St John Armitage

Arabist active in Saudi affairs for over 50 years
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The Independent Online

Henry St John Basil Armitage, soldier, businessman and diplomat: born Bradford, Yorkshire 5 May 1924; OBE 1968, CBE 1978; Counsellor and Consul General in charge, British Embassy, Dubai 1974-78; married 1956 Jennifer Bruford (one son, one daughter); died London 19 October 2004.

As soldier, administrator, businessman and, finally, diplomat, St John Armitage was closely involved with the Arab world, and in particular with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, for nearly 60 years.

During this long career Armitage developed a knowledge of, and affection for, Arabia and its peoples, rulers and ruled alike, that ranks with that of earlier champions of Britain's eventful relationship with this singular region. Successive tours of duty took him to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Aden, Oman, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, during an era marked by political turbulence and oil-based opulence as Arab states emerged out of the shade of imperial tutelage.

On retirement from the Diplomatic Service in 1978 Armitage continued to use his strong personal links with Saudi Arabia and his dedication to the affairs of the region to promote new connections with Britain in fields including parliamentary links, media contact, business co-operation and student exchanges.

He was indefatigable in pursuit of better understanding between the two national cultures, through his involvement with the British/Saudi Arabian Parliamentary Group (following the establishment of the kingdom's first National Assembly in 1993), Chatham House (where he was a diligent member), and the Saudi/British Society. In this endeavour he made full use of the networking afforded by the internet. Armitage gave himself generously to these activities. He paid what turned out to be the last of regular visits to Saudi Arabia only a few weeks before his death.

Henry St John Basil Armitage was born in Bradford in 1924. He was educated at St Bede's and at Bradford Grammar School, before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge (he invariably sported a Trinity tie). There he embarked on his lifelong and adventurous association with the Middle East through the study of Oriental languages, though his university sojourn was interrupted after only a year by military call-up.

The end of the Second World War found him in Transjordan with the Arab Legion, then under the command of Glubb Pasha, but he soon moved on to what he was later to regard as one of the most fascinating and fulfilling stages of his career, as a member of the British Military Mission to Saudi Arabia.

This had been established at the request of King Ibn Saud and was intended to ensure the continuation of Britain's close relationship with Saudi Arabia in the field of defence at a time when American connections with the kingdom were developing fast at Britain's expense, on the back of joint oil ventures and a far more open-handed programme of defence aid than post-war Britain could afford to offer.

It was during these three years in Jedda and Ta'if, when he had responsibility for seeing the first generation of Saudi officer cadets on their way to Sandhurst, that Armitage formed the friendships and developed the deep understanding of the kingdom and its ways that would be feature so predominantly in his subsequent life.

From 1949 to 1951 he served as military adviser to Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister. This was a period of growing tension between King Ibn Saud and the British government over Saudi claims to certain oases in the Empty Quarter which Britain was obliged to resist on behalf of the rulers of Oman and Abu Dhabi, under British protection. Difficult years of diplomatic breach and tedious negotiation were to follow in which Armitage found himself discreetly involved.

After a short spell in desert locust control in Aden, Armitage joined the military forces of Sultan Said bin Taimur of Oman, serving in the remote and rebellious Dhofar province, during which time he married. He left in 1959, having formed a close relationship with Qaboos, who with British assistance was later to displace his outmoded father as Sultan.

Armitage moved on to a brief career in business, first as an adviser to an American oil enterprise exploring in Libya and then in Beirut. It was at this stage that the Foreign Office took advantage of his knowledge of the Arab scene and recruited him to head up the Commercial Department of the British Embassy in Baghdad. It did not take long for trouble to erupt in Iraq. Armitage was charged with organising the evacuation by convoy to Tehran of the embassy staff, following the rupture of relations by Iraq amid allegations of British complicity with Israel in the war of June 1967. He was appointed OBE for this successful operation.

After a short spell in Beirut he spent a fruitful six years in charge of commercial work in Jedda, including two turns as Chargé d'Affaires. His single-minded approach meant that he did not always see eye to eye with the bureaucrats in the Board of Trade, but his range of contacts made him a valuable member of the embassy in a period when UK-Saudi relations were returning to a state of close collaboration. His last five years of service were spent on promotion to counsellor rank in charge of the Dubai branch of the British embassy in the recently formed UAE, a Gulf setting in which he was fully at home.

The next 25 years were far from a retirement. Encouraged by his old friends in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, many now in senior positions, Armitage involved himself with enthusiasm in developments within the region. He was incomparable at unravelling the complex skein of genealogy which counts for so much in Arabia's tribal hierarchy; many a young Saudi would be bowled over on meeting him to discover that Armitage had not only known his grandfather but would often pull from his wallet a tattered photograph to prove it.

He could not keep away from drama. In 1990, on the eve of the allied invasion of Kuwait, he turned up unheralded just behind the front line with an academic group from British defence institutes, having quietly used his close Saudi contacts to steal a preview of the forthcoming battle.

Alan Munro