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2009 Winners

The 2009 Reception for the award of the Rawabi Holding Awards was held on 27th January 2009 at the Institute of Directors. Mr. Abdulaziz al Turki, the donor, awarded prizes and inscribed plaques to the winners, Mr. Michael Rice and Mr. William Facey.

The Saudi Embassy was represented by HE Abdullah Shaghrood, Minister Plenipoteniary.

Mr. Rice’s long connection with the Kingdom, in particular his work on setting up regional museums throughout Saudi Arabia and his continuing advice in the cultural and historical fields, was recognised.

Mr. Facey’s connection with the Kingdom (also dating from the 1970s when he, too, was involved in setting up museums) in particular his scholarly books on aspects of the Kingdom’s history and the publications he now produces on Saudi Arabia and other Arabian countries was recognised with the award.

Both winners gave speeches which may be read below in summarised form.

Mr. Rice’s speech

Michael Rice expressed his warmest thanks to the Chairman, to Mr Abdul Aziz Al–Turki, to the members of the Society’s Committee and the members of the Saudi–British Society for the honour that they had done him. His association with the Kingdom had been one of the most important of his life and one of which he was most proud.

Michael described his response to the Award and suggested an amusing comparison between this occasion and that of the Golden Globes Awards ceremony that he had found himself inadvertantly watching recently.

Michael’s first contact with Saudi Arabia took place in the early 1960s when Shaikh Hafez Wahba was the Kingdom’s Ambassador in London. He was appointed by HM King AbdulAziz ibn AbdulRahman Al–Saud in the 1930s.

Michael’s first visit to the Kingdom was in 1964. In 1967 his consultancy was retained to undertake media and protocol responsibilities during the State Visit of HM King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, which took place in the days immediately preceding the 6 Day War in June of that year. Michael asked the then Saudi Ambassador if he might present the members of the consultancy who had worked during the King’s visit to HM. the King received them in the the rather equivocal splendour of the Oliver Messel suite in the Dorchester Hotel. King Faisal bade them sit and then, for two and a half hours, reviewed his policies in the impending crisis. It was a remarkable occasion and a great privilege.

In 1974 Michael received an invitation to visit Riyadh to meet the newly–appointed Director–General of Antiquities, Dr Abdullah Hassan Masry, who had recently returned from the Oriental Institute in Chicago. As a result of this meeting MIchael and his colleagues were to be engaged over the next twenty years and more, in the establishment of the Saudi Archaeological service by Dr Masry, probably the most extensive and complex operation of its kind undertaken by any country at that time. Archaeology was a new discipline to the Kingdom, its recognition the result of King Faisal’s dictum that no country could expect to be taken seriously that overlooked an important part of its history.

Their work was, Michael insisted, a corporate effort. In particular he referred to the immense contribution of his partner of 50 years, Derek Dalby who, sadly, had died at the end of 2008, and of Ian Cook who was responsible for much of the management of the projects on which the consultancy was to be engaged; Will Facey was also engaged in many aspects of the consultancy’s work. These included the design and installation of the first museum in Riyadh, the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, the creation of the ATLAL, the Journal of Arabian Archaeology and and photographic coverage of the Kingdom’s principal archaeological and historic sites. Throughout this process the consultancy was assisted by many scholars and specialists whose skills were recruited to the tasks involved. During the installation Michael suffered a coronary thrombosis and was saved by a stay in the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, another connection with the King.

Other projects included the King Abdul Aziz Military Academy in Riyadh and the design and installation of six site museums throughout the Kingdom at locations of major archaeolgical importance, at Najran, Jizan, Al–Ula, Taima, Jawf and Hofuf. Later, the consultancy was retained to supervise a large project at Mada’in Saleh, clearing and restoring the Nabataean tombs and the surviving buildings of the Hijaz Railway at its Mada’in Saleh terminus.

Michael’s final project in the Kingdom – thus far – was the restoration of Qasr al–Masmkak in Riyadh, the citadel of the city captured by Amir AbdulAziz ibn Abdul Rahman in 1901, when he restored the Al–Saud patrimony.

Michael repeated his profound sense of privilege in having taken part in the preservation of such important aspects of the Kingdom’s cultural heritage and his gratitude to Mr Al–Turki and Rawabi Holding Company for the honour done to him.

Mr. William Facey’s Speech

Mr Chairman, Mr Abdulaziz Al–Turki, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m astonished and gratified to receive this award – indeed surprised that I have been noticed at all. As a lone toiler in a basement, I always feel I don’t get out enough, and my working life can seem pretty isolating.

So, first, I must give profuse thanks to our generous donor, Mr Abdulaziz Al–Turki, for going along with the choice of the Saudi–British Society committee and bestowing this award upon me. And then of course to the committee members themselves for having nominated me.

I am told the award is for my alleged contribution to Saudi–British relations. I was unaware that that is what I have been doing all these years since 1974, but, in a cultural sense, if that has indeed been a by–product of my activities, I am delighted that it should have been so.

Careers are generally thought of as proceeding in phases, but mine has made its uncertain progress by accumulating layers. The core of the career onion has been as a museum consultant in Arabia, for which I owe my start to Michael Rice here, who plucked me from unemployment in 1974 and sent me off to the Gulf, a region about which, at the time, I knew absolutely nothing. Thank you, Michael! Michael and I shared a decade or so of involvement, and I suppose our most glorious contribution was the series of local museums round Saudi Arabia, which are still in business.

In the 1980s I began to write seriously about Saudi Arabia, and during the 1990s books about Riyadh, al–Dir‘iyyah, the Eastern Province and early photography appeared in rapid succession. But I carried on doing the museum consultancy, creating the themes and contents of the Saudi Pavilion at EXPO ’92 in Seville, and at the end of the ’90s working with the ADA, the Riyadh Development Authority, on the huge new Saudi Arabian National Museum at Murabba‘.

The last decade has been devoted to developing my third and outer professional layer, as a publisher. Arabian Publishing is a niche publisher (code in my case for “struggling one–man band”) whose quite unrealistic goals are the highest standards of research, and of editing, design and production. It is a curious publisher: very small – just me; very focused – Arabia only; and the managing director doubles up as author some of the time, not to mention researcher, computer geek and all the other things involved in running a company. Meanwhile, the museum consultancy goes on: recent years have seen sporadic work on the big project to develop al–Dir‘iyyah as a cultural centre.

Well, why the publishing? What is the mission? Saudi Arabia is a most under–published country in an under–published subcontinent. This goes both for books published within Saudi Arabia, and for books about the country published outside it. And there are various reasons for it:

  • Sparse population, thus a small market.
  • It is only relatively recently that SA has developed into a complex modern society with a broadly educated people. But it is still not a book–reading culture, and may in fact never become one. The market for serious books is unbelievably small. Few Arabians read books for pleasure, preferring instead newspapers, magazines, TV and the internet. People do not expect to pay more than £5 for a book. If a book is nicely produced, it is assumed that it has in some way been “sponsored” and therefore reflects some official or party line. So people expect to be given such books rather than to buy them. The main market for books in English on Saudi Arabia is the shifting expatriate population inside the country. In the West, despite the ravenous market for books in general, the interest in books on Arabia is tiny.
  • It has to be said, Saudi Arabia’s government is still authoritarian and its society deferential and conservative. This means that freedom of thought and expression, even if not always actively discouraged, is at least not positively welcomed. Critical thought is still regarded more as a threat than a virtue. An independent, rather than government–directed, history and culture industry, such as we take for granted in the West, hardly exists – a pity, as it is one vital means by which a society examines itself, reflects upon itself, and redefines itself with each generation.

The lack of such a climate of intellectual independence in the Arab world generally is a great disincentive to a thriving publishing scene. Many of us will be familiar with a UN report a few years ago; among its remarkable statistics was that the Arab world as a whole published fewer books annually than Belgium; and that fewer foreign–language books were translated into Arabic in a year than in a single European country like Spain or Greece.

By way of example, I often think that if that wonderful, colourful Saudi region of ‘Asir were in Britain, the National Trust, not to mention a host of publishing companies large and small, would have seen to it there was a variety of books about every town and village, and about every aspect of the region’s history, culture, architecture and people. Not so in Saudi Arabia.

Well, I believe in freedom of intellect and information. There is hardly anything a one–man foreign publisher can do about the overall lack of it in the Arab world. The most one can do is perhaps to try to set a Quixotic example, to struggle against the odds, and to produce books for serious–minded readers which can be circulated within the country. But, given the tiny market for books on Arabia, whether inside or outside it, how on earth can this be achieved, even on a tiny scale?

The AP formula is this: enlightened sponsorship from within the Arabian countries. By which, let me hasten to explain, I do not mean vanity publishing in any sense. I only develop book projects that I consider to be worthwhile. A proposal goes to a potential sponsor, with the clear message that sponsorship carries no right to interfere editorially. So what does the sponsor get in return? He gets a couple of thousand copies of the book, under his own imprint if he wants, and exclusive access to the Saudi book trade; but he also gets the confidence that the international edition under the AP imprint will be respectable, marketable and widely reviewed. That is the ideal set–up.

The reality, of course, is often somewhat less heroic–sounding. I am sometimes forced to make a few editorial concessions, and, if that is the case, the sponsor’s additions are clearly identified in the book. If the scale of concessions risks jeopardizing the quality of the outcome, I fight back, and aim to win. And if I lose, my policy is to politely abandon the project.

It is far from an easy path. Some of the Gulf states, notably Kuwait and Qatar, have been quicker to catch on to this formula than others. But in conclusion, let me name some such enlightened sponsors in Saudi Arabia, in collaboration with whom some really commendable work has been published:

  • HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman, President of the Tourism High Commission, who sponsored Back to Earth in the 1990s.
  • The King Abdulaziz Public Library, with whom I published George Rentz’s Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia; as well as, just recently, Pilgrimage to Mecca, by Lady Evelyn Cobbold. Not always without a fight, mind you.
  • Al–Turath, now a charitable body in Riyadh, whose director Dr Zahir Othman has always been a staunch friend and supporter of what I do, and with whom I am currently co–publishing a book on Bedouin Weaving.

I could go on… but I won’t.

William Facey has spent his career since 1974 as a museum consultant, writer and publisher on the Arabian Peninsula, with a special focus on Saudi Arabia. Among various projects, he was responsible for briefing the architects and designers of the Saudi Arabian Pavilion at EXPO 1992 in Seville, and of the Saudi Arabian National Museum in Riyadh. He has written several books on historical aspects of the Kingdom. The last decade has been devoted to developing Arabian Publishing Ltd, a niche publisher whose books on the region are notable for their high editorial standard and quality of research, design and production. He sits on the committee of the Society of Arabian Studies, and is book reviews editor of its Bulletin. Through his publications, lectures and articles he aims to promote the cause of scholarly research on Saudi Arabia’s history and cultural heritage.

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