On 18 April 2012, I attended a pre-release presentation of Najdat Anzour’s King of the Sands, a biopic of Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, a.k.a. ‘Ibn Saud’, an emir of the central Arabian Al Saud clan, and founder of the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The event featured a brief trailer of the film, which is due to have its international release in May, and a panel discussion including the director and two of the international cast members (Fabio Testi and Bill Fellows) moderated by Makram Khoury-Machool, a Palestian-born media studies specialist currently based at the University of Hertfordshire.
|King Abd al-Aziz|
(a.k.a. Ibn Saud)
|Abd al-Aziz in old age|
|Fabio Testi as the old king|
An apparent concession to a Western audience is the inclusion of Bill Fellows as the British explorer-turned-Muslim cum royal adviser, Harry St.John (Abdullah) Philby (1885-1960). During the First World War, the Indian Office and the Arab Bureau in Cairo were vying for influence over British policy in the Middle East. The Arab Bureau, which was part of military intelligence and had links to the War Office and Foreign Office, had sent T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) to the Hashimite Sharifs of Mecca to coordinate an 'Arab Revolt' against the Ottomans. Meanwhile, the India Office --which was also responsible for security in the Persian Gulf -- instructed Philby to travel to Riyadh and make contact with Abd al-Aziz. Eventually, and to Philby's great frustration, it was decided to buy the Saudi ruler's loyalty on condition that he kept quiet and desist from attacking the Hijaz for the duration of the war. Not until the early 1920s, was Abd al-Aziz free again to pursue his ambitions; first destroying the al-Rasheed before swinging West and oust the Hashimites from the Hijaz. In 1932 the central Najd region and the Hijaz were united into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
|Bill Fellows as Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby|
Azour remained non-committal in his response to a question whether a film in Arabic would have more prominently featured courtiers from surrounding Arab countries such as Bin Saud’s personal physician and confidante, the Syrian Rashad Pharaon, or Hafiz Wahba, the Egyptian-born former governor, minister, long-serving ambassador to London, and ARAMCO executive. By the way, it must be said that Fellows bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Philby. (As a further aside it should also be noted that – in real life, not in the film -- veteran Italian actor Fabio Testi is a spitting image of Sean Connery)
Interestingly the event was attended by descendants of both the Al Saud and Al al-Rasheed dynasties: Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor of social anthropology at King’s College London who has increasingly shifted her research to both historical and current developments in Saudi Arabia. Not unsurprisingly, she has also built up a reputation as a critic of the Saudi regime that radiates far beyond the academic community. Also present was Basma bint Saud, youngest daughter of King Saud (1902-1969, r. 1953-1964), the oldest surviving son and first successor of King of the Sands main character. Princess Basma has recently moved to the London suburb of Acton, and is suddenly hailed as a prominent advocate of reform in Saudi Arabia.
|Prof Madawi al-Rasheed|
In a reaction to a query from one of the journalists present and which director Najdat Anzour deferred to Professor al-Rasheed, she also emphatically stated that the al-Rasheed family had no involvement in the production of the film whatsoever, and she had only recently become aware of the project.
|HRH Basma bint Saud|
I am still an obedient citizen and I will always be behind the royal family. But I will never be quiet about what is happening on the ground. […] I owe my uncles everything and what I owe them most is to tell them the truth. My mistake, my ruin is going to be insisting on telling the truth even if they don't like it. Because I think they need to hear it, especially from one of their loyal,royal own.
She has studied Islam in depth, becoming a scholar of the faith's great texts to give her the authority to challenge the teachings of Saudi imams. Armed with the evidence of scripture, she has rebuked the authorities in writing on issues from driving to the doctrinal basis for the requirement that women cover up in public.
This is why I am against women driving until we are educated enough and until we have the necessary laws to protect us from such madness. Otherwise we might as well hand out a licence to the extremists to abuse us further. If as drivers we get harassed, they will say to the Islamic world "see what happens when women drive, they get harassed they get beaten" and they will call for even more stringent laws to control women. This is something we can't afford. Fundamental changes in the law and its attitude to women are needed before we take this step.
|Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz|