19 July 2010

Saint Philby

Think famous spies and you think James Bond. Think harder and you hopefully think of Kim Philby He was an English spy who turned double-agent and spied for the Russians through the Cold War. He was a very naughty boy, but he's not half as interesting as his dad, Harry St. John Bridger Philby, usually known as 'Saint.'.

Saint was the your archetypal man of the British Empire. He was born in
1885 in Sri Lanka, he went to school at Westminster and then Cambridge,
where he was friends and classmates with Nehru - later prime minister of
India. He was a clever little bugger who got into the Indian Civil Service (no mean feat, a sample question on the entrance exam read: "State the arguments for and against Utility, considered as (1) the actual, and (2) the proper, basis of morals.") and learnt to speak 5 languages.

Anyway, during WWI he and some other gung-ho chaps went over to what is
now Saudi Arabia with the aim of a) helping the Arabs rebel against the  Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany with which Britain was
fighting), and b) protect the oil-fields at Basra in modern day Iraq so the Royal Navy could continue getting oil.

That was all well and good, but if you wanted an Arab revolt, you had to have a "King of the Arabs" - Britain wanted a guy called Sheriff Hussein, who was leader of the Hashemites, an Arab dynasty. Lawrence of
Arabia and an archaeologist and explorer, Gertrude Bell (who taught Saint the finer points of espionage), had been building up the Hashemites for years, primarily as a group who could rule Iraq - but Saint was friendly with Hussein's bitter rival, Ibn Saud, and thought he was the man for the job.

That all ended up going nowhere in the end, because at the end of WWI Britain reneged on her promise to hand the Middle East over to a King of the Arabs, and instead parcelled the remains of the Ottoman Empire up between herself and France, with nominal free governments, but really run as British and French colonies.

Saint did well out of this - being appointed Internal Security Minister of the newly formed Iraq (or British Mandate of Iraq - their new name for a colony). He whipped the Iraqis up a constitution and other  democratic accoutrements, but was pretty embarrassed that Britain had gone back on its word. He then moved over and ran the secret service for the British Mandate of Palestine, but he was still keen for a "King of the Arabs," and thought his mate Ibn Saud was still a contender. Eventually the British, who still supported the Hashemites, got sick of him and chucked him out of the Foreign Office, but old Saint still had lots of friends in high places, and so could advise Ibn on exactly how far he could go in conquering Hashemite territory before the British Empire would get pissed off enough to intervene. In this way Ibn created Saudi Arabia, and Saint handled the coronation.

Saint was sitting pretty now, he was best mates with the king of Saudi Arabia, the king's advisor on all matters British, and could spend time pootling about Saudi Arabia mapping things, exploring, and bird-watching (he liked to name the birds he discovered after women he admired). To get into the swing of things he converted to Islam in 1930.

Oil was growing in popularity, and in 1933 Saint helped negotiate an exclusive contract between Saudi Arabia and America's Standard Oil to drill for oil along the Persian Gulf. Britain won't listen to your opinions and continue backing those fucking Hashemites and bloody Lawrence of Arabia? Well, let's see how they like missing out on massive oil reserves in favour of their successors to the rule of the world, America. He continued in this vein for the next few years, undermining Britain's interests in Aden, and then facilitating a merger of Standard Oil, Texaco and the Saudi Government to form ARAMCO, today the world's largest oil company with revenues of more than US$200 billion/year.

This anti-British stuff all got a bit out of hand when before the start of WWII Saint had meetings with the Nazi Adolf Eichmann and put forward a plan for neutral Saudi Arabia to sell oil to pretending-to-be-neutral Spain who could then sell it to definitely-not-neutral Germany. While supporting the Nazis on one hand, he also came up with the "Philby Plan," which included unlimited Jewish migration into Palestine, as long as the Jews supported Ibn's son, Faisal, as the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. In return Saudi Arabia would also chip in to resettle the Palestinians.

Strangely, Saint then returned to Britain, which he must have found bloody freezing, and ran for election to the House of Commons on a peace platform. He lost that, went to India, and was arrested as a Nazi  Sympathiser. His mate (and most influential economist of the 20th century) John Maynard Keynes spoke up for him though, and he was released.

Back in Saudi Arabia things started to go downhill. When Ibn heard about the "Philby Plan" he was less than impressed, as Saint hadn't consulted him on all the details, and began to suspect Saint was perhaps more
interested in Britain's, or possibly the Jews' interests, rather than Saudi Arabia's. They started having massive arguments, largely provoked by Saint, who thought that all that oil money had turned his old mate Ibn into a wanker. To keep himself happy Saint went and got himself a second wife, a 16 year old slave he bought at a market near Mecca.

Ibn Saud died in 1953 and Saint's choice for successor, Faisal, was pipped by his brother, Saud, who Saint had openly criticised. Saint was exiled to Lebanon where he lived with his son Kim, whom he introduced to
many of his contacts in Arab politics. Eventually he was reconciled with the Saudi royal family, but in 1960, while he was back in Beirut visiting Kim, he died in bed, with Kim at his side. His last words were "God, I'm bored."


Gillian said...

What a dude!
more more please

timoti said...

Holy Shit!
thats one hell of a story, why did the Brits ever trust his son after that? Multi-generational high class treason, pretty damn impressive.