Patrick Seale, a British journalist and controversial Middle East historian, died on Friday in London at the age of 83, ten months after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Born in Belfast, Seale spent the first decade and a half of his life in Syria, where his father was a Christian missionary. A student of Albert Hourani, the renowned Middle East historian, Seale graduated from Oxford University, publishing the much praised “Struggle For Syria” at an early age.
In the Arab World, he was most known for his 1988 Hafez Assad biography, “Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East,” as he gained unprecedented access to the Syrian president. His seemingly positive portrayal of the Syrian dictator, whose legacy includes the notorious 1982 Hama massacre and brutal repression, is at the heart of his controversial legacy in today’s polarized Middle East with observers disagreeing over the level of its objectivity.
Hassan Abbas, a Syrian writer and dissident, says Seale went to great lengths to offer the late Syrian dictator “a polished image.”
Nadim Chehade, a friend of Seale and a Middle East expert at Chatham House, disagrees.
“His view of Assad was main stream amongst the left in the UK, and he never hid his opinions,” he explains.
For his part, Michael Young, writing in the Beirut-based The Daily Star, notes that Seale’s biography of the late president, despite its frequent praise and omissions, remains “a classic.”
He, nevertheless, refers to a 2005 Guardian article by Seale as a “remarkable misstep;” describing how the British historian sought to exonerate Syria’s incumbent president, Bashar Al-Assad, from the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister.
Following the Syrian revolution, Seale’s skepticism and geopolitical analyses attracted criticism from many, including his second wife, Rana Kabbani, who hails from Syria.
In the 1990s, Seale interestingly became a columnist in the pan Arab al-Hayat newspaper, after serving as a ghostwriter in the “The Desert Warrior,” the memoir of Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan.
Prince Khaled is al-Hayat’s publisher and also the son of the late Saudi crown prince and defense minister who served as commander of the joint Arab Forces during the Gulf War.
Seale remained an al-Hayat columnist until his last days.
“This is only one dimension of a very sophisticated man,” Chehade says, Seale “was also an art lover and a very social person.” He was also a literary agent and an art dealer, according to the Observer, with a special interest in the works of Henry Moore and David Hockney.
Seale’s academic legacy remained significant, even in the eyes of his critics.“Patrick Seale has passed away,” a Lebanese columnist noted, “the author of the Struggle for Syria has taught us a great deal. But he is also the author of Assad, the book that could have been avoided. If it weren’t for this book, our sadness for his departure would have been greater.”