Sir Michael Weir

Diplomat and Arabist


Michael Scott Weir, diplomat: born Dunfermline, Fife 28 January 1925; Head of Chancery, UK Mission to UN 1971-73; Assistant Under-Secretary of State, FCO 1974-79; CMG 1974, KCMG 1980; ambassador to Egypt 1979-85; President, Egypt Exploration Society 1988-2006; Chairman, British Egyptian Society 1990-2006; Director, 21st Century Trust 1990-2000; married 1953 Alison Walker (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1974), 1976 Hilary Reid (two sons); died London 22 June 2006.

Michael Weir was instrumental in authoring a widely publicised letter signed in April 2004 by 52 retired prominent diplomats urging Tony Blair to correct the course of his foreign policy.

It echoed Weir's comment 36 years earlier in the Foreign Office's Arabian Department on Harold Wilson's government's January 1968 decision to abandon Britain's historic commitments East of Suez - when the department had to write speeches for ministers justifying the reversal of policies on which British diplomats had worked so hard throughout 1967. Wilson cooked the scheme up over Christmas without consulting FO specialists, in a fiscal package devaluing the pound. Arab sheikhs offered to finance British presence in the Persian Gulf (£12m then). Wilson, Arabists believed, was bribing left-wing ministers for slaughtering some of the NHS sacred cows.

Weir's eventful diplomatic career - in the Persian Gulf, San Francisco, Washington, New York, and Cairo - was studded by dispatches warning against the damage to British interests by hasty decisions taken for political expediency, mostly by Labour governments.

The "Camel Corps" (FO dedicated Arabists) did their best in the dying days of the Gulf "Raj" to protect British and Arab allies' interests. The Political Agents (no embassies then) embarked on the self-appointed task of persuading still-primitive societies, through the exercise of an authority of ambiguous validity, to adopt a form of government suitable for the 20th century while retaining exclusive responsibility for the sheikhdoms' foreign relations.

After encountering Weir first as Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the FO in 1974-79, we reporters were welcomed at his elegant historic residence by the Nile as Her Majesty's ambassador to Cairo, 1979-85, to be briefed on peace moves, the Prince of Wales's honeymoon voyage with Diana as HMY Britannia sailed, on Weir's recommendation, down the Suez Canal, or President Anwar Sadat's reforms and the stormy events culminating in his assassination in a hail of bullets during a military parade. Only a few feet way from Sadat on the viewing stand, Weir dived for cover, to discover that the pole he grabbed for balance was the American military attaché's leg.

Weir, more than often, improvised solutions to unprecedented situations. As Deputy Political Resident in Bahrain he drove, due to lack of transport late one night in the 1970s, to arrive just in time to greet Prince Charles coming down the aircraft steps after making an unscheduled emergency landing at Muharaq due to an engine fault en route to New Zealand. After driving 10 miles with no security arrangement, he persuaded the anxious prince and his companion Nicholas Soames to cool off in the tepid residency swimming pool while he made up the beds.

A decade later Prince Charles was a guest at his Cairo residence, to attend Sadat's funeral, but discovered that the decoration and sash of the Order of the Nile he had so recently been invested with by Sadat was the female insignia of the order belonging to Diana, which the valet had packed by mistake.

Born in 1925 in Dunfermline, to Archibald Weir, a respected headmaster who had served in the Royal Scots during the First World War, and his wife Agnes, also a schoolteacher, Michael was one of only two pupils who opted for Latin and Greek in Dunfermline High School. He took up a state scholarship to study Oriental Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London - attracted to the subject by Howard Carter's great book on Tutankhamun's tomb (The Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen, with A.C. Mace, 1923-33). Four decades later he became the President of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES).

From 1944 Weir served with the RAF as a squadron intelligence officer in Wales, at Pembroke, then in Burma and Madras. In Baghdad he served from 1946 at CICI (the Combined Intelligence Centre, Iraq and Persia) to keep an eye on growing anti-British activities in Persia. British troops had been in southern Iran to keep a supply land route to Russia in the Second World War. The Baghdad middle class's life in 1946 was a slice of Edwardian Britain, introducing him to wily politicians like the Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Said, and Prince Regent Abdul Illah - both brutally killed along with the young King Faisal in the 1958 coup.

Demobilised in 1947, Weir drove with a friend from Baghdad to Ismailia in a memorable three-day journey, stopped repeatedly at British army checkpoints in Palestine during a wave of terrorist attacks by Jewish groups. Returning home for a friend's wedding he met Alison Walker, whom he married six years later; their four children include the actress Arabella Weir.

After graduating in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1950 he joined the FO. His first assignment was with a British delegation negotiating with Saudi Arabia its dispute with neighbouring Qatar and the Trucial Coast (later the United Arab Emirates, UAE) over borders; a concept alien to nomadic Arabia. Saudis mistakenly believed Britain was behind the small Trucial sheikhdoms' resistance to Saudi sovereignty.

As Political Agent in the Persian Gulf, 1952-54, and Deputy Political Resident in Bahrain, 1968-71, he waved the Royal Navy stick to "protect" sheikhs from each other; backed bloodless coups (by sheikhs ousting older siblings of obsolete views); assisted Sheikh Zaid of Abu Dhabi in defending his Buraimi oasis against a Saudi armed invasion; helped "manumitting" slaves who sought sanctuary at the Political Agency (an escaping slave grasping the flagpole was set free).

He persuaded Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al Thani of Qatar to outlaw slavery as new oil revenues enabled 1,500 rupees payment to owners for each slave freed, and acted as a judge guided by the Indian penal and civil codes, as political agents exercised jurisdiction over non-Muslims (a custom still continued - enabling the Qatar government to avoid the odium of imposing prohibition on all foreigners, as in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait).

From 1963, in London, Weir dealt with South-East Asia and the French troubles in Vietnam, before in 1966 becoming a Counsellor heading the Arabian Department, preoccupied with Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser's threats to the Gulf (deploying Egyptian troops to Yemen in 1963). Nasser severed relations with Britain for its "failure" to act on Rhodesia's UDI in 1965; and during the 1967 Six Day War Nasser's powerful propaganda machine falsely accused Britain of siding with Israel, and a mob burnt the British consulate in Alexandria.

But the Arabian Department's efforts in the Gulf paid off when seven Trucial Coast sheikhdoms formed the UAE; and persuaded Ted Heath's government to keep a small, discreet navy presence in the Gulf. This proved to a valuable asset during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) as the RN Armilla Patrol protected convoys of oil tankers from attacks.

The Middle East's troubles followed Weir to New York as head of chancery in the mission to the UN from 1971. (He had spent five years previously in the United States, 1956-61, first as Consul in San Francisco and then as First Secretary in Washington.) During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, he had to deal with Henry Kissinger's manipulating and scheming. Kissinger was infuriated by Heath's checking directly with Sadat to uncover what Kissinger hid from British diplomats in a deal with the Russians.

In New York Weir met Hilary Reid, whom he married in 1976, two years after reaching an amicable divorce with Alison over irreconcilable differences; they went on to have two sons.

James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary in the 1974 Labour government, described Weir, appointed Assistant Under-Secretary of State the same year, as his "mentor on Middle East politics". He accompanied Callaghan to Kissinger's countless stop-overs during his shuttle diplomacy. (He was once asked by Kissinger to get hold of "that bastard [Yitzhak] Rabin", and commandeered the Heathrow VIP lounge phone for the US Secretary of State to administer an imperial dressing-down to the errant prime minister. The Israelis had leaked details of Kissinger's confidential conversation with Rabin, including a message from President Gerald Ford warning that Israel could not expect the US to go on financing a stalemate.)

Weir returned to Cairo as ambassador in 1979 (he had spent the years 1961-63 there as First Secretary), one week after Sadat and Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty in Washington. Egypt was back to its natural place as a staunch ally of Britain after Sadat's liberal reintroduction of a multi-party political system.

As an Arabist, Weir helped President Hosni Mubarak's efforts to restore relations with Arab nations alienated by Sadat's Egyptian nationalist popular politics, until his retirement from the service in 1985. Thereafter he remained President of the EES, and a chairman of the British Egyptian Society.

Adel Darwish

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