x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

High-stakes adventures of a former British ambassador to the UAE

Anthony Harris's service to the UK has included the kinds of high-stakes adventures that most people only dream of. The former arms dealer for her majesty's government and erstwhile British ambassador to the UAE says the Gulf is now his permanent home.

The early retirement of Anthony Harris from the diplomatic service led to a string of consultancies. He is now a senior executive for Robert Fleming Insurance Brokers Middle East.
The early retirement of Anthony Harris from the diplomatic service led to a string of consultancies. He is now a senior executive for Robert Fleming Insurance Brokers Middle East.

There is the whiff of the secret agent about Anthony Harris. A former British ambassador to the UAE, fluent in Arabic, with top-level contacts in the Middle East's political, security and diplomatic communities, Mr Harris is urbane and convivial, likes art and good food, and dresses impeccably, with the advice of his Italian wife, Erminia.

When I suggested writing a profile, he asked, self-deprecatingly: "Are people really interested in me?" But then he answered his own question: "I suppose I was the biggest arms dealer in the world at one stage."

Tantalising, but there, perhaps, was my answer. He had once operated at the highest echelons of the cloak-and-dagger world of international realpolitik. I resolved to find out more over dinner.

We meet at a bustling restaurant on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. I've spent many hours in his company before, and know him to be an eloquent and entertaining dinner companion.

But this time he's been fully primed for interview, and while still sipping aperitifs at the bar, he's off with opinions: on art, on the situation in the Middle East, on military matters. As we head to our table, he is talking about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. My notebook will be full tonight, I think.

He starts talking rapidly as soon as we sit down.

"The most exciting thing that ever happened to me was when I was charge d'affaires in Cairo in August 1990 and was asked to take a secret letter from Margaret Thatcher [the British prime minister then] to the Saudi foreign minister requesting that he and the Arab League take a common view with the UK."

It was the morning after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and that letter was the beginning of the coalition that led to Operation Desert Storm and the expulsion of the Iraqi dictator's forces back to Baghdad.

It is obvious he could fill the entire evening with such vignettes, but I want to start from the beginning. How did he come to be in the diplomatic service?

Over starters (fish cakes for me, wasabi prawns for him) he explains that he was born in Plymouth, in England's West Country, the son of a police officer, and went off to study "greats" at Exeter College, Oxford.

Greats is one of those multi-subject disciplines, comprising Latin, ancient Greek, classical history and philosophy, that are falling out of fashion in the British educational system, but which were the foundation for many generations of administrators in the heyday of the British Empire.

So Mr Harris was treading a well-worn path when he applied to take civil service entrance exams and specified the foreign office as his preferred posting. "They came back and offered me the Inland Revenue, but I stood my ground and eventually got an offer from the FO," he says.

An epiphany came in East Africa in 1964 when he was competing in a target shooting competition, which he won, "I fell in love with Africa, the skies, the animals, the savannah."

His first job at the foreign office, fittingly, was on the East Africa desk in London, but that was also the beginning of his involvement with the Arab world. "We were asked to take a hard language, by which they meant a non-European language, and I ticked the box beside Arabic."

It was the beginning of a second love affair, this time with the Middle East and the Arabs, which is continuing to this day. Lebanon, where he studied Arabic for a year in the early 1960s, was his introduction to the region, but he devoured the history, language, culture and literature of the wider Middle East and found "it was an altogether a more important package than East Africa. With my Greek and Latin background, added to Arabic, I felt as though I'd rounded off my outlook, which is profoundly Mediterranean."

After Lebanon, postings in the region came thick and fast. He was oriental secretary in Saudi Arabia, information officer in Sudan, and then deputy head of mission in the UAE in 1975.

"It was the first time I'd lived in the Gulf, and the rest of my life has revolved around the UAE. I had the great privilege of meeting Sheikh Zayed, and that left a lasting impression."

There was a stint in Geneva as a delegate to the UN("it's easy to get very idealistic about the UN", he says, "but at least I managed to learn to ski and climb"), and a while later it was back to the Middle East as charge d'affaires in Egypt. It was there that he delivered the letter from Mrs Thatcher.

But Mr Harris was already acquainted with her (incidentally, they have the same birthday). Between Geneva and Cairo, he performed his most significant, and controversial, act of service for the UK.

He recalls that during a spell at the FO inspectorate back in London, "I got a call from personnel asking if I had any objection to selling arms. I said no, as long as it was to allies, and that was that."

He was seconded to the ministry of defence in 1982 as regional marketing director for the Gulf and Pakistan, under James Blyth, who was then head of defence sales for the MoD and has become one of the UK's leading business grandees.

The real focus of his sales effort was Saudi Arabia, then growing increasingly worried about the threat from revolutionary Iran. The Saudis wanted the best military kit money could buy, and Mr Harris found himself in a three-way fight with the Americans and French. "People in this part of the world like fast planes, and I pretty soon became an expert in the technical side of aircraft," he says.

By now we are well into the main course, mine chicken tikka, his crispy duck, and there is much to talk about. But I feel I am making progress in getting to the bottom of the arms dealing episode.

"Calling it arms dealing sounds like I'm flogging guns to anybody with the cash to pay for them. I was negotiating with sovereign governments who were our allies, and it was very exciting and hectic. I remember when the first £5 billion [Dh29.62bn] contract was signed, it was an incredible thing," he says. He attended the party thrown by Mrs Thatcher at Number 10 Downing Street to celebrate the signing.

That was the first instalment of what became known as Al Yamama, the biggest arms deal in British history, by which the Saudis acquired a fleet of advanced Tornado fighter bombers and other state-of-the-art equipment. It remains the UK's biggest export deal and has pulled in more than £40bn for BAe Systems, the UK manufacturer, with plenty more still to come.

It also attracted a good deal of controversy when allegations surfaced of bribes and kickbacks paid by BAe to Saudi middlemen and officials, which was investigated by the British fraud authorities. That investigation was finally shelved, again controversially, by Tony Blair's government in 2006.

"Did I make anything out of it? No, I did not, and if I did I wouldn't be here talking to you about it," jokes Mr Harris. "I was proud to be part of a team that sold the best equipment to our very good allies, and also pleased they put it to good use in the Gulf War. The Saudis flew more sorties against Saddam than the RAF."

After Cairo, he became head of the FO information department, the main liaison with the foreign media worldwide, and also in charge of the BBC's overseas service. For a while he was seconded to the cabinet office advising on how to combat security threats to British embassies abroad.

All very spooky, I think, and then it occurs to me:maybe there's something else, beyond the diplomacy, arms dealing and global intrigue. "Are you a spy?" I ask as the waitress clears the table.

He smiles, then laughs and says: "I've often been accused of that and have never denied it. But the truth is I was a straight diplomat, though I know the two often become interlinked. But I'm far too involved with life in the UAE now to do anything like that."

As denials go, that is less than categorical, but I let it go at that. It's his own business, and in any case he has become a good friend.

The dwindling evening leaves just enough time to cover his four years as ambassador to the UAE and his later career, over postprandials. Things in Abu Dhabi were "fairly quiet, apart from the odd rumbling from Iraq".

As ambassador, his main achievement was to negotiate the defence accord between the UAE and the UK, which cemented his personal attachment to the Emirates.

"I am totally committed to this place. I have no cottage in Devon I'm going off to, I'm going to stay here. It is my home now," he says.

Early retirement from the diplomatic service in 1998 led to a string of consultancies and a portfolio of advisory roles with some big corporate names.

The most high-profile is with Robert Fleming Insurance Brokers, of which Mr Harris is director and senior executive officer in the Middle East. He has lately been masterminding the company's move into Saudi Arabia.

He talks knowledgeably about the current upheavals in the Arab world, summing up with a warning that "it would be wrong to put Arabs in the strait-jacket of western democracy. They want stability, better government, some measure of accountability and openness, and economic prosperity, but will develop their own models to achieve these things."

We're both looking at our watches now, and part company with a handshake. On balance, I doubt really that he was or is a spy. But a would-be Ian Fleming in need of a character model would not have to look much further than Anthony Harris.