As a young reporter in the 1970s I travelled in what the Romans called Arabia Felix – through the Gulf sheikhdoms and emirates, into Muscat and down to the southern tip of the peninsula. I saw Dubai when it was still largely a fishing port where the pearl divers set sail in their dhows: in Kuwait, I spent an afternoon with Mrs Dickson, the widow of the last British political officer in the Gulf, in her traditional Arab house down in the old harbour. In Saudi Arabia I camped under the stars with some Bedouin on the edge of the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter, that stretch of a million square miles of desert which fills the bottom half of Arabia. Needless to say I was soon addicted and more trips followed. With the arrogance of the young journalist I imagined myself an Arabist and began to read all the available books. It did not take me long to realize that as only an occasional visitor I could never make the grade.
One of those books remains not only in my memory but also on my bookshelves, and, after a surprise visit to the Gulf last year, I reread it. Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands is, I think, one of the greatest travel books ever written. In 1945, when he was 35, Thesiger managed to persuade the anti-locust research centre in London to finance a trip to the Empty Quarter. For the next five years, dressed as a Bedu, he travelled with a few companions and made two crossings of the Empty Quarter. In doing so he ran the very real risk of starving to death, dying of thirst, or being killed by some fanatical Muslim because as a Christian he was defiling their world.
Horace, the Roman poet, divided all travellers into two groups, those who travel for a change of climate and those who travel to change their minds. Thesiger was a man who not only changed his mind, he also changed everything else about himself. Many today would see him as one of the last of Britain’s imperial officer class – haughty, sure of himself, a leader of men, someo
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