David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

R.I.P. Professor Kelly


There are a few specialists who try to come to grips with the Arab world as it really is, and Prof. J. B. Kelly was outstanding among them. He had lived and studied there, he knew the peoples and the countries thoroughly. His great scholarly works concern the treaties made by the British since the 18th century with local Arabs and Muslims — big books that are the last word on frontiers in the region and how they came about. In his career he taught imperial history in the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin, and in London.

John was a New Zealander by birth, with a powerful physique and an engaging smile, and it amused him to consider himself “a wild colonial boy.” Nobody and nothing was going to prevent him speaking his mind. He was all too familiar with the cruelty of modern Arab rulers, the disaster of Arab nationalism, the bigotry of Islamism, and the tremendous price that everyone in the Middle East has to pay for the frightful inhumanity that follows. But those John really went for and destroyed were the apologists in the West who pretend that everything is fine, that the Arabs are really doing well and we have only to give them everything they ask for.

Arabia, the Gulf and the West, his great attack on Western surrender and appeasement to a slew of Arab and Muslim tyrants in the process of harming their own people and us too, is one of the fiercest polemics written in the last 50 years. The prose sears with passion and scorn. The book brought him to Washington, and President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher took note of him. The Foreign Office indeed sent an unforgettable warning to Mrs. Thatcher that in their opinion, “this man is not sound.” John was retained by the Sultan of Oman to argue boundary disputes with Saudi Arabia in which historic right and treaty agreement were with Oman. I well remember him telling me that when he presented the case to the Foreign Office he realized that the officials listening had spent their whole lives surrendering to the strong and were programmed by now always to ignore justice. That’s also all we need to know about the craven and self-destructive surrender the British have just made to Libya in the case of the Lockerbie bomber.

John eventually retired to France, taking with him photocopies of the entire archive in the Public Record Office dealing with Saudi Arabia. His intention was to expose the House of Saud for the warmongering, corrupt, hypocritical, double-dealing, and selfish clique they have always been, oppressing everyone within range and blackmailing the West to cover up and lie on their behalf, all for the sake of oil. This would have crowned his life’s work. A few days ago John died and if the book is too incomplete to be publishable — as I fear — then the world will have to regret a missing masterpiece, another Unfinished Symphony.


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