St John Philby

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St John Philby in Riyadh

Harry St John Bridger Philby CIE (3 April 1885 – 30 September 1960), also known as Jack Philby or Sheikh Abdullah (الشيخ عبدالله), was a British Arabist, explorer, writer, and colonial office intelligence officer.

He was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied oriental languages under E.G. Browne, and was a friend and classmate of Jawaharlal Nehru, later prime minister of India.

As he states in his autobiography, he "became something of a fanatic" and in 1908[1] "the first Socialist to join the Indian Civil Service". He was posted to Lahore in the Punjab in British India in 1908. He acquired fluency in Urdu, Punjabi, Baluchi, Persian, and eventually Arabic languages.

Philby married Dora Johnston in September 1910,[2] with his distant cousin Bernard Law Montgomery as best man. He had one son, Kim Philby, later a British intelligence agent infamous as a double agent for the Soviet Union, and three daughters.[2] He also later married an Arab woman from Saudi Arabia.[3]

Arab Revolt[edit]

In late 1915 Percy Cox, chief political officer of the small British Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, recruited Philby as head of the finance branch of the British administration in Baghdad, a job which included fixing compensation for property and business owners. Their mission was twofold: (1) organise the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks; (2) protect the oilfields near Basra and the Shatt al Arab, which was the source of oil for the Royal Navy. The revolt was organised with the promise of creating a unified Arab state, or Arab federation, from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. Gertrude Bell of the British Military Intelligence Department was his first controller and taught him the finer arts of espionage. In 1916 he became Revenue Commissioner for Occupied Territories.

In August 1917 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire.[4]

Philby was sent to the interior of the Arabian peninsula as head of a mission to Ibn Saud in November 1917. The Wahhabi chieftain and bitter enemy of Sherif Hussein was sending raids against the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz, leader of the Arab Revolt. Philby secretly began to favour Ibn Saud over Sherif Hussein as "King of the Arabs", a difference with British policy, which was promising support for the Hashemite dynasty in the post-Ottoman world. On return Philby completed the crossing from Riyadh to Jeddah by the "backdoor" route, thus demonstrating Ibn Saud was in control of the Arabian highlands, whereas Sherif Hussein could not guarantee safe passage. Later (1920) he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society Founder's Gold Medal for his two journeys in South Central Arabia.[5]

On 7 November 1918, four days before the Armistice, Britain and France issued the Anglo-French Declaration to the Arabs assuring self-determination. Philby felt the betrayal of this assurance, along with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Sykes-Picot Agreement, and other diplomatic manoeuvres broke faith with the promise of a single unified Arab nation in exchange for aligning themselves with the Allies in the war against the Ottoman Turks and Central Powers. Philby argued that Ibn Saud was a "democrat" guiding his affairs "by mutual counsel" as laid out in the Quran (Surah 42:38),[citation needed] in contrast to Lord Curzon's "Hussein policy". After the Iraqi revolt of 1920 Philby was appointed Minister of Internal Security in the British Mandate of Iraq. He roughed out a democratic constitution complete with elected assembly and republican president.[citation needed]

In November 1921, Philby was named chief head of the Secret Service for the British Mandate of Palestine. He worked with T. E. Lawrence for a while, but did not share Lawrence's views on the Hashemites. Here he met his American counterpart, Allen Dulles, who was stationed in Constantinople.

At the end of 1922, Philby travelled to London for extensive meetings with parties involved in the Palestine question. They included Winston Churchill, King George, the Prince of Wales, Baron Rothschild, Wickham Steed, and Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist movement.[6]

Adviser to Ibn Saud[edit]

Philby was of the view that both British and the Saud family's interests would be best served by uniting the Arabian peninsula under one government from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, with the Saudis supplanting the Hashemites as Islamic "Keepers of the Holy Places" while protecting shipping lanes on the Suez–Aden–Bombay route of the British Empire. Philby was forced to resign his post in 1924 on differences of allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine. He was found to be in unauthorised correspondence with Ibn Saud, which carried with it the connotation of espionage, sending information he gained in his post to Ibn Saud. The Secret Service, however, continued to pay Philby for another five years. Shortly after Philby's resignation, Ibn Saud began to call for the overthrow of the Hashemite dynasty. Philby was able to advise Ibn Saud on how far Saud could go in occupying Arabia without incurring the wrath of the British government, then the principal power in the Middle East. By 1925, in the words of Philby, Ibn Saud brought unprecedented order into Arabia.

Philby settled in Jeddah and became a partner in a trading company. Over the next few years he became famous as an international writer and explorer. Philby personally mapped on camel back what is now the Saudi–Yemeni border on the Rub' al Khali. In 1932, while searching for the lost city of Ubar, he was the first Westerner to visit and describe the Wabar craters. In his unique position he became Ibn Saud's chief adviser in dealing with the British Empire and Western powers. He converted to Islam in 1930.[7] In 1931 Philby invited Charles R. Crane to Jeddah to facilitate exploration of the kingdom's subsoil oil. Crane was accompanied by noted historian George Antonius, who acted as translator.[citation needed]

In May 1932, Standard Oil of California (SoCal) sought out Philby in its quest to obtain an oil concession in Saudi Arabia, ultimately signing Philby as a paid adviser to SoCal. Philby, in turn, recognising that competition by foreign interests would get a better deal for the Saudi King, made contact with Dr George Lees, Chief Geologist of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in order to alert him to SoCal's interest in gaining oil exploration rights in Saudi Arabia. Anglo Persian was one of five international partners in the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), through which it pursued its interest in the Saudi concession. In March 1933, IPC sent a representative, Stephen Longrigg, to join negotiations with the Saudi government in Jeddah. However, Philby's primary loyalty was to the Saudi King and, although he was being paid by SoCal, he kept the arrangement a secret from Longrigg. In May 1933, IPC instructed Longrigg to withdraw from Jeddah, leaving SoCal free to conclude negotiations with the Saudi Arabia for a 60-year contract to obtain the exclusive concession for exploration and extraction of oil in the al-Hasa region along the Persian Gulf.[8]

Meanwhile, at Cambridge, Philby's son, Kim, was being recruited by the OGPU of the Soviet Union. In recent years the theory has been propounded that Kim was recruited in particular to spy on his father, who had such powerful influence over the founder of the Saudi state and its connections with Britain and with American oil interests.[citation needed] By 1934, in an effort to safeguard the port of Aden, Britain had no fewer than 1,400 "peace treaties" with the various tribal rulers of the hinterlands of what became Yemen. Philby undermined British influence in the region, however, by facilitating the entry of United States commercial interests, followed by a political alliance between the US and the Saud dynasty.

In 1936 SoCal and Texaco pooled their assets together "East of Suez" into what later became ARAMCO (Arabian–American Oil Company). The United States State Department describes ARAMCO as the richest commercial prize in the history of the planet.[9] Philby represented Saudi interests. In 1937 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Philby arranged for his son, Kim Philby, to become a war correspondent for The Times.

Later Philby began secret negotiations with Germany and Spain, concerning Saudi Arabia's role in the event of a general European war. These discussions would allow neutral Saudi Arabia to sell oil to neutral Spain, which then would be transported to Germany. John Loftus, who worked in the United States Department of Justice Office of Special Investigations Nazi-hunting unit, claims Adolf Eichmann, while on a mission to the Middle East, met with Philby "during the mid-1930s".[10]

Philby Plan[edit]

St John Philby fought a by-election held on 20 July 1939 for the parliamentary constituency of Hythe, Kent. He stood for the far right, anti-war British People's Party, declaring "no cause whatever is worth the spilling of human blood" and "protection of the small man against big business". He lost his deposit. Soon after the war began.

When he travelled to Bombay he was arrested on 3 August 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B, deported to England and there briefly interned. Shortly after his release from custody Philby recommended his son, Kim, to Valentine Vivian, MI6 deputy chief, who recruited him into the British secret service. When Harold Hoskins of the United States State Department visited Ibn Saud in August 1943, he asked if the king would be willing to have an intermediary meet with Chaim Weizmann. Ibn Saud angrily responded, that he was insulted by the suggestion that he could be bribed for £20 million to accept resettlement of Arabs from Palestine. Hoskins reports the king said Weizmann told him the promise of payment would be "guaranteed by President Roosevelt". A month later Weizmann, in a letter to Sumner Welles wrote: "It is conceived on big lines, large enough to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of both Arabs and Jews, and the strategic and economic interests of the United States;... properly managed, Mr. Philby's scheme offers an approach which should not be abandoned".[11]

Suez Crisis[edit]

After Ibn Saud's death in 1953 Philby openly criticised the successor King Saud, saying the royal family's morals were being picked up "in the gutters of the West". He was exiled to Lebanon in 1955. In exile he wrote:

"...the true basis of Arab hostility to Jewish immigration into Palestine is xenophobia, and instinctive perception that the vast majority of central and eastern European Jews, seeking admission ... are not Semites at all. ... Whatever political repercussions of their settlement may be, their advent is regarded as a menace to the Semitic culture of Arabia... the European Jew of today, with his secular outlook... is regarded as an unwelcome intruder within the gates of Arabia".

While in Beirut he reconciled with Kim, and the two lived together for a time.[12] The son was reemployed by MI6 as an outside informer on retainer, with the assignment to spy on his father. Jack Philby helped further his son's career by introducing him to his extensive network of contacts in the Middle East, including President Camille Chamoun of Lebanon. Both were sympathetic to Nasser during the Suez Crisis of August 1956. Between Jack's access to ARAMCO and Kim's access to British intelligence there was little they did not know about Operation Musketeer, the French and British plan to capture the Suez Canal. The Soviet Union exposed the entire plan in the United Nations and threatened Britain and France with "long-range guided missiles equipped with atomic warheads".[citation needed]

In 1955 Jack Philby returned to live in Riyadh. In 1960, on a visit to Kim in Beirut, while in bed, with his son at his side, he reportedly exclaimed "God, I'm bored", and died. He is buried in the Muslim cemetery in the Basta district of Beirut.[12]


In his travels he took great interest in wildlife and gave a scientific name to the Arabian woodpecker (Desertipicus (now Dendrocopos) dorae), as well as a subspecies (no longer valid) of an scops owl (Otus scops pamelae). Most of his birds were named after women whom he admired. He contributed numerous specimens to the British Museum. He also contributed to the draft of a book on the birds of Arabia by George Latimer Bates. It was not published, but was made use of in Birds of Arabia (1954) by Richard Meinertzhagen. Philby is remembered in ornithology by the name of Philby's partridge (Alectoris philbyi). [13][14]


Some authors have summarised Philby as a British traitor and an anti-Semite.[15][16] They suggest Philby never forgave the British government for ending his civil service career (due to sexual misconduct).[17] Once recruited by MI6, according to these authors, Philby used his intelligence assignment to take revenge on the British government.[18] With the extensive contacts he acquired as a British agent, Philby continued to betray British policy and resist all efforts at creating a Jewish homeland throughout his life. Philby disclosed classified British intelligence to Ibn Saud during wartime; he secretly helped secure American oil concessions in Saudi Arabia, double-crossing British competitors;[12] he created economic partnerships, allied against British interests and in favor of Nazi Germany, with the help of Allen Dulles (later CIA Director); and Philby worked with Nazi intelligence to sabotage efforts at creating a Jewish homeland.[19]


  • The heart of Arabia; a record of travel & exploration. (London: Constable) 1922.
  • Arabia of the Wahhabis. (London: Constable) 1928.
  • Arabia. (London: Ernest Benn) 1930.
  • The empty quarter: being a description of the great south desert of Arabia known as Rub 'al Khali (London: Constable & Company Ltd) 1933. scanned book
  • Harun al Rashid (London: P. Davies) 1933.
  • Routes in south-west Arabia [map]: From surveys made in 1936 (Methuen & Co Ltd) 1936.
  • Sheba's daughters; being a record of travel in Southern Arabia (London: Methuen & Co Ltd) 1939.
  • A Pilgrim in Arabia (London: The Golden Cockerel Press), [1943].
  • The Background of Islam: being a sketch of Arabian history in pre-Islamic times (Alexandria: Whitehead Morris) 1947.
  • Arabian Days, an autobiography (London: R. Hale) 1948.
  • Arabian Highlands (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press) 1952. scanned book
  • Arabian Jubilee (London: Hale) [1952]
  • Sa′udi Arabia (London: Benn) 1955, New impression: Librairie du Liban, Beirut 1968
  • The Land of Midian. (London: Ernest Bean Limited) 1957.
  • Forty Years in the Wilderness (London: R. Hale) c1957.
  • Arabian Oil Ventures (Washington: Middle East Institute) 1964.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The London Gazette Publication date: 3 November 1908 Issue:28191 Page: 7933
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Ben Macintyre A Spy Among Friends pg 24
  4. ^ The London Gazette: 24 August 1917 Issue:30252 Page: 8852
  5. ^ RGS Gold Medal Recipients
  6. ^ Harry St John Bridger Philby
  7. ^ Macintyre B (2014). A Spy Among Friends. Bloomsbury, London, United Kingdom. p. 27. ISBN 9781408851722. 
  8. ^ The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, by Daniel Yergin, p. 290
  9. ^
  10. ^ John Loftus & Mark Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews, p. 45.
  11. ^ Philby of Arabia, Elizabeth Monroe, Pitman Publishing (1973), p. 225.
  12. ^ a b c Carver, Tom (11 October 2012). "Diary: Philby in Beirut". London Review of Books. Retrieved 4 October 2012. 
  13. ^ Morrison-Scott, T. C. S. 1939 Some Arabian Mammals Collected by Mr. H. St. J. B. Philby, C.I.E. Novitates Zoologicae, 41: 181–211.
  14. ^ Pocock, R I 1935 The Mammals Collected in S. E. Arabia by Mr. Bartram Thomas and Mr. H. St. J. Philby. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist., Ser. 10, 15: 441–467.
  15. ^ Anthony Cave Brown, Treason in the Blood: Harry St. John Philby, Kim Philby, and the Spy Case of the Century, 1994, Houghton Mifflin.
  16. ^ John Loftus & Mark Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews 21, 24, 32, 38, 41–44 (1994)
  17. ^ John Loftus & Mark Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews, supra, at 23–26
  18. ^ John Loftus & Mark Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews, supra, at 24
  19. ^ John Loftus & Mark Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews, supra, at 24, 32, 38, 42–44


  • Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, W.W. Norton (2008)
  • Princes of Darkness, Laurent Murawiec, Rowman and Littlefield (2005)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004)
  • Arabian Jubilee, H. StJ. B. Philby, Robert Hale, (1952)
  • Philby of Arabia, Elizabeth Monroe, Pitman Publishing (1973)
  • The Secret War Against the Jews, John Loftus and Mark Aarons, St Martin's Press (1994)
  • Arabia, the Gulf and the West Basic Books (1980)
  • The House of Saud, David Holden and Richard Johns, Holt Rinehart and Winston (1981)
  • The Philby Conspiracy, Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley, Doubleday (1968)
  • Saudi Arabia and the United States, 1931–2002 by Josh Pollack (2002)
  • Mirage: Power, Politics, And the Hidden History of Arabian Oil, by Aileen Keating, Prometheus Books (2005)

External links[edit]