by Robin Bidwell

Philby’s grave in Beirut bears the inscription ‘Greatest of Arabian explorers’ and, in very many ways, this claim by his son is justified. None of the writers that we have discussed saw so much of the Peninsula, visited as he did practically every corner of it nor traversed it so many times in so many different ways. None of them spent more than twenty months in Arabia: Philby was there for most of forty years.

Harry St John Bridger Philby (generally called Jack or Shaikh Abdullah) was born in Ceylon in 1885 and used cheerfully to suggest that he was not really himself but a local baby mistakenly picked up by a careless nurse. After a very successful career at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the Indian Civil Service and arrived in Bombay in December 1908. When, some two years later, he married, his best man was his cousin, the future Field-Marshal Montgomery. Philby acquired the reputation of being a difficult colleague—indeed he claimed to have been the first Socialist in the Service—but he made his mark as an exceptional linguist and a first-class administrator.

In November 1914, after the declaration of war on Turkey, British and Indian troops landed in Iraq and soon overran the province of Basra. The Turks removed what government records has existed and there was a frantic need for efficient organizers. Philby was among those selected and arrived for his first experience of life in an Arab country in November 1915. He was saddled with a multitude of tasks, from collecting revenue to editing a propaganda newspaper.

In November 1917 Philby had the experience which changed his life. The Arab Revolt had broken out in June the previous year, and the British were anxious to prevent the old rivalry between the Sharif of Mecca and Ibn Saud, ruler of Nejd, from hindering the efforts of the former against the Turks, and, if possible, to enlist the latter under the Allied banner. There had been no official contact with Ibn Saud for more than twenty years and Philby was ordered to find out his current views. In the best traditions of the Indian Empire, he landed at Uqayr, near Bahrain, in a solar topee, breeches and spurs. At his very first stop, his hosts demanded that he should make himself less conspicuous by wearing local dress, for he was to travel through a land of religious zealots, whose souls, he was told, ‘are sour with fanaticism’ and who had no wish to see their country polluted by the presence of a Christian.

After seven days on camel-back Philby reached Riyadh and for the first time met Ibn Saud. Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Saud, to give him his full name, was the greatest figure that the Peninsula had produced for more than 1000 years—heroic warrior, decisive ruler, and eloquent poet, towering a head taller than his followers. His charm was as overwhelming as his stature for he was witty, generous, and hospitable. He could not have had a more perfect background than his vast mud palace, with its retinue of soldiers and slaves—or a desert tent under a starlit sky. It is too strong to say that Philby fell in love with him but he came for all time under the spell of the monarch and of the civilization that he represented. In return Ibn Saud appreciated Philby’s devotion, and valued his knowledge. Almost at once the visitor was admitted into the intimacy of the royal family, playing along with the young princes and sitting regularly as a member of the group of boon companions with whom the king liked to relax.

The original plan was that Philby’s arrival should coincide with that of an emissary from Cairo who would come overland from Jedda. This was frustrated by the Sharif, who alleged that Ibn Saud had so little control over his tribes that such a journey would be impossible. Mischievously, Philby, with the enthusiastic support of Ibn Saud, decided to improve this untrue by traveling across to Jedda himself. With careful training he informed his superiors in such a way that there was no opportunity for them to forbid it. Ibn Saud provided him with camels and an escort and the party rode the 450 miles to Taif in fifteen days. It was not an easy journey, for his companions hated the task of guarding an infidel and some were unwilling to defile themselves by eating with him. Villagers along the way were equally unwelcoming. When he reached Jedda, he had completed the third crossing of the Peninsula in a century.

After political tasks in Jedda, Cairo and Jerusalem Philby was back with Ibn Saud in the spring of 1918 on a new mission: this time it was his task to persuade him to attack Ibn Rashid whose territory lay between the battlefields of Palestine and Mesopotamia. Ibn Saud was very susceptible to pressure from the British for he was almost entirely dependent upon their financial support. The subsidy of 5000 lira a month that they gave him represented a substantial part of his income. On one occasion he told Philby that the total contents of his Treasury were 3000 lira and $4000 and another time Philby quotes him as roaring at one of his followers, who grumbled at his receiving an infidel, ‘see, thou dog, see these clothes I wear, nay, the very food I eat—all these I have from the English; how darest thou then abuse them?’ Philby, therefore, did not have too much difficulty in persuading Ibn Saud to undertake the campaign but could not prevail upon him to allow him to accompany it, for Ibn Saud could not afford to be seen attacking fellow Muslims at the instigation of Christians. As a consolation, however, he provided him with an escort for a fifty-day journey to the previously unmapped Wadi Dawasir, some 500 miles south of Riyadh. Philby brought back valuable scientific and cartographic information and a burning determination to be the first to cross the Empty Quarter.

Upon his return Philby found that the war was practically over and that official policy had changed: indeed it was now desired to maintain Ibn Rashid as a barrier between British-ruled Iraq and the possible dangers of Saudi expansion. He was therefore recalled to his official career in Baghdad and was soon plunged into hot disputes about the future government of the country. It was at this period that he was overheard to make a memorable remark to a colleague at a noisy party: ‘I didn’t hear what you said—but I entirely disagree.’ No wonder that his Chief sighed that Philby was always convinced that anything from a constitution to a fountain pen had been put together on fundamentally wrong principles. In July 1921 he and his masters had a rare moment of unanimity: both sides agreed that he should leave.

Excerpt from Robin Bidwell, Travellers in Arabia (London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group), pp. 96-101, 1976