Glencairn Balfour Paul: Diplomat, scholar and poet with a lifelong love of the Middle East

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The Independent Online

Glencairn Balfour Paul was a soldier, diplomat, traveller, explorer, scholar and poet, and excelled in all these diverse careers and vocations. Above all this floated an original dream of becoming an archaeologist, a dream which had to be abandoned because of family responsibilities. In the field of diplomacy, for which he was best known, he served in the Sudan Political Service and in Chile, Lebanon, Dubai and Bahrain before becoming ambassador to Iraq, then Jordan and Tunisia.

This distinguished career brought him into contact with the great, the good and, sometimes, the not-so-good: it was his dinner party that Kim Philby was due to attend in Beirut before that notorious spy fled for Soviet Russia. As Balfour Paul put it in his autobiography, Bagpipes in Babylon (2006): "One wet night (23 January 1963) Kim and his wife Eleanor were coming to a dinner party in my flat. Eleanor arrived and said that Kim had phoned to say that he was held up but would be along a little later. He never came."

Glencairn Balfour Paul was born in Dumfriesshire in 1917, in Moniaive (within the parish of Glencairn, where his maternal grandfather had been a minister). He was the son of John Balfour Paul and his wife Muriel (née Monteith), and grandson of Sir James Balfour Paul, at one time the Lord Lyon King of Arms. The writer Robert Louis (Balfour) Stevenson was a relative and the novelist Graham Greene descended from one of Glencairn's more distant ancestors.

He was educated at Lime House School, near Carlisle, which he confessed to having enjoyed, and then Sedbergh, before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1936 to read Classics. Military service found him seconded from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to the Sudan Defence Force, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel at a very youthful age. It was in the Sudan that he first encountered the Arabic language and began a love affair with the Middle East.

Second World War service was followed by 10 years as a District Commissioner in the Sudan, during which time he married, in 1950, his first wife, Marnie Ogilvy (who died in 1971) and explored the Ennedi foothills of Tibesti by camel, where he found the cave paintings he sought. Then followed 22 years in the Diplomatic Service, crowned by the three postings as ambassador. In Iraq, there was a memorable encounter in late 1969 with Saddam Hussein, which Balfour Paul related thus: "Saddam seized me by the shoulders and marched me by his side in a sort of embrace, saying, 'Can't you British understand that there is nothing in the world I detest more than a Russian Communist – except an Iraqi one'." Balfour Paul added that "Saddam had not yet come out in his true colours as a tyrannical thug".

Having retired from the Diplomatic Service aged 60, Balfour Paul became Director-General of the Middle East Association in London for two years before joining Exeter University as a Research Fellow in the fledgling Centre for Arab Gulf Studies. There can have been few people better qualified to undertake such a new role. He was soon joined there by the former ambassador to Iran Sir Anthony Parsons; together with Brian Pridham (another diplomatic colleague), Tim Niblock and other distinguished scholars they helped to forge the foundations for Exeter's current high reputation in the field of Gulf Studies.

Later, when the centre merged with the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies into a single Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Balfour Paul retained the strongest links with, and affection for, the institute. He was present at the opening of a Gulf Studies Conference exhibition, "Arabia in Photographs", just the day before he died, and he had the pleasure of viewing several photographs which he had taken some 40 or 50 years ago.

It was while he was at Exeter that Balfour Paul produced his well-regarded volume The End of Empire in the Middle East (1991), the Middle East section of The Oxford History of the British Empire and a remarkable collection of poetry entitled A Kind of Kindness (2000).

He continued to be an inveterate traveller, for the past 34 years nearly always in the company of his beloved second wife, Jenny. The travel was often to unusual places and always exciting. It might be to India or West Africa in search of indigo, Jenny's own academic specialism, or following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson by cargo ship in the Polynesian islands or the Marquesas.

Many friends and colleagues have remarked on Glen Balfour Paul's great sense of humour, his gifts as a poet and the profound influence that he exercised on so many people, thanks to his genuine love of humanity. His contacts and his erudition were worn lightly, with a complete lack of self-congratulation, a gentle irony about himself and an enduring twinkle in his eyes.

Ian Richard Netton

Hugh Glencairn Balfour Paul, diplomat and writer: born Moniaive, Dumfriesshire 23 September 1917; staff, Foreign Office 1955-77, counsellor, Dubai 1964-66, Deputy Political Resident, Persian Gulf 1966-68, counsellor, attached to St Antony's College, Oxford 1968-69, ambassador to Iraq 1969-71, ambassador to Jordan 1972-75, ambassador to Tunisia 1975-77; CMG 1968; Director-general, Middle East Association 1978-79; Research Fellow, Exeter University 1979-2008; married 1950 Marnie Ogilvy (died 1971; one son, three daughters), 1974 Jenny Scott (one son, one daughter); died Shobrooke, Devon 2 July 2008.

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