Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Friday, 26 March 2004

Obituary: Sir Horace Phillips - rejected by Saudi Arabia in 1968 as British ambassador, because he was Jewish

I don't make a habit of studying obituaries regularly, although I usually glance briefly at the obit. page of The Daily Telegraph (my main daily newspaper). Today there was an obituary in the Telegraph which was more than usually interesting.

Sir Horace Phillips was born in Glasgow in 1917, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe (presumably sometime in the second half of the 19th century). After leaving school at 18, he joined the Inland Revenue as a clerical officer, but during and after World War Two (1940-47) he served in Iraq, India, Burma, Ceylon and Malaya with the Dorsetshire and Punjab 1st regiments, emerging with the rank of major. He discovered an aptitude for languages, too, and became fluent in Japanese, learned in order to interrogate Japanese PoWs. Later he was to add Arabic, Persian, French, German, Italian, Turkish, Indonesian and Swahili (some of this text, and much of the history recounted in what follows, is taken straight from the Telegraph obituary).

In 1947 he entered the Foreign Office, serving first in Persia, then in Afghanistan. Postings in Saudi Arabia (please remind yourself of the title of this piece and read the following two paragraphs), Aden, Iran and Bahrein followed, culminating in his appointment as ambassador to Indonesia in 1966.

In 1968 he was named ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a country where he had already served as First Secretary from 1953 to 1956. Now we come to the interesting, tragic and outrageous part. The Jewish Chronicle in London wrote a piece revealing Horace Phillips' Jewish background, a story which was apparently picked up in the Middle East press. Soon afterwards he was rejected as our ambassador by the then king of Saudi Arabia, King Faisal.

Rejected - because he was a Jew.

Later appointments as ambassador or High Commissioner followed in Tanzania and Turkey, from which posting he retired in 1977.

The Telegraph includes a very interesting detail in its obituary. Phillips wrote to its obituary desk in September 1980 (i.e. after his retirement from the Foreign Office), normally an unusual thing to do, but in the circumstances it is very understandable, and said the following:

"You may think it presumptuous of me to write this. But just in case, when the time comes, I merit an obituary, could the following be borne in mind, please?

"When, in March 1968, King Faisal withdrew his agreement to my appointment as next British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia because I am a Jew, it was widely stated in the British press that I was an 'ex-Jew' or a 'non-practising Jew'. Some of this may have been inspired by official comment seeking to play down the embarrassment. As a serving diplomat, I could not myself reply. But the fact is that I have always been a practising Jew, and am to this day a member of Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow, where I was brought up in the tradition. Any statement to the contrary in an obituary would give great pain to my family and friends, and dishonour my memory in the Jewish community."

A true diplomat to the end, this gentleman has exposed in a very proper and elegant way the sickness at the heart of the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia. I lived in Jeddah myself from 1977 to 1979 and enjoyed my time there, but I have never been under any illusions that it was, and remains, a deeply bizarre and troubled society.

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