One of the common stereotypes of the British Foreign Service is that it is relentlessly pro-Arab, and has been since at least the time of Lawrence of Arabia.
The British diplomat who “goes native” when posted to an Arab country is a stock character in fiction and film. A cynical observer might blame this tendency on the cultural preoccupation shared by both Arab sheikhs and old boys of the British boarding school system: pederasty.
In the following guest-essay, our British correspondent JP takes a closer look at the Arabophiles of the Foreign Office, whom he dubs the “Camel Corps”.
Camel Corps Gallimaufry
del cul fatto trombetta1
If the early Arabic panegyrical ode has its camel-section, then Middle East diplomacy for the past hundred years or so has had its Camel Corps — both camel-section and Camel Corps enduring symbols of the endurance of the camel.
Here is Renate Jacobi on the camel-theme in the panegyrical ode:
Thus whatever the function of the camel-section maybe as part of the panegyrical ode, it certainly belonged originally to the poet’s self-praise, where the description of the camel and the perilous desert-journey hold a prominent place…. It further appears that the poet’s pride in his camel and his display of courage in crossing the desert form two separate motifs although they are closely related and often linked together in such a way that the travel-theme is introducing the description of the camel.2
The precise locus of the Camel Corps is the British Foreign Office’s Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS), initially housed in an Austrian hospice in Jerusalem, found a home in Shemlan, Lebanon, between 1947 and 1978, when it was forced to leave on account of the civil war. Here numerous diplomats as well as applicants from the private sector were taught the Arabic language and Arab culture.
Lord Hurd of Westwell provides a description of MECAS in his foreword to its history by Sir James Craig (former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia):
Legends clustered around this school (MECAS) throughout its life, forming one of the minor myths of Middle-Eastern politics. To the Israelis MECAS was the place where Britain trained its bright young men to be sentimental about the Arabs and hostile to Zionism. To many Arabs it was simply the ‘School for Spies’, the heart of Britain’s postwar strategy of dominating the Middle East through its intelligence agencies.3
Craig is dismissive about claims by the detractors of MECAS:
The Israelis, and even some of the British, hold the. fanciful belief that MECAS was where British diplomatists were indoctrinated with anti-Zionism. There was indeed for a long time a perverse conviction, held all over the world except (and what an irritating exception) among the Arabs, that the British Foreign Office was pro-Arab and anti-Israel. This thesis usually went on to argue that the generator of the prejudice was a clique of Middle Eastern specialists, trained speakers of Arabic, in the Diplomatic Service, a kind of Arabist mafia (the sinister word is often used) which controlled Foreign Office policy on the Middle East; and that these specialists were in love with the notion of Araby, with the tent, the camel, and the lonely desert sands:
– – – – – – – – –
He is crazed with spell of far Arabia,
They have stolen his wits away.4
Yet in his preface Carig boasts that in 1996, in addition to three senior officers of the British Foreign Office (the Permanent Under-Secretary, the Political Director, and the Chief Clerk), the head of MI6 and the Director General of the British Council were all graduates of MECAS. A powerful group of people one might imagine whose worldview may have been shaped by their MECAS experience, and whose subsequent policy advice may have tended to favour the Arab side.
Recent blog entries by British ambassadors to the Lebanon (Guy) and Jordan (Watt) indicate that Lord Hurd may have been incorrect in his assessment, and that Craig himself is fanciful in his belief that the British Foreign Office is not pro-Arab and anti-Israel. With forensic skill Robin Shepherd registers his dismay at the underlying thinking of the British Foreign Office on Islamist terrorism: “this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.”5
Returning to odes, camel or otherwise, here is Craig displaying a hint of pathos on being presented with an ode on leaving MECAS:
It is fair to add — it is necessary to add — that among the speeches that night was an ode in my honour composed and recited by Mr Theodry and that a houseguest of mine, himself an Arab scholar and poet, who had with characteristic Arab hospitality been included in the party, found the ode skilful and touching. I have kept it among my souvenirs.6
A clue to the pusillanimous attitudes of Britain’s diplomatists may be found in Craig’s discussion of the Israel Factor and the dilemma of how to deal with MECAS applicants with a Jewish background:
Later in that same year, 1973, Carden’s successor, Moberly, wrote to say that he had had an enquiry from a man in America with a Jewish name. He had written back, hoping to put the man off by telling him that the fees had recently been increased to £250 a month and that the Arab University of Beirut (name and address supplied) offered an Arabic course for foreigners free of charge. He had added: ‘No doubt you realise it is not in the interests of the student or the Centre for a student of Jewish faith or background to come here at present. If you wish to pursue your enquiry please confirm this is not a problem.’ The student did not pursue; whether it was the fees or the warning that put him off is not clear.7
And what do we find in 2009? Craig giving his thoughts on the Middle East in a further, two-volume work dedicated to the history and influence of MECAS:
People went to MECAS primarily to learn Arabic. It is a highly ingenious, subtle and complex language which excites passion in the linguist. But not every diplomat or banker is entranced by the adverbial accusative and the forty types of broken plural. The students learnt other things besides: that the Arabs are a warm and generous society, that they all, westernized liberals and Muslim fundamentalists alike, burn with a fierce resentment at the loss of Palestine, that they remember the past when they led the world in all the arts of civilisation, that they founded one of the world’s great religions and that they are now enjoying an economic revival. Empires come and go. The Middle East today is at centre of the world and crucial to the peace and prosperity of mankind. It is necessary that the rest of us try to understand it. That, on a small scale, was the purpose of MECAS.8
It is to be doubted that even on a small scale MECAS was conducive to peace in the region, or that it even understood it, rather the opposite.
The inclusion in the same volume of an entry by another MECAS student, Wing Commander John Deverill, who worked for the Arab Legion Air Force, provides further evidence of the Centre’s enduring pro-Arab sympathies:
 I was responsible directly to Glubb Pasha (and his deputy Lash Pasha) for my work in developing the Air Force…. As we needed more aircraft, I immediately cast my eye on another Rapide parked on the tarmac near the aircraft operated by Arab Airways, which operated feeder services in Rapides to Cairo and Beirut and a few other destinations. The ‘spare’ Rapide had been parked in the same place for six months or more; nobody seemed to know exactly why. It emerged that this Rapide had landed at Amman on its way from South Africa to Lydda (now Israel’s international airport). It was being sent from South African Jewry to their brethren in Israel as an air ambulance. Why it landed in Amman, I never found out, but the pilot had disappeared shortly after his arrival, possibly discovering that Jordan was hostile to Israel. The aircraft was in good condition and rather than let it slowly deteriorate I suggested that we take it in hand, register it in Jordan and incorporate it in the Arab Legion Air Force. Thus we soon had two Rapides.9
The work also includes, in contrast to the note by the pragmatic if sinister Deverill, the account of a circus troupe brought to Cairo by the British Embassy in 1973 — “an historic occasion”:
I had brought out to Egypt in the Spring of 1973, three performers from a small tenting circus (a ‘Count of Bulgarian descent’ a boy, Carlos Michelli, aged fifteen, and ‘Princess Sakina’, aged nine). The party stayed with me in my rambling house by the Pyramids. They were invited to perform jointly with the Egyptian State Circus for a week…. My party, under the banner ‘Circus Britannia’, presented three separate acts: stilt walking, which included a traditional belly dance, a high-wire act, which included Carlos Michelli, blindfolded, throwing knives around Princess Sakina, billed as his betrothed, and a snake act. For the latter we visited Cairo Zoo where we chose a ten-foot python which lived for the duration in a laundry basket in my bathroom with a large brick on top. The opening night saw the Union Jack and the Egyptian flag flying side by side above the Big Top, perhaps the first time such juxtapositioning had been exhibited since pre-Suez days. At the start of the show the youngest performers from the British and Egyptian sides exchanged flags as the National Anthems of both countries were played. On the opening night, the Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Culture and representatives from various ministries attended from the host side, and the Ambassador Sir Phillip and Lady Adams, and her mother, the Lady Oaksey, from the British. It was, after all, an historic occasion and perhaps even a useful one diplomatically…. [T]he Egyptian periodical, Roze Al Yussif, couldn’t resist the headline: ‘The British Lion is Back in Egypt — But in a Circus Cage.’10
Has the FCO entrapped itself in the Muslim Brotherhood cage? If yes, is this as a result of recrudescent, British anti-Semitism combined with misplaced sentiment as to the good intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood?
As Derek Pasquill pointed out in his interview with Nick Cohen in the November 2009 issue of Standpoint magazine: “I realised that the FCO is Islamotropic: it grows towards Islamic extremism, always searching for reasons to excuse it.”11 The question remains “Who, whom?” and the answer is likely to be less than reassuring.
on chie tous par le même trou
|1.||Valerie Allen, On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages, Palgrave Macmillan, New York and Basingstoke, 2007, p.27. Allen quotes this line from Dante (Inf., XXI, 139), adding that “butt-trumpets are as old Aristophanes, whose character Strepsiades calls a gnat’s rectum [proktos] a bugle [salpigks].”
|2.||Renate Jacobi, “The Camel-Section of the Panegyrical Ode” Journal of Arabic Literature Vol 13, (1982), pp. 1-22.
|3.||Sir James Craig, Shemlan: A History of the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, Macmillan Press Ltd, Basingstoke, 1998 (in association with St Antony’s College, Oxford), p.vii.
|5.||Robin Shepherd, “Britain’s ‘Extremist Mainstream’: Mideast Ambassadors reveal their true colours”, 12 July 2010.
|8.||Paul Tempest (editor), Envoys to the Arab World. Volume II: MECAS Memoirs 1944-2009, Stacey International, London, 2009 (on behalf of the MECAS Association), p. 323. See also Volume I: Arabists of Shemlan: MECAS Memoirs, 1944-1978, Stacey International, London, 2006.
|11.||Nick Cohen, “The High Price of Patriotism”, Standpoint, November 2009.
See also Tom Gross’s blog entry for 28 April 2004, “Backlash begins against ex-diplomats ‘poisonous views’ on Iraq, Israel”.
Gross records Andrew Roberts’ remark that the best collective noun for any group of British diplomats is “a cringe” — I think a “pucker of British diplomats” would be more appropriate.