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Lecture: Keep the Flag Flying by Sir Alan Munro

Event Date: 19/09/2012

Sir Alan Munro gave a talk about his recently published book of memoirs, Keep The Flag Flying.

Thanks to all who have come tonight from the Saudi–British Society and sister organisations – especially to several of you who have contributed to the book’s narrative or indeed populate its reminiscences, which have been gathered not just from the Kingdom but from all around the Arab world.

A particular appreciation goes to two good friends, Peter de la Billiere and Robert Lacey, for their generous comments on the first draft and which have been incorporated in the jacket – I was much encouraged to see the book given a positive review last week in the TLS – above all my thanks go to our youthful and skilled publishers, Max Scott and Charlie Powell of Gilgamesh, not only for the way in which they have confected a book of such high quality, plus an e–book version for any of you who are Kindlings, but even more for their indulgence and forbearance over my incorrigible tendency to offer additions and embroidery right up to their generous deadlines and beyond – it does help to have a publisher whose aunt is our Hon. Sec.

I have long been conscious that diplomatic memoirs can easily verge on the banal and become a kind of drag on the market – the idea of chronicling our more significant recollections first arose out of encouragement from many friends to set down a selection of the more bizarre and colourful events and encounters which had come our way during a diplomatic career which focused mainly on the Middle East and Africa, in war as well as in peace, as well as spells back at home and in South America – bit by bit though the book took over as the recollections multiplied – I never volunteered to specialise in the Arab world, but was drafted into the camel corps – it was a happy turn of fate – qismet as the MECAS word list taught us to say, and no regrets whatsoever; very much the contrary.

The main aim of this memoir was always to entertain – but as the composition developed, a more serious theme emerged – for here was a narrative set within its own distinct era in British foreign policy; a half century now behind us in which our diplomacy was conditioned by an environment in which disengagement from the responsibilities of empire conflicted with the embers of an imperial past that constantly drew us back into active participation in the legacies and tensions it had bestowed – this was particularly the case among the states of the Middle East and Arab world – these were only now emerging out of a century or more of foreign tutelage, several into the grasp of corrupt and military–based autocracies, accompanied by a resentful political nationalism to be followed by a mood of narrow religious zealotry that has yet to run its course – underlying all these tensions lay the intractable cancer of Arab–Israel confrontation over Palestine – Britain’s engagement with this theatre of instability was moreover further complicated by the crude constraints on diplomatic action dictated by security and economic considerations resulting from the Cold War, that half century of sometimes acute confrontation between west and east which is now starting to fade from the memory – or is it?

This wider context led to suggestions that the book should instead take the form of a study into the impact of these issues on British diplomacy within the Middle East and the other regions concerned – the subject certainly merits serious treatment – but we opted to stick with the initial idea of an anecdotal memoir written for entertainment as much as for enlightenment, while incorporating these more substantial threads into the narrative as background – I hope you will find this decision to have been the right one and that a happy balance has been struck – a number of prominent political figures have their walking–on parts for better or worse at various stages in the story.

We had fun choosing the title – and the idea of superimposing an unfurled Union flag over the handsome historic photograph of the Foreign Office which Gilgamesh discovered in some archive – but we might just as well have titled the book ‘Conspiracy or Cock–up’, as we diplomats are wont to ponder– for there is a good measure of both in the adventures which it presents.

At some point or other the narrative covers virtually the whole of the Middle East and the Maghreb – I think the only Arab country where I never managed to spend some time was the Yemen, though like everywhere else it too provided its share of headaches for British policy – we start however with Lebanon – looking back now after half a century, life and work in that seductive mini-state in the late ‘50’s and early 60’s and before latent political and sectarian tensions erupted into a vicious civil war was little short of idyllic for a young diplomat – delightful cultural diversion intermixed with more than a touch of political conspiracy – those were still the days when every political shock across this sensitive region was automatically attributed to the ubiquitous hand of ‘Breetish Intelligence’ with a knowing wink and a finger placed beside the nose – Beirut gave us a stylish wedding too – a brief tour in newly independent and oil-rich Kuwait under threat of military attack by Iraq and defended by a hastily mobilised British force brought one back to reality however – indeed it is strange how my career opened with a confrontation with Iraq over Kuwait and ended on the same note.

A couple of unrewarding years on relations within an unharmonious NATO Alliance in an unreformed Foreign Office that had still not progressed much beyond the quill pen era brought us on to Libya, a raw and impoverished kingdom under the benign if weary hand of King Idris and still subject to a good measure of British tutelage and garrisoning as she began to taste the benefits and temptations of wealth from oil – as you will see the sudden riots which accompanied the 1967 Arab–Israel War gave us moments of danger, but of humour too – a decade followed of what one might call respite from Middle East affairs with two fascinating spells on personnel work including a brief sally behind the Iron Curtain, a tour in an ever vibrant Brazil where Ronald Biggs helped keep me on my toes, and back in Whitehall attempting to arbitrate the incessant upheavals and Cold War rivalries of a post-colonial Africa – plenty of good anecdotes there.

It was with some relief therefore I found myself back on familiar Arab ground in the Foreign Office’s Middle East Department – no rest cure however as I took over the department on the very day in January 1979 that Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from exile in France to unleash the full fury of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, leading to weeks of desperate policy improvisation on the hoof, a supreme instance of the classic and all-too-frequent predicament in which diplomacy finds itself attempting to react to uncovenanted crises instead of pre-empting them – in the book I compare the frenzy over Iran’s revolution with the diary record of an uncle of mine who happened to be staying in the British Legation in Tehran in 1925 when the previous revolutionary seizure of the Peacock Throne from the Qajar dynasty by Reza Pahlevi took place with British connivance – according to my uncle’s account of that occasion the popular coup was greeted with nothing more noisy than fireworks; the French minister threw a ball while Sir Percy Loraine marked the event with a snipe shoot – how diplomacy has changed – but at least our later revolution provided us with the opportunity to bring Britain back into a positive and overdue engagement with the Arab states of the Gulf which continues to this day.

This personal connection with the Gulf states and their security was carried forward by two years on transfer to the Ministry of Defence looking after our programmes of military equipment and support across the Arab world, an active arena if sometimes a rather dark one – Iran and Iraq were by now at full-blooded war, and the temperature between Israel and her Arab neighbours was not much lower – my particularly close association with Saudi Arabia dates back to this time with military business at a peak and a desk divided between an insalubrious office in Soho Square and a smarter one in Riyadh’s brand new air force headquarters – as some of you will recall, Riyadh was still a dusty and shuttered town – daily life centred on Sitteen Street, the Batha Souq and the old mud–walled warren beside the irreverently named ‘Chop Square’ and the Mismaq Fort, while mechanical diggers hammered away day and night to create raw new suburbs of fantasy villas – for expatriates, mostly from the military and from BAe, the focus of a limited social life was the Hash House Harriers and excursions into the desert.

Algeria followed, a fascinating if often frustrating contact with a military, and quasi-Marxist regime in a handsome country laden with a bitter colonial past – still it too had its lighter moments – I even managed to get sent to Coventry, or rather Limoges as the French put it – as always occasional trips into the wastes of the desert helped to free up our spirits – the next couple of years looking after both Africa and the Middle East from a senior seat in Whitehall caused me yet more burnt fingers among the still smouldering legacies of imperial engagement in the Levant and Middle East as well as around Africa – never a dull moment and involving absorbing and far-flung travels, including an enlightening one to Israel and Palestine during the intifada. I also became embroiled in the fury aroused by Salman Rushdie’s gratuitous insult to the Prophet Mohammed in ‘The Satanic Verses’, leading to yet another breach in our tormented relations with revolutionary Iran. I have a feeling this furore may be about to reignite.

And finally, back to Saudi Arabia for four full years and a war to boot – one of the book’s reviewers talks of my “huge affection for that strange land”, a comment that is fair, and applies I dare say to many of us here this evening – for Grania and I found much to respect and many friendships to enjoy for all the cultural introversion and the prejudices that mark the Kingdom’s pious society – our close collaboration in the coalition to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait brought our two countries closer together than at any time before or, I suspect, since – I have devoted one substantial chapter to this remarkable experience – but there were other moments too when drama became tinged with comedy, such an essential ingredient of diplomacy – may I finish by reading to you a passage describing one diplomatic encounter in which I was involved soon after arriving back in the Kingdom in the summer of 1989, involving King Fahd’s welcome initiative to bring a close to Lebanon’s interminable civil war, and which I think illustrates this happy combination – (page 214 et seq.)

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