Glubb Pasha’s elegant way with challenges

An English gentleman meets the Bedouin

The essence of this story is in that amazing name, Glubb Pasha. John Glubb was a Brigadier in the British Army, who spoke Arabic fluently, rode a camel, and in the 1930’s was a Pasha, a kind of governor for the Bedouin tribes in Jordan.

Pictured: Glubb Pasha with Lawrence of Arabia

There are echoes of T. E. Lawrence here, but also big differences. What I love about Glubb Pasha was that he evolved elegant, systemic solutions that reconciled the radically divergent worlds of desert Bedouin and Western principles.

For example, the Bedouin tribes had never been tamed by the Turks, and had their own systems of justice, whose aim was to compensate the victim of crime, or their family. Glubb observes that the cities of the Middle East used Western-style justice based on punishing the criminal. 

Glubb Pasha’s way of connecting the two typifies his general approach to challenges. Unlike a typical colonial mindset of imposing the way you’re used to, he started from a deep understanding of the other side, of the different culture, and showed repeated genius in shaping that to align with his goals.

Instead of imposing an alien system of punishments and imprisonment, Glubb Pasha left the compensation approach in place, but modified it, and ensured by recruiting a gendarmerie from the Bedouin that it was equitably and consistently applied.

One of Glubb’s biggest challenges was creating this gendarmerie in a way that incorporated Bedouin culture with Western organisation. Glubb comments that the Bedouin are chivalrous, individualistic, courageous, and idiosyncratic in conflict, which hardly fits British military norms. However, there is a fine subsect of British officers who adapt, as here, and in Ethiopia, Burma and elsewhere.

Glubb Pasha’s integrity, flair, and love for the Bedouin enabled him to recruit from among them, instead of importing manpower as the Turks had done. He began with camel and horse patrols, familiar animals for the Bedouin, only later adding motor vehicles.

The Arab Legion, as it was grandly called, had glamourous uniforms with elements of the robes and headgear used by the Arabs, but adding scarlet sashes and regalia. In the Second World War, Glubb’s Legion was much expanded and played an important military role.

I feel a deep empathy with the Bedouin, having led twelve treks in the Tunisian Sahara with semi-nomadic Bedouin guides. The book I’ve drawn from, Glubb Pasha’s Story of the Arab Legion, is a delightful evocation of the beauty of the desert, and the remarkable sophistication of the nomads who love it and survive in it.