The Island of the Arabs

In the early fifties, Aramco began an intensive effort to combat the number one public enemy in the Eastern Province, the fly. A massive mosquito eradication program had been very effective in reducing the incidence of malaria in the region, but DDT alone wasn’t enough to reduce the fly population. What was required was a change in public behavior.

Everyone is annoyed by flies, but at the time, few in the general population really appreciated just how dangerous they were as the major vector for the transmission of diseases including trachoma. So the problem faced by the health department was how to educate the public about flies and get them excited enough to take the necessary precautionary measures.

After a lot of discussions, Aramco decided to produce a ten-minute film in Arabic titled, Al-Thebub (The Fly). The New York office cast around for a filmmaker and ended up hiring Richard Lyford to make this movie. Lyford had won an Academy Award in 1952 for his documentary on Michelangelo, The Titan, and happened to know one of the Aramco Public Relations executives. I’m sure that he took the assignment as a sort of lark, but in the end, The Fly was probably much more significant than the highly prestigious Titan, as it actually changed people’s lives.

Once the film was finished, the company sent out mobile projection units to screen the movie far and wide, in the market places of Qatif to the smallest villages on the fringes of Hofuf. And it sure did get people excited! For almost everyone, it was the first movie that they had ever seen. It was standing room only for Al-Thebub and the audiences demanded that it be shown again and again. Finally, people understood that flies were much more than just a bother and learned how to limit the damage caused by these buzzing pests.

The Island of the Arabs
John R. Jones as Prince Abdul Aziz ibn Saud

The Fly was so effective that the company hired Lyford again to produce a film about water, Miyyah, that was equally successful. So in 1954 when the New York office decided to produce a feature film about Saudi Arabia and the company’s role in the kingdom, they chose Dick Lyford to direct it. The film called Island of the Arabs begins with the early geologists landing in Jubail and then exploring in the desert. While sitting around the campfire an old Bedouin tells the story of the twenty-three-year-old Prince Abdul Aziz ibn Saud’s daring raid on Riyadh in 1902 and his rise to power, which provides the most dramatic sequence in an otherwise fairly listless movie. For some reason, likely economic, the decision was made to cast the film with Aramco employees and so it came to pass that thirty-three-year-old John R. Jones of Government Relations was chosen to portray the young Ibn Saud. He was apparently selected because he was lean and tall enough – Abdul Aziz was six foot, three inches, and he knew how to ride a horse. I’d add that John was, and is, a handsome fellow as a leading man should be.

The raid on Riyadh sequence was staged at a decrepit fort in Hofuf provided by Emir Saud bin Jiluwi, the governor of Al Hasa. He also provided the hordes of extras from the ranks of his bodyguards and various retainers as well as the horses from his personal stables.

The Island of the Arabs
Said Shawa as Abdullah bin Jiluwi

On John’s first day on the set, he and Dick Lyford went to select John’s horse from the thirty or so horses available. Being a visual artist, Lyford cared nothing about the horse’s handling characteristics, only what it looked like, so he chose a fine-looking four-year-old mare. The grooms brought out a thin, flimsy Arabian saddle, put on an old bridle and, gamely enough, John mounted the horse. Unfortunately, no one had mentioned that this horse had never been broken and the second that John hit the saddle, she took off in a streak before he could even put his feet in the stirrups. John couldn’t control her at all. It took everything he had just to hold on as she bolted out of the stables and through the streets of Hofuf. People scrambled to get out of the way as John and the mare came barreling by, galloping through the date palms and across vegetable gardens and back again into the streets with John bouncing around, desperately hanging onto her mane for dear life. Finally, after about a half hour she tired out and John was able to ride her back to the stables where he was met with a great cheer from the assembled crowd. Now the mare was broken and he made the movie riding her. He grew so fond of her that he tried in vain to buy her after the filming.

The actual attack sequence is stirring, action-packed film making replete with lots of brawling, sword fighting, and gunfire. Said Shawa from Aramco’s Personnel Division playing a dashing Abdullah bin Jiwuli, Ibn Saud’s cousin and Saud bin Jiluwi’s father, caps off the action with a well-aimed shot that kills Ajlan, the villainous Rashidi, governor of Riyadh. The segment ends with Ibn Saud looking out over Riyadh, contemplating the struggles to come in his drive to unify the kingdom.

The finished film premiered in Cairo in 1955. The narrator in the English version was Fredrick March, a two-time Academy Award-winning actor. The Arabic version was narrated by Isa Sabbagh. Determined to stage a New York City premiere, the show’s Producer, Ray Graham, managed to book the film into a second-tier theater in Manhattan. To spice it up a bit, the distributor changed the name to Island of Allah and at the end tacked on seven minutes of belly dancing by the beautiful Princess Yasmina. Even Yasmina’s best efforts couldn’t save this movie and it quickly disappeared, never to be seen again in America.

The Island of the Arabs
Lois Wolfrum with John Jones, age 85, at the Branson, Missouri, Annuitants Reunion in 2006.

Richard Lyford returned to Hollywood and began making family comedies involving wildlife for the Wonderful World of Disney television series. His 1965 episode, An Otter in the Family, received the highest Nielsen rating of any Wonderful World show to that point. He also produced and directed Ringo, The Refugee Raccoon and The Moose That Went Bananas. In 1967, he returned to Saudi Arabia to film a National Geographic special on the country. Two years later he filmed a G-rated adventure movie, Hamid and the Pirates in Bahrain.

John Jones who started in 1941 with Chevron in San Francisco, transferred to Aramco three years later and lived in Dhahran for twenty years before moving to AOC in the Hague. He retired in 1980 as Director of Industrial Relations and Administrative Services after 39 years of service. He now lives in Liberty, Missouri, not far from Kansas City.

Island of the Arabs was forgotten everywhere in the world except Saudi Arabia where it was shown multiple times on Saudi TV every year on National Day. Watching the movie at my home in Jeddah in 1979, it occurred to me that a whole generation of Saudi children grew up thinking that the young King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud looked like John Jones.

More Stories – Tim Barger
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