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RetroSaudi: Embassies

November 18, 2017

The next piece in my RetroSaudi series is about various diplomatic outposts in Saudi Arabia, and some of the more unusual things that took place in them.

Then (1987):

For many of the strangers in this strange land, the embassy occupies an important role in their lives.

For the unfortunate Korean jailed because he can’t afford to pay blood money after a road accident and has been abandoned by his company, the embassy official might be the only person with whom he can communicate if he speaks no language other than his native tongue.

For the Swedish businessman, his embassy might help put the zing into a sales drive by organising a grand reception and a prince here, a sheikh there.

For a British expatriate an invitation to tea with the ambassador is the social equivalent of being asked to a Buckingham Palace garden party, sniggered at my many but secretly coveted by more.

What makes embassy functions even more attractive to thirsty workers who normally have to make do with a 7-Up laced with aircraft fuel is the presence of real booze. As foreign enclaves, embassies can discreetly ignore the drink laws. How much each embassy takes advantage of that opportunity, and better still, spreads the benefit around its community of citizens, is largely down to the ambassador.

Although visitors have been known to have been carried out of western embassies after parties, much to the amazement of Ministry of the Interior security police, discretion generally prevails.

There have been notable exceptions, of course. One of the best functions of the year used to be the St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the Irish embassy. Every 14th March the ambassador would open his home to the Irish of Jeddah. Hundreds would come, and even though the gin was watered down, a good time was had by all. One of the nice things about Paddy’s Day was the liberal interpretation placed on Irish nationality. Chinese Irish, Caribbean Irish, Tanzanian Irish, Sri Lankan and Filipino Irish, even Saudi Irish were welcomed with equal enthusiasm. I qualified by virtue of being married to an Irish Irish.

On one such night the ambassador had to depart halfway through to attend another function. He left strict instructions with his Yemeni gate guard that nobody else was to be allowed in. When he finally got back at 3am, the guests had dispersed, leaving the guard determined to implement his master’s will. Which he did by refusing to allow the ambassador to enter. So the poor man had to get in over a wall and through a window. Within a couple of days the story was all over Jeddah.

By and large embassy people are a pretty bland lot. Not surprising, since they’re paid to be just that. My experience of the British Embassy is that in official matters the staff display that insolent politeness of British civil servants everywhere, as in “we wouldn’t want to do that, now would we sir?”


The commercial folks who should be out there drumming up business are about as effective as ducks in the desert. The ambassadors I’ve met have been charming Arabists who appear to have been plucked out of a John Le Carré novel.

The US Embassy and its consulates are heartily despised by many of its citizens of my acquaintance. The Jeddah consulate, formerly the embassy, is a fortress. There are sleepy Saudi guards with guns bigger than themselves sitting in huts every fifty yards around the perimeter. A pick-up truck with a huge machine gun cruises around the compound day and night. Inside are a company of tough-looking marines armed to the teeth. The have a special dispensation from the Saudis to use walkie-talkies, and wherever they go they carry bleepers at their waists like low-slung holsters. You can run, but you can’t hide, right?

One American told me that the only time he’s ever let into his embassy is to file his tax return. The prevailing feeling among the US community here is that their embassy exists to serve the interests of the US government first, American business second, and individual citizens a very poor third.

Now (2017):

Not much has changed since 1987, except that these days most of the embassies are confined within a heavily fortified district of Riyadh called the diplomatic quarter. I rented a villa there for a while, and wrote a little piece about the experience: Adventures in the Diplomatic Quarter.

I neglected to say that the British Embassy, when it was in Jeddah, boasted a large stage in its grounds. Several times a year, an amateur dramatic society, to which I belonged, put on plays in front of audiences of hundreds. It was there that I did my first acting since university. We did all manner of shows with large casts, ranging from Shaffer’s Amadeus to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet, Jeddah. Advantage Tybalt

The only problem with this superb venue was that the Embassy was directly on the flight path to Jeddah Airport. Every so often, the actors had to stand like statues while a plane came screaming over at low altitude. One wonders how the luvvies at the National Theatre who throw a hissy fit every time a mobile phone goes off would cope with a Boeing 747 on full power a few hundred feet above.

One also wonders what our Saudi guardians outside the embassy would have thought of wannabe Broadway divas screeching away at full volume. Not a patch on Um Kalthoum, most likely.

Mame in full voice

All these activities were serenely presided over by the ambassador. For the early part of my time in Jeddah, he was Sir James Craig, who died recently. Before he left, he wrote a scathing end-of-term dispatch to his masters in London about his posting, in which he accused the Saudis as being “feckless, incompetent and unconscientious”. It was supposed to be confidential, but someone leaked it. And of course, copies were smuggled back to us in Jeddah, much to our delight. Not that we agreed with him, you understand.

The Saudis did forgive him though, possibly because they admired his mastery of Arabic, both classical and colloquial, and his love of the Arab culture. He maintained strong links with them well after retirement.

His successor was not so deeply appreciated, partly because of his unfortunate habit of nodding his head violently when making a point. This was highly counter-cultural. Saudis, used to keeping their heads still for fear of losing their ghutras, thought he was rather undignified. Little things make a difference in diplomacy, I guess. Moral of the story: don’t appoint a moorhen as ambassador to a Middle Eastern country.

Alas, the days of Cecil B De Mille productions ended when the British Embassy moved to Riyadh. There are still events in the Riyadh embassy as far as I’m aware, such as charity dinners. But even they have become more sedate, partly because an unfortunate incident a few years ago.

A British group called the St George’s Society – no doubt Brexiteers before anyone even thought of leaving the EU – used to hold an annual function. When they put on a fancy dress event they incurred the wrath of the authorities because photos of people draped in the St George’s cross appeared on their website. Crusaders in Riyadh was taking things a bit far.

It’s been a year or two since I last attended an embassy function in the Middle East. No doubt things are a bit more exciting these days, as “characters” like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson (I was about to say idiots, but that would be undiplomatic) fly in and out.

But with the US State Department being slowly degraded, and the British flag becoming increasingly irrelevant, I suspect that the most influential embassies of my youth are prized more for their Buds and gin’n’tonics than for any other reason.

Finally, a little story told by James Craig. Diplomatic shipments, including the all-important booze supplies, were not subject to customs clearance. One day, the British Ambassador received a call from the director of Jeddah Port. “Your excellency”, he said, “would you please come and collect your piano. It is leaking”.

Further reading: if you’re into ambassadorial yarns, I recommend Ever the Diplomat, by Sherard Cowper Coles, and Keep the Flag Flying by Alan Munro, both of whom are former ambassadors to Saudi Arabia. Also The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase, a compendium of diplomatic dispatches compiled by Matthew Parris, is a good read.

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