The past year has been a challenging one for the Society as it has been for the wider world. I took over as Chairman from Sir Derek Plumbly at the last AGM in June 2019 and I want to pay tribute to Derek for his leadership of the Society over the previous three years. For the first half of the year the Society operated as normal with our annual events, Ghazi al Gosaibi lecture and the Rawabi Awards held as usual. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March forced the Society to go into virtual mode which I am pleased to say has been a success (more of that below).
At the 30th AGM on 25 June 2019 Peter Harrigan, a Trustee and founder of Medina Publishing, gave a talk on Saudi Arabia’s diverse attractions and developments in heritage, public spaces and tourism. He was able to draw on recent publications on which he has worked, including books on Riyadh and Diryah.
The Society bade farewell to our President HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf as his term as the Kingdom’s Ambassador to the Court of St James’s came to an end. Sir Alan Munro, Sir Derek Plumbly and myself paid an introductory call on the new Ambassador, HRH Prince Khalid bin Bandar, to welcome him as our new President. Prince Khalid said he was keen to support the Society and looked forward to working with us during his term of office.
On 1 October Alan Dillon, an alumnus from the British Embassy in Riyadh and currently serving in the British Embassy in Muscat gave a fascinating talk on Captain Shakespear, who as a political agent from the Government of India’s Political Department laid the foundations for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Ibn Saud and later the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
On 30 October the Society had a stand at the 15th Opportunity Arabia event which was held at Grocers’ Hall, London. David Lloyd, one of the Society’s Trustees, co-ordinates this event which was chaired by the Society’s Honorary Vice-President, Sir Alan Munro. Discounted tickets were arranged for members.
On 4 December the Society’s annual Ghazi al Gosaibi Memorial Lecture was given by HRH Prince Khalid bin Bandar, his first major speaking event since becoming Ambassador. The Ambassador used the occasion to set out the breadth, depth and importance of the strategic relationship between the two Kingdoms which Ghazi in his time here in London did so much to promote. The event was held at the Saudi Embassy in Mayfair and we were honoured to have Ghazi al Gosaibi’s widow, Sigrid al Gosaibi and one of his grandsons with us.
On 27 February, the Society’s Annual Dinner was held at the Institute of Directors. It was well attended and, as has become a custom, it was combined with the presentation of the Rawabi Awards, thanks to the continuing generosity of Sheikh Abdulaziz AlTurki, Chairman of Rawabi Holding Group. This year’s recipients were David Lloyd OBE, who has developed a life-long relationship with Saudi Arabia spending the last 20 years promoting trade between the two Kingdoms, and Lulwah Al Homoud, a Saudi artist, freelance curator and visual communications expert, who has dedicated many years to introducing Saudi art and culture to the UK.
Then came COVID! With everyone in lockdown and unable to meet in person the Society had to adapt. I am pleased to say that with the help of Zoom and an enthusiastic group of Trustees the work of the Society went on. By way of encouragement we also received a message of support from our joint Patron HRH The Prince of Wales, which was relayed to all members. We have had a number of successful virtual events often in cooperation with other organisations such as the screening of the film Arabian Renaissance about the revival and growth of archaeology in the Kingdom. The Society hosted a virtual Panel Discussion featuring three young Saudis giving us their take on future developments in the Kingdom moderated by Dr Mark Thompson, Trustee and Senior Associate Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS), Riyadh. More recently we arranged for members to have access to a lecture on T.E Lawrence hosted by the Intervarsity Club, London by the Chair of the T.E. Lawrence Society.
On 13 August the Society hosted (on Zoom) “An Evening with Ms Sawsan AlBahiti, Saudi Arabia’s First Opera Soprano”. Sawsan who has been singing for over a decade gave us a selection of classical arias in a live performance direct from Munich. After the performance Sawsan kindly answered a number of questions about music in Saudi Arabia and her own journey into opera. This was an illustration of how the new normal may throw up opportunities that might not otherwise be possible.
Our new Hon. Secretary, Edward Ogilvie has been prolific in circulating reviews and items of interest to the Society’s membership which I hope you have found both stimulating and interesting.
I would like to take this opportunity pay tribute to the Society’s Honorary officers, Edward Ogilvie and Karen Worcester without whom the Society would not be able to function and for the efforts by all the other Trustees who have given their time over the year. It is too early to see the end of the current restrictions on meeting face to face. In the meantime, we will continue to ensure that the Society’s presence online is relevant and interesting.
Sir William Patey