Thursday 19 April 2012


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.

Najdat Anzour
Najdat Anzour is the son of the Syrian pioneer of Arab cinema, Ismail Anzour. Although Anzour junior’s reputation rest primarily on the production of epic TV series about important episodes in Islamic and Middle Eastern history, he is also known for not shying away from controversial topics, addressing sensitive political topics. His latest, King of the Sands, falls into that category. At the press conference  the director reported that he has already received threats of lawsuits by unidentified parties trying to prevent its release through their lawyers.

King Abd al-Aziz
(a.k.a. Ibn Saud)
King of the Sands is presented as a 'landmark taboo-breaking film, telling a 'dichotomous' story. On the one hand, the undeniably impressive feat of an impoverished prince in exile to not only reconquer his ancestral lands, but then continue to expand these until he controlled the better part of the Arabian Peninsula, under which soil were lying unknown and hitherto untapped mineral resources of a magnitude that would bring the kingdom eventually unimaginable wealth. On the other hand, this accomplishment also demanded single-minded ruthlessness and violence, resulting in the extermination of the rivalling Emirs of Hail, the Al Rasheed, and eventually also the massacre of his own shock troops, the Ikhwan (an irregular militia recruited from the main nomadic tribes not to be confused with the modernist Islamic Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt), when they became in liability in the late 1920s and early 1930s because they threatened the king’s relations with the British in Jordan and Iraq. This episode also shows how Western imperialism impinged on the monarch's independence, foreshadowing the kingdom's future entanglement in world affairs once the oil started to flow.

Little of this becomes evident from the trailer (to watch it, click on the image above), which was clearly cut in accordance with the well-rehearsed Hollywood formula: the hero sent on his quest, a dapper brooding prince wielding his sword, battling enemies, even a bedroom scene with one of the dozens of women Ibn Saud would marry in his life time (boy gets girls). 

Marco Foschi
So it still remains to be seen if the film will indeed deliver a balanced – warts-and-all – biography of Saudi Arabia’s first king. However, the very fact that a Syrian has taken it upon himself to produce an unauthorized film of the kingdom’s founding father has already ruffled some feathers, and it will certainly not be shown in Saudi Arabia. Not that this matters, observed Najdat Anzour wryly, because the country has no movie theatres or cinemas anyway. Lawsuits aside, another indication of the film's potentially controversial nature is the choice of the cast: Anzour selected Italian actors Marco Foschi and Fabio Testi to play the young and old Ibn Saud.

Abd al-Aziz in old age
Allegedly this decision was motivated by their command of English without sounding like native speakers, but Anzour also admitted that Arab actors would not touch the part of the Saudi monarch, because of the implications depicting a political figure from the Arab world, even  historical one,  might have for their career in the Middle East. In spite of that, alongside Turkish actors, lesser characters are played by Syrians and Lebanese.

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 the Q & A session, Madawi al-Rasheed queried the director whether the film focuses solely on the power politics of central Arabia, or whether the film will also show that Saudi Arabia is a composite state, encompassing the Najd plateau of the interior, the mountainous Western region of the Hijaz where Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, and the oil-rich Eastern Province near the Persian Gulf, as well as the desert regions bordering Yemen and the Emirates in the south and the east, and Jordan and Iraq to its north.

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.

Basma bint Saud asked whether the release of the film at this instance was entirely coincidental. Having been many years in the making, Anzour assured her that this was indeed the case – but he anticipates that the tectonic shifts in the political landscape of the Middle East over the past year obviously will mean more attention for the film than would have been the case under other circumstances. The ‘Acton Princess’  finds herself very much in the spotlight, not just because she is a Saudi royal with a critical view of her own country, but also because on her mother’s side she is of Syrian descent, allegedly with close links to the Assad family.

HRH Basma bint Saud
Admittedly, Princess Basma’s ideas concerning women’s rights, education, social services, the excessive power of judges, abusive practices of those working for the General Presidency for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the so-called mutawwa’s), and the general dominance of religious scholars in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs  make a lot of sense. However, on closer inspection her ideas on political reform in Saudi Arabia can only be qualified as very modest indeed. With her insistence that she is not challenging the authority of her uncle, the current King Abdullah, she remains not just a royalist through and through, but also a loyal member of the dynasty itself.
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.
This comes as no surpirse -- the main lesson the Al Saud have learned from history is that internal dissent will spell the end of their iron grip over the kingdom. This happened in the late nineteenth-century when competing princes squabbling over supremacy within the then already quite expanded clan were outmanoeuvred by the Al Rasheed of the northern Jabal Shammar region. With Ottoman backing they ousted the Al Saud from their power seat, eventually sending them packing to exile in Kuwait.

Laudable as her criticism of the archaic religious establishment may be, I wonder what weight her words carry back home and how she can back up the claim she made in an interview with The Independent that:
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.
In the interview, Princess Basma insists that reform in Saudi Arabia must respect local tradition and culture – read: should safeguard the political status que, i.e. Al Saud hegemony. Even on that key issue: Saudi women’s right to drive, she plays it safe:
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.
Easy to say for a princess or any upper-class Saudi woman whose family can employ private drivers.

Interview with Princess Basma bint Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saud

Indeed, as The Independent noted, the princess 'goes out of her way to emphasise that her criticisms do not relate to her octogenarian uncle, King Abdullah, or the other senior members of the monarchy. Instead, the focus of her anger is the tier of governors, administrators and plutocrats who run the country day to day'.

Aside from challenging the governors – nearly all of whom are also members of the royal family, her criticism of this ‘second echelon’ of the Saudi state structure sounds disingenuous. Technocrat ministers are tied hand and foot to the senior princes who really call the shots in Saudi politics. Commoners in the cabinet who thought they could chart their own course or who dared to challenge royal authority lost their jobs overnight, these include oil ministers Abdullah al-Tariki and Ahmad Zaki al-Yamani,  and Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a former minister of health and industry, and poet, who was fired for writing a controversial poem, After being 'exiled' as ambassador to Bahrayn, he was eventually rehabilitated -- serving as ambassador to London and then rewarded with another cabinet post as minister of labour.

Even what Basma bint Saud calls the non-royal plutocracy has only been allowed to reach or retain that position with royal approval. Business families such as the Aba al-Khayl, Rashid, Gosaibi, Alireza, and othersd were only allowed to prosper to a certain extent. Acting as mega import agents certainly brought them great wealth, but they were never permitted to make ‘deep’ strategic investments in the domestic economy: oil and other mineral resources, the petrochemical industry, and airlines remained firmly under control for the royal family.

Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz
It is ironic that accusations of corruption and incompetence come from the daughter of the king who, in the 1950s and 1960s, brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and whose failure was of such magnitude that it first led to a virtual palace revolution by ambitious young princes under Talal ibn Abd al-Aziz in 1962, and eventually – two years – later to the decision of key members of the royal family that the king had to go, replacing him with his brother, Crown Prince Faysal. Also King Saud ended his days in exile:  expiring of a heart attack in Athens in 1969.



Anonymous said...

This was an incredibly informative post on the movie and the background to it.
It all looks set to be very interesting, can't wait to watch.

Unknown said...

This episode also shows how Western imperialism impinged on the monarch's independence, foreshadowing the kingdom's future entanglement in world affairs once the oil started to flow. apartments in london

Abdulrehman said...

is this movie released in DVD? i don't find any reference in internet or online stores