Shakespear and the Saudi King
Captain William Henry Irvine Shakespear was an early high-flyer in the colonial administration of British India. Born in Bombay in 1878, his rapid rise as diplomat and army officer was crowned by postings to the strategically significant Gulf while still in his twenties; first to Bandar Abbas in what is now Iran, and then Kuwait.
As was the custom of many colonial officers at that time, Shakespear stuck to formal rules of decorum. He would always wear his military uniform and never adopted Arab dress as other prominent British military men and explorers, such as TE Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger, at times favoured.
But from his first arrival in the region he had set about learning local ways, hunting in the desert with his falcon and pack of Saluki hounds, and mastering the Urdu, Pashto, Persian and Arabic languages. He was also an enthusiastic photographer, making unique panoramic scenes using a newly developed Kodak camera.
His desert gear included tanks of chemicals for developing negatives, screened off in a darkened corner of his tent.
Shakespear could have been forgiven for sending his apologies to Sheikh Mubarak bin Sabah Al-Sabah on February 28, 1910, upon receiving an invite to dinner. He had only that day arrived back in Kuwait from a lengthy trip into the desert, during which time tribal raiders had attacked his camp, killing a guide. Instead, as historians Barbara Bray and Michael Darlow record, “Tired [and] dirty, Shakespear snatched a few hours’ sleep, washed, shaved, downed a stiff drink [and] set out for Mubarak’s palace.” And so began a new chapter in Britain’s overseas entanglements.
Another guest at the dinner was Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud. At that time the Emir of Najd in central Arabia, “Ibn Saud” would become the founding king of a new country in 1932: Saudi Arabia. Shakespear (who was already fluent in Najdi Arabic) and Abdulaziz hit it off almost immediately, with the British officer later writing that his counterpart had “a frank, open face, and is of genial and courteous manner”.
The following evening Shakespear invited Abdulaziz to dine at the diplomatic residence. There was already a note of playfulness in their relationship, as indicated by the hearty British spread of roast lamb with mint sauce, roast potatoes and tinned asparagus served to the Arabian guests. Shakespear was the first foreigner that Abdulaziz met, but the two men quickly forged a close personal relationship. Abdulaziz was reportedly surprised by the Englishman’s knowledge of the desert, as well as his forceful personality. “Shakespear came like a whirlwind,” wrote Victor Winstone in his biography, Captain Shakespear: A Portrait.
“Had Shakespear survived, the course of the First World War and the subsequent carve up of the Middle East might have played out differently”
Growing mutual respect led to a series of informal meetings between the two men. With oil yet to be discovered in the region, the conversations focused on political goals. Britain sought to extend its Middle Eastern influence and outwit Ottoman Turkey; Abdulaziz wanted to conquer Arabia by defeating his tribal nemesis and Ottoman ally, Ibn Rashid. “For an outsider to stay at the camp of Abdulaziz was a special honour,” history professor Abdullah Al-Askar told Peter Harrigan, author of The Captain and the King, “Something political was cooking.”
British backing for Shakespear’s efforts did not come overnight. In 1913 Abdulaziz drove the Ottoman garrison out of the coastal oasis of Al-Hasa, in what is now eastern Saudi Arabia. Britain withheld support, much to the chagrin of Shakespear. Chafing at his government’s short-sightedness he departed for open country, launching a private expedition from Kuwait to Cairo across the Nafud and Sinai deserts. Two-thirds of the 3,000km route was uncharted, with Shakespear mapping and photographing the territory as he travelled.
Following the outbreak of war in Europe, British priorities shifted to a more active involvement. In late 1914 Shakespear was instructed to negotiate a treaty with Abdulaziz, as part of a plan to push back against the Ottomans, who had sided with Germany. Arab nationalist feeling was growing across the region and Britain sought to harness that sentiment to help end Ottoman influence. Abdulaziz was using the opportunity to further extend his influence among the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.
In early January 1915 Shakespear sent the first draft of an Anglo-Saudi treaty to his superiors. He was still with Abdulaziz’s 6,000-strong army near Jarrab, in the deserts north of Riyadh, when scouts reported that their arch-enemies, the Bani Shammar under Ibn Rashid, were gathering nearby. On the morning of January 24, Shakespear — clad in full khaki battledress and pith helmet — hauled his bulky camera to a nearby hilltop to photograph the clash of camel-mounted armies. Later reports of the chaotic battle varied widely — including who actually won — but Shakespear did not return. In unexplained circumstances he had been shot and killed. His helmet was taken and displayed on a gate at Medina as proof of Abdulaziz’s supposedly treacherous alliance with the British imperialists.
The British Library in London has just published a newly digitised first-hand account of the fighting, given by Shakespear’s personal cook, Khalid bin Bilal. Bin Bilal reported that he had seen Shakespear carry his camera to a patch of higher ground as the battle began, but then lost sight of him as the Rashidi forces charged.
Two days later, having escaped from captivity, Khalid overheard Rashidi fighters discuss the death of the Englishman. He returned to the battlefield and there found Shakespear’s corpse, marked by three gunshot wounds. It was taken back for burial in the Kuwaiti capital, where his tombstone still survives.
Shakespear was only 37 when he died but he left behind a significant legacy. In late 1915 Abdulaziz and Britain signed the treaty that he had drafted. It was the first international recognition of Saudi rule in Arabia, and laid the foundation for British involvement in the region during that century. Shortly after Shakespear’s death, Britain shifted its Middle East control centre from Bombay to Cairo, and also turned its attention from the Gulf to the Levant, preluding the arrival on the scene of another maverick British officer, T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”).
Had Shakespear survived, it’s tempting to speculate that Lawrence might never have become involved in the Hejaz and Jordan. The course of the First World War and subsequent colonial carve-up of the Middle East might have played out differently.
But those tantalising what-ifs aside, it’s clear that Shakespear’s relationship with the first king of Saudi Arabia paved the way for a close alliance between the two countries that has lasted to this day. As Peter Harrigan noted of this little-known historical episode: “The friendship that developed formed the basis of the modern relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia.”