The Pittsburgh Press (March 14, 1944)
U.S. goes to Mecca with millions as Arabian pilgrimage gold fails
How Britain backed wrong horse in first war is only part of new story of Near East intrigue
By Henry J. Taylor, Scripps-Howard staff writer
New York –
In the forthcoming oil investigation, the Senate’s special committee intends to probe our government’s gift of $25 million to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.
Here are a few facts about him.
England’s first Arabian friend in the present Arabian world was by no means Ibn Saud. The British had put their early bet on Hussein bin Ali, Ibn Saud’s bitter rival.
Throughout World War I, Hussein helped the Allies against the Turks by keeping certain Arab groups on our side. He spearheaded a pro-British movement among the tribes. For this reason, Hussein was entitled to consideration when the peace was made at Versailles. But in the peacemaking period, Hussein decided to trade as heavily as he could on his wartime contributions.
Hussein gets the gate
What is more, he decided to be a dominant power throughout the Middle East. Hussein proved so persistent in his mounting demands that finally England had to get rid of him entirely.
Great Britain divided the country and put forward two of Hussein’s 17 sons as independent kings. These two offsprings repudiated their father’s claims and pledged themselves against the fulfillment of his plans.
But Britain had also made wartime promises to Hussein’s bitter rival. Known as Ibn Saud, his name was Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal. He made his headquarters at Al Artawiyah, and on his home grounds, he was a threat to Hussein. So, in December 1915, Britain concluded a treaty of friendship with Ibn Saud – and hoped for the best.
On the sidelines
To Britain’s dismay, however, Ibn Saud did not turn a hand in the war. He simply waited on the sidelines throughout the struggle, embarrassing the British and Hussein alike as often as he could, and this turned out to be often indeed.
One high spot was reached in March 1919, when Ibn Saud simply moved in on one of Hussein’s weak garrisons at Al Khurma. Lord Curzon arbitrated that particular upset. He decided in favor of Hussein. But neither the British nor Hussein were ever able to persuade Ibn Saud to follow England’s order to move out of Al Khurma.
Then when the British got rid of ambitious Hussein and began to rely on Hussein’s offspring, Ibn Saud saw his real chance. He simply stepped to the front and called on England to make good her promises to him.
Puppets are ousted
To enforce his conversations, Ibn Saud gradually took over what was left of Hussein’s pro-British movement among the Arabs and finally deprived the British of any support they had in Arabia unless they came to him. This left the puppet princes right in the middle of nowhere.
By October 1924, Ibn Saud had Hussein’s eldest son actively on the run. And by December, Ibn Saud quietly moved into Mecca. On Jan. 8, 1926, he crowned himself King of Hejaz in the Great Mosque of Mecca and in 1932, he changed the name of Arabia and his other dependencies to “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The British had gone out on the end of a limb with Hussein. But they had given a saw to Ibn Saud.
Rich on a thread
Once he was snug in Mecca, the Arabian chieftain’s fortunes rapidly improved. With a glint in his eye, Ibn Saud saw new gold in the form of the Mecca pilgrims. He refined all earlier imposts in such a way that his royal treasury soon flowered and bloomed with the shuffling of each of the faithful down the Taif road.
Among other special tolls which he instituted, Ibn Saud put a look at the magic gold carpet strictly on a gold basis. Then he grew rich on it thread by thread.
This holy carpet, known as Mahmal, is one of the most important religious symbols in the Islamic world. Woven in Egypt with the purest gold thread, a new holy carpet is made each year by the faithful Egyptians, on something like a Lend-Lease basis, and sent to Mecca for the pilgrims. There it is placed near the famous Black Stone in the Kaaba, the chief sanctuary of Islam.
Appeals to Roosevelt
To the dismay of the Egyptian government, Ibn Saud closed each pilgrimage in the last month of the Arab year by cutting the golden carpet into minute pieces and selling them to the pilgrims as a final windup of the local celebration. He reversed Lend-Lease by utilizing the carpet on a cash-and-carry basis.
Beginning with the Ethiopian War in 1935, however, the pilgrimage trade hit a slump. With the tightening of wartime conditions in the Arab world, it has been going downhill ever since. By 1941, Mecca’s pilgrim depression had put a terrible crimp in King Ibn Saud. And members of the Senate committee find that it was in that year that he turned, first to the American oil companies and then to President Roosevelt, for relief.
How he got it will be told tomorrow.