Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Wadi Hadramawt, in eastern Yemen: now a stronghold for Al Qaeda

With all eyes suddenly focused on Yemen, here are a couple of posts I wrote about the country in 2006 following a visit earlier in the year.

Various reports say that western governments are pledging military support to the regime in Yemen to help it tackle Al Qaeda. Certainly the Yemeni government needs help, but the fact that it is widely seen by the people it governs as hopelessly corrupt may mean that well-meaning efforts to prop it up have unintended consequences.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fox shot

My eye was caught yesterday by a quote in Rachel Sylvester's column yesterday in The Times. She quoted the opposition Conservative Party's defence spokesman, Dr Liam Fox, making the case for staying the course in Afghanistan. “Imagine if Churchill had said — ‘things aren’t going well in the opinion polls’,” he said. “If we are forced out that would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere.”

But a vivid imagination is not necessary. Here is Churchill arguing the need to withdraw from Iraq, in a letter to the prime minister, Lloyd George, in August 1920.

There is “something very sinister to my mind in this Mesopotamian entanglement” he wrote to Lloyd George. “It seems to me so gratuitous that after all the struggles of war, just when we want to get together our slender military resources and re-establish our finances and have a little in hand in case of danger here or there, we should be compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts.”

“We have not got a single friend in the press on the subject, and there is no point of which they make more effective use to injure the Government. Week after week and month after month for a long time we shall have a continuance of this miserable, wasteful, sporadic warfare…”

(CHAR 16/48, Churchill to Lloyd George, 31 August 1920)

Churchill was overruled. But the idea that he, like any other elected politician, did not pay close attention to public opinion, is risible.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Next speaking

I'm speaking next Monday morning - on Lawrence of Arabia and World War One - at 9.15 am at this year's Christ Church Oxford Conflict conference, on the Making of the Modern Middle East. It's still possible to come for my talk, and any of the others - more details of how to do so can be found here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reinstate Michael Yon

Michael Yon is a freelance journalist who has an excellent website and who has, up to yesterday, embedded with British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan. In his most recent report he describes in great detail the circumstances in which a number of British soldiers have been killed in the town of Sangin recently. The report has led the Ministry of Defence to cancel his placement: precisely why he does not say: is it the details of the deaths, or the description of the effect of them on the other soldiers, or the Google Earth images showing exactly where they happened?

Whatever, the MoD's decision is a bad one. Michael Yon should be reinstated.

UPDATE - 26 August: Defence of the Realm suggests that the reason why Yon's report stung the MoD was because the clearance of the road was in fact a relief operation, revealing just how far the situation in Sangin has deteriorated. The MoD has also published its version of events.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The source of the famous Churchill quote

The quote, which seems to capture its author's reckless personality perfectly, has been misquoted and misattributed. There are a dozen variations of it across the internet. The questions I had were, which version is correct and where is it from?

If, like me, you guessed he said it in his younger years and bought the popular abridgement of his early works in a bid to find it, you will be disappointed, for that edition omits the passage that contains it altogether. Finally I have found the answer:

"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

Winston S Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, London 1898.

You can read the quote in context here: see page 107. It may be that, given that the book is based on a series of letters Churchill wrote to the Daily Telegraph to describe the fighting that in fact that newspaper was the first to print it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The British Museum and national politics

I listened last night as Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, was interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC Radio Four. The conversation predictably turned to the perennial question of the Elgin Marbles, the reliefs from the Parthenon which are exhibited in the British Museum and which the Greek government desperately wants. Was it not the case, asked Lawson, that the Greeks, who have built a gallery to house the marbles, now had an unstoppable moral and practical case for their return? "The key thing", replied MacGregor (28 minutes in), "is whether or not you bring politics into culture. The British tradition of museums has been to separate politics, national politics, from cultural questions. The Greek tradition is a very different one."

What utter rubbish. Britain's museums and national politics have always been tightly intertwined. British rivalry with the French was an important stimulus in the building of a collection which was not an assembly of all things British, but an exhibition of Britain's power and global reach, in the capital of its empire. The dramatic growth of the museum's Egyptian collection followed the defeat, by the British, of the French at the battle of the Nile in 1799. And Elgin himself used his position as Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to take away the marbles shortly afterwards.

The French behaved similarly. On 23 July 1850 The Times reported that the French were "determined to excel us in the exhibition of Assyrian works of art in order to compensate the comparative deficiency, which the Louvre is obliged to acknowledge as to the treasures it possesses in the other great catalogues."* French archaeologists used their diplomatic corps to assist them in the removal of the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace - to highlight two famous examples that grace the Louvre today - and to thwart the opposition. A set of permits to excavate made out by the Ottoman authorities to the British mysteriously disappeared at the French consulate in Tunis.

By 30 November 1861 the Illustrated London News believed that the British had regained the advantage. It celebrated the fact that "During the last few years the Foreign Office has shown a zeal in the service of archaeology not second to that of the continental governments and the National Collection has in consequence received priceless additions that would else have remained unnoticed or gone to enrich the museums of other countries."*

Personally I support Neil MacGregor's dogged refusal to surrender to Greek pressure, for reasons I've mentioned before. But the line that Britain is somehow different (and superior) as a nation is flimsy. If that is the best argument remaining, it will not be long before the marbles are back in Athens.

*Both the quotes come from Debbie Challis's fascinating book on archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus: British Archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire, 1840-1880, London 2008.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Was the Arab Revolt a proxy war?

With the paperback Setting the Desert on Fire about to be published in the US, The Army Lawyer runs a detailed, generous review by Major Jennifer Clark. Scroll through to pages 62-68 to read it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

But eez bootik 'otel

The Ziad Hotel in Deir ez Zor wins 2 UN Stars

I’ve written before about how useful an endorsement from the United Nations, whose staff are never known to rough it, is when picking hotels on the edges of conflict zones. The two shiny 4x4s of the UNHCR parked outside the Ziad Hotel in Deir ez Zor, in eastern Syria, showed promise. And so it proved. The Ziad offers clean, large, echoing rooms with air-conditioning in a newish block beside the canal and minutes’ walk from the centre of this bustling town on the Euphrates.
I’ve just returned from my first visit to Syria since 2002 and there are plenty of obvious changes. Tinny far-eastern cars have displaced the armada of elderly American automobiles, held together by solder and putty, which previously served as taxis. ATMs have arrived (though not always willing to dispense money), there is internet access of unexpected velocity, a dramatic increase in tourists and a rise in the number of hotels. With that last in mind I’m going to run through where I stayed on my anti-clockwise tour around the country.
Unlike in south-east Turkey last year, where I heard the phrase "but eez bootik 'otel", used repeatedly by hoteliers to justify an outrageous opening demand on the grounds that their tatty hotel has atmosphere, negotiating the price downwards in Syria is a rather less fraught process, and because the supply of beds still outstrips the number of intrepid tourists, it is possible to get discounts, even in the high tourist season.

Palmyra – the Tower Hotel. I had looked at the Heliopolis Hotel already, but it wanted about $70 for a small room with poor beds and proved unwilling to negotiate. The Tower, which is on the main street in the town, offered me a “suite” (you got space, not grandeur) for about £30, I think. It was clean enough and well-placed for the sights but nothing special. I ate across the road at a restaurant that does superb lemonade with mint by the half-litre jar.

Deir-ez-Zor - the Ziad Hotel. Two UN stars, as described above.

Aleppo – the Beit Wakil. $120 a night plus tourist tax. Despite one or two slightly buttery male reception staff who want to take your money up-front, air-conditioning that did not work and staff who shrugged when asked to fix it, which together give the impression it is coasting on its reputation, this is an atmospheric place to stay in the Armenian Jdeidah quarter, with a pretty shaded courtyard with flowers and a tinkling fountain. You can park on a meter in the nearby square, Saahat Hattab, while you dump your bags, and park overnight for 200 Syrian Pounds (ie about £3) a day in the carpark owned by the Dar al Zamaria round the corner. And the thickness of the walls at the hotel meant that the lack of air-conditioning in May was not a problem. There are many other boutique hotels appearing in the city, against whom the Beit Wakil will increasingly have to raise its game, or drop its prices. There are a growing number of good places to eat, many of them providing roof-top views across the city.

Lattakya – the Riviera Hotel. I checked in here after driving up the coast to the Meridien, where the manager wanted $185 for a room on a Friday night, but immediately came down to $134 when I laughed. I offered $70, which he would not accept, though he admitted that the hotel was only 45% occupied. The lifts have graffiti, the rooms smell of smoke. Avoid, as I did. By contrast the Riviera, on the unpromising main drag into the city, has pleasant staff and good clean rooms. They took $75 for a room. Finding it was oddly tricky, given that it is on the main road into the city: it is on the left, opposite the new looking tourist office, as the road bends round to the left. You can park on the street outside. Dinner not special.

Hama – the Orient House. I asked first at the Cairo Hotel, which is a basic but clean option in the centre of town, near the clock tower. The Cairo offers bargain rates but the rooms are not inspiring, and – I suspect – quite noisy from traffic into the night. But the same family owns other hotels in the town, one of which is the Orient House, a few minutes’ drive south – the Cairo’s owner sent his young nephew with me in my car to provide directions, including going the wrong way up a one-way street. The pleasant manager of the Orient House – brother of the manager of the Cairo – wanted $90 a night but took $75. This is a two courtyard old house with perfectly fine if slightly characterless rooms, and a pleasant courtyard dining area. It doesn’t serve alcohol, but the food was fine. The hotel was apparently the home of Akram al Hawrani, who was vice-president in the Nasser-dominated and short-lived union between Egypt and Syria, the UAR, which lasted between 1958 and 1961.

The sting in the tail of a visit to Syria is the exorbitant departure tax demanded by the Syrian government. This now stands at 1500 SP (£20); the guidebook, which was a recent edition, quoted 200 SP. Paying it left a briefly bitter taste; Syria remains a fascinating place.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Next speaking

I'm speaking next Friday, 15 May, about British-French relations in the Middle East between the Wars, at St Antony's College, Oxford. The seminar starts at 5pm.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Al Hayat review

Here's the first review I am aware of from the Arabic press - it was published in Al Hayat on Tuesday.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The lengths a tourist board will go to

News that a Spanish tourist board on the Costa Brava has used a photograph taken in the Bahamas to promote its local beach reminds me of a poster I saw four years ago.

I was in a dark and tatty bureau de change in Leh, in the Indian Himalaya. On the wall there was a dog-eared poster. "Come to India", it beckoned, beneath a photograph of a range of saw-toothed snowy peaks. They looked familiar, I thought. Yet this was the first time I had been to India.

They were familiar: the view was of the spectacular scene at Concordia - across the Line of Control in Pakistani-occupied (and Indian claimed) Kashmir, which I had seen two years before.

Was this ignorance, over-enthusiastic marketing or a political statement? It was impossible to tell.

Another review

A new review of Setting the Desert on Fire can be found here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Next speaking...

I'm speaking twice next week:

Wednesday 11 February - to the Barnes Literary Society
Friday 13 February - at St Antony's College, Oxford