John Simpson: Letter from Qatar

12 March 2016

What the world’s most famous correspondent gets up to off duty. This month he remembers his time spent in the Middle East

I’m not a huge enthusiast for the Gulf. To me it seemed a lot better, and a lot more fun, before it was built up so enormously. Even so, I like Qatar more than most other parts of it. I’ve come here for a two-day conference at a first-class hotel: life could be worse. 

What I’d really like to do, though, is to track down a couple of friends from the past, who, I’ve been told, live here now. Maybe ‘friends’ is pitching it a bit strong, but they’re people who each did me a favour. Like saving my life.

It all dates back to the Saddam Hussein years. The two men were both ministers of his, and when I spent long periods of time in Baghdad around the first and second Gulf Wars, I came into contact with them a lot.  

In 1990-1991, I spent six months in Baghdad, arriving within days of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and staying on while the war built up. Then came the war itself, followed by the bad years when Saddam put his bloodthirsty system back into business again. During this time I came to know the clever, Anglophile head of the information ministry, and liked him. Sometimes when I went round to see him he would turn up his music system loudly, waving silently at the walls and ceiling to remind me that Saddam’s spooks were listening. Then he’d tell me a little of what was going on. 

I had big problems getting my nightly reports for the BBC through the system, thanks to a bunch of unpleasant censors who tried to block what I said. 

But the head of information was always more helpful. At that time I started writing for The Spectator too – whose editor supported everything I said, no matter how many letters of complaint he got. I faxed these articles to London without showing them to the censor, and the Iraqi embassy in London didn’t check on magazines, so neither the head of information nor Saddam’s extremely unpleasant spooks found out what I was saying about Iraq.

One morning, though, I got a call to go round to the Information Ministry and see the head. I wasn’t worried: it happened every couple of weeks or so. But when I walked in he had a pile of Spectators in front of him, opened to my articles. Hmmm. All he said was: ‘Oh, John.’ 

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m a journalist. It’s my job to tell people what’s going on.’ 

‘Yes, but the dreadful things you say here about our President...’  

He’d turned up the music by this stage. I thought about some of the things I’d written, and frowned. ‘I haven’t said anything that wasn’t true.’ 

‘Well, but…’ There was a pause. Then he said, ‘And who is the charming senior official who speaks beautiful English that you talk about?’

Imagining that this moment might come, I’d given him a bit of a boost in my articles. ‘It’s you, naturally,’ I said ingratiatingly. 

‘Ah.’ There was a pause, while my future and perhaps even my life were being weighed up. ‘Well, look, don’t say such nasty things about our President from now on.’ He turned the music down again, and I was free to leave. 

A decade later, towards the end of 2002, I was trying to get back to Iraq again, to cover the coming invasion planned by President George W. Bush. There were problems; I had been a bit, well, frank about Saddam Hussein in a recent documentary. Also, I discovered later, a colleague of mine, who was already in Baghdad, was regularly urging the Iraqi officials not to let me in. 

By February 2001 I’d realised that the new information minister – who soon became known as ‘Comical Ali’ because of his absurd statements – wasn’t going to let me in, so I headed off with my team to northern Iraq, planning to make a rush to Baghdad directly after the invasion started. 

Then, just as we arrived at our hotel on the Turkish-Iraqi border, I got a text from the minister: ‘Congratulations! You have visa. Come at once.’ It threw all our plans into chaos, but before I could arrange to get to Baghdad by some other route, a second message arrived, a few days later: ‘Your visa revoked. Do not come.’ So my team and I carried on through Iraq, getting bombed by the Americans along the way.

Some weeks after the invasion, it all became clearer. ‘Comical Ali’ rang me from hiding to ask if I could arrange political asylum for him in Britain. 

I couldn’t, of course, and started yelling down the line that, because he had refused me a visa, I’d nearly died in the ‘friendly fire’ incident, and my translator had been killed. 

‘But I saved your life.’

I shut up, and he explained. At his weekly audience with Saddam, he’d read out the list of foreign journalists to whom he had given visas. When he reached my name, Saddam exploded with rage. ‘That man is my enemy,’ he shouted. Then he stopped yelling and turned icy cold. ‘I tell you what,’ he said. ‘Give him a visa. We can deal with him here.’

Comical Ali walked backwards out of the great one’s presence (you should never, one of his colleagues told me, make eye contact with Saddam when you were talking to him, or he might think you were challenging him) and then sent the second message which said my visa had been cancelled. 

‘So, you see, you do owe me your life.’

Well, maybe; who knows? Both men were released after the war, and came to Qatar. While I’m here I’d like to look them up and renew our strange acquaintance. And perhaps thank them?

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. Watch him reporting around the globe on BBC World News, available on selected British Airways flights

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