Philby family gathers at Heart of Arabia Expedition Riyadh launch

The British and Saudi sides of the Philby family will come together for the first time this weekend in Riyadh as the Heart of Arabia expedition team, following in the footsteps of Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby prepares to set out on the second half of their gruelling 1300K trek across Arabia.

It is the first time any of Philby’s British grandchildren have visited the Kingdom where their grandfather made his home. Their Saudi cousin and expedition team member Reem Philby said: “This leg is preceded by a very special event where the British and Saudi sides of the family come together for the first time in Riyadh celebrating our grandfather’s life and legacy in his second home.”

She is eager to begin the second part of the expedition: “I think I’ve had enough of the luxury of a bed and I’m ready to be back in my tent in the desert for leg 2 of the Heart of Arabia expedition exploring new parts of the centre and west of Saudi Arabia in the harsh cold of January.”

She and the other team members will be joined at Al Diryah where the team start the second phase by two of Philby’s British grandchildren. British grandson Michael Engelbach said: “It is difficult to summarise all our feelings and emotions. We are so looking forward to being in Riyadh and also going to Al Hofuf which was an early stopping point for our grandfather on his 1917/18 voyage across the Arabian peninsula.” He is visiting the Kingdom with his cousin Mandy Oates.

“Our experience of our grandfather was through holidays spent with him as schoolchildren in London and Cornwall. Having read many of his letters and his books giving the account of his travels and his love of Arabia we are very excited to be finally viewing the country and the people first hand.

“Mark's expedition has brought this long Arabian period of his extraordinary life alive in our imaginations and following its progress closely has enabled us to identify with the scale of his achievement. We are enormously grateful to Mark for that and for enabling a heart-warming introduction to our Saudi cousins. We are looking forward to spending time with them in Riyadh and excited to be meeting their parents for the first time. We hope that the two families can maintain a close contact going forward as well as a common interest in our grandfather's legacy.”

The second leg of the Expedition, which is led by explorer Mark Evans, will set out from Al Diriyah just outside Riyadh on Monday morning (16 January) and take the same route through the hills towards Jeddah. “Abdullah Philby is considered by many as one of the greatest early explorers of Arabia,” said Mark. “He not only set out across uncharted land, but took time to record everything he saw, something not done before with as much detail, increasing our geographical knowledge and understanding of the region.”

He said the second leg of the expedition would be more challenging physically than the first. “It will be longer, the terrain more varied, colder and wetter. Historically perhaps this leg of the expedition is more significant as this was where Philby saw the opportunity to demonstrate that Ibn Saud had the allegiance of the tribes to the west. It was a journey that was pivotal in understanding the Kingdom and in the evolution of the modern state of Saudi Arabia.”

Mark and Reem will be joined of the second leg of their expedition by fellow team members, logistics expert Alan Morrissey and photographer Ana Maria Pavalache.

The expedition is supported by HSBC and the Saudi Arabian British Bank. Other team sponsors and partners are Al Jazirah Ford who have supplied the team with trucks, Leica who have supplied Ana Maria’s cameras and STC, the Saudi satellite company providing telecommunications in the desert. “We are sincerely grateful and indebted to our official partners and sponsors who have made this historic expedition possible,” said Mark.