King Abdul Aziz al Saud
1880-1953. Founder and first king of Saudi Arabia. Kept his tribes and his forces largely sidelined during World War I, when the British supported an Arab Revolt and other Arabian leaders against the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1920s, he began to expand territory in the Arabian Peninsula under his control.
In 1924, in alliance with conservative religious forces known as the Ikhwan, Abdul Aziz invaded Mecca and seized the territory in Arabia known as the Hejaz. Britain, the nominal imperial power in the peninsula, eventually accepted his expansionist raids, and in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became independent with Abdul Aziz its monarch.
In 1933 Abdul Aziz signed the first contract -- with the American oil company Socal -- to explore for oil in Saudi Arabia. Oil was discovered five years later and would result after World War II in enormous inflows of cash to the desert kingdom.
The first step toward diplomatic alliance with the United States occurred in 1945 just as the war was ending, when Abdul Aziz met with President Roosevelt on a ship in the Red Sea.
1880-1967. Iranian political leader and prime minister. Educated in Switzerland before World War I, he became a member of Iran's elite. Mossadegh held many government positions, including provincial governor and foreign minister, but opposed election of Reza Khan as Shah in 1925.
Mossadegh emerged during World War II as an outspoken supporter of Iranian nationalism. He called for nationalization of British oil assets in Iran. By 1951, Mossadegh became so popular that then Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was forced to appoint him prime minister.
Oil nationalization prompted a profound crisis in Iran, with opposition coming from Britain and the United States. In 1953 the Shah tried to remove him, but street demonstrations forced the Shah to leave Iran. Just days later, a joint American-British-supported coup toppled Mossadegh and restored the Shah to the throne. Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Gamal Abdel Nasser
1918-1970. Nationalist leader of Egypt. As an Egyptian military officer, he fought in the 1948 war that saw Israel become an independent nation in much of what had been British-controlled Palestine. In 1952, Nasser and other officers staged a bloodless coup, overthrowing King Farouk.
Nasser emerged as supreme Egyptian leader in 1954. He nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, prompting a joint British/French/Israeli military action to reseize it. U.S. President Eisenhower opposed that action, and the military effort quickly collapsed.
In 1958, Nasser combined Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, an experiment in Arab nationalism that ended three years later, when Syria withdrew. In alliance with Syria and Jordan, Nasser fought Israel in 1967 only to suffer a devastating defeat in six days. He died of a heart attack three years later.