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The warlord who built Saudi Arabia

King Abdulaziz Al Saud with three of his roughly 1,000 grandchildren, in 1968. Harry Dempster/Getty

How did Saudi Arabia go from neglected wasteland to global powerhouse in barely a hundred years? It was all down to one man, says Steve Coll on Empire: the charismatic tribal warlord Abdulaziz Al Saud. At the turn of the 20th century, his clan was in exile in Kuwait, “plotting a return” to a region they’d previously ruled. Saud was a formidable battle leader, at a time when war in Arabia consisted of a “bunch of malnourished men” charging into one another’s camps and trying to chase their enemies away. So when in 1902 he marched his clansmen across the desert to the mud walls of his ancestral kingdom – “not much to look at, but meaningful to him” – he vanquished the tribe that occupied Riyadh with ease. That was “the birth of modern Saudi Arabia”. The new king devoted the next two decades to violently completing his takeover of the Arabian Peninsula and indulging his three great pleasures in life: “women, perfume and prayer”.

He married 135 virgins and 100 “other women”, and kept countless “concubines and slaves”. And he always kept a vial of perfume in the pocket of his robes, which he rubbed on his hands “from hour to hour”. Whenever he greeted visitors, he would invariably douse himself, and then, to their surprise, “douse them”. He also loved being chauffeured around the desert in one of his 250 imported Fords – before the country had a single road – shooting at gazelles from the back seat. Rather than driving home to refuel, he would use each car for a single hunt and then abandon them to rust in the desert. The man he bought them from was Harry St John Bridger Philby, father of the British double agent Kim Philby and the only Westerner at the heart of the Saudi court. When American oil prospectors sent by the Rockefellers came sniffing around in the 1920s, it was Philby they hired to broker a deal with the King.