On December 10, in Stockholm, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and other institutes, committees and academies presented six scientists, writers, economists and other specialists with the famous Nobel Prizes - the 84th such awards since the prizes were established in 1901.
Undoubtedly, the Nobel Prizes are the most famous in the world. Awarded to men and women who have made important contributions to science, literature, economics and peace, they are the legacy of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, the pacifist who invented dynamite. But in Stockholm last month, they were not the only prizes awarded. The day before, in a ceremony deliberately calculated to benefit from the publicity attendant on the Nobel Prizes, a Swedish-German baron with a degree in philosophy from Oxford - Jacob von Uexkull - also made some awards: a total of close to $40,000 distributed among three winners of what Von Uexkull calls the "Right Livelihood Awards," given to people who come up with immediately practical solutions to the world's problems - what he calls "cornerstones of a new world..." In addition, he gives honorary awards.
This year, for example, an honorary prize was given to Iman Khalifeh, a young teacher who launched the Beirut Peace Movement with a simple poem that reached the hearts of Lebanon's war weary peoples and roused them to action (See box). And in 1980, an award went to another Middle East figure, architect Hassan Fathy - though not for his grass-roots architecture. Fathy got his award for proposing a simple and effective defense against bilharzia, a debilitating disease that is the scourge of Egypt.
Set up in 1979, the Right Livelihood Foundation is funded from a $500,000 endowment - the proceeds from the sale of part of Baron von Uexkull's extensive stamp collection that still includes some of the world's rarest issues. This is the extraordinary 1,000-stamp collection of rare Saudi Arabia stamps that won the stamp world's famous gold medal at an exhibition in Vienna in 1981 - and caused a sensation.
Baron von Uexkull began collecting stamps at the age of nine, in an album given him by his father. Later, noticing that most collectors ignored Middle Eastern issues (See Aramco World, September-October 1979), he began to concentrate on those areas, eventually compiling the 1,000-stamp prize collection out of some 10,000 Saudi stamps. Because the collection centers on the early postal history of Saudi Arabia, Baron von Uexkull said at Vienna, "it is also a recognition of the importance of Saudi Arabian postal history." Before that, he continued, "it was widely believed that Saudi Arabia had no postal history and that no collection of Saudi stamps could be interesting and important enough to win such a high award."
The collection's earliest pieces date from the period before the unification of Arabia. Perhaps the most interesting exhibit in the collection, as well as the earliest, is a letter sent from Jiddah to England in 1834 - six years before fine invention of adhesive postage stamps. Sent by a young English sailor shipwrecked in the Red Sea, the letter is endorsed "Indian Navy/Jeddah" - the first known endorsement of its kind.
Because the first post office on the Arabian Peninsula - opened in 1865 - was run by the Egyptian government and staffed by Italians, the collection contains a number of complete letters and envelopes bearing Egyptian stamps from this post office - with postmarks in Italian, and Jiddah spelled "Gedda." This "Khedival" post office continued to operate until 1881.
In 1872, the Ottoman Empire opened post offices in the Hijaz and the Asir, and by the year 1916 had established branches in Jiddah, Makkah (Mecca), Medina, Taif, Yanbu', al-Bahr, Tabuk, al-'Ula, Abha and al-Qunfudha. Though stamps from this period - particularly those from the more out-of-the-way post offices - are very rare, the Von Uexkull collection contains a good number of them.
The first stamps issued solely for use in Saudi Arabia came out in 1916, after the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. They were issued in the Hijaz - the western province of Arabia - and among the most important items in the Von Uexkull collection are the unique essays and proofs for the 1916 1-piaster blue. At one point these proofs belonged to King Farouk of Egypt, whose collection was one of the best in the world. Another unicum is a half sheet of the ¼-piaster green with the gold overprint. Only 100 examples of this stamp were ever issued.
Meanwhile, a young man named 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud had begun to win back the territory taken from his family - the House of Sa'ud - by the Ottomans and by a rival family called the Rashids. On January 6, 1927, he was officially proclaimed King of Hijaz and Sultan of Najd and its dependencies, and in 1932 the kingdom was officially named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This turbulent period, which ended with the establishment of Saudi Arabia, was reflected in a number of rare provisional issues. Although it has often been claimed that many of these were issued specifically for stamp collectors, the Baron von Uexkull collection clearly demonstrates that these issues were in fact caused by genuine shortages of regular postage stamps. The collection, also contains a block of nine stamps from the 1934 "Heir Apparent" series - the first stamp to bear the inscription "Saudi Arabia." This is the largest block of this stamp in existence. Another item that caused considerable stir in Vienna was an unadopted design for a stamp showing King 'Abd al-'Aziz.
Other rarities include three of the very few known covers sent from Makkah to Germany and then forwarded to America by zeppelin. There are also two envelopes bearing Saudi Arabian stamps postmarked "Hodeidah." They date from 1934 when the late King Faisal, then a prince, led an army into the 'Asir during a brief war with Imam Yahya of Yemen over control of the'Asir. Faisal, assigned to pacify the coast, rode south into Yemen and captured the port of Hodeidah.
Without doubt, the Von Uexkull collection is the rarest collection of Saudi Arabian stamps in existence. To give just one example, it contains 23 complete letters from the Egyptian post office in Jiddah - and only 10 to 12 others are known to exist.
Because the collection is so complete, it has become difficult to find items to add to it. Since winning the gold medal in Vienna, for example, the baron has added "no more than a dozen or so," he said in an interview in December. "I would like to continue as long as I can find something to add to the collection," says Baron von Uexkull, "but that is certainly getting more and more difficult. However, I feel that this collection is part of the historical heritage of Saudi Arabia and ought to be preserved intact, possibly as a starting point for a postal museum."
Not everyone could afford the Von Uexkull collection - it has recently been appraised at about $2.5 million - but if it were sold the money would undoubtedly go into the "Right Livelihood Foundation," since the foundation is far more important to Baron von Uexkull than even his Gold Medal collection.
The son of a journalist and writer in Sweden, Baron von Uexkull began to notice the world's problems as he traveled extensively with his father - particularly the damage that is being done to the world by man himself. "I believe," he said in Stockholm, during the awards ceremonies, "in living lightly on the earth. I believe in it so firmly that I have backed it with a concrete and exemplary program."
For his own livelihood, Baron von Uexkull has a part-time occupation almost as unusual as his foundation. He sells islands. From his home on - appropriately - the Isle of Man, he sallies forth on behalf of an agency in Hamburg, West Germany which specializes in finding and selling islands.
It is, Von Uexkull said, a fascinating occupation - if only because of the varied motives of customers who want to buy islands. "For some it is simply a matter of privacy, for others a haven or a retreat and for a few it's a need to have their own kingdom."
People who buy islands, Von Uexkull went on, aren't necessarily trying to get away from it all. Most, in fact,want to be close to a city - no more, say, than a half hour away. "So what we do is search for bays and lakes and try to match a particular island with a particular buyer."
Money, of course, plays a part since big islands can cost up to several million dollars. On the other hand, he said, some islands go for as little as $100,000 - and there are more of them for sale than one would think. "Some years ago, for instance, we found a group of seven near Nova Scotia, the smallest ranging in size from one and a half acres to 145 acres." Another island on their list was the famous Captain Kidd's Island in Mabur Bay.
Like stamps, however, islands rate much lower on Von Uexkull's scale of values than the Right Livelihood Foundation. "This is important," he said, "because the Nobel Prizes focus on achievements that are too narrow and too elitist."
As an example he again mentioned Hassan Fathy, the famous "architect of the poor," who came up with a simple solution to protecting peasants from.Bilharzia - a simple leg cloth dipped in linseed oil - "But he wouldn't have gotten a Nobel Prize for that. To have won a Nobel award he would have had to conduct a massive chemical or medical investigation requiring years of experiments and vast sums of money. Instead, he came up with a solution that is practical, simple and applicable. That's the sort of achievement I want to reward and encourage."
Paul Lundc is a contributing editor of Aramco World Magazine.