The founder of the modern state of Saudi Arabia lived much of his early life in exile. In the end, however, he not only recovered the territory of the first Al Saud empire, but made a state out of it. Abd al Aziz did this by maneuvering among a number of forces. The first was the religious fervor that Wahhabi Islam continued to inspire. His Wahhabi army, the Ikhwan (brotherhood), for instance, represented a powerful tool, but one that proved so difficult to control that the ruler ultimately had to destroy it. At the same time, Abd al Aziz had to anticipate the manner in which events in Arabia would be viewed abroad and allow foreign powers, particularly the British, to have their way...
In the first phase, Abd al Aziz acted as tribal leaders had acted for centuries: while still in Kuwait, and only in his twenties, Abd al Aziz rallied a small force from the surrounding tribes and began to raid areas under Rashidi control north of Riyadh. Then in early 1902, he led a small party in a surprise attack on the Rashidi garrison in Riyadh.
The successful attack gave Abd al Aziz a foothold in Najd. One of his first tasks was to establish himself in Riyadh as the Al Saud leader and the Wahhabi imam. Abd al Aziz obtained the support of the religious establishment in Riyadh, and this relatively swift recognition revealed the political force of Wahhabi authority. Leadership in this tradition did not necessarily follow age, but it respected lineage and, particularly, action. Despite his relative youth, by taking Riyadh Abd al Aziz had showed he possessed the qualities the tribes valued in a leader.
From his seat in Riyadh, Abd al Aziz continued to make agreements with some tribes and to do battle with others. He eventually strengthened his position so that the Rashidi were unable to evict him. By 1905 the Ottoman governor in Iraq recognized Abd al Aziz as an Ottoman client in Najd. The Al Saud ruler accepted Ottoman suzerainty because it improved his political position.
'Abd al-'Aziz, the son of the exiled 'Abd ar-Rahman, took advantage of his new location to learn useful knowledge of world affairs, while the new Rashidi prince, 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd Mit'ab, alienated the population of Najd. In 1901 the young 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman (he was about 22 to 26 years old) sallied out with a small force of 40 followers on what must have seemed a forlorn adventure. On Jan. 15, 1902, with a select body of only 15 warriors, he scaled the walls of Riyadh, surprised and defeated the Rashidi governor and his escort before the gate of the Mismak fort, and was hailed by the populace as their ruler.
Thus began a reign destined to be one of the most famous in Arabian history. The following years witnessed the development of the struggle by the third Sa'udi state to expand its control once again over most of the Arabian Peninsula and thereby reestablish the glories of the first Sa'udi experiences in the 18th century. The first challenge was from the Rashidis, whose power was by no means spent and who received substantial help from the Ottomans in men and material. In 1904 the combined Rashidi and Ottoman forces were defeated by Ibn Sa'ud (as 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman ibn Faysal ibn Turki ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad Al Sa'ud became generally known outside Arabia); but in agreement with him the Ottomans placed garrisons in central Arabia for one year. Ibn Rashid continued the struggle, but he was killed in battle in 1906, and thenceforth Ibn Sa'ud, who secured the withdrawal of Ottoman troops from Al-Qasim in 1906, remained the undisputed master of central Arabia. Ibn Sa'ud bent himself to the task of regaining the whole realm of his ancestors. He was cautious enough to keep the fiction of acknowledging Ottoman overlordship, and by contacts with Britain he hoped to balance each power against the other.