Associate professor, PhD at the Department of Diplomatic Service and 
Communication of the Faculty of International Relation of YSU, YEREVAN

The essential rule of diplomatic etiquette is you should respect the conventions of the country to which you are posted and adapt. Some of these conventions are quite surprising. For example, at the end of coffee morning with Omani ladies, the perfume tray would be brought in to signal that the event was drawing to a close. Besides examples of expensive commercial scents, the tray would contain interesting-looking vials full of perfume mixed by the lady of the house herself. Many are very skilled, and, if you were particularly favoured, would devise a scent just for you. […]


Some of the strictest rules for British diplomats concern the acceptance of gifts. In principle, you are not supposed to accept any at all, but it has always been recognised that refusal can cause deep offence, particularly in societies in which the exchange of gifts is normal ritual of polite society. In such societies, it is the recipient who honours the giver, not the other way around. When you are abroad, you are therefore allowed to accept gifts up to a certain value, currently £ 140.

In the old days in the Arabian Gulf, where gifts tended to be lavish and frequent, such items as silver daggers and pitchers, ornamental swords, gold chains and assorted jewellery were placed in a chest to be used whenever someone at Post needed to give a present to a local Sheikh, usually, of course, in return for yet another gift which was added to the hoard. A strict record was kept to make sure that items were not returned to their original owners, although since many had been circulating for years, it was sometimes hard to be sure. Items, such as carpets, chests, silver incense burners and the more decorative weaponry could also be placed on the inventory of the house and passed on with it, for the use of successive Ambassadors.

However, the real problem in Arabia is that if you admire anything in your host’s house, he or she is honour bound to present it to you. You are then supposed to reciprocate with a gift of equal value. This limits conversation, since you cannot exclaim over the interior decoration, and, even if you are aware of the danger, it can be impossible falling into the trap. One day at lunch with a distinguished Omani, for lack of anything else to say, I started to tell him about a microlight aeroplane race between Britain and France which I had read about that morning in the newspapers. Unwisely, I said that I had always wanted a microlight. He clicked his fingers to his pretty blonde English secretary, who was sitting beside him, notebook at the ready to take down any of his commands, and said: "Microlight for the British Ambassadress.” She duly made a note. At the end of the table, my husband, who had, as usual, been keeping a weather ear on my conversation, had gone sheet white. 

Not only would a microlight cost far in excess of the approved limit, but how could he possibly afford an equivalent gift in return? How could he explain a sudden acquisition of an airplane (however small)? What if the news leaked to the Press that this was a gift from a foreign businessman, known to be a facilitator between commercial interests of East and West? His career teetering on the brink, as soon as the meal was over, he ushered our host out into the garden for a quiet word. They stayed in the garden for the next half an hour walking up and down the ornamental pathways while my husband earnestly explained the British Government’s position on the acceptance of gifts and, our host, equally courteously, explained his reluctance to withdraw: "I am,” he said gravely, pacing the gravel like a stately necromancer, his black silk, gold edged robe billowing gently around him, "a man of honour. My word is my bond.”

Eventually, to my husband’s great relief, they agreed that the matter would be quietly dropped. But I saw the wicked gleam in our host’s eye as they returned to his house; he knew perfectly well about the British and gifts and had done so all along and had spent a most enjoyable half hour at my husband’s expense. Pity; I would have enjoyed the microlight.
3983 reads | 23.03.2014

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