1960-1969 | Backing dictatorships | Saudi Arabia

UK ambassador on our ‘friendly’ but ‘barbaric’ Saudi ally

Colin Crowe c. 1949 (National Photo Collection of Israel via Wikimedia) and the author Robin Maugham (Allan Warren – CC BY-SA 3.0 – via Wikimedia).

14 October 1964

On 14 October 1964, in his final dispatch as Britain’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Colin Crowe declared that the Saudi regime was ‘about as satisfactory as any we could expect’ as it was ‘friendly to the West and strongly anti-communist.’ In numerous reports since he had been appointed ambassador in April 1963, Crowe had repeatedly stressed how crucial the continuation of the authoritarian and fundamentalist monarchy was to British interests in the Middle East. The Foreign Office understood only too well that he was referring primarily to Britain’s long established doctrine of exercising as much control as possible over world oil supplies.1

Crowe was a steadfast cheerleader for realpolitik, but he was also cognisant of the feudal brutality of the Saudi regime. In June 1963, he reported that the country was ‘ruled by a royal family whose extravagance and dissipation are only rivaled by its numbers. It has no modern code of laws and its criminal justice is of medieval barbarity. There is not even a pretence of democratic institutions and though slavery has been abolished slaves are still to be found. Corruption is widespread. The country sits on top of some of the richest oil resources in the world and enjoys a vast unearned income which has dissipated in pleasure, palaces and Cadillacs.’2

The British public were also becoming increasingly aware of some of the uglier attributes of Britain’s favoured ally and at least one national newspaper highlighted how the kingdom was obtaining a large proportion of its slaves from the British colony of Kenya. In October 1963, the writer Robin Maugham described in an article in The People how ‘young girls and boys are being shipped in huge numbers from Africa to become the slaves of oil-rich Arab Sheikhs.’ He explained that ‘as Saudi Arabia has become rich through oil, the possession of slaves has become a status symbol’ and added that he witnessed evidence of the trade still thriving at Mombassa, Kenya’s main port.  He reported that he was ‘offered a 13 year old boy for £50 and told: “If he disappears nobody will ask any questions.”‘  He had also seen ‘groups of frightened children aboard native dhows,’ adding that he was ‘convinced that they were among the thousands of children whom I learned are still being smuggled regularly to Saudi Arabia, the heart of the slave trade.’3


  1. Sir Colin Crowe cited in Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2012, p. 94.
  2. Sir Colin Crowe cited in Mark Curtis, op. cit., p. 93.
  3. Lord Maugham, ‘Slavery 1963: I found how children are sold like cattle,’ The People, 20 October 1963, pp. 14-15.

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