Interview by Steven Gertz
How did you first become interested in the Arab world?
Arabs were very much a part of my community growing up in Washington DC. I grew up Greek Orthodox at a time when there were no churches in the city for Orthodox Christian Arabs to attend. Syrian Orthodox Christians came to the Greek church, at least until they were able to build their own churches. I can remember Arabic-speaking students learning Greek alongside me in the church school. We taught them our Greek dances, and they would teach us the dabka. I also remember listening as a small child during the 1940s to learned discussions between my father and uncles about what was then happening in Palestine. On the whole, they were sympathetic to the Arab side of the conflict, again because of cultural and historical ties.
What did you study at Georgetown, who were some of your most memorable professors, and how did they influence your career?
I was enrolled in the School of Foreign Service. In those days, the school was really separate from the College—I think in my four years there, I took only one class at the College. One class that really stands out in my memory was Dr. Carroll Quigley’s “Development of Civilization.” He was especially interested in questions about process—how do civilizations develop, how do they decline, and where is our civilization in this process? He posited that all civilizations begin with a period of turmoil, after which come periods of gestation, growth, consolidation, internal conflict, universal empire, decay, and then barbarian invasions again. This class has really influenced my thinking over the years as it has helped me to categorize things. Other classes I took included political geography (a discipline no longer taught) with the memorable Dr. James “Jungle Jim” Hunter, and international law with Dr. William O’Brien. I also took Spanish, as Arabic was not taught at the time. I prefer not to remember my economics courses.
Given the selection of classes that you took at Georgetown, why did you choose to go to Arab countries once you entered the Foreign Service?
When I entered the Foreign Service in 1963, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go for my first assignment. I had an interview with a senior Foreign Service officer who told me that he thought I had a great future in the Foreign Service but that if I wished to serve in Europe, I would need to be wealthy or come from a family of influence! Given that I did not meet those qualifications, what I needed to do was to learn a “world-hard language” i.e., a difficult language that had more than twenty language-designated positions in the Foreign Service. At the time, these were Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Slavic languages, Arabic, and Swahili. I dismissed Swahili, and the Far East had never interested me, so it was really down to Russian or Arabic. This may sound ridiculous, but I thought at the time about what kind of food I wanted to eat for the next twenty years of my life (cabbage or lamb), and decided to take an assignment in Saudi Arabia!
You have had a long career in the Foreign Service (from 1963-1999), and have served in various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the UAE, Syria, Jordan, and Qatar. What assignments stand out particularly in your memory and why?
My assignment in Saudi Arabia was especially memorable for the opportunity it gave me to travel as a twenty-two year old. At the time, the British would not allow any American consular or diplomatic presence into the UK-controlled parts of the Gulf (also known as the Trucial States). However, out of necessity they gave a visa to only one American diplomat—the most junior Foreign Service officer at the Consulate General in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—to travel up and down the Gulf issuing visas. I would do this fifteen days each month carrying a complete consulate in my briefcase. I spent time in Abu Dhabi and Dubai at a time when they were not at all like what they are now. I would also drive up to Riyadh once a month. It was so much fun. And it was a much more relaxed Saudi Arabia then. I would regularly be invited to the homes of Saudi merchants for parties during which their wives and daughters would join us at the table.
What do you think accounts for some of the changes there?
I would ascribe three reasons for the changes. First, when the highly respected King Faysal bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Saud was assassinated in 1975, his successors lacked his personal charisma and credibility. In order to preserve their positions, they made a deal with the clergy, which in turn gave the clergy immense power. Second, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Islamist dissidents humiliated the Al-Saud family, as they were reduced to bringing in French special forces to liberate the mosque. The last straw was the Islamic revolution in Iran (also in 1979), after which the Al-Saud family not only cracked down on their Shi‘ite population in the Eastern Province but also doubled down on imposing more rigid applications of Islamic law and practice.
For those interested in joining the Foreign Service, what advice would you give?
If you want to be good at it, you have got to have a wanderlust. Pick a spouse who likes moving every three years. You need to regard “disgusting” things as “interesting.” Certainly a cast-iron stomach helps. You need a great deal of empathy and the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. For example, the average American talking about foreign politics will say, “If I were a Jordanian…,” and what he or she really means is, “As an American, I wish the Jordanians would….” You need to be able to submerge your personality, writing for the needs of the Foreign Service and not according to your own style. Finally, be clear in your mind that you are serving your country and that your personal political views should not interfere with that. You need to be honest with yourself and with your superiors, but make sure that what you are doing is serving the broad interests of the United States.
Tell us about your work with Qatar. What are you doing to promote ties between the United States and Qatar?
When I retired from the Foreign Service, I went to work for a private capital management firm. A year later, the Qataris asked me to take over the US-Qatar Business Council, a not-for-profit trade association. The Qataris see this as the only American organization whose exclusive mission is to enhance the relationship between the two countries. Our bread and butter comes from helping Qatari and American businessmen interact. Having knowledge of both societies, we help them avoid misunderstandings when we see something going amiss in the relationship. We also seek to educate Americans about Qatar. For example, we have a weekly newsletter that informs recipients about news in Qatar.
Let’s talk about your role on and contributions to the CCAS board. What are your hopes and dreams for the Center and for the School of Foreign Service more generally?
Probably my biggest contribution so far has been the role I played in bringing Georgetown to Qatar to establish the School of Foreign Service there. The Emir, Sheikh Hamada bin Khalifah, and his wife, Sheikha Mozah, had already embarked on the establishment of Education City. At one point, the Foreign Minister complained that all prestigious American universities recruited to date focused on the hard sciences but that there was no “political school” in Qatar. The Qataris asked me what the best school of politics was in the US, and I told them it was Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Anything else was second rate. They asked me to approach [then] Dean Robert Gallucci, which I did, and after a week of trying to get rid of me, he took the idea to President DeGioia, who thought it was great.
As far as future initiatives are concerned, we have sought to secure a major Qatari endowment for CCAS, but the challenge is great, as many Arab investors no longer view endowments as a good investment. They are much more interested in transactional relationships, i.e., they are asking the question, “What do I get for the money I invest?” I think that as a Center, we need to become more transactional, providing a service beyond the educational mission of the institution. Or perhaps put differently, I think a first-class educational institution like Georgetown can look imaginatively to other things that will attract funding.