The Expansion of Wahhabi Power in Arabia, 1798-1932

ISBN: (13) 978-1-84097-270-2   Extent: 5500 pages
Editor: A.L.P. Burdett    Published: February 2013
Paper: Long-life acid-free
Binding: Library binding with gilt blocking
See sample pages: not available


The objective of this collection is to use contemporary documents to depict the gradual spread of Wahhabism within the Arabian Peninsula. It covers the period when Wahhabism and its adherents, a proportion of the al-Saud of Najd, attempted to spread their power base and impose Wahhabism, while enduring numerous defeats and set-backs, but also waves of success. Ultimately it might be argued that the support of the British government was crucial from 1925 to 1932 for Ibn Saud’s eventual and ultimate defeat of the Akhwan revolts, in which one type of Wahhabism, that which endorsed constant and forceful territorial expansion, was itself defeated. However, this collection of documents is not presented as a history of the rise to power of the al-Saud, and the formation of the state of Saudi Arabia but instead is an attempt to focus on Wahhabism as the pivotal and driving force to that expansion.


This collection explores the history of Wahhabism and how it has been used in the past as a powerful political tool. These 5,500-pages of facsimile original documents offer access to primary source material rarely available outside the British archives. It will be helpful towards an understanding of Wahhabism, the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps also towards a wider understanding of modern fundamentalist beliefs.

 From the Editor's Preface

 ...As relevant documents and papers are scattered throughout numerous sources, and not always apparently of relevance through the often broad catalogue descriptions, it is hoped this work has gathered the majority of those currently available together in a convenient format. I have drawn from as many official record groups as possible to create a broad coverage, sometimes of the same event.

 This work is drawn chiefly, but not entirely, from records generated by British officials – especially from political officers in the field. The earliest of these are deposited within the archives of the Board of Directors of the East India Company, now held in the African and Asian Collection of the British Library. I have also drawn on a small number of published works of travellers and private individuals, particularly for periods when records were sparse; these are also from the British Library. The departmental archives of British government, particularly those of the Foreign Office, but also of the Admiralty [for records of the Royal Navy] and War Office, dominate as a source from c. 1866 onwards. British diplomatic relations with the “Sublime Port” meant that an ambassador was present in Constantinople and despatches received from Baghdad and elsewhere, referring to Ottoman activities in Arabia (and in Egypt), offer a different perspective on events to those generated by the Board of the EIC with its focus on the Gulf. Later, the India Office, Colonial Office, Air Ministry [for records of the Royal Air Force, in particular the regular intelligence reports on tribal movements in the 1920s] provide a sustained and regularised reportage for the twentieth century...

 ...The term “Wahhabi” may be construed by some to be derogatory or pejorative of a certain branch of Islamic practise and thinking, but nevertheless it was used by contemporaries extensively, and came to refer interchangeably to the Al-Saud as well, and sometimes most inhabitants of Najd...


The eight volumes of material in this collection pertain to three main epochs generally agreed by historians to form the First, Second and Third Saudi States.

 Volume 1: The First Saudi State c.  1765–1818

note: Although Wahhabism originates from  c.1762 no official British documents were found between 1762–1797

 Abdul Aziz ruled in Nejd and elsewhere from 1765 to 1803. In 1772 all of Nejd was said to be Wahhabi. From 1792 to 1795 al-Hasa was also subdued and in 1799 a truce was made with the Ottomans. However, in 1818 Mehmet Ali of Egypt defeated the Wahhabis, and Abdul Aziz was subsequently executed in Constantinople.

 Volume 1 (cont) and Volumes 2 and 3: The Second Saudi State 1824–1871

 This period sees the revival of the Wahhabis under Amir Turki bin Abdullah who ruled 1824–1834. The re-conquest of Hasa coast was complete by 1833 during the first reign of Amir Feisal bin Turki [1834–1838], but was ended by the second Egyptian conquest in 1839–1840. In 1871 the Ottoman conquest of al-Hasa marked the end of Wahhabi dominance and the start of thirty years of intra-tribal, and indeed, intra-Saud rivalry, with Wahhabi territory severely limited, and eventually the al-Saud taking refuge in Kuwait.

 Volumes 4 to 8: The Third Saudi State from c. 1901 onwards

 The Third Saudi State dates symbolically from the re-claiming of Riyadh by Abdul Aziz, the expansion into Nejd, despite the Ottoman endorsement of his rivals, and consolidation of territory to al-Hasa, the Hejaz, and Assyr.


An Historical Introduction has very kindly been contributed to this work by two historians of Arabia: Professor Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, and
Michael Crawford, CMG, a former British government official.

 These volumes offer the British perspective on encounters between the Wahhabi movement and the British Empire from the late 18th century until after the formal founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.  The relationship over this period between various manifestations of Sa‘udi rule in Central and Eastern Arabia and of the British presence in India (supported by the Foreign Office in London) was intermittent, tentative and mistrustful until the early 20th century.  Only then did the two sides come to know each other sufficiently to reach an accommodation that was to endure — but also to require constant adjustment under the pressure of events, as the British moved into the vacuum left by the Ottomans and the Sa‘udis asserted their claim to ancestral domains and imposed their rule and religious regime across much of the Arabian Peninsula.

 On first encounter, each power had recognised the other as expansionist.  One was global, sea-based, and driven by commerce, and the other Peninsular, land-based and inspired by an aggressive religious posture.  Their contact in the late 18th and 19th centuries was almost entirely confined to the Gulf, with the British seeking to avoid entanglements in the Peninsula’s interior.  The first decades of the 20th century saw the intensification, and geographical expansion, of their involvement with the Sa‘udi state.  This was stimulated by rivalry with the Ottoman Empire before the First World War, then the Arab Revolt, and finally the institution of the Mandate system and creation of territorial states.  The dominant personality in this period was ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. ‘Abd al-Rahman Al Sa‘ud (known to the British as Ibn Sa‘ud), who had become the foremost leader in Arabia by the late 1910s.

 Setting limits on Ibn Sa‘ud’s ambitions within the emerging regional system as well as broader Muslim world became a full time concern for the British.  Having long resisted direct involvement in intra-Arabian affairs and intra-Muslim rivalries, they found themselves enmeshed in both local and global religious politics.  Ultimately, it was their task to delineate and enforce the boundaries of the Sa‘udi state.  With this development, the last manifestation of a traditional Islamic state, one that used religious claims and jihad for expansion, was incorporated into the modern system of territorial states.  It is this gradual process of transition that is tracked in the documents contained in these eight volumes.  They represent a treasure trove of insight into the relationship over nearly two centuries between two countries with a strong sense of history.