Heads and tales: history of the Saudi halalas

A coin bearing the likeness of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. Above: Ancient coins from Arabia.

:: The Kingdom’s fiscal trajectory in many ways mirrors the tribulations it endured before emerging as one of the world’s foremost trade and financial hubs.

Before the Kingdom was unified by its late founder, King Abdul Aziz, the Arabian Peninsula had suffered its fair share of economic woes thanks to war and political strife within tribal factions.

In fact, the provinces that now form modern Saudi Arabia were completely independent at the time, leading to a precarious regional economy at best and the fragmentation of the indigenous Arab society into nomadic groups.

What remains of this pre-Saudi era has made for an extensive round of research at the hands of a local foundation devoted to piecing together the region’s past.

Historians at the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah) recently delved into their archives to unearth coins of all shades and sizes.

Among the coins, some of which date back to 757 AC, they found an array of currencies from Great Britain to Austria and from India to Indonesia. Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 by the unification of the central Najd region, which today comprises about a third of the country’s population, with Al-Ahsa, which forms much of today’s Eastern Province, Hijaz to the west and Asir to the south.

Only a handful of coins had ever been issued by the Kingdom. Among the most famous versions, the “tawilah” (Arabic for long) copper coin from the Eastern Province’s Hofuf region bore mostly illegible Arabic scripts.

Before anything resembling a monetary system was devised in 1928, the Indian rupee and a version of Britain’s golden pound coin were commonly used throughout the Gulf and Al-Ahsa in the inland Najd region.

Otherwise, Ottoman silver coins and “thaler” coins with images of Austria’s then de facto empress, Maria Theresa (dubbed the “French riyal”), were used before 1926.

While the king canceled foreign currency in 1927, the first silver Arab riyal was adopted as the region’s official currency until a new version of the silver-colored riyal coin bearing the official name of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was produced in 1935. In that time, the Ottoman currency was unofficially still in circulation.

Researchers at Darah have mainly focused on the region’s monetary trajectory before its founder arrived in Riyadh in 1902.

Among the findings were the Majidi riyal, named after Ottoman Sultan Abdulmajeed. The Egyptian pound and other currencies from East Asia, including artifacts from modern-day Indonesia, were also largely used to bridge the gaps.

Despite the circulation of foreign currency, rampant trade required even larger quantities of cash, leading to the issuance of halves and quarters of the “Qirsh” (Arabic for pennies) in 1924, often produced in Umm Al-Qura near Makkah.

In an initial effort to unify the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz ordered the issuance of one Qirsh, half Qirsh and quarter Qirsh copper-nickel coins. Inscribed on the coins was “King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, king of Hijaz and sultan of Najd.”

As no central monetary authority existed to organize and regulate state money issuance, coins were minted abroad and brought back to the country in batches. Among newly formed rules aimed at quelling interregional strife was the value unification of coins made for the Hijaz and Najd regions.

Subsequently, Al-Saud’s designation appeared as “king of Saudi Arabia” instead of “king of Hijaz and Najd” on all local coins.

The foreign production of coins boded well for the value of the Saudi coins in the international market, leading to money exchangers smuggling it abroad in large quantities to markets in India.

The Saudi coins’ new black market bore new need for a banking system to regulate the Kingdom’s newfound income influx, which was spurred, in large part, by the state’s growing oil exports.

Saudi Arabia’s Monetary Authority (SAMA) was formed in 1952, just in time to burden the fluctuations caused by volatility in the gold and silver market.

SAMA began issuing notes, known famously in Arabic as “pilgrims’ currencies,” for foreigners coming to Makkah and Madinah. More than 5,000 SR10 paper denominations were issued in Persian, English, Urdu and even Malay.

These resembled banknotes but eventually became widely used and replaced coins in major financial transactions. The makeshift currency was withdrawn by 1965 and Saudi riyal notes depicting the kings of the times were printed over the years, including images of the late King Faisal in 1968, King Khaled in 1976 and King Fahd in 1984.

What proved clear to the researchers is that both unification efforts and the influx of pilgrims played a decisive role in putting Saudi Arabia’s currency in top form on the world map.

A coin bearing the likeness of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. Above: Ancient coins from Arabia.

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