The small force that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud led south from Kuwait to recapture Riyadh did not attack immediately. Instead, the group spent several months south of its target, on the northern fringes of the Rub’ al-Khali, hoping to win reinforcements from the tribes camped near the wells of Yabrin and Haradh, the latter of which is now one of the kingdom’s largest agricultural projects. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was able to recruit only 20 more warriors but, reluctant to wait any longer, he decided to attack Riyadh anyway, and with only 60 men behind him he set off.
At a distance of one and a half hour’s march from Riyadh, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz left one-third of his forces with the camels, instructing them to return to Kuwait if no message was received from him within 24 hours. Then, with the rest of his men, he advanced on foot—to be less conspicuous—until he reached the outskirts of the city. There ‘Abd al-‘Aziz waited for night to fall.
At last it was time. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz stationed his brother Muhammad in the palm groves with 33 men to act as a backup force and quietly scaled the wall with the others. By standing on one another’s shoulders, they entered the house of ‘Ajlan, Ibn Rashid’s governor, silenced the servants, and searched the house. Learning that ‘Ajlan was in the custom of spending his nights in Masmak fort in the city, they decided to wait for morning when the gates of the fort would be opened.
It was difficult to wait. As ‘Abd al-‘Aziz recalled in later years, they “slept a little while, … prayed the morning prayer and sat thinking about what we should do.” But at last the dark desert sky lightened and they prepared for action. Originally they had planned to take ‘Ajlan prisoner as soon as he left the fort and entered the house. But as the sun rose and the gates of the fort opened, they saw that ‘Ajlan was not alone; he walked out of the gate accompanied by 10 bodyguards. Instantly ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and his followers sprang to the attack.
At the sudden appearance of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, ‘Ajlan’s bodyguards bolted, leaving ‘Ajlan facing the Saudi onslaught alone, with only a sword for defense. Darting forward, ‘Abd Allah ibn Jiluwi, a cousin of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz who later became governor of the Eastern Province, threw a spear at ‘Ajlan but missed; the spear went into the gate of the fort where the steel point, embedded in the wood, remained until its removal in the 1970’s.
No coward, ‘Ajlan lunged at ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who later reminisced: “He made at me with his sword, but its edge was not good. I covered my face and shot at him with my gun. I heard the crash of the sword upon the ground and knew that the shot had hit ‘Ajlan, but had not killed him. He started to go through the postern gate, but I caught hold of his legs. Then men inside caught hold of his arms while I still held his legs. His company was shooting their firearms at us and throwing stones upon us. ‘Ajlan gave me a powerful kick in the side so that I was about to faint. I let go of his legs and he got inside. Then ‘Abd Allah ibn Jiluwi entered with the bullets falling about him. After him 10 others entered. We flung the gates wide open, and our company ran up to reinforce us. We were 40 and there before us were 80. We killed half of them. Then four fell from the wall and were crushed. The rest were trapped in a tower; we granted safe-conduct to them and they descended. As for ‘Ajlan, Ibn Jiluwi slew him.”
Such is the epic story, as related by King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, of how Riyadh was taken on January 15, 1902 as the sun was rising over the desert and the city was just coming to life. The recapture of Riyadh marked the dawn of a new era in the history of Arabia and a turning point in the fortunes of the House of Sa‘ud.
In Riyadh, as the news swiftly spread, the people welcomed the new ruler joyfully, for they had suffered under the rule of Ibn Rashid. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, knowing his small band could never hold the city if the al-Rashids were to counterattack, immediately set about repairing the defenses of Riyadh. The al-Rashids did not attack, however, and during the next six months ‘Abd al-‘Aziz completed his defenses, sent to Kuwait for his father, ‘Abd al-Rahman, and handed over the city to him while he took the field.
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the area south of Riyadh, learning that the House of Sa‘ud had retaken the city, hastened to acknowledge the suzerainty of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. His exploit in capturing Riyadh with so small a force won the admiration of the Bedouins, who rode into Riyadh from the desert to join him.
Simultaneously ‘Abd al-‘Aziz began to prepare for a large-scale offensive against the al-Rashids. For although the taking of Riyadh was a master stroke, he knew that his situation was still precarious and that he still faced a long, arduous campaign against them and their Turkish allies. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had demonstrated his daring with the capture of Riyadh. Now, as he would for the next quarter of a century, he would demonstrate the rarer qualities of knowing when to advance and when to retreat, when to conciliate and when to punish.
—Adapted from the book Saudi Aramco and Its World (1995)