Off With her Head
Reflections on Death of a Princess.
In the autumn of 1977, British filmmaker Antony Thomas was at a dinner party in London. One of the topics of conversation was the execution in public on July 15th of that year of a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian Princess and her 20-year-old lover. The Princess in question was Princess Misha’al Fahd bin Mohammed, a granddaughter of Prince Mohammed bin Abdul Aziz, King Khalid’s elder brother. Her lover, Khalid Mahallal, was the son of a senior Saudi general.
It was bin Abdul Aziz who had ordered the executions, the charge being adultery with a commoner. The Princess was shot; her lover was beheaded in a public square.
Although the story was suppressed in Arab countries, it had circulated by word of mouth and become folk-lore.
In Britain, the incident had hit the headlines because a British construction worker had photographed the Princess’ execution with a Kodak Instamatic camera.
Thomas decided to make a documentary about the Princess and got the backing of ATV (a British commercial television channel) and WGBH (a PBS affiliate) in Boston, Massachusetts. Additional money was raised from television companies in Australia, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and the US.
Over the next few months, Thomas interviewed dozens of Saudis who claimed to have either witnessed or known about the execution. Based on their testimonies, he and David Fanning of WGBH put together a script. With Thomas as director, the documentary – entitled Death of a Princess (UK,1980) – took about 18 months to complete.
Thomas’s original intention was to make a straight documentary, but it soon became clear to him that the nature of the material he was gathering could only be told as a docudrama:
Where I travelled through the Arab world, the story was celebrated. Everyone had their own version of that story, all very, very different. … Whoever I spoke to […] attached themselves to this princess. She’d become a myth. […] Somehow this princess was sort of like a catalyst. And after thinking about it seriously, I thought, my gosh, this is perhaps an even more interesting story to tell.
I had a problem, because everyone I spoke to was interviewed in complete confidence, and how do I tell this story? […] You couldn’t make a documentary. It was impossible. You’d have a whole array of people with their voices distorted and bags on their heads, and that wouldn’t make a very good film.i
The controversy and diplomatic fall-out for which Death of a Princess is now famed began before it was even aired.
Saudi officials were invited to a preview of the film and left deeply offended. The British government received word from the Saudis that King Khalid was outraged by the film’s contents. Saudi Arabia threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the UK and to suspend oil exports.
The docudrama was broadcast in Britain on the 9th of April, 1980 despite the best efforts of Saudi Arabia to have it withdrawn.
In an effort to divert some of the flak it knew was headed its way, ATV preceded the program with a statement that said: ‘The program you are about to see is a dramatised reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world.’
The broadcast that followed was to have serious repercussions throughout the world.
In 1979, Great Britain exported £2 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia which was its 11th largest market in the world. Add to this Saudi Arabia’s appetite for British weapons systems – especially Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft – and the fact that Britain bought 16% of its oil from the kingdom and it is no surprise that, the day after Death was broadcast, the Foreign Office cravenly issued a statement part of which read: ‘We profoundly regret any offence which the program may have caused in Saudi Arabia. We have, of course, no power to interfere with the editorial content of programs, still less to ban them.’
Two days later, the Saudi Embassy in London called Death of a Princess ‘… an unprincipled attack on the religion of Islam and its 600 million people and on the way of life of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of the world of Islam.’
King Khalid cancelled a trip to London and – on the 23rd of April – expelled the British ambassador. Unusually, the British government did not respond with its own tit-for-tat expulsions or any other sanctions.
More ominously, the Saudis issued a statement saying it had carefully examined its economic relations with Britain and the activity of British companies in the Kingdom. This had serious implications for the U.K.’s balance of trade at a time when Saudi Arabia was Britain’s largest export market in the Middle East.
According to the Financial Times: ‘In the 13 months to June last year construction contracts worth £288m were awarded to U.K. Companies. Britain has several large continuing contracts in Saudi Arabia, including the British Aerospace Corporation’s Saudi Air force, worth between £500m and £850m over the period 1977-1981, and a contract worth £148m for cable and wireless to modernize the communications system of the National Guard. […] Britain is one of two competitors for a large Arabsat satellite communications contract, to be awarded by a multi-state Arab organisation based in Riyadh.’ii
Straight after the broadcast, the Saudis set about making life awkward for British businesses in Saudi Arabia. New restrictions were placed on visas issued to Britons. A large American construction firm was instructed not to subcontract to the British. And permission was withdrawn from British Airways for supersonic flights over the Kingdom, thus rendering Concorde’s London-Singapore route unprofitable.
Death of a Princess appears to have offended the Saudis on several levels. According to Thomas White and Gladys Ganley: ‘The film was perceived by Saudis as a violation of privacy since it represented a first look behind a closely drawn curtain into Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia, into Saudi culture, and, perhaps most devastating, into the behaviour of members of the ruling regime.’iii
The Financial Times opined that the Saudis took umbrage because the film: “… suggested that Prince Mohammed, the oldest surviving son of the Kingdom’s founder, had done his granddaughter to death on charges of adultery which were not exposed to the rigours of am Islamic court, and it was a matter of rough family justice…. Thus, the prince’s action would have been the highest treason and must, at all costs, be kept secret…’
Under Islamic law, adultery can only be proven if both parties admit to the crime or four independent witnesses can be found. As neither of these criteria were reached in this case, the execution of the Princess and her lover was unlawful. To put it bluntly, it was murder.
David Fanning, the film’s co-writer and executive producer alleges: ‘The difference between the official version, which was the girl was killed because she was found guilty of adultery, and the truth of it, which turns out that she was, in fact, executed by the king’s elder brother in an act of tribal vengeance in a parking lot in Jeddah, was, in fact, the heart of the controversy because that was the part that, of course, the royal family could not countenance. And that was the great outrage.’iv
Initially, the British press and public sided with Thomas but not for long. As he himself tells it: ‘… whole front pages were devoted to this thing. It went in two waves. The first wave was very supportive of the film and taking quite a racist attitude: “Who are these people to tell us about democracy and justice?
“And then the Saudi[s] sneezed and expelled the [British] ambassador and so forth, and then the whole tone changed. Now it was all about documentary truth and insult to another culture. It was actually shocking, the way the press had taken one position to [the] extreme with ghastly racist cartoons – I remember some of them – and they they just got a little knock like that, and they shot the other way.’v
One of the main charges laid against Death of a Princess is one that could be laid against any docudrama – namely that by employing a mix of fact and fiction it blurred the distinctions between the two.
Lord Carrington, the then Foreign Secretary, commented: ‘The new formula of mixing fact with fiction, dramatisation masquerading as documentary, can be dangerous and misleading.’vi
Sir Ian Gilmour, the chief Government spokesman in the House of Commons for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs went further: ‘… the whole genre is something the IBA and BBC should give considerable attention to…. I think the so-called dramatisation or fictionalising of alleged facts or history is extremely dangerous and misleading.’vii
One sequence in the film above all others provided ammunition to Thomas’s critics. It shows Saudi princesses cruising the highways of Rijadh in quest of men. It is hard to explain Thomas’s decision to include this scene as other than an extreme failure of judgement. The Economist said: ‘One of the film’s most gripping sequences was almost certainly unfair; scenes of the bored princesses at home listening and dancing to pop music were followed by their predatory drive into the desert to pick, behind their veils, a temporary mate. The evidence for the vacuity of the princesses’ lives is more substantial that for the promiscuity of those desert raids.’
This portion of Death is – by Thomas’s own admission – based upon the testimony of a single, unnamed source.
Thomas provides not one scrap of solid evidence for his contention that Saudi princesses so blatantly disregarded tradition, honour and the dictates of Islam. Nor does he explain how even one of them could get away with such behaviour in a country that keeps such a tight rein on its women.
Death of a Princess in America
On the 12th of May, 1980, PBS aired Death in the USA. The Saudis made the expected protests both before and after the broadcast.
In 2003, the president and chairmen of PBS in 1980 – while discussing the controversy surrounding the showing of a more recent docudrama – had this to say about the incident: ‘The government of Saudi Arabia and Mobil Oil, PBS’s major underwriter, urged us very publicly not to to broadcast the program […]. The secretary of state wrote us a letter, released simultaneously to the press, urging us to reevaluate PBS’s decision to broadcast the program […]. Members of Congress from both parties decried “Death of a Princess,” fearing the Saudis would shut off the nation’s oil supply and case a severe economic downturn.’viii
Grossman later on revealed: ‘The Saudi royal family did everything possible to prevent PBS from broadcasting the film […]. The Saudis, the biggest oil supplier to the United States, let it be known that they were prepared to shut off the supply or raise oil prices precipitately.’ix
Interestingly enough, whereas in Britain the public were initially supportive of Death before turning against it, the opposite happened in America.
However negative public opinion may have been before the broadcast, after “Death of a Princess” aired, the public turned supportive. What started out as the most unpopular program in PBS’s history ended up as its highest-rated broadcast. Critics commented after seeing “The Reagans” on cable that it was hard to figure out what all the fuss was about. Viewers of “Death of a Princess” had the same reaction. PBS received applause and awards for standing up to the pressures and preserving its independence against threats from the U.S. government, the Saudis, its own underwriters, and even its own audience.x
iWGBH Educational Foundation (author unknown) (2005). Interview. Antony Thomas, viewed 13th January 2007,
ii‘UK Companies Fear Saudi Discrimination’, Financial Times (15th April, 1983), p.3
iiiWhite, Thomas & Ganley, Gladys (1983). The “Death of a Princess” Controversy, viewed 13th January 2007, <http://www.pirp.harvard.edu/pubs/pdf-blurb.asp?id=129>. p.8
ivWikipedia. Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud, viewed 14th January, 2007, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misha%27al_of_Saudi_Arabia>
vInterview. Antony Thomas.
viGoodwin, Andrew & Whannel, Gary (1990). Understanding Television, London and New York: Routledge. p.75
viiGoodwin & Whannel. p.75
viiiGrossman, Lawrence K. & Minow, Newton N. (2003). “The Reagans”: What CBS Should have Done, viewed 12th January 2007, <http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/6/reagans-grossman.asp>
ixLedbetter, James (1998). Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, London and New York: Verso. pp. 150-151
xGrossman & Minow, viewed 12th January 2007.