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Opinion: A Great and Generous Soul - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The period between 1970 and 1979 brought major shifts in British society. The country was overloaded with the burdens of World War II and the political defeat of the Suez war in 1955; later, the country suffered from the oil crisis, which it survived only by finding oil reserves in the north. Even more, Britain spent the decade trying to join the European common market, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle. Britain was battling too many problems: debts, a declining pound, serious class divisions, and the control of the labor union.

Since the beginning of the 17th century, Britain has been firmly connected to all four corners of the world; through this, it has had a long, rich and vivid history. In the latter part of the 1600s, a group of people came to the country to build up banking, real estate and media, eventually making the country a refuge for those who search for opportunities and aspire to success.

Three hundred years later, those industries were firmly established—so much so that when facing the strife of 1970s Britain, they were able to seize upon rising oil prices and the unstable situation in Lebanon—as well as another often-forgotten factor, air travel, which brought the Middle East, America and Europe closer together. Suddenly, London experienced an influx of Arabs, which I had the opportunity to witness. This was happening at the same time as another unprecedented moment. A woman was making the news and establishing her name in history alongside Walpole, William Pitt the Younger and the Elder, Duke of Wellington, Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Attlee—a woman whom we are all honoring this week.

A few months after I arrived in London, the then newly-appointed Crown Prince Fahd Bin Abdulaziz (who later became the Saudi monarch) paid his first official visit to London. I was assigned to cover the event, and thus had to move between Downing Street, Whitehall, and Claridge’s, where the Saudi visitor stayed. (He preferred the Rochester, but he had to stay at Claridge’s because it was the official residence of high-profile visitors.)

During that visit, I shook hands with the Labour Party leader and then-prime minister, Harold Wilson, several times. (That occasion have me a passion for shaking he hands of leaders like him.) Harold Wilson was a political innovator who led the government twice: once from 1964 to 1970, when he was defeated by Edward Heath’s Conservatives, and again from 1974 to 1976, when he resigned and handed power to his foreign secretary, James Callaghan. Wilson is credited with introducing the age of technology to his country and enacting many liberal laws, in addition to abolishing capital punishment.

After Wilson left, a woman came to Claridge’s to visit Crown Prince Fahd. She had just been elected as the leader of the opposition Conservative party, and was clear that she was taking firm steps towards Number 10.

That day was the beginning of a strong friendship between the woman in blue, Margret Thatcher, and Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who became king few years later. Their friendship resulted in strong and close cooperation after she became prime minister. King Fahd admired her economic policies and ability to privatize government-owned institutions—her success at which made her an icon and a model for emulation by some countries. (It must be said that some reversed her model, allowing bad people to buy their countries’ institutions cheaply, as happened in Putin’s Russia.)

Similarly, Lady Thatcher admired the Saudi monarch, and kept open channels with the royal family. Her most important contact was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi ambassador to the United States for most of her tenure. Prince Bandar, who often preferred to perform his duties away from diplomatic communications and ambassadors’ eyes, has much information about this important aspect in the relations between the two countries. Lady Thatcher had private meetings with Prince Bandar, away from the usual channels, which cannot have been easy for her and which surely worried her staff.

Recently, I watched an interview with the baroness where she spoke about her memoirs. Although I supervised serializing her two books in Asharq Al-Awsat, it was only when I heard Lady Thatcher herself speaking about bringing the book to life that I understood how significant it is. It reveals important information about the Arab world during the final two decades of the past century, the implications of which are still being felt today.

The grocer’s daughter was such a strict and serious person; she was a politician who was also fulfilling her motherhood and home duties. She once said that when she had to face parliament or deliver a speech, she had a sense of preparation and fear, as if she were entering a competition. It was, she said, a feeling that did not leave until she was completely absorbed in the task at hand.

Thatcher’s strictness appeared in her stances against the left wing and Communism; it reflected her strong personality, which overshadowed her relationship with the Soviet Union at that time. She encouraged Gorbachev, praising him in a well-known quote: “We can do business together.” She also supervised a PR campaign to boost his position among her allies and friends. I remember Thatcher sending a special envoy to one of the leaders in the Middle East to explain the importance of changing his country’s policy on the Soviet Union as it evolved under its final leader.

She clashed with her country’s leftists and labor unions, nearly to the point of starting a civil war between the north, which was empowered by unions, mines and other industries, and the south, where she was centered. Here, Thatcher chose the wrong road, leading to incurable wounds. Lady Thatcher did not invent these divisions between the north and the south of Britain, but she did suffer from the long ethnic and religious history that created deep-seated divisions in the country. Thatcher took a sharp stance that incurred losses, but she revived the British economy. Similarly, strictness affected her policies towards the left wing of her own party, and she got rid of all of its leaders.

Lady Thatcher is also credited with much progress achieved in the press—Britain’s in particular, but also the world press in general. In her day, I lived in Fleet Street, where major British newspapers have been based for centuries; Fleet Street’s publications are considered landmarks of progress, freedom and creativity. However, by the 1970s journalism had come under the control of labor unions that hindered its technical development through their rigid traditions and failure to keep up with progress. Unions stalled the move to electronic typography, introducing new printing machines and even using new ink, paper or any other technical element. Unionists who may have not received proper education could mistreat owners or editors of newspapers, strike whenever they wanted, and stop working for often-incomprehensible reasons.

Some of the newcomers from the Middle East, who were in pursuit of the freedom lacking in their countries, started imitating their British counterparts. Enacting new laws, Lady Thatcher hit the unions with an iron fist, hoping to allow the development of press institutions. This triggered an overwhelming revolution that has made Britain an active contributor in the technological revolution we are now witnessing. Rudimentary, retrograde and traditionalist labor unions stood against change and effectiveness, but the lady’s determination and firmness in moving forward were successful in ending the unionists’ resistance.

I can remember one event, in Febraury 2007, when the dean of Arab ambassadors in London, Kuwait’s Khaled Al-Duwaisan, invited me to a reception held for HH Prince Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait, who was the last Arab leader to meet Thatcher. I saw her come in as I was leaving, carrying her black handbag as she always did. As MP Baroness Shirley Williams said, the handbag of the Iron Lady was the secret to her strength. It was her secret weapon. Her hairdo was the same as it had always been, elegant and exquisite; it made me recall something she had once said: “I cut back an hour and half from my sleep to have my hair done.”

For more comprehensive image of Lady Thatcher, her policies, government and relationships with the world, it is useful to read her memoirs, The Downing Street Years. This newspaper has the privilege of owning the exclusive Arabic syndication rights to her book, which was serialized starting on Sunday, October 10, 1993. At that time, I was the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and I wrote a preface to the Arabic edition of The Downing Street Years, summarizing the pre-Thatcher era and the significance of our presentation of the book to Arab readers. After The Downing Street Years, Lady Thatcher worked on writing about her childhood and adolescence. The result was her book, The Path to Power, which we were eager to publish in Arabic; we started serializing that book on Monday, May 22, 1995.

Last year, Lady Margret Thatcher honored me by giving me a special portrait of her drawn by the British artist Lorna May Wadsworth in 2007, which the baroness had autographed. It has been a source of happiness for me, a person who lived Thatcher’s time.

Farewell to this great soul and her glowing generosity.

Othman Al-Omeir

Othman Al-Omeir

Othman Al-Omeir is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.

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