“I entered a world unchanged since the frankincense trade,” said Kate Humble, the engaging presenter, of the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia – to wit, the iconic tower in Riyadh owned by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal who made million dollar deals, while chatting to her on his mobile… (The ‘royal’appellation for addressing eminent sheikhs, has long annoyed me. Can someone put me right with the Arabic equivalent?)

I would dispute the veracity of a script claiming that incense caravans took only two weeks to cross the ‘Empty Quarter’ a 225,000 square mile sand sea occupying central Arabia.

Miss Humble cried in the first programme, when she put on a niqab in Sana’a. In last evening’s programme, her tears were flowing on hearing the prayer-call in Jeddah. Does she cry at the sound of church bells, I wonder?

And at one point she told us “you must advance certain causes that you believe in.” But we were never told what were hers.



Behind the glamour of Frankincense Tails 2, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains, the most misogynist regime in the Middle East.

Miss Humble had the opportunity to rant about inequality, but the remark by her humorless guide,”I don`t believe in women playing sport.” (of women playing netball) said it all.

But it was an attractive film and no doubt divers will eat their heart out for the pristine wreck of a ship carrying frankincense, embedded on a Red Sea reef.

About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
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  1. tewfic says:

    the correct apellation for "eminent" sheikhs is "sheikh". i worked in the Gulf for a while, and that's how it was. as for the Saudi princes and princelings, presumably 'emir' would be appropriate…or if in english, "prince". HRH is so sycophantic!

  2. Christine O says:

    Thanks. I wrote The Gulf States & Oman, many years ago and neither there, nor in Saudi, did I ever hear the gushing HRH, now apparent common usage.

  3. lara dunston says:

    Hi Christine, as you know the UAE has been my base since 1998 and before I worked as a writer, I was a dean of a media studies programme at a women's university. We frequently had to receive Sheikhs on visits, bringing ambassadors and such to visit the college, and were briefed on protocol from the start. It was a requirement to call Sheikh Nahayan who was the Minister for Education and our boss "Your Excellency" and refer to him as "His Excellency", and the Rulers and Princes such as Sheikh Mohammed, who often visited, "Your Royal Highness". Same went for any of their Gulf/MidEast counterparts who visited.Christine, seems we both disliked the programme but for different reasons. Watching it last night, we all found Kate Humble to be far from engaging, but rather one of the most irritating presenters we'd ever seen on television. But what we most disliked was her ignorance – the woman appeared to have done no research. It was a "Frankincense Trails for Dummies" which you expect from American travel shows, but not from the BBC. I prefer to watch a journey by a journalist who has done their research and digs deeper and analyses along the way – someone of the calibre of Pilger – rather than a moron who constantly makes idiotic exclamations. Had she not left the UK before? Her constant cultural blunders also had us cringing completely – the lack of headwear in some places, being so tactile toward the men she met, etc, all which showed a complete disregard and disrespect. It was appalling. Would she behave this way in all other countries/cultures that are different to her own and completely disrespectfully disregard their norms/customs? It appeared racist to me. Had she have been more respectful she would have been treated better and her subjects would have been more forthcoming and open and she would have got better content – that's what I've always found, no matter where I am, whether it's the MidEast, Asia or Africa.

  4. Hi Christine,
    I am a filmmaker based in the UAE since 1987 and have been struggling to find support and interest to develop many regional TV based documentary projects. ‘The Frankincense Trail’ was the first TV project I presented to Jeep for sponsorship consideration prior to their deciding to support my series called “Arabia’s Cycle of Life”. This was back in 2003. I later pitched the project to BBC World in 2005 and then never heard from them again. The next thing I knew is that the BBC were in production during 2008- 2009 with a series featuring Kate Humble by the exact same title and following a bastardised concept! This has been the first of my concepts to have been stolen by the BBC! But to add insult to injury, they proceeded to make so many mistakes and cultural faux pas, that their version got them into trouble with the Saudis and lost them a lot of respect! What’s more, their fear of treading into troubled areas meant they failed to follow the true Frankincense trade routes and they ended up concocting a misleading sense of this region’s history!

    Funnily enough (I can laugh now), the next project I ‘lost’ to the BBC under a complication set of circumstances – was ‘Wild Arabia’ (which I first pitched in 2008 at Wildscreen). The 3 part series was subsequently produced and is airing now on BBC 2. Ironically, the BBC were not allowed into Saudi Arabia for this series due to repercussions arising from how unhappy the Saudis were by ‘The Frankincense Trail’ with regards to how the Princes were portrayed and other mistakes! Especially how the Chairman of the Saudi Wildlife Commission was featured! Even I cringed at that! In fact, the Save Our Seas Foundation’s founding Saudi prince was going to invest 50% of the working budget in partnership with the BBC on the series. But he later withdrew prior to the start of filming after having been told to by the Diwan and the BBC were left to manage creating the series with only Euro 250K per episode! Since they were too nervous about the problems in Yemen, the ‘Wild Arabia’ series is sadly missing the two most important biodiversity hotspots in Arabia! Being a relatively low budget production by BBC natural history standards, the series is rather weak on the ‘Wild’ side of things and has opted instead of the easier and cheaper approach by featuring more of the human story. Not necessarily a bad thing if treated right as man’s capacity for survival in these harsh climes is an amazing story. I’m still waiting to see the complete series before making up my mind as to how successful they were!

    But coming back to ‘The Frankincense Trail’, where my concept differed from their treatment was in my choice to use an archaeologist and an anthropologist as my in-camera presenters instead of some one like Kate. I can see why they did that, but just wish these UK presenters would be better informed and culturally more sensitive! My concept also covered all the trade routes including the Hadramawt, Dhofar to Julfar route, the Western KSA route and the seafaring routes.

    I have learnt my lesson the hard way. Despite the fact my concepts have been worthy of being stolen by international broadcasters, I continue to struggle to find support for regional content development within the region! My latest marine wildlife and conservation series called “Sharkquest Arabia” is now on hold due to lack of funding, despite a good start in 2009 and over 100 hours in the can! We just can’t seem to raise the US$200,000 we need to top-off the budget and complete it! As you can imagine, it’s very frustrating when one sits by and watches how much money is wasted on frivolous activities and projects in the region. Still, we persevere!

  5. Hello Jonathan

    Thank you very much for your comment and I am horrified to learn that one’s intellectual property rights can be taken up as easily as this.
    We- if I may use the term – do have a case against ‘them’, but the cost of taking on an outfit such as the BBC is weighed against. I remember in the early days of websites, I found many of my images had been copied and used on the official government website of the United Arab Emirates. I requested their removal but the response was negative.

    I found both frankincense programmes filled with errors and as you can see, travel writer Lara Dunston who is as familiar with the region as I am has made a similar comment, but your own experience at the hands of the BBC is deplorable.

    I will look forward to your documentary “Sharkquest Arabia” and pray you will find the funding necessary to complete the project.

    Very best of luck.

  6. Jonathan Ali Khan says:

    Hi, I just came across this old post and wondered if you are still active on this blog. I wanted to let you know that I did manage to make a veriation on my Sharkquest Arabia film and am please to say it was aired in the MENA region on Discovery Channel. Since you expressed an interest to see it once made, here is a link to the film on my Vimeo channel:

    Wishing you all the best.
    Kindest regards,

  7. Jonathan Ali Khan says:

    Since I don’t think your window allows links, I am sending you the URL but without the https:// preface. So if you want to view the film, please copy and paste the two components of the link.


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