ThePlace: Centuries-old Ibrahim Palace in Hofuf an Islamic architectural gem

Time: 15 February, 2020

Photo/Saudi Tourism
  • The palace, which was built on commercial route with links to the rest of the world, has come to symbolize the wealth of the region

Built almost 500 years ago, Ibrahim Palace in Hofuf is one of Al-Ahsa region’s most significant landmarks.
The palace includes several military watchtowers. It was said to have been renamed after Ibrahim bin Afysan, an architect who renovated the structure in 1801.
Covering more than 16,500 square meters, the palace combines modern and Islamic architectural styles typical of the time.
Inside is Al-Quba Mosque, which has a single dome resting on top of the entire building, a unique style in Saudi Arabia at the time.
The palace, which was built on commercial route with links to the rest of the world, has come to symbolize the wealth of the region.
King Abdul Aziz added a new dimension to the palace when he ruled Al-Ahsa in 1913, fortifying the structure with Islamic domes and huge, military-style towers, as well as soldiers’ barracks in the palace’s eastern wing.

This article was first published in Arab News

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What happened when Saudi King Abdul Aziz met US President Roosevelt

Time: 14 February, 2020

King Abdul Aziz, with US Marine Corps Col. William A. Eddy, meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)
  • It’s been 75 years since the two leaders first met on Feb. 14, 1945, creating a personal bond and cementing ties between their countries
  • Read a detailed account of the extraordinary meeting, on a ship in the Suez Canal, the first time the king had ever left his desert land

RIYADH: After more than five years of World War II, there was nothing unusual about the sight of an Allied warship transiting the Suez Canal. But in the early-morning light of Feb. 14, 1945, any witness to the passage of the solitary US destroyer making its way from the Port of Suez toward the Great Bitter Lake could have been forgiven for dismissing what they saw as nothing more than a mirage conjured up out of the desert sands.

Beneath its shade, the armored decks were strewn with dozens of exquisite Oriental rugs, upon which was set an imposing gilded chair

The USS Murphy had seen exceptional service during the war, but nothing quite like the extraordinary mission on which it was now embarked.

The USS Murphy carrying King Abdul Aziz and his entourage to the meeting with FDR at Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

The entire foredeck was covered in a magnificent Arab tent, through the center of which the ship’s forward 5-inch gun pointed skyward, serving as the tent pole. Beneath its shade, the armored decks were strewn with dozens of exquisite Oriental rugs, upon which was set an imposing gilded chair.

But it was the occupant of that chair whose presence, had it been witnessed from the shore, might finally have convinced any onlooker of the unreality of the situation. On board the destroyer, having left his own land for the very first time and now making his way to a historic rendezvous with the US president, was none other than King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

The 1,200-km voyage from Jeddah to the Great Bitter Lake, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was waiting on board the heavy cruiser USS Quincy, took just two nights and one day. But in making it, the king had taken the first historic step toward a relationship between America and his country that has endured for the past 75 years.

The voyage was not without considerable risk — America was, after all, still at war with Nazi Germany. In great secrecy, Roosevelt had stopped off in Egypt on his way back to the US from the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, where the “Big Three” Allied leaders — himself, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin — had thrashed out a post-war plan designed to secure lasting peace.

A map of the travel route to and from the Crimea conference. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

In the words of retired US Marine Corps Col. William A. Eddy, the American diplomatic representative to the Saudi court who had been charged with arranging the meeting at short notice, “bombs were still being dropped on Cairo and on the Suez Canal, and a target more attractive to German bombers could hardly be imagined than a cruiser with the American President and the Arabian King on board.”

Eddy, a decorated veteran of World War I, had been born in Lebanon in 1896, the son of American Presbyterian missionaries who lived in Syria. From 1923 to 1928, he had taught English at the American University in Cairo and, fluent in Arabic, would serve as the sole interpreter between Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz, commonly known as Ibn Saud.

Retired US Marine Corps Col. William A. Eddy. (Getty Images)

In 1954, Eddy wrote the first account of the meeting between the two men and, from his opening words, his admiration for Ibn Saud was clear. The king, he wrote, “was one of the great men of the twentieth century,” who had “won his kingdom and united his people by his personal leadership.”

In Eddy’s eyes, Ibn Saud “excelled in the common tasks which all must perform. He was taller, his shoulders were broader, he was a better hunter, a braver warrior, more skillful in wielding a knife whether in personal combat or in skinning a sheep, he excelled in following the tracks of camels and finding his way in the desert. In him his subjects saw their own lives in heroic size, and therefore they made him their king.”

The meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was unprecedented, but had been set in motion over a year earlier by a visit to the US by two of the king’s sons, both future rulers of their country.

In September 1943, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal had traveled to the US, accompanied by his younger brother Prince Khalid. The two men — who visited Washington, New York and parts of the US southwest — were on an agricultural fact-finding mission. According to an account published in 2005 in The Link, the journal of the non-profit organization Americans for Middle East Understanding, “upon their return home, they reported favorably to their father, and also informed him that they had been told President Roosevelt enjoyed collecting stamps.”

Prince Faisal and Prince Khalid, sons of King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, at their farewell reception in Washington DC in 1943. (Supplied)

That, wrote Thomas W. Lippman, a Saudi Arabia specialist at the Middle East Institute, “gave the king an opening to approach the president directly (and) he sent the president a set of Saudi Arabian stamps, then quite rare in the West.” The gift prompted a letter of thanks from Roosevelt, and the die was cast for the historic meeting.

In addition to the danger posed by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft, there was another good reason for the meeting’s secrecy. Roosevelt had promised Churchill that after the war, the US would not interfere in territory the British regarded as within their sphere of influence.

But in meeting with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt had two goals in mind, both of which trod heavily on Britain’s toes: His politically motivated determination to solve the Palestinian-Jewish problem, and the economic and strategic imperative of securing a post-war US relationship with Saudi Arabia, including, crucially, access to its oil.

The plan was for the USS Murphy to steam south from the Great Bitter Lake on the pretext of paying a courtesy call to the king in Jeddah, but in reality to pick him up and transport him and his retinue back up the Red Sea to his meeting with Roosevelt.

Preparations in Jeddah

On Feb. 11, the morning before the planned departure from Jeddah, Capt. B. A. Smith of the USS Murphy, accompanied by US Navy Commodore John S. Keating, came ashore to pay their respects to the king, Prince Faisal and the governor of Jeddah at the royal palace.

A few days earlier, Eddy recalled, Ibn Saud had traveled to Jeddah from Makkah for his annual visit to “meet the officials and notables of the province of Hejaz, receive petitions from his subjects, and distribute charity and food to the poor.”

Equally few people on the Saudi side knew of the planned meeting with Roosevelt. Eddy wrote that the success in keeping the secret in Jeddah, “where news both true and false travels through the Suq with the speed of light, was really remarkable (and) aided by the fact that the King had never left Saudi Arabia even to visit neighboring Arab rulers.”

At 3 p.m. the following day, the king “simply and suddenly gave orders at the palace to break camp and ‘strike the tents’” for a supposed return to Makkah. There was, as Eddy well knew, “nothing strange about this order since the King normally makes such decisions for immediate execution without advance notice to those about him.”

A telegram in code was sent to Crown Prince Saud in Riyadh, telling him “to carry on in his father’s name until further notice.” Prince Faisal was instructed “to take complete charge in the Hejaz.”

The secrecy was maintained right up to the moment the king announced the list of people who were to travel with him, who boarded the royal motorcade bound ostensibly for Makkah, but which was then directed instead to head for the pier at Jeddah. There, launches from the USS Murphy were waiting for them, and the destroyer set sail at 4:30 p.m.

Dhows had arrived at the USS Murphy laden with ‘tons of vegetables, sacks of grain and rice, and one hundred of the best and fattest sheep … the normal provisions which the King would provide for an extensive sojourn in the desert’

In the hours before sailing, Eddy wrote, dhows had arrived at the USS Murphy laden with “tons of vegetables, sacks of grain and rice, and one hundred of the best and fattest sheep … the normal provisions which the King would provide for an extensive sojourn in the desert.”

The USS Murphy had ample provisions on board for all — enough for 60 days, with a journey of only two nights and one day ahead — and no room for much more, let alone an impressively large herd of sheep. The king, however, insisted that “his American guests must eat from his table and from the produce of his country, and particularly they must eat the freshly slaughtered lamb every day.”

Eddy prevailed upon Ibn Saud to compromise. “No Saudi Muslim ever ate meat more than twenty-four hours old,” wrote Eddy, who in the end persuaded the US Navy to take seven live sheep on board.

The king travelled with an entourage of 47, including several members of the royal family, Deputy Foreign Minister Yusuf Yassin, Finance Minister Abdullah Sulaiman and Minister of State Hafiz Wahba.

King Abdul Aziz’s entourage aboard the USS Murphy on their way to the meeting between the King and Franklin D. Roosevelt at Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

There was enough room on board to give these dignitaries cabins — the king had the use of the commodore’s. But the rest of the entourage — including the court astrologer, bodyguards and coffee servers — “bunked wherever they could find space, many sleeping in the gun turrets, wrapped up in their Arab robes in the scuppers, or curled up near the feet of the look-out on the bridge.”

The king did not actually sleep in the commodore’s cabin. “Bred and raised in the desert, four walls gave him claustrophobia,” Eddy recalled. Instead, “canvas was spread over the forecastle deck to convert it into a tent; oriental rugs covered the deck; one of his own chairs, large enough for him to sit in, had been brought aboard, and the King sat on deck and held his Majlis as usual all day long.”

At prayer times, “the ship’s navigator would give him the exact compass bearing for Makkah which the King would verify with his astrologer. Facing toward the holy city he would then lead the entire company of Arabs in their prayers.”

An account of the voyage from Jeddah to Suez was written by Ensign W. Barry McCarthy, a deck officer on the USS Murphy, and published in the March 19, 1945 edition of the US magazine Life under the headline “Ibn Saud’s voyage — US destroyer creates history with deck full of royalty, sheep and coffee-makers.”

McCarthy recalled arriving off Jeddah at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 11, and his first impression of the town as “a flat, dusty looking collection of muddy-looking little buildings that sat huddled together on the sandy flat below the mountains.” Far to the right, “looking like a mirage, was one of the King’s palaces,” while to the left “a cluster of giant oil-storage tanks testified to the presence of western industry.”

A Jeddah market in the 1930s. (Getty Images)

As the captain and his officers, wary of reefs and shallow water, pondered their approach to the harbor, a wooden dhow pulled alongside and a barefooted Arab “came bounding up our ladders, his face … a hard leather color … framed in a cropped black beard.”

The man introduced himself as Mohammed Ebraham Salamah, and as “a very good pilot” who before the war had worked for the British Blue Funnel shipping line. To compound his credentials, he told the officers his father had also been a pilot, and his great-grandfather before him. This, he added, was the first time a US warship had visited Jeddah — a story he could not wait to tell his father that evening.

With no other obvious choice, the captain accepted Salamah as his pilot, and “Mohammed took command of the ship with a laconic pronouncement: ‘I think we go ahead now’.” With that, McCarthy recalled, “he bounded off to the wing of the bridge, shouting some unintelligible order to his boat crew (and) then took stock of our position. He wasn’t interested in charts. He guided the ship by mountain peaks, reefs, marks on the beach and the color of the water.”

The USS Murphy dropped anchor 5 km offshore, where the water had become too shallow to risk going farther in. The captain and the commodore went ashore to pay their respects to the king and later returned with his ministers Yassin and Sulaiman, “who were to acquaint us with Ibn Saud’s needs.”

Chief among these was the construction of a tent on the deck of the destroyer. That night, the wood and canvas were brought out to the ship by dhow, and the ship’s forward 5-inch gun “was pointed to the sky to serve as a kind of center pole for the tent.” After the construction was complete, “to the men on the bridge who saw it from above, this tent was known as the ‘Big Top,’ and to those who built it, it was ‘The Hotel’.”

The next morning, the day of departure, the sheep arrived and “our stunned crew reacted with ingenuity,” McCarthy wrote. “Several men quickly improvised a sheep pen by stringing ropes from one depth-charge to another on the stern. Here, too, was stored the sheep’s feed, and here during the trip they were slaughtered and bled, hanging from the flagstaff.”

A herd of sheep was brought onboard the USS Murphy in preparation for the King’s Suez journey. (Supplied)

The sheep were followed by 10 boatloads of royal belongings, including “royal gilded chairs, bundles of hay, large kitchen pots and giant silver platters.” Just before midday, when the king was due to board, the USS Murphy fired a salute — not from its 5-inch gun, now serving as a tent pole, but with shells from a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun.

McCarthy recorded for posterity the moment Ibn Saud came on board. “The crew manning the rails stood at attention as the (destroyer’s) whaleboat, piloted by the ecstatic Mohammed, pulled alongside,” he wrote. The boat was hauled slowly up and over the side of the ship, and “we noticed then that a charcoal fire was burning in the boat.” It was being used to heat coffee, the traditional Arabic gesture of greeting.

Ibn Saud arrives at the USS Quincy. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

The king’s face, recalled McCarthy, “was impassive, as if all this was usual procedure for him. He simply rose to his full 6 feet and 4 inches (and) stepped out of the whaleboat to the deck.”

Journey to the Suez

A destroyer, built for speed and manoeuvrability but not for comfort, is not the most stable of ships in the best of seas. And with the wind on the nose as they traveled north, it was not an easy voyage.

“Ibn Saud showed no effects from the ship’s motion,” McCarthy noted. But while he refrained delicately from using the word “seasick” in his report, it was clear that not all in the group shared the king’s iron constitution. Members of his party “were poor sailors,” McCarthy wrote. “Our ship’s force was to have its work cut out for it, washing decks and bulwarks each morning.”

In Eddy’s account, the American sailors were “much more impressed and astonished by the Arabs and their ways than the Arabs were by life on the US destroyer. Neither group had seen anything like their opposites before, but the difference is that any such violent break with tradition is news on board a US destroyer; whereas, wonders and improbable events are easily accepted by the Arab whether they occur in the Arabian Nights or in real life.”

As Eddy explained for the benefit of his Western readers, “the Arab is by nature a fatalist and accepts what comes as a matter of course and as a gift from Allah, all of whose gifts are equally wondrous, undeserved and unexplained. The Arab gets off a camel and climbs into an airplane without any special excitement even though he has skipped all the intervening stages of the horse and buggy and the automobile.

“Allah gave the camel the proper equipment to walk on the sand and he gave the airplane wings with which to fly like a bird. There is, therefore, no reason to be astonished at the airplane any more than to be astonished that camels can walk or birds fly.”

During the voyage, the Arabs and the sailors “fraternized without words with a success and friendliness which was really astonishing. The sailors showed the Arabs how they did their jobs and even permitted the Arabs to help them; in return the Arabs would permit the sailors to examine their garb and their daggers, and demonstrate by gestures how they are made and for what purposes.”

‘The entire group sat cross-legged on the deck around the King who was in the best of humor and entertained the company with anecdotes of his battles’

During the trip, the king “learned to like a number of American dishes which he had never tasted before, although he continued to have his lamb and rice cooked by his own servants. He was particularly fond of our American apples and of apple pie à-la-mode and since that time American apple trees have been planted in the Al-Kharj agricultural experiment station.”

On the last night on board the USS Murphy, the king hosted the ship’s 21 officers at a meal. Eddy recalled the special moment: “The entire group sat cross-legged on the deck around the King who was in the best of humor and entertained the company with anecdotes of his battles; to their great delight, describing hand-to-hand combats and showing them one of his fingers broken years ago and still immobilized by a fragment of a Turkish cannon ball.”

In turn, the American warriors showed off their ship’s weaponry. During the day, the king was given a demonstration of anti-aircraft fire and of anti-submarine depth charges and, showing “keen interest in all phases of the ship’s armament … posed willingly for photographs and movie shots of himself with the ship’s officers.”

The close quarters in which the ordinary sailors of the USS Murphy found themselves with the imposing Ibn Saud and his entourage led to some unforgettable moments. In an account published in 1993 in the monthly newsletter of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Bosun’s Mate Thomas Hilliard, a veteran of the cruise, recalled coming face to face with the king.

“He was a very affable and considerate man,” Hilliard said. The sailor was in the bow of the ship, where the royal chair had been set up, when the king suddenly emerged from his tent. “He spoke to his translator who told me the King wanted to know if he was in my way while we were doing work. He was very considerate … I told him no sir, and that he could have the forecastle.”

The king, it seems, was happy to indulge the crew’s natural curiosity about their exotic guest. Another sailor, Peter Tisa, apparently undeterred by Ibn Saud’s heavily armed bodyguards, approached him one day and, through his interpreter, asked him how he had become king. “He said he had to fight to unite the Kingdom and showed us his battle scars.”

As for the bodyguards, Keating later wrote that although they “looked as though they would get great enjoyment in carving unfriendly anatomies … they became very friendly with the American sailors and turned out to be gentle and jovial.”

On the morning before disembarking, the king gave gifts to the officers and men of the USS Murphy. The commodore and the captain each received traditional Arab costumes and gold daggers.

In addition to costumes, each of the other officers were given a watch inscribed with the king’s name, and “over the loudspeaker it was announced to the entire crew that in appreciation of the many courtesies shown him on board, the King was giving to each Petty Officer fifteen pounds sterling, and to each seaman ten pounds sterling.”

Sterling was, of course, the currency of Britain, the Western nation with which Ibn Saud had had most dealings up until this point. A sailor standing near Eddy asked him: “Gosh, Colonel, how much is that in real money?” For the Saudis, as for the sailor, “real money” would increasingly be dollars.

In return for the king’s gifts, the captain of the USS Murphy gave Ibn Saud three souvenirs of his voyage that he had admired: Two submachine guns and a pair of navy binoculars.

The historic meeting

The destroyer tied up alongside the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake at 10 a.m. on Feb. 14. The rails of the big cruiser, Eddy recalled, were lined by the crew, “but no salutes were fired as the meeting was to be conducted without alerting the neighborhood.”

The king, accompanied by his entourage, crossed the gangplank and met the president, who was sitting on deck. Roosevelt was not a well man. In 1921, at the age of 39, he had contracted a paralytic illness, thought to have been Guillain–Barré syndrome, which left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down and dependent upon a wheelchair for life.

Despite this, he campaigned successfully for the presidency, serving four consecutive terms from 1933. But his meeting with Ibn Saud was as timely as it was historic — the ailing president would be dead within two months.

On the deck of the USS Quincy, the king and the president chatted for an hour and a quarter — a convivial meeting captured in photographs, in which Eddy can be seen on one knee between the two men, acting as interpreter.

The meeting ended only when the captain of the USS Quincy arrived to say the ship must leave if Roosevelt’s convoy was to remain on schedule. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

According to Eddy, after the formalities were out of the way, “the King right away asked the President whether he should accept Churchill’s invitation to see him later — an invitation which he thought might give the President displeasure.” Instead, Roosevelt said: “Why not? I always enjoy seeing Mr. Churchill and I’m sure you will like him too.”

At 11:30 a.m. the two men — accompanied by the royal party, Admiral Leahy, the most senior officer in the US Navy, and Charles Bohlen, the American diplomat and Soviet specialist who had served as the president’s interpreter at Yalta — went below for lunch.

After the meal, all but Roosevelt, the king, his deputy foreign minister and Eddy withdrew. The political conversation that followed continued until 3:30 p.m., and the king and the president “were thus together at least five very intense hours,” wrote Eddy.

The meeting ended only when the captain of the USS Quincy arrived to say the ship must leave if Roosevelt’s convoy was to remain on schedule. The king, wrote Eddy, said “this was impossible as the President must first come over to the destroyer, his temporary home, to be his guest at an Arab meal; that the establishment of a friendship such as this could not possibly be complete without his entertaining his friend and giving him Arab food.”

It was not to be. “The President explained that much to his regret the movements of the ship and the security clearances for the convoy were inflexible and the schedule must be maintained to the minute.”

The king was disappointed but understood, and then said to Roosevelt: “Will you at least drink a cup of Arabian coffee?” Orders were given, Eddy recalled, “and within a very few minutes the two resplendent coffee-servers, brushing past all of the guards, appeared in the President’s suite and poured cups of Arab coffee for the President and the King. The following day the President told me that no incident had touched him so much as the pleasure which the King showed on serving coffee from Arabia to his new friend.”

Eddy reported that the king and the president “got along famously together,” with Ibn Saud charming Roosevelt with the observation that “the two of them really were twins.” They were, he had pointed out, both heads of states “with grave responsibilities to defend, protect and feed their people, they were both at heart farmers, the President having made quite a hit with the King by emphasizing his interest in agriculture, and they both bore in their bodies grave physical infirmities — the President obliged to move in a chair and the King walking with difficulty and unable to climb stairs because of (war) wounds in his legs.”

‘The following day the President told me that no incident had touched him so much as the pleasure which the King showed on serving coffee from Arabia to his new friend’

Eddy recorded the conversation that followed, which led to the exchange of an unusual gift. Roosevelt told Ibn Saud: “You are luckier than I because you can still walk on your legs and I have to be wheeled wherever I go.” The king replied: “No, my friend, you are the more fortunate. Your chair will take you wherever you want to go and you know you will get there. My legs are less reliable and are getting weaker every day.”

At this, the president said: “If you think so highly of this chair I will give you the twin of this chair as I have two on board.” Immediately, wrote Eddy, the order was given and the chair was wheeled across the gangplank to the USS Murphy.

The gift left a lasting mark, Eddy recalled: “Whenever the King took friends through his palace at Riyadh, if they were close friends, he showed them his private apartment where his wheelchair rested with the White House tag still on it. The King always said, ‘This chair is my most precious possession. It is the gift of my great and good friend, President Roosevelt, on whom Allah has had mercy’.”

Later, Ibn Saud would come to use a wheelchair himself, and according to the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, when he needed it he would ask his men to “bring the Horse,” his nickname for Roosevelt’s gift.

Roosevelt gifted Ibn Saud a wheelchair before they parted ways. (Supplied)

That night, Yassin and Eddy composed a memorandum of conversation, in English and Arabic. The king signed the Arabic text that night, after Roosevelt’s cruiser had gone through the Suez Canal and around the coast of Egypt to drop anchor for one day in the harbor of Alexandria.

Eddy flew to Alexandria with the memorandum the following day, Feb. 15, and Roosevelt signed the document without making any changes. A copy of the memorandum is held by the Office of the Historian at the US Department of State.

The content of the conversation between the king and Roosevelt remained unknown outside close diplomatic circles until Eddy’s account was published in 1954.

In his view, “such friendship depends wholly upon good will and good faith. When these died with FDR (Roosevelt) and were not revived by his successor, they cannot be resurrected by producing a piece of paper.” As Roosevelt’s guest, the king “initiated no topics (and) waited for his host to propose subjects for serious discussion.” Furthermore, “at no time did Ibn Saud even hint at economic or financial aid for Saudi Arabia.”

He had traveled to the meeting “seeking friends and not funds, in spite of the fact that, at that date, he had no reason to expect that Arabian oil would be produced in quantity to multiply his national income but, on the contrary, ruled in 1945 over a pastoral land which could not produce enough to feed its population, and a land cut off by war from importing the necessities of life.”

In fact, Saudi Arabia — cut off from trade and income from the annual Hajj by a war not of its own making, and with its embryonic oil industry yet to transform the nation’s fortunes — had already turned to the US for help. As early as October 1943, an agreement had been signed under which 5.167 million ounces of US Treasury silver would be loaned to the Kingdom’s government, “sufficient for the coinage of 15,000,000 riyals required to meet Saudi Arabia’s currency needs for the rest of 1943.”

According to a diplomatic note dated Nov. 1, 1943, Ibn Saud had “promised to return the silver ounce for ounce within five years after the end of the war.” America’s interest lay in the oil its experts were already helping the Kingdom to tap.

In exchange, “in the interest of the prosecution of the war,” the US government was “giving consideration to ways and means of assisting the California Arabian Standard Oil Company to construct a refinery in the vicinity of Dhahran.”

The immediate benefit of the meeting for both sides was an agreement that the US would provide Saudi Arabia with military aid in exchange for secure access to oil.

However, Roosevelt had another delicate subject he was anxious to raise with the king — “namely, the rescue and rehabilitation of the remnant of Jews in Central Europe who had suffered indescribable horrors at the hands of the Nazis: eviction, destruction of their homes, torture and mass-murder.”

Roosevelt had made clear his own commitment to the Zionist cause during the 1944 presidential campaign. The Democrat won over America’s Jewish voters with a statement read to the Zionist Organization of America on Oct. 15. “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and Democratic Jewish commonwealth,” Roosevelt had said. “I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if re-elected, I shall help to bring about its realization.”

On board the USS Quincy, Roosevelt told Ibn Saud that he felt a personal responsibility for the ultimate fate of the Jews, “and indeed had committed himself to help solve this problem.” What, he asked, “could the King suggest?” Ibn Saud’s reply “was prompt and laconic: ‘Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them’.”

Roosevelt said the Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution in Europe had “a sentimental desire to settle in Palestine and, quite understandably, would dread remaining in Germany where they might suffer again.”

The suggestion surprised the king. “He said that he had no doubt the Jews have good reason not to trust the Germans,” Eddy reported, “but surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims?” After all, if the Allies did not expect to control future German policy, “why fight this costly war? He, Ibn Saud, could not conceive of leaving an enemy in a position to strike back after defeat.”

Roosevelt pressed on, saying he was counting on “Arab hospitality and on the King’s help in solving the problem of Zionism,” but Ibn Saud was adamant. “Make the enemy and the oppressor pay,” he said. “That is how we Arabs wage war. Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay.”

According to Eddy, Roosevelt then gave Ibn Saud two assurances — that he “would never do anything which might prove hostile to the Arabs and (that) the US Government would make no change in its basic policy in Palestine without full and prior consultation with both Jews and Arabs.”

To the king, Eddy noted, “these oral assurances were equal to an alliance; he did not foresee that Death was waiting in the wings to bear the speaker away before the promises could be redeemed.”

Roosevelt did not leave it at that. He repeated his double pledge in a letter to Ibn Saud — dated April 5, 1945 — just one week before his death. On March 10, 1945, the king had written to him after their meeting on the USS Quincy, stressing again his concern for the fate of the Arabs in Palestine.

In his reply, addressed to his “Great and good friend,” the president reassured Ibn Saud that he was “mindful of the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago and in the course of which I had an opportunity to obtain so vivid an impression of Your Majesty’s sentiments on this question.”

Roosevelt repeated his pledge that “no decision (would) be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.” He added that “it gives me pleasure to renew to Your Majesty the assurances which you have previously received … with regard to the question of Palestine and to inform you that the policy of this Government in this respect is unchanged.”

But the words were already fading on the page. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. He was succeeded by Vice President Harry S. Truman, who would serve as president until 1953 and whose sympathies, informed by domestic political sensibilities, lay clearly with the Jews.

A copy of the telegram sent by Ibn Saud to the US government after Roosevelt’s death. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

Regardless, despite their differences over Palestine 75 years ago, Ibn Saud and Roosevelt laid the foundations of a friendship between their two nations that has endured to this day.

The aftermath

After the meeting, Roosevelt returned to Washington, where he lived just long enough to make one final address to Congress. He had, he said, “learned more (about Palestine and the Near East) by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in exchange of two or three dozen letters.” On Feb. 16, 1945, Roosevelt wrote to Eddy to say his meeting with the king was “so outstanding a success” as well as “a most interesting and stimulating experience.”

On board the USS Quincy, the king had left a number of gifts for Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor and their only daughter Anna. “There were several complete full-dress harim costumes, beautifully embroidered in many colors of silk,” wrote Eddy, and “several vials of rarely tinted glass, others of alabaster, containing the perfumes of Araby, including the favorite of all-attar of roses.”

There were also “large pieces of uncut amber, the like of whose size I have never seen, from the bottom of the Red Sea.” From the eastern coasts of Arabia, “there were pearl rings, pearl earrings, pearl-studded bracelets and anklets, and belts woven of gold thread with cunning devices, the skill which has reached its highest perfection in Saudi Arabia.”

The main present from the king to Roosevelt was “a beautiful diamond-encrusted sword.” It arrived too late to be taken by Eddy to Alexandria, but the next day, it was taken by special courier on an aircraft that caught up with the ship at its next stop, Algiers.

One of the gifts by King Abdul Aziz to Roosevelt and his family during their meeting. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

Click here for a full gallery of King Abdul Aziz’s gifts to the Roosevelts.

Eddy signed off his account with some thoughts on the significance of the meeting between the two great men that he had helped broker. For a start, it had been a significant first: Ibn Saud had left his country for the first time, and “since that day the doors have been swinging open to the previously closed culture of central Arabia.”

Roosevelt said he ‘learned more (about Palestine and the Near East) by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in exchange of two or three dozen letters’

As a result, “the guardian of the Holy Places of Islam, and the nearest we have to a successor to the Caliphs, the Defender of the Muslim Faith and of the Holy Cities of three hundred million people, cemented a friendship with the head of a great Western and Christian nation” at a meeting that marked “the high point of Muslim alliance with the West.”

In addition to his meeting with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt took advantage of his voyage to meet with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. This unprecedented round of diplomacy broke the European stranglehold on the Middle East.

When Churchill learnt of the meetings, he quickly followed in Roosevelt’s wake and met Ibn Saud at Fayoum Lake near Cairo. The British, Eddy wrote, had told the king that “whereas the Americans had taken him to the Suez Canal on a destroyer, they were going to return him on a cruiser, HMS Aurora, indicative of the greater prestige of Great Britain.”

Among other Middle East rulers, King Abdul Aziz met with then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, south of Cairo, in February 1945. (Getty Images)

But the king told Eddy that he “did not enjoy his return trip to Jeddah … his return trip was very dull — the food was tasteless; there were no demonstrations of armament; no tent was pitched on the deck; the crew did not fraternize with his Arabs; and altogether he preferred the smaller but more friendly US destroyer.”

(With reports from Lojien ben Gassem)

This article was first published in Arab News

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Zubaida Trail, located in Saudi Arabia’s Qassim region


Photo/Saudi Tourism
  • Al-Jufinah Lake, which is an important archaeological site, can be found in the western section of the trail.

Zubaida Trail was once an important route for Hajj pilgrims traveling through the Qassim region on their journey from Kufa in Iraq to Makkah.
Also known as Al-Kufi pilgrimage route, it stretches for more than 1,400 kilometers in the Kingdom and passes through the Northern Borders Region, Hail, Qassim, Madinah and Makkah.
The trail was named after Zubaydah bin Jafar, wife of Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, in recognition of her charitable work, including the number of rest stations she ordered to be established along the route.
Al-Jufinah Lake, which is an important archaeological site, can be found in the western section of the trail.

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The Place: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Kheraibah, an archaeological treasure trove


  • Various isolated mud walls with stone foundations, as well as a large collection of beads and pots, were found in this area

It is an archeological area located within Madain Saleh. Thomedians lived in this area before the advent of the Nabataeans.
Various isolated mud walls with stone foundations, as well as a large collection of beads and pots, were found in this area.
Stone basins for watering sheep and keeping waterfowl were used. Some small clay figurines in human forms were also found. Copious material made of wood, various metals and ivory, as well as ancient coins and various kinds of potteries were also found.

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4 historical graves discovered in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Maala cemetery in Makkah


  • One of the tombs is attributed to a person who died in 1288

MAKKAH: The Holy Makkah Municipality announced the discovery of four historical tombs, one of which that dates back to the second century of Islam and the rest dating back to more than 700 years. The tombs were discovered during the excavation and processing of a new smart parking project located at the northeast of the historic Al-Maala cemetery.
One of these graves is historically attributed to a person named Jamaluddine Al-Jilani who died in 1288.
The municipality explained that while the contractor was conducting the excavation works for the new project, the tombs were found.
A source at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) told Arab News that four historical graves were found near Al-Ashraf Awqaf, northeast of the historical cemetery, one of which dates back to the second century of the Islamic calendar. He stressed that the SCTH would receive the tombs officially next Sunday.
He also pointed out that 50 historical graves had been discovered 10 years ago during the expansion of the cemetery.


The graves were discovered during the excavation and processing of a new smart parking project located at the northeast of the historic Al-Maala cemetery.

Dr. Fawaz Al-Dahas, director of the Makkah History Center, told Arab News that the discovery of such historical tombs was a natural occurrence so close to the old cemetery.
According to Al-Dahas, there were a number of tombstones from similar finds in Al-Zaher Museum, which is supervised by the SCTH.
Al-Dahas explained the naming behind the cemetery was due to its location in Makkah.
It is the place where the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) wife, grandfather, and other ancestors are buried.
Historically, when a deceased person was buried, a sign would be placed on the grave to leave a mark, most probably an uneven, engraved rectangular stone.

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Hegra and AlUla: Rebirth of Arabia’s ancient crossroads

Time: December 19, 2019

A view of the ruins of the ancient city of AlUla and the new city that stands adjacent to it. (Supplied photo)
  • KSA’s Winter at Tantora festival will last over 12 weekends, drawing the world to AlUla from Dec. 19, 2019, to March 7, 2020
  • The archaeological sites of Hegra, the ancient Nabataean city in Saudi Arabia’s northwest, will be opened to the public next year

RIYADH: Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world.

Few have been privileged to visit Hegra, hewn from the rocks of the Hijaz in northwestern Saudi Arabia two millennia ago and lost for centuries.

The unveiling of the spectacular rock-cut tombs of Hegra is part of an initiative to transform the wider AlUla region into one of the world’s greatest cultural tourism destinations.

In 2020, the archaeological sites of Hegra will be reopened to the public, which had its first glimpse in many years through the 2018 Winter at Tantora festival.

The celebration of art, music and heritage will draw the world once again to AlUla from Dec. 19 to March 7. Over 12 weekends of festivities, visitors will be treated to an eclectic mix of performers, including the Gipsy Kings, Lionel Richie, Enrique Iglesias, Craig David and Jamiroquai.

Also returning to Winter at Tantora will be Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Greek pianist Yanni and Egyptian composer Omar Khairat. In the New Year, the music of Beethoven will be heard in celebration of the German composer’s 250th birthday.

Saudi Arabia’s move to open up Hegra and the AlUla Valley restores a missing chapter in the history of the region and the entire world.

Mada’in Salih was the post- Islamic name for Hegra, a lost city in the AlUla Valley. Like its famous twin Petra in Jordan, Hegra was built by the Nabataeans, who from about the fourth century BC to 106 AD controlled the profitable trade routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula from east to west and north to south.

AlUla is full of archaeological treasures from the Dadanite, Nabataean, Roman and Islamic civilizations, nestled among beautiful desert landscapes. (Supplied )

Few people know as much about Hegra and the Nabataeans as Laila Nehme, a faculty member of France’s prestigious National Centre for Scientific Research and co-director of the Saudi- French Hegra archaeological project since 2008.

The first comprehensive survey of the Hegra site was undertaken between 2002 and 2005 by a team of French archaeologists under Nehme’s direction, in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.

The survey laid the groundwork for the archaeological exploration of the site that began in 2008 and has continued ever since.

Recognizing that tourism and heritage would become increas- ingly important economically to Saudi Arabia, in 2000 the Kingdom established an organization that over the years has evolved into the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), as it was renamed in 2015.

The SCTH, under its Secretary- General Prince Sultan bin Salman, nominated Hegra for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

The application was accepted, and Hegra became the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia.

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), established in 2017, is working in partnership with the French Agency for AlUla Development (Afalula), on “the transformation of the AlUla region into a worldwide cultural and touristic destination.”

In the core area, by far the biggest category of finds is rock art and inscriptions. So far, archaeologists have identified inscriptions in nine languages, whose use spans millennia: Thamudic, Aramaic, Dadanitic, Minaean, Nabataean, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic.

In an interview with Leaders magazine in February 2019, the RCU’s CEO Amr Al-Madani said that AlUla is “full of archaeological treasures from the Dadanite, Nabataean, Roman and Islamic civilizations, nestled amongst the staggeringly beautiful desert landscapes.”

A cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the nation’s sustainable development, the project aims to create opportunities for the community and boost the local economy in AlUla.

Afalula will support the growth of infrastructure, archaeology and tourism in the area, with the aim of attracting 2 million visitors a year to the site by 2035, in the process creating 35,000 jobs for residents of AlUla.

The RCU’s task is to contribute SR120 billion ($32 billion) to the Kingdom’s gross domestic product by 2035. It currently employs 374 people, of which 134 are based in AlUla.

The RCU is also engaging the local community through programs such as Hammaya, in which 2,500 residents will train to be advocates for AlUla’s natural and human heritage.

The emphasis on local identity and heritage is unmistak- able. About a 45-minute drive from Hegra is the Sharaan Nature Reserve, a territory of 925 sq. km within AlUla that features some of the region’s most striking rock formations and desert habitats, managed by local rangers trained by international specialists.

“We’ve reintroduced Idmi gazelles, Nubian ibexes and red-necked ostriches into the reserve, and they’re thriving and doing well,” said Dr. Ahmed Al-Malki, head of the reserve.

The Arabian leopard may soon follow. In April this year, two cubs were born as part of a breeding program to preserve and eventually reintroduce the critically endangered species back into the wild in northwest Saudi Arabia.

“Our aim is to create a healthy ecosystem,” said Al-Malki. “When we started the operation, we employed rangers from the local communities trained by the Saudi Wildlife Authority and our partner, the Mweka Wildlife College in Tanzania.”

Nabatean-era tombs carved on limestone formations are a common feature in AlUla. (Supplied)

Once again, engaging the local community with the project is key to its success. The reserve will also be home to several luxury resorts, including one designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, whose creations include the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Another luxury hotel operator destined for AlUla is Aman Resorts, which will open three eco-focused resorts in the region by 2023.

One will be a luxury tented camp, another an interpretation of a desert-style ranch, and the third will be situated close to AlUla’s heritage sights.

The Maraya Concert Hall, which was designed by Gio Forma Studio and opened in December 2018, will also be revamped, with an increase in the number of seats and the addition of a restaurant, rooftop terrace and new exhibition spaces that will host art events.

To better serve the antici- pated flood of visitors to the region, Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz Airport in AlUla will be modernized and expanded, increasing its capacity from 100,000 passengers a year to 400,000.

Last year’s Winter at Tantora festival brought inter- national guests and world-class musicians to the area, culminating in the unveiling of the vision for the area by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February this year. The RCU commissioned artists to create public artworks inspired by AlUla in the Old Town.

This time, the attractions include the multimedia theatrical production “Jameel Buthainah,” a Nabataean-inspired Caracalla dance performance, the AlUla Balloon Festival, vintage car and aircraft experiences, and the Fursan endurance horse race.

Central to AlUla’s vision is the incorporation of art and cultural initiatives. The RCU’s cultural manifesto says: “AlUla will become known worldwide as a place to dream, where the greatest artists and thinkers of our time gather to stretch their creative capabili- ties and realize some of their most ambitious artworks and arts experiences — an evolving cultural crossroads for today and the future.”

Just as the caravans of antiquity once came to trade in this land, so AlUla, with an ancient Hegra reborn, will once again attract travelers from all corners of the world.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Makkah siege: Laying the ghost of 1979 to rest

Time: November 21, 2019 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inspected expansions to the site during a visit to the Grand Mosque in Makkah in February this year. (AFP)
  • Now moving rapidly back to the future, Saudi Arabia took decades to overcome the effects of the assault on the Grand Mosque

JEDDAH: Today, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is working to reverse the years of social regression triggered in part by the November 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in 2017 in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”

And in an interview conducted last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that before the Iranian Revolution and the siege of Makkah rocked the Muslim world, “we were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”

If there is a specific date that will live in infamy, it is Nov. 20. On that day, Royal Saudi Air Force helicopter pilot Col. Mahdi Al-Zwawi was in Riyadh when he was recalled to his base in Taif, about 90 km from Makkah.

Murder and mayhem had erupted just hours earlier in the heart of Islam perpetrated by a reactionary sect led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi, determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one of their number, Mohammed Al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, whose appearance, according to the hadiths, heralds the Day of Judgment.

The authorities, scrambling for intelligence so that they could put together a response, ordered his helicopter unit to fly constant reconnaissance flights during daylight hours over the mosque.

Flying at about 300 meters over the mosque for the first time, Al-Zwawi was struck by the unprecedented absence of worshippers in the great courtyard. Later on, flying lower, “we saw people in the minarets trying to shoot at us.”

At 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 22, Saudi artillery began targeting the mosque, not with high explosives but with “flash-bang” shells designed to disorient the militants. Under cover of this bombardment, troops were able to reach the eastern side of the Safa-Marwa gallery.

They were hoping to breach the Al-Salam Gate, halfway along the gallery, but were beaten back with the loss of several lives.

By the end of Nov. 23, the text of a fatwa sought by King Khaled was finally agreed by the ulema. Now the Kingdom’s hands were untied and the full force of Brig. Gen. Faleh Al-Dhahri’s armored brigade could be unleashed.

First, to comply with the fatwa, a call to surrender was broadcast over loudspeakers. When it was ignored, rockets were fired at the minarets, neutralizing the snipers, and artillery blasted an opening in the side of the Safa-Marwa gallery. M113 armored personnel carriers rumbled in through the opening and through the already-destroyed Marwa Gate.

The arrested gunmen in December 1979. (AFP)

It was not until midday Nov. 24, after hours of desperate fighting and many losses among the troops, that the gallery was finally cleared — but the battle for the mosque was far from over.

Driven from the upper levels, Juhayman and the surviving insurgents, along with some hostages and prisoners they had captured, had retreated into the Qaboo, the warren of more than 225 interconnected chambers under the mosque.

On Dec. 2, three advisers from France’s elite GIGN flew into Taif, bringing with them supplies of a chemical. CB, for short, was a gas designed to seriously restrict breathing, and which was fatal if breathed in for too long. The French agents trained members of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate in how to use it, equipping them with gas masks and chemical suits.

On Dec. 3, holes were drilled in the floor of the mosque and canisters of CB, attached to explosive charges, were dropped into the basement maze. The tactic was only partially effective and it took more than 18 hours of bitter, bloody fighting before the final stronghold was breached on Dec. 4.

In a room about two meters square were found cowering 20 thoroughly defeated militants, exhausted, hungry and covered with the grime of battle. Al-Qahtani, the self-declared Mahdi, was presumed killed on the third day or fourth day of the fighting.

The troops found the last of the surviving insurgents huddled together, surrounded by the dates, water and labneh they had smuggled into the mosque along with their weapons. Among them was Juhayman.

On the evening of Dec. 5, King Khaled addressed the nation, thanking God for His support in crushing the “seditious act of sacrilege.” The next day he led joyful worshippers into the courtyard of the mosque.

The death toll included 127 members of the forces. Another 451 of their colleagues had been wounded.

Inevitably, although large numbers of hostages had been either released, escaped or were freed by the security forces, some had been caught in the crossfire. The final official toll was 26 dead, including Saudi nationals and pilgrims from Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Egypt and Burma. More than 100 were wounded.

Of the 260 attackers, 117 were dead — 90 died where they fought and 27 others later succumbed to their wounds in hospital. Justice for the captured militants was swift. On Jan. 9, 1980, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that 63 captives had been executed in eight different cities. Juhayman himself met his end in Makkah that day.

The price paid for the liberation of the mosque was a high one — both in number of lives lost and in the dramatic reversal of modernization to which it led, blighting Saudi society for generations to come.

Khaled Almaeena, former editor in chief of Arab News, has no doubt that it changed the climate in Saudi Arabia. Juhayman, he said, “lost the battle but won the war.”

Recalling that Jeddah was a “laid-back city,” he said: “I used to go to movies with my mother. Women were not told to cover up. In those days you had Saudi singers, women also, and then you had Saudi TV and radio shows, (with) women and men, and things were going on well.”

After the siege, all that changed. “They stopped women from appearing on TV — my wife used to read the news on TV. You could not even get (the famous Lebanese singers) Fairouz or Samira Tewfik to come on TV, and this was a big shock for a country that was used to music.”

Worse was to come. “We should be very frank,” said Almaeena. “The religious police started harassing people, started coming and interfering in our lives, asking questions. It was like the Spanish Inquisition … a shadow fell over the country.”

In an interview with Arab News, Mansour Alnogaidan, a writer of Saudi descent who was drawn to Salafi groups in his youth, said: “After 1980, something was broken. What happened? In my opinion, Saudi Arabia lacked the political minds that could support the leadership and explain that the Kingdom could remain as it was: A conservative country that was proud at once to serve the Two Holy Mosques and be open to the world.”

For his part, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate, said that lessons were certainly learnt by the Saudi state. “The first lesson is that you must be wary of any ideas and attempts to change the basic beliefs and tenets of Muslim practice,” he said.

The second lesson is “that we must be wary of any attempts to use Islam as a tool for any political activity.”

It has taken decades for Saudi Arabia to recover its tolerance and respect for personal freedom. Now, as the Kingdom moves rapidly back to the future, for all of its citizens the sky is the limit.

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How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

Time: November 20, 2019 

Makkah’s Grand Mosque under attack in November 1979. Armed men seized the mosque, locking 100,000 pilgrims and residents inside. (AFP)

JEDDAH: Throughout October 1979, close to a million Muslims from around the world had flooded into Makkah for Hajj, the pilgrimage to the spiritual heart of Islam that every physically and financially able believer is obliged to complete at least once in their lifetime.

On the morning of Nov. 20, the call to the first prayer summoned pilgrims from far and wide to the courtyard of the Grand Mosque. Some were locals, others were visitors who had finished their Hajj pilgrimage two weeks earlier and delayed their departure to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event, before bidding farewell to a place that for centuries had seen countless millions like them come and go.

It was a little after 5:15 a.m. The first shots rang out across the courtyard moments after the imam, 55-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Al-Subayil, had finished the fajr, the first prayer of the day.

Worshippers stood side by side, forming a circular formation around the Kaaba, as they welcomed the dawn of the new Islamic century. But among their number was a group of fanatics the like of which the Holy Mosque had never seen before.

In the courtyard behind where Al-Subayil stood, the siege of the mosque claimed its first victims — two unarmed police guards gunned down at their posts. As chaos ensued and the worshippers began to disperse, some managing to flee from the mosque in the confusion before the gates were closed by the attackers, three armed men pushed their way through the crowd toward the imam.

One, dressed in a short, ragged traditional dress, took the microphone and began issuing orders over the mosque’s loudspeakers.  “Get on the minarets! Position the snipers! Close the doors! Deploy the guards! Position the guards and sentinels in front of the doors!”

It was the ring-leader, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. Then he handed the microphone to another man, and what he had to say shocked the imam and all who heard it. The Mahdi, in the shape of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, had arrived to wipe the world of its evils and was here among the armed men who had seized the mosque and were now locking inside 100,000 pilgrims and residents. The speaker rejected the authority of the Saudi royal family and the ulema, the senior theologians of Islam, as illegitimate. Now everyone present, he said, must come forward to swear the oath of allegiance to the Mahdi.

The man himself, carrying an automatic weapon, stepped forward. He stood near the Kaaba, as the false prophecy adopted by the renegades had predicted the Mahdi would. Juhayman’s men took it in turns to swear their allegiance and then began forcing the worshippers to follow suit. In the confusion, the imam blended into the crowd and made his way to his office in the mosque. There, he called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashid, president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, and told him what was going on — and held the phone up so he could hear the gunshots that were ringing out.

At first, the official response to the wholly unanticipated outrage was confused. “When these individuals took over the mosque, the first people to deal with them were the mosque police, who at that time were simply unarmed, and there to direct people where to go rather than to enforce security,” said Prince Turki, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate who at the time of the attack was in Tunis, attending an Arab League summit with Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz (later King Fahd).

The National Guard and the Saudi Army began arriving at the Grand Mosque in force to try to retake the building. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (later King Abdullah), then head of the National Guard, was in Morocco. An early-morning phone call from Sheikh Nasser,
the senior cleric in charge of Makkah and Madinah, woke King Khaled to the news that the mosque had been seized.

The king immediately ordered two senior members of the government, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, to assess the situation on the ground.

By 9 a.m. they had joined Makkah’s regional governor, Prince Fawwaz bin Abdul Aziz, in the holy city. Prince Turki, meanwhile, was on the first plane back to Jeddah. In Makkah the National Guard and the Saudi Army had begun arriving at the mosque in force.

At about 8 a.m., a lone police officer approaching the mosque in a jeep was wounded by sniper fire. Minutes later, a fusillade of fire from snipers posted on rooftops and in minarets greeted more officers who arrived on another side of the mosque, killing eight and wounding 36 more.

The behavior of the militants appalled all who witnessed it. In one incident, one of Juhayman’s snipers in a minaret had been shot dead by the security forces outside the mosque and was callously pushed to the ground from the balcony by his compatriots.

It later emerged that weapons, ammunition and food had been smuggled into the mosque before the siege. Some guns had been hidden in large construction containers. But others, taking advantage of the tradition of Islamic funeral prayers conducted by the imam within the sacred mosque, had been concealed in coffins.

“Using coffins of the dead to smuggle arms into the Grand Mosque — who could have thought of exploiting this?” said Rashed Al-Shashai, an artist who as a young boy heard tales of the siege from his grandfather, who worked at the mosque and narrowly avoided being taken hostage.

Inside the mosque, fear and confusion reigned. Juhayman’s men had begun allowing some of the hostages to leave, but it was clear that they had no intention of freeing any Saudis. Many were forced to swear allegiance to the so-called Mahdi.

With others, Al-Shashai’s grandfather moved toward the north of the mosque. As the infamous Mahdi “sermon” blared out of the speakers and occasional shots rang out, they hid behind pillars and looked for a way out.

“They had one of two choices,” said Al-Shashai. “Either they believe in the salvation of Juhayman or believe in their own salvation, search for it themselves and get out of the dilemma they found themselves in.”

They chose the latter and continued moving from one pillar to the next, heading toward the northern end of the Safa-Marwa gallery. It was here that several people, including Al-Shashai’s grandfather, were able to escape.

By now the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, normally teeming with worshippers by this time on the first day of the new year, was eerily empty.

Juhayman’s men had forced men, women and children into the corridors of the mosque, and the silence was broken only by the crack of bullets as snipers fired on the surrounding security forces.

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Remembering the siege of Makkah


Thousands of Muslims gather in the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Mecca for the Hajj.

The Hajj at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1973. Six years later, a sacrilegious storming of the mosque by armed fanatics shook Saudi Arabia and sent shockwaves through the Islamic world. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

  • Forty years ago, a group of armed fanatics led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were primed for an assault that would cast a long, regressive shadow over Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH:  In November 1979, the Middle East was already on a knife edge. In Iran, a liberal monarchy that had ruled for almost four decades had just been overthrown by a fundamentalist theocracy preaching a return to medieval religious values that many feared would pollute and destabilize the entire region.

For the citizens of Saudi Arabia, however, the greatest shock was yet to come. The sacrilegious storming of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by armed fanatics that month sent shockwaves through the entire Islamic world.

Murder and mayhem erupted in the very heart of Islam, perpetrated by a reactionary sect determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one among their number was the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam whose appearance, according to the hadith, heralds the Day of Judgment.

Ahead lay two weeks of bitter, bloody fighting as Saudi forces fought to reclaim the Holy Haram for the true faith, but that battle was merely the overture to a war for the very soul of Islam in the Kingdom.

Open, progressive and religiously tolerant, Saudi Arabia was about to travel back in time. Only now, as the Kingdom pushes forward into a new era of transparency and modernization, can the full story of the siege of Makkah and the regressive shadow it would cast over the country for the next 40 years finally be told.

As the citizens of Makkah and those pilgrims who had remained behind after Hajj saw out the final hours of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar, and prepared to greet the year 1400 in prayer within the precincts of the Grand Mosque, a few inconspicuous pickup trucks slipped unchallenged into it through an entrance used by construction workers under the Fatah Gate, on the north side of the mosque.

The trucks and the men who drove them were there at the bidding of Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a disaffected former corporal in the Saudi National Guard.

As a firebrand at the head of a small group of religious students based in a small village outside Madinah, Juhayman had been on the radar of the authorities for some time. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in 1979 was the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, the group consisted of students from various religious seminaries who had put their faith in the eschatological figure of the Mahdi, the supposed redeemer of Islam.

“Their aim, according to their beliefs, was to liberate the Grand Mosque from the apostate rulers of the Kingdom and to liberate all Muslims by the coming of the so-called Mahdi,” Prince Turki said in an interview with Arab News.

Juhayman and his group were set on a path that would lead to tragedy, reaching out to potential recruits both inside and outside the Kingdom. “Through their correspondence and preaching, they managed to recruit a few individuals,” Prince Turki said.

One temporary recruit was the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who in 2010 won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Throwing Sparks.” In an interview in 2017 with MBC television, he said that when he was 17 he was one of Juhayman’s men and had even helped to spread the group’s ideology by distributing leaflets.

“It’s true, I was going to be part of one of the groups that was going to enter the Haram,” he said and, were it not for the intervention of his elder sister, he might have found himself among those who were to seize the Grand Mosque.

“I was supposed to move out to (a mosque) where our group was gathering. We were supposed to be in seclusion at the mosque for three days, and we were supposed to leave with Juhayman on the fourth day.”

But his sister stopped him going to the rendezvous point, on the ground that he was too young to be sleeping away from home for three nights. Almost certainly, she saved his life. “And then, on the fourth day, the horrendous incident happened.”

Writer Mansour Alnogaidan was only 11 years old when the siege happened, but like many Saudis of his generation, he felt the tug of various Salafi groups in his youth.

Now general manager of Harf and Fasela Media, which operates counter-terrorism websites, he has done extensive research on the Makkah siege.

Alnogaidan says there were a number of possible reasons behind the 1979 incident, including an existing idea in the mind of Juhayman and his group that they were the successors of a Bedouin movement by the name of “Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah.”

“Some believed they had a vendetta against the Saudi government,” he said in an interview with Arab News. “Another issue was essentially the personal desires of certain people (such as Juhayman) who sought power and control. He wanted to satisfy something inside him.”

Alnogaidan added: “Also, we must not forget that this incident came after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which had an influence even though not a direct one.”

Juhayman and his group were on the radar of the security services. Over time, recalled Prince Turki, “there were many attempts by authorized religious scholars in the Kingdom to rectify the group’s beliefs by discussion, argument and persuasion.”

Occasionally individuals were taken in for questioning by the authorities “because they were considered to be potentially disruptive to society. Once they were taken in, however, they always gave affidavits and signed assurances that they would not continue with the preaching and so on.”

But “once they were released, of course, they returned to their previous ways.”

At some point in the closing months of the 13th Islamic century, Juhayman’s group identified one of their number, Juhayman’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, as the Mahdi.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1979, as the inhabitants of Makkah and the pilgrims who had lingered after Hajj gravitated toward the Grand Mosque for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place, the stage was set for the most unholy of outrages.

Carrying firearms within the Grand Mosque was strictly forbidden; even the guards were armed only with sticks. An armed assault on the precincts of the mosque — on the sacred values it enshrined for the world’s two billion Muslims — was unthinkable.

But on the first day of the Islamic new year of 1400, the unthinkable happened.

This article was first published in Arab News

If you want more interesting news or videos of this website click on this link  Arab News Home

‘Juhayman: 40 years on:’ Arab News takes a Deep Dive into Saudi history with a multimedia look at the siege of Makkah’s Grand Mosque


Picture dated December 1979 in Jeddah of Jihman bin Saif al-Otaiba, or Juhayman ibn-Muhammad ibn-Sayf al-Utaibi aka “Lieutenant Mahdi” (the Messiah), former captain in the Saudi White Guards (National Guard) who commanded the attack 20 November 1979 against Mecca’s Great Mosque. Several hundred (1,300 to 1,500) armed men hostile to the Saudi government barricaded themselves inside Mecca’s Mosque for two weeks, taking pilgrims hostage. In the end, two weeks ago, the rebellion was only subdued by a special detachment of French para-military special forces (GIGN) sent by Paris at Riyadh’s request who used stun grenades and chemical weapons. An official toll put the dead at 153 and 560 wounded. All arrested gunmen were later executed. AFP PHOTO (Photo by – / AFP)
  • Featuring interviews with key players such as Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper tells the full story of the unthinkable event that cast a shadow over its society for decades
  • As part of its Deep Dive series online, featuring documentary-style multimedia stories, Arab News looks back at this event in a way no Saudi publication has done before

Forty years ago this week, on Nov. 20, 1979, a group of militants did the unthinkable: They seized the Grand Mosque in Makkah, taking people hostage inside in a two-week standoff with Saudi forces.

Until recently, the crisis remained too painful for Saudis to examine fully for almost four decades. Now Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language daily, is looking back at the event in a way that no publication in the Kingdom has done before: with a multimedia Deep Dive story online at

“The 1979 attack on Makkah’s  Grand Mosque halted major social development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, negatively affecting a progressing nation for generations to come,” said Rawan Radwan, the lead reporter on the project, who is based in Jeddah. “At Arab News, we delved deep into the matter to uncover the story of Juhayman, the terrorist who seized the holiest site and shook the Islamic world. It’s a story that for many years struck fear in the hearts of the Saudi people, yet has not been covered in such depth in local or international media — until now.”

Arab News launched its Deep Dive series earlier this year as an engaging new way to showcase its in-depth storytelling on key topics, enlivened by audio, video and animated graphics. Its first story was an in-depth account of the space mission by the first Arab astronaut, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman; the siege of Makkah is another story from the Kingdom’s past that it chose to revisit.

Extensive research was conducted over two months in several cities, including Makkah itself, and involved teams in five of Arab News’ bureaus: Jeddah, Riyadh, Dubai, London and Beirut. The team interviewed key players such as Prince Turki Al-Faisal, then head of the General Intelligence Directorate, and re-created what happened in a series of interactive maps.

This article was first published in Arab News

If you want more interesting news or videos of this website click on this link  Arab News Home