The journey of a lifetime

In 1938, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone became the first European royal to travel to the newly founded kingdom of Saudi Arabia
To coincide with a new exhibition of photographs from the trip at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Ann Morris looks back at the princess’s memoirs, which recount the story of this most radical of royal visits.

Stepping foot on the sun-baked harbour at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and the youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria, made history. As the sons of King Abdul-Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud) swept forward in their black-and-gold-trimmed cloaks to greet her, she entered a world more usually forbidden to women and became the first European royal to visit the kingdom.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary journey that would take this adventurous princess from Jeddah on the west coast, south into the hills above Mecca, east across mountains and desert to the capital, Riyadh, and then on to Dhahran on the Gulf of Arabia, where oil had just been discovered.

The trip was documented in some detail thanks to the princess’s unusual enthusiasm for photography; she and her entourage took several hundred pictures, recording what they saw and who they met. A selection of these pictures, now owned by the King Abdul-Aziz Public Library in Riyadh, goes on display at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) this summer.

Forging friendships
Princess Alice’s groundbreaking visit consolidated valuable relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia, and forged a personal friendship between the two royal families that endures to this day. At the time, Western Europe was hovering on the brink of the Second World War, and Britain recognised that Saudi Arabia could be a valuable friend in the dark days to come. Looking back, the visit appears to be a clever diplomatic move, but it was no such thing; rather, it was the result of an unplanned meeting. Princess Alice describes the scene in her 1966 book of reminiscences, For My Grandchildren:

‘Our visit to Arabia in 1938 came about through a chance meeting with the Crown Prince Saud in 1936, when he took me in to luncheon at Ascot. Owing to Uncle George [King George V] being ill, Aunt May [Queen Mary, who was also Princess Alice’s sister-in-law] did not want to talk through an interpreter, so I was asked to sit next to him.

‘Out of politeness, I said how sorry I was that I had never visited Arabia, though I had been as far as Petra. He at once asked, “Why not come to Arabia?” I murmured something to the effect that no ladies had ever been there, but he said if I did not mind sleeping in tents it was easy. I replied that I had often slept in camps without tents at all and accepted right away.’

Two years later, Princess Alice and her husband, the Earl of Athlone, started out on this historic adventure, travelling first to Egypt and then Sudan, before finally reaching Jeddah on 25 February. Princess Alice walked through the port, bustling with pilgrims returning from the Hajj, with Prince Faisal (later King Faisal) and ‘fetched up on a Louis XVI sofa where we drank lemonade, after which all the Arab notables were presented and shook hands’.

The following day, the Princess met King Abdul-Aziz:

‘He himself was a huge man, a great gentleman with a most engaging manner. He was charming and full of jokes, and we became his hero-worshippers. We were received in what I imagine was his audience room, with Damascus furnishings. We sat in an alcove, he on the sofa and we on either side of him… and I thanked him very much for inviting me as he had never before asked a female to an audience or a meal.’

The next day, they went ‘bumping and skidding’ along a road slippery with mud from the annual spring rain, for a ‘picnic’ at Wadi Fatima, an oasis in the desert. This was no ordinary blanket-and-flask affair under a palm tree:

‘There were numerous tents – including a huge reception marquee as high as a “big top”, all lined in dark green with its front flap held open by poles. There were beautiful carpets on the ground and the usual sofa and chairs at one end and cane chairs all round for the hundred guests.

‘We saw a real Arab spread for the first time. The table was piled with food. There were 16 whole lambs in large metal dishes, chickens, rice, strange excellent vegetables, pastries and fruit – sufficient to feed a battalion. Little was left as the hangers-on and villagers of the oasis had to be fed. Faisal’s magnificent bodyguard stood behind him, bristling with daggers, carrying rifles ornamented with silver and gold and wearing magnificent clothes. They clung to their rifles even when handling dishes or putting up tent poles.’

In the evening, they were hosted to a banquet by King Abdul-Aziz: ‘The dinner with the King was entrancing and by now I had got over my embarrassment at being the only female among over a hundred guests,’ the princess wrote. She wore black, hoping to present a discreet front, as the king ‘had never in his life sat next to a woman at meals’.

Attendants stood around as the king regaled his British guests with the story of the capture of Riyadh more than 30 years before. Outnumbered four to one, his daring band of young followers had reclaimed the city from the Turks, and with this began their campaign to reunite the kingdom under the banner of Islam.

Two days later, after scent had been poured on their hands, sweets shared and incense burned, the princess took her leave of the king. Accompanied by Hafiz Wahba (then Saudi ambassador to Britain), they travelled in cars out onto the dirt, stone and sand tracks that served as roads across the kingdom, first driving south into the hill town of Taif, which was, and still is, a summer retreat for the Saudi royal family.

There they stayed for two days, riding on horseback into the hills around the town. ‘Lavender out everywhere and masses of pink and white asphodels,’ wrote the princess in a letter to her daughter, May. ‘I mounted on a donkey with a huge saddle made of carpet. We rose steadily and came out unexpectedly on a ridge with a sheer drop of thousands of feet to a large dry winding river bed. Beyond were range upon range of blue and purple hills. Had it been clearer we could just have seen a corner of Makkah [Mecca].’

Next morning, dressed in their Arab robes, they set out in the direction of Riyadh, recording what they saw: from a camel caravan of ladies in hooded panniers returning from Hajj to a group of Khalawi Bedouin making their living as wandering gunsmiths with tame falcons and Saluki dogs living in their tents.

Crossing the dunes
After the hills came the desert:

‘We had to negotiate some sands dunes called Nufonds, which last year even King Saud took eight hours to cross. We halted at Fort Duwadine – a perfect Beau Geste fort with parapet walls and four towers where the guards sleep. Over the gateway there is a large, airy room where the King camps. By this time I had become quite attached to my abaya [jallabia], which acted like a bell tent when I wanted to disappear.’

A day later, the rough ground sent the motor cavalcade skidding, and one of the cars was smashed flat. ‘All the camp followers were in different degrees of pain from cuts and bruises,’ the princess wrote. ‘One said he was going to die, but the Shiekh told him “Allah is not wanting you at all today!”’

They finally reached the plateau outside Riyadh, where they were met by Crown Prince Saud. The city then was very different from the towering modern monument to contemporary architecture that visitors see today. ‘The town is of stately yellow mud buildings and the castellated tops of the fort and the palace surrounded by the high city wall look most effective and give the impression of a medieval town,’ the princess recorded. ‘Outside the walls, the Bedouin visiting the Crown Prince pitched their tents.’

They visited the market and the Masmak Fort in the heart of the city, a reminder of its capture by King Abdul-Aziz in 1902. There were picnics in the garden at Massana and at Draiya (Diriyah), the ruined capital of Nejd. ‘There were a thousand things to photograph but whenever we stopped a throng of curious people crowded round,’ wrote the princess.

Princess Alice went to visit Ibn Saud’s sister:

‘Nura, is about sixty and said to be his chief adviser, a fine, handsome woman. She gave us coffee and dates (which we dipped in butter, Arab fashion) and nice cold sour milk called leban. Seeing a telephone I persuaded her to ask Crown Prince Saud to send round the interpreter, and when he arrived we got along swimmingly.’

On 10 March, they left for Hofuf, at first accompanied by Crown Prince Saud:

‘We ascended ridges, descended into wadis and traversed plateaux on the way to the camp, which we were sharing with Saud and his army. We went to Saud’s tent, where with a wave of his hand he bade me be seated. As I let myself down I fell backwards measuring my length on the floor. It must have been a ridiculous sight as I lay there in my abaya, for everyone laughed hysterically.’

After a day hunting with falcons, the Crown Prince presented them with a gift of thoroughbred Arab horses before saying goodbye:

‘We set out for what was said to be the most difficult part of our journey, but the recent rain helped us and we crossed the heavy sand without mishap. Later all the cars got stuck in one steep, heavy sand dune, but Emir Ibn Tilnevi of Hofuf sent thirty of his guard, all beautifully dressed in white muslin coats and armed to the teeth to haul us out.
‘Hofuf was a most imposing place, with a deep fosse and high walls with a series of towers – all white. There were springs bubbling up from among the limestone rocks. It was heavenly to see so much water among the date palms and irrigating the paddy fields.’

Black gold

The journey’s final leg saw the group turning down and along the east coast towards Dhahran, where oil had just been discovered. Before departing Saudi Arabia on 17 March, Princess Alice visited the famous Well Number Seven. There, she ‘felt the pipe… and thro’ my gloves it was boiling hot and you could feel the oil shaking the pipe as it rushed up thro’ it’.

The discovery of oil would dramatically change the fortunes of the desert kingdom. King George VI sent a telegram of congratulations to King Abdul-Aziz, noting that the finding had ‘happily’ coincided with Princess Alice’s visit.

At the end of her journey, leaving Saudi Arabia from the port of Khobar, Princess Alice parted with ‘many regrets at the conclusion of a lovely and interesting journey’.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, an article in The Times noted: ‘Britain was the only Great Power that had cordial, friendly and close relations with Saudi Arabia.’ The friendship stood Britain in good stead. A report by a British diplomatic mission in Jeddah in 1942 records: ‘Britain, in all her long history, can seldom have had such loyal support from a foreign power either in adversity or in success.'

Journey of a Lifetime, an exhibition of photographs of HRH Princess Alice’s visit to Saudi Arabia, will be on display at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) from 11 July to 26 August. A launch lecture, open to RGS-IBG members, will be given jointly by historian Alexander Maitland and Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, at 7pm on 12 July

July 2011

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