RIYADH: Saudi explorer Reem Philby likes to spend her vacations outdoors, climbing peaks such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, or trekking through Peru, South Africa or Norway.
Now the adventurous 42-year-old is trekking across the Arabian Peninsula, following in her grandfather’s footsteps on an expedition seeking to keep his legacy alive.
Reem is the granddaughter of the renowned British explorer and Arabist Harry St. John Philby, who did much to document the history of what is now known as Saudi Arabia through his travels across the region before his death in 1960.
In 1917, Philby was sent to Arabia on an assignment to forge links with Ibn Saud, the leader who later reigned as Saudi Arabia’s first king from 1932 until his death in 1953.
At the time, the British explorer was married to Dora Johnston, and had four children, Kim, Diana, Helena and Patricia.
He later took on the name Abdullah and married Saudi national Rozy Al-Abdul Aziz, with whom he had four boys, Fahad, Sultan, Faris and Khaled.
His British and Saudi descendants had never met until the official launch of a recent 1,300 km expedition — initiated by British explorer Mark Evans under the title Heart of Arabia — which loosely followed Philby’s 1917 journey.
In September, the families finally united at the launch send-off organized by the Royal Geographical Society in London.
(My grandfather) chose this place to be his home. He loved it and spent his life here, and it’s amazing that he is still remembered.
Reem Philby, Saudi explorer
They just clicked, according to his granddaughter.
Reem told Arab News: “Meeting the UK side of the family is all thanks to Mark Evans. Of course, we always knew about each other, but it just never happened that we met.”
Reem works at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which is supporting one of the research projects covered in the expedition.
Mike Engelbach, the son of Philby’s youngest daughter Helena, became involved with the Heart of Arabia project in 2018, when he was approached by Evans through St. Anthony’s College Oxford.
Evans had just completed a trek across the Empty Quarter in honor of Bertram Thomas, the first documented Westerner to make the journey.
Philby and Thomas had connected themselves, but not in such a joyous manner.
• In 1917, Philby was sent to Arabia on an assignment to forge links with Ibn Saud, the leader who later reigned as Saudi Arabia’s first king from 1932 until his death in 1953.
• Reem is the granddaughter of the renowned British explorer and Arabist Harry St. John Philby, who did much to document the history of what is now known as Saudi Arabia through his travels across the region before his death in 1960.
On hearing of Thomas’ triumph, Philby sent him a postcard congratulating him on the epic feat. Privately, however, Philby was disappointed and envious of an achievement he himself wished to make, his journals reveal.
Now the recent launch of the Philby Arabia Fund is encouraging future generations to conduct field research within Saudi Arabia.
When Philby’s descendants speak of his character, they remember a dignified figure with a long beard and serious demeanor. However, he was a grandfather in every sense.
“With us as children, he was very indulgent and would take us on treats,” Englebach told Arab News. “But he would also get involved with our family squabbles. He didn’t just sit aside from it. He took a keen interest in what we as young children were all doing.”
This month, Englebach and his cousin Mandy made their own journey from the UK to Riyadh to see off the expedition team on the second leg of its journey.
“I’ve never seen so many Philbys in the same room,” Reem said. “It was a great feeling. I grew up in Saudi where all the families are big, a lot of cousins, and it’s so nice to have that feeling. It was definitely one of the biggest gains of the expedition on a personal level.”
Englebach said: “Just the meeting straight away, we were very charmed, I think on both sides, by meeting each other and knowing that we had this man who we’re all descended from. We’ve been with all the family while we’ve been here (in Saudi Arabia) for the first time, and also met my uncle, aunt and the other cousins.”
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UK goes back decades, and the Heart of Arabia expedition has solidified the potential for collaborative cultural growth and exploration.
“(My grandfather) chose this place to be his home. He loved it and spent his life here, and it’s amazing that he is still remembered. To be in the desert in the middle of nowhere and we see a place where he stopped and remember him after 100 years is a very special feeling,” Reem said.