Sir Alan Munro was appointed as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1989 serving as the United Kingdom’s top diplomat in Riyadh through 1993, a period that encompassed one of the top foreign affairs challenges of the decade to face each country, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.
A career officer in the Diplomatic Service, Munro had previously served in Lebanon, Kuwait, Libya and Brazil as well as ambassador to Algeria and Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East and Africa, a portfolio that prepared him well for his duties in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In the early hours of August 2, 1990 Iraqi forces under the command of President Saddam Hussein launched a two-pronged invasion across their southern border into tiny Kuwait, quickly overcoming resistance, forcing the ruling family to flee to Saudi Arabia and consolidating their occupation. The bold attack set the stage for a seven-month crisis of deploying forces to contain the Iraqi forces, prevent further aggression, and ultimately reverse the aggression under a United Nations mandate. Among the military coalition that was assembled for those purposes the United Kingdom made up the largest force among European military units deployed to the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the military units from the 38 nations that comprised the coalition of the Gulf War were hosted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The crisis opened the door to daunting military, political and diplomatic challenges for Saudi Arabia and its Western allies in ways that few people were prepared to tackle. “Just as the Saudi people had instinctive difficulty in coming to terms with the possibility of an attack by their Arab neighbour, Iraq, so we for our part found it hard to contemplate the deployment of British military forces in the Kingdom,” Sir Alan wrote in his first person account, “
Arab Storm: Politics and Diplomacy Behind the Gulf War.“ The outbreak of the war and the events that followed, the establishment of a coalition and so forth, and the aftermath were a remarkable period, for me and my Embassy, and for the relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia, both political and military. I think that probably relations had never been closer,” SBRIS learned in our exclusive interview with Sir Alan.
Indeed, this dated back to 1961 when I was in Kuwait at the time when shortly after Kuwaiti independence, the emirate was subject of an invasion from the then Iraqi government. British troops were, at Kuwaiti invitation, sent to produce a defensive line against a possible attack but this never happened. The British force was, within a couple of months, very satisfactorily replaced by an Arab League force, the first of its kind, in the autumn of 1961. And there was a substantial fighting contingent in that force.
This brought me into my first contact with the Saudis because this was a time when, curiously, there was no diplomatic relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia, relations having been broken off years earlier over a dispute over the Buraimi Oasis in the southeast of the Kingdom, bordering on Abu Dhabi and Oman, both of which had a protection arrangement with Britain. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain was, I’m glad to say, restored within the next two or three years, and we have moved forward together and in considerable strength since that time.
My next experience was when I was in the Ministry of Defense in Britain and responsible for our military cooperation around the Arab world, of which, of course Saudi Arabia was a central feature. In those years, this is the early 1980s, I worked for a good part of the year in Riyadh, and indeed I had an office in the headquarters of the Royal Saudi Air Force. So I certainly got to know many Saudis and to understand their process of government first hand at that time.
I subsequently found myself dealing closely with the Kingdom inside of the Middle East Department in our Foreign Office, and at the later stage as the Under-Secretary of State for our relationship with the whole of the Middle East and Africa.
So I came to Saudi Arabia with good contacts, good friends, and a valuable knowledge of its particular society.
[SBRIS] In terms of the health of the Saudi-British relationship in 1989, how would you describe it?
[Sir Alan] When I arrived, I’m glad to say the relationship at that point was in a process of rapid recovery in large part on the basis of the new program of support for the Royal Saudi Air Force known as the Al Yamamah program. It provided for the supply of aircraft, of air force training, and a certain amount of naval training and supply as well.
This was an extension of the considerably earlier cooperation with the Saudi Armed Forces out of the United Kingdom, but it marked a completely new stage and deepening of our relationship. My mission coincided with the first deliveries of equipment under that program, and its equally important side program, Offset, as it was called. It became a British responsibility to bring civilian industrial investment into the Kingdom in parallel with our military cooperation.
So I came, in other words, at a time when the relationship was looking to new horizons.
[SBRIS] What were the top items on your agenda when you took your posting as Her Majesty’s Ambassador?
King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (1923-2005)
[Sir Alan] It was a time when King Fahd, dealing with internal policies, was opening a number of new doors on the fronts of education, technical training, and also in social policy. And these were areas in which our collaboration was valued, and we had plenty of opportunity to extend our relationship in the late 1980s. Then, of course, we came to the high point of cooperation with the outbreak of the first Gulf War, and the threat posed to the Kingdom by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq.
[SBRIS] You arrived as the region was recovering from almost a decade of a brutal war between Iraq and Iran. What after effects were there for you to deal with in the political-military arena?
[Sir Alan] Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia in the middle of 1989, as Under-Secretary responsible for the Middle East in London, I had been very closely involved in British efforts, through the United Nations in the main, to bring to a halt to that contest, that eight year war between Iraq and Iran. It was certainly having the effect of threatening the security and stability of the whole region, and was in terms of both countries in a stalemate, an extremely wasteful one. Saudi Arabia herself had deep concern to the way in which that conflict was going, and it called for a very considerable cooperation between us and the Saudis in assessing how measures might be taken to calm things down.
[SBRIS] Your service in Riyadh during the Gulf War is brilliantly detailed in your book, “Arab Storm,” which we will strongly recommend to our readers. So I’m not concerned that we can only touch on some of the pivotal moments in that historic period, here today as they are available in the book. But can you share some of the more memorable experiences from your time as Britain’s chief diplomat in a country at war, with your own nation’s forces engaged, and you working literally within range of the enemy?
[Sir Alan] You’re quite right there. It was a historic period. The outbreak of the war, the establishment of a coalition and so forth, and the aftermath were a remarkable period, for me and my embassy, and for the relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia, both political and military. I think relations had probably never been closer. And I take into account the very long historical relationship going back to the early 20th century, at the time when British interventions and support had helped King Abdulaziz to establish and maintain control of much of the Arabian Peninsula.
I found myself in extremely close and, indeed rewarding, contact with King Fahd and with other senior members of the government and of the family, notably of course Prince Saud, Foreign Minister, and also with the military too, including General Khaled bin Sultan.
At the same time, it was clear that our cooperation on the defense field was paying off for Saudi Arabia. There’s no doubt that the support given to the Saudi Air Force for the extensive and very effective role in those early days of the conflict, acting as an air shield for the Kingdom, mattered a great deal and was taken very seriously by the Saudis as it was by ourselves.
Our own community stood by Saudi Arabia in the various jobs they were performing through the whole of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. And so that spirit of partnership wasn’t just one that I found at my own level, but it existed right across the board between our two countries.
I should also address the turning points, what key moments or critical challenges arose at that time. There were one or two certainly crucial moments that occur to me in retrospect. There was a moment never very clearly defined, but it happened over the period of a few weeks, when our collaboration, and not just our bilateral collaboration but that with the other major members of the coalition, the United States and the French and so on, switched from a concentration on the defence of the Kingdom from what was a real threat of onward advance by Iraqi forces who had put themselves in some strength along the Kuwaiti-Saudi front, to a determination to expel Iraq from Kuwait. And this marked a considerable switch in our policies and of course in the whole military objectives.
Former British PM Margaret Thatcher and former US President George H W Bush
In this, I have to say our relationship was enormously reinforced with King Fahd, in particular by the very close relationship that he had established in preceding years with our then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher. And indeed I think she played some significant part in the initial decision among the Saudis, the United Kingdom and the United States to mobilize, to head up the coalition that then took form of some 38 countries by the end of it. So when Mrs. Thatcher was effectively deposed as Prime Minister from within the Conservative Party, this came as something of a shock to the King and to others. So with John Major, who succeeded her, we had to make sure that he rapidly established himself as a credible friend and partner in this engagement as quickly as possible. And, yes indeed, we managed to do. But I do recall one of the very senior Saudi ministers of the al-Saud expressing some surprise indeed teasing me over the fact that here were we, pressing the expansion of democracy always, and yet we managed to change our Prime Minister without any public vote. There was an irony in that.
[SBRIS] Getting back to Lady Thatcher, she was credited with bolstering American resolve, as well.
[Sir Alan] Indeed she was. “Don’t go wobbly, George,” were her often quoted words for President George Bush, the elder. Another one of hers, though, which she always bore in mind, and particularly it was relevant to us at the latter part of the contest, which was rather less tidy than the contest itself, “You know whatever we do, don’t get an arm caught in the mangle.” And there was a certain lesson to that in the subsequent Iraqi adventure.
So that is probably how I would characterize the intensity of our relationship, a very valuable one. I think it led in subsequent years to a renewed mutual respect and readiness to operate in all sorts of fields, which we’re seeing indeed today.
[SBRIS] What are some of the lasting memories you have of the trials you experienced in Riyadh during the crisis?
[Sir Alan] As for Britain, there was throughout those months of crisis, both what we call the phoney war preceding the active one and then the actual invasion of Kuwait itself. There was very, very good support on all sides for what was being done. And this was an enormous help I think to both of us in the prosecution of the campaign.
I certainly found that the cooperation we had was always rewarding, but at the same time, always challenging. Perhaps one of the most challenging things for us, coming in as outsiders with a considerable military presence and political support, was that we came up at firsthand against the very real cultural differences which exist between Saudi society and British or Western society. One had to watch all the time to see that the activities that we shared, particularly in the military field, took into account those sensitivities that run very deep, sensitivities of the religious kind that run very deep in Saudi society and tradition.
One had to be particularly careful on matters that may indeed seem trivial outside. There was a question of military bands, for example, musical bands that accompanied the various regiments that we brought. I do remember having discussed this with one of the leading Saudis in the Defense Ministry when it became an issue. We came to the agreement that yes they’ve got to practice or they’ll lose the ability to play the clarinet. So they would have go very deep into the desert and do it, then nobody would hear the band.
[SBRIS] What was the day-to-day living like during the crisis period?
Coalition forces inspect wreckage from an Iraqi Scud-type ballistic missile. (Photo US DoD)
[Sir Alan] Well, our communities, certainly in terms of the British community — the same went for the Americans and others too — were very staunch in their readiness. Certainly those in active jobs stayed on and saw the thing through, because we did come under a very real threat, once the shooting war started, from the sophisticated Iraqi SCUD ballistic missile attacks. These posed a considerable threat, not least because we didn’t know whether they might be armed with chemical or biological weapons, and not simply explosives. I think they caused more of a scare factor than actual damage, although some lives in Saudi cities, notably in the East, were lost.
So we did find ourselves operating under conditions of some personal stress. Some of the nights you didn’t get very much sleep because of the noise. We were all very grateful for the barrages from the Patriot anti-ballistic missiles, which had been hastily erected by the United States around Saudi Arabia’s major eastern and central cities. When these initial missile attacks happened, we like other countries had a very effective system of communication among key area wardens within the different segments of our large British community. It was around 20,000 people, a very big community, the size of a middle-sized English town if you like. So they needed to be kept reassured and to know that if things really came to the worst they’ll know they had some route out. But we certainly weren’t encouraging them to pull out partly because they all had very important jobs to do in support of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure and the war effort.
There was one interesting night I remember. I had told BBC the previous day, when they came as they often did and asked, “What advice do you have Ambassador to your community? We wish to tell the world.” And so I had said, “Keep your nerve, and watch out how you go, but carry on doing all the jobs that you can.” Generally I said “keep your heads down”. Well, this led to a call from some member of the British community rather late in the night, and my wife happened to be on our duty telephone to answer calls from worried members of the community. And this caller said, “I wonder if you could help. The Ambassador said on the radio this morning that we all had to keep our heads down, but you see my family and I, we have been sitting here with our heads down all the day, but it is getting very uncomfortable, do you think we can now stand up?” We also had a lady who rang to ask about the use of the gas masks we had issued to protect against possible gas attacks against the community. She rang to say that she had learned how to fit her gas mask, but what should she do with her parrot? Very British, I think.
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[SBRIS] In “Arab Storm” you provide very insightful perspectives on the leadership and diplomacy that was required for the effort to proceed in a successful manner. Can you reflect on some of those?
[Sir Alan] I would like to say something about the massively important, determined role played by King Fahd and by other of his senior ministers, both from the al-Saud family, and others. During the whole of this period the King’s resolve was impressive. Although not a young man, he was, frankly, indefatigable and his resolve was extremely, intelligently deployed. It was only through a great effort that they successfully held together a coalition, which was an extraordinary mixture of countries. Many of them had very different agendas to each other: Americans, British, Syrians, Egyptians to name some of the key ones, as well the French, and all sorts of others helping in support roles. Holding it together, keeping all their various leaders on line, fell on the King’s very broad shoulders and those of Prince Saud and other ministers. I know they performed this role, and sometimes it went on all through the night, with extraordinary skill and determination. I don’t think it is generally recognized how strong and impressive that resolve was. It didn’t only affect members of the coalition, but there were others in the game who might well have moved towards the opposition. There were those who traditionally, I have in mind the Soviet Union in its last days, had been supporters of the Iraqi regime. They remained on the side, and the Saudis had a lot to do with it, partly through generous financial support, but also by pure diplomatic contacts as well.
The Arab front had to be very carefully nursed. There were clearly other, broader differences of approach on regional issues among them. The way that this was held together was remarkable and very impressive indeed. It was a tireless operation. So I think that that needs to be acknowledged.
Likewise internally it wasn’t entirely straightforward at all. There was a considerable groundswell among the public at large with their own conservative opinions and with a very strong clerical, religious establishment in the Kingdom. They found themselves shocked at the Saudi intrusion by what they saw as infidel military forces into the Kingdom. It is, after all, the ground of Islam’s most holy places. This was a dimension on the domestic front which the King and Crown Prince Abdullah and others paid a great deal of attention to, and rightly so. Indeed there were times when one wondered whether as much attention was being paid on that particular internal front as was being paid to getting the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
One thing that shocked me on the internal front was the way in which this crisis demonstrated, for me, how Saudi Arabia had graduated beyond the early provincial differences. That had been such a feature of the region in the time when King Abdulaziz was here and working on the unification of the Kingdom. We were not hearing about differences among those from Hijaz, Nejd or wherever. This crisis showed how Saudi Arabia has gone beyond the old regional divergences and historic provincial differences. This was now one Saudi Arabia joined emotionally, politically, in its own security and protection, and in resisting in the invasion of a Gulf neighbor.
[SBRIS] When we talked with Ambassador Chas Freeman about his book “American Misadventures in the Middle East,” he said the Gulf War was an obvious military success, but on the American side, the leadership was not quite so sure what should come after the military victory. It was not a political success after the military victory in that Saddam Hussein remained in power and may have been strengthened in some sense by having faced up to the Americans. How did you come away from the whole experience regarding the overall strategic result?
Coalition Commander U.S. General Normal Schwartzkopf and Saudi Commander General Khalid bin Sultan at the Safwan cease fire signing with Iraqi officers.
[Sir Alan] In my view, and I think I record this position in my book “Arab Storm,” the coalition clearly won the war very effectively and fumbled the peace. It didn’t fumble the longer term peace, that is to say the United Nations Security Council Resolution, which was passed several months later and had all kinds of stipulations limiting Iraqi access on the nuclear front, on the military front, and so on. But the immediate peace, which was represented, in my view, by the rushed armistice arrangement was not well managed. I think it has subsequently been acknowledged by General Schwartkopf and others who led this front. It allowed the Iraqis to get away with certain concessions, which within weeks enabled Saddam Hussein to regroup his core support. It was not just militarily but among the Sunni population as well and in the longer term he was able to exert a new and very repressive control over elements such as the Shia population in the south and also the Kurdish population in the north. They had seen Iraq’s defeat in that conflict as an opportunity to assert their own political rights.
[SBRIS] What was the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War for Saudi Arabia?
[Sir Alan] Saudi Arabia came out of that whole affair with a renewed sense of confidence and of military capability. She also, I think, came away with a sense that the Gulf partnership arrangement, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which had been established ten years earlier, had been strengthened by the joint role and determination which all those six Gulf Arab states had shown.
So we saw a stronger and more confident Saudi Arabia. We saw a Saudi Arabia, which had also at the popular level found that it had a voice, that it had a right of self-expression, and was allowed to use it. King Fahd perceived this. I believe that through the more outspoken press, the access of foreign media during the crisis, all this helped open the Kingdom. It was aware of this opening to the outside modern world. And certainly the King himself took the opportunity within the next two years to launch the Basic Laws of the Kingdom to do with the constitution, succession, the establishment of the National Assembly and so forth. So the war itself and the shock it administered to this very sheltered society in Saudi Arabia helped the al-Saud who are, bear in mind, a leading element in the reformist camp in the Kingdom and have always been so, to bring the Kingdom into closer contact with the outside world.
[SBRIS] Let’s talk about the opening of Saudi Arabia to outside scrutiny. In your book, “Arab Storm,” you point out that the western press as a result of having been frustrated for years of not having access gave an exaggerated and inconsistent picture of the Kingdom. How would you characterize the evolution of reporting on the Kingdom since then? Do you think it is still in bad shape?
General Norman Schwartzkopf briefing the press during the 1991 Gulf War.
[Sir Alan] At the time, we did have some problems with some of the British press. The war itself gave rise to enormous international interest, and Saudi Arabia to her amazement found herself swamped by international journalists. Swamped.
It was also, indeed, a groundbreaking opportunity for real time television newscasts to appear on the scene. We now take that for granted. But up until that war radio and television broadcasting had been extremely filtered during war times. Suddenly, individual journalists could carry with them the means of sending direct satellite broadcasts back to their studios. And so filtering and censorship became less realistic for those engaged on both sides. This field was indeed led by CNN and a new phenomenon flourished as a result of this war because they managed to keep correspondents working in both ends of the contest. Among this large contingent, there were considerable numbers of British journalists, and for most of them it was their first experience on the Kingdom, which they had always regarded as a kind of tempting and forbidden land in journalistic terms, which had been leading for years to all sorts of myths and sensationalist broadcasts that tended to exaggerate the reality of Saudi Arabia’s very conservative society.
We did have some challenge, if you like, at the embassy level in trying to ensure that the reporting that came out of the Kingdom during this very open time was accurate, realistic, and not unduly tendentious. It wasn’t always successful, and there were times when we did have our quite serious differences with the Saudis over what they saw appearing in the British press, and indeed in the Arabic service of the BBC too. But we got around these problems with goodwill and good sense on both sides. Actually I think out of this came what we’ve since seen, which is a more gradually greater opening of the Saudi society and the Saudi government towards the foreign press. This, I have to say, I regard as a very positive step, and it could indeed go further in my view.
[SBRIS] Did people in the Kingdom, the Saudis, diplomats and others, understand the impact that real time broadcasting of the Gulf War, by outlets like CNN as you noted, was having?
[Sir Alan] It did take us by surprise. I don’t think we had caught up with this new technology, that individuals could take their vehicles with these antennas on the back and beam up to a satellite and chat away. But we came to terms with it very quickly. I think it probably led to what has since become such a feature in such things, and it was led indeed by U.S. policy here, which was the embedding of key reporters in the front line of warfare. We knew you could report it directly, so you might as well be with us and see what’s actually going on and work in a cooperative fashion rather than speculating while looking from the outside.
[SBRIS] What was your impression from Riyadh as to the understanding among Britons of what Saudi Arabia was about and why young men and women were going to the Kingdom to protect it?
American, British, Saudi and Kuwaiti flags are held aloft by celebrating soldiers and civilians following the retreat of Iraqi forces from Kuwait as a result of Operation Desert Storm. (Photo: US DoD)
[Sir Alan] There was a mood of very general support. There were elements, largely pacifist elements, who spoke out against the conflict, but there was general national support. There was bipartisan support in Parliament for it. There was one of the debates prior to the decision to reinforce the troops and go perhaps on to the attacking front, there was a rather rye comment made that if Kuwait had grown carrots and not oil, we wouldn’t be there. Not entirely true because there’s a principle here. There was a principle particularly at what we then saw as the post-Cold War new world order of naked aggression by one state against another, and that needed to be countered. But there was generally a very wide support. It was nothing comparable to the degree of public opposition, which arose in 2003 to the invasion of Iraq.
So on that basis the support was well known. Indeed the shadow foreign secretary of the Labour Party, then Gerald Kaufman, came out and stayed with me in the very early stages of the war. When we went together to see Prince Saud he gave wholehearted support of the opposition Labour Party to what was happening.
[SBRIS] As we close can you share your lasting impressions of your time as Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War?
[Sir Alan] The conflict was an experience I found extremely fulfilling and rewarding, if testing indeed. It has led to a sense of a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and a very strong support for all the changes that have been going on ever since that point under King Fahd and now under King Abdullah. It was to bring the Kingdom and its ways, its systems into closer coordination, communion with the standards of the rest of the world. I’ve always felt that whatever happens, we regard as each other as very close partners, and I’m sure Saudis are always aware of that. There is a very strong history behind us.