Philby senior and his role in British imperial treachery in the middle east

The secret manoeuvrings of British imperialism to take over control of Arabia as the Turkish empire was ousted during WW1.

In 2017 a presentation was made by Ella Rule to the Stalin Society on the life and times of Kim Philby, who spied for the Soviet Union.

In preparing for this presentation she came across Anthony Cave Brown’s book Treason in the Blood, which appeared to suggest that Kim’s father, St John Philby (Jack) too had been an anti-imperialist while serving the British government, and it was therefore decided to add information about his activities to the presentation on his son, Kim.

Further investigation, however, has revealed that although St John was often severely critical of the British government, and even thought of himself as an anti-imperialist, in fact he was nothing of the kind. His son Kim became a progressive person not because of his father but in spite of him.

Nevertheless, St John’s life and times turned out to be most worthy of further investigation quite simply because he had been at the heart of British machinations in the middle east during and in the aftermath of the first world war, which have repercussions to this day.

As this year is the centenary of the end of that war, it seems particularly apposite to publish the present article on St John Philby, in view of the fact that it deals with a part of the history of that war that is rarely brought to light. In a future issue, we will return to the subject of Kim Philby, the hero who first inspired this research.


Sir James Craig, who had been a British ambassador in Saudi Arabia, said of St John Philby, commonly called Jack:

“He was exasperatingly contrary, consistent in his inconsistency … a champion of the Arabs who advocated jewish immigration into Palestine, a British patriot who was interned during the war as a danger to his country, a rebel against the establishment who loved the Athenaeum, The Times, the cricket scores and the Honours List … He was selfish, irritable, stranger to humility, a difficult subordinate, an impossible colleague.” (Quoted by Elizabeth Monroe in Philby of Arabia, 1998, pix)

An attempt will be made in the present article on Philby senior to understand these contradictions in Jack’s personality, which we believe are to a considerable extent a reflection of the attempts of a highly-intelligent and creative servant of the British empire to resist the inevitability of its decline, consistently thwarted by colleagues bound more by imperial tradition than by rationality.

His story is the story of the loss by Britain of the imperial supremacy it had briefly enjoyed, as other imperial powers elbowed their way into the feast and pushed Britain off the top table, even if it remained present at the banquet. He quarrelled furiously with his masters about how that decline could be resisted.

Early life

Jack’s father Montie grew rich as a coffee planter in Ceylon but lost everything because of coffee blight. He had married May Duncan, granddaughter of Lt Gen Duncan McLeod, and daughter of a colonel who commanded Bombay District in British India. Through May Duncan, the Philbys were related to Lord Montgomery of Alamein.

St John, who was born in 1885, was one of four sons. In 1891 May left her husband in Ceylon and returned to England with her children. They all went to live for the next six years with May’s posh mother Emily Duncan.

Jack was always fiercely rational and became an atheist at the age of five. He won a scholarship to Westminster public school, and subsequently a further full scholarship to Trinity college, Cambridge to study classics. As his aim was to join the Indian civil service, he stayed on for an extra year to study Hindustani and Persian.

He graduated in 1907 and in 1908 was posted to the Indian civil service. Employed there, he learnt several other languages, including Arabic, Baluchi, Punjabi and Urdu in six years, motivated by the good bonuses he earned each time he mastered a language and passed the relevant examination.

Nevertheless, despite his conservative aspirations, he insisted that truth (as he saw it) came first, which led him to become a covert Fabian, atheist and ‘anti-imperialist’.

Service in India

One might ask how it was possible for a self-proclaimed anti-imperialist to want to join the Indian civil service. Jack’s education, however, would have seen to it that he did not see the British occupation of India as primarily an imperialist venture. He would have been taught that the British were doing India a favour.

The standard information given to all Indian civil servants in preparation for their work included the following: “Do you think that if we removed our hand the moslems of the west would tolerate the rich sikh landowners of the new canal colonies, or that the sikh, the jat or the dogra would tolerate the moslems in the east: We have changed the economic face of the country, and we rule over these races which would do their best to exterminate each other if it were not for us?”

Convinced that British rule could and should be beneficial for India, that it was a tutelage for India that would rapidly enable Indians to take charge of their own affairs (perhaps bypassing the bloodbaths that characterised European bourgeois revolutions), Jack presented himself, and was perceived, as a ‘rebel’ simply for believing that more Indians should be offered employment and given positions of trust within the Indian administration. Failure to do so when Britain was desperately short of manpower he was convinced was traditionalist shortsightedness damaging to British interests.

During his time in India, Jack felt he was being passed over for promotion in favour of people a great deal less intellectually gifted than he was, and he attributed this to the fact that he had only his salary to live on, totally lacking independent means, and this was far from enough to maintain the lifestyle expected of a British official.

In 1909 he further damaged his promotion prospects by insisting against all advice on marrying Dora Johnston, a lady who was ‘not of our sort’ and who possibly had some Indian ancestry, utterly unacceptable to the ultra-racist British high society at the time. His marriage to ‘the wrong sort’ for some time guaranteed Jack the worst postings.

On 1 January 1912 their first son Harold was born in Ambala (Punjab), who soon became known as Kim as he, like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, was, though white, brought up by Indians (nannies and household servants), played with Indian children, spoke Hindi and generally lived as an Indian child. He was 7 before he set foot in Britain.

Towards the end of 1913, Sir Michael O’Dwyer was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. O’Dwyer was far more impressed with Jack’s abilities than his predecessor had been, so opportunities began to open up for him. When WW1 broke out, Jack was put in charge of the press section, and then worked in the counter-sedition department of Special Branch, ie, he became a spy engaged in uncovering the plans of those within India who were seeking to overthrow British rule.

In that capacity, Jack had a role to play in the suppression of the revolutionary anti-colonial and anti-imperialist Gadar movement. However, by the time O’Dwyer oversaw the Jallianwalabagh massacre by General Dyer in 1919, Jack had long gone, transferred, much to his satisfaction, to the middle east.

As a result of the massacre, O’Dwyer was removed from his post and subsequently in 1940 he was assassinated in revenge by Udham Singh, who told the court that tried him for murder: “I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him.

“For full 21 years, I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”

St John Philby in the middle east

In 1915, Jack was, at the request of Sir Percy Cox, who was in charge of British interests in the middle east, transferred to Basra in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) for war work. This work was in support of a British imperialism determined to take over the middle east from Turkey, which had made the mistake of siding with Germany in the war (for several decades a weakening Turkey had only been able to hang on to its middle eastern empire with the support of the British, who were happy for it to maintain a huge buffer area between tsarist Russia and Britain’s Indian empire).

In all 5,000 men were sent from India to support Sir Percy, who himself got only one British assistant, one Indian clerk and two peons to assist him in his tasks which were: (a) to put heart into friendly Arab rulers; (b) to protect British oil fields in south Persia (the only British-controlled oil source for the British Navy); and (c) to block the passage of German agents from Persia to India.

At the same time, the British entered into a treaty, the Treaty of Darin, with Ibn Saud of Nejd, whom they had been courting for some time through the efforts of Captain William Shakespear, who advised the Sauds on military affairs. (What is today Saudi Arabia was at that time three distinct kingdoms – Nejd (ruled by Ibn Saud), the Hijaz (ruled by the Hashemite descendant of the Prophet, Hussein, the sharif of Mecca) and Jabbar Shamar – or Ha’il – (ruled by Ibn Rashid).

Captain William Shakespear was killed early in 1915 in the course of a Saudi assault on Ha’il, a long-term foe of the Sauds. Under the leadership of their Emir Ibn Rashid, the Ha’il army had actually succeeded in expelling the Sauds from Riyadh in 1890, though they were able to make a comeback in 1902 since when there had been sporadic skirmishes.

Under the Treaty of Darin, Ibn Saud accepted the status of Nejd as a British protectorate and formally entered the war on the side of the British, although the Saudis, following their defeat in Ha’il, were not immediately in the business of rushing into battle.

On arriving in Mesopotamia, Jack became part of a regional network of mid-level officials (Sykes, Wilson, David Hogarth, Lawrence) sharing the common goal of embedding the British in the middle east once the war was over. It was an invidious job because London was, in a state of desperation, promising independence to Arabs, while its minions were tasked with ensuring that the British retained control.

Unsurprisingly, there were differences between them as to how this should be achieved, if indeed it should be achieved at all. It was not for nothing that the British involved in Mesopotamia referred to it as ‘MessPot’.

London’s desperation was prompted by the fact that British seizure of the middle east was by no means a walkover. The Turks defeated the British ignominiously at Gallipoli in 1915, with the loss of 44,000 soldiers’ lives on the British side, and, when troops from British India advanced towards Baghdad from Basra, they too were severely defeated at Kut where they were besieged, ending with another 13,000 troops being knocked out of the war in early 1916.

Clearly if Britain was to make any progress in the area, it was necessary to provoke as far as possible the local middle-eastern population against Turkey and Germany. All kinds of promises were made to bring local rulers on board, with Britain presenting itself to them as a saviour and liberator from Turkish oppression.

Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca and ruler of the Hijaz, for instance, was told: “‘If the Amir [ie, Hussein] … and Arabs in general assist Great Britain in this conflict that has been forced upon us by Turkey, Great Britain will promise not to intervene in any manner whatsoever whether in things religious or otherwise … Till now we have defended and befriended Islam in the person of the Turks: henceforward it shall be in that of the noble Arab. It may be that an Arab of true race will assume the khalifate at Mecca or Medina, and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil that is now occurring.”

Hussein accordingly did in June 1916 mount an ‘Arab revolt’ against Turkish rule, and his forces were mobilised in support of the British, with the assistance of T E Lawrence, the notorious ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

Jack’s work, under Sir Percy Cox, was to tie Iraqi chiefs to Britain (as Cox had done with Persian chiefs). Also active in this arena at the time was Gertrude Bell (a lady with Paris frocks and ‘a man’s mind’, who had studied the local tribes in depth and spoke fluent Arabic). She was in a secret ‘Arab Bureau’ in Cairo (where the British had set up a ‘military intelligence office’ in 1914 as a headquarters for support of the war effort in the middle east) engaged in attempting to foment a revolt of Hashemites of the Hijaz against the German-led Turkish army in Syria, Palestine and Sinai.

In the spring of 1916 she was sent to Mesopotamia to help out Sir Percy. Her main value lay in the fact that the British knew very little about the various tribal societies in the middle east, having been happy simply to support Turkish rule over the area until Turkey went over to the enemy in the war. Now that it was hoping to be able to mobilise these tribes in support of its imperialist designs, Bell, who had dedicated her adult life to getting to know the Arab people and had travelled extensively in the region, was seen as an invaluable asset.

Eventually the tide of war turned in favour of Britain, and General Maude was able to take Baghdad in March 1917. Once this was achieved, linguists like Philby were needed as administrators. In anticipation, Jack had already in October 1916 been appointed revenue commissioner, and became the youngest person ever to have been made a Commander of the Indian Empire.

Jack was asked to study the finances of the territory and draw up a system of civil accounts appropriate for local conditions (as the Indian civil service system used hitherto was often inappropriate). This was a job made particularly difficult by the fact that the retreating Turks had taken away all records.

British policy for the future of the middle east following the first world war was hotly disputed in the corridors of power. There were those like A T Wilson, formerly of the Indian civil service, who took the view that the area needed to be annexed to India, colonised by Punjabi farmers and directly ruled by Britain. However, Britain was increasingly short of manpower to manage even India, and it was generally considered unrealistic to be able to rule Mesopotamia as a colony.

The alternative, given that Britain desperately needed to preserve its control over the area’s oil resources, was for the area to be ruled by one or more willing puppets, a technique that was used to good effect to preserve British imperialist interests in parts of India.

But controversy raged on who those puppets should be. They needed to have sufficient influence to control the local population on Britain’s behalf, but not so much that they would be in a position to operate independently of Britain.

On this issue, Jack found himself irreconcilably at odds with both Cox and Bell, and even Lawrence. No final decision was made during the war years, however.

Jack, at least initially, got on well with Bell, and it was on her recommendation that he was made Cox’s personal assistant, helping him to get through mounds of paperwork that were accumulating. In that capacity, he had access to all Cox’s correspondence and had early notification, therefore, that the British authorities were interested in persuading the Saudis to renew their efforts to annihilate Ibn Rashid of Ha’il.

Jack was more than keen to be involved in these negotiations since he had ambitions for exploration in areas of Nejd, such as the Empty Quarter in the south, that were at the time completely unmapped.

To get sent to Nejd, he was willing even to give up his plum job as Cox’s personal assistant, and he managed to trade it with Colonel Arnold Wilson, shortly to be made deputy civil commissioner for Mesopotamia nicknamed ‘The Despot of Mess-Pot’, in exchange for the latter persuading Cox that Jack was the person who should be delegated to conduct the Najd negotiations.

Thus it was the Jack was sent in 1917 to Nejd to explore the possibilities of further Saudi cooperation with the British.

Jack was highly impressed with Saud, to the extent that in future years he was to keep a portrait of him in his house. He got on well with him, but Saud’s interests, although he was a British ally bought and paid for, were to some extent in conflict with British interests because Saud wanted to control an Arabian caliphate himself, which is definitely not what the powers-that-be in London had in mind.

If anything, they were committed to the Hashemites because of the latter’s active participation on the side of the British in the war. This participation had been secured on the basis of written promises to Hussein the sharif of Mecca from Lt Col Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner to Egypt, on behalf of the British state, that the Arab states freed from Turkish control, including Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and the Hijaz, would be united as one caliphate ruled by Hussein and his descendants.

As it happened, the British, while maintaining a small degree of loyalty to the Hashemites, were far from sure it would be a good idea to allow them, or anyone else, to restore the caliphate. True, the Hashemites had risen against Ottoman rule, but achieved only modest victories. It soon became apparent that the Hashemites were not strong enough militarily to control the region on behalf of the British, and this gave rise to the idea that the middle east should be divided up into a series of warring entities, all dependent on the British for survival.

This was clearly expressed by TE Lawrence in his reports to his employers in Britain: “When war broke out an urgent need to divide Islam was added, and we became reconciled to seek for allies rather than subjects … We hoped by the creation of a ring of client states, themselves insisting on our patronage, to turn the present and future flank of any foreign power with designs on the three rivers [Iraq].

“The greatest obstacle, from a war standpoint, to any Arab movement, was its greatest virtue in peacetime – the lack of solidarity between the various Arab movements … The Sherif [Hussein] was ultimately chosen because of the rift he would create in Islam.”

Philby meets Ibn Saud

Jack had only to meet Ibn Saud, however, to endorse the latter’s desire to rule the entire area, believing that friendly independence for the middle east was the objective, under a ruler militarily powerful enough to keep the Turks at bay and put down any local challengers to his supremacy.

As a result, Jack soon found himself at loggerheads with the British establishment, both because this policy negated solemn promises made to the local rulers and because he was convinced that India would be better safeguarded, as it had been in the past, by a single Arabian buffer state than by a series of squabbling local rulers, and he simply could not fathom why the dunderheads in London couldn’t see this.

Philby’s colleagues, however, were equally exasperated by him and could not understand why Philby, despite having it explained to him repeatedly in words of one syllable, could not see that a wahhabi-controlled caliphate, that could only be maintained on the basis of the military strength of the Ikhwan (Saud’s fundamentalist army of thugs), who were opposed to all modernisation and to all foreign presence and foreign trade, would be quite incapable of serving western imperialist interests – to say nothing of fomenting unrest among the more sophisticated regions in the middle east that would be reluctant to return to the primitive conditions of existence, as prevailing in the Prophet’s times, so idolised by the wahhabi fanatics.

However, Jack’s mission in 1917 was to endeavour to further British aims, including getting Saud to attack Ibn Rashid of Ha’il, for which purpose the British were prepared to supply armaments. They also desired to help patch up Saud’s quarrels with Kuwait and the Ajman tribe, who were British allies, the idea being to unite the region against the Turks.

Besides that was the question of getting Ibn Saud to support Hussein, his rival for control of the prospective caliphate, whose British support was testified to by the fact that Hussein was getting £200,000 a month from the British, while Saud got only £5,000.

Jack was willing to help Saud get more British support and he suggested that, to prove his influence, Saud should protect Jack in journeying to Taif in the Hijaz to fetch Ronald Storrs (Oriental Secretary on the diplomatic staff in Egypt) to come and see him, a journey Hussein had said was too dangerous. Saud agreed.

As it happened, Storrs was not in Taif when Philby got there and Hussein prevented Philby from returning to Riyadh, so he went to Jeddah instead, where he heard the news of the publication by the Bolsheviks of the Sykes-Picot Treaty.

In 1917, following the Great October Socialist Revolution, the new Russian revolutionary government published details of secret treaties relating to the middle east that had been entered into by the various competing imperialist powers, including Britain. These demonstrated the treachery of imperialism, showing among other things the conflicting promises made to different local interests by British imperialist authorities.

These treaties, including Sykes-Picot, under which the British and French carved up the middle east between themselves, together with the Balfour declaration, filled Jack with disgust, causing him to fall out with his employers in a big way. The Balfour declaration, said Jack, was “an act of betrayal for whose parallel, the shekels and the kiss and all the rest of it, we have to go back to the garden of Gethsemane”. (Quoted in E Monroe, Philby of Arabia, 1973, p138)

It may seem contradictory that as avid a supporter of jewish immigration into Palestine and Jordan as Philby would so strongly condemn the Balfour declaration, but it is explained by the fact that Philby thought an injection of jewish capital and jewish business knowhow would greatly help the region in its development. He did not, however, support the idea of a ‘jewish homeland’ at all. He was firmly of the view that Arabia should be a united Arab republic.

David Hogarth of the Arab Bureau had been sent to Jeddah to meet Philby, and at the same time to try to convince Hussein, following publication of the treaty, that Palestine, but only Palestine, being of interest to three faiths, would have to be excluded in the proposed area of Arab independence that Hussein was to rule.

In the meantime, Saud was, with the help of his fanatical Ikhwan religious army, expanding his influence and winning over more and more tribes to Wahhabism.

Nevertheless, in early 1918, Wilson from Baghdad, who was now acting commissioner for the middle east, ordered Philby back to Riyadh to try to get Saud to attack Ha’il. Philby handed over £20,000 to Saud on his own responsibility on the understanding he would attack Ha’il, but would only do so after Philby got out of the way, as Saud didn’t want to be seen as a tool of the British.

Philby took advantage of this to ask Saud to let him undertake another expedition to uncharted territories, which was what he did. So Jack went on an unauthorised mapping expedition for 50 days.

In the meantime, events in Palestine, of which Philby knew nothing, were making an immediate attack on Ha’il undesirable for the British. In fact, official policy had for the time being turned to supporting Ha’il as a buffer between Riyadh and Mecca – in other words, to protect the independence of the Hijaz and the interests of the Hashemites who ruled it.

As far as Philby was concerned, however, the best safeguard for the Hijaz was for both Hussein and Saud to remain on the British payroll and persuaded to agree to an equitable shareout of Arabia.

Although Saud did attack Ha’il, nothing much came of it and Ha’il survived the war intact. Nevertheless Ibn Rashid, even after the war ended, stubbornly failed to come to the British heel, with the result that the British heavily supported Saud in annexing his territory.

“By the end of 1920, the British were showering Ibn Saud with ‘a monthly “grant” of £10,000 in gold, on top of his monthly subsidy. He also received abundant arms supplies, totalling more than 10,000 rifles, in addition to the critical siege and four field guns’ with British-Indian instructors. Finally, in September 1921, the British unleashed Ibn Saud on Ha’il, which officially surrendered in November 1921.” (How zionism helped create the kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Nu’man Abd al-Wahid, Mondoweiss, 7 January 2016)

Philby received instructions to drop Saud – he later learnt that Allenby had captured Damascus (on 1 October 1918) and Palestine, and in the circumstances Saud was irrelevant. Both Philby and Saud felt very let down by Britain’s broken promises.

Post-war developments

In November 1918 Jack returned to England, where he set up home with his family in Eastbourne, close to a highly-regarded school he considered appropriate for his son Kim.

During his time in the middle east he had made an unprecedented overland journey from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, meticulously mapping the areas crossed, and he became as a result very popular, second only to Lawrence, on the lecture tour circuit among those with a keen interest in geography. He was also awarded an OBE for his work against the sikh uprising, and for his later contribution in Iraq.

Meanwhile in the middle east, the situation was going from bad to worse for imperialism. On 7 November 1918, the British and French had made a declaration to the Arabs that indigenous governments would be set up in Syria and Mesopotamia, chosen freely by their populations.

Faisal, the Hashemite son of the sharif of Mecca and field commander of the Arab revolt, charged with forming a government in ‘Syria’, took this promise seriously, but was soon to find out that it was not seriously meant. ‘Syria’, as far as he was concerned, included Lebanon, Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Not only Faisal but even General Sir Edmund Allenby, supreme commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had assumed the promise was serious and had allowed Faisal to administer Syrian affairs from Damascus. He is even said to have been in full approval when, on 5 October 1918, Faisal took it upon himself to claim an “independent Arab constitutional government with authority over all Syria” and to instal a Syrian congress in Damascus.

In the meantime, however, Britain and France had carved up areas for their respective control in the middle east, and what is today Syria had been allocated to France. France was certainly not prepared to accept any degree of independence of any Arab government, and moved fast to have Faisal removed.

But it was not only France that was bothered by Faisal’s ambitions: Faisal’s Syrian congress claimed not only Lebanon, but also Palestine, and was also demanding independence for Mesopotamia, as a result of which British interests, too (Palestine, Jordan and Iraq), were threatened.

Fired by his Arab nationalist supporters, Faisal did try to hold out against the French, but he lacked the firepower to resist, and the British weren’t prepared to help him. On 26 July 1920, the French army occupied Damascus and overthrew Faisal, forcing him into exile, thus unleashing a furious reaction from a still relatively young and immature Arab nationalist movement that affected British controlled areas of the middle east, not just Syria.

The uprisings in British-controlled Iraq took several months to put down, at great expense to a British treasury already reeling from the cost of the world war.

In the meantime, back in Britain, Philby was asked in October 1919 by the government to chaperone the ruler of Kuwait and Saud on a visit to Britain arranged in appreciation of their services to the country.

Saud sent his son, the 14-year-old Amir Faisal. One trip Jack organised was for the young prince to visit the school where Jack’s son Kim was studying – reportedly a very happy occasion.

Return to Baghdad

The British government at this point was extremely anxious to establish a situation in the areas of the middle east under its control where its domination would be unchallenged. In this connection, it once again called on the services of both Jack and Sir Percy Cox, who were recalled to the area to calm the situation, despite the fact that Jack was still virulently opposed to the British policy of placing various Hashemite kings at the head of different states in the region.

This British policy in fact was very soundly based as the best for achieving British imperialism’s goals for domination of the middle east on the cheap. Although Faisal was not militarily very strong, nevertheless his supporters were capable of causing trouble, as had been demonstrated by the 1920 uprisings.

Because Faisal had fought ostensibly for Arab independence in the Arab revolt, he was acceptable to the nationalists, and at the same time had privately made it clear to the British that if he were in charge he would reliably protect their interests.

It would seem that the experience of being deposed in Syria had taught him how to behave: “He had learned the limits of Arab nationalism and of Europe’s superior strength.” (The Hashemites, the Arab revolt and Arab nationalism by Mary C Wilson in Rashid Khalidi, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih and Reeva S Simon (eds), The Origins of Arab Nationalism, 1991, p217)

So he was all on board to help the British, though of course he would only be able to do so effectively if he at least appeared to be completely independent of them. In return for the British seeing to it that he became king of Iraq, he undertook to endeavour to persuade his father, the Sharif of Mecca, to sign the Versailles Treaty, accepting, among other things, the exclusion of Palestine from the area of Arab ‘self-rule’, which in the event the sharif refused to do.

Nevertheless, Faisal was also heavily backed by T E Lawrence because of their mutual roles in the Arab revolt. It was also advantageous for British imperialist foreign relations generally if Britain were at least giving the appearance of honouring its 1916 promises to the Sharif of Mecca of Arab independence, even if it did not involve a unitary Arab caliphate.

Jack, on the other hand, was not on message at all. He thought that if Britain wasn’t prepared to accept a Saudi caliphate, at the very least Iraq should have a local ruler, not some British-imposed foreign princeling, and for this he favoured an influential and ambitious non-Hashemite local leader from Basra in southern Iraq named Sayyid Talib (the son of the naqib of Basra), who had been appointed minister of the interior in the interim government set up by the British pending the appointment of a ruler and government for Iraq ‘freely chosen by the Iraqi people’.

Philby had been appointed to act as adviser to Talib, and had been training him to assume high office. When Talib put himself forward as candidate for the position of ruler of Iraq, Philby became an ardent supporter.

As Talib was an extremely good candidate for the position of Iraqi king – he was local to Iraq, not a foreigner from the Hijaz like Faisal – he needed to be got out of the way to enable Faisal to be installed.

Cox and Bell waited vigilantly for him to put a foot wrong, which he duly did when, realising that the powers-that-be were favouring Faisal, rather than himself, he boasted of mobilising the tribes of Basra to make war if he were not made king. Immediately, Cox and Bell had him arrested – after he unsuspectingly attended a tea party to which Bell invited him – and removed to Ceylon, thus clearing the way for the installation of Faisal as king.

Philby, who had been sweetened by having been made interior minister in place of Talib, was detailed to meet Faisal when he arrived in the country at Basra and accompany him to Baghdad. In Basra, Faisal received a very muted reception from the local population, who, being mainly shia, were not especially thrilled by his impending appointment.

Philby then took it upon himself to inform Faisal he did not reckon his chances of winning any election, thereby deeply offending him. Without bothering with the formality of an election, he was duly made king on 11 July 1921, and Philby, as a result of his indiscretion, found himself out of a job.

Cox worked hard to get him redeployed, and in October 1921 he was appointed as adviser to Abdullah (Faisal’s older brother), whom Churchill had installed as probationary king of Transjordan. Britain lacked the military capacity to occupy Transjordan by force of arms, and it was controlled by six British officers aged between 19-35. Philby’s brief was to sort out Abdullah’s finances, settle with the French and agree the country’s frontiers.

This job turned out to be impossible. Abdullah was hopelessly extravagant, continually trying to capture more territory and failing, and Philby’s salary was insufficient to maintain the lifestyle that was expected of him. When he complained to London in 1922, he was promised a rise but, unknown to him, this was never implemented and he paid himself as if it had been.

So a quarrel arose between himself and the colonial office, which was accusing him of financial irregularities. Sir Herbert Samuel, the high commissioner for Palestine, who disliked him, got permission to dismiss him for ‘financial irregularities’, but before the order came through, Philby had, on 14 January 1924, resigned.

Jack gave the reasons for his resignation to Donald Robertson (who had been his tutor at Cambridge), explaining that he had “resigned the job for many, very many reasons; the chief of them is that I can no longer go on working with the present high commissioner, who, being a zionist jew, cannot hold the scales even between zionist and Arab interests.

“Besides this, Abdullah [whom Philby quite liked despite his disapproval of British backing for Hashemite rulers] has rather let me down by his personal extravagance, which is on such a scale that he is simply inviting interference, and getting it in full measure from HMG, which means the zionist element. So I am off.” (Quoted in Monroe p132)

Understandably he returned to Britain in an angry mood.

Elizabeth Monroe writes: “To the fury of the departments in whose pay he remained for his leave [one year entitlement], he began to write articles directed against British policy. Their themes were those he had long expounded to his colleagues in Iraq and Palestine.

“British policy towards the Arabs was rooted in bad faith. The League of Nations had blessed a division of spoils. Nothing short of force of arms could maintain this share-out because both Britain and France had totally failed to recognise the nature of Arab nationalism. The British Labour government (which had come to power in August 1924) was proving no wiser than its predecessors, and was backing the wrong horses – the French, the Hashimites, the zionists. As a result most Arabs would prefer a return to Turkish rule …

“[Influential] people were willing to listen to him because many were uneasy about British behaviour in the middle east. Since 1921, the ex-Turkish mandates had been widely criticised as an incubus, chiefly because of the expense of putting down the Iraq rebellion; Iraq and Palestine had between them cost the British taxpayer some £70m in 1920-1 …

“He won easy applause for assertions that Arab nationalism would have prospered in republican form had Britain bestowed on it ‘the same loving care we have bestowed on an unworthy Sharifian dynasty and on the dreams of Zion’.”

He also blotted his copybook by talking to The Times about the way Talib had been spirited out of the way, arrested at tea with Gertrude Bell.

In Philby’s view, British government policies in the middle east were doing everything possible to alienate the majority Arab population of the region, rendering it not only hostile but ungovernable, and this at huge cost to the British treasury.

When he resigned his post, he felt he was doing so in order better to serve Britain – ie, British imperialism, especially its oil interests – free from the trammels imposed by ‘incompetent, zionist-influenced, governments’ – Labour and Tory alike.

At the same time, matters came to a head between British imperialism and Sharif Hussein. When it became clear, following the publication of the Sykes-Picot Treaty and the Balfour Declaration, that the British had no intention whatever of honouring their promises to him, Hussein refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, in protest at the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of British and French mandates in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.

He later also refused to sign the Anglo-Hashemite Treaty. Hussein refused to compromise with British treachery, and none of Britain’s best efforts with the carrot and the stick could shift him.

“The British let it be known to the sharif that they were prepared to take drastic measures to bring about his approval of the new reality [ie, as to the status of Palestine], regardless of the service that he had rendered them during the war.

“After the Cairo conference in March 1921, where the new colonial secretary Winston Churchill met with all the British operatives in the middle east, TE Lawrence (ie, of Arabia) was dispatched to meet the sharif to bribe and bully him to accept Britain’s zionist colonial project in Palestine.

“Initially, Lawrence and the empire offered 80,000 rupees. The sharif rejected it outright. Lawrence then offered him an annual payment of £100,000. The sharif refused to compromise and sell Palestine to British zionism.

“When financial bribery failed to persuade the sharif, Lawrence threatened him with an Ibn Saud takeover. Lawrence claimed that ‘politically and militarily, the survival of Hijaz as a viable independent Hashemite kingdom was wholly dependent on the political will of Britain, who had the means to protect and maintain his rule in the region’.” (Nu’man Abd al-Wahid, op cit)

Britain therefore changed its policy. First, it hugely increased its financial support of the Saud regime: by 1922 the king’s subsidy had been considerably raised to £100,000 a year by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill.

“Churchill described Ibn Saud’s Wahhabis as … ‘austere, intolerant, well-armed and bloodthirsty’ and said that ‘they hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions … However, Churchill also later wrote that ‘my admiration for him [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us’, and the British government set about consolidating its grip on this loyalty.” (How Britain carved up the middle east and helped create Saudi Arabia by Mark Curtis, British foreign policy declassified website, 2 November 2016)

Then they surreptitiously encouraged Saud in his 1924-5 war to annexe the Hijaz in 1924.

“Ever since 1919 the British had gradually decreased Hussain’s subsidy to the extent that by the early 1920s they had suspended it, while at the same time continued subsidising Ibn Saud right through the early 1920s.

“After a further three rounds of negotiations in Amman and London, it dawned on the empire that Hussain will never relinquish Palestine to Great Britain’s zionist project or accept the new divisions in Arab lands. In March 1923, the British informed Ibn Saud that it will cease his subsidy but not without awarding him an advance ‘grant’ of £50,000 upfront, which amounted to a year’s subsidy.

“In March 1924, a year after the British awarded the ‘grant’ to Ibn Saud, the empire announced that it had terminated all discussions with Sharif Hussain to reach an agreement. Within weeks the forces of Ibn Saud and his wahhabi followers began to administer what the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, called the ‘final kick’ to Sharif Hussain and attacked Hijazi territory …

“They captured the holiest place in Islam, Mecca, in mid-October 1924. Sharif Hussain was forced to abdicate … He was replaced as monarch by his son Ali, who made Jeddah his governmental base. As Ibn Saud moved to lay siege to the rest of Hijaz, the British found the time to begin incorporating the northern Hijazi port of Akaba into Transjordan …

“Ibn Saud had begun his siege of Jeddah in January 1925 and the city finally surrendered in December 1925, bringing to an end over 1,000 years of rule by the Prophet Muhammad’s descendants. The British officially recognised Ibn Saud as the new king of Hijaz in February 1926, with other European powers following suit within weeks.

“The new unified wahhabi state was rebranded by the empire in 1932 as the ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ (KSA). A certain George Rendel, an officer working at the middle east desk at the Foreign Office in London, claimed credit for the new name.” (Mark Curtis, ibid)

Philby was very concerned about developments in the Hijaz and had actually tried to persuade Saud to leave Ali alone. Saud told him to mind his own business.

Earning an honest crust

What was not clear to Philby when he returned to Britain was how he was going to earn a living when his leave ran out in May 1925. As far as he was concerned, bearing in mind his mandarin class status, he wanted to be either a member of parliament, or a fellow at a prestigious university, or, if nothing else transpired, to go into business, as long as this involved maintaining contact with his beloved Arabia.

No opportunities presented themselves for the first two options, but then he met Major Remy Ernest Fisher, a rich businessman who was interested in looking for business concessions in the middle east, such as a transport concession in the Hijaz. Philby, with his important Arabian connections, including Ibn Saud himself, was the perfect intermediary in Arabia for Fisher’s proposed syndicate of business interests, to be named Sharqieh.

Fisher therefore funded an exploratory trip, which took place in October 1925 in Shumaisi, near Mecca, which had already fallen to the Ikhwan.

Nevertheless at this time, Saud had not yet completed his conquest of the Hijaz, and Jeddah was still held by Ali. When, therefore, Philby approached Saud on the question of concessions (he suggested a state bank, the Mecca-Medina link of the Hijaz railway and the development of minerals), Saud said he couldn’t give these while he was still dependent on the Ikhwan for conquest of Hijaz, but then he would see. So Philby assisted Saud by passing on information about Ali’s military dispositions.

In the event no concessions were immediately forthcoming, even after Saud completed his conquest of Hijaz in December 1925, but Saud did agree to allow Sharqieh to set up a trading post in Jeddah, enabling Philby to secure from Remy Fisher appointment as its Jeddah representative at a salary of £1,200 a year (over £50,000 a year at today’s prices).

This, of course, was not enough to maintain an upper-class lifestyle, even though the family home in London was paid for (through Jack having commuted half his government pension into a lump sum payment). He had four children being privately schooled, for a start, although in the event Kim, the eldest, did secure a scholarship to study at Westminster.

The result was that, after Jack moved to Jeddah permanently in 1925, he and his family remained severely cash-strapped so long as the business was not bringing in substantial returns. Luckily, Fisher was very much enamoured of his family (especially Dora, who was not, however, interested in him), and seems to therefore have helped out the family finances: his children lodged with them for 17 months, and he gave Dora a commission to decorate his house.

The reason business in Jeddah didn’t go particularly well was the continued interference by the Ikhwan, who opposed everything western and all forms of modernisation, and Jack was reduced to sending home rare Arabian stamps and pearls to be sold by Dora to keep the home going.

Philby was believed by some to be a British government secret agent, but this seems highly unlikely, as he wrote a stream of anti-British government policy articles for British magazines, and in British consular correspondence to the British government was sometimes referred to as ‘Sharqieh’s local mischief monger’.

In fact, “Philby himself confessed in his Arabia Jubilee (1952), in the 1920s and 1930s he did all he could to undermine the British hegemony in the middle east by encouraging a Soviet presence in Arabia and, later, that still more powerful anti-colonial power, the United States, into the region.” (Cave, p101)

In Jeddah, Philby became very friendly with Hassim Hakimoff Khan, the Soviet political and trade agent, and may through him have been willing and able to assist Soviet causes.

In the meantime, Ibn Saud was also himself coming into regular conflict with the Ikhwan as he sought, mainly for the benefit of his treasury, to modernise, while they raised a hue and cry about his going against islamic tenets when he tried to do so.

Philby’s fortunes were very much tied to the Ikhwan being held in check. Nevertheless, in 1927 Philby landed his first business concession – an order for 2m nickel coins to be minted in London that would bring Sharqieh a profit of £2,000.

In 1927, however, the Ikhwan began a revolt against Ibn Saud because he opposed their attempts to expand into British-controlled territory in Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan. By the end of 1928, Saud was openly at war with the Ikhwan, fighting to defeat them.

The main instigators of the rebellion were defeated on 29 March 1929 by troops and Ikhwan tribesmen loyal to Saud, and on 10 January 1930 the other Ikhwan rebel leaders surrendered to the British, with the result that the rebellion was effectively over and squashed, leaving Ibn Saud free to pursue his preferred policies at will.

Needless to say, the British were right there behind al-Saud in his war against the fundamentalists: “A 1927 treaty ceded control of the country’s foreign affairs to Britain. When elements of the Ikhwani, opposed to the British presence in the country, rebelled against the regime in 1929, Ibn Saud called for British support. The RAF and troops from the British-controlled army in neighbouring Iraq were dispatched, and the rebellion was put down the following year.

“Ibn Saud highly appreciated Britain’s support for him, especially during the rebellion, and this paved the way for the development of relations between the Saudi kingdom and the west that became the core of Saudi foreign policy.” (Mark Curtis, op cit)

In 1930, Philby persuaded Ibn Saud to sign a very valuable contract with Sharqieh for the supply of wireless stations from British firm Marconi, so that he could keep in contact with his tribes.

In August, Philby wrote to Saud asking to become a muslim and was accepted. He was renamed Abdullah, and in April 1931 he accompanied Saud to the Hajj, thus becoming Haji Abdullah, which is how his wife and children thereafter referred to him.

Although this news was received with horror in Britain, nevertheless it seems that ‘Abdullah’ regularly reported on Saud’s affairs to the British consul in Jeddah. He joined Saud’s privy council and moved to court in Riyadh, leaving his staff to deal with his business interests in Jeddah. Kim wrote to his father approving his conversion.

Since Philby was a lifelong atheist, the sincerity of his conversion has to be doubted. Abdullah of Jordan, on hearing of it, remarked: “Islam has gained little, Christianity has lost even less.” Reputedly, Haji Abdullah remained partial to the odd drop of whisky! (Quoted in Rachel Bronson, Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia, pp15-6)

Philby was now able to acquire for Sharqieh the Ford dealership for Arabia, concessions for Singer sewing machines and Socony Vacuum oils and fuels, so the money should have started rolling in. Unfortunately, the economic crisis of 1929-30 intervened, causing a sharp drop in the number of pilgrims coming to Mecca, an important source of income for Ibn Saud. He not only declared a moratorium on paying his debts, but his vizier actually seized some of Sharqieh’s assets with the result that Philby had to take a cut in his modest salary.

In the circumstances, Saud was readily persuadable that it was time he overruled the religious coterie and allowed foreigners into the country to prospect for oil, and, as will be seen, Philby had a most important role to play in this.

In 1932, Philby had embarked on exploration of the Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali) financed by Saud (after many years of being refused permission). Philby had been beaten to being the first westerner to cross the region by Bertram Thomas, who had, however, only ‘dashed’, not undertaken a proper exploration.

Philby’s perilous journey was successfully undertaken, whereupon he returned to London a hero, giving lectures, etc. While in London he was contacted by Francis B Loomis, who was interested in negotiating an oil prospecting contract with Ibn Saud for Standard Oil.

The Saudi oil concession

Negotiations began. Philby agreed with Ibn Saud that £100,000 down payment would be demanded for the right to prospect for oil, and Philby also contacted APOC asking whether it would be interested in a concession. Although Philby had offered his services as negotiator on behalf of APOC, in the event the latter sent one Stephen Longrigg to Jeddah to do this job.

In February 1933, Standard Oil of California (Socal) offered Philby $1,000 a month to look after its interests throughout the negotiations, plus a $10,000 bonus if the concession were granted, and an extra $25,000 if it proved valuable.

Thus the finances of both Saud and Philby started to look up.

On 11 May 1933, the Saudis signed an agreement with Standard Oil, the latter being the only bidder prepared to offer payment in gold, as required by Ibn Saud. The APOC directors had made it clear to Longrigg that they were only prepared to pay in rupees, as a result of which they were never in the running.

Philby has been accused of betraying British interests to the Americans, but all the signs are that this was a normal speculative business transaction – there was no guarantee that any oil would be found, and in fact it was not until 1938 that it was and the value of the concession was realised.

Nevertheless, with considerable difficulty, Socal did come up with the necessary gold (35,000 gold sovereigns from the Royal Mint) and even provided fountain pens, and “With the stroke of those pens, America ended the British stranglehold on middle-eastern oil. Less evident at the time, the pact mired Washington irrevocably in a region whose sulphurous hatreds evoke John Milton’s Paradise Lost.” (Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Kingmakers, the Invention of the Modern Middle East, 2008, p228)

And thus it was that “The formative Cambridge years of the century’s most famous Soviet mole were subsidised by Standard Oil of California.” (Ibid, p229)

A grateful Saud awarded Sharqieh a concession for providing transport for pilgrims to Mecca. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1945 that the company was paid all the money owed to it by the Saudi government – £45,000 for cars, £17,000 for the Marconi telecommunications system, and £30,000 for rifles.

Jack’s continuing interest in Britain

Although resident in Saudi Arabia during much of the 1930s, Jack still sought the fame and fortune to which he felt entitled in Britain.

When Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister in 1929, Philby thought that, as a Fabian, he should be able to persuade the government to give him some recognition. He also got Dora to propose him to Hugh Dalton as British commissioner in Egypt, Iraq or Palestine, and he himself suggested to Dalton he should be made a peer. His failure on all these counts stoked his resentment of the British government.

Once oil was duly discovered in Saudi Arabia, Philby received his promised $25,000 and became, temporarily, a man of means. He fell out to a considerable degree with Saud over the latter’s continuing failure to pay his debts to Sharqieh, whose entire assets virtually consisted of what the Saudi government and royal family owed it but wasn’t paying. Philby returned to Britain.

In July 1939, Philby, having failed to secure a Labour Party nomination, and, having become a pacifist advocating appeasement of Hitler long after this policy had been officially abandoned, stood for parliament for the quasi-fascist British People’s Party and of course obtained a derisory vote.

Despite his opposition to government policies, Philby always considered himself a patriot and, when the war with Germany broke out, he offered his services as an Arabist to His Majesty’s government.

Despite all his many and varied disagreements with the British government over the years, he was offered the post in August 1939 of chief of British counter-espionage in the middle east on the basis that nobody knew more than him about Arab nationalism and jewish secret societies. But then his job offer was revoked and his job was given instead to one De Gaury, leaving Philby seething with anger.

In this state, he returned to Saudi Arabia, only to and finding De Gaury sitting in Ibn Saud’s privy council at his side. At this point, he went round telling everybody why Britain could never win the war, and that it would never honour the promises it made to Arabs.

In the presence of a French minister he asserted that Hitler was a fine man and a myth comparable to Christ or Mohammed. He even proclaimed that the sooner Hitler took Paris the better, as the war would then end and the slaughter stop.

Britain worried this anti-British propaganda would cause problems for its continued supply of oil from the Persian Gulf and determined to put a stop to it. When the government learnt that Philby was planning to leave Saudi Arabia for Bombay with a view to travelling to the US on a lecture tour, it arranged to have him arrested – having obtained full details of his travel arrangements from Saud, who thought he had lost his mind.

His ship sailed via Karachi, where British officials boarded and placed him under arrest (on 3 August 1940). They then shipped him back to Britain, where he was interned for several months. On 17 March 1941, following pressure from his influential friends, he was released, spending the rest of the war adding to his travelogues and memoirs from a cottage in Wales.

Return to Arabia

After the war ended, Philby returned to Saudi Arabia, seeing it as the best place to continue earning his living. He was welcomed with open arms, despite his views on Palestine clashing diametrically with those of Ibn Saud, since Philby had been converted to the idea that Palestine should be partitioned, with the ‘jewish homeland established on only part of it’ – an idea that was an anathema to every Arab, who rightly objected to any jewish ‘homeland’ being established on any part of Arabia.

All the same, business was booming; Saud paid his debts to Sharqieh. Sharqieh was then taken over, as a result of which Philby made a considerable amount of money on his shares, and was then retained as a local adviser at a good salary until 1956.

Saud also gave Philby the present of a 16-year old slave girl, Rozy, as his wife, who was to bear him four sons (two of whom died in infancy). His English wife Dora, who despite his prodigious philandering remained his best friend and correspondent throughout their marriage, died in 1950. She had been greatly distressed when she learnt he had a second, Arabian, family.

From 1950-53, Philby engaged in a number of explorations of Saudi Arabia, looking for its pre-islamic history. In 1953, Ibn Saud died. Philby didn’t get on at all well with his son, and he was effectively expelled from the country in 1955 for criticising the royals, so he set up home with Rozy and his sons in Beirut.

In 1956, his son Kim came to join him in Beirut as he had a job working for The Economist. Between then and 1960 when he died in Beirut, Philby senior did return to live in Riyadh for brief periods, as the Saudi royals forgave him his trespasses.

Cave Brown called his book Treason in the Blood, suggesting that Jack, like Kim, had been a ‘traitor’ to his country. In Jack’s case, this was improbable. He was often outraged and disgusted by the actions of his imperialist masters and was vocal in his criticisms, and frequently oblivious to their interests in his indiscretions, but he was never anything but a man of his country and of his class, his only desire being to defend British imperialism’s best interests, though his methods were sometimes unorthodox.

Kim, on the other hand, deserted to the side of the proletariat, which has no country, and which he consciously served with heart and soul, and with tremendous courage and ingenuity, and must for that reason be the far greater man.