Obituary: Sir Alan Rothnie

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The Independent Online
Alan Rothnie was one of the many who entered the Foreign Service in the years immediately after the Second World War and whose wartime record, in his case in the Royal Navy, was given full weight along with his notable academic achievements. Rightly so: mine-clearing on the Arctic Convoy run argued a certain resilience of character in tough situations.

After a decade of widely varying duties in the Foreign Office - Vienna, Bangkok and Madrid - he was posted to Kuwait and began an association with the Arab world which was from then on to constitute one half of his diplomatic expertise. The other was to be commercial work. At the end of his tour in Kuwait he was posted to the Middle East Centre of Arab Studies (Mecas) in Shemlan. He was told that after Shemlan he would go to Baghdad as Commercial Counsellor and that in a service in which commercial work and trade promotion were seen as of key importance he could expect, if he succeeded in Baghdad, to find himself firmly on the ladder of promotion.

In 1961 in the middle of his course at Mecas, the Iraqis, led by Abdul Karim Qasem, renewed their claim to Kuwait and manoeuvred threateningly on the Kuwait border. British troops were deployed and in the Ambassador's absence through ill-health Rothnie was hurriedly extracted from the classroom and sent back to Kuwait as Charge d'Affaires. His successful handling of the crisis added to his reputation as a cool and skilful operator in difficult situations. Danger past, he returned to complete his Arabic course with credit, confirming his dogged imperturbability in pursuit of the goals he set himself.

His time in Baghdad was followed by a posting to Moscow, again as Commercial Counsellor, and in 1967 his achievements were recognised by his appointment as CMG. From Moscow he went on to Chicago as Consul-General - another of the major commercial postings in the service.

After Chicago, Jedda: his first embassy, where in the years from 1972 to 1976 the meteoric rise in Saudi oil revenues posed new financial and commercial problems - and challenges - to United Kingdom diplomacy. Fortunately the disputes over Saudi frontiers with neighbouring Gulf states, which had occupied so much of the time of his predecessors, had been largely settled; and Rothnie was able to devote more of his energies to the promotion of trade and the cultivation of relations with the Oil Minister, Yamani, and the Finance Minister, Aba'l Khail. British exports to the kingdom, visible and invisible, doubled and redoubled year upon year; and relations with the City of London and the Bank of England flourished as the Saudis were persuaded of the usefulness to them of the sterling investment market.

Rothnie's grasp of financial and commercial issues, his ability to keep abreast of the rising tide of technology and his indefatigable promotion of trade and financial missions and contacts between the two countries played a decisive part in establishing the pattern of a relationship which has persisted, and expanded, over the ensuing quarter of a century.

Embassy life was not, of course, wholly occupied with matters of commerce. The British community in Saudi Arabia, like exports, doubled and redoubled as Saudi development took off under the stimulus of apparently unlimited revenues. Engineers, builders, construction workers, hospital staff, doctors, teachers, bankers, port workers, training missions to the Saudi armed forces, flocked to the kingdom and, unlike the relatively few foreigners of previous decades, spread across the entire country, frequently astonishing and being astonished by the populace in remote communities where foreign faces had seldom or never been seen. Looking after the British community became a major task, to which Rothnie, most ably supported by his wife, Anne, addressed himself with char- acteristic thoroughness and determination.

After Jedda, Berne - his second and final Embassy. More finance and commerce; but also the crowning experience of a successful visit by the Queen in 1980, for his part in organising which he received a well-earned knighthood.

As Director of Mecas in the Sixties I helped teach Rothnie Arabic; I corresponded with him when I was Ambassador in Kuwait and he in Jedda during the oil-price crisis of 1973-74; and in 1976 I succeeded him as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. I never knew his quiet, unruffled demeanour yield under pressure; and the dry sense of humour which we Sassenachs think of as typically Scottish never deserted him.

He was blessed with a happy family life which triumphantly survived the strains and dislocations of the diplomatic career; and he retained, even in the turbulent Sixties and Seventies, a rare tolerance and understanding of the younger generation.

John Wilton

Alan Keir Rothnie, diplomat: born Worksop, Nottinghamshire 2 May 1920; Charge d'Affaires, HM Embassy, Kuwait 1961; Commercial Counsellor, HM Embassy, Baghdad 1963-64; Commercial Counsellor, HM Embassy, Moscow 1965- 68; CMG 1967; Consul-General, Chicago 1969-72; Ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1972-76; Ambassador to Switzerland 1976-80; KCVO 1980; chairman, Newsbrief Ltd 1985-90; married 1953 Anne Harris (two sons, one daughter); died 24 April 1997.