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Historic Flags (Saudi Arabia)

Last modified: 2015-11-23 by zoltán horváth
Keywords: shahada | wahhabi | sword | swords: 2 | nejd | mecca | arabia | text: arabic (golden) | ) |
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The Evolution of the Flag of Saudi Arabia

The "base flag" of Saudi Arabia, the shahada or Islamic profession of faith ("There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God") on solid green was an old flag, connected to the Wahhabi reformist movement of the late 18th century, with whose religious drive the Al Saud family first rose to power. The sword was added in 1902, when Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud ("Ibn Saud" to the British) established himself as Sultan of the Nejd.
In 1925, Abdulaziz established himself as King of the Nejd and Hejaz, with unknown flag alterations. (The King of Hejaz, Hussein, had used the Arab Revolt Flag).
When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, the earlier Nejdi flag continued, though variants are shown with two swords, with a white stripe toward the hoist, etc.
Ed Haynes, 14 March 1996

In [The International Flag Book, Christian Fogd Pedersen gives the date 1946 for the adoption of the national flag (with the older pattern of sword).
Christopher Southworth, 14 April 2003

The national flag of Saudi Arabia has maintained its basic characteristics -- the Shahada (or Testimony) written in white Arabic script over a white sword against a green background -- for many decades(1)
There seem to have been three major design variations over the years. The earliest flag had a very simplified version of the inscription on a rather square field with a very white heading at the hoist.(2)
The next stage may have been introduced at the time of the unification of the country, under the name Kingdom of the Hijaz and of Nejd and its Dependencies' in February 1927. The inscription in this case was in the complicated thuluth script and filled nearly the entire field of the flag.(3)
In 1973, a Royal decree established a precise design(4) in which the inscription was condensed to one-eighth the flag's area and the weapon was changed from a curved saber to a straight Arab sword. Recently (1984) a further modification has been introduced in the national flag: the hilt in the previous design has been replaced by a simpler form. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to obtain a Royal decree or other legal instrument establishing this design as the exclusive one for the national flag.(4)

(1) Its exact age is not clear. E.H. Baxter, National Flags (London: Warne, 1934) stated that "This flag is said to have been designed about 100 years ago by the Grandfather of the present King." That it was in use in 1911 is evident from the contemporary photograph reproduced between pp. 190 and 191 in Robert Lacey's The Kingdom (London: Hutchinson, 1981). The interesting article by Oleg Tarnovsky, "The Flag History of Saudi Arabia" (Flagmaster, No. 41) is, unfortunately, misleading in its documentation and presents factual claims with a degree of certainty not justified by available evidence.

(2) The heading -- a piece of material attached to the flag which forms a sleeve through which the pole passes does not figure in the symbolic meaning of the flag as it varies in width and is sometimes completely absent, e.g. in table flags and in a flag whose heading has grommets or a rope. It would seem, therefore, that the white stripe in the Saudi flag should not be considered as an inherent part of the flag, but as an accessory to it (like fringe, pole, finial, cravate, etc.)

(3) Illustrations of this flag can be found on plate 14 of the Flaggenbuch of the high command of the German Naval War Ministry (Berlin: Reichsdruckerei, 1939; on p. 344 of "Flags of the World" by Gilbert Grosvenor and William J. Showalter, the The National Geographic Magazine, LXVI:3 (September 1934) ; and in various flag charts produced by the United Nations.

(4) see the FLAG BULLETIN, Volume XIV, No. 2, pp 44-45.
Source: [The Flag Bulletin
Martin Grieve, 27 October 2006

[Saudi Arabia]
National Flag, 1934 according to E.H. Baxter
image by Martin Grieve, 04 November 2006

In E.H.Baxter's "National Flags" 1934; "The National Flag is formed of a green square and a narrow white strip at the staff; on the green square is an Oriental motto with a sheathed scimitar below it both in white. This flag is said to have been designed about a hundred years ago by the grandfather of the present King. Proportion 8 : 7."
David sent me the illustration from this publication and I have re-drawn it.
Some points for observation here:
1) Although the text from this book reports that the Proportion are "8 :7", this is not the case according to the illustration which accompanies it. In that illustration, which is a black and white outline drawing, the green portion of the flag which contains the Shahada and sword is in the proportion of 8:7, with the white stripe being additional to this, thus making the entire overall proportion of the flag at approximately 275x216. Length-to-width was the prefered method of quoting a flag's ratio in the bygone years, but this has now been juxtaposed to width-to-length.
2) The illustration in Flaggenbuch varies altogether from Baxter's version, omitting the vertical white stripe at the hoist, and being embellished with an entirely different Shahada or testament. David Prothero offers the explanation that the version of Saudi Arabia's flag which is reproduced photographically in the National Geographic magazine, and is the same as Flaggenbuch illustrates, is perhaps the Royal Standard of that Nation, whilst Baxter is showing the observer the National Flag. My greatest concern on this matter would be as to the different styles of Shahadas on 2 contemporary flags, when one would expect them to be one and the same? We may never know.
3) The addition of a white stripe down the hoist is another point for debate. Many neighbouring countries had a stripe adjacent to the staff in 1934 - Bahrein, Trucial States, Qatar and Kuwait, but we have out-ruled the influence of these Nation's flags on the Saudi Flag, as it would appear that it is not Islamic practise in Vexillology to do (or have done) so. The white stripe in Pakistan's flag represents the Hindu population. Baxter insists that it is part of the flag.
4) The Shahada and sword on Baxters illustration are respectively - written left-to right,  and pointing to the fly. Are we seeing a prime example as to why Islamic flags should be displayed with the staff at the observers right?
Also - does the illustration imply that Saudi Arabia were not particulary fussed if the Shahada was mirrored, contrary to today's practise where it must read the same obverse or reverse?
Martin Grieve, 04 November 2006

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Eugene Ipavec, 17 February 2012

There is an unusual depiction of the flag of Saudi Arabia (part of a series of 1950's Topps "Flags of the World" trading cards). There are two swords and a white stripe at the hoist (the stripe is usually explained as an exaggerated sleeve).
Eugene Ipavec, 17 February 2012

Two Swords or One?

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Martin Grieve, 26 October 2006
after photo in  [National Geographic (1934)

The September 1934 National Geographic [gsh34] includes a black and white photograph of the Saudi Arabian flag with one sword. The caption under the picture reads:

King Ibn Saud's army carried this flag in its desert conquests...When the powerful King of Saudi Arabia visited Germany two years ago [i.e., 1932], this flag was [used] in his honor by the officials of Tempelhof, Berlin's huge airport."
Unfortunately the new kingdom was proclaimed after the plates for this issue went to press, so there is no color plate or explanation about the dates of adoption, etc. There is a note in the text that also mentions that the flag was supposedly designed by Ibn Saud's grandfather, a century earlier.
There are several possible explanations for the one and two sword flags. The caption under the picture makes it sound like Ibn Saud's Army carried the flag during their conquests, therefore it may be that this is a military flag, not a national one. This would also account for its apparent use before 1932.
Nathan Augustine, 13 March 1996

Carr [car61] shows the two sword version, but the text notes that there is also a one-sword version. Crampton [cra90] says that the sword was added to the traditional Wahhabite green banner in 1902, but that there have been many variants. I suspect that the flag was never rigidly defined in the past, and whether to use one sword or two was left to the taste of the king at the time. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia's national emblem remains two swords crossed under a palm tree.
Roy Stilling, 25 April 1996

The crossed-sword version referred to here would appear to be in doubt, despite the fact that it has appeared in several publications, and I have two of them on my bookshelf at home. In [Flaggenbuch (1939), there is the version with one sword shown and this flag I would suggest is the same flag as the flag in the photograph in a 1934 National Geographic magazine [gsh34] which I have seen. As Saudi Arabia came into existence in 1932 (?) I would think this to be its very first flag, although there have been quite a few variants of the one sword version through the years. But this could simply be due to the flag not being specified "precisely." I think that these flags are a continuation (with different Shahada and swords) of the original Flaggenbuch version and so feel that the two sword version was erroneously reported and repeated.
Martin Grieve, 26 October 2006

Having a look at Gresham Carr's 1961 Flags of the World [car61], I learnt about the existence of a 1937 piece of legislation regulating Saudi Arabian flags, including at least the national flag, royal standard, war ensign and civil ensign, all of which were described (maybe also illustrated) with two crossed swords. Carr gives the Islamic calendar date 18/1/1356 A.H., i.e. 18th Muharram 1356 A.H., which is about 31 March 1937 A.D. Carr's text says:

The National Flag is green and bears the great Arabic inscription, La illaha illa Allah wa Muhammad ur-rusul Ullah, – "There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God." The inscription, in accordance with the Arab custom, reads from the observer's right towards the left. In order that it shall appear correctly on the reverse side of the flag, it is necessary for the manufacturer to print it in duplicate and sew the two back to back before fixing the canvas "heading". Under the inscription, which is in white, there are two white swords in saltire. In accordance with decree 18/1/1356 A.H., the National Flag is 150 by 100 centimetres (see Plate XXXI, 4); In passing, it should perhaps be recorded that Saudi Arabian flags sometimes have one white sword instead of two in saltire.
The swords illustrated on Carr's plate appear to be Western sabers (slightly curved and with guard) rather than Arab scimitars (very curved, no guard, as in the former Yemeni flag) or the elaborate version of the Abd al Aziz sword (no guard, decorated hilt and pommel) shown in early Saudi flags.
As noted above, National Geographic 1934 [gsh34] does not include the Saudi Arabian flag in its plates but it does show an excellent photograph of the flag being hoisted at Tempelhof airport when the Saudi king visited Germany in 1932. The flag in the picture looks exactly the same as that in Flaggenbuch 1939 [ neu39] – which is not especially relevant since it was probably German-manufactured, very possibly under Neubecker's specifications.
Several questions remain unclear:
  • When where the two swords introduced into Saudi flags, if they were at all?
  • Were two swords used on the national flag? (If they were, it had to be after 1932 and before the 1960s.)
  • What did the swords really look like?
  • When was the pennant-shaped civil ensign introduced and when was it abandoned?

Santiago Dotor, 14-15 April 2003

The change was gradual and never quite official due to the fact that the flag was not officially described until recently (if recently is the right word for 1973). However, 15 March 1973 is the date of adoption of the one-sword flag.
Željko Heimer, 26 September 1996

The history of the 1945 Saudi flag needs more research. It seems certain that a flag very similar to the current one was adopted on 30 March 1938. In this flag, the shahada was larger than at present. On 15 March 1973, the size of the shahada was changed to occupy one-eighth of the total area of the flag. Another small modification was made on 19 November 1980, changing the sword slightly. But there's this question with the 1945 flag: circa 1950, several charts show two crossed swords on Saudi flags. Neubecker [ [neu39] reported this pattern in use in 1939, but other vexillologists believe that it was used from 1945, after Saudi Arabia's declaration of war against the Axis, and disappeared in 1956. Smith says that the two-sword pattern was only a misunderstanding: a plate issued in 1950 by the Saudi embassies in London and Washington mislabelled the royal standard as the national flag. A original document from Neubecker shows the two flags (national and royal) with writing in Neubecker's own hand stating that the English version had the captions of both flags reversed while the original Arabic version was correct.
Jaume Ollé 14 April 2003

Are sure about the 1938 date? It looks very similar, but not the same, as the one given in Carr (discussed above. As I said before, Carr gives "18/1/1356 A.H." which is 31st March 1937 – almost exactly a year before your date. (It could even be exactly a year, since most Hijri-Gregorian converters give the possibility of a one-day error.)
Santiago Dotor, 15 April 2003

There was a variant with two swords. It was the royal flag. I own a photocopy of a flag plate which shows both flags crossed, the captions above the two-sword flag read "National flag", and the caption above the other flag reads "Royal flag". The plate was published in 1948 by the Royal Saudi embassy in London. In 1961 the same plate was published by the Royal Saudi embassy in New York. Dr. Neubecker had sent me the London photocopy years ago with the explanation: "the English captions were interchanged, the original Arab captions below the English words tell it vice versa, and that is correct." The plate published in New York had the correct captions. So the flag was not described for the first time in 1973 but much earlier.
By the way: King Saud had received the sword from his father [King Abdul Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud – Ed.]. It is the family sword, and Saud decided to put it on his flag. The whole story is written in Dagobert von Mikusch, Ibn Saud, (Leipzig: List-Verlag), 1942. Maybe there is a reason for changing the design of the sword in the flag: King Abdul Aziz's sword was curved...but that is only speculation.
Ralf Stelter, 21 December 2003

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Martin Grieve and Eugene Ipavec, 24 Feb 2012

At a business ceremony in Tokyo on Apr 2 1980, they still used a curved sword.
Nozomi Kariyasu, 27 October 2006

Saudi flags with 2 crossed swords

National flag with 2 crossed swords:

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Martin Grieve, 02 December 2006

Royal Standard with 2 crossed swords:

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Martin Grieve, 02 December 2006

Naval Ensign with 2 crossed swords:

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Martin Grieve, 02 December 2006

Merchant Ensign with 2 crossed swords:

[Saudi Arabia]
image by Martin Grieve, 03 December 2006

I have found a picture of a flag of Saudi Arabia. On it, under the shahada, are two swords crossed, both pointing downwards. On today's flag of Saudi Arabia, there is only one sword, horizontal, and pointing upwards.
Goren M. Shaked, 25 April 1996

I suppose it could be some artist's conflation of gold crossed swords and palm with the correct flag. The errant flag got onto that plate of flags that was in a dictionary and an encyclopedia and maybe some other books. It was commonly seen and copied, until the Saudi government issued a press release tightening the specs, then everyone corrected their reference books.
However, I tend to favor the variation theory. Just as US flags of the 19th century can have the stars in any configuration, the Saudi flagmaker was free to make the shahada any size or in any script, and free to use any type of sword or even two swords. The bit about one sword for the national flag and two for the royal flag or military flag may be outside observers misperceptions, or may be genuine.
Am I the only person to see the two horizontal sword version? The memory is very Worldbookian. I'm flashing on a possible source: World Book Encyclopedia Yearbook 1972.
Randall Bart, 06 November 2006

Recently, there was a request  to display the Saudi Arabian (historical) flag which featured 2 crossed swords beneath the Shahada. It would seem unclear from the evidence gathered relating to this flag as to whether it ever existed or not, but undoubtedly, it most certainly is very well-documented in a great many Vexillological publications, some extremely authoratative and therefore "trust-worthy".
Whitney Smith makes absolutely no mention of this flag in the issue of the flag bulletin which contains a brief synopsis of the 3 major changes to the design of this flag which took place since the Kingdom's inception in 1932, following the merge of Hejaz and Nedj.
Source: H Gresham-Carr's book.
Martin Grieve, 02 December 2006

If you compare this merchant ensign version (from Carr) with the one on page 6 of Whitney Smith's book FTTAAATW 1975, where the style of swords are similar to what we see on the present-day Royal Standard. There may have been a change at some point?
Martin Grieve, 03 December 2006

Mecca / Arabia in the Book of All Kingdoms, Late 14th Century

[Mecca / Arabia in the Book of All Kingdoms (Late 14th Century)]
image by Eugene Ipavec, 09 February 2010

The 82nd flag mentioned and illustrated in the Book of All Kingdoms [f0fXX] is attributed to Mecca (or to Arabia in general, depending on the interpretation). This as depicted in the 2005 Spanish illustrated transcription [f0f05], a red flag yellow Arabic letters, in the ogival default shape of this source. The exact shape of the letters, as depicted in [f0f05], seems to be bogus, or at least severely misshapen. (This flag differs in detail from both #83 (Socotra) and #23 (Granada), though they all are red with yellow Arabic letters.)
The anonymous author of [f0fXX]] describes the flag thusly:

«sus señales son un pendón bermejo e en medio letras de oro aravigas.»
"Its device is a red flag and on it Arabic letters in gold."

According to the Hakluyt Society 1912 illustrated transcription in English [f0f12] (#72 on plate 16 between p.40-41), the manuscript "S" [f0fXXs] shows this flag just like [f0f05].
António Martins-Tuválkin, 08 Dec 2007

[Mecca - cigarette card]
image by Eugene Ipavec, 06 April 2012

On e-bay there was a cigarette card labeled as 1888 N6 City Flags MECCA **AA-1784**
William Garrison, 18 March 2012