Category Archive: Saudi Arabia
By Mark Lowey
Photographs by Keith Belcher, Ann Lowey and Mark Lowey
In this personal look back, Abqaiq resident Mark Lowey reminisces about the lasting impressions of his desert encounters over 35 years ago at a remote GOSP site, the Bedouin family who had befriended him and his first taste of authentic Saudi hospitality. Thanks to a chance encounter, Mark recently reconnected with the family and found that remarkable changes have taken place.
I first came to Abqaiq in 1978. Fresh out of university in California, I was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a two-year assignment on a project team constructing Gas Oil Separation Plants (GOSP) in the Ain Dar and Shedgum areas. Our most remote site was a small GOSP known as Fazran-1.
Back then, travelling 90 minutes each way and working in Fazran were eye-opening experiences. We were a team of Americans, Canadians, British, Filipinos and Thais. When we finished our communal lunch, the remaining food, usually rice, was quickly loaded into the back of a small Toyota pickup truck that disappeared into the desert. I later learned that several Bedouin families lived nearby, attracted to our permanent water supply and leftover food that they used for their livestock of goats and camels.
Eventually, we and the Bedouins became friendly with each other and enjoyed long discussions through translators. The Bedouin family patriarch, Faleh, would often sit with me in my tiny site office trailer, and we would drink tea and coffee and try to communicate. Depending on the season Faleh would be waiting at the door when I arrived at 6 a.m. – and wait for me to crank up either the heater or the air conditioner. Over the months, I came to learn about the healthful benefits of camel’s milk as well as many interesting aspects of the Bedouin culture. Faleh had a raspy voice, powerful build and huge hands. Rumor had it that when it was time to brand the camels, he could bring one down with one hand by grasping the tail and tugging sideways.
In the cool winter months, the invitation came for a meal at Faleh’s place. His tent camp was set up about an hour’s drive north of Fazran, over straight, rolling drillers’ roads of compacted marl. We were to arrive at midday on Friday. A fellow expat and I set off after an early breakfast in Abqaiq. Once clear of Fazran, the desert changed rapidly and became very green from recent rains. This was prime grazing land.
Meet the family
Upon arrival we were greeted by Faleh and shown to the main section of his family tent. Abdulhadi, Faleh’s elder brother, prepared demitasses of traditional Arabic coffee, dates were served, and we met their children and cousins. The tent section next to us housed the goats, and at the end was the makeshift kitchen. Faleh proudly held his tightly-swaddled infant son for a photograph. The others were eager to have their pictures taken, especially after we handed out instant Polaroid photos.
Finally, after the last minute arrival of several Bedouin neighbors, the meal was served, a large platter of chicken and lamb on a bed of flavored rice. Slightly curdled camel’s milk was poured over the mix. We sat on weathered carpets and ate in the traditional Arab style with our right hand scooping up the rice and meat. It was delicious. The grandmother and grandfather joined us, and the children watched and laughed with delight as we shared this unexpected bounty in the desert.
1978: A lucky photograph – in one take
The group photo with me seated between Abdulhadi and his two sons was taken with an Olympus OM-2 set on a mini-tripod. I balanced it on a barrel, focused, started the timer and quickly ran around behind them to sit down. As the shutter opened, Abdulhadi turned towards me, wondering what’s going on. No time for a second take. The two young boys in the photo are brothers, Suhaim and Saleh; more on that later.
Soon after the photos were taken, I left Saudi Arabia, not to return again for another 30 years. Over the years since 1978, I‘ve treasured the photos taken during those visits. I have shared them with friends and family and often wondered what became of the Bedouins of Fazran. It was not until 2010 when I joined Saudi Aramco that I found myself back in Abqaiq, exactly where my engineering career had begun.
Fast-forward to 2013
One day in October 2013 in the Abqaiq Mall I met Geraiyan Al-Hajri, the legendary Saudi Aramco explorer and road surveyor. My photos were part of an exhibition organized by the Abqaiq Art, Craft and Hobby Group, a self-directed group sponsored by the Abqaiq Recreation Services Unit. Al-Hajri pointed to Faleh in the photo and said, “I know that man. That’s my cousin!” I was awestruck — finally, a connection. From Geraiyan I learned that Faleh and Abdulhadi had passed away and that the small boy dressed in white, Suhaim, had grown up, attended university, and now holds a prestigious job in Qatar. His brother, Saleh remained in Saudi Arabia and resides in Ain Dar.
Days later I received a phone call from Suhaim inviting my wife and I to a party in the desert. With another expat couple from Abqaiq, we met Suhaim and his large family at a rendezvous point near the Salasil Bridge on the Dammam-Riyadh highway, greeting each other warmly after such a long time. After a quick glance at my four-wheel drive Tahoe, he beckoned me to follow his Toyota Land Cruiser as we turned off the highway onto the Fazran Road. Suhaim was happy to play tour guide along the route – his boyhood territory. Stopping at the wreckage of an ancient blue Dodge pick-up truck, he explained that this truck appears in one of my photos from 1978, and he knew the owner. He pointed out the now mothballed GOSP where my site office once stood. Nearby were the Saudi Aramco-built concrete water troughs for camels and goats that had attracted Bedouins around the time I was there. He was proud to show me a Qibla locator and prayer area made of large stones and rubber tires still visible in the desert sand after all these years.
Then Suhaim smiled and announced “no more information,” and we were off-road and heading northward across sun drenched dunes and hard packed sabka. It was difficult to keep pace with him and, from time to time, he had to stop and wait for us to catch up. Brother Saleh, in another Land Cruiser, suddenly appeared, joining us around halfway there. As I wondered how they could possibly navigate the featureless expanses – and actually rendezvous in the middle of nowhere – I watched my three-quarters full gas gauge visibly sinking towards empty as the car trudged through the desert terrain.
We found our way to the desert encampment several kilometers from the village of Airj. There we were warmly greeted by his extended family, around 50 people in all, and escorted to our respective sections: the women in a carpeted mobile home trailer and the men in a traditional goat hair tent, not unlike the one we had sat in 35 years ago.
Party in the desert
A low wood burning camp fire was heating brass pots of Arabic coffee as the group crowded around us for a good look. I was congratulated for having preserved the photographs since 1978, and many family members tearfully expressed their joy at seeing the first photographic images of their relatives, some of whom have long since passed away. As a gift, I had brought handsomely framed enlargements and copies of the photos for the immediate family members.
We were shown to the seats of honor on colorful carpets at the back of the main tent facing out and every one was introduced, including their honorific nicknames. I told them my nickname is “Abu Jack” (father of Jack) and there was lots of laughter. One man suggested that he would accept my daughter as his second wife, but hesitated, whispering that his first wife’s son was listening nearby. More laughter.
Lunch is served
A traditional Saudi meal on a huge platter was set down, and there was space for around ten of us to eat at once. I watched and tried to imitate my hosts as they mixed the delicious flavored rice and tender, warm morsels of lamb with labneh into large balls in the palms of their right hand. When someone finished and stood up, another would jump into the space and begin eating. Afterward, we removed small twigs from a special shrub to use as toothpicks; I was shown that in the absence of water, digging one’s hands in the sand will remove the food and grease effectively. In the end, I was grateful for the water being poured over my hands along with the offer of powdered soap.
Everyone was happy to pose for photographs and many mobile phone cameras were used. One memorable image that day shows Suhaim, Saleh and I, reunited after three decades, holding the framed photograph of us from so many years ago.
A spontaneous poem and dance
Suhaim’s brother, Mohammed, is a poet and announced that he would compose a song for me in my honor. He sat down with a pen and a scrap of paper and was lost in thought – gazing into the distance, mouthing words and counting cadences on his fingers. Soon he was ready. He arranged two rows of six men each facing each other. Arms linked and moving rhythmically in step, he led his row as they sang the first verse, and the opposite group would then repeat it. I could make out the words “Marhaba, Mark” (Hello, Mark) and not much else, but I sensed the power of the words and felt great honor. Then the real folkloric dancing ensued, led by the two pre-adolescent sons of Saleh who swayed back and forth with one hand held high and the other placed behind their back. One by one we took turns dancing this way between the two rows.
Curious to see what was going on, the women had quietly crept nearby behind several vehicles to watch. Being Westerners, our two wives were hailed to join us.
All too soon, after the mid-afternoon prayer time, it was time to depart, and we were bid farewell, but not before our tires were carefully inspected, gas gauges checked and stern road safety advice given by our hosts. The return trip was far less bumpy on the paved road from Airj. We enjoyed a short rest stop in Ain Dar, where Suhaim invited us to his family majlis for a final cup of tea before heading back to Abqaiq.
After all these years, the mystery of the Bedouins of Fazran had been solved. Reunited, I was pleased to see that this remarkable family has grown and flourished over the past three decades. It was evident that the region’s prosperity had touched their lives and provided education and modern comforts for their families. Balancing their Bedouin roots with the demands of a modern world, it was good to see that the boys have become men, strong and wise in ways that their father would be proud.
A photo taken 35 years ago had bridged past and present and brought me full circle to a place deep in the desert, where I found the Saudi traditions of hospitality, family and friendship not only endure but continue to thrive. It is a place where I will always feel welcome.
Is Ramadan a month when people eat lavishly, become soap opera addicts, and shop and stay up late till the wee hours of the night? Or is this impression in stark contrast with the spirit of Ramadan?
Omayyad Mosque in Damascus.
The Qur’an ordained the fast of Ramadan in 624 C.E. Muslim men and women also celebrate Ramadan because it was on one of the last nights of this month, “The Night of Power,” when the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an in 610 C.E. It is a month in which they attempt to breathe the air of piety and tranquility: they are constantly engaged in worship, individually and congregationally, in recitation of the Qur’an from cover to cover, and in charitable deeds.
The spiritual aspect of the month is further highlighted by the night-time congregational prayers, tarawih. The almsgiving reflects the community’s sharing of their God-given bounty with those who are less fortunate.
It is truly a time when a Muslim’s life is suffused with peace, contemplation, self-abnegation and giving.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is compulsory for every adult Muslim male and female who is mentally and physically fit and is not on a journey. Those unable to fast during Ramadan for excusable reasons, such as temporary illness, travel, pregnancy or nursing children, are obligated to do so later in the year. Those permanently unable to fast, due to health reasons or old age, are required to pay alms to make up the days they miss. Out of respect, Muslims who are exempted from fasting for such reasons refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in front of those who fast.
During Ramadan, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world rise to its moral and physical challenges by abstaining not only from eating, drinking, smoking and other carnal pleasures, but also from getting angry, swearing and gossiping. The fasting period starts just before daybreak and ends at sunset.
The discipline imposed by Ramadan can serve to break unhealthy habits. Fasting motivates smokers to quit, and coffee addicts, like myself, realize that they can live without coffee. Those who have an unbreakable tie with anything that has a sprinkle of sugar on it will wait patiently until they can enjoy luqaymat, sweet dumplings, or other sugary delicacies, that are popular in Ramadan.
Nevertheless, Ramadan has the character of a festival: a substantial meal, Iftar, “breakfast,” served at sunset to mark the end of the day-long fast. It is common to see a family immersed in preparing the iftar meal with the aromatic wafts of delicious fare and the sounds of clattering cutlery. Muslims appreciate the feeling of togetherness at the iftar, which is shared by families and friends. Mosque courtyards are another place where the young and old, rich and poor, gather to break their fast.
Madina Haram at sunset.
Iftar is not intended to shock the stomach with abundant amounts of food. Instead, when the sunset call to prayer is heard, many break their fast with a few sips of water, often Zamzam water from the sacred well in the Grand Mosque at Makkah. For many families, dates are indispensable at the time of breaking the fast as they were eaten at the same time in the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The dates and water are followed by the main meal, a tempting array of Ramadan specialties. Another meal, suhur, is taken before the start of one’s fast just before dawn breaks. The Prophet has recommended partaking of this meal.
Youngsters, especially girls and boys in the Gulf countries, count the days until the 15th night of Ramadan for a folk event called Qarqa‘an. They roam the streets wearing traditional costumes, singing lyrics celebrating this month and knocking on doors hoping to fill their bags with sweets or nuts.
‘Id al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, marks the end of the holy month. With a final act of charity, Muslims pay the mandated Zakat al-Fitr to the needy to enable them to join in the ‘Id festivities. On the first day of ‘Id, families go for a celebratory prayer to the mosque wearing new clothes. Later, they visit relatives and friends, and they enjoy amusement parks where the children are the monarchs of all the rides and games.
Printed with permission by Rahmah I. Nawwab.
Originally published on Aramco ExPats in 2009
King Abdul Aziz Al Saud
Never Trust a Man Until He Proves Himself Trustworthy.
So went the philosophy of the mentors who tutored Ibn Saud as a child and it remained his lifelong practice to tryout the integrity of those he would rely on. His friendship with Harry St. John Bridger Philby was strong but Philby was not exempt from the scrutiny of the desert fighter, though Philby never knew or understood this. Over time, his undivided admiration and respect for The King was tested by two key trials, Harry’s desire to convert to Islam and his obsession to cross The Rub al-Khali or Empty Quarter. These were Ibn Saud’s ultimate tests of faithfulness.
Harry challenged the patience of The King with his continual requests to become a Muslim. The flaw in Philby’s brilliant intellect was his lawlessness in expressing his thoughts and his letter to Ibn Saud was no exception to this hot-headed approach. In August 1930 Harry wrote:
Peace. Mercy and the Blessing of Allah be upon you. I have already had the honour to submit to Your Majesty’s consideration my desire to become a Moslem and to abandon other religions…I beg you to accept my conversion to Islam which springs in me from grounds of belief, reflection, wisdom and good intention. Allah the Almighty guides to the right path.
There can never have been a more impertinent letter in the history of Wahhab conversions because Harry Philby intended to do what few others considered; to embrace Wahhabism, not only a religion but a political and economic autocracy.
This time his impudence worked and The King telephoned him personally to say that he would permit the entrance of Philby into Islam and instructed him to leave immediately for Mecca for a ceremony.
On the pilgrim’s trail to Mecca he was met by Fuad Hamza, who advised Ibn Saud on foreign affairs. Hamza set up a tent where Philby performed the ritual ablutions and they continued on their way to Mecca. There, Philby kissed the black stone of the Kaabah and drank from the well of Zamzan before he turned to the east with the holy pledge, “I testify there is no god but God; and that Mohammed is his servant and prophet” – the words inscribed on the first Saudi flag.
Afterwards they went to meet the King in Taif who bestowed on Philby the name Abdullah – Slave of God. More important, the King told the gathered party that Harry Philby was a worthy Muslim and because of his dedication to the Wahhab kingdom would sit with his Privy Council. The King wanted Harry as a dedicated Wahab servant to do his will. The following year, in April 1931, Philby accompanied The King in person on the Hajj, or great pilgrimage, which was a major honour. These devotions helped him on his quest to become Ibn Saud’s grand vizier –an advisor to the throne.
This news caused concern with officials in the British world who knew of Harry’s revolt against the British establishment. The British Consul in Jiddah reported that Philby was at odds with British policy in The Middle East and believed in the restoration of an Arab Empire under a single leader who must be Ibn Saud. The Consul warned that as a member of the Looking Back | The King’s Man 22 Privy Council, Philby was in a position to harm British relations with The King. Moreover, Philby spoke the King’s Nejd dialect, which was scarcely intelligible to other Arabic speakers.
But Ibn Saud was his own man and while he was a true friend and supported Philby, he had particular reasons for Harry’s membership of the Privy Council – Philby had the ears of the mightiest politicians in Britain. The reality was that he was the only conduit in both directions and what information he passed either to The King or British diplomats was one-sided. Ibn Saud understood this and managed the information he allowed Philby to pass to Britain.
The second test of trust by The King concerned Philby’s frustrated ambition to cross The Rub al-Khali or Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia and it caused the most significant discord in their long relationship. Philby’s lifetime aspiration was to be the first Westerner to explore The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. He cherished the thought that if he succeeded he might be knighted, by the establishment he despised, when he returned to London. To think about a knighthood, he must be first across a wilderness the size of Texas and he needed the permission of Abdul Aziz to make the trip.
Insistent, Philby implored The King for permission to mount his Looking Back | The King’s Man expedition and again and again it was withdrawn at the last minute. Philby was at a loss to understand the motives of The King he admired so much and the final bitter blow came when he learned that a former assistant, Bertram Thomas, had completed the journey in the opposite direction from Salalah to Qatar. He was slightly mollified when the deputy foreign minister, Fuad Hamza told him The King had withheld his consent for so long because of his fear the he might lose Philby’s services that were desperately needed as a counsellor – he feared that Philby might never survive The Empty Quarter. The King’s mind was on oil and he recognised Harry’s value in negotiating a deal that could benefit his country. Diplomatically, Ibn Saud allowed Philby to organise the trip and provided guides, camels, safe passage and paid all the bills.
Harry Philby left Hufuf on 7 January 1932 and by the end of February dignitaries in Jiddah and in London presumed him dead. Two weeks later on March 14, burned black by the sun and totally emaciated he turned up at the oasis of Sulaiy. He had conquered the wilderness but was barely alive. When he recovered, Harry couldn’t wait to travel home to London to receive the plaudits of The Royal Geographical Society, read The Times and watch cricket. As much as he expressed contempt for British society, he enjoyed participating in its activities.
On the 27th of September 1932 Abdul Aziz united the Hejaz and Nejd regions into The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over which he reigned as King. Early versions of the Kingdom’s dark green flag were decorated with crossed swords under a palm tree and an affirmation in white script “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.”…words that Harry Philby had pledged at Mecca.
In February 1933 negotiations over oil concessions started in earnest with Philby pulling the strings on behalf of The King. Philby knew the limitations imposed on Iraq Petroleum who represented the British interest with a maximum down payment of £10,000. The American interest of Standard Oil offered a down payment of £35,000 if a concession was granted. In addition another payment of £20,000 was payable in eighteen months plus a yearly rental of £35,000. The cards were stacked and Philby even persuaded Andrew Ryan, the first British Minister to Saudi Arabia that it was better to advise the Saudis to accept the American offer because it was most unlikely there was oil there anyway. Also Standard Oil’s shrewd lawyer, Lloyd Hamilton put Philby on an indefinite retainer of 1,000 dollars a month. There could only be one decision and it went in favour of Standard Oil.
Philby achieved the political decision he sought to humiliate the British and Ibn Saud achieved the commercial decision that would define the future of his Kingdom. Commercial quantities of oil were discovered on the Dammam Dome (Jebel Dhahran) in March 1938. Well number 7 was a deep test well and found biogenic limestone porous enough to hold oil and gas and the taps were turned on.
After hostilities began in World War II, Philby’s disloyal comments about Britain to the Privy Council prompted its other members to comment that he used his words to cover his role as a British spy at court. For the British intelligence services, who were on high alert because of the war, his comments attracted the opposite kind of attention – they might be regarded as treason. Philby’s scornful remarks about Britain alarmed Ibn Saud so much that he told the British authorities of Harry’s intention to travel abroad and spread anti-British propaganda.
Philby was arrested on the 29th July 1940 in Bombay, shipped to England and imprisoned. He remained locked up until February 1941 when he was released as a ‘dotty fanatic’ but his passport was withheld until the end of the war and returned when Ibn Saud asked him back to Jiddah without delay. He sailed to Alexandria and was picked up by Ibn Saud’s private DC3; a present from President Roosevelt. In July 1945, Harry was back in The Privy Council and The King’s Man again.
When Harry was arrested in 1940, oil output was 5.1 million barrels and remained steady through World War II. Extra money came from Great Britain and the USA. To maintain their relationship with Ibn Saud and with Philby’s clever politicking, the British Government granted subsidies that rose to £1m a year. But the major contribution came on 18 February 1943, in the form of Lend-Lease funds of $33m in cash and goods from the USA as well as advances in royalties. As war ended, funds quickly dried up.
Though oil production exploded to 60 million barrels in 1946, the Saudi treasury was still short of income. By 1951 Saudi oil revenue was $110m which included half of Aramco’s profits and in 1952 went past $150m. Harry’s personal fortunes improved in leaps and in 1950 he won a £400,000 contract to build a palace in Riyadh where The King gave him a house. He still maintained contact with the British Secret Service but just to keep them informed of The King’s health which was worsening. When The King died at his palace in Taif in 1953, his body was returned to Riyadh and by Wahabi custom, buried in an unmarked grave. In time, people even forgot where The King was buried but his legacy as a truly great leader was enduring.
In Wahabi tradition, Harry did not grieve for The King but nevertheless reflected for the rest of his own life on their 35 year liaison. Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman bin Faisal al Saud conquered and created his Kingdom by bravery, shrewdness, audacity and the huge force and charm of his personality. These qualities found uniquely in a single human being were why Harry St. John Bridger Philby was, and always would be, The King’s Man.
Mel Trotter lived in Dhahran in the ‘70’s and flew Royal, corporate, Tapline and exploration work. He was a pilot in the Aviation Department – believed to be the first English one where the others were all American at that time with Aramco. A writer and executive coach, he now lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire.
Mel’s latest novel The Orphan Sniper is available in paperback at The Amazon Store and as an eBook on Kindle and compatible devices.
To learn more visit:
He can be contacted through his website at www.humanriskfactors.com.
Read The King’s Man – Before Oil.
Reprinted with permission of Mel Trotter.
JEDDAH: P.K. ABDUL GHAFOUR; Tuesday 23 October 2012: Saudi authorities stepped up preparations for the five-day annual Haj pilgrimage — which begins tomorrow — by mobilizing human and material resources.
More than three million pilgrims, including two million from abroad, are expected to take part in the spiritual event.
Groups of pilgrims have started the move from Madinah and other parts of the Kingdom to Makkah and Mina, chanting Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik (O God, here I am answering your call).
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, who is supervising Haj operation from Jeddah, instructed all related government departments to provide the necessary services to the guests of God.
Khaled Mirghalani, Health Ministry spokesman, said: “The ministry has readied 25 hospitals with a capacity of 5,200 beds in addition to the 141 health clinics situated in the holy sites, to serve pilgrims.” More than 175 ambulances are on stand by,” he added. The Saudi Red Crescent Authority plays an important role during Haj, providing first-aid and transportation services to hospitals. It will deploy 1,060 volunteers in Makkah, Mina and other holy sites.
The Civil Defense yesterday conducted a mock operation to control gas leakage near the Jamrat Bridge in Mina, where a large number of pilgrims assemble during the peak days of Haj for the stoning-the-Satan ritual.
Lt. Col. Abdullah Al-Ghamdi, commander of the Civil Defense’s special intervention force, said: “The operation was aimed at keeping our forces at a high level of readiness to deal with possible leakage of poisonous gases.”
Foreign pilgrims have expressed their joy over getting the opportunity to perform Haj, the fifth pillar of Islam. “It’s my first time in Makkah for pilgrimage. I can’t wait to pray in Arafat,” said 32-year-old Koara Abdulrahman, a businessman from Burkina Faso. Inside the Grand Mosque, scores of pilgrims circumambulated the Holy Kaaba with many pushing their way through the crowds to kiss Hajar Al-Aswad (the Black Stone) on a corner of the cube-shaped structure.
“Right now, I’ve got all the good feelings you can think of,” said an ecstatic Iranian pilgrim.
More than 1,400 Muslim leaders from around the world are performing Haj this year as guests of King Abdullah. They come from China, Russia, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Togo, Botswana, Burundi and Liberia.
Heavy rains hit Makkah and Mina on Sunday, and the Civil Defense said 13 people were slightly injured when a fire erupted in a building housing Indian and Myanmarese pilgrims.
Despite being marred by deadly incidents in the past such as floods, stampedes and fires, Haj has become nearly incident-free in recent years, thanks to multibillion-dollar projects implemented by the government annually.
This year, new development projects totaling SR 1.5 billion include an initiative to help pilgrims reach the Jamrat Bridge quickly from Makkah, Aziziya and Shaabain. The Ministry of Water and Electricity said it has started supplying 600,000 cubic meters of water daily to the holy sites. There are 36 water tanks in Makkah and 27 at the holy sites with a total capacity of 2.5 million cubic meters.
In other news, participants of a seminar organized by the Haj Ministry called for the use of social media networks to enhance Haj awareness for pilgrims. Najah Al-Qublan of Princess Norah University said: “We have to make use of social media effectively for creating Haj awareness and spreading the message of Islam.” Facebook users in the Arab world increased from 29.8 million in 2011 to 45.2 million by June 2012, she said.
Article reprinted with permission by Arab News.
Harry Philby prospered because of
his energy and linguistic skills.
When Ibn Saud scaled the walls of Riyadh in 1902, it began his celebrated passage to becoming King of Saudi Arabia.
This story briefly describes the years when he recovered his heritage and oil was on the horizon. It outlines his unlikely and complicated relationship with a British political officer named Harry Philby. Of course, historical judgements and observations are subjective despite the documents available from the first years of the 20th century, and we don’t know the personalities of those who produced the evidence.
Players in this action are long dead, so the narrative is weighted toward the views of a writer who has read many different reports of the same incidents. Other versions are not incorrect, but this is another perspective about key chapters in an improbable and unique relationship between Harry Philby and Abdul Aziz ibn Abdur Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki al Saud on his 30-year journey to reign as King.
It begins in 1902 with the epic tale of the capture of Riyadh by Abdul Aziz using the military skills honed during his years in exile in Kuwait. Ibn Saud and his party of warriors approached the walls of Riyadh during the last night of the ‘Id carrying palm trunks to scale the walls of the town and capture the fort. Legend tells us that Ibn Saud and eight of his men fought their way into the stronghold and threw open the gates for the rest of his invading warriors.
In the fierce hand-to-hand battle, the Amir Ajlan ibn Mohammed ar Rashid was killed and the remaining defenders surrendered. Ibn Saud was just 23 years of age, and his victory had just marked the beginning of the Third Saudi State.
Those events in Riyadh were a world away from the academic cloisters of Cambridge University and an unimagined relationship with an Englishman that would develop over the next three decades. Harry St. John Bridger Philby was a few years younger than Abdul Aziz and arrived as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1904.
He knew nothing of events in Riyadh and never guessed he would be part of what led to the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Philby was a gifted student and worked hard to win a brilliant first in modern languages. His predicted career was as an employee of the Raj, and with that in mind he developed a command of six Oriental languages: Arabic, Baluch, Hindi, Persian, Punjabi and Urdu.
When Philby was recruited into the
Indian Civil Service, he promised to abide by its code that, ‘an officer must be loyal to his service and to his country.
When Philby was recruited into the Indian Civil Service, he promised to abide by its code that, ‘an officer must be loyal to his service and to his country’. But Philby’s linguistic brilliance did not compensate for a deeply rebellious nature, for he already mistrusted the philosophy of the Edwardian establishment he was brought up in, misgivings that were a key factor in his eventual liaison with Abdul Aziz.
In December 1908, he sailed for India and arrived just six years after Abdul Aziz had claimed the city of Riyadh. Philby became one of 141 ‘Heaven Born’ Britons in Bombay who ruled 42 million Indians in The Punjab.
Soon, his politics were perceived as less than those expected of a Raj official, and he was labelled as a radical troublemaker with an irritable side. In his autobiography, he claimed to be “the first Socialist to join the Indian Civil Service”. With such an unaccommodating nature, a clash with the Raj philosophy of the ‘inevitability of gradualness’ when dealing with far-off cultures was to be expected.
In 1910, Philby made a decision to marry. That brought disapproval from his masters in the Raj who considered his bride, Dora Johnston, to be unsuitable. Nevertheless, he went ahead with his cousin as best man — Lt. Bernard Montgomery, later the 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, whose military career led him to become commander in chief at the Normandy landings in 1944.
But Philby felt bitter that his marriage was censored and paranoid that he was victimised by Lt. Gov. Dane, his boss in the Raj. Victim or not, Philby prospered because of his energy and linguistic skills, despite the setbacks caused by his abrasive personality. An association with Ibn Saud took a step closer when he came to the attention of the Political Mission in Iraq. In 1915, he was recruited by its chief, Sir Percy Cox and arrived in Basra with the rank of major in the Political and Secret Department of the Indian Government.
By chance, Gertrude Bell, an influential aide, noticed his gift for languages and became his mentor. She made decisions about Philby’s political role that made it certain he would meet with Abdul Aziz, and Philby emerged as a key factor in her strategy. While the future King fought battle after battle to unify the tribes he would eventually rule, Philby immersed himself in the politics of the Middle East. Finally, the two men came together for the first time in December 1917, when Philby was sent as head of a mission to meet Ibn Saud on Arabian soil.
From the very first greetings, Philby was charmed by Ibn Saud, and as they started negotiating, an alliance formed that lasted for 36 years. Philby was entranced by the magnetic personality and charismatic presence of Ibn Saud, who in turn was intrigued by the irascible Englishman almost a foot shorter than himself. It also helped that Philby handed over £10,000 of the £30,000 fund given him in Iraq as a token of the esteem in which Ibn Saud was held by the British.
We can only guess whether Ibn Saud revealed his personal ambitions to Philby at this time or whether Philby gave them unconditional encouragement. But it is significant that after World War I, his financial support from the British increased, and he also received a huge tranche of surplus ammunition from them.
Ibn Saud, who, by 1932, became ruler
of what is now The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and remained as King until his death.
Ibn Saud unleashed his campaign against the Al Rashidi in 1920, and by 1922 had all but destroyed his enemy and doubled the size of the Saudi territory he controlled. By this time, Philby was head of the Secret Service for what is now The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and at the end of 1922 he traveled to London for high-level diplomatic meetings that included Winston Churchill, King George, the Prince of Wales and Baron Rothschild. Finally, he rubbed shoulders with the very highest echelons of the British establishment, but where did his allegiance lie? Philby made his view known that the British interests would best be served by supporting the Saudi family in uniting the Arabian Peninsula under one government.
His support for Ibn Saud was so unambiguous that by 1924 Philby was forced to resign his Secret Service position when he was found to be in unauthorised correspondence with Ibn Saud – sending him secret information. In British terms, this was plainly espionage, but his Secret Service masters continued to pay him as their most valued means of communication to Ibn Saud. Unabashed, Philby continued to advise Ibn Saud on the extent of his ambitions to unify all of Arabia and the likely British reaction, and in 1925, the armies of Ibn Saud captured the holy city of Mecca from Sharif Hussein bin Ali and ended 700 years of Hashemite rule.
As a non-believer, Philby couldn’t attend the coronation of the new King of the Nejd and Hijaz but Ibn Saud allowed Philby to arrange his seating banquet in Jiddah. Their relationship was cemented over the following years, and there is little doubt that time and again Philby betrayed the political will of his British masters in deference to the interests of Abdul Aziz and provided unilateral backing for the King’s strategy in unifying the Arabian Peninsula. Philby supported the King’s conquest of the Hijaz and made sure his delicate relationship with the British remained amicable. Philby’s position as an informer to both parties was unique, and he used it to good effect on behalf of Ibn Saud.
By 1932 Ibn Saud became ruler of what is now The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and remained as King until his death. Philby stayed a loyal ally and benevolent shadow offering advice and support. In that same year, Standard Oil of California retained Philby as a paid adviser to facilitate their goal of obtaining the country’s oil concessions. As usual, he did this with the guile of a lifetime — appearing to act for one party providing it was with Ibn Saud’s best interests in mind, but then, of course, he was The King’s Man.
Editor’s Note: Mel Trotter lived in Dhahran in the ‘70’s and flew Royal, corporate, Tapline and exploration work. He was a pilot in the Aviation Department – believed to be the first English one where the others were all American at that time with Aramco. A writer and executive coach, he now lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire. Mel’s latest novel The Orphan Sniper is available in paperback at The Amazon Store and as an eBook on Kindle and compatible devices. He can be contacted through his website at www.humanriskfactors.com.
This article was first published in Aramco Overseas Company’s Alaela magazine. Permission to reprint granted by Mel Trotter.
Mel Trotter has written a novel called The Orphan Sniper. To learn more visit: