself of the services of fanatical Wahabi warriors known as the Ikhwan, he began a program of conquest, deposing or sending into exile the rulers of various petty Arabian sheikhdoms.

By the early 1920’s, Ibn-Saud turned his attention to the Hijaz, the western portion of the peninsula, where the Hashemites had ruled as protectors of Mecca and Medina.  By 1925, the Hashemites had been overthrown by Ibn-Saud and sent into exile, eventually to be set up by the British Empire as rulers of Trans-Jordan and, by 1932, the Hijaz had been melded into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 1932, oil was discovered in the Kingdom’s eastern province.  After World War II, ARAMCO, the Arab-American oil company, was created.  Very soon thereafter the Kingdom was recognized as the holder of the world’s largest verifiable reserves of oil.  And, by the 1980’s, the Kingdom, owing to the outflow of oil, would become the world’s principal holder of foreign currency reserves.

With fundamentalist Wahabi Islam holding sway in the Kingdom, the religious establishment has received government financial support to the tune of billions of dollars.  These funds have been used to build mosques and establish Islamist schools and universities throughout the world.  Some of the madrassas which have been founded with Saudi backing in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria have served to incubate a new generation of Islamic extremists.  And yet it can truthfully be said that the Saud monarchy could in no way stand without the backing of two seemingly dissimilar props, one being the Wahhabi religious establishment and the other American military power.

It was not long into my stay that, owing to living and working in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, I began to rethink my own world-view. No longer would I see the Middle East and Islam in the simplistic terms of the American news media.  No longer would I unthinkingly be able to consume propaganda turned out by various political interest groups seeking to dominate American foreign policy.  And, had I been possessed of sufficient foresight at that time, I might have been able to convey to my fellow Americans much more successfully how limited knowledge of the history, cultures languages and religions of other lands may lead to disastrous decisions adversely affecting the lives of not only one’s countrymen but also those of foreign innocents caught in the crossfire generated by the inappropriate policies of bungling politicians.


Having taught Islam as a part of a Western civilization curriculum and having taken graduate courses on Islam at Vanderbilt University, I was bursting at the seams with bibliographies and interpretations on Islamic history.  However, none of that remotely prepared me for the practical side of living in an environment in which no other religion except Islam was permitted.

On the faculty housing compound where I lived, there was a mosque which blared out five prayer calls, or Adhans, in every twenty-four hour day.  As the loud-speakers affixed to the mosque emitted the prayers with an ear-splitting volume, my nightly slumber was at first adversely affected; however, I eventually became accustomed to the noise and was able to sleep through the night.

Even shopping was affected by calls to prayer, for it was the law in Saudi Arabia that all commercial activity should cease as the faithful were called to pray.  Thus, when I planned my outings to obtain vegetables and groceries, I had to keep in mind at what times the prayer calls would take place, as all stores, shops and markets would close as the muezzin began his prayers.

At the various colleges of the university, mosques were strategically located and all classes, seminars and symposia would be halted in order to accommodate prayer.  Also, a good deal of space in each college was devoted to special bathroom facilities, which would be able to provide the hoses and water necessary for pre-prayer ablutions.

It was not unusual for staff members with whom I worked in institutional research to make overtures to me about how happy I would be if I converted to Islam.  My practice was to politely thank them for their concern and then go about my business.  That seemed to mollify these would-be missionaries and, after a few months, I was no longer hectored by them.  Nevertheless, I did know of two or three weak-willed Americans in the university who actually recited the sha-ada and became Muslims.

An Egyptian working in my office named Abdul-Gawad informed me one day that he was taking his young daughter for removal of her clitoris, in accordance with his interpretation of the requirements of Islam.  Despite my attempts to dissuade him from such action, he was strong in his intent and carried through with his plans.  It was my first encounter with Islamist practices of female genital mutilation.

Each year, probably more than 3,000,000 girls throughout the Middle East and Africa will have female genital mutilation (FGM) performed on them, usually taking the form of a  “clitoridectomy.”  An even more radical form of female mutilation, practiced mainly in Africa, is infibulation, in which all external genitalia are removed and the two sides of the vulva are stitched together. Sadly, even in the United States and with its growing Muslim population, 300,000 girls annually are victims of FGM.  In an effort to circumvent legalities, no small number of Muslims residing in America take their daughters outside the U.S. for what is euphemistically called “vacation cutting.”

Down the hall from my office was the office of the special assistant to the university president, an American who had converted from Mormonism to Islam.  This former Utah Mormon had studied at the London School of Oriental Studies and at the University of Beirut.  His Arabic was pristine, and Arabic speakers who encountered him on the telephone were never aware that he was Utah- born.  From being known as “Clyde,” he had taken the Muslim name of Muhamad Abdurrahman.

During my first Christmas in Saudi Arabia, I found out, of course, that there were no Christmas trees for sale, and that, in a country-wide fatwa, the religious authorities had banned something which they considered to be an integral Christian practice.  Not to be deterred, however, I resolutely strode out into the desert, where I found a scrawny conifer and, back in my living quarters, decorated it with tin foil and ribbons.

As Christmas was not considered a holiday in Saudi Arabia, I was expected to work, and I did.  My whereabouts on Christmas day seemed to occasion a great deal of curiosity in the area of the university where my office was located.  In fact, throughout the day, inquisitive faces continuously appeared at my office door, wondering if I were indeed in the office on that day.

During that first year, I learned by experience that Islam embraces all areas of life, including its public, private social and personal components.  Some of its stipulations, particularly those relating to marriage, divorce, property, children, legacies and other matters of personal significance, are based on behavior patterns, which the faithful are expected to emulate and which, in the Kingdom, were backed up by a religious establishment willing to resort to extreme measures in their enforcement.  Sharia I learned, from first-hand experience, provides the framework of dictates toward which society is expected to strive.  These all-encompassing and authoritarian precepts lend some credibility to those who insist that Islam is better seen as an ideology and not as a religion, at least in terms of how the word is employed in the Western world.

Despite Western disparagement of the harsher aspects of Muslim jurisprudence, such as the removal of hands for theft, decapitation for murder and rape and the stoning of women for adultery, Riyadh, during the first year of my residency, did appear to be a safe place in which to move about.  Women, although thoroughly veiled and covered in black abayas, freely walked the streets and market places of the city, although - by custom and by law – they were not allowed to drive.  Families were seen strolling in city parks, and the atmosphere – at least initially – did not seem oppressive.


In studying the Koran, I have found passages that would seem to endorse the concept of religious freedom; however, from a practical standpoint, time and the imposition of tradition have tended to obscure such declarations, perhaps because of Islam’s pervasive fear of apostasy.

Apostasy is a term that today is not widely used or understood in the West.  A simple definition of the word is “… to renounce religious faith.”  The great majority of Muslim Koranic scholars writing in the 21st century see apostasy as a crime against Islamic society, and a weakening of the Muslim community, as a Muslim who has been exposed to the teachings of Islam should know that it is a faultless system designed by God for not only his own welfare but for the good of all. Thus, if one Muslim departs from the faith, his act of apostasy is, in effect, a fissure that that could endanger the redemption of the entire Muslim community.

In most Muslim-majority countries, apostasy is a serious crime warranting death.  In Saudi Arabia, it is a capital offense and is rigidly enforced, with the weight of the Hadith, or the sayings of Muhammad, in which he is quoted as saying, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him!”

Following this reasoning, a recent posting from ISIL, the Islamic extremist group now gobbling up Middle Eastern territory and persecuting Christians, proclaims, “Before Satan reveals his doubts to the weak and the weak-minded and the weak-hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the infidels and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharia that, if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narration of the Prophet…..and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”

It naturally follows, then, that to allow other religions to exist in free and open environments with Islam is to endanger Muslims, who might be lured away from Islam.  Thus, the concept of religious freedom does not resonate well in societies that are predominantly Muslim.-

On Friday, the Muslim holy day, there was a solid cacophony of strident voices of imams emitting from the public address systems and loud-speakers affixed to the minarets of hundreds of mosques scattered throughout Riyadh.  At the beginning of my stay in the city, those sounds made no sense to me; but, as I gained more proficiency with the Arabic language, I began to understand that I was not hearing words of peace and love.  On the contrary, what was being blasted about the airwaves were condemnations of unbelievers, and good Muslims were being told to look forward to an eventual day of reckoning, when Christians, Jews and others not of the Prophet’s faith, would be driven into the sea and slaughtered.

I vividly recall the day I attempted to engage a Saudi colleague with a doctoral degree from Michigan State University in a dialogue on religious freedom.  Naively, I asked him why Christians could not worship freely in Saudi Arabia, while the Kingdom was spending billions in the construction of massive mosques in American cities such as Houston.  I could just as well have been butting my head against the proverbial brick wall, for I discovered that a Muslim could be educated, urbane and even charming, but when it came to Islam, such a person quickly became illogical, allowing me to see that, for all practical purposes, Islam could be an obliterator of intellect.

From this and like experiences, I developed my own hypothesis about Islam and its position among other religions of the world.  As the Islamic calendar began with Muhamad’s flight to al-Yathrib or Medina, al-Hegira, (622 A.D.), Muslims had only advanced into their 15th century and had missed any development that might be synonymous with a Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment.  Granted, there was the venerable 10th century Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and there were the intellectual achievements of the Umayyads in Damascus and Abbasids in Baghdad, but, from the 13th century onward, Muslim intellectual life had stagnated and had been subdued by an oppressive theology and constant tension between Sunnis and Shias.  As my knowledge of Islam grew, it was inevitable that I began to see it as an institution fostering repression, as it sought to control politics, government, economics, education and virtually all aspects of society. 

Searching for some sort of substantiation for my hypothesis, I stumbled across a comparison of Jewish Nobel laureates versus Muslim winners of the prize.  The contrast was overwhelming.  At that time (the 1980’s), with a total worldwide population of just 12 million, Jews accounted for slightly less than 120 Nobel winners, while Muslims, numbering 23% of the world’s population (15 billion), had managed to produce a mere 8 laureates.  For me, the comparison was damning.  It was palpably clear that Islam, when closely examined, came off as an impediment to human advancement and was nothing short of a miserable failure when compared to Western civilization.


Growing up, I heard all sorts of stories about the persecution of early Christians, how Christians were martyred throughout the Roman Empire and how they were forced to worship secretly in the catacombs.  As a child, I assumed that such incidents from past history were well behind us, and that the principle of religious freedom was so strongly imbedded in our culture that it could rightly be taken for granted. 

With maturity, though, I realized that the American republic represented a mere interlude in history and was, for all practical purposes, an exception to the rule on the timeline of human experience.  Now, even more than ever, I see that St. Paul’s words in 2nd Timothy ring true in the 21st century:  “Indeed, all who desire to live a Godly life in Christ will be persecuted!”  Even in my own country, it is now not uncommon to hear of small business owners of fundamentalist Christian persuasion being coerced by the state into participating in observances which they feel are repugnant to their faith.

The popular culture, which in the United States is more and more a pagan culture, takes great pains to paint Christians as backward, ignorant and out of touch with the times.  Such themes are all too common in cinema, literature and left-leaning periodicals and newspapers.  And, with an increasingly unsophisticated population that seems more and more unaware of the Bill of Rights, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Christians in the United States, within a few short decades, could very well experience extensive, state-mandated persecution.

I first began to focus on such concerns during the time of my residence in Saudi Arabia.  Although I had been very much aware before my arrival that the only religion allowed to exist was Islam, the practical side of going without worshiping with fellow Christians was another matter.  For an inveterate church-goer, doing without the Eucharist and divine services made for a bleak and dismal existence.

During my second year in Saudi Arabia, a British colleague in the university informed me that there existed in Riyadh a clandestine Christian fellowship.  Swearing me to absolute secrecy, he divulged that the group met on Friday, the Muslim holy day, on a residential compound provided by the McDonnell-Douglas aircraft company for its American employees.  Located in central Riyadh, services there were led by an Armenian-American Presbyterian pastor who had come into the country under the guise of being an engineer.  In time, I became a regular attendee, along with approximately 150 other expatriate Christians.

Eventually, it became clear to me that the authorities in Saudi Arabia were completely serious about enforcing any and all laws preserving the privileged status of Islam.  For Europeans and Americans who might be found out in taking part in such services, the penalties could be brief confinement, followed by expulsion from the country.  For others, however, the cost of being a practicing Christian could be much higher.

Within the congregation was a sprinkling of Arab Christians, predominantly Palestinians.  I recall a colleague from the university, Dr. Hana Nasrallah, who regularly attended the services with his wife and daughters.  The assumption among Muslims being that the Prophet was an Arab, and that the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are found on Arab soil, leads them in their logic to suppose that all Arabs must be Muslims.  Therefore, Arab Christians were on perilous ground when they entered into worshiping with their counterparts from Europe and America.  Accordingly, Muslims tended to conveniently forget the history of the Middle East, when the region was almost wholly Christian and was a wellspring of Christian theology and missionary activity, propagating the message of Jesus Christ long before the advent of Islam.

During Muslim holidays, e.g. Eid al-Adha, I was in the habit of traveling outside the Kingdom to other countries in the region.  For example, during one such holiday, I journeyed to Egypt. During that trip, I visited the neighborhood in old Cairo where the Holy Family had purportedly sought refuge from King Herod.  Along a small alleyway, I was approached by a Copt, an Egyptian Christian, who sought to engage me in conversation, speaking of the many ways in which Egyptian Christians were persecuted, including discrimination in employment, education and housing.  He also shared with me how fanatics from the Muslim Brotherhood thought nothing of waylaying Christians, kidnapping and raping their daughters and burning churches. 

While in Egypt, I was also to learn that Egyptian Copts accounted for close to 11% of the Egyptian population, or approximately 10 million individuals.  Tracing their origins to St. Mark the Evangelist, who was martyred at Alexandria in the 1st century A.D., the Copts have a Christian history of 2,000 years, and are the descendants of Christians who remained true to their faith during the Muslim conquest of the 7th century. 

Long relegated to dhimmitude, or 2nd class status, Copts have faced discrimination in virtually all areas of Egyptian society.  In most respects, it is impossible for them to advance into the top tiers of the professions, participate fully in political and community life, receive equal opportunities in employment and openly practice their faith.

As I was to see during my six years of living in the Middle East, Christianity in that region was beginning to experience its death throes.  Once thriving Christian communities, from Lebanon to Syria and the West Bank, were dwindling in population.  Yet, the prevailing Christian view in Egypt seemed to be that it would be difficult to call oneself a Copt without living in Egypt.  Nevertheless, at the end of my Egyptian trip, I concluded that the Copts would face an uncertain future, owing to the overwhelming presence in that country of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Muslim organizations.

In the next year after my departure from Saudi Arabia, I found out from a British friend that the Saudi authorities had forcibly closed Riyadh’s underground church and had expelled the pastor and the congregation’s leaders.  I was also informed that an Italian Catholic priest had been stopped at a police checkpoint, where police found vestments, candles and a crucifix.  The priest was jailed and then summarily booted out of the country.

To equate the inconvenience of having to worship secretly  with the persecution and hardships experienced by the early Church – not to mention the Muslim persecutions of religious minorities in the 21st century – is a rather pathetic intellectual stretch.  Nevertheless, my experience of living in the Middle East caused me to think more about the subject of religious freedom than I had during any other time of my life.


In spearheading institutional research at King Saud University, I was able to intermingle with people from many national origins.  A particularly interesting person named Bashir, who hailed from the old mountain kingdom of Swat in the Khyber region of Pakistan, worked as a technician at the university press. Bashir taught me a great deal about Oriental carpets, which led me to frequent bazaars in Riyadh, where I made several purchases of carpets that now have honored places in my home.

Bashir, I was to learn, was a fan of squash, which I had previously thought was a game somewhat like racket-ball in the U.S.  Bashir was not at all reticent in informing me that the greatest squash players in the world were Pakistanis, and this included a family of Pakistani champions called the Khans.

It was inevitable that Bashir would suggest that I should learn how to play squash.  Eventually, we made our way to the university squash courts where I was introduced to the game.  It did not take me long to realize that squash was not at all like racket-ball, that it was a sport that demanded agility, speed and split-second timing.

Perhaps two months into my squash career, I was challenged to a game by a portly individual, dressed in a Saudi thobe, wearing a skull-cap and sneakers.  Since this individual did not appear at all athletic, I accepted the challenge.  Unfortunately, I was totally embarrassed, humiliated and soundly defeated.

Bashir, who had witnessed my shame, quickly asked me if I knew against whom I had been competing.  Saying that I had no idea, I asked my friend to please inform me.  Bashir let me know in no uncertain terms that I had taken the court against a professor of Islamic studies who was in exile from Egypt and who was a leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  My encounter led me to begin to bone up on that organization, hoping to gain more insight into religion and politics in the Middle East.

My subsequent research revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood had its origins in Egypt in 1928, when a young teacher, Hassan al-Banna, began speaking out against Western imperialism, proclaiming that the best way to counter European influence in Egypt – and specifically British influence – was by adhering to traditional Sunni Islam and rejecting all foreign ways that might tempt Muslims to stray from the fold.  Within ten years’ time, there were more than 500,000 Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After Banna was assassinated in 1949, the leadership of the Brotherhood passed to Syed al-Qutub, a scholar who had pursued graduate studies in the United States at Colorado State and  Stanford.  Qutub’s matriculation in the West had the effect of reinforcing his view that Islam was the only hope for the redemption of Egypt from European colonialism and what he considered the loose lifestyles and “race imperialism” of the United States.

By the 1960’s, the Muslim Brotherhood had several million adherents in Egypt and had become so strong that it was viewed as a threat to the government, and hundreds of its members were banished from Egypt, just like my squash opponent in Riyadh.  Falling out of favor with the Egyptian dictator Gamal-Abdul Nasser, Syed al-Qutub was tried by an Egyptian court and subsequently hanged.

My first visit to Egypt occurred during a time after Anwar Sadat had become popular, owing to Egypt’s armed forces having acquitted themselves courageously against the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1973 war.  Sadat’s popularity at home, however, would wane, when he shook hands with Israeli prime-minister Begin in 1979, thus cementing a peace of sorts during the mediation of President Jimmy Carter of the United States at Camp David.

After Camp David, Sadat was the darling of the media in America and Europe.  However, during my stay in Cairo during 1980, I saw on almost every street corner enormous banners with Sadat’s image emblazoned on them.  Having seen displays of this sort throughout the world, I quickly caught on that, contrary to what was being said in the U.S., Sadat was an out and out dictator, a feeling which was confirmed by conversations with Egyptians.  Consequently, I was not surprised when Sadat was gunned down by Egyptian elements tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.

A former air force general, Hosni Mubarak, followed Sadat and was able to extend his rule for more than thirty years, finally falling victim to the Arab Spring movement, when the long-suffering patience of the Egyptian people came to the breaking-point, after decades of cronyism, corruption, poverty and human rights abuses.

Finally in what were called “democratic elections” in 2012, the Brotherhood came to power, with Muhamad Morsi assuming the presidency of Egypt.  Those elections were characterized by intimidation, especially against Egyptian Christians.  The Morsi government lasted two weeks more than a year; and, owing to incompetence and widespread violence, was toppled by a military coup.  Once again, in Egypt, events have come full circle to return to military rule.

Crane Brinton’s classic work, ANATOMY OF REVOLUTION, offers some meaningful insight into what is now playing out in the societal upheaval through which Egypt is passing.  The failure of Sadat and Mubarak to adjust to the demands of a long-beleaguered population, of which 60% are now less than 30 years of age, obviously led to insupportable pressures that could not be restrained by traditional means of repression.  In the succeeding phases of the upheaval, there are predictable developments to anticipate.  Various elements of moderate, radical and military orientation will, in turn, exercise power.  In due course, and leading to a final synthesis, there will, hopefully, emerge a regime based on expediency and level-headedness.  The wild-card in all of this is Islam.  If Islam does return to power, the result will be disastrous.  Not only will the Egyptian people continue to suffer, the American position in the Middle East – at this point tenuous – will be beset by forces dedicated to the destruction of Israel; and, thus, will be in a  position to bring forth regional economic dislocation and disruption for years to come.


Living in the absolute monarchy that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can be a challenging experience for an American.  Thus, my first year at King Saud University in Riyadh not only found me in a demanding work setting, but also on an extremely arduous learning curve concerning the Kingdom, its religion, customs, traditions and past.

Merely 6 kilometers distant from my quarters in university housing lay the ruined city of Dirayah, which I found to be an interesting site to explore during my spare time.  Eventually, I discovered from faculty colleagues that the ruins had once been the early center of power for the Saud family.  But, in not kowtowing to the Ottoman Empire, the Sauds, in 1818, would see an overwhelming force under the Egyptian Khedive Ali-Pasha, an Ottoman minion, dispatched to accomplish the destruction of their capital.  Its crumbling walls and once proud ramparts proved to be an impetus for me to delve into the history of the Saud dynasty.

I was to find that, in effect, there had been three Saud family dynasties, the first enduring from the 1740’s to 1818; the second from the 1820’s to 1891; and, finally, the dynasty of Addulaziz, the kingdom builder whose line still remains in power.

Any treatment of the Saud line would be remiss without reference to Sheikh Muhamad Abd-al-Wahab, who was born near Riyadh and whose life spanned the greater part of the 18th century.  At any early age, Abd-al-Wahab began the study of Islam and was eventually recognized as an authority on the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence.  After studying for several years at Basra, which is located in present- day Iraq, he returned to the region of central Arabia called the Najd and initiated a rigid reform movement, which would ultimately result in the establishment of one of the most doctrinaire and unbending forms of Islam.

Of great significance for the future of the Saud family was a partnership which was forged with Abd-al-Wahab and his puritanical partners.  Thus, Saud family power in the Najd was linked to the Wahhabis; and, eventually, this collaboration would oversee the birth pangs that would bring forth the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Still today, the theocratic 21st century descendants of Abd-al-Wahab hold great influence in the Kingdom and receive lavish governmental subsidies toward the propagation of Wahhabi Islam throughout the world.

A major nemesis for the Saud family, which extended all the way into the early 20th century, was the Ottoman Empire, which through its subalterns, most notably the Khedive Muhamad Ali-Pasha, who was, for all practical purposes, absolute ruler of Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine, Crete and Syria until his death in 1848.  During both the second and third Saud kingdoms, the Ottomans and Egyptians took their toll on the family, executing several key family members and sending others into exile at Istanbul.

By the second half of the 19th century, Ottoman power was in decline, and British influence was on the rise in Cairo.  Consequently, two families, the Sauds, from their power base at Riyadh, and the al-Rashids of the Shammar clan of Hail, vied for power in the Najd.  By 1891, the al-Rashids had ejected the Sauds from Riyadh; and, subsequently, Abdul-Rahman Saud, the patriarch of the Sauds, and his family were given refuge by the Kuwaiti emir.

In 1901, Abdulaziz ibn-Saud, the enrgetic and ambitious 6’6” twenty-four-year-old son of the patriarch began to lead a series of raids into the Najd, directing his fury against tribes that had joined forces with the al-Rashids.  As a result of the success of the attacks carried out in the spring of 1901, Abdulaziz was able to draw combatants to his standards from clans sympathetic to the Sauds.  In 1902, Abdulaziz conceived a plan for a daring raid against the al-Rashids at Riyadh; and, with a raiding party of a mere twenty men, he entered the city under cover of darkness and killed the al-Rashid governor and captured Riyadh.

Once in possession of Riyadh, Abdulaziz set out to solidify his relations with the tribes and clans of the Najd, wisely realizing that the Najd would be the nucleus of family power that would prove crucial to eventual expansion.  A novel strategy in this regard was the contracting of numerous marriage alliances which, owing to the Islamic practice of polygamy and the relative ease of divorce enjoyed by Muslim males, enabled Abdulaziz to produce offspring with the daughters of tribal leaders to such an extent that it is reckoned that he had 37 sons by 22 legitimate wives.  If one includes daughters and progeny produced with concubines, the exact number could never be known.  Thus, by periodically rotating spouses from prominent Najdi tribal families, the Saud family would forge the links that would ensure control of the Najd and ultimately result in the more than 5,000 princes of the royal blood who are included in the 21st century Saud family.

In 1904, Sheikh ibn-Rashid appealed on behalf of his family to the Ottomans for aid and protection against the Sauds.  Although Abdulaziz ibn-Saud suffered early defeats at the hands of the Rashids and their Ottoman allies, he and his followers resorted to guerrilla warfare, eventually disrupting the Ottoman lines of supply and resulting in the withdrawal of Turkish-Egyptian forces.  By 1912, Saud control of the Najd and the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula was complete.  At that point, Abdulaziz ibn-Saud, now known as King Abdulaziz, could focus his attention on other portions of Arabia that would eventually be included in his kingdom.

The Saud family and Saudis in general like to say that, unlike other Arab countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the lands that comprise it have never fallen under the influence of Western imperialism.  Be that as it may, by 1915 the British had initiated the Treaty of Darin with the new Saudi state.  This pact called for British protection for the lands of the House of Saud, while King Abdulaziz committed himself to continue hostilities against ibn-Rashid, who was still carrying on as an ally of the Ottoman Empire.  The British saw the agreement as a part of their overall strategy during World War I of overcoming the influence of the Ottomans and the Central Powers in the Middle East, while King Abdulaziz saw it as a means toward vanquishing ibn-Rashid.  However, in the same year at the Battle of Jarrab, the forces of King Abdulaziz lost to ibn-Rashid, thus delaying the long-sought final victory over the rival Rashids.

By the early 1920’s Abdulaziz was for all intents and purposes King of the Najd.  Although he had eventually destroyed the Rashid family’s political power, rather than to immediately assume the title of king, to continue – at least in the interim to be designated as “Sultan of the Najd.

In the meantime, Saud designs on additional territories on the Arabian Peninsula were able to go forward.  The expansionist aims of Abdulaziz were strongly abetted during the 1920’s by Wahabi warriors who made up a military brotherhood known as the Ikhwan.  Hardened by the strenuous life of the desert and fortified by the version of Islam taught by Muhamad Abdul-wahab in the 18th century, the Ikhwan were employed to reduce rebellious tribes and to extend Saud power to the Red Sea.

A major obstacle to the political ascendancy of the Saud family in Arabia was the Hashemite dynasty, which for centuries had ruled the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. By 1917, the Hashemite ruler Hussein ibn-Ali, who traced his lineage to the Prophet Muhamad, had shed his ties to the Ottoman Empire; and, following the lead of T.E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt of World War I, declared himself to be King of the Hejaz.  Although Hussein ibn-Ali had taken this step with the implied support of Britain, his actions placed him on a collision course with Abdul-Aziz of the Najd, who had by 1920 come to dominate the mountainous Asir region, which lay in close proximity to the Hejaz.

Just as Hussein ibn-Ali had had his British champion in T.E. Lawrence, Abdul-Aziz formed a deep and personal friendship with an enigmatic British foreign intelligence officer, H. St. John Bridger Philby.  Educated at Cambridge in oriental languages, Philby had a Sir Richard Burton-type personality, which saw him assiduously researching the regions, cultures, languages and natural features of the locales in which he served.

Although Philby had worked with Lawrence, he was, unlike Lawrence, no admirer of the Hashemites ; and, ultimately, he came to the conclusion that British and Arabian interests could best be served by facilitating the efforts of Abdul-Aziz to forge unity on the Arabian Peninsula, from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.  Pressing his contention that Middle East stability required that the Saud family should serve as the guardians of Mecca and Medina; at the same time, he maintained that Saud power on the Peninsula would work in favor of keeping vital sea lanes open from India through Suez.  Any forthright assessment of the work of Philby should also include that his empathy for Sultan Abdul-Aziz ultimately caused him to compromise himself as a British intelligence officer by leaking vital intelligence, which eventually led to the defeat of the Hashemites and the annexation of the Hejaz and its inclusion into what would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Philby’s “going native” ended in his severance from British intelligence.  For a time, he engaged in commercial enterprises in Jeddah.  He also converted to Islam and continued to serve as an advisor to Abdul-Aziz, a role which was assuredly instrumental in bringing about the modern nation of Saudi Arabia.  As an aside, Philby’s son, Kim Philby, is best known as a British double agent who defected to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

By 1924, King Hussein ibn-Ali of the Hashemite dynasty, had declared himself “Caliph of all Muslims.”  However, this lofty title was of little use to him when Abdul-Aziz unleashed his forces, including the Ikhwan, conquering the cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah and forcing Hussein ibn-Ali to flee to Transjordan, where his son, Abdullah, had been installed by the British as monarch.  Hussein ibn-Ali would continue to use the title of Caliph until his death in Amman in 1931.  His Hashemite descendants continue to reign in Jordan in the 21st century.

The Ikhwan, because of their Islamic fundamentalism and puritanical ways, began to mutiny against King Abdul-Aziz, owing to tentative steps toward opening Arabia to the technology of the 20th century.  Abdul-Aziz, realizing that his power could be enhanced with up-to-date means of communication and the implements of modern warfare, refused to give in to his erstwhile champions of the desert.  Finally, he felt that his power was being challenged to such an extent that he was left with no alternative than to take the field against the Ikhwan.  In 1930, at the Battle of Sabilla, Abdul-Aziz’s forces, consisting of infantry wielding machine-guns and cavalry regiments boasting motorized units, totally devastated the Ikhwan, who would never again challenge the power of the Saud dynasty.  Sabilla represented the last time that camel-mounted warriors would charge an opposing force in any major battle.

Two years later, the kingdoms of Najd and Hejaz were officially joined as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation that today numbers 26,000,000 subjects and stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.

READ MORE............................

John sharing a meal with some of his Arab friends in the 80”s
John sharing a meal with some of his Arab friends in the 80”sEncountering_the_Middle_East_and_Islam_pg.2.html