King Abdulaziz and the Palestinian Nakba of 1948

The founding King of Saudi Arabia knew that the Arab armies were weak and could be easily defeated because they were young and inexperienced

Saudi King Abdulaziz al-Saud
Saudi King Abdulaziz al-Saud

King Abdulaziz and the Palestinian Nakba of 1948

In his memoirs, five-time Syrian premier Khaled al-Azm describes his first meeting with Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founding king of Saudi Arabia, in the capital, Riyadh, shortly before the Palestinian Nakba of 1948:

"We entered a large hall and saw the king seated on a chair next to a table with a telephone. He stood tall to welcome us as we walked towards him, and what caught my attention was that his sons, the princes, were not seated next to him but rather, far away by the door."

"The king looked at everyone in the room, confronting them with his words and feeding them generously with his hands. Three employees then came in to bring him the latest world news. They knelt before him to report what was coming just in from Cairo, London, and Berlin. The king would occasionally interrupt them to comment or ask a member of his entourage for the names of a person he may have missed or forgotten."

Every bit of news brought anguish to the king: violent demonstrations at the gates of the US and Soviet embassies in Damascus, torching of a British institute in Cairo, and 75 Jews killed in Aden, Yemen. The Arab Street was boiling in response to the repeated massacres and provocations being carried out by Zionist militias in Palestine. On 9 April 1948, over 200 Palestinians had been slaughtered in the village of Deir Yassin, and within four days, the Zionists began advancing towards Safad, Haifa, and Jaffa.

Army of Deliverance

The Saudi king shook with rage, praying for the victory of Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the Lebanon-born commander of the Army of Deliverance—a volunteer troop of Arab forces that had entered the battlefield in late 1947, months before the regular Arab armies. King Abdulaziz knew al-Qawuqji well ever since he had settled in Riyadh as a political fugitive in 1928, where he had been tasked with helping train the Saudi army.

Commander of the Salvation Army, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, upon his arrival in the Palestinian territories on March 8, 1948.

The king had recommended that he lead the volunteer army; in fact, the entire project had been his brainchild in coordination with his friend, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli. King Abdulaziz wanted to call it Jaysh Nusrat al-Muslimeen (Army to Support Muslims), but his Egyptian counterpart, King Farouk, argued otherwise, claiming that Christians were bound to join al-Qawuqji’s troops.

He proposed Jaysh Tahrir Filasin (Army for the Liberation of Palestine), and al-Quwatli suggested the “Army of Deliverance,” which was acceptable to them all. Syria offered to establish its training camps near Damascus. King Abdulaziz asked Syrian foreign minister Jamil Mardam Bey about the 3,000 rifles that the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, had promised to deliver. The Syrians just shook their heads in disbelief, saying that only 200 had arrived and, of that number, only 25 were suitable for war.

Funding resistance

The Saudi king then offered to compensate for the missing weapons, and on 22 January 1948, President al-Quwatli sent his bureau chief, Muhsen al-Barazi, to Riyadh for a follow-up meeting. In his memoirs, the Sorbonne-educated Barazi wrote: “His Majesty said that the weapons were stored in crates and ready to be shipped to Egypt, from where the Egyptian Government would send them to Palestine.”

"Why Egypt?" asked Barazi, reminding that Saudi Arabia could send the arms directly via Jordan, but the king explained that this might be problematic for King Abdullah. He then summoned his son and foreign minister, Emir Faisal (later King Faisal), who explained his country’s contribution to the war effort would be one thousand brand new British rifles, five hundred bullets, and ten crates of military equipment.

He also presented Barazi with a hefty financial donation to be distributed under al-Quwatli’s supervision to the Arab fighters in Palestine. Emir Faisal then looked towards his Syrian guest and humbly said: “Perhaps...we need to do more.”

Barazi told him that what Saudi Arabia had given was more than enough, channelling the funds immediately to Damascus so that the Syrian president could distribute them to the Arab tribes. The Arab League had first mandated the Army of Deliverance at the urging of Saudi Arabia, whose monarch wanted a collective victory for the Arabs, or in the worst case, a collective defeat, shouldered equally by all.

On 9 April 1948, over 200 Palestinians had been slaughtered in the village of Deir Yassin. Upon learning the news, Saudi King Abdulaziz shook with rage.

Neither Shukri al-Quwatli nor his Lebanese counterpart, Bechara El Khoury, had carried a gun in their lives. As for King Farouk, his military credentials were limited to brief schooling in London and an indulgence in collecting priceless swords, rifles, and guns.

However, King Abdulaziz was no stranger to battle, having spent 30 years of his life unifying Arab tribes in the Hejaz, winning all his battles. He feared that all three—al-Quwatli, El Khoury, and Farouk—would be deceived by their officers and forced to make grave mistakes in Palestine. He had genuine respect for al-Quwatli and Farouk, and the seeds of the Arab League had been developed by the Saudi and Egyptian kings at an earlier meeting between al-Radwa and Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian king's adviser Kareem Thabet was present and recalled: "Farouk was so keen on pleasing his host and winning him over that he refrained from smoking, not only in his presence but in his private quarters as well after word reached him that King Abdulaziz hated the smell of smoke, even if lingering on clothes."

The Saudi king's commitment to Palestine far predates the war of 1948 and was deeply rooted in his consciousness as both a moral and religious duty. On 13 November 1947, just days before the Palestine Partition Plan was passed at the UN General Assembly, he received an Anglo-American committee to inquire about the state of affairs in Mandatory Palestine.  The 12-man committee was headed by British judge Sir John Singleton and included an American academic and a professor at Princeton University, among others.

King Abdulaziz could not hold back his fury but quickly regained his resoluteness. He asked the committee members for nothing but impartiality and presented each with a gold dagger as a gift of Arab hospitality. He even offered to find Sir Singleton a Muslim wife, given that the Arabic translation of his name meant "bachelor."

Saudi Arabia would soon vote against the partition plan when it was raised at the UN General Assembly. When the resolution passed, much to his dismay, Emir Faisal fumed out of the chamber with his Syrian colleague, Fares al-Khoury.

Soldiers from the Arab Legion on the eastern side of Occupied Jerusalem during fighting against members of the Israeli Haganah on 6 March 1948.

False reports

The number of Arab troops in Palestine was fixed at 20,000. Egypt came first with 5,500 soldiers, followed by Jordan (4,500). Syria and Iraq joined with a combined force of approximately 6,000 men, while Lebanon contributed with a small contingent of 2,000 troops.

This was far less than what the Arab states had promised: no less than 165,000 soldiers with 400 tanks. The Arab armies had 47 warplanes at their disposal, with 40 tanks, 300 armoured vehicles, 140 field rifles, and 220 antiaircraft weapons.

On the other side of the battlefield, Zionist forces stood at 65,000 in July 1948, reaching 88,000 in October and surpassing the 100,000-man benchmark by early 1949. Approximately 13% of Israel's population was in military uniform, and wealthy Jews in Europe and the US raised $129mn for their war effort. Of that amount, $78mn was used to purchase sophisticated arms for the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

As the final hour approached, signalling the end of the British Mandate and David Ben Gurion's declaration of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, reports were being filed to Arab kings and presidents with nothing but lies and misinformation.

The Arab League had first mandated the Army of Deliverance at the urging of Saudi King Abdulaziz, who wanted a collective victory for the Arabs.

Copies were sent to the king's office in Riyadh. "We will throw them in the sea", boated one Egyptian officer, whereas the Syrians were telling their president that the war would be quick and Palestine would be fully liberated by Christmas.

"We have warplanes; the Israelis don't," said one report filed to President al-Quwatli. A military plan was devised by Jordanian officer Wasfi al-Tel, calling for an 11-day invasion where the Lebanese army would march into Palestine from Ras al-Naqura towards Acre while the Syrians would head from Bint Jbeil to Samakh and would meet with the Iraqis in the city of Afula, west of Nazareth.

The Iraqis were mandated with the historic Palestinian city of Bisan, east of Jerusalem, while the Jordanian army was tasked with liberating al-Llod, al-Ramla, and Jerusalem. On 29-30 April, the plan was finalised at a meeting of the Arab Joint Command in Cairo and ratified by the Arab League on 12 May 1948.

The Saudi king was unimpressed, declining to send its army to the battlefield while remaining committed to funding the Arab war effort. It also did not mind that Saudi citizens volunteered to serve with the Arab League. The war ended with a stunning Arab defeat; 6,000 Arabs were killed, with Egypt and Syria suffering 1,000 deaths, respectively. Over 400 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground, and three-quarters of one million people were stripped of their belongings and ordered out of their homes at gunpoint.

Palestine was torn off the world map. And, as King Abdulaziz had predicted, the Arabs were unprepared for war and equally unprepared for defeat.

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