Boris Johnson is a literary person, but no Churchill

Boris Johnson is a literary person, but no Churchill
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Gary Oldman’s Oscar for best actor in “Darkest Hour” means that Churchill’s place in history is yet again reconfirmed, but what on earth was British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson doing when he invoked the great man’s name in op-eds in the Saudi media ahead of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s arrival in London this Wednesday?

Johnson started by saying: “It was 73 years ago — almost to the day — that Winston Churchill traveled to Fayoum Oasis in Egypt for a meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia.” Quoting Churchill, Johnson continued, “His own cup-bearer from Mecca offered me a glass of water from its sacred well, the most delicious I had ever tasted.” Water? Is the British foreign secretary having a private joke at Saudi expense?

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For those who have seen “Darkest Hour” (and for those who haven’t, I can recommend it), the abiding memory of Churchill for many is the prodigious amount of alcohol he consumes. White wine with his breakfast eggs, champagne while having lunch with King George VI (even though the British monarch pointedly declares he doesn’t drink until later in the day), and whisky and brandy in the evening to accompany even more champagne at dinner. All while leading his country in wartime. Even by British standards, it is extraordinary.

 

So the full quote of Churchill about his meeting with Ibn Saud, as the British called Saudi King Abdulaziz (the grandfather of the present crown prince) is worth noting. In Volume VI of Churchill’s opus, “The Second World War, Triumph and Tragedy,” he writes: “A number of social problems arose. I had been told that neither smoking nor alcoholic beverages were allowed in the Royal Presence. As I was the host at luncheon I raised the matter at once, and said to the interpreter that if it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them. The King graciously accepted the position. His own cup-bearer from Mecca offered me a glass of water from its sacred well, the most delicious I had ever tasted.”

Along with his eccentric style and unkempt hair, Boris Johnson is a very literary person. No one expects a busy British foreign secretary to write his own op-eds but he must have glimpsed at this one before signing off on it. He surely knows the full quotation. And was it not circulated among officials, the “camel corps” of British diplomats, and did no one offer a perhaps semi-obsequious, “Yes, Minister”-type comment, suggesting a better way of demonstrating the historical link?

The rest of the op-ed, which has appeared in the Jeddah-based Arab News and the main Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, is almost fawning to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, universally known as MbS.  “I believe that the crown prince, who is only 32, has demonstrated by word and deed that he aims to guide Saudi Arabia in a more open direction. … Our role must be to encourage him along this path.”

At this point the influence of British officials is noticeable: “I will not minimize Britain’s differences with the kingdom. I want Saudi Arabia to do more to protect human rights.” He goes on: “… Amid all the turbulence of the Middle East, the kingdom has generally acted as a force for stability and moderation.” (“Generally” is such a great word when used by British bureaucrats.) Johnson continues: “You might reply that far more needs to be done to reach a peaceful settlement in Yemen and ensure that aid gets through to everyone in need. I agree. That is exactly why we need to discuss these vital matters with the crown prince during his visit to the UK.”

The Yemen point is probably an allusion to the British demonstrators planning to protest MbS’s visit, likely to be holding posters complaining about famine and epidemic in Yemen and the British supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia, which are said to have contributed to civilian casualties in the civil war.

MbS, currently in Egypt and heading to the United States after London, likely will be driven around in a Rolls-Royce. In which case, a further Churchillian anecdote is warranted.  Embarrassed by all the gifts that Ibn Saud gave him, Churchill wrote: “It appeared that we were rather outclassed in gifts, so I told the King, ‘What we bring are but tokens. His Majesty’s Government have decided to present you with the finest motor-car in the world, with every comfort for peace and every security against hostile action.’ This was later done. I assume it was a Rolls-Royce.”

It was indeed a Rolls-Royce, but Ibn Saud refused to use it. In the British design, the steering wheel was on the right, meaning that the Saudi monarch, who would have sat in the front, would have been at the left hand side of the chauffeur. This was taboo because in Bedouin life, the left hand is used for, ahem, ablutions.

The long history of British-Saudi relations does indeed continue.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.