Thirteen-year-old Prince Faisal (front row, second from left) and Ahmad Al Thunayan (front row, fourth from left) led the ‘central Arabian delegation’ that visited London in 1919 Image Credit: Photos courtesy of King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Riyadh

Ahmad Al Thunayan (1889-1921) lived a short but eventful life, becoming an adviser to Al Saud Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the founder of the third Saudi kingdom. Al Thunayan explained unfamiliar political parameters to the king and more than any of his contemporaries, defended the founder's legitimacy with world powers. He inspired and reinforced his ruler's vision as Al Saud restored the family's rights over the entire Arabian peninsula.

Ahmad accompanied Prince Faisal Bin Al Saud on his first visit to Europe in 1919, and may have spoken to the future king about his niece Iffat Al Thunayan, who became Faisal's queen in 1931. Though little is known about him, in 1921 Amir Ahmad, as he was also known, returned to Constantinople, where he died of an illness.

Origins of Al Thunayan

In the turbulent history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which witnessed violent clashes among various tribal confederations that lived throughout the vast expanse of the Arabian peninsula between the 17th and 20th centuries, one of the most influential branches of the ruling Al Saud family were the Al Thunayan. They were the descendants of Thunayan, brother of Mohammad Bin Saud (1691-1787), who founded the dynasty in the 18th century and forged the 1744 alliance between the Al Saud and the Al Shaikh. Such a pedigree meant that the Al Thunayan were, in fact, part of the Al Saud family. Yet the reason why they evolved into a cadet branch of the ruling dynasty was due, in part, to the refusal by the Ottomans to acknowledge their rightful tribal station.

At a time when the Ottoman Empire dominated both shores of the peninsula, the British empire appeared on the horizon, which boxed up the Al Saud in central Arabia. The absence of additional landholdings aggravated dynastic rivalries, as the Al Saud, once again, fell prey to internecine conflict. Turki Bin Abdullah survived a challenge from his cousin Mishari Bin Abdul Rahman in 1831 but could not escape assassination by his agents in 1834. This was the foremost political murder recorded since the 1744 alliance, which established the first Saudi state. As fate would have it, Abdul Rahman could not hold on to the throne for long. He was also killed, by Bin Abdullah's son, Faisal, who captured Riyadh in 1834 and declared himself the ruler.

In turn, Faisal's rule was cut short by the return, in 1838, of agitated Egyptian forces that were concerned with the rising influence of the British in and around the peninsula. The Egyptians expelled and replaced Faisal with a puppet ruler, Khalid Bin Saud, who, at least theoretically, restored the original dominant branch of the family to power. Nevertheless, the British soon pressured their Egyptian suzerain, Mohammad Ali, to withdraw his forces in 1840. Soon after, Bin Saud was overthrown by a distant cousin, Abdullah Bin Thunayan Bin Ebrahim. For the first time in contemporary Saudi Arabia, a member of the Al Thunayan branch of the family assumed power.

Bin Ebrahim ruled Najd from 1841 to 1843, though few welcomed his decision to impose fresh taxes. This even displeased his original supporters. He was deposed in 1843 by Faisal Bin Turki who returned to power after he laid siege to Riyadh, having successfully escaped Egyptian captivity. The popular Bin Turki became ruler for the second time and ushered in, by far, the most stable period in the history of the peninsula up to that time.

But central Arabia was further isolated and fell into oblivion as Ottoman forces occupied Hasa in 1871. In the decade that followed, this key engagement, several Al Saud family members competed with each other to earn Ottoman approval. In 1878, an internal uprising prevailed but failed to mature due to multiple allegiances.

A year later, however, a new claimant to power emerged in Abdullah Bin Abdullah Al Thunayan. Abdullah the son (both son and father shared the same first name), who had resided in Basra since 1876, went to Constantinople with the object of obtaining for himself a grant of Najd and Hasa from the Porte, or perhaps to recover his share of the Al Saud property in Hasa, which the Ottoman authorities had confiscated.

On his way to Constantinople, Abdullah Bin Abdullah stopped in Bushire, Jiddah, Cairo and Damascus, where he sought support for his plan from various British officials, ostensibly arguing that his scheme would benefit both British and Ottoman interests. The British government refused these advances, and after his arrival in Constantinople in August 1880, nothing further was heard of him, although he became known as "Abdullah Basha" at Dolmabahce, the sultan's official residence.

Abdullah Basha's son

Successive Ottoman rulers kept Abdullah Basha as a well-looked-after hostage, aware of the rising influence of the British in Arabia and willing to use their prey should the opportunity arise. That was not to be, as dramatic events saw the Al Saud reclaim what was rightfully theirs and the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of the First World War. It was in the Ottoman capital, however, that Abdullah Basha married Taza Ruh, a Cherkess lady, who gave him four children: Mohammad Saud, Ahmad Al Thunayan, Jawharan (Al Thunayan's twin) and Sulaiman. He had two more sons, Abdul Rahman and Abdul Qader, from a second marriage.

Mohammad Saud, the eldest, married a Circassian lady, Asia, and was inducted into the Ottoman army. He was killed in a battle (though no information is available on which one) sometime between 1918 and 1923. Mohammad Saud and Asia had two children before the war, Iffat Munirah and Zaki, though Asia remarried Ebrahim Adham, an Ottoman police officer of Albanian origin with whom she had two other children: Kamal and Muzaffar.

Meanwhile, starting in 1906, Arabia became unsafe for the Ottomans, and the Porte evacuated its troops from Qasim. Simultaneously, Al Saud prepared for his return to Diriyyah and Riyadh, which mobilised many members of the dispersed family. Al Thunayan heard of Al Saud's exploits and escaped his golden Ottoman cage at a time when the Porte experienced serious financial cutbacks and was no longer in a position to retain a large presence around Sultan Abdul Hamid. Al Thunayan arrived in Riyadh and offered his services to the liberator, took part in various military campaigns, was wounded — which explained his limp — and quickly became indispensable to his cousin for other reasons too. In addition to Arabic and Turkish, Al Thunayan spoke fluent French and German, which was unprecedented for the Al Saud at the time. These linguistic skills notwithstanding, Al Saud was delighted to welcome his cousin for yet another reason: namely, to buttress his legitimacy against tribes competing for leadership.

Years of valuable service, 1914 -1921

Al Saud faced internal opposition but it was Britain that delayed his conquests, and Al Thunayan understood why. When the Najdi ruler set out to conquer the lower gulf shaikhdoms, London protested and, in the case of the Buraymi Oasis on the Oman-Abu Dhabi-Saudi Arabia border, it warned Al Thunayan before opposing him. Doubtless, the British veto disappointed him, even if the decision taught the ruler a critical lesson: He would henceforth cooperate with others but only rely on himself. As Al Thunayan and other senior members of the family had witnessed how the British and Ottoman leaders behaved with the undisputed Najdi ruler, it was not unreasonable to infer that he had learnt key lessons.

When Britain sided with the Hashemites in the First World War, Al Saud turned his attention inwards, and Al Thunayan honed his next moves. The two men waited for the conflict to end, as the repercussions of the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement — whereby Britain and France carved out the Middle East to serve their particular interests — surfaced. British machinations against the Hashemites drew severe criticisms, particularly during the post-First World War Versailles conference, when London extended a separate invitation to Al Saud to discuss the best mechanisms to defuse tensions. The Najdi accepted the invitation but let his 13-year-old son Faisal represent him. Prince Faisal was seconded by Al Thunayan, who was by then the founder's principal adviser, chief clerk and foreign affairs executive.

Al Saud relied on Al Thunayan to test the waters. Preoccupied with events in the Hijaz, where the Sharif Hussain was well ensconced, he entrusted Al Thunayan with a semi-secret mission to see whether London would change its policies. According to Robert Lacey, Al Thunayan "was fiercely boastful of the new Saudi-Wahhabi empire that Al Saud was creating, and he alarmed Humphrey Bowman [an English official accompanying Prince Faisal's delegation] during the voyage down the Persian Gulf [en route to Bombay, their first stop on the long trip to Europe] by hinting darkly at a ‘much vaster kingdom' which [Al Thunayan insisted] the Al Saud would be building in the future." This was no idle chit-chat but a clear illustration of what Al Thunayan perceived to be a rightful Al Saud goal.

With Prince Faisal in Europe

Prince Faisal was a good understudy but Al Saud instructed his son to be careful. The ruler had stopped trusting the British, who had betrayed and disappointed the Al Saud by preventing a full conquest of Arabia. British officers on the dedicated transport warship quickly noted Prince Faisal's demeanour, especially in contrast to the Kuwaiti delegation also making the trip, as the young man stood his ground. Throughout, they also noted how Al Thunayan looked after his protégé in what was a rare opportunity to tutor a future monarch. After a brief stop in Bombay, Prince Faisal and his small retinue set out for Plymouth, England, where they arrived on October 14, 1919. Harry St John Philby, later an adviser to Al Saud, welcomed the delegation, although the reception at Paddington Station in London was wanting.

As stated above, the visit had a hidden political feature, entrusted by Ibn Saud to Al Thunayan, who would simply ask the foreign office for protection of Najdi independence and non-interference in its internal affairs. Moreover, Al Thunayan demanded that the Najd's boundaries include Khurmah and Turabah — strategic locations that opened the road to Makkah — and invited a British commission to delimit them. Finally, he called on London to remove the embargo on pilgrims that the British had put during the war.

According to British documents, Al Thunayan also requested the grant of a subsidy in perpetuity and the appointment of Philby as political agent in Najd. Of course, the British were taken aback by these requests, along with Al Thunayan's expert presentation. Were they to grant them, several of London's standing policies would be compromised, including existing commitments to the Hashemite, Sharif Hussain. Lord Curzon, the foreign secretary, informed Al Thunayan that London — that is, he himself — would be in a better position to handle Arabia than the defeated Ottomans and proposed to meet Al Saud in person. Inasmuch as this was a major victory for Al Thunayan, who secured legitimacy for his master, the trip was judged a huge success.

What Al Thunayan actually managed to achieve, through careful negotiations and occasional complaints that the delegation was not getting due respect, was impeccable diplomacy. British officials took note and King George V welcomed Prince Faisal at Buckingham Palace on October 30, 1919, to make up for the lapses, before the young Saudi visited the House of Commons and other prominent British institutions. The "central Arabian delegation" ended its visit with no accords on Al Saud-Hashemite differences as neither Prince Faisal nor Al Thunayan were empowered to concede, but their points were made.

As soon as the delegation returned on February 1920, Al Saud, to receive a full briefing, met with Al Thunayan, who, despite being satisfied, overall, painstakingly explained to his ruler that Britain continued to support the Hashemites. The monarch called in Harold Dickson, then the political agent in Bahrain, and told him that London was backing "a broken pillar". "As surely as I hold this [camel] stick," he said, "so surely do I know the Sharif's days are numbered."

In his memoirs, N. Bray reported that Al Thunayan may have given assurances in Paris [at the Versailles Conference] on behalf of Ibn Saud "that no matter what the provocation, there shall be no war for three years". Al Thunayan understood that no assaults would be forthcoming since London was enmeshed with the Hashemites and concluded, mistakenly as it turned out, that the "Muslim world was not ready to accept the Wahhabis in charge of the Holy Places". Yet, according to Khan Sahib Sayyid Seddiq Hassan, the Indian assistant to the British political agent in Bahrain in 1920, Al Thunayan, who is referred to in a revealing document as Al Saud's na'ib (deputy), was "distinctly better or more sober in his talk or opinions about the Sharif [of Makkah]". "He is," Seddiq wrote, "if I am not mistaken fairly promising and reasonable, and will, it is hoped, make matters smooth" for the English. But this was a false reading of what Al Thunayan thought, or what Al Saud envisaged, or how both of them intended to proceed.

Death and legacy

Having made an invaluable contribution to Saudi Arabia, Al Thunayan returned to Constantinople for health reasons, and perhaps because the Badu lifestyle was too difficult to endure. He insisted that Al Saud negotiate from a position of self-assurance, not necessarily of strength, and influenced his younger cousin, Prince Faisal, far more than many assumed. In the course of their months-long travels in 1919 and 1920, Al Thunayan presumably briefed Prince Faisal on the conditions of the surviving family in Constantinople, which is how the young prince knew of Al Thunayan's niece — and not his daughter, as it is often surmised — Iffat. That was an equally valuable aspect of his legacy when one considers the Iffat-Faisal story.

Al Thunayan died, while Jawharan, his twin sister, became incapacitated. Iffat looked after Jawharan, until Abdullah Basha's only daughter and her niece, along with several other members of the Al Thunayan family, returned home to Saudi Arabia.


Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia's Kind 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.