Saudi Arabia: Secret Intelligence Records 1926–1939

ISBN:  (13) 978-1-84097-025-8          Extent:     8 volumes, 5,600 pages

Editor:  A. Burdett    Published: 2003
Paper: Printed on acid free paper
Binding: Library bindings with gilt finish
See sample pages: not available

This 8-volume collection is one of the most important collections to have been compiled by Archive Editions because it consists of internal political telegrams which were never intended for international, or even external, examination. These telegrams provide a rare glimpse into the system of administration and the style of leadership of Sultan (King) Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Saud, ruler of Nejd–Hedjaz/Saudi Arabia from 1925–1953.


The advent of the telegraphic system must have made a fundamental difference to the administration of the huge region of Hedjaz–Nejd. Even so, the early telegrams in this collection give a sense of intense frustration felt by Abdul Aziz at the difficulty of communicating over the vast distances while maintaining any semblance of authority. Threats of punishment are somewhat diminished by the difficulty of carrying them out, as the communications technology had outstripped the reality of desert travel.
The early volumes, where telegrams reflect the attempts of Abdul Aziz to consolidate the country of Saudi Arabia, are full rumours of corruption and changes of allegiance from multiple sources and of threats from him to try to maintain order. Although his style emerges as even-handed, patient and diplomatic at times, at others he is infuriated by the incompetence of his lieutenants and officials. For example, he was much exercised by Ibn Zeid on the Iraq frontier in 1933 and explained to him that he had lessened his [i.e. Ibn Saud’s] sovereignty: “this is an admission on your part that he has more right than us in that territory”.
The telegraph is only one facet of the shift in the technology. The arrival of cars, which covered the desert distances so much faster than camels, was also a huge problem as the fuel needed to run them had to be imported. The cyphers are full of instances where the fuel has run out or had to be rationed and the tribal levies, who were previously mounted on their own camels which were their own responsibility, are stranded, often just when they were needed. This is indicative of a sea change in administrative responsibility which moved from the personal and local to central organisation. While this served to strengthen the King it brought with it all the problems of financing such a shift, of taxation and distribution of cash. These in turn meant that issues of tribal allegiance and border demarcation arose, until finally in 1935, on 4 September, oil is struck at Khabr in Al Hasa and the new resource changes the fortunes and future of Saudi Arabia.
Although the records also include communications between various levels of officials, including at one period all of the regional emirs, one senses the personal drive of the King behind everything. The sheer volume of messages and directives sent over his name on any given day, at times covering very complex or delicate negotiations with neighbours and rivals, are a testimony to the vigour and authority of his reign. On the 4/5 March 1933 he sent 8 long and complex messages, giving detailed instructions dealing with rebel tribes during the Asir revolt, and with the practicalities of defence. During the Saudi–Yemen war in 1934 he provided specific instructions to Amir Feisal after the capture of Taif:
“Reconnoitre the borders of Hodeida and address letters to the Southerners. Report on the auxiliaries with you, their state, loyalty and strength and send spies to the mountains ... Do not forget the mountains in your rear because you have nobody behind you to be trusted …”
In late 1939, during the early stages of World War II, the nature of Saudi government business, or at least that which British intelligence concentrated on intercepting and decoding, alters radically. British interests such as Saudi arms purchases from the German Reich and the question of Saudi Arabia’s neutral status tend to dominate, as do messages from the Saudi representative in Berlin while there is a marked decrease in the number of intercepted messages referring to regional relations, tribal matters, taxes, development and intra-Arab relations. This is the natural point at which to close this collection of documents which focuses primarily on the policies and administration of the Third Saudi State from a Saudi Arabian point of view.


Secret intelligence gathering
The documents selected for this set are unusual in that they all originate from a single record class, HW12. The documents in HW12 are derived from wireless messages intercepted by British intelligence operatives at the Government Code and Cypher School, a department that was an intelligence-gathering unit formed in 1919. The level of secrecy attached to them meant they were not circulated within Whitehall and they were only released in 1997, this therefore, is their first large-scale public exhibition.
The cypher messages were intercepted initially in the region, then decrypted and finally translated into English for information at the highest level of British Government, so that sometimes there is a difference of months between the dates of receipt and translation. Volume 1 includes a section of background documents which highlight problems with the intercepting and decoding process.
There appears to have been almost no monitoring of messages within Sultan Abdul Aziz’s régime until he conquered the Hejaz in late 1925. However, from the arrival of Sheikh Hafiz Whaba, the first Saudi diplomatic representative in London in 1929, the intercepts are greatly increased suggesting both that the consolidation of his position raised his activities to a level of importance that merited sustained monitoring, and that his secret telegrams back to King Abdul Aziz provided the British with a key to break codes used in Arabia. Additionally the gift from the British of a portable Marconi wireless system may have further helped to monitor cyphers. A summary of wireless intelligence for 1938 lists the frequencies used for intercepts, noting these for several stations, Al Qatif, Hasa, Jizan, Kunfudah, Hail, Medina, and notes that “reception during the month has been excellent ... The King and members of his suite have remained in the Hejaz … from [the 10th] nil was heard of HZAA (the King’s mobile set).”
It should be noted that interception was not always consistent. A change of code, such as that noted in June 1930, meant at times numerous messages were lost in transmission while a new code was decrypted. Further, there are obscure local codes which were never decoded – King Abdul Aziz wrote to Emir Feisal in 1929, using “Bin Suleiman’s cipher”, and he refers to a separate code for one of his emirs in 1932, and always there was the technical problem of jamming and parts of messages rendered indecipherable, or as staff put it, “hopelessly mutilated”.


Documents are arranged chronologically from 1926–1939. Within each volume the contents break down into the following categories:  
  • International Relations, primarily with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey and the USA
  • Regional Relations, primarily with Bahrein, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Syria, Yemen
  • Provincial Affairs
  • Provincial Relations, primarily with Abha, Al Ala, Asir, Dhaba, Hail, Al Hasa, Kariyat, al Jauf, Jizan, Najran, Qatif, Taif, Tebuk
  • Internal Affairs
  • Internal Administration concerning development, petroleum, taxation and finance


Vast Plot for the Ruin of Ibn Saud
Cypher from Astuto, Asmara, to Foreign and Colonial Ministries, Rome, 2 September 1932, Italian official reporting a crucial intercepted letter to Sayyid Hussein Al Dabbagh, describing a vast plot for the ruin of Ibn Saud:
“Al Dabbagh is to blame for having talked to too many people; thus Fuad al Shaker was told about too many things. …The “great man”, the Emir, and Faisal had promised to associate themselves with the action when the Southern Revolt broke out, but if this were to be delayed any longer all might be compromised. The death of Ibn Rifada has brought Ibn Saud’s troops up along the Transjordan border and the Emir may therefore find himself in a difficult situation. … He concludes by saying he will not write again to Al Dabbagh until he has news that the Asir revolt has broken out…
[the letter] reveals a vast plot for the ruin of Ibn Saud by the Hashemites and Abd al Muktalib from Amman, Baghdad and Cairo … seeking to strike … at the English by re-establishing an independent Hedjazi Government at Mecca. …[the power behind the plot possibly including] Hamid Pasha… Fuad al Shaker… Emir Abdullah [of Transjordan]… King Faisal of Iraq [and] King Fuad of Egypt …”

Fatwa issued against the Wahabis
Iraqi Police (CID), Baghdad, to HE Minister of Interior, 7 October 1926, reporting fatwa and anti-Wahabi movement:
“It is reported that an “istifta” regarding Wahabi “atrocities” from the Ulama of Lucknow was received by Sayyid Abu-al-Hasan al Isfahani and Mirza Husain al Nayini who have issued a fatwa directing that all Muslims should [give] themselves, their souls and wealth in order to release the Holy Places from the grip of the Wahabis. The fatwa was also approved of by the Karbala Ulema…”
Roosevelt’s “Zionist policy”

Telegram no. 360 from Fuad, Jedda to The King, 4 January 1939, reporting background information, as provided by Lenahan in conversation, regarding (the Californian Oil Company):
“1 …in our company there are no Jewish elements at all. It is one of the rules of the company that [it]… will be free from Jews and Catholics.
2 [C.O.C.] political principles are republican, that is, opposed to the Democratic Party to which President Rooosevelt belongs. … the Zionist policy of Roosevelt prejudices the interests of the American people and has reactions in all districts in Arab and Moslem territory.”

Complications of tribal allegiance
Cypher from Ibn Zeid, Jauf, to The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mecca, 21 June 1933, report on various tribes and the Government to whom they pay their tax:
“The tribe of Al Sirhan is divided into … Hadhar and Badiah. Hadhar …possess extensive … lands in Jauf, Qara, Skaka and Qaf [and pay their taxes to Abdul Aziz]. …In summer [the Badiah] reside in Transjordan [and pay their taxes there] …in winter and spring they return … to Shamah and the Wadi al Sirhan …and pay taxes to us… when they enter [Abdul Aziz’s] territory [they] say that they are our subjects and are counted as being one of us and when they return to Transjordan they say they are their subjects and are counted as being one of theirs.”
  Inter-Arab Regional Politics
Telegram no. 233 from Ibrahim Aslam, Al Hasa to The Minister for Finance, Mecca, 28 March 1935, reporting the possiblity of purchase of an oil concession from Qatar by the USA:
“… the conditions and the area included in them are of the utmost importance to draw [to the] attention of the Saudi Government, because you know that the district of Qatar and its Bedouin come under our rule. We collect taxes from them every year…”
Attempted Assassination of King Abdul Aziz
Official report from Saudi Foreign Office, to The Yemen Government, 25 April 1935, attempted assassination of King Abdul Aziz and the Crown Prince, apparently by Yemenis:
“At this moment another assassin was seen to come from behind the procession … the men of the royal guard got ready to use their rifles, but the King forbade [it] at this sacred hour … Abid Allah al Baraqawi, one of the two personal guards of the King, when he saw that the first assassin had stabbed two policemen and had nearly got to the Crown Prince, fired at the first assassin before he could commit a further crime…”
International Interest in Border Demarcation
Cypher from Minister of Finance, Taif to The King, Riyadh, 29 July 1933, reporting points from a letter from Twitchell, Standard Oil Company of California:
“How far does the Saudi territory extend to the south of al Ahsa [el Hasa]. Does the boundary extend as far as the Hadramaut? Is the Ruba al Khali included in it? Are there demarcation signs on it? … Where is the frontier between Al Asha and Nejd?…”