Charles Moore

The road from Damascus

Wafic Said, father of the Al-Yamamah deal, on his love for Britain and his shock at events in his native Syria

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Wafic Said is an exotic import, but a friend of Britain for 50 years. He has given roughly £100 million to philanthropic causes in this country, including founding and funding the Said Business School at Oxford. He also helped Britain secure with Saudi Arabia, Al-Yamamah, the biggest defence agreement in our history, which was signed in 1985. For this, he has repeatedly been called an arms dealer in the press. (As a result, he even got a letter from people who wanted to sell him a second-hand tank.) A reticent man, he said nothing at the time, but now regrets it. ‘I was promoting Britain. I should have challenged it when it came. If you don’t, it sticks,’ he says. Today, with his philanthropic projects here coming to fruition, he wants to talk.

The 72-year-old man who receives me in his enormous Belgravia flat looks younger than his age, but old-fashioned in appearance. With his beautifully tailored pinstripe suit and his shirt, which has one of those pre-war collars that trap the tie perfectly in place, he is English in dress and yet not in style.

Said is a survivor of the old Levantine culture almost destroyed by war and revolution. His grandfather was a general in the Turkish army and an Ottoman colonial governor in Syria. His father, a leading eye-doctor, was asked by Faisal, in his brief rule in Syria in 1918, to found the Faculty of Medicine there. In 1926, he also founded the Syrian University (now called Damascus University). He died when Wafic was six, and his mother, ‘whom I adored’, prepared him for a life of public service. Wafic was educated (in French) by Jesuits in Beirut, and then ‘because she wanted me to have an Anglo-Saxon education’, he came to Britain and was offered a place at Cambridge.

But in July 1961, as a result of the revolution in Syria, the entire assets of the Said family were sequestrated. Young Wafic could no longer afford to go to Cambridge. ‘It was a very big blow for me. It is heartbreaking when your financial circumstances prevent you from going to university. That is why I have endowed scholarships [700 to date, in which the Said Foundation pays for young people from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine to come and study in Britain].’

Instead, Said trained as a banker in London. He returned to Syria in 1963, but the Baathist coup in which the Assad family seized power took place. ‘It was like the Terror in the French Revolution. Young men were being rounded up. My mother begged me to leave. I arrived in Geneva with $200. To “couper le pont”, I sold the return half of my ticket.’ Working for UBS in Geneva, he met a Yorkshire girl called Rosemary Thompson. He realised that he did not want to be a banker and he did want to marry her. ‘My telephone bill was impossible, so I moved to England. Follow your heart.’

Said, who has a flair for comfortable elegance, set up two successful restaurants, one of which, Caravanserai in Kensington High Street, was favoured by Princess Margaret. But his entrepreneurial ambitions were much greater. In 1969, he paid his first visit to Saudi Arabia, and found ‘a country that needed everything’. In 1973, when the Yom Kippur war sent the price of oil up from $3 a barrel to $40, he was in the money. Said’s construction companies built housing, hospitals, refineries and ministries. His workforce multiplied by a hundred times in five years.

With his trilingual skills and western links, Said could perform invaluable services for Saudi Arabia. And eventually, by exhibiting ‘the most important virtue of patience’, he won the trust of the Saudi royal family, notably Prince Bandar, Bandar’s father, Prince Sultan, and the then Crown Prince Fahd. Once that trust is won, ‘they all want you to do everything. If I ever lose all I have, I could be a fantastic butler.’

In 1981, Said was given the unusual honour of having Saudi nationality conferred upon him, but here tragedy struck. The family stayed with Prince Sultan for the ceremony, and Said’s eldest son, who had come out of Horris Hill prep school in England for the occasion, died in an accident in the swimming pool.

By this time, Wafic Said’s influence with Saudi Arabia was recognised in Britain. In 1984, Britain was trying to win a defence contract to supply Tornado fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, but encountered difficulty. An official sought Said’s help. He looked into it and reported, ‘You’re late. They’ve signed a letter of intent with the French.’

Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister, was furious. ‘She saw it as strategic. The British trained Saudi pilots at Cranwell.’ He agreed with her. As between the British and French equipment, says Said, ‘Quite frankly, I really don’t know which was better. I saw it as a question for Saudi Arabia: “In case of difficulty, whom do you prefer to rely on, François Mitterrand or Margaret Thatcher?”’ The answer was the Iron Lady, and the Al-Yamamah contract, of which the actual planes made up less than 20 per cent — the rest being the construction, back-up and accompanying oil deal — came Britain’s way. ‘I was proved right when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and she told George Bush not to go wobbly.’ Said was not paid for his interventions, but he ultimately benefited from the resulting construction contracts.

It was Mrs Thatcher who fulfilled Said’s hopes for Britain. He had loved the country when he first arrived, but had been distressed by the decline in the Wilson, Callaghan and Heath years. ‘I remember the three-day week. We found we couldn’t rely on British manufacturers any more. Then here she comes, this lioness. The honour of England is challenged in the Falklands and she sends an armada! She fights the most powerful union and defeats it.’ The Saudis, he says, loved her for her excellent manners, the care she took in dressing right, the personal letters she wrote to the King. In winning the deal, ‘she played the biggest role’. Accusations have often been made that Mark Thatcher got in on the deal. According to Said, this is ‘absolute rubbish’.

In her retirement, Said gave Lady Thatcher an open invitation to stay at Tusmore, his Oxfordshire estate in which he has now built a Palladian mansion designed by Sir William Whitfield. In the second phase of his business school, which is now under way, Said is determined to name the building after her, even if this provokes opposition from some of the dons. He has received mainly kicks and curses when he had hoped for thanks for the Al-Yamamah deal, but ‘for me, her friendship is the biggest medal’. A photograph of Lady Thatcher has pride of place in his study, next to one of his mother.

Now that Wafic Said has been giving away large sums of money for 30 years, he surveys what he has achieved with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. Here in Britain, he is delighted. He thought it strange that, when Harvard had had a business school since 1904, Oxford shied away from one. After a long battle about its status and site, he succeeded. Today, the Said Business School greets passengers coming off the train there. ‘It is ranked the best undergraduate school in the UK, and overall is second after the London Business School.’ He produced £45 million for the buildings and a further £25 million by way of endowment.

He has also given substantially to St Mary’s Paddington, the RSC, the Prince of Wales Charitable Trust, and Eton. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of my friends are in this country,’ he says. ‘I love it for its lack of prejudice, and for the law. If ever, which God forbid, I had to be tried for anything, I would want to be tried by an English court. It’s different from Europe. I say to my children, “Don’t forget your roots, but remember you are British."

With his own country of Syria, however, he is bitterly disappointed. For more than 30 years, Said could not return there. But when Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar, wanted to study ophthalmology in Britain in 1992, Said agreed to help get him a place. He was also a friend of the Anglo-Syrian family, whose daughter Asma was to marry Bashar. He liked them both: ‘I found him civilised, nice, polished’, and he still admires her as ‘a caring person’.

When Bashar succeeded his father, Said ‘believed that he was our only salvation. His acceptance speech in 2000 was music to my ears. He said he wanted to reform the legal system, revoke the [now 50-year-old] emergency laws, and fight corruption.’

Said assisted Mrs Assad in her cultural opening-up of the country. He also started to bring British politicians, western educationalists and business people to visit Syria, always arguing to the President that political reform, not just economic amelioration, was essential. Bashar had the chance: ‘Unlike Mubarak, he was loved by his people’. But in February of last year, when Said visited Damascus for a ceremony to mark his renovation of his father’s main university building, the Arab Spring was beginning. ‘I went to see the First Lady. I told her the winds of change are contagious. Please tell the President to promise free elections. He must be the champion of change.’

Bashar did nothing. ‘What is happening now in Syria is appalling. I believe there are about 6,000 dead, 25,000 in prison. What a courageous people, knowing they will die but still demonstrating for their rights! I am so proud of them. Their only weapon is the mobile phone.’

In June, Bashar asked to see Said. He wanted to know what the West was thinking. ‘No one is buying the official line about enemies coming from outside,’ Said told him; ‘It is too late to promise anything, you must do it now.’ He said that dialogue with the opposition was essential to prevent civil war. ‘Bashar assured me that “all the new laws are waiting to be declared”, but six months have passed, and nothing has happened.’ Two of Said’s projects — one to build a not-for-profit hospital just outside Damascus, the other to set up a centre for reform of the curriculum — are on hold.

What does Wafic Said think about the Arab Spring? ‘It was long overdue. The fear has lifted.’ He hates Islamist fundamentalism, but believes that power can educate: ‘Let the Muslim Brotherhood take over in Egypt! If they do, they’ll find out they can’t abrogate the Camp David Agreement. They promise prosperity, but whoever comes to power cannot solve Egypt’s economic problems. They will have to become like Turkey, a country which has an Islamic government, but one in which people are allowed to live and let live.’