HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

Arabia through the eyes of a Princess

A collection of historic photographs that chronicle the journey across the deserts and cities of Saudi Arabia by Princess Alice, the youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria, are on display at the University of Exeter. 

The exhibition is at the University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies from 2 July – 14 August and coincides with the annual Gulf Studies conference.

HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, was the first member of any European royal family to travel to Saudi Arabia and the first woman to be invited by King Abdulaziz. As a keen photographer, she and her entourage, including her husband the Earl of Athlone, took pictures of the places they visited and the events they attended during their 1938 tour. This included the momentous occasion when Saudi Arabia first discovered oil, which was to change the nature of the Kingdom irrevocably.

The exhibition ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ has, amongst others, pictures of cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh before modernity had touched them.  Including photographs of the princess with a camel she encountered in the city of Jeddah as well as pictures of cars trapped in desert sand being pulled out by rope and imposing Saudi royal mud-brick palaces. The collection also includes pictures of the Princess and the Count dressed conventionally in Western suits on arrival and then later on her journey wearing a traditional Arab robes. Princess Alice was able to document life in Saudi Arabia on the brink of major change.

It also chronicles meetings with everyone from King Abdulaziz himself to his sons Prince Saud and Faisal (both later Kings) and the current Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah, who was then a young teenager.

The collection of photographs now belongs to the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh. HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom and a grandson of King Abdulaziz will open the exhibition in Exeter on 2 July. HRH Prince Mohammed said, ‘Princess Alice was the first member of the British royal family to visit the Kingdom and her visit happily coincided with a key moment in our history: the discovery of oil. I am very pleased that this exhibition is now on show here at Exeter, one of Britain’s most prestigious universities, and at the internationally renowned Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies.’

HE Dr Abdulkareem Al Zaid, Deputy Supervisor of the King Abdulaziz Public Library was instrumental in bringing the collection to the Library and will also attend the launch in Exeter. He said, ‘We are delighted these photographs are going on display at the Insitute of Arab and Islamic Studies and that HRH Prince Mohammed has kindly agreed to launch the exhibition.’

Professor Gerd Nonneman, Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies said, ‘The University is absolutely delighted to be hosting this unique exhibition that provides a private view into Saudi Arabia, when the Kingdom was just emerging and as oil was being discovered.’

The speed of change within the Kingdom still has repercussions today as the Gulf continues to play a central role in global economics continuing to invest in international projects during the economic downturn. This year the annual Gulf Studies Conference, at the University of Exeter, addresses the challenges to identity which this speed of change has on the social and economic position of the Gulf.  The key topic will consider the impact that  migrant workers, the majority population, have on the indigenous communities’ language, lifestyle and culture.

He added, ‘We have been looking at socio-economic development in the Gulf States for the past thirty years. This has been a key area of study. So it is fascinating to see these pictures, taken at such a seminal moment in the history of Saudi Arabia. They illustrate an extraordinary journey, which was pivotal in influencing the positive development of relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia.”

The launch of the ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ exhibition will be followed by a guest presentation by HE Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and until recently the UK’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Date: 2 July 2010

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