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Weekly Classics: Death of a princess

Published Oct 05, 2012 04:13pm


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With the recent outrage in many Muslim countries over an obscure YouTube video that has prompted condemnation, it’s important to look at the incident in a wider perspective. What many people don’t remember is that before the controversy over the video, before the uproar over Danish cartoons and before Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie, there was controversy over a docudrama that threatened to have serious ramifications between the West and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 1980 the British Television channel ATV and the American television network PBS broadcasted a controversial docudrama called ‘Death of a Princess’ which told the true story of a Saudi princess named Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud who had been executed for adultery along with her 20-year-old lover Khaled Mulhallal al Sha’er. She had allegedly committed adultery by becoming romantically involved him, a serious no-no in Saudi society for the simple fact that they were unmarried. She tried to escape from the country disguised as a man but was caught along with Khaled at the Jeddah Airport and promptly returned to her family.

Under Saudi law, to be convicted you had to produce four male witnesses to the actual act of adultery or simply have one of the accused confess three times to having committed the offence. The princess’s family begged her not to confess and simply promise not to see the young man anymore. She refused and readily admitted to the charges, as a result she was condemned to death. At least that was the official version from the Saudi government. In reality, it’s probable that there had been no trial and she had simply been executed, on charges of adultery, for simply bringing dishonor to the family, which after all was ruling the roost in the country. Her execution had taken place in 1977 and received international coverage but soon died out. It was only after the film was broadcasted that her execution and the events surrounding it received wider audiences and shocked people about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.

It’s also important to remember that in 1980, the Islamic world was put under a big microscope by the outside world due to events that were unfolding within its geography. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 had just overthrown the Shah of Iran and American diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran. The Grand Mosque in Mecca had been seized by militants and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Here in Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ programme was under full swing and Egypt had just signed a peace treaty with Israel. With all these seismic events taking place, many countries, particularly the Western nations were taking a greater interest in the politics and culture of the Islamic world. The so-called ‘Islamic revival’ made people in the West sit-up and take a closer look at the people, who in all essence, held the keys to the petrol pumps that were generating their economies.

No Middle Eastern country back then and now, held a greater economic value to the West than Saudi Arabia. It had the world’s largest oil reserves and as the birthplace of Islam was symbolically very important as an ally in the politics of the Cold War. Due to this ground reality, the West has normally looked the other way when it comes to the Kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, particularly when it comes to women. Having said that it is also important to note that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative society and the people there, including women, don’t take too kindly to outsiders lecturing them about democracy and human rights. The late Edward Said wrote in his book ‘Covering Islam’ that Muslim countries have always resisted the critical eyes of the West. Saudi Arabia and the criticism of its closed society is a case in point.

So when British director and journalist, Anthony Thomas first heard about the story of ‘the Princess who died for love’ at a London dinner party in 1977, he became intrigued. He pitched the idea about making a film about the incident to Britain’s ATV and Boston’s WGBH (which was a member of PBS) and received the green light. Having raised money from the two corporations along with companies in Holland, Australia and Japan, he then proceeded to conduct several interviews with people in the Middle East who had allegedly seen the execution or had heard about it and were deeply affected by it. In the end he directed the movie in the vein of a docudrama for an added dramatic effect.

In the film, Thomas is played as a journalist named Christopher Ryder (Paul Freeman) who like his real counterpart becomes fascinated by Princess Misha’al and her execution. Haunted by her story, Ryder travels to Beirut and ‘Arabia’ to interview people who knew the princess well, felt a sense of solidarity with her dilemma or simply condemned the actions that brought about her death. Whether it’s a German nanny who worked for the Saudi royal family, or ordinary Arabs trying to make sense of the events surrounding them, they are all affected by her story. One Arab in the film (played by Zia Mohyeddin) sums it up best, the princess was a symbol of the “whole Arab predicament; How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating?”

Despite hearing all these testimonies and views, Ryder is still baffled. Each person gives a ‘Rashamon’ style view of the events. Whether it Palestinians, Lebanese or Saudi officials, everyone has an opinion. They either support her rebellious action against a patriarchal society or criticise her for forgetting who she was and what was expected of a person of her background. The more liberal and secular Lebanese and Palestinians support her, while conservative Saudi citizens feel that she got what she deserved.

Whatever the viewpoint may be, Ryder is confused and simply cannot make head or tails of it. This bewilderment in a sense symbolises the inability for Westerners to understand Arab and Muslim societies. Issues such as honor, family, respect for cultural sensitivities and traditions don’t mean much in modern Western countries, but it does mean a great deal for the Arabs. In the end, Ryder returns to the UK and ends up the same as he was at the start of the film, completely bamboozled and unable to put a full stop to the princess’s story.

When ‘Death of a Princess’ finished filming, director Anthony Thomas apparently asked an Egyptian if he felt that there would be a backlash against it by the Saudi government. The Egyptian told him that they probably wouldn’t give a fig about. As it turned out Saudi officials had gotten word about it and were outraged by it, especially after they had seen an early viewing of it in London. They then responded with a thorough condemnation accusing the filmmakers of smearing the Saudi society. Under pressure, but refusing to shelve the film, ATV decided to put an introductory quote to the film which simply states:

“The program you are about to see is a dramatised reconstruction of 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.”

But this didn’t satisfy the Saudi government who as it turned out threatened to cut diplomatic relations, along with lucrative business deals with the UK, over the film. This raised alarm bells in the corridors of power in London.

The British Foreign Office issued a statement stating;

“It is most unfortunate that Anglo-Saudi relations should have been damaged by a film for which the British government was in no way responsible and which it could not prevent from being shown on British TV or elsewhere. We hope it will be possible to restore relations on their normal level as soon as possible.”

At the same time many free speech activists were aghast at seeing democratic governments kowtowing to an absolute monarchy over a docudrama.

One Labor Party MP said that;

“It is undignified to see a British Foreign Secretary virtually apologising to a reactionary feudal state about what has been shown on TV in this country.”

The Saudi’s eventually did sway several Arab countries to ban the film, including Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon and Egypt. The Egyptian actress Suzanne Abou Taleb, who played the princess in the film, was severely criticised for participating in the production of the film. With the exception of Israel, no other country in the Middle East allowed the film to be broadcasted on television. However, with the advent of VCR’s at that time, copies of the film did filter through into several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.

This film is important for several reasons, the most important of which is that the controversy that surrounded it in 1980 and the issues that were raised by it still resonate to this day. Whether it is about striking a balance between freedom of speech and respecting cultural sensitivities. Or simply the friction that comes about with a more interdependent world, all that is weighed in here.

Another important point to make here is that technology and the free flow of information makes it virtually impossible to shut out controversial subjects. Having an obscurantist approach to issues does not help; in fact it only makes things worse no matter how legitimate the grievance is.

You can call this film propaganda, a mishmash of facts or whatever else. But it was a landmark in the docudrama genre and showed how international relations can seriously be affected by film making.

*Quotes used in the review are from a study on the film titled “Death of a Princess” controversy by Thomas White and Gladys Ganley; published by Harvard University.

View’s weekly classics archive here.


Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at and can be reached at


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Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at and can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (35) Closed

Tirmizi Oct 05, 2012 04:14pm
Let us be clear on the verbiage, Princess was not married so she was being Promiscuous not an Adulterer. Being Promiscuous is a crime against the society and Adultery is a crime against the society and against another individual (the person being cheated on). The writer is correct that you need 2 male witness or 4 female witnesses that saw the two individuals in the act or as the writer stated the accused confesses. But the Islamic punishment is different for being Promiscuous vs. being Adulterer. Promiscuous gets you hundred lashes In the case of the princess if she did confess she should have gotten the lashes not the death penalty and since she was the one confessed only she should have been punished not the other person, unless he also confessed. Bottom line; Blame the Saudis and their rules not Islam. We seldom make the mistake of judging the religion by its people and form an opinion. Where Muslims are imperfect the religion is NOT
abbastoronto Oct 05, 2012 03:07pm
Adultery should be punishable by death. In QUranic/Mohammedan Islam, marriage is simple, and it a woman
Usman Oct 06, 2012 09:44am
Watched this classic 4/5 years ago when I first time went to KSA. It was a mindset changing experience for me. I perceived many facts about Arab culture and traditions in this documentary cum movie. Its a wonderful effort to write on such subjects.
rafe Oct 06, 2012 08:39am
I din't get wht author was trying to get out of it. Although that was vital info about death of a princess.
Abdullah Hussain Oct 07, 2012 07:20am
Brave for the princess to accept her sin for it would have been impossible for her to live later with it. Brave for the ruling family to up-hold justice. Bravo to justice in Saudi Arabia where rich, poor, powerful or otherwise are all same in the eyes of justice. Any country that has the kind of justice will see a huge reduction in crimes.
Jiten Maurya Oct 07, 2012 12:39am
they do not give a damn about life after either. Otherwise there will be not so much killings and and wars to becomes ruthless rulers at any cost. if they were worried about life after they w'nt be using women as entertainment but prevent them from even loving some body. They just use religion to stay in power. Other religions have done that too.
Mohammad Azeez Khan Oct 06, 2012 01:11am
Sandip, King ibn Saud himself had cried her, for few days before her death , so just think of the parents! But king himself was unable to go against the law which they believe was the law of God. If princess Mishal was clever she should have run away to a Europe then she may have been saved. Mohabbat me aydil ayse zamane bhi aaye jkabhi roye ham labhi muskuraye.
Ahmed Oct 05, 2012 10:56pm
If we do not diagnose the problem properly, we won't be able to find the cure. This whole thing is being shown as MUSLIM issue. Though this is eastern issue. You can google about a Sikh girl born and brought up in Canada, fell in love with a Riksha Driver, married him and slaughtered on the instructions of her own Mama (maternal uncle) while her mom was sitting right next to his brother. Japanese culture has similar issue that they consider suicide as an honourable way of exiting this world. I mean to say that people belonging to all faiths on east side does take HONOUR seriously and on west side, its different perspective.
Reader Oct 06, 2012 06:35am
Such an effortless read. Raza, you've brought together the actual review and the drama surrounding it in a great manner of storytelling. You must write more often.
Great Britian Oct 07, 2012 06:13am
No But they could have thought about her wrong doings and wanted her to take the punishment in this world and set an example for others to be successful in eternal life
Saqib Oct 07, 2012 08:26am
wow Mani,, is that such a bad thing to focus more on the life of hereafter,, after all its just going to last,,,hmmm.. forever...
aaa Oct 05, 2012 01:35pm
I believe with time people will be more open to different controversial ideas and themes. It has more to do with what sort of people are writing articles how biased they themselves are. I find it quite fascinating that many sufi writing and poetry has themes which apparantely totally go against religion but still the most religious love to listen to them and agree completely. Certain sufi writings have held their ground in all times all cultures and for people of all religions for rich, poor, educated not educated. Let's wait for media to get filtered.
Ziryab Oct 05, 2012 11:32am
I was a 8 year old kid when I saw it on TV in London. It was a huge issue then, By the way, its not adultery if you are unmarried.
Mohan Kochicheril Oct 06, 2012 07:46pm
This movie is available on YouTube. It is still happening in Arab world. Another movie based true story "Stoning of Soraya M" depicts rights of female in most Islamic countries.
peddarowdy Oct 05, 2012 12:52pm
What a fabulous piece! Congrats! Its just not a West Vs Muslim world. Even as an Indian such action over a simple matter of adultery is horrific! I think any rational Human Being will be horrified. By constantly using the words West you are trying to portray this Muslim Vs Non-Mulim issue as something simpler. Its much more than that. Its not just the White man and the Christians who are appalled at such behaviour of Muslims in Muslim countries, there are others too.
Mani Oct 05, 2012 01:25pm
It's high time for muslims to get some perspective. They shoot themselves in the foot and then blame others for it. In the last hundred years or so what positive contributions have they made to this world? Their focus is too much on the life hereafter and too little on the life of now.
Sandip Oct 05, 2012 12:42pm
Wondering what did parents of girl thought when condeming her to death? They never thought how it felt holding her in there arms when she was young or kissing her good night or holding her when she cried and doing anything possible to make her smile? May be they never loved there girl child?
ali Oct 07, 2012 07:39am
great article to depict the inside darkness of the arab world
Humayun Bhatty Oct 05, 2012 04:36pm
Mankind has to be honest and just. Follow and implement the Law of Allah without personal changes, likes or dislikes. The law has to be applied as Allah would have the mankind apply it in total honesty and dedication.
Zafar Malik Oct 06, 2012 12:56am
The Saudis were angry at the film because they knew in their hearts what they did to the poor princess was a disgrace and shameful. If they were sure this was real Islam in action, they should have been proud of what they did, and instead of hiding it from the world, they should have owned it. with pride Fact of the matter is that in this modern world, no Muslim country, except perhaps Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan will accept these cruel punishments as stoning amputations and chopping of heads as part of their penal system.
Joe Highlander Oct 05, 2012 12:13pm
Just two observations: 1. From point of view of Psychology, it is believable that the princess confessed and persisted in confession whether it was true or not; human brain is very capable of doing such- and then the royal family felt no other way out. 2. You talk about Arab and Muslim in one breath as if the two are one and the same; do you really think so?
abcd Oct 05, 2012 05:16pm
so, what is ZINA then?
jafri Oct 05, 2012 05:16pm
Could not agree with you more. Arabs are not the exemplary Muslims in the world. In fact Muslims living in western countries are more correctly practicing Islam because they have more freedom of their religion.
Anshu Oct 05, 2012 05:39pm
Thanks to the author for bringing such things to light. It gives a broader perspective on things that happen today in Muslim world. Fabulous piece. If not for the author readers like me would never have heard of this.
G.A. Oct 05, 2012 05:45pm
What propelled the Muslim world to learning and inventions 1000 or so years ago has been lost to ritual and dogma with Saudi Arabia brainwashing and leading the charge. Not until their oil runs out and they lose their clout with which they hold the world with a conservative chokehold will things change.
Marcus Khaleeq Oct 05, 2012 06:39pm
I remember this issue very well. Saudi Arabia had retaliated by cancelling a 1 Billion Pound telecommunication installation contract. After about 18 Months when situation had cooled down the same contract was given to British Telecom for 2 Billion Pound.
Asad Oct 05, 2012 06:43pm
Fail to understand the point of writing such a piece. Does it imply that the reaction in the recent film (on youtube) is unjustified just like (how the author implies) the one for 'Death of Princess'?
Jabbar Oct 05, 2012 07:57pm
Princess was a beautiful girl. She just made a mistake of loving someone. Shame on the saudis
Ram Krishan Sharma Oct 05, 2012 08:01pm
Any punishment for a crime committed in Saudi Arabia is awarded according to what is prescribed in the Muslim holy books. No one has the right to change Allah's laws.
aks Oct 05, 2012 05:30pm
Very well written. A very good read.
Viz Oct 05, 2012 08:34pm
Adultery or whatever, if someone condemns my child to death, I will fight them and tear them to pieces before they can even touch my child, even if it is the highest priest in my religion. I just cant undertsand the mindset of the princess parents. and in fact dont want to understand.
beg Oct 05, 2012 08:53pm
the writer is mixing oranges and apples.He doesnot have full understanding of sensitivities related to Islamic basics.making film on an event related to a monarchy is not the same as rediculing the fundamental of Islam.where is the freedom of speech when it comes to defamation laws in west about holocaust.So nobody except the royal saudi family was bothered by this kind of film but the movies and cartoons related to mohammad(pbuh) hurt millions of muslims and are attempts to redicule the fundamentals of islam
ABG Oct 05, 2012 09:36pm
Past few years I was looking for this movie desperately to watch it again after about 30 years.. but couldnt find it.. I didnt even have the name of the movie on mind.. The moment i saw the "pic" of the "princess" on your article, i was like, that's it! :) I will now watch it again. Good write up though..
Indian Oct 06, 2012 04:28am
"Under Saudi law, to be convicted you had to produce four male witnesses to the actual act of adultery or simply have one of the accused confess three times to having committed the offence". What a well-thought out and just law!
Zafar Malik Oct 05, 2012 11:09pm
Sooner these brutal punishments, relics of primitive history, are removed from Muslim penal code better it would be for Islam and for its followers. Compassion, love forgiveness and understanding should be the guiding principles of modern day Islam.