Britain’s ties with Saudi Arabia stem from the exploits of a dashing diplomat, Capt William Shakespear – an explorer and pioneering photographer. If he hadn’t met an early death while photographing a desert battle scene, asks Matthew Teller, would we now know him as Shakespear of Arabia?
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A hundred years ago this week, the camel-mounted armies of Abdulaziz – known as Ibn Saud, later to become the founding king of Saudi Arabia – were preparing to face their arch-enemies, the Rashidis.
Alongside, in full khaki battledress and pith helmet, stood William Shakespear.
After a glittering early career in the British Indian administration in Bombay, Captain Shakespear had been posted in 1909 to Kuwait.
There, already fluent in Arabic, he forged a close personal relationship with Abdulaziz, head of the House of Saud – but then just the ruler of a desert area in northern Arabia.
Then, as now, Gulf diplomacy depended on personal connections – and the two men, both in their mid-30s, seemed to hit it off straight away.
After their first meeting, hosted by the ruler of Kuwait in 1910, Shakespear wrote that Ibn Saud had “a frank, open face, and is of genial and courteous manner”.
When Shakespear invited Ibn Saud to dine at the diplomatic residence in Kuwait the next evening, the Bedouin noble sat down to hearty English cooking: roast lamb with mint sauce, roast potatoes and asparagus (tinned, by necessity).
But Shakespear was no stuffed shirt. From his first arrival in the Gulf he had set about learning local ways, embarking on extended journeys into the desert, sketching or hunting with his falcon and pack of Saluki hounds.
Shakespear notes how Ibn Saud was surprised by his knowledge of the desert. Growing mutual respect opened the door to a series of meetings, mostly at remote encampments, where the two men held extended conversations often lasting days.
Oil would not be discovered in Arabia for another 25 years. Instead, the conversation turned on Britain’s diplomatic priorities: extending colonial influence and outwitting Ottoman Turkey. The latter goal was shared by Ibn Saud, who sought to conquer Arabia by defeating his tribal nemesis, Ibn Rashid, an Ottoman ally.
Shakespear was a keen photographer. He made the first-ever photographs of Ibn Saud using a small Houghton Ensignette, a brand-new camera introduced in 1909 – and captured unique panoramic images of the desert using what writer Peter Harrigan has theorised was a No.1 Panoram-Kodak, a wooden device whose spring-mounted lens moved with a sweeping motion across a 112-degree arc.
Both used the unstable cellulose nitrate film of the day, which had to be processed using tanks of chemicals that Shakespear carried with him into the desert, developing his negatives in a blacked-out corner of his tent.
In 1913 Ibn Saud drove the Ottoman garrison out of the coastal oasis of Al-Hasa. Chafing at the short-sightedness of his government in refusing to back the rising power in Arabia, in February 1914 Shakespear mounted an expedition across Arabia, from Kuwait to Riyadh – where he flouted explicit orders not to meet with Ibn Saud – and then through the Nafud desert to modern Jordan, and across the Sinai desert to Suez and Cairo. Almost two-thirds of Shakespear’s 1,800-mile route was uncharted territory, mapped and photographed by him for the first time.
But with the outbreak of World War One in Europe, British priorities shifted. In late 1914, as part of a plan to take Basra from the Ottomans, Shakespear was despatched to negotiate a treaty with Ibn Saud.
The two met on 31 December at Ibn Saud’s camp in the desert north of Riyadh, and Shakespear was still with Ibn Saud’s Bedouin army – numbering 6,000 – when scouts reported that Ibn Rashid’s forces were gathering nearby.
The two rivals for Arabian power clashed at Jarrab on 24 January 1915 – and Shakespear, standing prominently on a hilltop beside the fighting, was shot and killed.
Reports of the battle varied widely, and the circumstances of Shakespear’s death remained unclear, but the British Library recently digitised a first-hand account given by Shakespear’s personal cook, Khalid bin Bilal.
As the battle began, Khalid had seen Shakespear carry his camera to a patch of higher ground, but then lost sight of him as the Rashidi forces charged forward. Two days later, having escaped from captivity, he overheard Rashidi fighters discuss the death of the Englishman. He returned to the battlefield and found Shakespear’s corpse, marked by three gunshot wounds.
Shakespear was only 37, but he had made his mark. Shortly after the skirmish Ibn Saud and Britain signed the treaty Shakespear had drafted – the first international recognition of Saudi rule in Arabia.
Had he lived to continue his work, it’s tempting to speculate that another, more famous, British maverick – TE Lawrence – might never have been dispatched to Arabia. We might today be talking about not Lawrence of Arabia, but Shakespear of Arabia.