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Harry St. John* Bridger Philby

Also Known As: "Jack Philby or Sheikh Abdullah (الشيخ عبدالله)", "Sheikh Abdullah"
Birthdate: (75)
Birthplace: Badulla, British Ceylon
Death: September 30, 1960 (75)
Beirut, Lebanon
Immediate Family:

Son of Harry Montagu Philby and May Beatrice Philby
Husband of Dora Philby and Rozy Abdul Aziz
Father of Kim Philby (KGB spy); Diana Mary Bridger Philby; Helena Verna Philby and Dora Patricia Cardew Philby

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About St John Philby

Harry St John Bridger Philby CIE (born 3 April 1885, Badulla, British Ceylon - 30 September 1960, Beirut, Lebanon), also known as Jack Philby or Sheikh Abdullah (الشيخ عبدالله), his Arabic name, was an Arabist, explorer, writer, and British 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.

In his travels he also took great interest in birdlife and he gave a scientific name to the Arabian Woodpecker (Desertipicus (now Dendrocopos) dorae), as well as a subspecies (no longer valid) of an owl (Otus scops pamelae).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. However, it was never published, but was made use of in a work on the same subject by Richard Meinertzhagen. Philby is remembered in ornithology by the name of Philby's Partridge (Alectoris philbyi).

As he states in his autobiography, he "became something of a fanatic" and "the first Socialist to join the Indian Civil Service" in 1907, and was posted to Lahore in the Punjab in 1908. He acquired fluency in Urdu, Punjabi, Baluchi, Persian, and eventually Arabic languages. Philby married Dora Johnston, his first wife, in September 1910, with his distant cousin Bernard Law Montgomery as best man. He also later married an Arab woman from Saudi Arabia. He had one son, Kim Philby, later famous for being a British intelligence agent who was a double agent for the Soviet Union, and three daughters.

Arab Revolt

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) organize the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks; (2) protect the oilfields near Basra and the Shatt al Arab, which was the only source of oil for the Royal Navy. The revolt was organized 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 officiating Revenue Commissioner for Occupied Territories.

In November 1917, Philby was sent to the interior of the Arabian peninsula as head of a mission to Ibn Saud. The Wahabbi chieftain and bitter enemy of Sherif Hussein was sending raids against the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz, leader of the revolt. For more than 700 years the non-Turkic Hashemite dynasty held title as Sharif of Mecca.

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 he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society Founders Gold Medal for the desert journey. Back in Jeddah he met with an embarrassed Sherif Hussein.

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, Sykes-Picot Agreement, and other diplomatic maneuverers 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 62:37), in contrast to Lord Curzon's "Hussein policy". After the Great Iraqi Revolution 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.

In November 1921, Philby was named chief head of the Secret Service for the British Mandate of Palestine, or what is now the region of The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (formerly The Emirate of Transjordan) and Israel. 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 traveled to London for extensive meetings with all involved in the Palestine question. They were Winston Churchill, King George, the Prince of Wales, Baron Rothschild, Wickham Steed, and Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist movement.

Ibn Saud adviser

Philby was of the view that both British and the Saudi 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 unauthorized correspondence with Ibn Saud, which carried with it the connotation of espionage, sending information he gained in his post to Ibn Saud. He had "gone native". 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 all 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 was put in charge of arranging Ibn Saud's coronation as king of the newly created state of Saudi Arabia.

Philby settled in Jeddah and became partners in a trading company. Over the next few years he became famous as an international writer and explorer. Philby personally mapped on camelback 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. 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.

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 advisor to Socal. Philby, in turn, recognizing that competition by foreign interests would get a better deal for his friend, 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.

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. 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 United States 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. 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".

Philby Plan

At a February 1939 meeting in London with Ben-Gurion and Weizman, Philby offered substantial Jewish immigration to Palestine if they would support Ibn Saud's son and eventual successor, Faisal, as King of Palestine. Months later, accompanied by Saudi foreign affairs official Fuad Bey Hamza, Philby proposed to Weizmann and Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) that they pay Ibn Saud £20 million to be used to resettle Palestinian Arabs. Weizman said he would discuss the plan with President Roosevelt.[citation needed]

Kim Philby also was present at this meeting. Philby ran for election to the House of Commons for the 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 and soon thereafter the war began. Because of his activities, when he travelled to Bombay he was arrested on 3 August 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B and taken to England. Shortly thereafter Jack Philby recommended his son Kim, released from custody, to Valentine Vivian, MI6 deputy chief, who recruited him into the British secret service. When Harold Hoskins of the U.S State Department visited Ibn Saud in August 1943, he asked if the king would be willing to have an intermediary meet with Chaim Weizmann. In anger Ibn Saud responded 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".[citation needed]

Suez Crisis

After Ibn Saud's death in 1953 Philby openly criticized 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. 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. Jack introduced him to 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".

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 Beirut.


Some authors have summarized Philby as a British traitor and a rabid anti-Semite. They suggest Philby never forgave the British government for ending his civil service career (due to sexual misconduct). Once recruited by MI6, according to these authors, Philby used his intelligence assignment to take revenge on the British government. 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 (King of Saudi Arabia) during wartime; he secretly helped secure American oil concessions in Saudi Arabia, double-crossing British competitors; 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.

Works by St John Philby

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.

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St John Philby's Timeline

April 3, 1885
Badulla, British Ceylon
January 1, 1912
Age 26
Ambala, Haryana, India
May 1920
Age 35
Age 36
Age 38
September 30, 1960
Age 75
Beirut, Lebanon