Sir David Gore-Booth

Ambassador who spoke his mind in Jeddah and as High Commissioner in Delhi

By Adel Darwish

04 November 2004

David Alwyn Gore-Booth, diplomat: born Washington, DC 15 May 1943; Counsellor, Jedda 1980-83; Counsellor and Head of Chancery, UK Mission to UN 1983-87; Head of Policy Planning Staff, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1987-89, Assistant Under-Secretary of State (Middle East) 1989-93; CMG 1990, KCMG 1997; Ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1993-96; High Commissioner to India 1996-98; KCVO 1997; Special Adviser to the chairman, HSBC Holdings 1999-2004; Co-Chairman, Dubai/UK Trade and Economic Committee 2000-04; Co-Chairman, Qatar/ Britain Association of Businessmen 2001-04; married 1964 Jillian Valpy (one son; marriage dissolved 1970), 1977 Mary Gambetta (née Muirhead; one stepson); died London 31 October 2004.

"Diplomacy is a word on which the British could claim copyright - until Sir David Gore-Booth charged in," opined one of India's leading dailies when, following India's nuclear tests in 1998, he, as Britain's High Commissioner, said British private sector investors would make up their own mind about the security of the place in the light of developing nuclear weapons. A year earlier during the Queen's visit he said she would not apologise for the 1919 Amritsar massacre but would lay a wreath.

He was, in his own words, never one to shirk a challenge. Had he been in the diplomatic service last year, many believe, he wouldn't have kept silent over the involvement in Iraq war, seen by his generation of diplomats, the "Camel Corps", as an ill-thought-out campaign that lacked long-term strategy. Prior to the invasion, he told me he didn't believe Britain would get involved in a full-scale war that "made little sense".

Gore-Booth spoke his mind, in confidential telegrams from the embassies in which he served, or as Assistant Under-Secretary for the Middle East in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His accurate analyses, often proven to be correct, were in the best interest of Britain, her friends and allies, and for peace and stability.

When armed Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa jet in 1972, Gore-Booth was a secretary at the FCO, which he joined eight years earlier after graduating from Oxford. His cool analysis taking geographical and historic facts into account came to the attention of an older diplomat, Sir James Craig. Accurate perception of history, taking Arab/Israeli disputes and wider British interests into account, enabled Gore-Booth to see the larger picture then and more recently:

What the hijacking does is to remind the international community that the Palestine problem exists: in one sense this is unwelcome to the Israelis as it shows their pretence for what it is. Hence their apoplectic reaction to the hijacking, which . . . provides them with an excellent opportunity to slip into Syria, bomb a few more bases and kill a few more innocent people with impunity . . .

This 1972 analysis foreshadowed today's tragic cycle of violence: desperate terrorist acts by dispossessed Palestinians followed by a disproportionate Israeli retaliation that leads to more desperate terror attacks.

His outspoken remarks often led him into controversy, especially with the powerful Israeli lobby and lately from the over-zealous brigade of political-correctness. "Now we have the explanation of [Jack] Straw's handshake [with Robert Mugabe] at the UN," he told the BBC in September this year:

It was quite dark in that corner and so he didn't know whose hand he was shaking . . . Here are a lot of people and quite a lot of them are black, and it's quite difficult to sort them out.

It ignited unkind reaction from the Mirror and a diarist in The Guardian - who telephoned the 83-year-old Lady Gore-Booth, refusing to believe that her son who has been fighting oesophagus cancer for over a year was too unwell in bed to take his call.

However his blunt language did help British subjects when needed. Following the 1991 Gulf war, the FCO was trying to secure the release of the British subject Ian Richter jailed by one of Saddam Hussein's kangaroo courts. "We have said for months that we would be prepared to release [Iraqi] assets for humanitarian purposes if Mr Richter was released," said Gore-Booth to journalists. Richter was released in November that year.

He left the FCO in 1998, "for more challenging posts in the private sector". In reality he was annoyed with the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's denying him the post of Ambassador to the UN or Washington - where he was born in 1943 a twin son to Paul, later Lord Gore-Booth, himself a future High Commissioner to India and Head of the Diplomatic Service.

His parents met in Tokyo in 1939, where his father arrived a year earlier as a Third Secretary in the British Embassy. Patricia's family, the Ellertons, lived in Japan for years. David Gore-Booth made reference to his grandparents' last resting place in Yokohama, during a great speech that enthralled his Japanese guests on his first visit to Japan as Head of Policy Planning at the FCO in 1988. His parents, who married in Japan in 1940, spoke Japanese to each other when discussing matters not for the ears of their children.

They were interned in December 1941 after Pearl Harbor and left in July 1942 bound to Lourenço Marques, and finally transferred to an Egyptian ship, the Nile, or al-Neel, as Gore-Booth used to call it in perfect Egyptian Arabic.

He was sent to Eton between 1954 and 1959, where he was in the same form as George Young, Jonathan Aitken and Douglas Hogg, then to Christ Church, Oxford, where he read History. He studied Arabic in the FCO Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, and was to charm the Iraqis with his Arabic as a Third Secretary in Baghdad in 1966 (he left for Lusaka 14 months later) and again the Libyans when he was a Second Secretary in the embassy in Tripoli during Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's 1969 coup.

He made a speech in Arabic when presenting his credentials to the Saudi court in Riyadh in 1989 dressed in a local Arab white robe, resembling Lawrence of Arabia, but, trapping his foot in his cloak, he fell down the marble stairs - one of many amusing stories collected from his 34-year-long diplomatic career, that he would tell in speeches or dinner parties, held by numerous think-tanks, Arab-British friendship or transatlantic associations and societies; Gore-Booth never really gave up his diplomatic mission for the Crown after he left the FCO.

His passion for advancing British friendship overseas belonged to a different, more romantic chapter from the history of the British Empire, written by giant figures of Foreign Service folklore like Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. All roamed the sand-dunes and oases of Arabia, camped on the shores of the Persian Gulf or trekked the Mesopotamian plains to cement a great Arab-British friendship, by trade, alliances, treaties and understanding rather than gunship diplomacy.

"Britain and Japan share certain positions on the international board that made their interests congruent," the handsome, tall, blond, blue-eyed British diplomat told his fascinated Tokyo audience in 1988:

Two offshore islands, both crowded, both bordered on one side by the United States and on the other by a great land mass, Europe in one case, Asia the other. Both monarchies with imperial pasts, both great trading nations: one in manufactures, the other increasingly in services.

Joining HSBC as special adviser on international policy to the chairman was a continuation of his role in the economic and fiscal Baath (resurrection) of the geographical presence of the British Empire, through trade and relations with her friends, as the bank branches cover lands that were once coloured in pink on the world map.

I often asked him, jokingly, whether the amusing HSBC television ads portraying an adventuring Brit overseas with the slogan "Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge" were his idea?

He was First Secretary in the UK Permanent Representation to the European Communities, then a Counsellor in Jedda, Head of Chancery in the UK Mission at the United Nations, Head of Policy Planning and Assistant Under-Secretary at the FCO - where he got into another controversy with the tabloid press and the Israeli lobby, when a junior minister whom he was minding, David Mellor, publicly told off an Israeli officer for beating up Palestinian schoolchildren in Gaza.

In 1993 he became ambassador to Saudi Arabia and in 1996 High Commissioner in India - a realistic diplomat advising London to work with the perceptions in the region he covered rather than as a futile costly PR to sell an indefensible policy.

Many Muslims and Arabs, rightly or wrongly, saw the occupation of Iraq as Washington's attempt to control a substantial slice of Arab oil rather than to extinguish WMD or spread democracy, Gore-Booth continued to argue after the Iraq war. The real issue in the Middle East - and its most dangerous virus - is Palestine, he said. Until or unless there is settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, there will be no peace and security in the Middle East and beyond into those parts of Asia that have adopted Islam.

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© 2004 Adel Darwish & Mideastnews