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Memoirs and Biography

Oil, Sand and Politics :

Memoirs of a Middle East Doctor, Mercenary and Mountaineer


About this book:

  • ISBN: 9781904524090 (hardback)

  • Published 2003

  • Price £25.00 + postage

  • 301 pages

  • Illustrated with 37 photographs and 13 maps

About the Author:

A lasting peace in the Middle East is the Holy Grail of world leaders. The seeds of today's conflict lie in the history of the region and, to understand today's troubles, you need to look at yesterday's wars.
Dr Philip Horniblow knows more than most about the Middle East, having spent 30 years working there. He had learned of Arabia from his father, a school friend of T E Lawrence, and from childhood had longed to visit the scenes of his exploits.
Having served in the Parachute Regiment just after the Second World War and trained as a doctor, the author left the UK with practical skills, a sense of adventure and a love of Arabia. His subsequent career took him through a world where the British had once held Mandate, offered Protected Status, or upon whom they were economically dependant.
He spent time with the Arab Legion in Jordan, the Pakistan Army, the Abu Dhabi Defence Force, the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces; and served in the Kuwait Army for some years. He was also involved in the Yemen during the civil war there in the 1960s. He describes the development of x-ray services in the Arab world as well as the trials and tribulations of introducing Western medicine.
The author knew many of the leaders of the Arab states and went to tea with the Bin Ladens. He has a knowledge second to none, of what makes the Arab world tick and, come to that, what makes it explode.
His love of mountains, instilled in him at an early age, took him to the Karakorum, the Garwhal, and Everest, as well as Turkey, the Pyrenees and the Alps. In particular he describes expeditions to the Himalayas at the end of that 'Golden Decade' when the major peaks submitted for the first time; and prior to commercial exploitation.


Fifty years after we played 'Boy Scouts' together and 40 after I tried to get him to write about his experiences in Arabia, I see he has finally done it! It was always my belief that he would overstep the mark! But the fact that he has done so - and survived - makes the latter years even more interesting. Julian Blackwell, Chairman Blackwells Books.

THANKS to an observant, medically trained eye and a retentive ear, Philip Horniblow has caught the atmosphere of 1940s to '60s Middle East in full measure. While his descriptions of the people he met and situations in which he found himself make for hilarious reading, the narrative also provides an apparently unintentional insight into why this part of the world is in the mess that it is.
The book isn't all sandy sojourns, prescribing poultices and SAS skulduggery. Horniblow's love of the desert peoples and his knowledge of their way of like make him an excellent cultural guide. And his need to cool off (literally) saw him wandering in the Himalaya, where he treated some of the boldest climbers of the day. This is really the story of an ordinary man's life, but it's some kind of ordinary.
Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, September 2004

The desert spy who took tea with Osama bin Laden's family

TO his colleagues, Dr Philip Horniblow was just a regular sort of guy. But they didn't know that he had once been a mercenary, a spy and had even shared tea with the family of terrorist Osama bin Laden.

The ex-paratrooper's youthful lust for adventure took him to the volatile Middle East, where over 30 years he not only organised health care in several Arab states but undertook some distinctly unofficial work for Her Majesty's Government.

Serving briefly as a medical mercenary with royalist forces in Yemen and joining an SAS organised mission with the Arab Legion in Trans-Jordan are just two of a host of adventures which Dr Horniblow recounts with verve in his autobiography, Oil, Sand and Politics.

Dr Horniblow, a radiologist and former medical director of East Somerset NHS Trust, conjures up a world of derring do, medical advances, power politics and occasional farce set in a desert world dripping with the gold and glitz earned from petro-dollars.

His Middle Eastern interlude began in 1953, at the height of the Cold War, when Russia was still seen as the great threat and Britain was playing the 'Great Game' subverting Russian ambitions in the region.

The young former soldier was still at medical school when he was approached for a two-man mission to keep the Russian bear on its toes.

He and his colleague joined forces with the Arab Legion to survey Trans-Jordan for sites from which the Russians could be harassed should they sweep down from northern Iraq and across Arabia to the Suez canal.
Dr Horniblow's interest in the Middle East was first aroused by the tales of Lawrence of Arabia, a schoolmate of his father.

Once he had tasted the desert air he was hooked. A medical job with Kuwait Oil Company followed and as the years went by he spent time with the Abu Dhabi Forces, served in the Kuwait Army as senior medical officer, was technical director in the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health, and installed the first x-ray machine in Abu Dhabi, where again he was director of health.

His military background and growing expertise in Arab affairs made him a very useful man. As he explains at one point in his book: "You will have gathered that I was not in Saudi Arabia entirely at my own behest but had undertaken to keep HMG informed of any titbits of information I picked up while on my daily rounds."

In those days the intelligence services did not approve of recruiting doctors but that did not stop station officers overseas using any fellow national. Dr Horniblow recalls: "I was briefed by a young man in London on the elements of secret writing. Armed with paper and chemicals in my wash bag I had set off for Arabia. I had patiently composed letters to a fictional aunt and added cryptic messages - there were a few nuggets among the dross. Now it became clear that all was not well." It transpired that London had sent him off with the wrong chemicals.

Dr Horniblow recalls how the super-rich Arab states went on mad spending sprees with their oil money. "In the 1950s Saudi Arabia would build dozens of hospitals but there were no staff. When I arrived six years later there were many hospitals abandoned in the desert which had never been used and were filling up with sand. It was appaling." His role was to bring order to this chaos.

Dr Horniblow's book introduces readers to great characters of many nationalities. For example there is 'Admiral' Geoff Douglas, also known as the First Dead Sea Lord, a former Royal Marine who had served in 21 SAS. When Dr Horniblow met him, Mr Douglas was serving as a contract major with the Arab Legion, where he was responsible for the force's 'Navy' of two landing craft and three pinnaces. With delicious understatement Dr Horniblow describes Douglas as "a quite adventurer with complex needs."

Then there is Major Rajah Jawed Akhter Khan, of the Pakistan Army, whom Dr Horniblow met on a Himalayan expedition and who became godfather to Dr Horniblow's daughter, Kathryn.

At 50, Dr Horniblow decided to return to the UK and joined Yeovil Hospital, from which he retired as trust medical director in 1996. He said: "Despite the excitement and love I have of Arabia, I was actually happier professionally working in Yeovil Hospital than at any time in my life. I still love the place." Western Daily Press, February 2004.

Meal to savour
Dr Horniblow attended a memorable dinner in Saudi Arabia thrown by Salim bin Laden, elder brother of Osama bin Laden. Salim, son of Saudi Arabia's biggest road building contractor, was in an aircraft which crashed in the desert.

Dr Horniblow recalls: "For some days there was no news; then the wreck was found and Salim alive within it. Not long after he gave a thanksgiving dinner for his survival out there in the desert. There must have been 200 guests, both Saudis and foreigners. We were treated to the full 'mensaf', roast camels stuffed with sheep stuffed with chickens stuffed with eggs, all on a mountain of rice."





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