The Legacy of Suez

The Legacy of Suez

Pierre Hutton's The Legacy of Suez

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MEC - Hutton AuthorIntroduction

This story covers some aspects of my personal involvement in Australia's relations with the Middle East between 1973 and 1981. Memory, which can be a faulty guide, has been helped by access to files of the Department of Foreign Affairs now in the Australian Archives.

For many years, very subjective political and popular attitudes determined Australian policies towards Egypt, towards the search for lasting peace in the Middle East and towards the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The search for a balanced picture of causes and consequences was for a long time not pursued with zeal in Canberra's corridors of power, but the changing composition of the nation may now put new pressures on foreign policy makers.

This account is of how Australia slowly began to adapt to realities experienced earlier elsewhere, for example in Western Europe. These were early days in an uneven shift in Australian foreign policy from uncritical support of one side in the Middle East conflicts, through "non-involvement, to "evenhandedness". Behind these handy public phrases, a more profound assessment of where Australia's own national interests lay would be quietly made in Canberra. There was to be a growth of expertise within the Department of Foreign Affairs, and within the new Office of National Assessments, which was to advise the Prime Minister, and the economic and trade interests of Australia in the area would no longer be pursued with a disregard for our stand on political issues. Foreign Affairs also began to see that domestic group pressure relating to the Middle East could have many facets, beside which, the Australian media would have its own eyes and ears in the area. But this was all in the future.

The Lebanese story depicts the workings of the Australian Embassy in the last days before the civil war broke out in early 1975, and how it adjusted as Beirut entered nearly two decades of bloody anarchy. Informal contact at ambassador level was established at this time with the PLO leadership through urgent necessity, rather than because of any policy considerations.

The account of the opening of diplomatic relations with Iraq, Syria and Jordan in 1974-75 still has relevance today, since the same political forces and leadership hold power in 1996. Readers may wonder if decisions on the opening and closing of diplomatic posts are made without considering all the facts. [NOTE]

The description of my Egyptian days gives a picture of Cairo in the last years of Anwar Sadat's life. It shows how Australia tiptoed through the diplomatic hazards following the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. This was at the beginning of a new and beneficial bilateral relationship, and it ended the dark chapter of the years that preceded the break in diplomatic relations after the Suez Canal crisis of 1956.

The Sudan has had a fascination for me since childhood. Accreditation from Cairo as Australia's representative to this remote land gave me a chance to reflect on the story of Gordon, the Mahdi and Kitchener. This was, of course, in addition to pursuing Australia's interests in the largest country in Africa!

If Australia had an consistent policy towards the Middle East in the years of my involvement, it was to seek the maximum commercial and economic benefits with the minimum involvement in political and human rights issues. Taking robust positions would have been too precarious on the domestic scene for the major political parties. If they got away with this "policy", it was partly through good luck. Perhaps it was also partly due to Australia's diplomatic and trade representatives in the area covering up the inconsistencies as we went along.

On 4 January 1973, after three years as High Commissioner to Nigeria, a telegram from Keith Waller, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, signalled the start of a long and varied experience of the Middle East. He acknowledged that, for family reasons, I would have preferred to return to the Department, but my "experience andS knowledge of French would be important assets" in Lebanon. He knew that I "would find this an interesting assignment". It was to be more "interesting" than Keith Waller could possibly have imagined.

I have been fortunate in the preparation of this paper. The recollections of some who shared my experiences of Beirut and Cairo have had special significance. Other former Australian ambassadors have generously given time to comment on drafts and specifically on my interpretation of events and Australia's official reactions to them. They will not mind remaining anonymous.

It was a privilege to receive approval from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for special access to files in the Australian Archives in Canberra, covering the years of my involvement in the Middle East. Under the terms of the Archives Act, the paper was submitted for scrutiny. This does not in anyway imply any departmental position being taken on my interpretation of the events described.

Many of the documents read were familiar to me, but to locate them all on short visits to Canberra would have been a daunting challenge. The help of the Historical Documents Branch in the Department and of officers of the Australian Archives was immensely valuable.

My wife Judy and our family shared a number of the experiences described. Their support and suggestions over this paper give witness to a close and loving family.

A long held accusation against members of the British Foreign Service who have worked in the Middle East has been their supposed bias towards "one side". I make no claim to having become an "Arabist", but I took to the area some experience of the non-Western world and some departmental experience of watching the political process in Canberra < as Private Secretary to a Foreign Minister and as Public Information Officer handling Parliamentary liaison. My point of view was and remains neither "pro" nor "anti" anyone or anything in the Middle East. That said, I do believe that on a level playing field all community groups in Australia with roots in the area should have an equal chance to present their concerns and aspirations to the Federal Government.


December 1996


The closing of the Embassy in Switzerland was an example of just such shortsightedness.

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