Arabian oryx ⁄ Fallow deer



Crossing the Empty Quarter – in the footsteps of Bertram Thomas, by Mark   Evans  

Crossing the Empty Quarter – in the footsteps of Bertram Thomas
by Mark Evans. 
Gilgamesh Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-908531-60-5. £25

The towers of Doha, and the first crossing of the Rub Al Khali
" We were arriving. The Bedouin moved forward at a sharp pace, chanting the water chants. Our thirsty camels pricked up their ears with eager knowingness. The last sandhill was left behind. After the next undulation, we saw in the dip of the stony plain before us; Na’aija, where we had planned a final watering, and beyond it the towers of Doha silhouetted against the waters of the gulf. Half an hour later we entered the walls of the fort. The Rub Al Khali had been crossed."
Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix, 1932

Eighty five years ago, in February 1931, British Explorer Bertram Thomas and his Bedouin companions staggered into Doha. Sixty days before they had left the Sultan of Oman’s palace in Salalah, and had set off north in the hope of becoming the first people to cross the biggest sand desert on earth. For sixty days, no–one had known where they were, and they had no way of communicating with anyone. They would live, or die, on their own wits, and with the support of the local tribespeople.

After weeks living off dates, dried camel meat and whatever they could catch in the sands, the hospitality offered by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, was a welcome and much needed relief. But still, in 1931, it was impossible for Thomas to share his great news from Doha. A dhow trip to Bahrain enabled him to reach a telegraph office, and to send out telegrams announcing that the Rub Al Khali had finally been crossed. The news spread like wildfire; the western world, thanks to the exploits of T E Lawrence of Arabia, was obsessed with the romance of Arabia. In 1932, the prestigious Explorers Club in New York described the Rub Al Khali as ’the greatest expanse of unexplored territory outside of Antarctica’; the race was on to become the first westerner to cross, and to claim the crown. News of Thomas’ achievement made the front page of The Times in London, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Telegrams of congratulations flooded in, including from King George in London, and the Sultan of Oman.

Thomas went on to travel the world, lecturing about his journey, and was awarded numerous medals of honour as a result (all of which were auctioned off in Scotland in the summer of 2015). His book, Arabia Felix, which can still be found in antique bookshops in London, contains numerous photographs of an era now long gone. These images are held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, but it was at Cambridge University that a fascinating discovery was made amongst his belongings that had been donated there following his death. Despite the need to carry life–saving water and food, Thomas had also carried a cine camera, and, prior to it breaking halfway into his journey, had managed to capture some of the earliest moving images from southern Arabia, that have subsequently been digitised at the University of East Anglia. An edited version on DVD is available to purchase from the Anglo Omani Society.

On January 27th 2016, some eighty five years later, a team of three people – two Omani’s, Amur Al Wahaibi and Mohammed Al Zadjali, and Brit Mark Evans recreated this historic journey. There were several reasons for undertaking this new journey; to celebrate the long standing friendship between Oman, UK, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to celebrate the 45th year of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Al Said as the ruler of Oman, and to engage with and send out a message to young people in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, that little is gained without sustained hard work.

The 2015–16 journey took 49 days to complete, and was supported by three camels and two 4x4 support vehicles. The 1,300 km route started at Al Husn in Salalah, the original starting point, and headed north through the frankincense clad hills and wadis of Jebel Qara, before entering the southern sands at the famous watering hole of Shisr. Ten days later they crossed the border into Saudi Arabia, and entered the sands of Dakaka, the most challenging sector of the journey, following where possible the original route of Bertram Thomas, and using several of same the wells that he visited; the team were even tracked down by the grandson of Sheikh Saleh bin Kalut, the only Omani to complete the original journey from Salalah to Doha, who proudly carried the original khanjar worn by his grandfather in 1930/1931.

Once the sands of Dakaka had been negotiated, the easier sands of Sanam enabled them to start what Thomas described as ’The Northward Dash’ to Doha, reaching the border after several days of thick fog and sodden sleeping bags. As the team entered Qatar, they were greeted by a team of young Qataris on camels from NOMAS, an organisation that seeks to re–connect young Qatari’s to their own culture and heritage. Five days later, the towers of Doha were in sight, and at Al Rayyan Fort, the team were warmly welcomed by His Highness Sheikh Joaan bin Hamed Al Thani, the Qatari Patron of the journey.

Unlike Thomas’ lack of connectivity, thanks to satellite technology the daily progress of the 2015/16 journey was uploaded onto a website, where the digitised cine footage, daily blogs and images can be enjoyed by all.

The Author Mark Evans ( is the executive director of Outward Bound Oman, the only Outward Bound school in an Arabic speaking nation. He was awarded the MBE in 2011 for his work using desert journeys to promote intercultural dialogue between young people from different cultures.

Click here for more information on the Gilgamesh Publishing website

The Bro Code of Saudi Culture

by Abdul Al Lily

The subtitle to the book is ’666 Rules on how the Human Body should Act in Arabia’ and indeed it does have 666 guidelines or rules on how to behave in, and understand, Saudi Arabia. Dr Abdul Al Lily, an academic at Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal University, has conducted thousands of interviews to write this remarkable, original book. Most of the guidelines have not been written down before; they make insightful reading.

The book addresses two different audiences: expatriates and Saudis. First, it explains to expatriates the unwritten rules that make society tick, and how visitors need to behave to be accepted in Saudi circles. It explains why Saudis behave in particular ways, giving foreigners hitherto unrevealed insights into this opaque and contradictory society. Its method uses parts of the body, from the face, eyes, ears and mouth through the waist and genitals to the legs and feet. This gives Dr Al Lily a somewhat vertical framework but it opens up Saudi traditions, involvement with Islam, belief in their society and also some interesting characteristics.

However, this is a book with a serious intent and addresses the numerous distortions of Saudi culture presented in the international media. After all, Saudi society is a Muslim society of a particular conservative brand of Islam based on an 18th century unitarian preacher which is perceived to cover every aspect of a person’s life. The west is usually judgmental of this brand of Islam and consequently of Saudi mores, seeing the Kingdom as a deviation from most of the world’s cultures, says Dr Al Lily.

But, I quote him again, the west does not understand that "they [Saudis] think this deviation is the right way of doing things and that others do things the wrong way. These Saudis’ pride has apparently ’teased’ foreign writers and commentators and encouraged insult and mock Saudi culture." Much of the distortion arises from too little sociological interpretation being written in a language accessible to foreigners, not Arabic.

The second audience is Saudis themselves – and the few foreigners that have lived in the Kingdom long enough and taken the trouble to try to fathom the society. For them the 666 narrative is fascinating and witty, a bit of a hoot and fun. It reminds me of the wit in Rajaa Alsanea’s 2005 novel, Girls of Riyadh. But Dr Al Lily is kind and affectionate to his compatriots, taking their side but exposing their vanities and contradictions.

The question of gender in such a seemingly closed society is one Dr Al Lily tackles with vigour. Contrary to western perceptions of a culture where the sexes do not meet informally and sex is controlled through the family, Dr Al Lily shows how young men and women meet, become items, get round the prohibitions and move to marriage. For instance, guideline 566, "When the Saudi man gets married, his life stops. When the Saudi woman gets married, her life begins. That is, before marriage, the Saudi man has so much freedom and can have a ’wild’ time. The Saudi woman has restricted freedom. She is hyper–vigilant of doing anything that might affect her marriageable status." But Dr Al Lily discusses how people get round this; take guideline 397, "A man hooks up his male friend with the female friend of his lover. Experts in women will know if a veiled woman is interested from her eyes and from the style of her black cloak."

Dr Al Lily highlights conservative Islam’s hold. In a number of guidelines between 200 and 240 he details the effect of wahhabi Islam. Without ever mentioning the word Islam he talks about the pervasive "reminders regarding traditions...(200) When one stops at traffic lights, there are signs next to them reminding one of traditional norms and values." But this is mild compared with later guidelines when he focuses on the hai’a (the religious police’s agency), (227) "The ’tradition agency’ is active. It has its own cars that its members drive around... They also walk on foot in public places (e.g. shopping malls) to make sure everything is consistent with traditional values." During 2016 the hai’a has been less active, however.

The reader can take the book on different levels. You can read it as an amusing description of the vagaries and contradictions of Saudi Arabia; you can find political messages in it. But in my view it is a remarkably candid explanation of the Saudi society, shining a light and critiquing it. But in the end the writer is a Saudi and an academic and it is cheerfully non-judgmental.

Published 2016, pp. 170. £7.00, paperback. ISBN-10: 1532830130, ISBN-13: 978-1532830136, Mutanabbi Bookshop, Dammam.
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Wings over Arabia by Roger Harrison
Wings over Arabia by Roger Harrison

by Roger Harrison

On 2 June 2006, a team of three gliders, one chase plane, support crew and all–terrain vehicles gathered at a fiercely hot and dusty airfield 50 kilometres outside Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. The pilots, two Saudi princes and the person who had trained them on the Stemme gliders to be flown, were about to make gliding history by flying in a great circular route round the western half of Saudi Arabia over some of the harshest and unforgiving desert terrain in the world.

In Wings Over Arabia, Roger Harrison, writer, photographer and long–time resident of the Kingdom, chronicles this modern version of a ‘royal progress’ over the wild and desolate deserts, the Red Sea coast and the mountainous south–western region of the Kingdom. The stunning photographs – many unique since the flight paths passed over areas never before or since open to non–military aircraft – are accompanied by entertaining text on every step of this unique journey. Additional narrative and ground–level photos of the features below the gliders supplement many of the aerial sequences.

Click here to purchase from Medina Publishing Ltd.

Keep the Flag Flying by Sir alan Munro  

by Sir Alan Munro

From first arrival in Lebanon as a fresh faced graduate to the heat of the first Gulf War conflict as managed from Saudi Arabia, Sir Alan Munro’s account of life representing Her Majesty’s government in embassy posting across the world will enchant and engage. This book is intended to convey something of the flavour – and the frivolities – of escapades and encounters which Sir Alan and his wife experienced in the course of thirty–five years in diplomacy in the Middle East, Africa and South America, and at home too. The narrative is set against a half–century of post–imperial adjustment in Britain’s foreign policy, in which withdrawal from a global role is offset by an overriding concern, shared with western partners, to counter the extension – political and economic as well as military – of Soviet Marxist influence across a fractious post–colonial world. It is no purpose of mine to denigrate or burlesque any individuals who appear in its pages. This account brings out the human side, as well as the value, of a profession in which ’life’s rich tapestry’ plays an uncommonly prominent part.

Click here to purchase from Amazon
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Scalpel in the Sand by René Chang  

by Dr René Chang

René Chang worked as a surgeon at the ultra–modern Riyadh Military Hospital, Saudi Arabia between 1979 and 1989. This book records his experience of working amongst, and interacting with ordinary people. It is a time–capsule of a period of great changes. He participated in the development of new services including a kidney transplant programme that achieved international renown, a comprehensive hospital–wide Nutrition Support Service, the Major Disaster Response Plan for KKIA and seminal research which caught the attention of the medical world. He had the rare privilege of teaching the first group of Saudi women to graduate as doctors. Thus, he was well placed to observe the "green shoots" of women’s emancipation and also their problems. This book should contribute to improving relations between the West and the Muslim Arabs

Click here to purchase the Kindle edition from Amazon
Click here to purchase from Waterstones
Cick here to purchase the Sony eReader edition

Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey  

by Robert Lacey

“The author has come up with a timely and worthy sequel to his first book on the subject. ‘The Kingdom’, Robert Lacey’s magisterial study of the history of Saudi Arabia and her powerful ruling dynasty, the Al Saud, has for nigh on 30 years provided a definitive introduction to one of the world’s most wealthy, yet most secretive, states. This sequel is the product of three years spent reconnecting with old haunts and contacts, and new faces too, to take stock of the process of adaptation and reform that has been gathering pace through the reigns of three Al Saud monarchs.”

This review by Sir Alan Munro of ‘Inside the Kingdom’ was published in the Middle East International Magazine (MEI).
Click here to see the article in full

Sir Alan Munro, Honorary Vice-President of the Saudi-British Society, was a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and is also author of ‘Arab Storm: Politics and Diplomacy Behind the Gulf War’ (see below).

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Saudi Women Speak by Mona Almunajjed  

"Saudi Women Speak" by Mona Almunajjed. Publisher: Arab Institute for Research and Publishing. ISBN 9953-36-918-6.

"Interesting work. The closed, conservative...society of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is being challenged from within by women. In this taboo–breaking book, Saudi sociologist Mona AlMunajjed has interviewed 24 brave, highly educated and public spirited Saudi women, each of them a powerful agent of change. United in a reformist vision for their country....the future of the country may well lie with them."

Patrick Seale, Journalist and leading writer on the Middle East.

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Arab Storm by sir Alan Munro  

Politics and Diplomacy Behind the Gulf War
by Sir Alan Munro

The author of the book Sir Alan Munro, former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Honorary Vice–President of the Saudi–British Society, presents a superb account of the diplomatic interplay, the difficult communication with the international media, and the politics of war surrounding the Gulf war in 1990. The book is an opportune reminder of the pressures, difficulties and the potential of international diplomacy in the region and a thoughtful analysis of the politics of the Middle East.

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Beyond the Dunes  

An Anthology of Modern Saudi Literature

“Beyond the Dunes” is a remarkable insight into the uniqueness and diversity of contemporary Saudi Arabian literature presented for a first time to an English–speaking audience. Mansour Aal–Hazimi, Ezzat Khattab and Salma Kkadra Jayyusi have included a selection of poetry, novels, personal accounts, drama and essays providing a fascinating glimpse into the challenges, dilemmas and identity struggles encountered by Saudi nationals, striving to balance between modernity and traditional values.

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Travellers in Arabia  

British Explorers in Saudi Arabia

This wonderful masterpiece is based on a collection of unique photographs from the great British travellers to Arabia over the past 150 years together with lectures held at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London in 2004 and fascinating essays by three British personalities. The book’s editor, Eid Al Yahya, aims to inform the readers about the history of Arabia and its early contacts with Britain in visual terms. He presents an absorbing story of adventurous travel, of hospitality and hardship, and of political intrigue, as Britain and other western powers sought alliances within this isolated region that was destined soon to emerge as a crucial player on the international stage.

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Pilgrimage to Mecca by Lady Evelyn Cobbold  

by Lady Evelyn Cobbold

Republished by Arabian Publishing Ltd (29 April 2008)

Product description from Amazon website:

As the first British woman convert to Islam on record and having made the pilgrimage to Makkah and the visit to the Prophet’s Tomb at Madinah, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867–1963) cuts a unique figure in the annals of the Muslim Hajj. Lady Evelyn was in her mid–sixties when she decided to go on the Hajj. Daughter of the distinguished Scottish explorer Lord Dunmore, granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, and great–niece of the notorious romantic Lady Jane Digby el-Mezrab, the young Evelyn Murray had spent childhood winters in North Africa. Before and after the First World War she travelled widely in Egypt, Syria and Transjordan. While strongly drawn to the Arab world, she maintained a conventional place in society at home, marrying the wealthy John Cobbold in 1891 and devoting herself to her Suffolk house and Scottish estate, her gardens, and especially deer-stalking in the Highlands, of which she was a renowned exponent. When her husband, by then High Sheriff of Suffolk, died in 1929, Lady Evelyn decided to perform the pilgrimage. She had to overcome the considerable suspicion surrounding foreign ’converts’ who, Muslims felt, made the pilgrimage and then wrote about it as a dangerous and sensational adventure. PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA is as much an account of an interior journey of faith as a conventional travelogue. It takes the form of a day–by–day journal, interspersed with digressions on the history and merits of Islam. Her book was published in 1934 to favourable reviews but has never until now been reprinted. This new edition, with a biographical introduction by William Facey and Lady Evelyn’s great–great–niece Miranda Taylor, serves to rescue this unique and intriguing Anglo–Muslim from the neglect that has since befallen her.

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