Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Political Agent

Old Dubai

I have been reading Parting Shots, an anthology of extraordinarily entertaining extracts from British diplomats’ valedictory despatches from posts all over the world. Edited by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, these lively documents were mostly never intended to be read outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. Indeed, their contents would probably have caused a great deal of embarrassment to H.M. government had they achieved wider distribution at the time of their composition. Tempus fugit, however, and the comparatively recent Freedom of Information Act has provided the editors with the best tool with which to harvest their selection from hitherto classified Foreign Office files. My favorite—though the choice has been exceedingly difficult—is the wistful dispatch furnished on September 27, 1964, to Her Britannic Majesty’s Acting Political Resident (Bahrain) by the Political Agent at Dubai, in other words not very long before the creation of the independent United Arab Emirates, not quite fifty years ago:

The title of Her Majesty’s Political Agent, I have the honour to submit, is an exceedingly romantic one. Even the dourest would not deny that it carries a less prosaic, less workaday ring than Commercial Officer or Second Secretary (Information). It has to begin with (despite a lamentable increase of one-third in our numbers over the past three years) a growing scarcity value. To the best of my knowledge only four of us survive; and there is at times an enjoyable feeling of political agents contra mundum. The name, too, is rich in associations. It belongs with those other old and evocative titles: Collector, Resident, District Commissioner. It suggests remoteness in time and place. One feels that a Political Agent is (or should be) at the end of the line, one of those originals on whom the sun used never to set, the final, executive blood vessel in the network of arteries that stretched out, long, efficient and complex, from the distant heart of empire; the true ultima ratio regum. The ghosts of dead colleagues rise up: in the club at Mandalay, saddling their horses in Peshawar, haranguing the tribes in the Kalahari. And the nostalgia grows with the awareness that one is very nearly the last of that very long line, those thousand men who month by month sent back their despatches to the district headquarters, to the provincial capitals, and finally to the red boxes of Whitehall…

I take the view, it will now be evident, that, having been given a title, one might as well enjoy it. But the times are changing. There has been criticism, as Your Excellency knows, of the imperialist flavour of the name, and talk of adopting something more consonant with our egalitarian world. The nature of the post is also changing. Already the functions of my colleagues in our sophisticated neighbours, Bahrain and Qatar, are inclining more to the ambassadorial and less to the pro-consular. Dubai has begun to take the same well-trodden road and perhaps before long will be catching up [!]. The gunboats still call, but they are less peremptory than before. The Political Agent still commands, but more often now he suggests or advises.

Yet on the Trucial Coast, more perhaps than anywhere else, the old regime persists. The atmosphere is on the one hand imperial India. The guard at the compound gate hoist the flag at sunrise, and all day long it looks down upon the dhows an ferryboats in Dubai Creek. Below the windtowers the bazaars are crowded with Sindis and Baluchis, Bengalis and Pathans, dhobi-wallahs, babus, and chokidars. The Agent sits in court below the Royal Coat of Arms and sees the old procession of clerks and petition writers. His servants wear turbans and puggarees and long shirwani coats. He inspects gaols and pursues smugglers, runs hospitals and builds roads. He takes the salute from the Trucial Oman Scouts, on a sandy barrack square, amid ornamental cannon, pennants on lances, bugles and pipes and drums. He makes State tours with reception tents and dining tents and sleeping tents, trestle tables, carpets and military escorts. He is very much a bara sahib.

But he is also a sheikh. All year round he sits and receives his callers: Rulers with business of State; tribesmen with pastoral complaints; conspirators with offers of partnership; wealthy merchants seeking agencies; gold smugglers seeking passports; schoolboys seeking scholarships to England. To each he offers, through his coffee-maker girt about with the great silver dagger, the tiny, handleless cups of black spiced coffee. Twice or thrice a year he sits in full majlis while the visitors pour in with congratulations, sweetmeats, Christmas cakes and fat goats. His letters are addressed to “His Honour, the Most Glorious, the Magnificence of Her Majesty’s Trusted One in the Trucial States, the Revered.” He decides fishing disputes, negotiates blood-money, examines boundaries, manumits slaves. He presides over the Shaikhs’ Council. He exempts, pardons, appeases, exacts, condemns, ordains. Over a large but undefined field he in effect rules. It is all a far cry from the third room and the Foreign Office canteen.

It is important, I may break off to remark, that the sheikhly nature of the Political Agent should be thoroughly appreciated in the department. It may well be difficult for his fellow clerks, who have often seen him—and will no doubt see him again—making the office tea in a drab Whitehall corridor, to picture him as an oriental potentate among they grey-haired dervishes. The effort, arduous and even comical though it may be, must nevertheless be made. Without it, not only will the Agent seem intolerably pompous when he goes home on leave; his colleagues for their part will fail to understand the curious necessities which his post involves. What can he be doing with two maunds of cardamom and a bag of charcoal? For what purpose has he had his censer repaired? Why does the coffee-maker need (of all things) a dagger? Such questions, Sir, are pardonable. But they must be asked from a deferential and an understanding heart.

The Political Agent has, forbye, more orthodox functions. He must persuade Rulers and influence public opinion. He must justify (stern task) the workings of the United Nations and intercept the policies of the Arab League. He must help to negotiate oil concessions. He must expound the need for a law on workmen’s compensation and even, in settling sea frontiers, explain to an illiterate sheikh the principle of constant equidistance involved in the trigonometry of the median line. He must be severe and masterful when he feels insignificant and ill-assured. He must at times be as diplomatic as any conventional diplomatist.

But above all he must travel: in a long and ceremonious caravan or in a solitary Land Rover; in his own dhow or in an R.A.F. aeroplane; at speed across the gravel desert, slowly and painfully through a mountain wadi, or stuck altogether in the mud of the salt flats. This is his St. Crispin’s Day that will live into his old age. Long after the minutes and the submissions and the subcommittees have faded, he will remember waking on the great plateau to the scuffle and the mutter of the bedu at their dawn prayers; coming out of the tent to see them huddled in their skimpy cloaks round the fire waiting for the blackened coffee-pot to heat up; the hawks behind them on their perches, now huddling in against the cold, now fluffing their feathers to dry off the night-dew. Or being called out from a party with a message of shooting in the hills; the scurry round for a driver and a bed-roll and then out of the Agency gate and away across the salt flats into the dunes; sleep in the sand beside the track, then up at first light and through the mountains to where two groups of bandoliered tribesmen wait for him nervously. Nor will he forget the incense and the rose-water proffered by his host at the end of a stiff and dusty journey, or the chanted, stylized greetings, strophe and antistrophe, of the desert bedu, or the Agency dhow at anchor in the bay of Dibba with the Red Ensign fluttering improbably over those unheard-of fishermen.

All this will pass one day and we shall be centralised and standardised. The powers and the privileges, the discomforts and the eccentricities—all will vanish, and with them the fun. Meanwhile, Political Agent Dubai is a splendid job in a splendid place. When the name is changed and the first consul or Ambassador arrives, it will indeed be the end of a very auld sang.

I am sending copies of this dispatch to all Gulf posts, to Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and en titre personnel to Mr. Balfour-Paul at Her Majesty’s Embassy in Beirut.

I have, &c.

A. J. M. Craig
Her Majesty’s Political Agent
I find it quite impossible not to like His Honour Mr. Craig, to rejoice in his enjoyment of his soon-to-be-defunct office, and also to react with sympathy and a little sadness to his appeal to civil servants in Whitehall seriously to seek within themselves a deferential and an understanding heartwas ever such a thing farther distant from any and all corridors of power than it is today? The Trucial States (along the Trucial Coast of Oman) were a British protectorate from 1820 until 1971, when they became the independent United Arab Emirates. Ultima ratio regum means the last argument of kings. According to Hobson-Jobson a dhobi-wallah is a washerman; a babu a native clerk who could write English; a chokidar a watchman; a puggaree a type of turban, and a bara sahib a “white, i.e. British colonial master.” The majlis, meanwhile, was a formal audience with legislative functions mostly by instant edict, or decisions and/or proclamations issued verbally. St. Crispin’s Day (October 25, the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and of the Charge of the Light Brigade) is, of course, a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Though drafted more than fifty years after the death of King Edward VII and almost twenty years after the end of World War II, there are in this beautifully drafted despatch strong, nostalgic chords of imperium—it is very much Sir Edward Elgar gamely competing against the Beetles. His Honour Mr. Craig reminds us also that the ethos of empire, once implanted, lingered powerfully and long after the exhaustion of Britain’s part in two World Wars in rapid succession; the terrible upheaval of the partition of India; the humiliation of Suez, and Harold Macmillan’s speech about the “wind of change” blowing through Africa. It is scarcely believable, meanwhile, that in less than fifty years Mr. Craig’s Dubai could have been transformed from a smallish Arab fishing village into the oil-driven orgy of real estate we see today. What, I wonder, does the future hold in store for her?

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