The image of 21 Century Saudi Arabia is one of a wealthy country with futuristic high rise buildings and an innovative outlook. While the high-rise, high-tech image is correct in 2013, it is not so many generations ago that the story was very different.

A collection of historic photographs that show something of what the Kingdom was like 75 years ago chronicle the adventures – across deserts and cities – by the intrepid Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, the youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Princess Alice was the first member of any European royal family to travel to Saudi Arabia and the first woman to be invited there by King Abdulaziz. As a keen photographer, the Princess and her entourage, including her husband the Earl of Athlone, took photographs of the places they visited and the events they attended during their 1938 tour of the Kingdom. These images chronicle the early beginnings of the very special relationship that would develop between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Surprisingly, it was the result of an unplanned meeting. Princess Alice describes the scene in her 1966 book of reminiscences, “For My Grandchildren”: “Our visit to Arabia in 1938 came about through a chance meeting with the Crown Prince Saud in 1936, when he took me in to luncheon at Ascot. Owing to Uncle George [King George V] being ill, Aunt Mary [Queen Mary, who was also Princess Alice’s sister-in-law] did not want to talk through an interpreter, so I was asked to sit next to him. Out of politeness, I said how sorry I was that I had never visited Arabia, though I had been as far as Petra. He at once asked, “Why not come to Arabia?” I murmured something to the effect that no ladies had ever been there, but he said if I did not mind sleeping in tents it was easy. I replied that I had often slept in camps without tents at all and accepted right away.”

The exhibition ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ includes, amongst others, pictures of cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh before modernity had touched them. Some of the most evocative images record the Princess with a camel she encountered in the city of Jeddah, pictures of cars trapped in desert sand being pulled out by camels and strong men with rope, where today multi-lane highways criss-cross the same terrain, as well as imposing royal mud-brick palaces. The collection also includes pictures of the Princess and her husband the Earl, dressed conventionally in western style clothing on arrival and then, later on in her journey, wearing the traditional Arab clothes, more suited to the climate and conditions.

According to her writings the Princess enjoyed her experience enormously which is evident in the sensitivity and warmth of her photographic records.

Princess Alice was fortunate in that she was able to document life in the Kingdom as a country on the brink of major change. Her visit coincided with the momentous occasion when Saudi Arabia first discovered oil. The British had previously abandoned their explorations deeming them to be “unproductive” however, the tenacity of their American rivals paid off not long after when “Well No. 7” came onstream, the first Saudi well ever to produce oil commercially. Princess Alice was there to witness the first pumping of this awe-inspiring discovery that would change the face of the Kingdom and the World so irrevocably.

The photo selection also chronicles meetings with luminaries including King Abdulaziz, his sons Prince Saud and Faisal (both of whom would later become Kings), as well as the current ruler and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah, who was then just a young teenager. Two years after her meeting with Crown Prince Saud at Ascot, HMS Enterprise docked in Jeddah harbour, on 25 February 1938, after three weeks of travel ( a journey that now takes around 10 hours by plane). The epic three- week journey across the kingdom was an arduous, 950 miles long trek. The princess and her husband, the Earl of Athlone, travelled from Jeddah on the west coast south into the hills above Mecca, and east across the mountains to the desert capital of Riyadh.

Princess Alice was not only the first member of the British royal family to meet King Abdulaziz but also the first to be invited for a meal with the monarch, where she also met Noura bint Abdul Rahman, sister of the King, and other members of the Saudi royal family.

She later recalled: “He (King Abdulaziz) was a huge man, a great gentleman with a most engaging manner. He was charming and full of jokes, and we became his hero-worshippers. I thanked him very much for inviting me as he had never before asked a female to an audience or a meal.”

The collection of 322 remarkable photographs charting the journey, many taken by Princess Alice herself, are now in possession of the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh. A selection went on display last month at the Pitt building in Cambridge. The Princess also took live footage, which provides an incredible memoir of her exciting journey. The images, along with Princess Alice’s written records of her visit, paint a vivid picture of the young Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the years before the oil boom brought rapid development. Commenting on the exhibition, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, chairman of the Saudi-British Chamber of Commerce, said how exceptional Princess Alice had been for a woman of her time, “a real trailblazer”. Some pictures in the collection are instantly recognisable as Saudi Arabia, even today, but others, such as Riyadh as seen through Princess Alice’s eyes, have since been totally transformed. Gone is the town she described as: “A town of stately yellow mud buildings, surrounded by high city walls and giving the impression of a medieval city”, now replaced by some of the tallest buildings in the world.

The ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the UK, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, who presided over the opening of the exhibition in Cambridge, commented on the fascinating pictures, saying how they “took him back to his childhood, when he would meet his grandfather in situations such as the ones depicted.” He also spoke of his appreciation of his heritage being kept vibrant and alive by such exhibitions. There are few countries that have undergone the total transformation seen in Saudi Arabia in such a fleeting space of time and a very limited number of people who have been privileged to witness such change. But the chance meeting of two young royals at a race meeting in Ascot back in 1938 opened a window on a period of the Kingdom’s history few of us considered we would ever be privy to.

Rhona Wells