saudi arabia buries a piece of its history
week, Abdulaziz bin Abdulmuhsin Tuwaijri died at the age of 90. Tuwaijri was
truly an exceptional man. Many obstacles could have stood in the way of his
success. His father died before he reached the age of 10, and he accompanied
his mother to spend the years of his childhood with his maternal uncles. A
poor orphan with no formal education, coming from an isolated hamlet in the
middle of Najd, he managed to achieve not only success, but also real
prominence and well-deserved popularity. His is an inspiring story of hard
won achievements by a self made man.
biography of Tuwaijri is a partial biography of modern Saudi Arabia. His
birth in 1917 nearly coincides with the birth of the kingdom, and by his
death Saudi Arabia buries a piece of its history.
Tuwaijri family, from the town of Majma’ah, had always been loyal to the
Saudi cause. Therefore, when the Rashiedi forces occupied Majma’ah at the
end of the 19th century, Abdulmuhsin Tuwaijri, the father of
Abdulaziz, had to flee the town and seek refuge in Iraq and the Gulf Coast.
Only when king Abdulaziz recaptured Majma’ah in 1908 was Tuwaijri able to
return to his hometown. He was rewarded by the king who appointed him as
treasurer of the whole district of Sudayr, of which Majma’ah is the capital.
When Abdulmuhsin died the post passed to his elder son Hamad, then to
Abdulaziz, who assumed this important and delicate post in 1938, while a
young man of barely 21 years old.
lean man, he was full of charisma. His charming personality is a complex
synthesis of what might seem to be irreconcilable contradictions. Although
he eventually managed to rise to the highest governmental position a citizen
could reach in Saudi Arabia, he never lost his natural spontaneity and he
remained throughout his life as a modest man of the people. He never gave up
the simplicity and traditional values of his desert culture, yet his open
mind entertained the most progressive of ideas. He remained philosophical
and inquisitive throughout his life with liberal leaning and a slightly
agnostic bent, but this never hampered his abilities to rise up to the
pressing challenges and practical demands of political life. He was a
“closet” Nasserite, a Baathis sympathizer and an avid collector and reader
of the writings of Abdullah al-Qasimi, a prominent Najdi agnostic and anti-Wahhabi,
yet all this did not diminish his loyalty to his government or strict
adherence to his religion.
he was a child, Saudi Arabia had no schools to speak of. The great majority
of its population then were nomads and illiterate peasants. It was such
depravations which made Tuwaijri realize the importance and necessity of
education to civilize his country and rescue it from the ills and sufferings
of backwardness and ignorance. He started by trying to make up for his own
lack of formal school education. He read every book that he could lay his
hands on, engaged in an intellectual conversation with any learned man he
came across, and even traveled to Egypt and Syria specifically for the
purpose of meeting Arab intellectuals and talking to them. When the
Palestinians were driven out of their homeland by the Israelis in 1948, some
Palestinian refugees ended up in Majma’ah. Tuwaijri befriended many of these
refugees and engaged some as intellectual comrades. From them, he imbibed
not only current thoughts and political ideas, but also the humiliation of
the Arabs and the sufferings of the Palestinians at the hands of the
Israelis and British. This made a lasting impression on Tuwaijri who became
committed to the pan-Arab national cause, like most of his generation.
Strong commitment to pan-Arab cause and to progress and education oriented
his outlook throughout his political career.
In 1961 Tuwaijri
moved to Riyadh to work for the National Guards. Eventually, he became
deputy and right hand to King Abdullah who was then the chairman of the
National Guards. His unique and very strong professional relationship with
king Abdullah continued till his death. He became his trusted advisor and
personal friend. Some even compare this very close relationship between the
two, which lasted nearly half a century, to that between Nasser and Haykal.
The two shared the same visions and ideals. With his resilience, tranquility
and ability to feel at home with all currents of thoughts and accommodate
diverse political orientations, King Abdullah found in Tuwaijri an ideal
envoy to convey messages and deliver communiqués to various Arab and
non-Arab leaders, from Henry Kissinger to Saddam Hussein..
King Abdullah and
Tuwaijri worked very hard together to transform the National Guard from a
military establishment for nomadic enlistees to a cultural institution with
the best schools and hospitals in the kingdom.
Tuwaijri is a true
believer in cultural progress and reform through peaceful dialogue. He
wanted to open the kingdom to all currents of thought and encouraged the
Saudis to engage in serious discussions with Arab intellectuals. His motto
being that only what is true and right will eventually prevail. It was for
the purpose of transforming these ideas into actualities on the ground that,
with the approval and enthusiastic support of then Crown Prince Abdullah, he
initiated in 1982 the biggest and most lasting cultural festival in the Arab
World, Janadriyah Festival which is still running and growing. Folk music
groups, traditional crafts, folk cuisine, and all other forms of traditional
Saudi life were brought together every year to Janadriyah festival in Riyadh
which lasted for two weeks. In addition to all that, various exhibits,
literary activities and intellectual symposia were held during the two weeks
of the festival. Prominent intellectuals and people in public life from all
over the world, especially the Arab World, were invited to participate in
the various events of the festival. For two weeks every year, the festival
transformed Riyadh into a cultural city. You have to remember that the idea
of the festival started and was put in action before the spread of
satellites and the internet, when the Saudis knew very little about the
outside world and the outside world knew very little about Saudi Arabia. The
festival was specifically meant to serve as a window for the world on Saudi
Arabia as well as a window for Saudi Arabia on the world, through formal and
informal discussions between Saudi intelligentsia and the guests of
festival was actually the incubator which eventually hatched the National
Dialogue which was initiated by Crown Prince Abdullah some years ago. It is
meant to be an educative process to teach Saudis how to engage in a
civilized dialogue and how to reconcile and resolve conflicting ideas and
differing opinions through open discussion.
additional and very important outcome of Janadriyah is the bringing together
of various strands from the diverse cultures of the different regions of
Saudi Arabia and interweave them together into an integrated whole that
served to reinforce the political unity and cultural identity of the
Liberals and intellectuals in Saudi Arabia consider Tuwaijri their best
friend and staunchest defender of their cause in the cultural as well as the
political sphere. His preoccupation with cultural affairs is but a corollary
to his wider involvement in the development and reform of Saudi society. He
had a hand in many important decisions that are shaping the national
character of modern Saudi Arabia. In addition to his official position as
assistant deputy chairman of the National guard and his close association
with King Abdullah, he served as member or chairman of many important
committees such as the higher committee for drafting the basic law of
government, the higher committee for drafting the law of regional
governments and the higher committee for drafting the law for the
last years of his life, Tuwaijri spent a great deal of time writing books.
He left us 15 titles, which exhibit an exceptional literary talent. In
these books, he expressed his personal visions and documented the ups and
downs of his political career. Most importantly, he documented the saga of
state building and the struggle of king Abdulaziz and his heirs after him to
transform Saudi Arabia from a forsaken desert to a modern state.
departure of Tuwaijri closes an important chapter in the history of modern
Saudi Arabia. It is a consolation to know that before his departure he was
able to witness transformations of his beloved country and its movement
towards modernization. Before he closed his eyes forever, he saw some of the
ambitions he worked so hard for come true.