Ottoman Arabia

The Arabian Peninsula in 1914

The Ottoman era in the history of Arabia lasted from 1517 to 1918. Ottoman degree of control over these lands varied over the four centuries with the fluctuating strength or weakness of the Empire's central authority.[1][2]


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Early period

In the 16th century, the Ottomans added the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coast (the Hejaz, Asir and Al-Hasa) to the Empire and claimed suzerainty over the interior. The main reason was to thwart Portuguese attempts to attack the Red Sea (hence the Hejaz) and the Indian Ocean.[3] As early as 1578, the Sharifs of Mecca launched forays into the desert to punish the Najdi tribes who mounted raids on oases and tribes in the Hejaz.[4]

The emergence of what was to become the Saudi royal family, known as the Al Saud, began in Nejd in central Arabia in 1744, when Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the dynasty, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who was from the Hanbali school of thought,[5][6] This alliance formed in the 18th century provided the ideological impetus to Saudi expansion and remains the basis of Saudi Arabian dynastic rule today.[7]

Rise of the Saudi state

The first Saudi state was established in 1744 in the area around Riyadh, rapidly expanded and briefly controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia.[8] When Ibn Abd al-Wahab abandoned the position of imam in 1773, the spread of Saudi control over the whole southern and central Najd was completed.[9] In the late 1780s, the northern Najd was added to the Saudi emirate.[9] In 1792, Al-Hasa fell to the Saudis.[9] The Saudi emirate gained control of Taif in 1802, and of Medina in 1804.[9]

The first Saudi state was destroyed by 1818 by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha.[10] A much smaller second "Saudi state", located mainly in Nejd, was established in 1824. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the Al Saud contested control of the interior of what was to become Saudi Arabia with another Arabian ruling family, the Al Rashid. By 1891, the Al Rashid were victorious and the Al Saud were driven into exile in Kuwait.[11]

Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire continued to control or have a suzerainty (albeit nominal) over most of the peninsula. Subject to this suzerainty, Arabia was ruled by a patchwork of tribal rulers,[12][13] with the Sharif of Mecca having pre-eminence and ruling the Hejaz.[14]

In 1902, Ibn Saud took control of Riyadh in Nejd and brought the Al Saud back to Nejd.[11] Ibn Saud gained the support of the Ikhwan, a tribal army inspired by Wahhabism and led by Sultan ibn Bijad and Faisal Al-Dawish, and which had grown quickly after its foundation in 1912.[15] With the aid of the Ikhwan, Ibn Saud captured Hasa from the Ottomans in 1913.

In 1916, with the encouragement and support of Britain (which was fighting the Ottomans in World War I), the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire to create a united Arab state.[16] Although the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918 failed in its objective, the Allied victory in World War I resulted in the end of Ottoman suzerainty and control in Arabia.[17]

Hajj in the 16th and 17th centuries

When the Ottomans conquered Mamluk territory in 1517,[18] the role of the Ottoman sultan in the Hijaz was first and foremost to take care of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and provide safe passage for the many Muslims from various regions who travelled to Mecca in order to perform the Hajj.[19] The Sultan was sometimes referred to as "Servant of the Holy Places" but since the Ottoman rulers could not claim lineage from the Prophet Muhammad,[20] it was important to maintain an image of power and piety through construction projects, financial support and caretaking.

There is no record of a ruling Sultan visiting Mecca during the Hajj[21] but according to primary records, Ottoman princes and princesses were sent to make the pilgrimage or visit the Holy Cities during the year.[22] The distance from the center of the empire in Istanbul, as well as the length and danger of the journey, was likely the main factor that prevented Sultans from travelling to the Hijaz.[22]

Regional administration of Mecca and Medina was left in the hands of the Sharifs, or the stewards of Mecca since the Abbasid caliphate. The Sharifs maintained a level of local autonomy under the rule of the Sultan; however in order to balance the local influences, the Sultan appointed the kadis and lesser officials in the region.[23] At first, being appointed the kadi in the region was considered a low position, but as religion grew more important within the culture of the Ottoman Empire, the role of the kadis in the Mecca and Medina grew in prominence.[24]

Aside from customs collected in Jeddah, the inhabitants of the Hijaz did not pay taxes to the empire[25] and the finances of the city were taken care of through various waqf properties across the rest of the empire, dedicated to support the people of Mecca and Medina as an act of charity with religious significance because of the holy status of the two cities.[26]

The central Ottoman government controlled caravan routes to Mecca, and was obligated to protect pilgrims along these routes.[27] This included providing supplies such as food and water for the journey. Additionally, this included providing subsidies to the desert Bedouin tribes whose limited resources were used by pilgrims along the major routes from Damascus and Cairo respectively.[21][28] The Ottoman Empire, as custodian of Mecca and Medina, was supposed to provide safe passage for all pilgrims travelling to the Holy Cities. However, political alliances and conflicts shaped the routes that were opened or closed.

Particularly in the case of the Safavid Empire, the Ottomans closed the shortest route from Basra (in present-day Iraq) that would have allowed Shi’i pilgrims to cross the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Peninsula.[29][30] Pilgrims were instead required to use the official caravan routes from Damascus, Cairo or Yemen.[29] From the Mughal Empire, sea routes were blocked by the presence of Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean; from Central Asia, wars between the Uzbeks and Safavids also led to complications in caravan routes. Most Central Asian pilgrims went through Istanbul or Delhi to join a pilgrimage caravan.[23] Trade routes often flourished along pilgrimage routes, since the existing infrastructure and protections were established, and travelling pilgrims increased the demand for products.[30]

Construction, repairs and addition to religious sites in Mecca and Medina were costly, due to the location of the cities and need for imported materials, but it was a symbol of the power and generosity of the Sultan.[31] Repairs that had to be made to the Kabah after a flood in 1630 were contentious because of the religious significance of the building itself.[32] These repairs were generally aimed at preserving the structural integrity of the site, yet the opinion of local religious scholars on the extent of the repairs meant that the project became politicized because Ridhwan Agha, who was in charge of overseeing the repairs, was a representative of the Sultan as opposed to an elite from the Hijaz.[33]

Other projects included building, repairing and maintaining water pipes that served pilgrims, and establishing soup kitchens, schools and charitable foundations within the region.[34]

Territorial divisions

During the era of Ottoman rule, the territory of modern Saudi Arabia was divided between the following entities:


  1. Bowen (2007), p. 168
  2. Chatterji (1973), p. 168
  3. Bernstein (2008), p. 191
  4. Wynbrandt (2010), p. 101
  5. Bowen (2007), pp. 69–70
  6. Harris et al. (1992), p. 369
  7. Faksh (1997), pp. 89–90
  8. "Reining in Riyadh" by D. Gold, 6 April 2003, NYpost (JCPA)
  9. 1 2 3 4 Niblock (2013), p. 12
  10. "The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam". Library of Congress Country Studies.
  11. 1 2 "History of Arabia". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
  12. Murphy (2008), pp. 5–8
  13. Al Rasheed (1997), p. 81
  14. Anderson & Fisher (2000), p. 106
  15. Dekmejian (1994), p. 131
  16. Tucker & Roberts (2005), p. 565
  17. Hourani (2005), pp. 315–319
  18. Faroqhi (1994), p. 3
  19. Faroqhi (1994), p. 7
  20. Faroqhi (1994), p. 74
  21. 1 2 Wasti (2005), p. 197
  22. 1 2 Faroqhi (1994), p. 130
  23. 1 2 Faroqhi (1994), p. 147
  24. Faroqhi (1994), p. 152
  25. Faroqhi (1994), p. 126
  26. "Wakf." Brill Encyclopedia of Islam. Online
  27. Salibi (1979), p. 73
  28. Faroqhi (1994), p. 58
  29. 1 2 Faroqhi (1994), p. 135
  30. 1 2 Casale (2006), p. 187
  31. Faroqhi (1994), p. 194
  32. Faroqhi (1994), p. 113
  33. Faroqhi (1994), p. 115
  34. Singer (2005)


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