Confessions of a jolly general

A Saudi prince, Khaled Bin Sultan, believes his own role in the Gulf War was positively Churchillian. Robert Fisk begs to disagree
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The Independent Culture
Desert Warrior: A Personal View of the Gulf War

by HRH General Khaled Bin Sultan with Patrick Seale Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 25

Khaled Bin Sultan is, one hopes, the last of the jolly generals to give us an account of the Gulf War Part 2 (Part 1 being the more devastating conflict between Iraq and Iran). We've already had to wade through General Schwarzkopf's massive It Doesn't Take a Hero and Sir Peter de la Billiere's cloying account of the same conflict. I suppose many will regard General Khaled - the Saudi commander nominally running the show along with the Americans - as the poor man's Schwarzkopf, although, given the fact that he is a prince and son of King Fahd, he is clearly the rich man's Schwarzkopf. It was, after all, the latter who cruelly concluded that it wasn't Khaled's military credentials that mattered so much as the royal blood which gave him "the authority to write cheques."

Nor is it difficult to see why Schwarzkopf sat through His Royal Highness's dreary complaints about inappropriate T-shirts worn by US soldiers in the desert and the potential appearance of "Go-Go dancers" before French troops. According to Khaled's figures, the Saudis shelled out $10 billion to support "friendly forces" throughout the 1990-91 crisis, $14 billion to the US Treasury, $3.5 billion to the treasuries of other nations and countless other amounts for food, fuel, and transport to the armies that came to defend Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein. No wonder, then, that the Saudis can no longer pay their bills on time.

But what is one to make of this equally tardy but immensely arrogant book? According to His Royal Highness, the approval of his application to enter the war college at Mazwell air force base in Alabama, suggested that "God [was] guiding my career to prepare me for what was to come." He is "touched" when Chinese diplomats compare him to Henry Kissinger. In the build-up to the war, the General slept in a room beneath the Saudi Defence Ministry. "I suffered from loneliness," he tells us. "To calm myself and to take my mind off the war, I developed a night-time addiction to American TV comedies. After chortling over one of these for half an hour, I would fall peacefully to sleep."

It gets worse. "In a way, my role was to be the cement of the Coalition," His Royal Highness announces. Arguing with the French defence minister, he indirectly compares himself to Churchill. "Firmness and flexibility became my watchwords," he tells us. He fusses because Schwarz-kopf's chair is bigger than his, he insists that Schwarzkopf must visit his office for meetings rather than the other way round and he describes the preposterous land-battle to recover the Saudi town of al-Khafji from the Iraqis as "a pivotal battle of the war." His task, the General solemnly informs us, was "more difficult and complicated" than Schwarzkopf's.

How, I kept asking myself, did Patrick Seale get mixed up in the writing of this ghastly book? General Khaled cannot kneel when he accepts an honour from the Queen (the same honour that ex-Lieutenant Kurt Waldheim received from the same hand) and goes on to pick up Legions d'honneur and other decorations from France, Bahrain, Hungary, Kuwait, Morocco, Niger, Oman, Qatar, Senegal and, of course, Saudi Arabia. This was, the General informs us, "something of a record... for an Arab soldier in war," adding happily that "I would like to thank those who gave me a medal..." Is this really what soldiering is all about?

General Khaled tells us about the need for protecting Saudi Arabia's unique culture and "traditions". The latter, of course, include the lopping off of heads or arms for criminals, and virtual apartheid for the entire female population. He spends two pages dictating the need for loyalty to the Royal Family - the system by which 5,000 or so princes (including himself) can dominate a land of perhaps 9 million people. His own father, Prince Sultan, the General constantly reminds us, was minister of defence and played a role "as important as that of Defence Secretary Cheney in the United States." But it was Prince Sultan, I seem to recall, who suggested at the height of the American build-up that the west should perhaps do a negotiated deal with Saddam after all.

Somewhere in this Sahara of a book, there are oases of hitherto unknown detail: how American pilots accidentally shot up the Egyptian ships they were supposed to be protecting, how Saudi veterans never took the nightmare cocktail of anti-plague vaccines that the American and British troops shot into their bloodstream - and thus never suffered from Gulf War syndrome. We hear Mrs Thatcher bragging to King Fahd of her ability to stiffen President Bush's resolve, staring across hundreds of tanks and guns with the words, "All of this because of me!" There is fascinating material about the Iraqi intelligence service's infiltration of post-war Iraqi refugee camps in Saudi Arabia, and a stunning account of Schwarzkopf's shameful lapse at Safwan when he gave the Iraqis permission to use helicopter gunships after the ceasefire. Thank you, the Iraqis said. And went on to slaughter the Shiites of Basrah and the Kurds of the north.

So General Khaled's book will have to go on the shelf with all the other Gulf War bumph, bearing in mind that not all the facts are correct. Many of the Qatari soldiers who fought at al-Khafji, for example, were Pakistani mercenaries, not Arabs. The initial Saudi "withdrawal" from the town was not as planned as Khaled claims - I found their abandoned rifles and ammunition afterwards - and the Saudis didn't assist in the raising of the Kuwaiti flag at al-Nwaysib before the land attack, but two days afterwards (I was there). Back in the early days of the crisis, the good general used a public relations firm to manage his press appearances - a Mr Lynch and a man called "Ike" who used to help him choose journalists' questions - although they do not, understandably, appear in this memoir.

Instead, we have a general who quotes Clausewitz but who has to take a holiday after the war "to recover my composure after the stress of the great events in which I had played a part." He often suffered, he says, "from nightmares about fighting, about death... Had I done a good job? I leave this to the judgement of my contemporaries - and to history." Not bad, really, for a man who - save for his foray to al-Khafji during the battle - spent most of the war in the basement of the Saudi Ministry of Defence. "The most remarkable document ever to come out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the cover tells us. Well, I can think of another rather more important document that came from the Arabian peninsula more than 1,400 years ago. But I guess we'd better let that pass.