‘Photographs of an English Princess in a young Saudi Arabia.’ By Ray Moseley


Princess Alice, one of 37 grandchildren of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, went to the Ascot races in 1936 and, over lunch, met Prince Saud of the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The result of this chance meeting was an invitation to the princess to visit the desert kingdom, a rare honor for a woman.

Accompanied by her husband the Earl of Athlone (born Prince Alexander of Teck), she set sail two years later and spent three weeks in the kingdom, having lunches and teas with Saudi royals, hunting, going across the desert in cars that sometimes became stuck in the sand, visiting oases and Bedouin camps, riding horses and camels—and taking photographs everywhere she went.

Forty of the more than 320 photos that came from that visit are now on display at the Royal Geographical Society in London until August 24 in an exhibit arranged by the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh, which owns the photos.

The exhibit, free to the public and entitled Journey of a Lifetime, was opened earlier this week by Saudi Ambassador Prince Mohamed bin Nawaf bin Abdel Aziz, descendants of Princess Alice and more than 100 guests. It is part of a campaign to raise awareness of Saudi Arabia among the British public.

While the princess was clearly a skilled photographer, several of the photos in the exhibit were taken by someone else, as they show her and her husband. She arrived in Jeddah, after the long sea voyage from England, wearing a suit and broad-brimmed hat, he a tweed suit and trilby. Later photos show her dressed in a traditional black abbayah, her face barely visible.

Jane Clark, curator of the University of Exeter’s Street Gallery, has described the princess’ visit as “the start of a great friendship between two kingdoms.” The photos were exhibited earlier this year at the Street Gallery. Prior to that, the photos were shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2007, coinciding with a visit by Saudi King Abdullah.

Saudi Arabia had only been unified as a country four years before Alice’s visit, and oil was discovered there just prior to her arrival. The visit also came just a year before the outbreak of World War II.

King Abdul Aziz, the founding ruler of Saudi Arabia, hosted a tea party for the princess and then a banquet for the British royal party, even though women did not traditionally eat with men.

Princess Alice described her meeting with the king in a book she wrote for her grandchildren. “He was a huge man, a great gentleman with a most engaging manner,” she said. “He was charming and full of jokes and Granpa and I became his hero worshippers. He was obviously pleased to welcome us, and I thanked him very much for inviting me, as he had never before asked a female to an audience or meal.”

At the banquet she met Harry St. John Philby, a convert to Islam and adviser to the king who was known by the Saudis as Hajji Abdullah Philby. He was famous in Saudi Arabia in his own right, but became better known in the West as the father of Harold “Kim” Philby, a British intelligence officer and notorious Soviet secret agent who fled to Moscow in 1963 when he was about to be exposed.

Of St. John Philby, Princess Alice wrote: “He is most interesting and knows everything one wants to hear about, even to rare birds and gazelles and plants. No one in the English colony likes him, as he is now a Musselman (sic) and a free lance dining with the King, but he’s the only man worth talking to.”

During the visit the Earl of Athlone presented the king with a personal letter from King George VI.

One display case in the exhibit is not described in a leaflet for visitors. It shows a telegram sent from Bahrain to London on Feb. 23, 1931, in which the explorer Bertram Thomas announces his successful crossing of the Rub’al Khali (the Empty Quarter), one of the world’s largest and most forbidding deserts.

Mr. Thomas, an English civil servant and a scientist, was the first European to cross the Empty Quarter, which stretches over 650,000 square kilometers. He recounted the crossing in a 1932 book, Arabia Felix.

That same display case contains a hand-held twig broom and cloth used by Mr. Philby in 1933 to clean the interior of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building in Mecca that is the holiest site in Islam.

One rare photo shows the king with his sons Faisal and Fahd, both of whom became kings themselves, as did the prince who invited Princess Alice, Saud.

Several photos show buildings along Riyadh’s main street (Thumairi Street), a dusty thoroughfare notable for the absence of any cars at that time.

Another photo shows the Dammam oil well No. 7 near Dhahran, the first producing well in Saudi Arabia that was drilled in 1938. Princess Alice’s last stop was at the well. She placed a gloved hand on the pipe and later wrote: “thro’ my gloves it was boiling hot and you could feel the oil shaking the pipe as it rushed up thro’ it.”

She ended her visit that evening at the port of Khobar and took a boat to nearby Bahrain, well before the two countries were connected by a causeway.

Also part of the exhibit is a grainy black-and-white film taken during the visit, showing several towns and various aspects of the Saudi desert.

The Royal Geographical Society is located at 1 Kensington Gore, just south of Hyde Park, and the exhibition is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected].