Out of Arabia: The Mahmal Incident of 1926 and the Demise of Egyptian Influence in the Hijaz

By Joshua Teitelbaum
Submitted to Session P4971 (Foreign Relations in and Beyond the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Egypt; Indian Ocean Region; Saudi Arabia;
19th-21st Centuries; Comparative; Gulf Studies; Political Economy; State Formation; Trade/Investment; World History;
Historians of Saudi Arabia have largely viewed the “Mahmal Incident” of 1926, when Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan attacked the Egyptian pilgrimage caravan, as the last straw that caused him to defeat the group. Yet viewed through a wider comparative temporal and geographical lens, the story is quite different: It is about breaking Egypt’s centuries old religious and political claim to the Haramayn, the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and finalizing Saudi control. This analysis is reached through broadening the historical focus and distinguishing and comparing two regional trading systems: the Arabian Peninsula system and the Red Sea-Mediterranean-Indian Ocean system. The Hijaz was part of the later -- not the former. This new focus produces greater attention to Egypt-Hijaz relations than previously considered. The caravan and its holy camel-borne palanquin represented the projection of Egyptian political force, economic might and religious primacy into the Hijaz. For Ibn Saud to assert his control and world Islamic leadership he had to sever the Egyptian connection and bind the ?aramayn to Najd. After the attack Ibn Saud refused to sign a treaty with Egypt until it recognized him as ruler and gave up all claims to the Hijaz. The treaty paved the way for an improvement in relations: Egypt helped the fledgling Saudi state and the two states most often cooperated on the international stage.