A diplomat described Margaret Thatcher as “very oily to kings” after she insisted that Britain formally apologise to Saudi Arabia over a BBC radio report.
An item on the BBC World Service in 1983 recounting allegations of mistreatment of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca drew a furious response from the Saudis, who claimed that the “anti-Islamic” report was linked to the Beeb’s appointment of Stuart Young, who was Jewish, as its new chairman.
The outburst led to then Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe sending a telegram to the British embassy in Riyadh asking for such “nonsense” to be “knocked on the head”.
But Foreign Office documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, show that Downing Street was far more concerned about causing offence to the Saudi royal family.
Diplomats were instructed to draft a letter from Mrs Thatcher to King Fahd, whose ministers signed the massive Al Yamamah arms deal with Britain two years later.
When the resulting text did not meet the Prime Minister’s expectations, Number 10 wrote back saying: “She believes that we should say that we are disturbed at this misreporting of this incident and that we are sorry that it occurred.”
The response did not impress the FCO. One diplomat wrote in the margin: “An object lesson here. PM is very oily to kings but matter of fact to lesser mortals!”