Sir Harold Beeley

Thursday 02 August 2001 00:00 BST

Harold Beeley, diplomat and historian: born Manchester 15 February 1909; Assistant Lecturer in Modern History, Sheffield University 1930-31; Assistant Lecturer, University College London 1931-35; Junior Research Fellow and Lecturer, Queen's College, Oxford 1935-38; Lecturer, University College Leicester 1938-39; CBE 1946; Counsellor of Embassy, Copenhagen 1949-50, Baghdad 1950-53, Washington 1953-55; CMG 1953, KCMG 1961; ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1955; Assistant Under- Secretary, Foreign Office 1956-58; Deputy UK Representative to the United Nations, New York 1958-61; ambassador to the United Arab Republic 1961-64, 1967-69; UK Representative, Disarmament Conference, Geneva 1964-67; Lecturer in History, Queen Mary College, London 1969-75; married 1933 Millicent Chinn (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1953), 1958 Patricia Brett-Smith (died 1999; one daughter); died 27 July 2001.

Harold Beeley's reputation, and the high esteem in which his colleagues in Britain and abroad held him, rests mainly on his role as one of the most influential creators and practitioners of British policy in the Middle East during the thirty-odd years after the end of the Second World War. He recognised, perhaps earlier than others, that a romantic notion of desert hawks and black tents was an unreliable basis for policy; and was delighted when a well-known Arabist of the old school was heard to say: "Beeley is a bit of an Effendi."

He was first exposed to Middle Eastern affairs in 1946, when he was appointed Secretary of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine, which recommended partition. Established in that year as a member of the Foreign Service, he was appointed assistant in the geographical department dealing with Palestine and soon became the Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's closest adviser on the subject.

After a spell in Copenhagen as Deputy Head of Mission, Beeley was sent – in the same capacity – to Baghdad, a post which he greatly enjoyed: his first opportunity for dealing with an Arab government in an Arab environment. From there he was sent to Washington where he established lasting and important official friends.

In 1955 he was sent as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, but had to be recalled on health grounds after only a few months. On his recovery he was appointed Assistant Under-Secretary for the Middle East, and it was in this post that occurred the most traumatic experience of his career – and one to which he referred frequently in later life. He was kept in ignorance of plans for the Anglo/French invasion of Egypt; and thus, only a few days before the landings, assured the US authorities, in perfectly good faith, that nothing of the sort was contemplated. It is a tribute to Beeley's reputation that his later explanations were believed.

After Suez he went to New York as Deputy Head of the British Mission to the UN, and in 1961 to Cairo as ambassador. It was a task of enormous difficulty to restore Anglo-Egyptian relations to friendly dealings between equals. After a spell as British representative at the Disarmament Conference at Geneva, the new Foreign Secretary, George Brown, asked him to return to Cairo for a second spell as ambassador – an assignment which Beeley welcomed and at which he was as successful as he had been first time round. He retired in 1969.

His career had been an unusual one. He had entered the Foreign Service rather late – in his mid-thirties – with a substantial academic career behind him. Educated at Highgate School and Queen's College, Oxford, he had taught Modern History at Sheffield University, University College London, Queen's (again) and University College Leicester.

His eyesight prevented service in the Armed Forces and, on the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined Arnold Toynbee at Chatham House, from which he moved into the Research Department of the Foreign Office. In 1945 he was sent to San Francisco and the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations. This gave him a taste for diplomacy on a global scale. And his subsequent service with the Palestine Commission concentrated his attention on the Arab world.

This background gave to Beeley a certain detachment from the trivia of diplomacy and a certain independence of thought. And this was supported by the idiosyncrasies of his tastes and habit of mind. A man of wide culture and a large and diverse circle of friends, he was quite unaffected by changing tastes and fashionable notions of morality. In so far as he expressed opinions on domestic policies, they were of the left-centre. He detested Thatcherism.

But he admired Nuri-el-Said, virtual ruler of Iraq until the revolution of 1958 and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, also assassinated. Beeley was unusual among his colleagues in enjoying George Brown. Above all he admired Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary- General of the United Nations.

Harold Beeley was a man of great charm. It was once said of him that no one could leave a conversation with him without feeling more cheerful.

John Longrigg

On honeymoon, on 31 December 1963 my wife and I paid a courtesy call on Sir Harold Beeley, in his Cairo Embassy, writes Tam Dalyell.

We mentioned that, after our Boxing Day wedding, our plane had been suddenly enveloped in fog at Edinburgh Turnhouse Airport and, the night Scotsman being fully booked, we had had to take the milk train. A sardonic smile crossed his severe and formidable ambassadorial face and a twinkle emerged under the ever-twitching eyebrows. "So your first night together was spent in Egypt?"

"Well, yes."

"Mrs Dalyell, which hotel are you staying in?"

"The El Borg," said Kathleen.

"Mrs Dalyell, you ought to know that we know that the El Borg Hotel is bugged."

We gulped. Po-faced, Beeley observed that our first night intimacies would be duly recorded in the archives of the United Arab Republic. He was, to my certain knowledge through a later incident, correct.

Beeley revealed himself to be not only exceedingly knowledgeable about the Egypt to which he was assigned, but a considerable scholar on the temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel, to which we were going. He was taking an expert interest in the plans of Tor Gjesdal and other UN officials to raise the figures of Rameses at Abu Simbel prior to the completion of the new Aswan Dam.

On the night we were due to leave Cairo, I was sent for out of the blue, after midnight, to see the President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, at his home in Heliopolis. Deeply angry with and critical of Britain – it was only seven years after Suez – Nasser praised Beeley as "one of the best of your British".

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