Captain William Shakespear of Arabia

1915, 100 years ago, Captain William Shakespear, explorer and military advisor of Ibn Sa'ud, future king of Saudi Arabia, was killed during the Battle of Jarrab, north of Riyadh, before he could become “Shakespear of Arabia”.

“I think you are another of these desert-Ioving English. Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. And no man needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with...” (Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia“)

Captain William Henry Irvine Shakespear
(1878 - 1915)

It was one of the “what ifs” in history. Not a major one, at least not at the time, since it was two decades before oil was discovered in the Arabian peninsula, but at least it happened close to the Suez Canal, British India and at the backdoor of the crumbling Ottoman Empire on the eve of the Great War. It was not as if the various Arab tribes and factions in the Najd, the central region of present-day Saudi-Arabia and the Hejaz, the eastern coast, were exactly chafing under the Ottoman yoke. Imperial supremacy was usually exerted through the local sherifs and princes, even though the local ultra-conservative Wahhabi leaders had been rather alienated by the new-fangled, secular ideas of the “Young Turks” at the High Porte. The Sultan in Constantinople was still seen as the Defender of the Faith. Somehow.

Abdulaziz ibn Saud, "a fair, handsome man, considerably above average Arab height with a particularly frank and open face, and after initial reserve...of genial and very courteous manner",
as Shakespear had described him *

Before the war, affairs in regards to local “Asiatic powers” in places bordering the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf were usually handled by the IPD, the Bombay-based “Indian Political Department”. Born in Bombay and educated in England, the dashing young Sandhurst graduate Lt William Shakespear, 17th Bengal Cavalry, chose to become a “Political”, as members of the department were known, learned Urdu, Pushtu, Farsi and Arabic, earned some merits as a civil servant and became the youngest consul the IPD ever had at the age of 25. At the back of beyond. In Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz. However remote the place was from pressing political matters of the day, though, Consul William Shakespear made the best of it and became an explorer, took his army compass, a sextant and his trusty glass-plate camera, packed it in his Rover motor car bought from a Karachi dealer and set forth to explore the desert and drove the vehicle on his first home leave through Persia, Turkey and Europe to France in 1907. On his returned to Kuwait, he became an avid falconer, obtained a brace of saluki hounds, rode a camel as well as a Bengal lancer’s cavalry horse, explored the Najd and became a fast friend of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, Lord of Riyadh since a few years and not exactly on good terms with the Turks. And while William Shakespear travelled more than 1,800 miles through the uncharted Najd and became his own legend among the local tribes, the Foreign Office and the IPD considered their policy of non-intervention on the peninsula when things went pear-shaped on a rather global scale in August 1914.

Abdulaziz' army on the march in 1915 **

had become increasingly important during the first years of the 20th century. In industrial production and as fuel for the new super-dreadnoughts that secured Britain’s lifelines and contained the Kaiser’s battle fleet when war broke out. One of the first moves of the war in the Middle Eastern theatre was a push from British India into Ottoman Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, to secure the pipelines and all of a sudden, William Shakespear’s friendship with Abdulaziz and his people was a strategic asset on the southern flank of the march to Basra and Bagdad. Personal connections as well as weapons and money, lots of money then and a lot more later, persuaded Abdulaziz to make his move against the nominal Ottoman overlords. Refusing to dress in the robes of a sheriff of the Beni Wejh or something similar like his more famous colleague two years later, William Shakespear, now promoted to captain, wore the staunch khaki and the pith helmet of an officer of the British Indian Army when he rode with Abdulaziz’ irregular cavalry into the first major battle with Abdulaziz’ old rival, the pro-Ottoman Saud Ibn Rashid. “Abd al-'Aziz wants me to clear out but I really want to see the show and I don't think it will be unsafe really...." Shakespear had written to his brother a few weeks before. He couldn’t be more wrong. Accounts vary if he took photographs or directed the fire of one of Abdulaziz’ guns when the Rashidis charged. He was shot thrice and died. By the end of the year, Abdulaziz had signed the Anglo-Saudi Treaty, but British emphasis on the scene had shifted from Bombay to Cairo, supporting rather Sherif Hussein bin Ali, Feisal and the Kingdom of Hejaz and it was another lieutenant and “political” who became world-famous when the Arab Revolt begun and not “Shakespear of Arabia”

* ** both photographs were taken by Shakespear, archived along with a lot of the pictures he took by the Royal Geographic Society on and found as illustrations of an excellent article from the BBC’s “Round the Bend”series, named “Shakespear of Arabia” on

And more about William Shakespear on: