Ahmed Ben Hassan is the sheik who rules a simple, peaceful, premodern oasis in the Sahara. From the moment he’s introduced, we know he’s a good guy, since he releases a young lady from the marriage market to marry her sweetheart. “When love is more desired than riches, it is the will of Allah. Let another be chosen.”
One day, Ahmed journeys to the market of nearby Biskra (a real city in Algeria), an exciting blend of new and old. Also in Biskra is the orphaned Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), a headstrong young woman planning a tour alone into the desert.
Her brother, Sir Aubrey (Frank Butler), has tried and failed for years to bring her to heel, but Diana insists her mind is made up about this journey. Also fruitlessly trying to convince her to abandon the idea is a suitor. Diana says she has no interest in marriage, and that marriage is the end of a woman’s independence.
Diana is quite excited to see a group of Arabs, including Ahmed, arriving and heading towards the casino, but disappointed to be told the casino is closed to everyone else. Diana is told Ahmed is no savage, but “a rich tribal prince, who was educated in Paris. In Biskra his slightest wish is law.”
Diana gets a brilliant idea when she sees a veiled dancing girl, and sneaks into the casino wearing a borrowed costume. She’s horrified by the marriage fair, which smacks of an unenlightened past, and even more indignant when she’s chosen for display.
Ahmed, whom she made mutual eyes at earlier, suspects she’s a white woman, and proves it when he pulls off the veil and scarf. He asks who gave her permission to come there, and she says she wanted to see the person who’d bar her from the casino. Ahmed escorts her to the door.
That night, Ahmed climbs the balcony leading to Diana’s hotel room, and comes in through a window while she’s sleeping. Soon after Ahmed leaves, Diana awakens and gets out of bed. Though she doesn’t see Ahmed, she hears him serenading her.
In the morning, Diana starts into the desert with her brother and her guide, Mustapha Ali, who told Ahmed of their acquaintance last night. Aubrey tries one final time to convince Diana to turn around, but she’s still undeterred, and says she’ll see him in London in a month.
Soon after she sets out alone, Diana is ambushed by Ahmed. She drops her pistol when she’s shooting at him, and he scoops it up. Ahmed then pulls Diana onto his horse and takes her back to his tribe.
Diana is confused and terror-stricken, not quite sure this is real, when Ahmed takes her into his very large, luxurious tent, and even more so when they’re left alone. She asks why he brought her there, and he responds, “Are you not woman enough to know?”
Diana tries to run, but Ahmed grabs her arms and says he’s not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. Not one to be pushed around, Diana shoots back that she’s not used to obeying orders.
The ordeal becomes even worse when Ahmed demands she change out of her “mannish” clothes and into one of the dresses in her luggage, which he also commandeered. Diana is given a French-speaking maidservant to attend to her every need, but she doesn’t see this as a happy development, since she’s still a captive.
Diana says her friends in Biskra will soon notice her missing, and Ahmed responds that it’ll be too late by that time, since the desert is a great hiding-place. She attempts to escape, but there’s a blinding sandstorm. Ahmed says she’ll be much safer inside. When Diana then tries to stab him, he easily overpowers her and grabs the dagger.
Ahmed says he can easily make her love him, and she says she’d rather he kill her. This makes Ahmed laugh, and he kisses her.
Soon afterwards, Ahmed leaves to round up horses that broke loose in the storm, and Diana collapses over the bed, weeping. When Ahmed returns, it’s obvious what’s on his mind, but his face quickly softens, and he backs away, when he sees how distraught Diana is.
A week of despair and “sullen obedience” passes.
Ahmed is delighted to receive a letter from his old buddy Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert, whom he met during his Parisian school days. Raoul announces his intentions to visit and see the charming place Ahmed calls home.
Diana seems to be coming around when she realizes Ahmed was the one who sang beneath her window, but she quickly devolves back into grief when Ahmed tells her about Raoul’s upcoming visit. The idea of a white man seeing her dressed like an Arab woman and so totally submissive horrifies her.
Ahmed tells her she must cordially receive his guest, then orders his French valet Gaston (Lucien Littlefield) to return all of Diana’s possessions to her. After this, he announces he’s leaving for Biskra and will be gone for three days. He gives Diana full permission to do whatever she wants in his absence, and says Gaston will soon return her clothes.
Ahmed kisses Diana goodbye, and backs away in anguish when he realizes she’s not reciprocating and is holding herself very stiffly.
While riding through the desert with Gaston, Diana asks him to gather some flowers growing in the sand. She uses this as an opportunity to gallop away.
Meanwhile, Ahmed has met up with Raoul (Adolphe Menjou), and is telling him all about his lovely captive bride. Raoul doesn’t share the enthusiasm, and can’t believe someone who was educated in Paris can behave like a savage. Ahmed says when an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her.
Diana falls off of her horse, who trots away, leaving her at the mercy of an oncoming other tribe. She mistakes them for Ahmed’s tribe at a distance, and walks towards them. Conveniently, she faints before Omair (Walter Long) can abduct her, and Ahmed, who was approaching from the other direction, comes to her rescue.
Diana confesses she tried to run away because she wasn’t brave enough to face Raoul. Ahmed says she would’ve been carried away by his enemies if he’d arrived a moment later.
After dinner, Raoul once again expresses his displeasure at the situation, and takes Ahmed to task for humiliating Diana by making her appear before “a man from her own world.”
Diana and Raoul grow closer over the next few days, though after the ordeal of captivity, Diana has a difficult time believing his sincere, noble nature and offer of friendship are legit.
Gaston runs in to summon Raoul, saying there’s been an accident. Not realizing Ahmed is lurking outside the tent, Diana calls out Ahmed’s name. She’s relieved when Gaston says it was someone else.
But Omair’s spies are still in the area, and Raoul is trying to convince Ahmed to let him take Diana back to Biskra and her own people. Ahmed also needs to come to the realization that he genuinely loves Diana and doesn’t just want her as a pretty possession to boss around.