How Syria’s founding fathers pursued the ‘Saudi Option’

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the aspirations of Syrians tended towards the Arabian Peninsula, with envoys despatched to pursue princes

Syrian army chief of staff Hussein al-Zaaim (L), Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, Saudi King Abel Aziz al-Saud and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said during a pan Arab summit in Bludan 08 June 1946.
Syrian army chief of staff Hussein al-Zaaim (L), Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, Saudi King Abel Aziz al-Saud and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said during a pan Arab summit in Bludan 08 June 1946.

How Syria’s founding fathers pursued the ‘Saudi Option’

The ‘Saudi Option’, known as one of the political movements among the Syrian Arab reformists, played a significant role during the final years of the Ottoman Empire and the French mandate period from 1920 to 1946.

It served as a counterbalance to the ‘Hashemite Option’, which was embraced by a group of Syrian politicians at the time. Notably, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, who later became King of Saudi Arabia, did not get involved.

Instead, he focused on his interests and plans within the Arabian Peninsula, demonstrating his political realism.

Awaiting Saud al-Kabir

Many Syrians, particularly those living in Damascus, wanted an alternative to Ottoman rule and had done for many years.

As far back as 1807, Spanish traveller and spy Domingo Francisco Badia, known as Ali Bey el Abbassi, saw how Damascus residents eagerly awaited the arrival of Imam Saud al-Kabir’s forces.

Their anticipation grew upon news of his victories in the Arabian Peninsula and his advance towards the Levant, but Badia was surprised - the people of Damascus knew that Imam Saud’s followers saw luxury items like silk and tobacco as sinful.

Their strict Islamic principles would have restricted the factories and trade that formed the basis of the city’s economy, but Badia had overlooked two crucial factors.

Damascus eagerly awaited Imam Saud's arrival, despite everyone knowing that his followers took a dim view of the silk and tobacco that sustained the city.

One was the long-standing commercial ties between Damascus and the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

For centuries, the markets stretching from Bab al-Jabiyah to the Al-Midan Gate in southern Damascus were trading hubs for the tribes and were where they procured most of their necessities.

Second, the Ottoman Sultanate was in tumult. Elites and Janissary soldiers exerted huge control over peoples' lives.

Janissaries stationed in cafes even kidnapped and assaulted women and children, and seized merchandise without repercussion.

So, despite the negative impact on the city's economy, for the people of Damascus Imam Saud al-Kabir's forces offered a glimmer of hope.

In search of an Arabian king

Almost a century later, Arab reformists became active in Istanbul, following the success of the 1908 revolution which deposed Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid and reinstated the constitution that had been suspended three decades earlier.

Jamie Wignall

Read more: The coup that brought down the Ottoman Empire

They began forming Arab associations focused on cultural identities, however, with the rise of Turanian nationalism in 1913, which resulted in a military coup seizing power, there was new open hostility towards Arabs, who were accused of treason.

In response, reformists reached a general political consensus on adopting decentralisation, but did not agree what form it should take.

Arab reformists grew active in Istanbul after the 1908 revolution deposed Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid and reinstated the constitution.

The Al-Ahd Association, with its military identity, advocated for the idea of an ununified kingdom, while the Al-Fatat Association (the Young Arab Society) saw federalism as the solution.

Consequently, the Decentralisation Party was formed by Arab reformists exiled to Cairo, providing an inclusive framework for their objectives.

Nonetheless, both military and civilian parties agreed on the importance of seeking leadership from one of the ruling families in the Arabian Peninsula.

A message to King Abdul Aziz

Attention primarily focused on Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, who championed an independent unifying project for the Arabian Peninsula, separate from the Ottomans and other powers.

However, when Prince Faisal bin Al-Hussein (later known as King Faisal) officially joined the Arab reformists in 1916, it tipped the scale in favour of the Hashemite Option without abandoning the possibility of the Saudi Option.

In this context, the Decentralisation Party assigned two of its most active members, Mohib al-Din al-Khatib and Abdulaziz al-Ateeqi, to deliver a message to Prince Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Najd and al-Ahsa.

Their objective was to negotiate with him regarding the necessary Arab actions in light of escalating Turanian extremism against Arabs in Constantinople. They set off from Suez in October 1914, boarding a ship to Aden.

A journey and mission stymied

From Aden, they planned to take another ship to Bombay in India before proceeding to the Arabian Gulf and reaching Najd. It was the most viable route at the time, but they never made it – war got in the way.

In Aden, they learned that the Ottoman Empire had entered World War I on the side of the Germans. The British imposed strict surveillance on them in Bombay, and eventually they set sail for the Gulf.

The ship was to pass through Muscat and on to Kuwait, where they would disembark and go to meet Prince Abdul Aziz, but before they could do so, a British officer stopped them, inquiring about their origin from Egypt and searching their bags.

They were detained in Al-Faw, at the entrance to Basra, without any explanation, and were kept in-place and in-the-dark for nine months, preventing them from fulfilling their mission.

According to the papers held by Syrian Salafi writer Mohib al-Din al-Khatib, their mission was to coordinate with Imam Abdul Aziz Al Saud regarding the future of the Arabs following the declaration of war.

The objective was to negotiate specific points to safeguard Arab countries from the adversities of war.

Disillusioned with Sharif Hussein

Meanwhile, Sheikh Kamel Al-Qassab, an activist from the 'Al-Arabiya Al-Fatat' Association in Damascus, sought to reach Mecca to discuss the future of the Arabs with Arab leader and clan chief Sharif Hussein.

In anticipation of the expected defeat of the Ottomans, Sheikh Al-Qassab played a significant role in announcing the Arab Revolt in Mecca.

However, he became disillusioned with Hussein when he sensed his inclination towards individualism and his separate channels of communication with the British, independent of the aspirations of Arab revolutionaries.

There was disillusionment with Sharif Hussein, who was talking separately with the British, independent of the aspirations of Arab revolutionaries.

Sheikh Al-Qassab became a strong supporter of the Saudi Option and one of Sharif Hussein's main opponents. According to anecdote, the pair even fought over children's education.

Sheikh Al-Qassab had established a private secondary school in Mecca on a modern educational model, where Hussein attended a school play titled 'The Right and the Wrong', which depicted an oppressive ruler, symbolising the Ottomans.

Sharif Hussein was disturbed by it and ordered that it be stopped, then reprimanded Sheikh Al-Qassab for disseminating anti-ruler ideas among his students.

Mohib al-Din al-Khatib, who set up the 'Al-Qibla' newspaper in Mecca and oversaw media activities in the emerging Arab nation, reached a similar conclusion.

He felt that it was futile to rely on Sharif Hussein owing to his close ties with the British and his priority of securing power for his sons, over the goals and sacrifices of the Arab revolutionaries.

Pinning hopes on a prince

With the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate and the establishment of the Arab state in the Levant by Prince Faisal bin Al-Hussein, Syrian politicians who were prominent figures in the Arab movement rallied around him.

They hoped that he would lead them to independence in a unified Levant, stretching from Arish to Cilicia, as a first step towards a federation encompassing all Arab countries in the region, but instead they gradually saw him compromise.

He eased off in exchange for his recognition as king by Britain and France, and specifically limited his negotiations to internal Syria, conceding what was known as coastal Syria, from the Alexandretta district to Rafah.

Syrian politicians hoped that Prince Faisal would lead them to independence in a unified Levant, but instead saw him compromise in exchange for his recognition as king.

During this time, the Saudi Option resurfaced, and an agreement was reached between those sceptical of Faisal's intentions, led by Sheikh Rashid Rida, and his movement.

In February 1920, they sent Sheikh Muhammad Bahjat Al-Bitar - a young man at the time - to Abdulaziz Al Saud, 'Prince of Nejd and Al-Hisa,' with an oral message: to restore the relationship with Prince Abdul Aziz and explore the 'Saudi Option'.

To conceal his true purpose, he carried other messages to Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, as well as a diplomatic message from Prince Faisal to Prince Abdulaziz.

Secret overtures to the Saudis

Sheikh Al-Bitar later wrote a captivating account of his journey, describing the hardships he endured and his inability to meet Prince Abdul Aziz (although he did manage to deliver the message to him through Sheikh Shalash Al-Nejdi).

The main message has always remained confidential.

Al-Bitar wrote: "Sayyid Rashid Rida asked me to share some notes with you, so I wrote them on a piece of paper numbered accordingly. I hope you will respond to them in writing, briefly, so that I can present these answers to the Sayyid, fulfilling my duty and loyalty.

"May God bless you both and protect Muslims from calamity and harm. I repeat my request that you order a brief response to the notes. If you wish, or if the matter requires it, a trustee on your side can provide me with the details."

Subsequent events indicate that Prince Abdulaziz Al Saud, guided by political realism and a nuanced understanding of the situation in the Levant, focused primarily on restoring the borders of the original Saudi state.

Subsequent events indicate that Prince Abdulaziz Al Saud was more focused on restoring the borders of the original Saudi state. 

The Syrian movement, which grew increasingly hostile towards the Hashemite project, openly supported and blessed the extension of Saudi control over Hijaz.

During the General Islamic Conference called by 'Sultan of Nejd' Abdul Aziz Al Saud in the 1344 (H) /1925 Hajj season, Rashid Rida expressed this sentiment. "Since the advent of Islam, there has been no one capable of ensuring security in the Hijaz like the Sultan [Abdul Aziz]."

Leader Shukri al-Quwatli

Syrian national leader Shukri al-Quwatli - a prominent figure in the anti-Hashemite movement alongside comrades like politician Sabri al-Asali - sought refuge in Riyadh after being pursued by the French for supporting the Syrian revolution in 1925.

Their relationship with Saudi Arabia grew stronger during this period and al-Quwatli met Sultan Abdul Aziz, who agreed to host Mount Druze rebels on Saudi territory.

Syrian army chief of staff Hussein al-Zaaim (L), Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, Saudi King Abel Aziz al-Saud and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said during a pan Arab summit in Bludan 08 June 1946.

This came after the government of Prince Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned the rebels to leave Transjordan, where they had sought refuge. The rebels then established honourable reinforcements in Al-Qurayyat and Wadi Al-Sarhan on Saudi lands.

During al-Quwatli's stay in Riyadh, negotiations took place to demarcate the borders between Saudi Arabia and Transjordan. This culminated in the signing of the 'Hadda Treaty' on 2 November 1925.

Abd al-Latif al-Younes, a Syrian politician close to President al-Quwatli, says al-Quwatli took remarkable positions in favour of Sultan Abdul Aziz during the talks.

Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz

Following the events of the Great Syrian Revolution, the French authorities agreed to convene a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for the country and determine the form of the regime, whether it would be a monarchy or a republic.

During this time, the Hashemite movement, primarily represented by the 'People's Party,' began advocating for Syria to join Iraq under the rule of King Faisal I. This was strongly opposed by al-Quwatli and the movement he represented.

In response, Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz's name was mooted as a potential candidate for the monarchy, if monarchy was to be the agreed form of government. Pictures of Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz as the future king of Syria were circulated in Arab newspapers during this period.

Faisal bin Abdulaziz


Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz's name was mooted as a potential candidate for monarch, if monarchy was to be the agreed form of government.

This rumour was apparently intended to undermine the 'Hashemite Option' considering the popularity that Sultan Abdul Aziz and his son, Prince Faisal, enjoyed among a significant segment of Syrian politicians at that time.

The campaign achieved its goal, as the 'People's Party' withdrew its proposal for the royal option once it became evident that Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz had better chances compared to King Faisal bin Al Hussein.

Consequently, the party leader Dr Abd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar began advocating for a republican system, not monarchy, yet it continued to support the Hashemite Option in subsequent periods.

At the same time, the National Bloc strongly proposed the 'Saudi Option,' this time in the form of a strategic political alliance.

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