How Shakespear befriended Saudi Arabia’s founding father Ibn Saud

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Ibn Saud near Thaj, Saudi Arabia, 1911. (Getty Images)
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Ibn Saud’s army on the march near Habl, Saudi Arabia. (Getty Images)
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Al-Jawf, Saudi Arabia. (Getty Images)
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Group of Al Sabah and Al Saud - British Political Agency - Kuwait (Abd al-Aziz Al Saud sits to left face unsmiling, Shaikh Mubarak of Kuwait sits in center with Sa'd bin Abd al-Rahman standing at his shoulder, Muhammad bin Abd al-Rahman sits to right), Kuwait, March 1910. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear/Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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A rainpool near Hamma in the desert, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear /Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Mid-day halt for coffee in the desert, Saudi Arabia, 28 November 1909. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear/Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Carrying the baby camel at As Safa (al Lisafah well)- Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, 06 February 1910. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear/Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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As Sabah (a member of Sulabah tribe dressed in gazelle skins) and others at Abu Dhahir (probably Aby Zahr, west of al-Sarrar), Saudi Arabia. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear /Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Natives of Riyadh (outside the city at Shamsiyyah), Saudi Arabia. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear /Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Watering camels, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear /Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Bedouin women at al-Hinnah wells, near Thaj (just north-east of Thaj), Saudi Arabia. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear /Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Interior of Kasr Marid, Djauf, Interior of Qasr Marid (Dumat al-Jandal) - al-Jawf (panorama), Saudi Arabia, 5232. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear/Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
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Bedouin watering at al-Hinnah, near Thaj (just north-east of Thaj), Saudi Arabia. (Photo by W.H.I. Shakespear /Royal Geographical Society/Getty Images)
Updated 18 March 2019

How Shakespear befriended Saudi Arabia’s founding father Ibn Saud

  • William Shakespear (not the famous playwright) is the man behind one of the first photographs of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Ibn Saud
  • The British captain became such a trusted friend that the ruler called him ‘brother,’ and he died in battle fighting his enemies

DUBAI: Among the artefacts on show in the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition, on show for the final weekend at Louvre Abu Dhabi, is a photograph of a handsome young man.

He is an imposing figure, with chiseled features and his eyes hinting at a shrewd intelligence. His is the face of a man accustomed to command, a man who might change history — as indeed he did.

Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al-Saud was such a man. Known more commonly as Ibn Saud, he became the founding father and first monarch of the country which bears his name: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The photograph was taken in Kuwait in 1910, when he was about 35, and is among the first pictures taken of the future king, for he had never seen a camera before. The man who arranged the sitting — and in all likelihood took the photograph — was only the second European Ibn Saud had encountered. But Captain William Shakespear, a British explorer and diplomat, became such a trusted friend that the Arab leader called him “brother” and made him his military advisor.

And it was thanks — certainly in part — to their closeness that Britain and Saudi Arabia signed a treaty to formalize a friendship that endures to this day.

William Henry Irvine Shakespear was a son of Empire. Born in Bombay in British India in 1878, he served as an officer in the Bengal Lancers before joining the British Foreign Office in 1904 and five years later was posted to Kuwait as a political agent.

He was not a typical colonial official. A gifted linguist, he spoke Urdu, Pashto, Farsi and Arabic, and indulged his passion for photography, botany and exploration with long expeditions into territory that had never been mapped, where he met and talked with Bedu tribesmen and studied the flora and fauna of the desert.

Shakespear soon formed the view that the man to watch was Ibn Saud, son of the emir of Najd and scion of a proud ruling tribe. He was physically imposing — well over six feet tall and a proven warrior who, after a decade in exile, had recaptured Riyadh, the Al-Saud power base from the rival Al-Rashid tribe. 

The chance to meet Ibn Saud came one day in February 1910 as Shakespear returned from a journey into the eastern desert. The trip had gone drastically wrong when tribesmen overran the camp, shot dead his chief guide and almost killed Shakespear himself. But then they recognized the rest of his party as old acquaintances and joined them around the campfire for gahwa (Arabic coffee) and storytelling.

On returning to Kuwait, Shakespear found an invitation from the ruler, Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, to a banquet in honor of his visitor, Ibn Saud.

It was a most lavish affair which “cannot have cost less than £20,000 ($25,600),” Shakespear noted in his report. 

In his diary he recorded that Ibn Saud was “a fair, handsome man, considerably above average Arab height with a particularly frank and open face and, after initial reserve, of genial and very courteous manner.”

The two men, who were roughly the same age, hit it off straight away and Shakespear invited Ibn Saud to dine at the British diplomatic residence the following evening. Over a classic British meal of roast lamb with mint sauce, roast potatoes and tinned asparagus, the Arab nobleman was impressed not only by his host’s fluency in Arabic but by the way he could converse knowledgeably about aspects of desert life, including hunting with falcons and saluki hounds.

It was, as authors David Holden and Richard John wrote in their book “The House of Saud,” “a cordial meeting of minds” that deepened over many lengthy conversations in Riyadh and in remote desert camps.

Britain was keen to extend its influence over the Gulf, and Shakespear urged his masters to recruit Ibn Saud as an ally. But London hesitated. Kuwait was controlled by the Ottoman Turks, who in turn were Britain’s “buffer” against other, more hostile European nations trying to carve up the region, and Turkey was allied with the Al-Rashids, enemies of the Al-Saud. Even when Ibn Saud drove an Ottoman garrison out of the coastal oasis of Al-Hasa, Britain still would not commit, to Shakespear’s immense frustration.

However, as he was coming to the end of his stint as a political agent, London consented to his request to visit Riyadh on his way back home.

After five weeks on the back of a camel, he arrived to a warm welcome from his friend. It was during this stay that Shakespear took photographs of Ibn Saud and local scenes that comprise the first pictorial record of the Arabian heartland, showing Riyadh as little more than a village with mud walls, although, as Shakespear noted: “Quite a third of the town is taken up by the homes of the Saudi family.”

The outbreak of World War I changed everything. Turkey sided with Germany. Suddenly, the British were desperate to have Ibn Saud as an ally against Turkey and dispatched Shakespear back to Riyadh to keep him away from the Turks at all costs.

Within a week of his arrival in January 1915, Shakespear had drafted the first Anglo-Saudi document, which recognised Ibn Saud as independent ruler of Najd under British protection and sent it off to Kuwait for approval.

Meanwhile, Ibn Saud rode 400 kilometers north with 6,000 men to confront the forces of his old enemy, the Al-Rashids, at a spot called Jarrab in what was both a traditional bedouin battle, with camels and plenty of hand-to-hand combat, and a proxy war between Britain’s newly signed-up ally and the Turkish-backed Al-Rashids. Shakespear made the fateful decision to tag along to photograph the event.

On Jan. 24, scouts reported that Al-Rashid forces were mustering nearby. Ibn Saud urged Shakespear to stay behind at Qassim, but the Englishman wouldn’t hear of it. Riding in on a camel, wearing his British khaki uniform and pith helmet, he set up his camera in the center of the Saudi line on a hilltop. When the Al-Rashids charged, he made an easy target.

At the end of the battle, Shakespear lay dead, but nobody was sure how he had died until his personal cook, Khalid bin Bilal, provided a first-hand account. Bilal had been captured in battle but escaped two days later and overheard Al-Rashid fighters talking about the Englishman who had been killed.

Bilal went to the elevated spot where he had last seen his master carrying his camera and found his body, which bore three bullet wounds. A digitized form of his account was released by the British Library in 2015, a century later.

Shakespear was 37 when he was killed. His diaries, notes and photographs went to the Royal Geographical Society, but historians have speculated on what other diplomatic successes he might have achieved and how different both Gulf and British history might have been had he lived.  

What is known is that on Dec. 26,  1915, Britain and Ibn Saud signed the first Anglo-Saudi Treaty — the document drafted by Shakespear — and that the great Saudi leader never forgot his English friend.

Many years later, when he was king of Saudi Arabia, he was asked who he considered to be the greatest European he had met. Without hesitating, he replied: “Captain Shakespear.”

Saudi delegation attends opening of Europe’s largest mosque

Updated 23 August 2019

Saudi delegation attends opening of Europe’s largest mosque

  • Chechen president hails Kingdom’s support for Islamic unity, moderation
  • Muslim World League (MWL) Secretary-General Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa delivered the Friday sermon

GROZNY: The minister of Islamic affairs, call and guidance headed the Saudi delegation to the opening of what Chechen authorities said is the largest mosque in Europe on Friday.
Upon his arrival at Grozny International Airport, Sheikh Dr. Abdullatif Al-Asheikh said the construction of the Fakhr Al-Muslimeen Mosque is a source of happiness.
The marble-decorated mosque has capacity for more than 30,000 people and has been described by the Chechen authorities as the “largest and most beautiful” mosque in Europe.
The opening was held under the patronage of Chechen President Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov, with the participation of Islamic delegations from a number of countries.
Al-Asheikh was received by Salah Mezhiev, advisor to Kadyrov and Chechnya’s supreme mufti, as well as other officials. Al-Asheikh said Saudi Arabia works hard to spread moderation throughout the Islamic world.
Muslim World League (MWL) Secretary-General Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa delivered the first Friday sermon to be given in the mosque at the request of President Kadyrov.
Kadyrov welcomed the Saudi delegation and congratulated the Kingdom’s leadership on the success of this year’s Hajj season.
He hailed Saudi support for Islamic unity, spreading moderation and combating all forms of violence, extremism and terrorism.
The secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Dr. Yousef bin Ahmed Al-Othaimeen, also attended the opening of the mosque.
The mosque's grounds, planted with flowers and sprinkled with fountains, can host an additional 70,000 worshippers, local authorities said.