Monday, 11 April 2016

Book Review - Philby of Arabia by Elizabeth Monroe

Philby of Arabia by Elizabeth Monroe

London: Quartet Books, 1980                         ISBN 0714333465

It's a sad state of affairs that when one mentions the name Philby usually the first person to be discussed is Kim, the Soviet Spy and British traitor. His Father, Harry (known as St. John) Philby, or as he came to be known "Philby of Arabia", is a more fascinating man for all sorts of reasons.

In this book Elizabeth Monroe has done a serviceable job of relaying a life of a driven, difficult, yet talented man who carved out his own niche in the history of the political development of the Middle East, and in exploring both the geography and history of much of the Arabian Peninsula. 

The subject of a broken home, Philby exhibited his precocious talent early, winning an exhibition to the famous Westminster School, and on to Trinity College at Cambridge. His mother's lack of means meant that rather than continue on at University he went to India to work in the civil service, where his quick facility for languages served him well, but where his quick temper and forthright views served him less so. He was seen early on as a bit of a "queer fish" owing to his mingling with the locals, and his developing views on Indian independence, although in many other ways Philby was English to his core, never losing his love of London club life, or watching cricket at Lords.

Like many men of his era, World War One was a turning point in his life. He chafed to be of use to his country, and eventually found his way to Mesopotamia, where he worked with the governing forces. He never saw action, but became a vital member of the civil government for a time. However, his forceful nature and inability to compromise saw him lose favour with the powers that be, which was a constant theme in his life. He did have his supporters though and they suggested he be sent to gauge the political outlook of Ibn Saud, the major Sheikh in Arabia during the War. Philby, in the course of this task, became the first European to traverse Arabia from East to West, and was one of the first to enter Riyadh and stay there for any length of time. He became friends with Saud, and in his impulsive way, saw Saud as the true liberator and ruler of all the Arabs. Because Philby was a man who only saw things in black-and-white, this meant that he was totally opposed to Hashemite rule in Arabia, which again brought him into conflict with the British Government. He played a small part in the negotiations around the political shape of the Arabian peninsula after the War, but was never able to grasp the bigger picture, failing even to see that Ibn Saud was following an agenda different to the one Philby thought he should.

Philby though had seen one thing - that his future lay in Arabia. He revealingly wrote to his long-suffering wife, Dora - who was left in England for long periods without much money to bring up their children - that he was desperate for fame, and he felt that Arabia was the place for him to find it. He had written a book about his wartime journey, and was seen as something of an Arabian expert, so was hired by a company to represent them in Arabia. It took several "lean years" before he could turn his friendship with Saud into a profitable one, years in which he further antagonised the British government with his outspoken writings suggesting Arabia should be independent. During these years he also converted to Islam, which seems to have been driven by practical motives as it enabled him to be with the King in the Holy City of Mecca - Philby never seems to have been a very religious man.

His business career began to meet with some success in the 1930s, and he was given permission by the King for the first of his Arabian journeys, into the Empty Quarter. Although Philby in many ways was not a nice person, he was a good explorer and mapmaker, producing quality geographical information on his trips, as well as collecting interesting specimens of wildlife. Philby being Philby, he also caused a diplomatic incident when he entered Yemen without permission, which made Ibn Saud wary of giving him permission to explore in similar areas near the border.

World War Two saw Philby spend some time under arrest in Britain for his views on Britain and its Middle Eastern Policy: Philby thoughout his life could never understand why his outspokenness may not be welcome, and always saw himself as a loyal but critical Englishman. His short foray into politics was similarly damaged by his outspoken nature, gathering only 526 votes the only time he stood for office.

After the war he was back in Arabia, living well until the demise of Ibn Saud, which included starting another family with a girl given to him by the King. In the 1950s he made several expeditions into the ancient lands of Midian, before being for a time banished from the Kingdom after Saud's death, for criticism of the Kingdom's growing problem with corruption and greed.

Philby eventually was welcomed back, but by this time he was an old man, and eventually died at his son Kim's home in Beirut in 1960. By this time Kim was already under pressure, with speculation about him being "the third man" rife: he fled to the Soviet Union shortly after his father's death.

Philby's legacy is his exploration and mapping work, with the results of his Midian expedition with Rykmans still being written about to this day. His was one of the last of those lives lived when an Englishman could impose himself anywhere in the world and live a life worth writing about. A fascinating man, this book is a good introduction to him and his achievements.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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