David Jackson may be president of Northridge Capital, an independent real estate management firm in Washington, D.C., but he calls himself an “Arabist.” “People in the real estate business look at you like you’re some kind of an insect when you tell them that,” he says. “But I have a different kind of perspective.” This perspective comes in handy at Northridge, where Jackson invests in real estate for a small number of Saudi families.
It also comes in handy at CCAS. A 1983 MAAS alum, Jackson has been an active and valued board member since 2006. This past year, he served on the board’s “troika” with H.R.H. Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Alexander Ercklentz, partner in the firm of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. The three men played a crucial role in the Center’s April 2010 board meeting in Riyadh; they planned the meeting and its accompanying policy and education events and contributed support in the form of funding, venues, and airplane tickets.
“For me, it’s almost reflexive that if you do well you help the institutions and people that helped get you where you are,” Jackson says. And indeed, it was Jackson’s experience at MAAS, as well as a stint in the Peace Corps in Morocco, that started him on his Saudi-focused career.
Jackson became an expert in the Arab world by chance. After college he worked a number of odd jobs, including playing a Revolutionary War soldier at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge National Park. During that time, he applied to the Peace Corps, and he got the call about his appointment to Morocco one day while in full colonial regalia. “I didn’t even know where Morocco was or what language they spoke,” he says.
After three years as an English teacher in Goulmima, a date palm oasis in the southeast of the country, Jackson returned to the United States. He wanted to continue to learn about the Arab world, so he applied to MAAS in 1980. “I got in to other programs,” he says, “but Georgetown offered me a full scholarship.” Jackson speaks of the “phenomenal” faculty he studied with at CCAS, including Drs. Hanna Batatu, John Ruedy, and Hisham Sharabi. While a student, he worked at the Saudi embassy preparing the press cable for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh. It was there that he met Lydia, a fellow employee, who he married in 1985. They now have three children: Alex, 21, and Dina, 19, a senior and a sophomore at Georgetown, respectively, and Chris, 15, a student at Georgetown Prep.
Soon after graduating from MAAS, Jackson attended Georgetown Law, where he excelled and landed a gig as a summer associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in downtown D.C. He was offered a position with the firm upon graduation, and after working in its D.C. and New York offices, he went to work in its Riyadh office in 1988. Jackson experienced the Gulf War there firsthand in 1991. “Riyadh took as many SCUD missiles as Tel Aviv,” he says. “The airports were closed, and I couldn’t leave for two weeks.” He then returned to the firm’s New York office until 1993, at which time he moved to its Jeddah office. Four years later, he came back to Washington to start Northridge Capital.
Jackson says his experience in Morocco and at MAAS has helped him enormously in his work. “Having a grounding in Modern Standard Arabic is so useful when I’m in a meeting with, say, a Lebanese, two Saudis, and an Englishman,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a pure Arabic business environment, but it helps me follow everything that’s going on—even the asides.”
His main advice for MAAS students relates to the portrayal of the Arab world and Islam in the United States today. “There’s no analysis about it anymore,” he says, adding that what now sells is people taking the most extreme position and screaming at each other. “Students coming out of MAAS have an understanding of the history and the culture of the Islamic world and the real story behind its relationship with the West,” he says. “Maybe you’re not a lobbyist or an activist. Maybe you’re just working for a bank. But whatever you’re doing, don’t let that knowledge lay fallow. Go ahead and refute the stereotypes. Go ahead and say what you know to be true.”