Infidels

Malise Ruthven

  • The Helen Smith Story by Paul Foot and Ron Smith
    Fontana, 418 pp, £1.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 00 636536 1

Lawrence was attracted to Arabia by what he called ‘the Arab gospel of bareness’, as well as by his desire to play the Middle East version of the Great Game. The present generation of adventurers are simply there for the money. The doctors and nurses, teachers and businessmen, truck-drivers and skilled workers who flock to ‘Saudi’ in search of markets or higher incomes would be the last people to dress up in Arab costume or to subject themselves to the austere rules of the desert. Unfortunately the Kingdom is obliged – at least publicly – to live by the puritanical Islamic traditions from which the ruling family derives its legitimacy. Under normal circumstances the Saudis are content to turn a blind eye on forbidden infidel activities, providing no Saudis are ‘corrupted’. Europeans may brew their home-made hooch, and discreetly indulge in extra-marital sex, so long as they remain in their hotel rooms or compounds, though technically these are crimes punishable by imprisonment, flogging or worse. When Abdul Aziz became king after conquering the Hejaz in 1926, he allowed Jeddah’s foreign community to import alcohol openly: he was forced to end this concession when the British consul, who used to serve drinks to his Saudi guests, was shot dead by a drunken young prince. Since then alcohol has been banned completely, and high-living Saudis must indulge in their black-market whisky, along with their pirated ‘blue’ videos, in the privacy of their own apartments.

There were no Saudis at the farewell party the Arnots held for Tim Hayter, a New Zealand diver and Penny Arnot’s lover, at their flat on the sixth floor of a Jeddah apartment block in May 1979. There were no other women, except for Helen Smith, a 23-year-old nurse from Yorkshire who worked in the same private hospital as Richard Arnot, a surgeon. What actually occurred at the party is still the subject of dispute, and is related to a pending legal action. But everyone knows what happened afterwards. The following morning Helen Smith’s body was lying in a courtyard beneath the building. A young Dutchman, Johannes Otten, had been horribly impaled on some nearby railings. A document eventually supplied by the Jeddah police stated that the couple had fallen from the balcony while embracing in an intoxicated condition. Allah having so clearly punished the couple, the authorities who administer His Law in Saudi Arabia were obliged (no doubt reluctantly) to punish the other participants. About a year after Helen’s death a Serious Crimes Court sentenced Penny Arnot and Tim Hayter to 80 lashes for fornication, and Mr Arnot to 30 lashes and a year’s imprisonment for holding the drinks party and allowing his wife’s adultery.

Fleet Street made a meal of the story: the idea of an Englishwoman being publicly flogged in a foreign country for performing the sexual act with a man other than her husband raises a variety of responses: prurient curiosity, patriotic outrage, feminist fury and possibly even a shred of genuine sympathy. Hopes that the Foreign Office would obtain leniency for the Arnots were blighted when ITV decided, despite Saudi diplomatic representations, to screen Anthony Thomas’s Death of a Princess – a fictionalised documentary, shot in Egypt, about the execution for adultery of Princess Mishail, granddaughter of Prince Muhammad bin Abdul Aziz.

The film, with its gruesome reconstruction of the Princess’s execution, might, of course, have been interpreted as a tribute to the stern impartiality with which the Saudis administer Allah’s Laws. Princesses, just like surgeons and their wives, must obey the Sharia. Indeed, their privileged positions as members of the ruling house makes exemplary punishment all the more necessary. The most damaging insinuation in the film, that the Princess might not have been tried according to Islamic law, but was simply the victim of tribal vengeance inspired by her grandfather’s fury that she had besmirched the family honour, was virtually ignored in the ensuing fracas. The argument raged above all around a scene in which sex-starved Saudi ladies cruised the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh in search of fanciable young men, whom they contacted by having their chauffeurs trace the young men’s car-numbers through the local police computer: a paradoxical inversion of conventional assumptions about a state where women are veiled and mostly confined to their homes, and are forbidden by law to drive automobiles. For most Western viewers (other than those who had scruples about filming a whole sequence around the testimony of one woman, said to have been the embittered Lebanese divorcée of a Saudi prince), the scene offered a splendid example of female revenge for male oppression. Saudi, Arab and Muslim men were predictably outraged: the scene elicited their deepest fears about female sexuality, and its power to wreak social and, ultimately, political havoc in the world. Women are veiled for the protection of men, for the flash of a female eye, that most potent of sexual organs, can enslave a man for ever, rendering him unfit to perform his religious or family duties. Other, more strictly theological hackles were raised by the film. A Saudi demonstration of Justice, the cardinal principle of Islam, had been perverted into a celebration of Love, watchword of the Christian religion which, in Islam, is considered to be notoriously lax when it comes to adultery (‘Go thou and sin no more’ as against 80 lashes, or even death by stoning). The loves of the Troubadours, Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura may all have their counterparts in Islamic literature, and may well have been influenced by it: but in Islam it is the Law itself, not the sublimated carnality of courtly love, that supplies the earthly complement to the divine. No wonder the Saudis threatened to break diplomatic relations with Britain and to cancel contracts worth millions. The prospects for the Arnots looked bleak.

Fortunately for the couple, and for British Business, common sense and mutual self-interest prevailed. The Saudis keep much of their money in Britain, or channel it through the City. A real, as distinct from a purely cosmetic display of displeasure would do them as much harm as us. A bargain was struck. Lord Carrington made his notorious public apology: it was a bad film, and ought not to have been shown, he told the House of Lords. (In fact, it was, in its way, a television tour de force.) The Saudis professed themselves satisfied with the Noble Lord’s critical acumen. New contracts were made, existing ones honoured, the Arnots and Hayter released. The Saudis had already announced that there was ‘no question of criminal responsibility’ for the deaths of Helen Smith and Johannes Otten, although the Embassy in London had previously told Helen’s father Ron Smith that the case was subject to a murder inquiry. And there, but for Ron Smith and Private Eye, which consistently backed his story in the face of Fleet Street scepticism and Foreign Office pressure, matters would doubtless have rested.

The world had reckoned without Ron Smith, a self-made businessman and former policeman. As soon as he arrived in Jeddah after Helen’s death he smelt something fishy. After meeting Mr Arnot in police custody, he became suspicious of the surgeon’s account of the party. ‘What sort of a man goes to bed leaving his wife and a young girl at a party in which they were the only women and in which most of the men were drunk and sex-starved?’ The former policeman demanded to see his daughter’s body. There was a cut on the forehead, as though made by a blunt instrument. There was discolouration and bruising on the right side, and bruising inside the thighs. But the head, neck and feet were evidently free from severe injury. Smith was convinced that she had not fallen from the balcony of the Arnot’s flat. It was this conviction that sustained him in the face of Foreign Office hostility, Saudi obfuscation and press indifference (why did the Sunday Times, once the pioneer of modern investigative journalism, cosily toe the Foreign Office line? Foot asks). After a three-year odyssey through several British courts, at the cost of his hard-won savings, Smith was finally vindicated in the Leeds Coroner’s Court last December, when a jury, having examined the evidence of several witnesses, including Mr Arnot (represented at the local ratepayers’ expense by Sir David Napley) and three pathologists, returned an open verdict on the death of Helen Smith. The Foreign Office case, of course, though officials latterly pretended to be disinterested, required a verdict of ‘accidental death’. Allah is All-knowing: were Love, Truth and Justice reconciled at Leeds?

Paul Foot relates Ron Smith’s story with a strong sense of personal commitment and great journalistic skill. In his single-minded obsession with his goal and his refusal to submit to doubts or to be put off by setbacks, Ron Smith showed as many sterling qualities as Burton, St John Philby or Thesiger. The extent to which the story is true, however, is another question. There are aspects of Foot’s narrative, from suspiciously un-Arab names (Major Absalom) and geographical howlers (‘Red Sea oil towns’) to serious misrepresentations of known facts (the attack on Mecca in November 1979 was the work of Ikhwan-style fundamentalists – not Shiites, as Foot maintains), which inevitably raise doubts about the rest. Such errors would be more forgivable if Foot himself did not adduce discrepancies between different versions of the same document or in verbal testimony, nuances in the language of official statements, suspicion-raising coincidences, and a whole collection of forensic disparities concerning a corpse imperfectly preserved over a period of more than three years, to sustain his argument that there was a Foreign Office cover-up, and that Helen was probably murdered after being raped. To employ a barrister’s nit-picking pedantry while simultaneously displaying an ignorance of elementary facts is not the best way of convincing the open-minded. If Foot can make such obvious mistakes, so can others, including embassy officials and pathologists. There is also a difference between a criminal cover-up, in which the withholder of information becomes an accessory after the fact, and a bureaucratic one, in which officials may simply be reluctant to admit publicly that they have made mistakes. The Saudi bureaucracy is notorious for its inefficiency, which must have added to the difficulty of handling an already difficult case.

Despite these reservations, Paul Foot’s account of the Smith affair does leave one lasting impression. There is something distinctly odd about a body showing so few signs of injury after falling from a height of at least seventy feet onto a hard surface. It could be, as the Coroner suggested, that Helen bounced off Otten’s body, which would have cushioned her impact. The probability of this happening, however, was not great enough to persuade the jury that Helen’s death was accidental. The case, like the verdict, must remain open until there is new evidence. But Ron Smith’s story is a compelling read, whatever relation it bears to the truth.