I photographed Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz Al Saud several times in Saudi Arabia – long before he became king, and who recently died. In the early years that I used to travel to the Kingdom, certainly before the assassination of King Faisal in March 1975, security was fairly relaxed and an intrepid Arabic-speaking photographer was often welcome in the informal mejlis, the often-daily meetings between members of the ruling royal family, governors and mayors with guests and petitioners.
I first met Abdullah and his son Miteb (an enthusiastic tennis player) in Riyadh when he was commander of the Saudi National Guard and I was on assignment for Time Magazine.
Later, for National Geographic, I spent more time with him and then, early in the 1980s, after completing the Geographic article that was published September, 1980, I embarked on a project to photograph the surviving sons of Saudi Arabia’s eponymous founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud.
With the support of the Polaroid Corporation and the Governor of Riyadh Prince Salman (who just became King) I executed the project using a unique camera which created instant images sized 20″x24.”
As the camera (one of only three of its kind) weighed 280 lbs., was six feet high and had a bellows extension of nearly six feet I needed a studio space that would accommodate the camera, all its accessories, myself, two assistants and be comfortable for the subjects to visit.
A space was found at the Riyadh Equestrian Club whose Chairman was the very same Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, who personally extended unlimited courtesy and generosity to make me and my assistants comfortable.
Co-incidentally, almost immediately after being ensconced in my studio, Prince Abdullah came to the club to have dinner with some friends. When he saw me in the lobby I was invited to join him. He was at one end of a long table and I was near the other — about 20 Saudis and me! The food was fantastic — sambusa, kabsa, kebabs; dishes both familiar and new to me.
During dinner I noticed someone bring a phone to Abdullah — the conversation looked serious and a couple of the men next to him leaned in and listened intently.
As soon as he put the phone down he spoke to one of the men next to him and gestured in my direction. That man got up, walked down to me and said that Prince Abdullah wanted to talk to me. I followed him to the other end of the table all the while thinking, ” Am I in trouble? What does he want with me – have I done something wrong?”
I sat down and Abdullah, though he knew my Arabic was pretty good, spoke though an interpreter (I’m pretty sure it was Miteb) and said [paraphrase], “I just received word from our Washington Embassy that someone tried to assassinate your President Reagan today. He’s been shot but he’s alive. I wanted you to hear it from me rather than on the radio or TV. Know that he’s in all our prayers and we hope he recovers fully. When I get other news Miteb will let you know. If there’s anything you need let me know.”
It was March 30, 1981, the day John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was shot in the chest, puncturing a lung, and in his right arm.
I was really moved, not only by the horror of the attempted assassination but by the thoughtfulness of a man who hardly knew me but who intuitively reached out, reflecting our common humanity, to both inform and comfort me.
Over the years this was the Abdullah that people got to know. While not everyone agreed with his policies and the incremental changes he brought to Saudi Arabia almost everyone liked and respected him — and I certainly did.
I had many encounters with Abdullah that spring. One evening he arrived with a prize falcon and asked me to make a portrait of it for him with the Polaroid — which I did.
And one evening (everything happened at night) he arrived for his portrait and liked it so much that when he became Crown Prince the following year, and later when he became Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, it was used as his official portrait. Literally thousands of my photo of Abdullah decorated offices throughout Saudi Arabia and in embassies around the world.
Today, in offices both governmental and private, Abdullah’s official portrait is being replaced with photographs of King Salman, the same Salman who was one of the co-sponsors of my Polaroid project.
I don’t know what will happen to all those official prints of Abdullah but I know that I’ll continue to treasure the copies I kept for myself, which he signed for me and which today remind me still of encounters with a man, generous with me, generous to his people who served his country with faith and honor and who truly believed, “We leave everything to God and to Him we return.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.