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Sir Alexander Stirling

Diplomat

Diplomat

Born. October 20, 1927; Died: October 20, 2014

Sir Alexander Stirling, who has died aged 86, was a noted British diplomat who served in his distinguished career as ambassador to four Middle Eastern countries and survived an assassination attempt in Baghdad. He had a comprehensive knowledge of Arab affairs and was respected throughout the region.

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During a fraught period in Iraq, Sir Alec had to cope with the vagaries of the Saddam Hussein regime. On June 19, 1980, three unknown gunmen armed with automatic weapons and grenades burst into the forecourt of the embassy, got past the guards, and set off bombs. They fired their rifles indiscriminately and Sir Alec escaped being killed by inches when one of three bullets aimed at him passed across his chest and through the lapel of his jacket.

With a fine sense of diplomatic reserve Sir Alec remained calm and somehow was able to dictate two urgent telegrams to London. He drew attention to the serious nature of the siege and the political repercussions it would cause. He omitted to mention his own injuries.

The Foreign Office asked for the jacket with the bullet holes to be sent to London for display inside the FO. But his prudent Scottish wife had already sent it to the invisible menders.

Alexander John Dickson Stirling, always known as Alec, was born in Rawalpindi, the son of Brigadier A Dickson Stirling, DSO, of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Sir Alec attended the Edinburgh Academy from 1936- 1945, where he distinguished himself academically, winning prizes in French and history. After service as an RAF officer in Egypt he read Modern Languages at Lincoln College, Oxford.

He joined the Foreign Office in 1951 and studied Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies in Lebanon. He then had postings to the embassies in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and Amman.

He was also a member of the 1968 UK delegation that toured the Gulf States to assure the rulers there were no plans to leave the region despite the recent withdrawal from Aden. When Harold Wilson's Government did not abide by that assurance later that year Sir Alec believed the UK had lost much goodwill in the Middle East.

In 1969, Sir Alec was appointed Political Agent in Bahrain and built an excellent relationship with the Sheikh. In 1971 he was appointed Britain's first ambassador to the newly independent state. That was followed by postings in Beirut and the Lebanon, where Sir Alec's tact and diplomatic nerve were severely tested.

After three years back in London at the Royal College Of Defence, Sir Alec was, in 1977, appointed to one of the most testing posts in the diplomatic service: Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The country was politically unstable, with an all-powerful police force and army. But the wealth engendered by its oil reserves made it attractive for UK business so a balance had to be found.

The year after he arrived in Baghdad, Abd ar-Razzaq an-Naif, a former Iraqi Prime Minister, had been shot outside a London hotel and an already vulnerable situation became a crisis. Sir Alec liaised with the British Foreign Secretary David Owen, who expelled six members of the Iraqi Embassy. In retaliation six members of the British Embassy in Baghdad were declared persona non-grata.

The real reason for the attack on the Embassy in 1980 left the political situation even more tense. It came on the eve of Iraq's first national assembly elections in 20 years. Some observers considered it an attempt to disrupt the ballot. Others thought it revenge for the deaths after the SAS raid on the Iranian embassy the previous month.

The result was diplomatic relations between the UK and Iraq were at a standstill and Sir Alec endeavoured to rebuild bridges with the aggressive Saddam Hussein regime. Sir Alec, privately, described Saddam as the most evil man he had ever met.

After Baghdad, Sir Alec moved to another hotbed of international turmoil, Tunis. There he had to deal with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who had set up his headquarters there after fleeing from Lebanon. Diplomatically Sir Alec found the appointment unsatisfying because the Arab/Israeli peace process had ground to a halt and he asked to be moved to Khartoum. It was his last diplomatic posting and one he much enjoyed.

He loved Sudan, its people, immersed himself in the country's traditions and took the opportunity to travel extensively. His two years in Sudan involved Sir Alec in aid work for the severe famines of 1985 in neighbouring Ethiopia and Chad. Many starving refugees crossed the border into the Sudan and he played a vital role in working with the various charities to ensure the relief supplies reached the refugees.

Throughout his career, Sir Alec was known for his attention to detail and fairness to all. He was devoted to understanding the Arab world and was widely respected throughout the Middle East for his loyalty, charm and integrity.

He retired in 1987 and devoted much of his time to working on behalf of animal charities. He was appointed CMG in 1976 and KBE in 1984.

He married, in 1955, Alison Campbell, who survives him with two sons and two daughters.

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