Why you should care
Royals first tried to hide their murders — and then a documentary about them.
Carpenter Barry Milner was returning to his hotel from work in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah when he heard that a man was about to be beheaded nearby. The 25-year-old rushed to the scene, armed with a small Instamatic camera that he hid in his cigarette box — a risky move. When he arrived, he saw not one person die, but two. The first was a 19-year-old Saudi princess named Mishaal bint Fahd bin Mohammed, the great-niece of the ruling King Khalid. She was shot three times. Then Milner saw a man hacked six times by a sword until his head was severed.
Six months later, on Jan. 26, 1978, Milner’s photos appeared on the front page of British tabloid The Daily Express, with his testimony printed on page three. The tragic tale captivated Antony Thomas, then a 37-year-old British filmmaker, who set out to make a documentary about the death of the princess.
The first story Thomas believed came from a friend who had recently attended a London dinner party hosted by one of the most influential figures in the Saudi establishment. The host allegedly told his guests that Princess Mishaal had refused to fulfill the terms of a marriage contract with a man chosen for her by the royal family. Instead, she had persuaded Mohammad bin Abdulaziz al Saud — her grandfather and the older brother of the king — to let her study in Beirut.
Her future husband, according to the tale, had no choice but to go along with her powerful grandfather’s decision. In Beirut, Mishaal was ostensibly inspired by Arab socialism, feminism and the nephew of the Saudi ambassador, who became the love of her life. The two flaunted their relationship in public and were soon summoned back to the kingdom. That’s where the princess confessed to committing adultery three times before a court, condemning both her and her lover to death.
This version of the story also resonated with women that Thomas encountered across the Arab world, some of whom could relate to a princess who would rather die than live as a prisoner within her own family. But as the filmmaker dug deeper, he couldn’t find any trace of Princess Mishaal’s university enrollment or track down anyone who personally knew her there.
“I was completely taken back by the initial account,” Thomas, now 78, says. “But as a documentary filmmaker, you have to do lots of research until you are absolutely sure you have the right story.”
That story came via another Saudi princess who met him in secret during his visit to Saudi Arabia in October 1978. She told him that many princesses in the House of Saud had flings, but that Mishaal had made the mistake of falling in love.
When the docudrama Death of a Princess aired in the U.K. on April 9, 1980, it set off a storm.
According to most accounts, the man was 20-year-old Khaled Al-Shaer. Little is known about him beyond that. Thomas’ research uncovered that Mishaal was already married in her early teens, yet she allegedly planned to elope with Al-Shaer in London during an upcoming vacation. But when her grandfather canceled the trip, the couple was forced to hastily make another plan. One night, in early July, the princess laid her clothes by the sea to make it look like she drowned. Four days later, she was spotted trying to board a flight out of Saudi Arabia, disguised as a boy. Princess Mishaal and her lover, who was preparing to board the same plane, were arrested.
Two Saudi Islamic lawyers later confided in Thomas that there was never a trial, explaining why the execution didn’t take place in a courtyard — standard in Jeddah — but in the waste ground near Barry Milner’s hotel. “It was a decision of the grandfather,” says Thomas. “He was furious that the princess had sullied his name.”
Armed with his inside information, Thomas proceeded to complete his dramatized reconstruction of events with the help of David Fanning, the executive producer of documentary series channel WGBH World. The entire narrative was based on interviews Thomas conducted, but with identifying details changed to protect his sources. The Saudi government reportedly pressured Britain’s ITV to dump the project. Instead, ITV aired Death of a Princess in the U.K. on April 9, 1980, setting off a storm. Saudi King Khalid swiftly expelled the British ambassador — who was recalled five months later — and threatened to impose sanctions on British business interests. Some in the U.K. worried that Saudi Arabia might sever all diplomatic ties.
The backlash cast doubt over whether the film would even air in the U.S. There was both commercial and political pressure from Congress members and companies like Mobil Oil. The former was concerned about losing access to Saudi oil supplies; the latter had business interests in the kingdom … and was a sponsor of PBS, which planned to air the documentary. “I told my bosses that the journalism was right,” Fanning says. “In turn, WGBH stood firm. They promised to air the film over satellite if PBS caved.”
PBS didn’t, despite pressure from the U.S. State Department. And on May 12, 1980, Death of a Princess was watched across America, with the highest audience numbers PBS had ever seen. It was an early test for both Saudi-U.S. relations and for the power of political pressure over public television.
Fears that the Saudis would retaliate against the U.S., as they had with the U.K., turned out to be just that: fears. While Britain has not re-aired it publicly to date, PBS broadcast the film again in 2005 to mark its 25th anniversary. This time the Saudis didn’t make any noise, but neither did the film.