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Unintentionally revealing account by an Establishment insider
on 20 November 2014
This book combines three objectives.
1. An account of Gardner's earlier life, how he obtained the very interesting and influential job of a BBC Middle East correspondent.
2. His recovery from an assassination attempt by Al Qaida, which left him paraplegic.
3. His thoughts about the Middle East, especially the "War on Terror", this being his special subject.
His book meets some of these objectives better than others.
The account of his injury and rehabilitation is an interesting first-hand account of how it was for him. However each person has his/her own way of recovering from traumatic injury and adjusting to disability, so I'd advise anyone who's suffered such injuries themselves to not rely on this one source. For example he didn't use self-catheterisation for a long time- it's not clear why not, and what help he got or didn't get in learning this process. Various other aspects of paraplegia are also not gone into- understandably, as they're very personal, but this lack of info would make the book less useful to a patient or relative.
His thoughts on the Middle East were by far the least interesting element. He is very much a "mainstream" Establishment man on these topics. However the main problems is his extreme reluctance to criticise the Saudi Arabian regime and Saudi people. He mentions that following his near-fatal shooting in Saudi Arabia, in front of many people, no one lifted a finger to help him, although some did film the event for Youtube! He loses no opportunity to praise some Saudi prince for the help he afforded him, as if there was no self-interest in the Saudi's actions. One gets no hint from his account that Saudi Arabia is actually the most repressive despotic regime in the entire world, and is the source for the funding and inspiration of worldwide Islamic terrorism. Presumably as a BBC correspondent he feels obliged to keep in with the Saudi regime in order to secure ongoing access to the country and to the elite. However, talking only with elites is probably the reason why the BBC (and Western governments) totally failed to foresee the "Arab Spring", the fall of Communism in Europe, and- well, just about anything else. All this is forgivable, but I can't excuse Gardner's dismissive treatment of the case of Sandy Mitchell, the British health worker who was tortured and imprisoned in Saudi for 2 years after being fitted up for bombings which (as the Saudis knew) were actually the work of al Qaida. You need to read "Saudi Babylon" to get the full account of that case, and of the Blair government's despicable treatment of Mitchell.
The best element of the book is Gardner's account of his earlier life- for what he leaves out as much as for what he tells us. Its insider's account of a seemingly effortless progression to a well-paid, interesting and influential job is doubtless pretty typical. Gardner's parents were both diplomats- his mum had previously been "headhunted" by the mother of Wilfred Thesiger as a possible wife for her son. Gardner's indifferent performance at Marlborough public school did not prevent him getting a place at Exeter Uni's very small but prestigious course in Arabic and Islamic studies. His understanding of Islamic history accords with the typical views of an educated mainstream Muslim, i.e. that the Arabians did a big favour to all those Pagans and Christians and Zoroastrians and Hindus by conquering them. His Arabic studies equipped him to understand the classical Arabic poetry of 1000 years ago, rather than the modern Arabic spoken by hundreds of millions of people- pretty typical of British academia!
His only interview before graduation was with MI6- bear in mind that in those days you didn't APPLY to MI6- they called you, having previously assured themselves that you had a "sound" background. He says he turned them down because he wanted public recognition, not anonymity.
He then got a job with a small company selling perfume to the Middle Eastern market, where he remained for two years! For some reason he omits to tell us that he was also in the Territorial Army throughout this period. Then in 1986 "a friend of a friend gave my CV to Sir_______ the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now a director of Gulf International Bank" (jointly owned by the Saudi regime and various UK banks). As you do... Sure enough, Gardner gets a job with this bank. He knows nothing whatsoever about banking- but that's not a problem- they send him on a four month course to learn it! In 1990 he becomes a director in another bank, and the same year he is promoted to Captain in the Territorials, though again this isn't in the book. Then in 1995 he joined the BBC.
All this did make me wonder why I hadn't distributed my own CV to all my friends, and told them to copy it to their friends, ready to produce whenever they ran into an ex-ambassador or bank director! Trouble is- my friends don't meet that sort of people, and neither do their friends. Just one line in the book- but tells you so much about how the UK actually works. I'm sure Frank Gardner is, on a personal level, a thoroughly honourable man, who tells the truth as he sees it. But it's the lens and filters through which he views his "truth" that are all-important. This book says a lot about those filters and lenses, if you read between the lines.