Creation of Modern Saudi Arabia
Editor: Penelope Tuson, Former Curator of the Middle East Archives,
Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC, now part of the Asia, Pacific
and Africa Collections), British Library
Historical background The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formally created in 1932 by King `Abd al-`Aziz b. `Abd al-Rahman b. Faysal Al Sa`ud (Ibn Sa`ud). From the Saudi capture of Riyadh in 1902 till the development and exploitation of Saudi oil resources in the 1930s, the British maintained close relations with the Saudi ruling family, and they recorded in great detail the development of the Kingdom from a small sultanate in central Arabia in the early 1900s, to an economically powerful modern state on the eve of the Second World War.
British relations with Saudi Arabia British interests in Arabia and the Gulf date back to the earliest East India Company contacts in the seventeenth century. Subsequently, for both economic and strategic reasons, the region was drawn into the wider political and economic sphere of the British Empire in India. British relations with Arab rulers were generally managed by Political Residents and Agents in the Gulf, who reported directly to the imperial administrations in Bombay, Calcutta, or Delhi, and, ultimately, to the India Office in London. British Government policy toward the region was formulated in the India Office, where the department responsible for the conduct and supervision of relations with areas outside the Indian subcontinent was the Political and Secret Department. After the First World War, the involvement of the Foreign Office and Colonial Office in Arabian affairs increased and departmental responsibilities became more complicated. However, the India Office continued to play an important role in British relations with the region until the Second World War.
The emergence of the Saudi State From 1902, when the future King `Abd al-`Aziz Al Sa`ud (who was known to the British as "Ibn Sa`ud") captured the city of Riyadh from the rival forces of Ibn Rashid of Hayl, the British took an increasing interest in the rapidly changing affairs of central Arabia. By 1914 they had already set up a series of meetings with Ibn Sa`ud, undertaken by the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Captain W.H.I. Shakespear. After the Anglo-Saudi Treaty of Darin was signed in December 1915, Britain gradually abandoned its previous policy of non-involvement in inland Arabian politics.
For the next twenty-five years, British officials in the Gulf, London, and India observed, recorded, and assessed the changing face of Arabian politics. Local British agents reported on the shifting balance of power in south-west Arabia during the First World War, as well as on the struggle between Saudi and Yemeni interests, which culminated in the Saudi absorption of Asir in 1930 and the delineation of the Saudi-Yemen boundary in the 1934 Treaty of Taif. British economic and strategic concerns were involved in the development of the Saudi oil industry and the closely related evolution of Saudi Arabia's northern, eastern, and south-eastern boundaries, as well as the southern Saudi boundary with Britain's Aden colony and protectorate in south Yemen. At the same time, in parallel, the extraordinary development of a modern Saudi government administration and infrastructure was recorded and occasionally advised on by British officials and technical experts. The British records, by definition, present events from a mainly British perspective. However, the knowledge and accomplishment of the civil servants and military officers, combined with the British thirst for information and the occasionally divided loyalties of such adventurers-cum-officials as Captain Shakespear, Gertrude Bell, and H. St. J.B. Philby, produced a meticulous and surprisingly balanced account of the emergence of the modern Saudi State.
Provenance and archival background The India Office Political and Secret Department archives now form part of the Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC, now part of the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections) at the British Library. From 1902 the most important of the Political and Secret Department's correspondence and papers accumulated in London were registered, indexed, and arranged in files according to subject. At the same time, the department maintained its own reference library of confidential handbooks for the restricted use of its own officials, as did the Military and other India Office departments. The Political and Secret Department papers have now been catalogued under the OIOC reference L/PS. From 1902 to 1930 the subject files are located under the reference L/P&S/10. Around 1930/1931 the department replaced its subject file system with a new series of "Collections," arranged according to geographical area. They are now to be found under the reference L/P&S/12. Material in this IDC Publishers' series is drawn mainly from "Collection" 1 (Arabia), with some relevant additional material from Collection 30 (Persian Gulf).
Organization and contents of files The material has been arranged in eight groups for the present publication. The first group (BIS-1) comprises printed gazetteers and handbooks now preserved in the departmental library of the Political and Secret Department (L/P&S/20), together with a few relevant items from the library of the India Office Military Department (L/MIL/17). The other groups (BIS-2 through BIS-8) comprise India Office Political and Secret Department subject files and collections arranged broadly according to subject.
The materials in these groups are both wide-ranging and detailed. The gazetteers and handbooks include historical, topographical, social, and economic information on all areas of the country, as well as maps, descriptions of tribes, and biographical notes on major personalities.
The Political and Secret subject files include reports and correspondence from the various British representatives in Arabia and the Gulf, as well as details of diplomatic negotiations relating to foreign relations, boundaries, and oil concessions, for example: minutes of interdepartmental meetings, correspondence and agreements with oil companies, drafts and final versions of oil concession agreements with concession maps, boundary agreements and maps, inter-governmental discussions, and diplomatic correspondence. The files also include many letters from King `Abd al-`Aziz and other regional rulers, wide-ranging and unique information on central government, infrastructure, topography, social and religious life, and major personalities. There are also files describing the background and practicalities of the creation of local administrations and of a social and economic infrastructure.
Penelope Tuson Former Curator of Middle East Archives, Oriental & India Office Collections, (OIOC, now part of the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections), British Library