This year’s awards, for making a significant contribution to Saudi–British relations, were presented to Sir Alan Munro and Mr Michael McKinnon.
Sir Alan Munro, our former Chairman, and one of our current Vice-Presidents, was a distinguished Ambassador to Riyadh in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period encompassing the First Gulf War. This award was given for the work he has undertaken since his retirement, fostering links between our 2 countries by taking part in trade missions and conferences and tirelessly promoting Saudi-British relations through his many media appearances.
Mr Michael McKinnon is a film-maker, whose films Arabia: Sand Sea and Sky (Eye of the Camel, Red Sea Rift and The Mountain Barrier) on the natural history of Saudi Arabia will be well known to many members. After the 1990 invasion of Kuwait he covered Saudi Arabia’s environmental efforts in his film The Tide of War and later profiled the conservation of the Arabian Oryx in his Return of the Unicorn. His latest work is on the life of King Abdulaziz.
Sir Alan Munro’s Speech
I am honoured to be a recipient of this distinguished award – and to be sharing it with Michael – my close friendship with him and with Fawzia in Saudi Arabia goes back 20 years to the eventful and often hectic months of the Gulf War and Kuwait’s liberation.
Also I express deep appreciation to my good friend Abdulaziz al–Turki for his generosity in sponsoring this annual prize. Indeed I feel a bit of a gamekeeper turned poacher as it was nine years ago that Abdul Aziz contacted me as Chairman of the Society to propose this prize, with the award of which I have been involved ever since.
My own connection with Saudi Arabia goes back over 30 years; indeed it nearly began 50 years ago when I was stood by in Beirut to go to Jedda for the restoration of the diplomatic relations between Britain and the Kingdom whicb had been broken ten years earlier with a military confrontation over the disputed Buraimi oasis in the Empty Quarter. In the event it took a few years more for this serious, but now hardly remembered, breach to be mended.
My first visit to Riyadh took place in 1979 on an exercise to strengthen Britain’s relations with the states of Arabia following the shock of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Riyadh was still a raw and dusty city then; the embassy’s outpost of an office was in a dilapidated villa behind Sitteen Street. By the time two years later, when I returned to the Kingdom for long periods with responsibility for our flourishing military cooperation, things were changing fast, with massive construction projects, sprawling new suburbs and great expansion in public welfare.
This experience of working from an office within a Saudi government department did much to help me understand the culture and customs of the Kingdom’s complex, and to some outsiders alien, society, with its singular blend of paternalism and patronage, piety and prejudice, puritanism and pleasure. This acquaintance, and the many friendships it brought, were a huge help when I returned to the Kingdom with Grania in 1989 as ambassador. Coming from Algeria’s gritty and impoverished environment the transformation was a welcome one; for those in the know modern Riyadh with its smart new embassy quarter was one of the Service’s better kept secrets. The Kuwait conflict which soon followed was an unforgettable experience. It brought our two countries closer together than at any time in more than a century of shared history. It is very good to have General Peter de la Billiere here with us tonight. I tried to convey this spirit of real partnership in my book on the background to the Gulf War. It was Prince Saud who encouraged me to write this account. When I warned that it was bound to contain criticism as well as praise for the Kingdom’s leading role in the international coalition, he told me with characteristic humour not to worry. ‘We’ll ban it but we’ll buy it’.
One of the most attractive features of Saudi Arabia and her people is the way in which they do not let their friends go. I am sure many of you here have experienced this, just as Grania and I have found. Our friendships are lasting ones. So what is the small contribution I have sought to make to this special relationship? In the first place it has involved a carrying forward both in office and subsequently of that longstanding and valuable association between us – one which has over the years acquired so many sides to it – political, strategic, economic, commercial, educational, cultural, and social too, as well as historical. It has been rewarding work.
This brings me to a second objective – the need for a better mutual understanding. Despite the presence of large expatriate communities in each other’s countries, Saudi Arabia has acquired a popular image in this country of social insularity and cultural austerity. This has led to wider misunderstanding, some of it harmless enough, (to quote a trivial example, church bells story). But some is more damaging in its effect. It is not helped by the incorrigible urge of the British media to disparage the Kingdom. By turning her back for too long on open discussion and on access for the foreign press which would help to dispel these misconceptions, Saudi Arabia has to take a measure of responsibility for this state of affairs. In consequence, along with other British folk familiar with Saudi Arabia, I often find myself drawn into speaking up through writing and talks, and in more formal gatherings too, for her ways and her actions, not as a mere apologist but to fill a gap and help put things in a clearer, and sometimes critical, perspective. Only last month I was once again attempting to do this on Sky News.
Now that she finds herself assuming an increasingly significant role on the international scene, there is a need for Saudi Arabia to speak out for herself more clearly, as our Society’s former president Prince Turki Al Faisal has been doing of late, rather than leaving it to us well-disposed outsiders. Our Saudi-British Society, with its flourishing British and Saudi membership, its active website and the valuable support it receives from its joint president, Prince Mohammed and his staff in the embassy, plays a valuable part here. I am sure that the magnificent exhibition on the Haj now running at the British Museum, the curator of which, Venetia Porter, was one of the Al Rawabi prizewinners last year, will also make its contribution.
Saudi Arabia and the real changes that are now taking place within her traditional society deserve to be better understood. One should never take liberties with the Kingdom however. I recall with trepidation how I once nearly came badly unstuck on a hot Saudia flight down to Jedda, full of devoutly hyped up passengers embarking on the Haj, when I realised that I had a rapidly unfreezing packet of bacon in the pocket of my suit. But that is a story for my forthcoming memoirs.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I greatly appreciate tonight’s award. May I say that the prize will be put to charitable purposes, including a donation to the famous Eye Hospital of the Order of St. John in Jerusalem.
Mr Michael McKinnon’s Speech
Sherard, thank you for your kind words. Mr Al–Turki, Thank you for establishing the prestigious Rawabi Award.
I am very surprised and delighted to receive such an honour and particularly pleased to be sharing it with Sir Alan whose efforts to encouraging Saudi British relations I have admired for over 20 years.
There is a Chinese expression ‘Autumn leaves fall to the roots of the tree’. I want to turn briefly to the roots of my particular tree in order to say something about filming in Saudi Arabia.
My early childhood was spent on the edge of the great Australian desert. We were on the wrong side of the Rabbit Proof Fence. So occasional kangaroos and emus but many rabbits.
A little later I was writing a thesis on Giotto at Melbourne University but also listening to painters who had declared an Antipodean Manifesto. A determination to create a uniquely Australian vision of our dry, sun bleached, desiccated land and deal with our brief history as an important theme.
Among works from this time that you may have seen were Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings and his lonely camel riding explorers in the vastness of the outback. Camel and rider morphed together like centaurs in a mythic bond.
Twenty years later, particularly when crossing the Rub Al Khali to film ‘Eye of the Camel’ such pictures were a constant guide. A way to see desert landscapes.
My introduction to Arabia began 40 years ago when I met a wonderful young Kuwaiti paediatrician, my wife Fawzia, who introduced me to her world . Out of the seed of my enthusiasm for Fawzia and advice from the great historians of the day, particularly Albert Hourani, grew the ten part Channel 4 series The Arabs.
A little later the GCC film unit invited me to produce 6 films on the marine and coastal ecology of the Gulf – Treasures of the Gulf.
With a ribbon of rapidly expanding cities and industrial development along so much of the coastline there was an urgent need for scientifically based environmental films to celebrate its nature and demonstrate the need for conservation.
We filmed the Gulf as a single ecological system and covered many very diverse habitats. From the marshes in Iraq, to sea grass beds, broad intertidal zones, coral reefs, traditional fishing methods and the marine life of the so called sandy bottoms.
Most spectacular, was filming the incredibly beautiful motion of tens of thousands of Sea snakes gathered at night beneath flaring offshore oil rigs. A little like diving into in a vast bowl of spaghetti.
My most enduring memory of the Treasures films is the importance of Islands. Often less than a mile long and a few meters above sea level they can be dry and barren for ten months of the year . Then places like Karen island off the Saudi coast are carpeted with eggs laid by hundreds of thousands of breeding terns. For egg laying turtles such Islands are the last Gulf Refuge.
At this time I came to hear about the Saudi Arabian National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. The NCWCD. Established by Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and Prince Saud al Faisal it was run by Dr Abdul–Aziz Abuzinada. They had nominated some seventy locations for varying degrees of environmental and wildlife protection. Young Saudi Scientists were working with teams from London Zoo, York University and others to understand what was possible and necessary. Arabian Oryx, Gazelle, Ibex had been hunted to extinction in the wild, but were now being bred up for release back into the Rub al Khali or into very large enclosures like Uruk Bani Ma Arid which at that time was one of the largest fully fenced wildlife enclosures on the planet.
To my eye, the great precedent for wildlife filmmaking are the sublime landscape scrolls and Song Dynasty China and Japan. Exquisite journeys through time, space and seasons. An aesthetic standard, aspired to but seldom reached.
Early on, I walked into Dr Abu Zinadas office. He was leaning deep into a four meter long scroll that spilled down from both sides of his desk. I declared my enthusiasms for long scrolls. He looked up and laughed.
‘This my friend, is a telex from the Governor a Tabuk and forwarded to me by Prince Sultan for comment. It is filled with outrage about how this dreadful wildlife organisation is trying to steal his regions best land for wildlife conservation. Much convincing needs to be done and maybe you can help us to raise public awareness.’
An informal alliance was born and for the next three years while filming ARABIA, Sand Sea and Sky we enjoyed constant scientific advice and hospitality. Most locations and a lot of the wildlife behaviour had not been filmed before. Mobil, Aramco and Sabic financed the films.
The best sequences came from our Eye of the Camel journey across the Rub al Khali. The landscapes are magnificent but it was capturing the tenderness and nurturing care with which our Bani Mura hosts treated their camels that was most satisfying. Imagine an English family playing with a very large pack of much loved Labradors.
The BBC, Discovery and National Geographic all took the films and they went to most wildlife outlets.
Six months later Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iraqi forces blew up 740 Kuwaiti wellheads and several offshore wells to create the largest oil slick and most polluted oilfields in history. National Geographic agreed immediately to finance what became Tides of War.
The NCWCD staff established a large bird cleaning centre in Jubail where their ornithologists guided volunteers the cleaning of hundreds of birds. Prince Abdullah and Sir Alan Munro waved magic wands and we were uniquely able to fly with the US Marines to record the vastness of the deadly oil slick pouring south out of Kuwait.
Seen from the air, the big surprise was the beauty of the oilslick. Like a Song Dynasty glaze in perfect visual balance with the turquoise sea and white sand of the intertidal beaches. The planet as a beautiful pot.
In fact, the great Paradox was that this simultaneous assault, poisoning the land, sea and polluting the sky produced images of such astonishing and dramatic visual clarity. Oil drenched cormorants came to symbolise the entire conflict.
For the next eight months it was like working in some vast Wagnarian science fiction set. In Kuwaits Burgan oilfield it was possible to view 80 burning well heads from a small hill. Hundred foot high flames doubled in size when reflected in the oil lakes that extended for kilometres in many directions. The only light source was from burning well heads and well cappers machines.
When it came to editing Tides of War our now extensive library of Arabian wildlife, compile over 8 years, allowed us to show how the natural behaviour of many species caused them to impacted by the conflict. Migrating wetland birds diving into oil lakes is just one sad example
The final film was Return of the Unicorn. For over three years we filmed the NCWCDs breeding and reintroduction program for the Arabian Oryx and Houbara bustard. By 2000 a great deal was now known, due to NCWCD scientists and collaboration with London Zoo. It is one of the great conservation success stories. At the time it was the only large mammal to have become extinct in the wild and then successfully reintroduced The NCWCD has played a significant role.
Without their collaboration few of our best films could have been made.
So I hope that the films have helped and that the great British scientific traditions and cultural empathy for the natural world will continue to inform conservation in Saudi Arabia
Thank you again Mr Al Turki and my thanks again to the Saudi British society for hosting the award.