Across the Heart of Arabia (2): H St John Philby, Intelligence Gathering and a Lasting Legacy
In his 1918 mission to Nejd, Philby’s task, as seen by British officialdom, was to gather intelligence on the area and establish a relationship with Ibn Sa’ud on whom the British had little information. This information could then be used to further British political, economic and strategic interests in the area in the context of the expected demise of the Ottoman Empire. In 1917-18 the Empire’s writ still held sway precariously in parts of the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East (in 1818 the Ottomans had destroyed Diriyah, the capital of an earlier iteration of the Saudi state).
IOR/R/15/5/66 f 66 ‘22/16 Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd – 1918.’
In 1918 a distilled report of the route taken and information gathered by the Najd Mission 1917-1918 including relations between Ibn Sa’ud and Kuwait and other Arabian potentates was compiled and published.
Philby and the repurposing of ‘colonial knowledge’
However, it seems reasonable to say that Philby did not adhere to the career path of a Colonial Office Intelligence Officer that would be most desired by the officials in London: in 1924 he resigned from the Colonial Office. Through his deep interest in the Arabian Peninsula Philby was to convert to Islam in 1930 becoming Abdullah Philby and settling on an ongoing basis in Ibn Sa’ud’s domains.
Photograph of Philby used in his book The Heart of Arabia (London Constable and Company Ltd, 1922) Public Domain
He advised Ibn Sa’ud as how to best manage relations with the British and other western powers as well as the international oil companies in Ibn Saud’s negotiations over petroleum rights and concessions. The outcome of this took a decisive turn in London in 1932 on the eve of the proclamation of the consolidated Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (since 1927 Ibn Saud domains had been known as the Kingdom of Hijaz and Nejd and Dependencies). In a meeting with Ibn Sa’ud’s son, Prince Faisal and adviser, Fuad Hamza, Sir Oliphant Lanceleot sent them away empty-handed after a plea for financial help to develop the oil reserves of the nascent state.
The legacy of Ibn Sa’ud and Philby
In helping Ibn Sa’ud with insider knowledge and advice to resist, negotiate with and deflect the power of the British Empire, Philby - whilst his role should not be overstated - contributed to the establishment and survival of Saudi Arabia which became a key state in the contemporary Middle East state system and global oil economy. These developments were to come later but the relationship between Ibn Sa’ud and Philby started and was cemented in ‘Mr Philby’s Mission to Najd’ in 1917-18.
Crossing the Heart of Arabia
In a commemoration of this historical significance, 2023 sees another expedition crossing the heart of the Arabian peninsula retracing the original expedition Harry St John Philby made in 1917-18, both expeditions being made, in a coincidence of timing, around the time of global pandemics. This contemporary team includes Reem Philby, the granddaughter of Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby. This expedition will end when the team arrive in Jeddah at the end of the month. Like St John Philby’s original expedition, they have sought to undertake research in order to better understand the vast expanse of territory that makes up this still little known and even less-understood part of the world. The involvement and influence of the Philby family in desert exploration and wilderness education lives on indeed, in the Heart of Arabia.
Gulf History Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership