Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1995, Pages 67, 119
Edward Firth Henderson (1917-1995)
By Andrew I. Killgore
June 23, 1982 was another interesting day in the ever eventful life of retired British Ambassador to Qatar Edward Henderson. By coincidence, he shared the same last name as the then British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Nicholas (Nicki) Henderson. On that day, Israeli aircraft, tanks and gunboats were bombarding Beirut, the defenseless capital of Lebanon, and Edward Henderson joined some 100 former U.S. diplomats (including the editor and the publisher of this magazine), activists and students protesting the seeming acquiescence of U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who had blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution protesting the Israeli invasion.
Feelings against Haig were running high, inside and outside the State Department, and a number of serving foreign service officers came outside to shake hands and whisper words of encouragement to their protesting retired colleagues. The diplomats returned with word that among the demonstrators was "British Ambassador Henderson." Hearing this, one of Haig's top aides turned pale as he rushed to a seventh floor window exclaiming, "My God, surely Nicki's not out there!"
It was a moment of comic relief in an otherwise grim day in Washington. An hour or two later President Ronald Reagan "accepted" a resignation Haig hadn't yet offered, and by the end of the day Haig had assembled his State Department staff to bid them farewell. There was no direct causal connection, but it was the kind of thing that just seemed to happen to Edward Henderson, an eyewitness to and personal participant in history from the day he graduated from Oxford University just in time to be commissioned a lieutenant in the British army in the first month of World War II.
The son of a clergyman who brought him to England as a baby from his birthplace in South Africa, Edward Henderson's Oxford degrees were in Modern History and Arabic. As an officer in the British army, he helped turn back General Erwin Rommel's advances in North Africa. Then came a strange interlude when, sometimes accompanied only by Arab guides and other times in company with famed British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, Henderson traveled by foot and horseback mapping strategic areas in the rugged mountains of Syria and Lebanon that could be used to turn back the Germans if they got that far.
They did not, so when the Allies landed in Europe, Henderson fought there. His unit helped liberate some concentration camps, and he saw at first hand the misery and death wrought by the Nazi occupation of Europe.
Henderson liked to say that circumstances, not personal inclination, ruled his astonishingly varied career. This was part of his self-effacing personal style. In fact, however, at the end of World War II he volunteered for service with the Arab Legion in Jordan under General John Bagot Glubb ("Glubb Pasha") and later with the British army in the last days of the British Mandate of Palestine.
It was during the latter period that he concluded that well-intentioned British field officers were being betrayed at home for political purposes. Once, on the verge of discovering a huge illegal arms cache on a Jewish kibbutz, his unit was suddenly ordered to return to its base. Subsequently, in 1948, he saw Jewish irregulars use those smuggled arms to drive Palestinians out of their homes in Haifa while the British army was under orders not to interfere. He never got over the shock of witnessing such on-going brutality while under orders to do nothing to stop it, a matter poignantly related in his 1988 book, This Strange Eventful History, a title based upon a line from Shakespeare.
From Palestine he returned to London and, in 1948, went to the Persian Gulf to help negotiate the political agreements that made oil explorations there possible. During this period he renewed his wartime friendship with Thesiger and established lifetime friendships with the Sultan of Muscat and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan, later the president of the United Arab Emirates.
Always a free spirit, he found oil company executives stuffy and status conscious, unlike the desert Arabs who called everyone by their first names and judged people by their character and abilities from a shrewdly practical point of view. He did not idealize "the noble bedouin" as some Britons condescendingly have done. He just liked the Arabs with whom he dealt, and enjoyed their company. The fact that the respect and affection was returned was attested to by the affectionate nickname, "Bin Hender" (Son of Hender), with which he was often addressed for the rest of his life.
It was during this period that Henderson, as a former British officer, found himself involved in the Buraimi Oasis dispute between Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, and Abu Dhabi and Oman, backed by Great Britain. His fluent bedouin Arabic, friendship with many of the contending personalities, and personal bravery (not mentioned in his book) enabled him to save many lives. When he was assigned to a detachment of troops poised for a night attack, he asked the British commander to delay the operation. Then he drove alone in an automobile abandoned by a wounded sheikh to a post between the lines. From there, after several tense hours, he established contact with the "enemy" commander. Soon he was introducing the two opposing leaders and, over coffee, the peaceful evacuation of the outgunned enemy detachment by aircraft, with their weapons, was arranged.
A switch from the petroleum industry to the diplomatic service in 1956 took Henderson as British consul to Jerusalem, where he met and married his wife Jocelyn, also in the British Foreign Service. Later, he became British political resident for Qatar and the then-Trucial Coast, now the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently Henderson became the first ambassador of the United Kingdom to the newly independent state of Qatar. Both he and his wife, by then parents of two daughters, received decorations for their work in the diplomatic service.
Upon his retirement from the British government, Henderson served as director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) in London for a year. Then he traveled to Washington in 1981 to help found the American Educational Trust (AET), a non-profit non-governmental organization. As a lecturer mainly before American university audiences in the 1970s and later under AET auspices in 1982 and 1983, Ambassador Henderson was a shining star. His unparalleled knowledge of the Middle East, his elegant Oxford accent and his urbane, humorous personal observations of events that shaped the modern Middle East captivated audiences and lent him matchless credibility.
In mid-1983, when health problems forced him to curtail his U.S. speaking tours, he and his wife began dividing their time between their home in England and Abu Dhabi, whose ruler, UAE President Sheikh Zayed, presented them a second home. There, from an office in the UAE Documentation Center for Historical Research, and drawing on British colonial office files in New Delhi, he helped document the history of the Arab side of the Gulf. It was during this period that he wrote and published his colorful book, now a standard reference work for those interested in the making of the Arab states of the Gulf. Until his death at age 78 of natural causes in England in April 1995, he remained a valued personal friend of the UAE's ruler.
Always friendly, courteous and quietly unassuming on the surface, Edward Henderson was in fact a restless man. He was charged with energy and always eager to accept new challenges, visit new places, meet new people, and renew acquaintance with old friends. At the same time, he was purposeful. As a young British officer, he saw the Arabs receiving unfair treatment by the West. Later, as a diplomat, lecturer and analyst he saw that problem growing, particularly in the United States. Once, when asked during a Georgetown University lecture why he, a retired British diplomat, had come to the U.S. to critique American policy in the Arab-Israeli dispute, he replied earnestly, "Because I don't want you to go on making the same mistakes we did." It was his conviction that shortsighted policies that were generating increasing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East he knew so well were based upon misinformation, not hostile American intentions.
It was the urge to do something about this lack of information that led him to propose the establishment in the U.S. of institutions that would help Americans to become better informed about the Middle East and the consequences of U.S. policies there. In addition to co-founding the American Educational Trust, which publishes the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, he encouraged the founding of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations by Dr. John Duke Anthony, who had arranged Ambassador Henderson's first lectures in the United States.
By inspiration and example Edward Firth Henderson helped us all get started. Although the Washington, DC interlude was only a small part of his "strange and eventful history," with it he earned a large share of the credit for whatever we have accomplished since. We shall miss him.
Andrew I. Killgore is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Dr. John Duke Anthony, president of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, furnished the photograph and some of the material contained in this article.