Britain, the Saudi Islamic Mission and the Palace Coup of 1964

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

by Mark Curtis

Following an International Islamic Conference in Mecca, convened by Crown Prince Faisal, in 1962, the Saudis established the Muslim World League which, managed by the Saudi religious establishment, sent out missionaries, printed propaganda and financed the building of mosques and Islamic associations around the globe. Among its first employees were many Muslim Brothers who had found refuge in Saudi Arabia after their expulsion from Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s. Its founding members included the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini; Said Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief international organiser who wrote the League’s constitution; and Abdul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of Pakistan’s radical Jamaat-i-Islami (the Islamic Society). The League’s first proclamation read: ‘Those who distort Islam’s call under the guise of nationalism are the most bitter enemies of the Arabs whose glories are entwined with the glories of Islam.’

Faisal, who took over as Saudi King in 1964, fancied himself as the King of Islam, and on his formal assumption to power he addressed the nation with the words:

‘The first thing we wish from you is devotion to God, to cling to the teachings of his religion and rules of his sharia (Holy Law) since this is the basis of our glory, the underlying factor … of our rules and the secret of our power.’

The goal in foreign policy, Faisal said, would be ‘to move along with the Islamic nations in everything which may achieve for Muslims their glory and the raising of their standards.’

Britain played an important role in the palace coup that brought Faisal to power and which threw out his older brother, King Saud, who had been on the throne since 1953. By 1958 Faisal had taken over the running of the government, and by 1963 he had used this position to become the dominant power of the two. In December of that year, Saud ordered the deployment of troops and guns outside his palace in Riyadh to reassert his power; and a tense stand-off with forces loyal to Faisal continued into 1964, when Saud demanded that Faisal dismiss two of his ministers and replace them with the king’s sons. Crucial support for Faisal was provided by the National Guard, the 20,000-strong body responsible for protecting the regime and the royal family – originally the ‘White Army’ or Ikhwani (Brotherhood) which had bloodily conquered Saudi Arabia for Ibn Saud. The then commander of the National Guard was Prince Abdullah, later King of Saudi Arabia, and it was being trained by a small British military mission in the country following a Saudi request the previous year. Two British advisers to the National Guard, Brigadier Timbrell and Colonel Bromage, now drew up plans on Abdullah’s express wish for ‘protection of Faisal’, ‘defence of the regime’, ‘occupation of certain points’ and ‘denial of the radio station to all but those supported by the National Guard’. These British plans ensured Faisal’s personal protection, with the aim of aiding the transfer of power to him.

Saud was viewed by the British as incompetent and opposed to introducing the political reforms necessary to keep the House of Saud from being overthrown. Frank Brenchley, the charge d’affaires in the British embassy in Jeddah, had written that ‘the sands of time have steadily been running out for the Saudi regime’, the major factor being the nationalist revolution in neighbouring Yemen and the intervention of Egyptian troops there, which challenged Saudi authority in Arabia. Brenchley noted that, in contrast to Saud, ‘Faisal knows that he must bring about reforms quickly if the regime is to survive. Hampered everywhere by a lack of trained administrators, he is struggling to speed evolution in order to avert revolution’.

On 29 March 1964 the Saudi religious leadership – the ulema – issued a fatwa sanctioning the transfer of power to Faisal as being based on sharia law; two days later King Saud was forced to abdicate. The important role played both by the British and the Wahhabi clerics in sanctioning a palace coup highlighted the two forces, in addition to the Americans, on which the Saudi rulers were dependent. Reflecting on the coup, British Ambassador Colin Crowe noted that ‘what may also be serious in the long-term’ about the transfer of power, ‘is the bringing of the ulema into the picture and they may exact a price for their support’. His comments would prove prescient.

Attempting to bolster his country’s Islamic foreign policy, Faisal proceeded to propose a ‘Pan-Islamic alliance’ among pro-Western Muslim countries, and toured nine Muslim states in 1965–6 to promote the idea. By the end of the decade Faisal had helped form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, established in Rabat in 1969 with a permanent secretariat in Jeddah, which intended to promote solidarity among Islamic states. Saudi Arabia also began to bankroll the Islamic Centre of Geneva, established by Said Ramadan in 1961, and which served as the international headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming an organisational nerve centre and meeting place for Islamists across the world. During the 1960s thousands of Muslim Brothers moved to Europe, notably Germany, gradually establishing a wide and well-organised network of mosques, charities and Islamic organisations, hoping to win more Muslim hearts and minds. Ramadan himself stayed in Switzerland until his death in 1995. Muslim Brothers also came to Saudi Arabia from across the Middle East during the 1960s. They included a Palestinian refugee named Abdallah Azzam, who, as a lecturer at Jeddah University, would mentor the young Osama Bin Laden, and in the early 1980s be at the forefront of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Another lecturer at Jeddah was the Egyptian Muhammad Qutb, brother of the leading Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, who was languishing in one of Nasser’s jails. This fusion of local clerics trained in the Saudi Wahhibite tradition with the international activism of the exiled Muslim Brothers helped provide the intellectual and ideological basis for the later development of al-Qaida.

The Saudis’ Islamic mission and the international expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood is especially significant given long-standing suspicions that Said Ramadan may have been recruited by the CIA and MI6 in the 1950s. Ramadan had been stripped in absentia of his Egyptian nationality by the Nasser regime in September 1954, for distributing pamphlets pleading the cause of the Muslim Brothers. Some sources suggest that the CIA transferred tens of millions of dollars to Ramadan in the 1960s. Declassified documents from 1967 in the Swiss archives show that the Swiss authorities looked favourably on Ramadan’s anti-communist views, and that he was ‘among other things, an intelligence agent of the English and the Americans’. Ramadan’s dossier, reported the Geneva newspaper, Le Temps, in 2004, included several documents indicating his connections to ‘certain Western secret services’. German intelligence documents from the 1960s reportedly state that the US helped persuade Jordan to issue Ramadan with a passport and that ‘his expenditures are financed by the American side’.

The Saudis, especially after Faisal came to power in 1964, also worked with and funded the Muslim Brotherhood to promote numerous assassination attempts against Nasser. These sometimes involved recruiting officers in Nasser’s special forces and smuggling arms to the Brotherhood’s ‘secret apparatus’. In response to the increase in Saudi support for the Brotherhood and other Islamist organisations, Nasser’s Egypt embarked on a new wave of repression against the organisation. In late 1965, the Egyptian intelligence services claimed to have uncovered a gigantic ‘plot’ of assassinations and bombings against the regime, which it accused Saudi Arabia of backing. There followed widespread round-ups of Muslim Brothers and a brutal clampdown by the security forces. After trials of the alleged conspirators in December 1965, Said Ramadan was condemned in absentia to forced labour for life, and a number of leading Muslim Brothers were sentenced to death and executed the following year. One of them was Sayyid Qutb, whose work Signposts, written in jail, went on to provide a manifesto for the Brotherhood’s political activities. It also became a base text that would later inspire Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy in al-Qaida, who joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a fourteen-year-old at this time. Al-Zawahiri later wrote that ‘Sayyid Qutb’s call for loyalty to God’s oneness and to acknowledge God’s sole authority and sovereignty was the spark that united the Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam at home and abroad.’ Forced underground, the Egyptian Brotherhood only re-emerged after Nasser’s death in 1970.

Despite the clampdown, British officials continued to recognise the Egyptian Brotherhood as a force to be reckoned with. They regarded it as ‘the main threat to the regime from the outside’, and noted that ‘the one force apart from the armed services, of which Nasser is really afraid, is traditional Islam’. One Foreign Office official wrote that ‘their negative capacity for plot and assassination makes them a force which all of us (and Nasser) should keep a careful eye on.’ Another official, Peter Unwin, wrote that ‘I should have thought that his action [the clampdown] must add to the appeal of the Islamic League [Muslim World League]; and add support to the propaganda charge that he is no true Moslem but a Marxist stooge.’

Britain still feared that Nasser’s Egypt could unite the Arab world – or at least a large chunk of it – against Britain. In this light, the Foreign Office wrote in 1964 that ‘it is in our political and economic interests that there should be a balance of power in the Arab Middle East rather than a concentration of power in Cairo.’ The pro-Western shah of Iran’s relationships with Jordan and Saudi Arabia ‘have played a part in maintaining the balance of forces, and are to be encouraged’, it noted, reflecting Whitehall’s continuing desire to keep the region divided.

British planners continued to harbour desires of ‘removing Nasser from the arena’, and considered direct military intervention in Egypt. However, they ultimately ruled both out since ‘there is little reason to believe Nasser’s successor would be more moderate or more amenable to Western influence’ – an echo, perhaps, of the previous concern that the Muslim Brotherhood was even more anti-British than Nasser. Military intervention was also rejected since it would create upheaval and increase communist penetration of the region; furthermore, ‘nor can we conduct a Middle East policy which is at serious odds with the Americans and they will not consider either of these two courses’. The Foreign Office concluded in September 1965 ‘that we shall have to live with Nasser’s regime’.

Meanwhile, Britain and the US continued to build up the Saudis as a counter to Arab nationalism, and looked favourably on their pan-Islamic foreign policy. The CIA helped run Saudi internal security while Sayyid Qutb, before his execution, had openly admitted that during this period ‘America made Islam’. David Long, a retired US foreign service official and expert on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, told author Robert Dreyfus that:

‘We reinforced Faisal’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and pan-Islam. We needed them against any allies that Moscow could conjure up … Pan-Islam was not, to us, seen as a strategic threat. There were bad guys doing bad things to people on the Left, to Nasser. They were fighting the pinkos. So we didn’t see pan-Islam as a threat’.

British offficials continued to express their preference for a Saudi regime based on Islamic fundamentalism to the prospect of an Arab nationalist one, since ‘a change of regime which lined up the country with its large oil revenues with the republican Arab states would upset the whole balance of power in the Middle East’. The declassified British government files also contain numerous references to support for Saudi foreign policy as a counter to Arab nationalism.

It was in Yemen where British and Saudi foreign policy interests most coincided, in their bolstering of religious, conservative forces against the Arab nationalist threat. In September 1962, a popular coup by republican forces under Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal deposed the imam, Muhammad al-Badr, who had been in power for a week after the death of his father, a feudal autocrat who had ruled since 1948. The imam’s forces took to the hills and declared an insurgency, while Britain and Saudi Arabia soon began a covert war to support them. Whitehall provided arms and money to the rebels in the knowledge that the beneficiaries could not win the war but that, as Prime Minister Macmillan informed President Kennedy, ‘it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years’ – as in Indonesia a few years earlier, Britain saw such conflict as providing useful ‘nuisance value’.

With Nasser sending thousands of Egyptian troops to Yemen to defend the new regime, the conflict effectively became a surrogate British–Saudi war against Egypt. British officials acknowledged that the new Yemeni government was popular and more democratic than the imam’s despotic regime, and there was therefore little doubt which side Whitehall would back. Both Britain and Saudi Arabia feared that popular republican government would spread to the other British-controlled feudal sheikhdoms in Arabia, in particular Aden, where the British were being pinned down by Egyptian-backed nationalist guerrillas. But the Joint Intelligence Committee also judged that the Yemeni revolution had made the position of the regime in Saudi Arabia itself ‘more precarious’: ‘if a successful revolution took place in Saudi Arabia the new regime would probably, initially at least, be pro-Egyptian and the existing order in the Persian Gulf states would be subjected to very severe strains.’ The war ended only when the Saudis, the chief financiers of the rebels, cut off their aid in 1969 and a treaty was signed creating North Yemen.

Britain supported the Saudis’ ‘Islamic’ foreign policy. In 1965, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Morgan Man, was convinced that, in the face of Nasser’s threat, the regime had to enhance its status on the world stage: ‘it is little use showing off her virtues only at home: she must uphold her prestige abroad’. Man clearly understood Saudi foreign policy, describing how its primary aim was that of ‘fostering Islamic solidarity’. Faisal, he wrote, ‘is trying to use Islam as a counter-magnet to Nasser’s Arab unity theme, and that he hopes to create an Islamic “bloc” which will gradually draw off a large section of those who have hitherto flocked to Nasser’s standard.’

British officials backed Faisal’s Islamic Conference initiative by keeping a low profile. The foreign minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government, George Thomson, met Saudi Prince Sultan in February 1966 to discuss the idea. The record of the meeting states:

‘This was not a pact … but a congress, which would help oppose communism and defend the faith. Mr Thomson, asked for Her Majesty’s Government’s attitude, said that they wished it a success, since it made for stability, but thought the best service we could render was to say nothing, since any suggestion that Britain supported these developments was bound to damage their prospects. Sultan agreed’.

The following month one Foreign Office official, C. T. Brant, wrote, in the context of the British need to contain Nasser, that ‘Whatever we may feel about developments which may favour our interest in the Middle East, it remains generally true that the less we are seen to be connected with them, the greater will be their chances of success. This seems especially true of the recent movement for an “Islamic Alliance”.’

As for the Muslim World League, Willie Morris, who took over as ambassador in August 1968, noted that it ‘is in practice an instrument for whipping up interest in and support for Saudi policies’. Faisal’s use of Islam, he noted, was not intended to create an amorphous worldwide association of Muslim states but to extend Saudi relations with countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq ‘in a group of states more congenial to Faisal’s view of the world’. But Morris added that the chances of it taking shape were not great.

The nature of the Saudi regime was well understood by the British. In June 1963, the British ambassador, Sir Colin Crowe, summed the country up in no uncertain terms. Saudi Arabia was, he said:

‘dominated by a sect of Islam of a farouche and intolerant Puritanism, but ruled by a royal family whose extravagance and dissipation are only rivaled by its numbers. It has no modern code of laws and its criminal justice is of mediaeval barbarity. There is not even a pretence of democratic institutions and though slavery has been abolished slaves are still to be found. Corruption is widespread. The country sits on top of some of the richest oil resources in the world and enjoys a vast unearned income which has dissipated in pleasure, palaces and Cadillacs’.

Yet the Saudi rulers were given unqualified backing by Britain, whose policy was one of ‘keeping the present regime in Saudi Arabia in power’. ‘The stability of the present regime in Saudi Arabia is important to Western interests in the Middle East,’ Crowe also wrote, to cite one of numerous similar notations. Crowe’s valedictory dispatch as ambassador in October 1964 noted that the regime ‘is about as satisfactory as any we could expect’ and was ‘friendly to the West and strongly anti-communist’, while ‘its objectives, except over Buraimi, are ones with which we sympathise’ (the reference being to the Buraimi oasis, the territory disputed between the Saudis and Britain’s other allies, Oman and Abu Dhabi).

Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia changed little in the transition from the Conservatives to Labour in the 1964 elections. The British political elite was united in its backing of the Saudi ruling family, seeing it as a force for regional ‘stability’, the supply of oil and an increasingly important buyer of British arms. The British–Saudi entente cordiale was marked by a major new arms contract worth over £100 million, involving a dozen fighter aircraft, together with ground control and communications equipment, training and maintenance. The contract was signed not only with the British Aircraft Corporation but also Airwork, a ‘private’ company acting as a government front, which provided ‘retired’ RAF officers to train Saudi pilots. Airwork was brought in by the British to avoid causing the Saudis ‘political embarrassment’ by being seen to rely on Royal Air Force pilots, and thus becoming ‘a target of Cairo propaganda’, officials noted. The deal was further evidence of the lengths to which British governments were prepared to go to help defend the Saudi regime.

In 1967–eight British ministers decided to end their military commitments to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the small sheikhdoms in the Trucial states that lined the Gulf by 1971, after decades of managing their ‘internal security’ and ‘defence’. Planners regarded the situation as stark: ‘our military withdrawal will remove our capability to play a significant part in determining developments in the Persian Gulf’. Britain still had major interests in the region: by 1968, British oil companies were involved in all the oil states except Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, contributing £80–100 million a year in tax revenues to the Treasury and over £200 million a year to the balance of payments. The Foreign Office thus noted that the withdrawal had ‘to leave behind as stable a situation as possible in which trade can flourish, oil supplies can be assured on tolerable terms, British investments (especially through the oil companies) can be safeguarded and over-flying rights to the Far East be maintained.’ One possible danger was that the very large sterling balances held by Kuwait and other Gulf countries – estimated at £400 million – ‘will fall into unfriendly hands’. Thus Saudi Arabia became even more important to Britain, acting as a regional policeman and bulwark against nationalist and popular forces, and regarded as a ‘counterweight’ to Egypt and the nationalist Arab states as well as ‘a buffer between them and the Gulf states’.

In a letter of 8 July 1965 Donal McCarthy, a British official in Aden, wrote to the Foreign Office, noting with approval the ‘very important’ Saudi influence in Britain’s Eastern Aden Protectorate. There were, McCarthy said, a number of Saudis with links to the region who were encouraging the government to invest in projects, to increase Saudi influence in the region to draw it ‘away from possible Nasserite influence’. In McCarthy’s list of these notables, one name in particular catches the eye: Bin Laden, a reference to Mohammed, Osama’s father, whose construction company had several multi-million contracts with the House of Saud.