x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

British diplomat who backed Sheikh Zayed in 1966 dies

Glencairn Balfour-Paul helped negotiate Sheikh Zayed's accession to the throne.

ABU DHABI // A British diplomat involved in Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan's accession to the throne and who was one of the first Western diplomats to meet Saddam Hussein has died. Glencairn Balfour-Paul was a political resident for the British government covering all Gulf states in the 1960s, a period of upheaval for the region. He later became ambassador for Iraq, and in 1991 wrote what is seen as one of the most authoritative books on British administration in the Gulf, The End of Empire in the Middle East.

Mr Balfour-Paul, who was born in Scotland, died last week aged 90. He began work with the Sudan Political Service (SPS) in the mid-1940s until the 1960s, when he went to work for the UK Foreign Service in Lebanon, Dubai and Bahrain. Tasked with handling British interests throughout the Gulf in 1966, Mr Balfour-Paul was based in the Trucial States, the body uniting Gulf countries and emirates under British protection.

In August that year, the British government handed him the considerable responsibility of negotiating with Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi emirate, to ensure he would be succeeded by his younger brother Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation. Mr Balfour-Paul's talks with Sheikh Shakhbut were long, albeit unsuccessful, but with the support of the Al Nahyan family, Sheikh Shakhbut agreed to stand down soon afterwards.

The paramilitary Trucial Oman Scouts formed a guard of honour for Sheikh Shakhbut as he stood down. Sheikh Zayed took over as ruler of the emirate with the blessing of his family, having previously been ruler of Al Ain. In 1971, he was named the first president of the newly formed United Arab Emirates. Mr Balfour-Paul's first ambassadorial post was Baghdad in 1969, shortly after Saddam Hussein was named vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council.

In a letter to the Foreign Office after his first meeting with Saddam, he wrote: "Saddam's initial demeanour, when he received me ... was singularly reserved, perhaps because the species was unfamiliar to him. Indeed, he said nothing at all for about five minutes, fixing me with an impassive stare ..." He concluded that Saddam was "a formidable, single-minded and hard-headed member of the Ba'athist hierarchy" with whom "it would be possible to do business ... It may have been an act, but if so, it was a skilful performance ..."

Saddam promised Mr Balfour-Paul, who was concerned that Iraq was strengthening its ties with the Soviet Union, that he had no interest in affiliating with communists. Saddam grabbed him by the shoulders and shouted: "Can't you British understand there is nothing I detest more than a Russian Communist - except an Iraqi one." Saddam eventually expelled Mr Balfour-Paul from Iraq in 1971. The End of Empire in the Middle East and his 2006 autobiography, Bagpipes in Babylon, were praised by critics, the latter in particular for its advice to Western residents of the Gulf: "The Englishman who spends his life in the East returns changed himself but he leaves the East exactly as he found it."

He also served as the British ambassador in Amman and Tunis. @Email:rhughes@thenational.ae