It is known as the "school for spies". Britain's foremost Arabists have passed through the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (Mecas) since the British Government opened the language school in Shemlan, outside Beirut, in 1947.
So have some of Britain's best-known spies, among them Sir David Spedding, a former head of MI6, and the traitors Kim Philby and George Blake.
It emerged yesterday that many of the 52 signatories of the searing letter criticising Tony Blair's Middle East policies are also alumni of the centre, who have become known as the "camel corps" because of their pro-Arab views.
"The 'camel corps' were obviously a factor," one recently retired ambassador said yesterday. "Many of my colleagues must be thoroughly frustrated."
Sir Marrack Goulding, the former United Nations head of peace-keeping who was among the prime movers behind the letter, graduated from Mecas after joining the diplomatic service in 1959. The Lebanon centre was closed in 1974.
Yesterday, he denied suggestions that the group was acting on behalf of diplomats still working for the Foreign Office and who cannot speak out. "Nobody came from the Foreign Office," Sir Marrack told The Independent. "It was spontaneous and generated by Tony Blair's visit to Washington."
The letter's signatories explain that the trigger for their action was the Rose Garden appearance by Mr Blair on 16 April when he stood at Mr Bush's side and appeared to tear up decades of internationally agreed Middle East policy.
"All of us who signed the letter had been concerned over the last year or so that Middle Eastern expertise in the Foreign Office had been ignored by No 10," one of the letter's authors said.
"What triggered it this week is not so much that we feel the Iraq adventure is a failed enterprise but we were horrified to see the Prime Minister next to Bush in the Rose Garden tearing up [UN resolutions] 242 and 338 and the whole diplomatic and political framework for Palestinian-Israel peace.
"This broke the camel's back," said the diplomat, only half-jokingly. "It made us all feel that we had to take action."
It appears that within the "camel corps", the group coalesced around former diplomats with official or unofficial links to Oxford - St Antony's College in particular - including Sir Marrack, Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Libya, and Sir Bryan Cartledge, a former envoy to Moscow. But some of their former colleagues yesterday questioned the fact that they failed to muster signatures from ambassadors who had served in prestigious posts such as Washington, Paris or Nato.
"Look at the list - you can't find any grade-one ambassador who has retired in the past 10 years who is on that list," said one former envoy who was not contacted by the group.
Recently retired ambassadors, including the former UN ambassador Sir John Weston, are known to have reservations about the Iraq war and on the inadequacy of Britain's position on the Middle East peace process, but are critical of the letter writers' tactics. "I don't personally think that cohorts of retired diplomats engaging in the politics of gesticulation on a major issue of this kind is going to be helpful," said one.
A Foreign Office insider also noted, after running through the list of the letter's signatories, that "a lot of figures are marginal". The official said that "there is a problem with Arabism in the Foreign Office" and suggested it was time to look at the intractable problem of Middle East peace with a fresh eye. "God knows, you can be critical of Sharon, but in 37 years of diplomacy, what has been achieved?"
As the backlash intensified, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, accused the group of undermining Britain's relations with the US. "It is very important for us to try to work with the United States and not to have a polarisation that would weaken our influence and weaken the influence of Europe," he said in an interview on BBC2.
Asked why more prominent diplomats were not among the signatories, one of the group said that a "large number" of people were sent the first draft, but later felt that they did not want to sign. Some diplomats who had retired recently were hesitant because "this is a policy they had been defending in recent months".Reuse content