Sir Derek Plumbly: Regional affiliations, and more
A career diplomat, Sir Derek Plumbly has spent much of his working life in the Arab world. Currently the UK's ambassador to Egypt, he has held a number of postings in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and, for time, headed the British Foreign Office's Middle East and North Africa desk. Following the Sharm El-Sheikh bombings a great deal of his time has been taken up in dealing with the aftermath of actions that are the result of "a militaristic and violent ideology". And it can only be countered, he argues, by multilaterally coordinated policies that "promote understanding between Islam and the West"
Sir Derek Plumbly is one of those people who makes a difference. Certainly he appears to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time, at least as far as diplomatic postings go.
A representative of the British Crown and government, Plumbly firmly believes in the common interests binding humanity -- Muslim and Christian, East and West, North and South. His understanding of diplomacy as an organic process has helped him deal with a great many difficult situations. He was the UK's ambassador to Saudi Arabia when a spate of bombings rocked the kingdom. While there are those who attempt to sell such incidents as part and parcel of the dubious notion of the clash of civilisations, Plumbly has nothing but contempt for such casuistry.
"My government's message, as clear as a bell, is that the terrorists may try to lure us into division, identifying Islam with extremism, but they will fail," he points out.
"I was struck by the words of the London policeman who, asked about Islamic terrorism, said he did not recognise the two words as having a place in the same sentence."
He stresses Britain's commitment to diversity, its openness to people of all nationalities and religions. "That was the theme of London's Olympic bid -- 300 languages are spoken in the city. Every squad will have a home crowd to support it."
Sir Derek quotes an editorial from the pan-Arab London- based daily Al-Hayat in which it warned that Al-Qaeda's mindset loathes "London's vision of pluralism".
"Attacking such multi-culturalism is the prime purpose of terror," he explains.
Since September 2003 he has been the UK's ambassador to Egypt, and is once again facing the aftermath of a terrorist attack, this time in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Immediately following the blasts, he says, some 300 British nationals were unaccounted for. The search for survivors, and identifying the actual number of victims, was a daunting task, with many British tourists desperate to fly home.
The number of British tourists holidaying in Egypt has risen sharply in recent years -- up from 247,000 in 2003 to 368,000 in 2004. Sir Derek believes that they will continue to come, despite the fact that bombings in London, and then Sharm El-Sheikh, signalled that terrorism is alive and kicking.
British travel companies such as Kuoni Travel and its subsidiary Voyages Jules Verne, offering holidays in Sharm El-Sheikh, have not reported any serious fall in the numbers of tourists wanting holiday in Egypt. Peltours, which specialises in Egyptian packages, reports the same.
The British and the Egyptian governments, says Sir Derek, have been "working very closely at all levels". Indeed, he points out, the prime minister has spent several holidays in Sharm El-Sheikh, where four Britons are confirmed dead and the fate of six more remains unknown. The final toll of casualties, he explains, must wait for the long process of identification to be completed.
It is not hard to be swept along by the political drama unfolding internationally in the wake of the 7 July blasts in London and the 23 July bombings in Sharm El-Sheikh. The attacks have serious political implications, and they will reverberate through domestic public and foreign policy. Yet it is important not to be too swept along, or that at least is what Sir Derek seems to suggest as he receives me in his spruce office in Garden City.
"I'm a civil servant and my loyalty is to the Crown and the elected leaders," he says. "That's the nature of the contract between the civil servant and elected government."
Sir Derek has spent much of the past two weeks in Sharm El-Sheikh, attending to the needs of British families who lost loved ones in the blasts that shook Egypt's premier Red Sea resort.
"My feelings are of horror. I've spent many memorable holidays in Sharm El-Sheikh," he says. "And there are some 10,000 British holiday-makers at the moment in the Red Sea resort."
"Identifying bodies in Sharm El-Sheikh is very stressful," he says. The process is carried out by experts who man the emergency office in Sharm El-Sheikh, about 50 people, including British Embassy staff.
"We should not take our eyes off the fact that terrorism, as manifested in London and Sharm El-Sheikh, targets Westerners and Muslims alike," he adds. Which means British Muslim leaders need to talk to the parents of those whose children have strayed into the dead end of Islamist militancy.
The aim of the terrorists, he argues, is to kill innocent people, since "the purpose of terror is intimidation". This, he suggests, can only be countered by multilaterally coordinated policies that "promote understanding between Islam and the West".
Britain and Egypt, he stresses, face a common enemy.
Sir Derek's association with Egypt and the Arab world is long-standing, and his relationship with Egypt, especially, intensely personal. It was the country in which he embarked on his diplomatic career, a country that also played Cupid.
He first came to Cairo to polish up his Arabic. During another sojourn he was introduced to Nadia Gohar -- daughter of the late Egyptian writer Youssef Gohar. She was teaching at the American University in Cairo and they were introduced by a mutual friend. They attended a performance of Hamlet at the Pyramids -- it was their first date. When it was time for him to return home, they exchanged nuptial vows and the couple left for London. They have three children -- Sarah, 22, who is studying Islamic Art at Oxford; Samuel, 20, reading Arabic at Oxford and Joseph, 17, who is still at school.
Like any protracted courtship, Anglo-Egyptian relations have had their ups and downs. The British occupation, the Dinsheway Incident, the Suez Crisis, the 1956 Tripartite Aggression are among the many historical downs. But the two countries have come a long way, and historical ties cannot be easily overlooked.
Sir Derek has not slept much since the Sharm El-Sheikh blasts. "Not a wink for the first few nights." He virtually commutes between the Red Sea resort and the Egyptian capital, and the hours, initially at least, would inevitably hang heavy. He has lived long in the region and he exhibits none of the first-world indifference and cynicism that is all too common. After all, he has family ties, and with them comes an emotional attachment to the place.
"I am not in any sense belittling other problems such as Palestine or Iraq. Throughout my career I have been acutely aware of the critical importance of resolving the Palestinian crisis," he stresses.
Britain, Sir Derek assures, is convinced that a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an important precondition for long-term peace in the region.
His diplomatic career has taken him to many different parts of the Arab world. He served in Jeddah as second secretary in the Chancery (1975-77) and in Cairo as first secretary (1977- 80). In 1973-75, he headed the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies. And in 1982-84 he was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) Desk Officer for the Middle East Department. He was deputy head of mission in Riyadh between 1988 and 1992, a time of great social and political change in Saudi Arabia. Then back in London he assumed the post of FCO director for the Middle East and North Africa.
He was caught up in the drama of home-grown Saudi terrorism when, in the late 1990s, the Saudi authorities accused British nationals of being involved in bombings and associated the violence with the illicit trade in alcohol. Sir Derek is sceptical about the charges. But it was with his third posting to Saudi Arabia, which coincided with a spate of attacks in the kingdom, that he came face-to-face with terror.
"No, Sharm El-Sheikh was not the first such terrorist incident," he notes, recalling the May 2003 blasts that shook a housing compound reserved for foreigners in Riyadh, and that claimed the lives of 35 people. That incident was something of an eye-opener for Sir Derek. "It was," he says, "the first time the Saudi authorities acknowledged they had a terrorist problem."
The Riyadh suicide attack took place hours before the then United States Secretary of State Colin Powell was due to fly in for a visit to the kingdom.
The wanton destruction and indiscriminate killing was horrendous. But it is Sharm El-Sheikh that is now uppermost in his mind.
Not that the ramifications of the London blasts do not weigh heavily. Sir Derek insists that Britain's Muslims should be enlisted in the fight against terror. He talks about "reaching out to the Muslim community of Britain".
But he has no qualms about isolating and punishing "those who are spreading the message of hatred among the young Muslims of Britain".
"We are talking about a militaristic and violent ideology. Our collective task is to stand as one against terrorism," he says. "There is a balance to be had there."
In the international arena, too, the fight against terrorism must be stepped up. "We were stuck for six years because we couldn't agree on a common definition of terrorism."
He remains optimistic when it comes to battling terror. "We've progressed over the past years. We've been strengthening our laws."
He notes that in Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair is trying hard to "reach a cross-party consensus" in the battle against terror.
He advocates "further measures to strengthen the law" and concedes that in the past, perhaps, "a relaxed legal structure allowed this to happen".
The greatest concern at the moment, though, is unearthing the root cause of terror. "We're not going to let these people win. They will not be allowed to introduce division in the world's most cosmopolitan society. We recognise the risks," he says.
He hails Blair's efforts to accentuate unity within the British society.
"He has an understanding of the power of Islam and its extraordinary local and international status." Yet, he insists, "we must make very clear distinctions between Islam and those who kill in its name."
Sir Derek reiterates the British policeman's message. "It is the message we want to get out. That is our immediate task -- reach out to the British public, draw them in the war against terror."
Born in May 1948 Sir Derek entered the FCO in 1972 and soon established himself as an expert on Arab concerns. He is proficient in Arabic and much of his diplomatic career has been spent in Arab countries. Today he is one of the FCO's most senior Arab hands.
He was born and raised in the New Forest, one of England's most picturesque districts. He reminisces about a carefree and idyllic childhood. "My family all come from there," he explains. He went on to read politics and economics at Oxford and after graduation joined the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the British equivalent of America's peace corps. "I got the travel bug," he chuckles. "As a young graduate I wanted to see the world."
He speaks fondly of the year and a half he spent teaching in Sind Province, Pakistan. It was his first stint as a representative of Britain abroad. He was posted in the provincial riparian town of Sukur.
"It is a big and bustling town, but it has old world charm, just like Esna or Edfu in Upper Egypt," he muses.
Next he studied Arabic at Shemlan, Lebanon. " Madrassat Al-Gawasis -- the School of Spies," he explains in perfect Arabic. "Again, I spent a year and a half there. I lived with a Lebanese family. The scenic village was perched up high in Mount Lebanon. We could see the Mediterranean and Beirut below us in the distance," he remembers. "Then came the Lebanese civil war which interrupted my stay in Shemlan."
Sir Derek also studied Arabic at the University of Jordan, Amman. And it was around this time he first visited Egypt. He discovered Alexandria and was enraptured by the seaside city.
"We need to reinforce the understanding between Islam and the West," he insists, moving away from reminiscence.
Development concerns in Africa and the international arena are also an area of interest. Britain has 33 diplomatic missions in Africa and Sir Derek emphasises Britain's commitment to African development, especially in light of the UK's current chairmanship of both the European Union and the G8. His government, he says, wholeheartedly supports the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which includes the promotion of good governance and economic development enhancing democracy and respect for human rights.
"[But terror] is the most immediate challenge we face at the moment," he maintains. "It is as difficult a time as any," he adds, "and I was in the region during the invasion of Kuwait."
"We need a comprehensive response," he repeats, "against a terror that is striking randomly."