On 1 October 2019 Mr Alan Dillon, an alumnus from the British Embassy in Riyadh and currently the Head of Chancery in Muscat, spoke to the Society on the subject of his book, ‘Captain Shakespear – Desert exploration, Arabian intrigue and the rise of Ibn Sa’ud’. Alan gave an impassioned talk on Captain Shakespear, a political agent from the Government of India’s Political Department who laid the foundations for formal diplomatic relations with Ibn Sa’ud, and later with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Chaired by Saudi British Society chairman Sir William Patey, Alan took several questions from the audience to delve further into the life of this extraordinary man.
Shakespear spent six years in military service before he joined the Political Department in 1904, serving twice in Bandar Abbas and briefly in Muscat. In 1909, he was posted to the coastal Sheikhdom of Kuwait where for the next four years, he travelled extensively into the Nejdi desert, providing both London and Delhi with valuable intelligence about the vastly unknown interior as well as cultivating a personal relationship with Ibn Sa’ud, the Emir of Riyadh. During this time, Shakespear also captured many firsts with his camera, including the first photograph of the emir and the iconic camel-mounted warrior charge, all of which were on show in Alan’s talk.
At a time when London and Constantinople were negotiating the Anglo-Ottoman treaty, Shakespear almost became persona non grata for advocating the need to back the emir, particularly after he had expelled the Ottoman garrisons in al-Hasa in 1913. When war was declared in July 1914, Shakespear was one of the first to try to join the British Army to fight in France, but when the Ottoman Empire looked set to ally with Germany, the powers that had previously shunned him now needed his unique knowledge of Central Arabia and relationship with Ibn Sa’ud. That October, as many of his peers and countrymen crossed the English Channel to reinforce those already in the trenches, Shakespear set sail for Kuwait on special duty to rendezvous with the emir. Three months later, Shakespear fell in battle alongside over a thousand of Ibn Sa’ud’s warriors at Jirab. It was a mission that T E Lawrence would later commend, acknowledging the crucial role that the political agent played during the early stages in the Middle Eastern theatre of war.
Alan’s book, which was released on 17 September is the result of nearly 5 years of research and writing. Alan expertly drew Shakespear out of Lawrence’s shadow, passionately giving proper recognition to the role he played in the pursuit of British interests in the Arabian Peninsula and to make amends for a Parliamentary injustice.
The talk was followed by a reception at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce.