Across the Heart of Arabia (1): St John Philby’s Mission to Najd
In 1917 St John Philby, Colonial Office Intelligence Officer, was sent by the British Colonial Office Arab Bureau in Cairo on a mission to cross the desert from Uqair on the Persian Gulf to Riyadh and make contact with Ibn Sa’ud, the ruler of Najd in central Arabia.
In May 1917, he was briefed en route in Baghdad by Major Gertrude Bell, the first female Military Intelligence Officer in the British Army, who was advising the British government on Middle East policy following her earlier archaeological and intelligence gathering expeditions in Iraq, Syria and the Arabian peninsula.
IOR/R/15/5//66, f 1 ‘22/16/ Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd – 1918.’
Expedition logistics: tea, tobacco and thermometers
Like any expedition, great attention was paid to logistics including supplies and kit such as tea, tobacco, thermometers and photographic film.
IOR/R/15/5/66, f 53 ‘22/16/ Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd – 1918.’
Logistics were also facilitated by Abdullah al-Nafisi, Ibn Sa’ud’s agent who smoothed Philby’s path in various ways.
IOR/R/15/5/66, f 113, ‘22/16/ Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd – 1918.’
Map of Central Arabia with Philby’s route marked in red
On the route to Riyadh, Philby undertook pioneering cartographical work and meteorological research, recorded information on the people inhabiting the area, and collected geological and natural history specimens. In contemporary understandings of imperialism and empire, these expeditions constitute the gathering of ‘colonial knowledge’ on an area: the accumulation and collating of a corpus of information on the inhabitants, terrain, and natural resources of an area which will enable the colonial power to influence, coerce, and if circumstances require it, facilitate the deployment of colonial violence to attempt to achieve outcomes advantageous to the imperial power.
As was his habit, Philby compiled detailed and meticulous notes during his preparations and on the journey. On arrival in Riyadh, he paced the city walls in order to draw up a map of the settlement and its outer limits. Also important were gifts: Philby brought tents for Ibn Sa’ud and on his departure back to the Persian Gulf was given two Arabian oryx as gifts for King George V which were led on string back over the dusty terrain en route to England via Bombay.
Before his departure back to the Persian Gulf, Philby also took undertook an expedition along the Wadi Dawasir which had been used for centuries as a route to bring the coffee from Mocha into central Arabia. All this was to be the start of a lifetime of exploration of the Arabian Peninsula.
‘Southern Nejd: Journey to Kharj, Aflaj, Sulaiyyil, and Wadi Dawasir in 1918’
Gulf History Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, 2nd edition, (Cambridge University Press, 2010)