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Embassy Tips

My Mum (God rest her soul) used to smoke Embassy Tips, but suddenly gave up when in her 60’s. I was never sure what triggered the sudden stop, but to her credit she managed the transition to fresh air well. However, this item isn’t about smoking, it’s about the opportunities open to ex-pats living in Saudi’s capital city in relation to the various foreign embassies.

So firstly, a quick explanation of what the functions of the embassies are. If two countries are on speaking terms they may allow a reciprocal exchange of Ambassadors, and the Ambassador is permitted to have an embassy as a base. The Ambassador’s functions are many, but I guess that the principal one is to represent his own country to the governing body of the host nation. He is also on hand to hear the views of the host nation, and transmit these back to home. If we read that “the Ambassador was summoned to meet the Foreign Secretary” we can understand that he is in for a wigging, as his country has transgressed in some way to the displeasure of the host country. There are occasional spats between countries that can result in one country “withdrawing their ambassador” (we’re in the huff with you), or countries banishing embassy personnel for “activities incompatible with diplomacy” (spying, rabble-rousing etc). The embassies themselves enjoy special status and are treated as if they are sovereign territory of the visiting nation. Under international law (1961 Treaty of Vienna) they are guaranteed free from harassment and violation by the host country, and this extends to the registered diplomats and diplomatic couriers, and goods and papers brought in and out of the country through the “diplomatic bag”.

In extremis, the protocols can be broken. I remember watching the London Iranian Embassy seige on the TV news in 1980. 

Under the British system, the Ambassador is a senior diplomat and usually a career civil servant. Other countries (notably the USA) hand out ambassadorships as political appointments, and as Presidents come and go, so do their overseas representatives, in the prominent countries at least. For Riyadh, the current USA administration hasn’t got around to appointing an ambassador here yet, and the role is filled by a Chargé d’Affaires.

Some countries also have a Consulate abroad, and this is a lower level arrangement without an ambassador being present. For example, there is a UK Consulate in Jeddah, some 1,000km from Riyadh. The Consul there enjoys similar diplomatic protection however his role is subordinate to the Ambassador and will focus on the local issues rather than national ones. Typically, his office will deal locally with UK visa and passport issues (also done in the Consular section of the embassy), and regional cultural and trade matters.

It used to be that UK ex-pats working or living in Saudi Arabia were required to register with the embassy, but this is no longer the case. We are encouraged to sign up for email and other social media advice as issued by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, however the ex-pat grapevine seems to be 24 hours ahead of anything the FCO puts out. For example, three weeks ago when a missile from Yemen was brought down by defence systems near Riyadh airport we heard the explosion, and “Whatsapp” burst into life and we knew what had happened within the hour.It was not until late the following day that the FCO passed the news on. In fairness, they have to verify the facts, and do some sort of risk analysis before they warn us ex-pats on what to do. No doubt the embassy was busy that evening mining for information from its Saudi official contacts and channels.

I/we visit the British Embassy from time to time for cultural or social events. Visits this year have included the Caledonian Society’s Burns’ Supper and Fawlty Towers Dining Experience and a few meetings and a couple of themed party nights. Clubs who are affiliated to the embassy arrange these and there is normally an entry fee. One of the attractions for attending events in the embassies is that western style beverages can be served, having been brought into KSA via the diplomatic bag. However, in the last month I/we have had three free visits there, all of them very interesting.

The first was to the a.g.m. of the Caledonian Society, where I was asked to present an update on the curling. Following that I was invited by the embassy’s cultural attaché to attend an intimate reception a week later in recognition of the visit of the UK Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch MP. This I duly attended, and it was held in the Ambassador’s private garden. Here, somewhat surprisingly, I had the Minister and her aide introduced to me (!) – usually it’s the other way around and I get introduced to other people. She was very interested to hear about our progress in establishing curling, and made the expected encouraging noises. However her aide was a real revelation, Lisa O’Keefe is the Director of Insight for Sport England, and clearly has a Scottish upbringing. She chipped in to the minister and ambassador that she had curled when at school in Edinburgh (as you do), and that they should both try it! I was able to give the visitors details of Fenton’s Rink in Tunbridge Wells, and added that the new rink in Barton Grange, Preston, is also taking shape. Never waste an opportunity! I was also able to mingle with the other 25 or so guests and make contacts and push out some brochures of the Kingdom Curling Association sponsorship opportunities. (If anyone wishes to become a sponsor of the KCA, please contact me and I will share the procedure with you.)

Next up, on 11th November was the British Embassy’s Service of Remembrance. This was a full-blown service in the garden of the embassy, presided over by a visiting Anglican vicar. There was a sizeable gathering of ambassadors and their representatives, and most of these laid wreaths after the two minutes silence. There was a Royal Marines bugler on hand to blow the Last Post and the Reveille, and other hymn and anthem singing was led by the Riyadh Choral Society – a group of ex-pats who keep their collective lights firmly under bushels. Following the service, His Excellency the ambassador invited all those present to join him for a roast beef dinner. This was most enjoyable, as there were very good quality beef joints provided, along with roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and other trimmings. Oh, and apple pie to follow too. Yum yum.

Next up at the embassy will be a performance by the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, again organised by the Caledonian Society. This promises to be an enjoyable evening, and hopefully the rain will stay away – the seasons are turning. There have been a few showers during the last week, and the temperature is down to a cool 23 – 26 degrees C during the day and low teen figures at night. I will have to look out my jersey soon.

As we have established an international range of friends here, we have also been invited to events at other countries’ embassies, and this has enabled us to visit the USA and Australian ones. One thing all have in common is a very high degree of security, both overt and covert. The embassies are mostly located in a secure neighbourhood, known as the Diplomatic Quarter, and entry to this is through armed checkpoints with ID scrutiny. Not at all what we have in London, where – for example – the Saudi Arabian embassy is a building with a front door on a street near to Berkeley Square. I do miss the freedoms that we take for granted at home. There are no photos with this blog item - we are not allowed to take cameras, mobile phones or other electronic gizmos into the embassies. 

My mum would have been amazed at the opportunities I have been privileged to grasp these days.

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