Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.
This week’s terrible events in Beirut brought back a lot of memories for me. The dust filled streets were reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11, in which I feared a friend of mine had been killed. My friend, Jacqui Smith, the former Labour Home Secretary, is a regular visitor to Beirut, and she told me the hotel she stays in has been totally destroyed.
I am glad the UK government is sending £5 million in aid, along with medical equipment and supplies. It’s good to see that the Israeli government has offered aid too, although it remains to be seen whether it will be accepted.
But the main memory it brought back was a trip I made to Beirut in the early 1990s, not long after the British hostages had been freed. Indeed, I was told I was the first Brit to have ventured there following John McCarthy’s release, a bit of a coincidence as John McCarthy lived in the next village to me in Essex. Had I known this before my trip I suspect I might well have chickened out of going.
The reason for my trip was equally bizarre. I was working as transport lobbyist at the time, specialising in various forms of transport privatisation. I got a call from the Foreign Office asking if I would be interested in speaking at a conference on the subject in the Middle East as no one in the Department of Transport could go. Never having been to that part of the world before, I was naturally rather keen.
‘Where is it being held?’ I asked. ‘Er, Beirut,’ came the response. I began to understand why Department for Transport diaries were curiously full. But my own curiosity and sense of adventure got the better of me and a few weeks later I was travelling to the Lebanese capital courtesy of a first class ticket of Middle Eastern Airlines. ‘This is the life,’ I thought to myself.
I had been told by the Foreign Office that when I got off the plane I would be met by officials from the British Embassy and that I wasn’t to talk to, or go off with, anyone but them. When I started descending the rather rickety steps, all I could see were Lebanese army soldiers surrounding the plane toting AK47s. It was at that point I did wonder to myself if this had been such a good idea.
When I got to the bottom of the steps a black Mercedes with darkened windows pulled up. A man wearing dark glasses got out, approached me and said: ‘Mr Dale? You come with me.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m being collected by the British Embassy’. ‘Mr Dale, you come with me,’ he repeated in a manner which seemed rather determined. Being a complete coward, I got in the car and travelled a couple of hundred yards to a shed where he demanded my passport.
Eventually I gave up asking where the British embassy officials were and decided that doing what I was told was the best way forward. Once the passport formalities were complete, he told me he would take me to my hotel, which was about half an hour’s drive away. I knew that the airport road was not exactly the safest part of Beirut, but I wasn’t in much of a position to argue.
On the way to the hotel I had a running commentary of all the people who had been killed or kidnapped on this road. Just what I needed. The whole area seemed to resemble Dresden after a bombing raid. Rubble everywhere, people nowhere. As we approached Beirut itself it was quite clear that this had once been a truly beautiful place.
The hotel was comfortable, if not luxurious. But looking out of the reception window it was impossible to ignore the armed guards who surrounded its perimeter.
At last I heard the sound of British voices. I turned round and saw four khaki dressed soldiers approaching. They apologised for missing me at the airport and asked if I was ready. ‘Ready for what?’ I asked. ‘You’re guest of honour at a dinner at the British Embassy in an hour,’ they informed me. ‘Nice of someone to tell me,’ I thought.
I have to admit I am not the kind of person who is used to Embassy dinners or cocktail parties. Indeed, I had never been to one before, and haven’t been to another one since. But it’s not the dinner that sticks in my mind from that memorable day. It was the 45 minute drive from the hotel to the Embassy.
We were in a convoy of two armed land rovers, each with soldiers almost hanging out of the windows, carrying guns. We drove at breakneck speed through down Beirut, up into the hills. I did wonder if it was such a good idea to have a Union Jack flying from the front of each Land Rover but didn’t like to say anything. We got to the embassy and negotiated the 200 yard long chicane of concrete blocks which was supposed to protect the building from suicide bombers, I imagine, and I arrived to be greeted by the Ambassador and his wife who had invited a selection of local businesspeople and journalists to meet me. Not only that, it turned out they were expecting a speech. Nowadays, that wouldn’t particularly phase me, but it did then! Somehow I got through it.
The next day I spoke at the Transport Privatisation conference, which was being shown live on TV throughout the Middle East, therefore telling every terrorist organisation in the region that a new Brit was in their midst. Thankfully I wasn’t told that until I was about to leave. The speech went well and I then had the best part of a day to myself. I had been told I wasn’t to set foot outside the hotel without ringing the embassy and getting their permission and a guard.
They provided me with a driver for a visit I wanted to make to the port area. I was shown round by the port manager whose English was only slightly worse than my French. They were still trying to clear the harbour area of wreckage so the port could start to function again properly. I suspect the explosion has meant they will have to start all over again. Given Lebanon is a country that relies entirely in imports, they will need to get the port up and running pretty quickly.
On the way back I tried to ask my driver where I could buy some souvenirs. Feeling quite proud of myself for making myself understood in French I was horrified when I found him driving off the main road through some backstreets. He understood I needed to change some dollars but the first place we went to couldn’t do it. I then found myself walking down the main shopping street in Beirut behind this man feeling rather conspicuous in my western suit. All eyes were on me – well at least I thought they were. I changed some money and bought a few vases and then scarpered back to the hotel.
But the best part of the trip was about to happen. A man from the organisers of the conference asked if I would like a tour of the countryside surrounding Beirut. I said I didn’t think the Embassy would allow me to, but I let myself be persuaded (the follies of youth) and spent the next two hours in his company being drive round the mountains and valleys that surround Beirut, including the famous Bekaa valley. He even took me to meet his family.
It really was a trip that will be forever etched into my memory. I was utterly stupid and irresponsible to go. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.