‘A journey from which he may never return.’ The conclusion of my historic BBC report when the Shah of Iran landed in the southern Egyptian resort city of Aswan. A different journalist wrote a scoop – that was entirely fake.9 February 2020
It began with a crack-of-dawn phone call from the BBC’s foreign duty editor. “Paul, the Shah has flown a plane out of Iran and it’s heading to Egypt. Find out where he’s going and get there.”
I rushed in my Chevrolet Nova down the Nile River Corniche into the empty BBC office on central Cairo to voice a quick report and drove fast to the airport.
Luckily there was a commercial plane ready to take off and I was soon in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan and well positioned as Shah Reza Pahlavi’s imperial plane landed – a blue-and-white Boeing 707 which he himself piloted.
Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat was there to greet an old friend.
Men in galabeyas (local brown robes) lined the route of a motorcade to a Nile-side harbour.
The banners that these people were displaying proclaimed ‘Welcome Shah to Egypt’. I discovered and reported that the banners had been flown in the night before from Cairo. They had been painted by an Egyptian government propaganda agency for use during a previous trip by the Shah a year earlier – when the ‘king of kings’ really was in full imperious command of his now disintegrating regime.
Each supposedly spontaneous welcomer here in Aswan had been paid for the roadside service: apparently, the princely sum of about fifty piastres corresponding to about 10 UK pence.
“It’s a ‘holiday’ from which the Shah may never return”, was how I concluded my first report to the BBC from that southern Egyptian city. A prediction that turned out to be correct.
The Shah and Sadat headed in a motor boat to the Oberoi, an island hotel in the middle of the Nile. They stayed there with their wives and their entourages, refusing to speak to the media.
Frustrating though that was, we foreign correspondents could console ourselves with sunbathing and and the on-expenses procurement of a variety of beverages in the bar and on our sun-loungers. We were obliged to endure several delightful days of glorious sunshine in the newly refurbished Old Cataract Hotel – where Agatha Christie had written Death on the Nile.
By any standards – and especially in the often blood-soaked Middle East – this was a plum assignment … and hardly very taxing.
By the 11th February 1979 the Shah’s teetering regime that he had left in the hands of his loyal prime minister, had collapsed under the weight of popular and armed support for the just-returned Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shia clerics – now the dominant force in Iran.
Well before that that transition of power had been accomplished, there was a widespread feeling that the days of the dynasty founded by the Shah’s father in 1925 were numbered.
The monarch, whose once absolute power in Iran had been broken by a year of violent demonstrations, strikes and religious protests, was losing power with earth-shattering speed.
A military band had played a fanfare and cannon sounded a 21-gun salute as the shah, expressionless behind tinted glasses, was greeted by Sadat and Vice President Hosni Mubarak.
On the surface it all looked like business as usual.
Old friends and political allies of nearly the same height, age and political orientation, the two leaders had stood side by side at attention in their dark business suits as the band played the national anthems of Iran and Egypt. Then the shah had reviewed a guard of honour. Egyptian Cabinet ministers and other officials had lined up beside the red carpet and joined Sadat, the Shah and their wives for a brief chat over fruit juice in the airport VIP room.
The two leaders rode together in a closed Cadillac limousine on the 8-mile drive into town and then Sadat and the shah were seen in animated coversation on the open-topped excursion boat that took them to Elephantine Island.
There was no doubt that the shah would find the atmosphere here friendlier and more restful than it was at home, where mobs shouting “death to the Shah” roamed the streets.
Aswan, a picturesque city of about 250,000 residents, is a favourite winter resort for Egyptians.
The shah and his wife had taken 32 rooms of the Oberoi, which was reachable only by boat and where the loudest noise normally is the rustling of sails on boats carrying tourists across the river.
Once a day the Shah and Sadat would set out from the hotel on a little river tour. From alongside our hotel we would quickly hire a felucca or Egyptian sailing ship and the local sailor would take us as close as he dared to the motorboat.
The two leaders would be chatting while usually looking over the tranquil waters. That, combined with what we were all hearing about events in Iran itself, gave me sufficient ‘colour’ to send one or two radio reports a day – and continue sunbathing and other relaxing activities.
One day I heard a shout of anguish from an Associated Press reporter. He had gone to the telex machine to send his report. There, neatly typed up in capital letters on a print-out, was an interview with the Shah and Sadat that an Italian journalist had despatched to his magazine.
The AP reporter was absolutely livid and rushed to the press officer of the Egyptian government. “How come you allowed this guy from a small-scale Italian magazine to get exclusive interviews when the rest of us – AP, Reuters, the BBC , the New York Times, the Washington Post and all the American TV networks – cannot get anywhere near the Shah and president Sadat?” he demanded to know.
The next day the Italian reporter was deported from the country. He had made up the entire story. “I was bored,” he explained.
Sadat personally and Egyptians generally watched the unfolding revolution in Iran with deep concern. Egypt had come to regard Iran as an anchor of stability for the entire Middle East and the collapse of the shah’s power left a regional vacuum that deeply worried the Egyptians.
Officially, Egypt had welcomed the shah as the friendly head of a friendly nation to which Egypt was indebted for financial support in difficult times. But Sadat and the Shah could only watch helplessly, from the island refuge, as the momentous Iranian revolution unfolded.
They had met 10 years previously at an Islamic conference called to discuss a fire at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Israeli-held Jerusalem. The two had maintained regular contact about regional problems.
As the Shah languished on the island in the Nile, his religious opponents led by the Ayatollah Khomeini said that he and other members of the royal family should be jailed, and denounced any leader who would give them refuge.
But if Sadat so much as gave that a second thought, there was no sign of it.
He and the Shah had one thing in common: they both believed they were infallible.
Within three years both of them were dead, one toppled by his people, the other by an assassin’s bullets.
The mighty had fallen.