But until the 20th century the region has had no other natural advantages. The centre is a desert, as inhospitable as its name suggests (‘Rub’ al Khali’, the Empty Quarter). Here only nomads can live, moving with their camels from oasis to oasis. The tough simplicity of their existence becomes the characteristic of the people of this peninsula, the Arabs, and of the religion which they spread from here through much of the world, Islam.
The Sheba of legend: from the 8th century BC
Only the southwestern coastal area of Arabia is sufficiently fertile to encourage a settled existence – indeed this is the only part of the peninsula with enough rainfall to provide permanent rivers.
By the 8th century BC there are rival kingdoms in existence in this area. The most successful of them is Saba, featuring as Sheba in the Bible.
According to the Bible, the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon because she has heard of his wisdom. To please the great king, she brings camels laden with spices and gold and precious stones.
There is no historical basis for the story, but by about 715 BC the rulers of Saba do feature in the records of tribute sent to Assyria. And the queen’s rich caravan of camels is a fair reflection of the trade which brings wealth to this corner of Arabia. Spices from India and the east come ashore at Aden and are carried up the western coast of the peninsula to Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Mecca: 1st – 6th century AD
The town of Mecca, in a rocky valley with no agricultural resources, develops into a place of considerable prosperity. There are two good reasons. It is a trading post on the caravan route from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. And it is Arabia’s most important place of pilgrimage.
During the centuries before Islam, large numbers of pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform a ritual act of walking seven times round a small square building known as the Kaaba (Arabic for ‘cube’). The building is full of idols, which are the objects of worship. It also includes a sacred black stone, possibly in origin a meteorite.
Islam: 7th century AD
In the 7th century Arabia becomes the cradle of the world’s third great monotheistic religion. All three have begun within a small area of southwest Asia. First Judaism, somewhere in the region stretching up from the Red Sea to Palestine; then Christianity at the northern end of this area; and finally Islam to the south, in Mecca, close to the Red Sea.
Each of the later arrivals in this close family of religions claims to build upon the message of its predecessors, bringing a better and more up-to-date version of the truth about the one God – in this case as revealed to the Messenger of God, Muhammad. Islam means ‘surrender’ (to God), and from the same root anyone who follows Islam is a Muslim.
Rulers of Arabia: 8th – 20th century
In the centuries following the rise of Islam the Arabian peninsula, though subject to violent local disturbances, is broadly under the control of the successive overlords of the surrounding Muslim world – the Umayyad dynasty, then the Abbasids, the Mamelukes and finally the Ottoman empire.
Only around the coast do stable independent kingdoms develop.
Territories round the coast of Arabia develop into the kingdoms and emirates which will result in the modern states of Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
But the arid centre of the peninsula remains the anarchic preserve of nomadic tribesmen or Bedouin (from the Arabic ‘bada’, meaning to live in the desert).
Arabia and the Sa’udi: from 1744
Central Arabia begins to unite under the influence of a puritanical reformer, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-al-Wahhab, who preaches the strictest tenets of Islam. In 1744 he makes common cause with a local ruler, Muhammad ibn Sa’ud, and together they extend their joint power from small beginnings in Dar’iya.
At the time of Ibn Sa’ud’s death in 1765, the whole of central and eastern Arabia is his kingdom. It is the beginning of the Sa’udi claim to territories which are further enlarged over the next two generations. By 1804 the whole of Arabia, except for Yemen and Oman in the south, is effectively under Sa’udi control and under strict Wahhabi influence in spiritual matters.
Arabia and Palestine: AD 1916
When the Turks enter the war, in 1914, the hereditary emir of Mecca (Husayn ibn Ali) sees a chance of extricating his territory from Ottoman rule. He secretly begins negotiating with the British. By June 1916 he is ready to launch an Arab revolt along the Red Sea coast.
The most effective part of this uprising is conducted by Faisal, one of Husayn’s sons, in conjunction with T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer seconded for the purpose. Together they attack the most strategically important feature in the region, the railway which runs south from Damascus, through Amman and Ma’an, to Medina. This is the only route by which the Turks can easily send reinforcements to Arabia.
The policy succeeds and by the summer of 1917 the Arabs have moved far enough north to capture Aqaba. This is achieved on July 6 in a dramatic raid by Lawrence and some Arab chiefs with a few hundred of their tribesmen. Together they kill or capture some 1200 Turks at a cost of only two of their own lives.
The port of Aqaba occupies an important position at the head of the gulf of the same name. It offers relatively easy access up towards the Dead Sea. Faisal’s army is now well placed to support a British thrust into Palestine, by operating from the desert region of the Negev to bring pressure on the eastern flank of the Turks.
During the winter of 1916 the British have been laying a railway along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula. This makes possible an attack on Gaza, the gateway into Palestine. But on two separate occasions – in March and April 1917 – the campaign is seriously bungled. As a result a new commander, Edmund Allenby, is brought in.
Allenby succeeds in taking Gaza on November 7. He follows this with the capture of Jerusalem a month later, on December 9. Meanwhile Britain’s fortunes in Mesopotamia have also been transformed by a new commander, Stanley Maude. Maude retakes Kut on 24 February 1917 and captures Baghdad on March 11.
So by the end of 1917 the Allies, occupying both Jerusalem and Baghdad, have completed half the necessary task in the Middle East. But they are still a long way from the frontier of Turkey itself. On the Mediterranean front Damascus and Aleppo lie ahead, in Mesopotamia there is still Mosul to be taken. And even then there is the almost impenetrable terrain of Anatolia before one can reach Istanbul.
With massive armies confronting each other on the western front, this all seems a long way from the centre of the action. But this year of 1917 has meanwhile brought two major developments, in the USA and Russia, which in their very different ways profoundly alter the equation of the war.