BOOK REVIEW: Cooking up a storm

24 February 2006

It is tempting to wonder how differently things would have turned out if, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Saudi government had momentarily taken leave of its senses and accepted Osama bin Laden's offer to set up a militia of battle-hardened jihadis, fresh from Afghanistan, to protect the kingdom's northern borders. Would 9/11 have ever occurred? Might the terror of the Western world have been thanked for services rendered and quietly pensioned off to a quiet retreat in Jeddah? Sir Alan Munro, former British ambassador to Riyadh, is not a man to indulge in such idle speculation. But his frank account of the events surrounding the 1990-91 Gulf war testifies to how crucial that brief war proved to be in the history of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular. It was the first time that Western and Arab states had fought together against another Arab army, and Munro was in the thick of the diplomatic action, simultaneously fielding the international press and keeping lines of communication open between his superiors in London, the UN, Washington, the allied military and, most importantly of all, the Saudi royal family. As one of his peers in the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office remarks: 'He was perhaps the first British diplomat to whom the Al-Saud really opened their doors.'

First published in 1996, Arab Storm argues convincingly that Saudi Arabia was not only the linchpin of the coalition but also a lead actor in the drama that followed. The account lingers over Riyadh's crucial decision to admit half a million American troops onto Saudi soil - the same soil that nurtures two of Islam's holiest cities. Against a background of rising public sympathy in the Arab world for a defiant Saddam Hussein, it was a calculated risk that took courage on the part of the Saudi government and required tremendous diplomatic verve on all sides. As the Algerian ambassador reminded Munro at the time: 'For Algeria, it only takes one French soldier on Arab soil to produce this reaction, whatever the cause.' Unlike many accounts of the period, Arab Storm has gained in import in the 10 years since it was first published. When his book was first published, its first point of reference was the disastrous British campaign of 1917. Now, his insider's account of the concerted diplomatic effort that preceded the war, and helped limit the political fallout from the liberation of Kuwait, provides an implicit counterpoint to the bungled US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Aftermath of conflictThis new edition makes the connection explicit. In his preface, Munro rails at the 'dismal and chaotic sequel to the efficient international action of 1990 and 1991'. He does not propose any remedies to the deepening conflict in Iraq, but rather drives home the lesson that by concentrating purely on a military objective in 2003 and leaving the diplomacy for later, Washington contributed to the present crisis. By contrast, the 1990-91 war - briefly outlined in a short chapter entitled 'Climax', followed swiftly by a longer 'Anticlimax' - comes almost as an afterthought to the main subject matter of his book, the careful preparation that led up to the conflict.

As befits a former member of the UK diplomatic service, where a slight air of one-upmanship surrounds the construction of architecturally complex phrases in dispatches, Munro is a master of the heroically long sentence as well as the artful use of parenthesis that must, for many career diplomats, become second nature over time. But Arab Storm is very readable. There are numerous and vivid first-hand accounts - one that sticks in the mind is the story of a Geordie soldier who, when Munro appealed to his unit to stay on after the war so the British army could 'keep their teeth' in Kuwait, promptly removed his own false set, threw them into the sand and vowed to stay with them. Munro's frequent encounters with the media also provide colourful material for the book. The

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications