Princess Nourah: The woman who had ‘the brain of 40 men’

One of Princess Nourah’s famous dresses, decorated with a circular geometric shape and filled with colored sequins. (Supplied/“Nourah bint Abdulrahman bin Faisal bin Turki Al-Saud an Illustrated Biography”)

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  • Born in Riyadh in 1875, Princess Nourah was close to her brother growing up and shared his trials during the family’s exile

LOJIEN BEN GASSEM September 22, 2021 

RIYADH: The tale of the heroism of the small band of brothers who fought alongside Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in his epic battle to recapture Riyadh in 1902 is a key part of the story of the creation of the Kingdom.

But what should also not be forgotten on National Day is the role played in those turbulent times by the future king’s older sister, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman Al-Saud.

One year his senior, Princess Nourah was Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman’s playmate throughout his childhood and was by his side throughout the family’s exile in Riyadh after the defeat of their father’s forces by the rival Rashidi dynasty at the battle of Al-Mulaida in 1891.

When destiny beckoned, wrote the Saudi historian Dr. Dalal Mukhlid Al-Harbi in her 2008 book “Prominent Women from Central Arabia,” Nourah was “a great inspiration behind Abdulaziz’s quest to regain his forefathers’ seat of authority in Riyadh.” 

The Princess “nourished his will to recapture Riyadh after his first failed attempt. When he completed his preparations for his second attempt to regain the city, his mother cried long and hard and tried to dissuade him, but Nourah encouraged him to complete the mission, which he did successfully. This was part of her supportive role for her brother while the family was in Kuwait.”

That role became still more important to her brother after the recapture of Riyadh and the return of the Al-Saud family to their heartland, as Abdulaziz set out on the long and difficult road that would eventually lead to the unification of the Hijaz and Nejd and the foundation in 1932 of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Born in Riyadh in 1875, Princess Nourah was close to her brother growing up and shared his trials during the family’s exile.

Their bond only grew stronger as the future King took on the burdens of statehood, wrote Al-Harbi, going on to highlight “the close relationship Nourah had with her brother, a relationship in which the natural bonds of family were mixed with friendship and all that entails: consultation, asking for opinions and giving advice.”

Such was the depth of the lifelong connection between the two that, as King, “Abdulaziz would visit her every day, keen that a day should not pass without seeing her.”

When the telephone was introduced to Riyadh in the 1930s, the first line to be laid ran between the palaces of the King and his sister.

The Princess was a confidante upon whom the King could always depend for a straight answer and sound advice. She was “frank with King Abdulaziz, telling him what was on her mind without fear or hesitation,” Al-Harbi wrote.

In his biography of his father — King Abdulaziz’s half-brother, Prince Mohammed ibn Abdulrahman Al-Saud — the late Prince Bandar Ibn Mohammed Ibn Abdulrahman Al-Saud wrote that Princess Nourah was “one of the few women of her time who mastered reading and writing.”

As a result, she was “a woman of the deepest understanding, proper judgment.” Possessing the “best of character,” she was “adored by all members of Al-Saud family” and “also very close to people’s hearts and minds.”

Prince Bandar, who passed away in January 2020 at the age of 95, added that Nourah became a popular girl’s name among parents throughout the Kingdom, who “named their daughter after her in recognition of her noble character, right judgment, good faith, generosity, proper tongue, and humbleness.”

Aside from all of these characteristics, he added, Princess Nourah “had an amazing ability for solving the problems of those around her, Al-Saud and others alike …  using her clear and enlightened judgment (and) was also able to connect with others, Saudis and non-Saudis.”

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, writing as a columnist in Arab News in 2012, said the princess was “the most popular, charismatic and influential woman, not only in the Kingdom, but also in the Gulf area. Some of her advice had a very big impact on the history of the area.”

Western scholars considered her “the first lady in a country ruled by kings,” Al-Mulhim said, while many older Saudis referred to her as “the woman who has the brain of 40 men.”

Without doubt, he added, in addition to being a “very charming lady and a woman of wisdom,” she was also “a top-class political and strategic thinker.”

In her book, Al-Harbi recalled the impact the Princess had on foreign visitors to Saudi Arabia during the early years of the Kingdom. 

Violet Dickson, the wife of Lt. Col. Harold Richard Patrick Dickson, who until 1936 was Britain’s political agent in Kuwait, met Nourah in 1937. She later described her as not only “one of the most attractive and joyful women I have ever met … one of the most beautiful, great and famous girls of all times,” but also “one of the most important personalities in the Arabian Peninsula.” 

For Harry St. John Philby, a British colonial officer who converted to Islam in 1930 after becoming an advisor to King Abdulaziz, Nourah was nothing less than “the First Lady of her country.”

The Princess, wrote Al-Harbi, “played an influential role in many aspects of political and social life,” and perhaps never more so than in the critical healing of a breach in the Al-Saud family.

Her marriage in the early 1900s to Saud ibn Abdulaziz ibn Saud ibn Faisal ibn Turki, from a branch of the family that had fallen out with her brother, was the “outward symbol of the process of reconciliation between Abdulaziz and his cousins.” Although the dispute continued for some time, “by 1912 the matter was settled and Saud became one of Abdulaziz’s staunchest supporters.”

Al-Harbi adds: “I would suggest that some credit for this change of heart must be given to Nourah, for Saud loved her dearly. This action shows her wisdom, soundness of mind and eagerness to heal the rift between him and her brother.”

Right up to her death in July 1950 at the age of 75, Princess Nourah remained a source of advice and inspiration for her brother, who died three years later. Many sources recall that, whenever faced with challenging situations that demanded boldness, wisdom, and quick thinking, King Abdulaziz would reach a decision with the declaration “I am the brother of Nourah!”

Today, Princess Nourah’s name and spirit lives on in a fitting tribute to this pioneering woman.

In 2006, the first university for women was established in Riyadh, bringing under one roof half a dozen colleges, the first of which had been established by the General Presidency for Girls’ Education in 1970. On October 29, 2008, while laying a foundation stone at the campus, King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud renamed what has become the world’s largest all-female educational institution the Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University — known today as simply PNU.

“Women carry a responsibility that is more than a duty, to maintain the stability of society and contribute to building the economy of the nation, and to represent the community and the nation to the highest standards, outside and inside the country,” the King said at the ceremony.

In a speech that might have been addressed directly to Nourah, his father’s beloved sister and confidante, he added: “To be the caring mother, exemplary citizen and productive employee. Outside the nation, to be the ambassador of her country and community, and to represent well her religion, faith and our values.”


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