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Book Review: Arabian Nightmare by Richard Arnott

The 1979 death of British nurse Helen Smith in Jeddah has always been shrouded in mystery. Did the 23-year-old fall from a balcony as per the official verdict or had something nefarious occurred on that hot sultry Arabian night? In Arabian Nightmare key witness Dr Richard Arnott puts across his side of this perplexing story.

Dr Arnott and his wife Penny were the hosts of the party to which the young nurse had been invited. Subsequently, the couple spent time in the Saudi prison system, both under threat of public beating. Like many others in the ex-pat community the Arnotts had access to alcohol and on the night in question had arranged a drinks party at their sixth floor flat.

For the most part the book is an account of Richard Arnott’s experiences in Saudi prison. It also includes a biographical sketch recounting his south African childhood and subsequent medical career which included stints aboard various cruise ships. The fate of Helen Smith is dealt with, but as far as this book is concerned the nurse’s death was a tragic accident. Thus, the author agrees with the hypothesis that the nurse must have toppled over the (low) balcony of the flat while cavorting with a Dutch seaman, Johannes Otten who also allegedly fell to his death.

While discussing Helen, the authorial tone is always measured – professional. Arnott confirms that she baby-sat his young children and spent a fair amount of time at the Arnott’s flat. He also denies having an affair with the nurse. Interestingly, while confirming that he carried out an appendectomy on her, he also scotches rumours that he had in fact performed an abortion on his young lover. I say interesting because it seems no trace of this operation was ever found during any of the four post-mortems carried out on Helen’s corpse.

When learning of Mrs Arnott’s dalliances with other men and the precarious state of the Arnott’s marriage, the possibility of a liaison between the sexually promiscuous nurse-cum-baby-sitter and older, worldly-wise doctor becomes a possibility, maybe an inevitability. By his own admission Helen Smith spent a lot of time at the Arnott’s place. Despite Mr Arnott’s calm, authoritative tone I can’t help wondering if there was more to this situation than the author is letting on.

Readers of Paul Foot’s account of the tragedy will no doubt be left wondering at some aspects of Arnott’s story. For example, why on earth would this middle-class British professional couple invite a group of German seamen to their small flat – a group of strangers? Arnott had also invited some nurses who failed to appear. That left just Helen Smith and Penny Arnott with a group of heavy drinking seamen. Even weirder, Richard Arnott went off to bed early (so he says) leaving the women alone with these men.

The author’s disappearance meant he did not witness what happened next. Nobody did, apparently. Officially, Helen and her Dutch skipper were feeling amorous and slipped outside for some privacy. Arnott notes that the balcony was protected by a pretty low railing, so low that he had requested for it to be raised – to no avail. And so, the party dispersed. The sailors left Richard and their Dutch colleague outside on the balcony . . . Why the couple would engage in this potentially dangerous behaviour high up on a sixth floor balcony has never adequately been explained. Risky behaviour, what on earth were they thinking?

It gets odder: while Dr Arnott slept his wife had sex with a New Zealand diver in the lounge with a French diver crashed out in an armchair. Little wonder the press reported that Helen’s death followed a sex orgy that had got out of hand. Had the nurse been raped then as subsequent autopsies suggested? Had her Dutch sea captain attempted to defend her honour? Exactly what happened on that balmy night shall never be known.

Indeed, Arabian Nightmare throws virtually no light on the tragedy. For this is a book not about the death of Helen Smith, but the suffering of Richard Arnott. Certainly, the lack of judicial process in the Saudi system is worrying; the fate of prisoners often rests on the whim of the Royal Family. What comes across very vividly is the heat. Arnott and his fellow prisoners endured extremely harsh conditions of that there is no question.

In typical fashion, the author made the most of his incarceration, learning Arabic and assisting in the prison clinic. However, much sympathy one feels for the doctor it’s impossible not to compare his fate with that of Helen Smith. Reaction will thus depend on the reader’s attitude: if he/she feels Arnott is hiding something, his plight will draw less sympathy. If, however, the reader feels this is the story of a man wronged, the endless imprisonment in that arid desert will have the hallmarks of a story from hell.

Me, I’m not sure. Something has never added up about this case. Paradoxically, reading Mr Arnott’s sketchy account only makes that impression stronger.