Shaikh Yousuf Yassin (also spelt Yusuf Yassin or Yasin) was one of the most trusted political advisers to king Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, starting in the early 1920s. Engaged by the ruler to produce the first newspaper authorised for publication in the Hijaz in 1925, Umm Al Qura, a weekly Makkah newspaper that initially consisted of four hand-printed pages, Shaikh Yousuf became editor-in-chief of the religious and literary affairs publication that, over time, became the ruler's official bulletin. Umm Al Qura presented king Abdul Aziz's policies towards Arab and global concerns, including colonial powers, along with his perceptions on the core Arab issue: Palestine. Starting in 1926, Shaikh Yousuf assumed additional duties, first as political secretary to the ruler and, by the early 1930s, as adviser. Promoted to the rank of minister of state and acting minister of foreign affairs whenever prince Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz would be out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Yousuf played a critical role in defining the kingdom's foreign policies.
In the words of Harry St John Philby — a British intelligence officer who was sent to the interior of the Arabian peninsula in 1917 to gauge Abdul Aziz against the Hashemite Sharif Hussain — Shaikh Yousuf was "the connecting link between his master and the extensive network of diplomatic posts spreading almost from China to Peru". Even if Philby favoured the Al Saud against the Hashemites, it was Shaikh Yousuf — through his unblemished Arab nationalism — who persuaded Abdul Aziz to be wary of the British.
Shaikh Yousuf was born in Lathqiyah and grew up in the middle of an unprecedented nationalist fervour that had gripped Syria against the Ottoman Empire and, in time, occupying French forces. In his own words, the educated young man eagerly participated in the Arab Nationalist Movement from its very birth in the Levant "to empower Arabs, promote their interests, celebrate their civilisation, language and literature, and ensure their political union, as decreed by God in His Scriptures".
A devout Muslim, Shaikh Yousuf assumed that Islam enhanced Arabism, because he strongly believed that before the revelation to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), the Arab presence on Earth had little or no impact, notwithstanding rich legacies in Yemen, Iraq and Egypt. One of the primary goals of Arab nationalism in Syria around the turn of the 20th century was to bring to an end a festering Western influence that literally colonised the Arab world and enslaved it. Perceived as the nemesis of Arab strength, Shaikh Yousuf and hundreds of engagé young Arabs who studied in Jerusalem and Cairo, fought alongside Faisal I. The Hashemite ruler opposed the (non-Arab) Ottoman Empire and both Britain and France, two Western colonial powers that secretly divided the Middle East in the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.
During the war, Shaikh Yousuf taught at the Salahiddin Ayubi School in Jerusalem, where a group of nationalist young Arabs wrote prominent commentaries that helped Faisal I define his struggle against Ottoman and British occupying forces. In between campaigns against military targets and his ongoing teaching responsibilities, Shaikh Yousuf established "The Arab Club of Jerusalem", where the Palestinian elite gathered to debate anticolonialist policies. The motivated Shaikh Yousuf fought with Faisal I's Arab army in Aqaba and Maan, participated in the 1918 Damascus campaign and fought in several battles against the Ottoman forces.
Still, disillusioned by Faisal I's accommodating tendencies, it was in the aftermath of one of these confrontations that Shaikh Yousuf learnt about Abdul Aziz's Ikhwan, a dedicated group of Badu warriors, and decided to join them in Riyadh to defend Arabism. Through the intercession of Haj Ameen Al Hussaini, Shaikh Yousuf managed to secure an introduction letter from Rashid Reda to Abdul Aziz and trekked towards Riyadh. He met Abdul Aziz outside of Ha'il, where the founder had just defeated the Al Rashid clan and wished this news to be widely known. Shaikh Yousuf accompanied the ruler to Makkah, writing an essay on the royal trip that he planned to publish in the holy city as soon as he got his hands on printing equipment. It was important to note that the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — who was, interestingly, aware of Shaikh Yousuf's writings in two prominent Egyptian publications that focused on nationalist topics, the Al Mufid and the Alif Ba — understood how valuable such documentation would be.
Shaikh Yousuf probably arrived in Arabia in 1923 (the Russian historian Alexei Vassiliev claims it was in 1924) and "threw in his lot with the Wahhabi cause". In his own opus on Saudi Arabia, Philby recognised that Shaikh Yousuf was "certainly … one of the outstanding men of Ibn Saud's regime in more than one phase of its activities; and his work, often involving travels abroad for one purpose or another, [was] ably seconded by his assistant Rushdi Mulhis, a refugee from Palestine". Most historians agreed that Shaikh Yousuf added value to the Saudi Arabian ruler, entrusted with the growing diplomatic correspondence with representatives abroad and, more important, acting as the monarch's envoy at most regional and international gatherings. While prince Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz negotiated on Riyadh's behalf in San Francisco to help establish the United Nations, Shaikh Yousuf was the Saudi Arabian monarch's eyes and ears in Cairo, where six Arab countries (Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan — renamed Jordan after 1946 — Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria, later joined by Yemen) created the League of Arab States.
King Abdul Aziz respected Shaikh Yousuf's intellectual prowess and relied on him after several other advisers fell out of favour. To his credit, this naturalised Saudi Arabian won the confidence of his monarch not only because he was honest with his analysis but also because he accompanied and fought alongside king Abdul Aziz during the Hijaz campaign. In other words, Shaikh Yousuf earned the ruler's loyalty and, gradually, assumed some of the most sensitive posts in the nascent kingdom.
King Abdul Aziz appointed his second surviving son, Faisal, as the viceroy of the Hijaz and, just before the unification of the country in 1932, as the kingdom's foreign minister in December 1930. While prince Faisal "shaped" Saudi Arabian foreign policy, he chiefly relied on two men to guide him — his father and Shaikh Yousuf. Both men displayed a keen understanding of the kingdom's core interests, nestled within an impeccably clean ideological base, the Holy Scriptures, balanced with a variety of internal needs. Shaikh Yousuf imparted his quest for consistency to prince Faisal, who, in turn, practised the method with the precision of a Swiss clock. This was amply visible throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, when the kingdom faced a challenge from Jamal Abdul Nasser. At the time, Riyadh responded to the rising wave of Arab nationalism by emphasising core Islamic values, which were the basic foundations of its foreign policy. Rejecting both secularism and socialism, for example, prince Faisal supported Yemeni tribes who favoured the monarchy and, in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, sought a rapprochement with Egypt to end the Arab Cold War (1957-1967). Shaikh Yousuf, who loathed intra-Arab differences, was almost always on prince Faisal's side until his sudden death in 1962. In fact, his commitments could not be otherwise, especially after his early experiences in the Hijaz, when Hashemites attempted to derail Al Saud efforts.
It must also be emphasised that king Abdul Aziz strongly advised his otherwise-gifted son to rely on Shaikh Yousuf not because the founder had a row with Fouad Hamzah in July 1930 (ostensibly because the latter's outlook was deemed too "Europeanised") but because Shaikh Yousuf, who was a pious Muslim, shared a quasi-identical outlook.
This was why he was promoted to foreign policy adviser in lieu of Hamzah. Moreover, the founder appreciated how well Shaikh Yousuf could work with prince Faisal. The two men shared similar attitudes and displayed a genuine appreciation for what they themselves needed to do to get things done.
When prince Faisal became Saudi Arabia's first foreign minister in 1930 and led his country's delegation to the April 1945 San Francisco conference, which established the United Nations, he was essentially running a shoestring operation. The only reliable individual who could be of any assistance was Shaikh Yousuf. Rather than reinvent the wheel, even if the ministry of foreign affairs was unexplored territory, prince Faisal and Shaikh Yousuf personally knew or were acquainted with most of the leaders that marked the 20th century.
What occurred in the late 1950s and the early 1960s between Saudi Arabia and Egypt was epoch-making, even if waggish. Relations deteriorated when president Jamal Abdul Nasser accused king Saud Bin Abdul Aziz of plotting his demise.
Egyptian and Syrian newspapers, seldom engaged in investigative journalism, provided details substantiating numerous allegations in the form of letters, cheques and bank account deposit slips. But what was never mentioned were king Saud's generous financial disbursements to both Cairo and Damascus that nurtured the Cairenese and his Damascene counterpart. Against this carefully orchestrated litany of rumours and half-truths, king Saud kept silent, relying on Shaikh Yousuf to lower the tone.
Much like his successful negotiations with London, "Foxy Yousuf" (a British moniker coined by the astute diplomat St John Armitage, who claimed the crafty Saudi Arabian "was nothing but a thorn in the backside of the British empire") managed to salvage what could be saved, playing fall guy to the king and the heir apparent. Regrettably, king Saud's indecisiveness left the impression of gullibility, if not outright culpability, which only ended after the monarch abdicated in 1964.
The question of Palestine
Among the many topics that preoccupied Saudi Arabian diplomacy through the first decades of the 20th century, none was as important as the question of Palestine, as king Abdul Aziz devoted significant resources to a peaceful settlement. While it is now a given that the entire world perceives a two-state solution as the only viable answer to help settle the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few recall the many permutations that accompanied heated United Nations partition discussions.
Shaikh Yousuf raised the two-state solution in official Saudi Arabian positions in 1947 and gained his monarch's support in advocating it as a solution. Like his successors, king Abdul Aziz favoured a two-state option as early as 1947, which meant that the Arabs envisaged such a solution long before any Western-sponsored processes or the intervention of great powers to act as mediators.
Today most Arab decision-makers endorse the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders of the Occupied Territories with East Jerusalem as its capital, even if most are oblivious to the king Abdul Aziz-Shaikh Yousuf offers.
Although historians specialising in Saudi Arabia refer to Shaikh Yousuf as king Abdul Aziz's "Syrian" adviser, the Lathqiyah-born Arab nationalist earned his Saudi Arabian citizenship, becoming one of the few naturalised officials who rose to the highest ranks of the kingdom's diplomatic service.
A die-hard supporter of Arab independence, Shaikh Yousuf was both an adviser to the king and the key go-between between Riyadh and leading capitals of the world. Few Arab officials had the access he enjoyed. More importantly, fewer could claim that they had the confidence of two Saudi Arabian rulers, Abdul Aziz and Saud, and a successor, Faisal, who was his partner and co-architect.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently ofFaysal: Saudi Arabia's King for All Seasons (2008).
Published on the third Friday of each month, this article is part of a series on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.
A spirited life
Shaikh Yousuf Yassin was born in Lathqiyah, Syria, in 1888 to Fatima Bint Abdullah Jamal and Shaikh Mohammad Yassin, then a farmer-scholar whose own father, Mohammad Bin Yousuf Bin Yassin Bin Mustafa Bin Ali Abu Al Ezz, known as Ali Al Masri, probably emigrated from Egypt to Syria.
Tutored in traditional Islamic subjects in the neighbourhood mosque his father financed (since there were no schools in the small town at the time), the young Yousuf displayed a strong aptitude for learning, memorised the Holy Scriptures and studied Usul Al Fiqh with Shaikh Hassan Radwan, a graduate of the famed Al Azhar Seminary. In 1911, Shaikh Yousuf graduated from the University of Jerusalem, where he had enrolled a few years earlier, and moved to Cairo soon afterwards, hoping to continue his education at Al Azhar. In the event, the young man was accepted in the Dar Al Dawah Wal Irshad, which was led by Shaikh Mohammad Rashid Reda. The latter owned the prominent newspaper "Al Manar", which was then a vanguard weekly (eventually a monthly) journal that specialised in Quranic commentary. It was in Cairo that Shaikh Yousuf first heard of Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman but the First World War obligated him to return to Syria rather than pursue his dream of moving to Arabia.
He arrived in the Hijaz in 1923 and was "naturalised" in the Mamlakat Al Hijaziyyah, as this is clearly stated on his 1962 death certificate, which qualified him for automatic citizenship in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when Abdul Aziz declared independence in 1932. His official identity card ("tazkirat nufus") stated he was naturalised by the ruler on 9 Shaaban 1349 (December 29, 1930). Importantly, and while historians refer to Shaikh Yousuf as Abdul Aziz's Syrian adviser, his official title was Mustashar Jalalat Al Malik wa Ra'is Al Shaabat Al Siyasiyyah wa Wazir Dawlah (Adviser to His Majesty the King, President of the Political Section and Minister of State), positions that required utmost trust and that could only be assigned to a confidant of the ruler. His eldest son Anas served king Faisal as ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations, India and Turkey, where he died in a car accident in 1974.
Shaikh Yousuf married Bashira Bint Ahmad Sitty and later in life Wahibah Bint Hassan Al Jurdi, and fathered five sons, Anas, Hassan (an adviser to His Royal Highness Prince Saud Al Faisal), Abdul Aziz, Mohammad Ayman and Mishal, and three daughters Najwa, Lamis and Anoud. He died of a sudden cardiac arrest on April 19, 1962, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.