1960-1969 | Backing dictatorships | Saudi Arabia

Foreign Secretary – We must prop up the Saudi dictatorship

Prince Faisal ( US Library of Congress via Wikimedia ) and Douglas-Home ( Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia )

10 May 1963

Today in 1963, Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home advised Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, that it was in Britain’s interest ‘that the present regime (in Saudi Arabia) should survive and that its principal prop should be efficient.’1 The ‘prop’ he was referring to was the National Guard, commanded by the King Saud’s brother, Prince Faisal. It had been set up by the Saudi monarchy as a rival power base to the Saudi army, in case it was needed to quell either a coup or popular revolt by reformist republican nationalists or other progressive dissident elements.

This did not however mean that Britain was unwilling to be flexible in choosing sides in internal feuds within the Saudi royal family. By early 1963, Prince Faisal, beloved in Whitehall for his fervent support for pan-Islamism in preference to the pan-Arab nationalism and socialism advocated by Egypt’s President Nasser, had been involved in a bitter power struggle with his brother King Fahd for over five years. When, in February 1963, The Foreign Office decided to send a British Military Mission to the National Guard, under the command of Brigadier Adrian Donaldson, it knew that it would serve to bolster Prince Faisal’s position, and when Faisal deployed the National Guard to surround King Saud’s palace in a successful coup in March 1964, the Mission helped plan Faisal’s protection in the event of a counter-coup.2

As John Fisher, a journalist based in Saudi Arabia, reported the same month, Britain was now in a position to ‘do big business with a country which is on 100% gold standard and whose income from oil has been steadily rising,’ provided the kingdom, which he described as ‘an amalgamation of many different tribes,’ remained united through the ‘efforts of a sect of warlike religious puritans who are ready to fight all who depart from the strictest interpretations of Islamic law.’ As long as this authoritarian regime remained firmly in control, he predicted we would continue to benefit financially from improved relations, adding that ‘British business men are out in force in the two main cities’ and ‘cutting down the lead which the Japanese and Germans built up in the seven years after Suez.’3


  1. Nicholas Gilby, Deception in High Places: A History of Bribery in Britain’s Arms Trade, Pluto Press, London, 2014, p. 42.
  2. Ibid.
  3. John Fisher, ‘The Changing Face of Saudi Arabia,’ The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 5 March 1964, p. 8 .

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