John Christie OBE (1922-2001)

An Arabist of his age

John Christie was a man of action – serving at Anzio in the Second World War and, after convalescing from a bullet wound, joining the Transjordan Frontier Force and serving in Palestine – and veteran of government and private sector operations across the Middle East/North Africa (Mena) region. GSN’s longest-serving editor and (from 1985 to 2000) proprietor, John sold the publication less than a year before his death on 16 June 2001 after a long illness.

A fluent and colloquial Arabist – he was summoned by King Faisal Bin Abdelaziz by the Saudi monarch saying ‘Send me the Syrian’, in a reference to his north Syrian accent – John’s sometimes colourful career generated gossip in expert circles. Some of his history was published in academic studies and articles on foreign policy and the intelligence services during the Cold War years. This was much to John’s frustration in later life: as a former Foreign Office official – from the intelligence side of Whitehall – he felt he could not reply publicly to set the record straight. In his GSN years, John had left behind government service far behind, but it is this background that linked his publication to ‘The Office’.

In a life of action leavened with a capacity for wry observation, John knew the Gulf and many Arab rulers for over 50 years. He described King Faisal – whom he used to meet weekly during his period at the British Embassy, then in Jeddah – as “the most charismatic man I ever met”, with an unrivalled grasp of events and their implications. He was not allowed to take notes in their meetings, so driven by the Saudi intelligence services’ founder Kamal Adham, John would race back to the embassy’s safe room to inform London of the king’s thoughts while the memory was still fresh.

After leaving the army in 1948, Christie was sent by Iraq Petroleum Company to Doha, representing Qatar Petroleum Company to Sheikh Abdullah Bin Jasim Al-Thani. But never far from government service, in 1953-56 he worked as features editor at the Near East Arab Broadcasting Station in Cyprus, which, as Nasserism surged, was created as a British answer to the Cairo-based Voice of the Arabs. He later had diplomatic postings in Bahrain and Kuwait. Christie was awarded an OBE for his role during the massing of Iraqi troops on Kuwait’s border ahead of the emirate’s independence in 1961.

Subsequently posted to Jeddah and Tripoli, Libya, Christie was at Britain’s Khartoum embassy during the late-1960s revolution. He eventually left government service to set up a Middle East department in City bankers Kleinwort Benson, until he was headhunted by another merchant banker, Edward Bates and Sons (which later became Allied Arab Bank).

Into his fifties, with two young daughters, John turned to broadcasting and journalism, eventually buying GSN from IC Publications. He also acted as consultant, travelling to Middle East destinations until his late seventies. When illness finally forced John to retire, much to the relief of his wife, Patricia, he expressed pleasure that GSN had passed into the hands of journalists committed to reporting the region in an open and unbiased way. He was buried beneath a walnut tree in his Sussex garden.

This is based on an appreciation published in GSN issue 1,000, 21 September 2015. Read the full article