A top Saudi diplomatic assignment
Prince Khaled bin Salman’s presentation of his credentials as Saudi ambassador to US President Donald Trump caused me to reflect on the role of a diplomat in the modern world, especially in a post as dynamic and testing as ambassador in Washington, which is surely one of the top jobs in any foreign service.
There are many facetious definitions of a diplomat, perhaps the most famous being that he or she is “a person who thinks twice before saying nothing.” But in a challenging environment like the US, an ambassador, especially from a close ally such as Saudi Arabia, has to always be ready to explain his country’s views and actions to the press, to the public on social media, to businessmen and academics, and — crucially — to the US government.
At the same time, the ambassador must keep his own government closely informed about what is going on in the US. At the present time that is extremely difficult, given that a line being developed by the State Department might at any time be changed by a presidential tweet in the early hours of the morning.
It is a curious fact that an ambassador’s own nationals often have only the vaguest idea about what he or she is doing in a far-off capital. The common belief is that ambassadors engage in endless receptions and dinners, which can be an entertaining, if challenging, part of the job — one that requires considerable self-control — and that they have a duty to protect their fellow countrymen from coming to harm abroad, which is true, and can be very difficult and time-consuming.
But most people seem to forget the huge amount of time and effort that an ambassador must spend getting to know the leading figures in the country where he or she is stationed in order to represent his own country’s interests.
During my time as British Ambassador to the UAE, I recall a senior British lady asking me why I did not spend more time with the St. David’s (or was it the St. Andrew’s?) Society, as the Welsh (and Scottish) national associations are called. When I explained that my official diary was very full, she said: “Oh yes, sorry. I forgot. You have to get to know all them foreigners.”
Precisely. An ambassador has to be able to move around town and be an acceptable interlocutor in every kind of forum: Commercial, economic, political, academic and so on. Prince Khaled has already served in Washington and knows America well. He has got off to a confident start, as the interview he gave the Washington Post, published on Monday, indicates. The American press can always be relied upon to bowl some fast balls at interviewees.
Prince Khaled bin Salman, the new Saudi ambassador in Washington, has got off to a confident start, as the interview he gave the Washington Post, published on Monday, indicates.
His family connections will give him a head-start in understanding how the inner circle of Trump’s family and advisers operates. One of his predecessors, Prince Bandar, was given the nickname Bandar Bush because of his close ties to the Bush family. To me, that sounds like praise indeed.
I am often accused, now that I work in financial services, of being too diplomatic, as if diplomacy is a sign of weakness. I patiently explain that diplomacy means getting your way, if possible by as quiet and subtle a route as possible, since there is no point antagonizing your colleagues on the other side of the table, especially if you have to negotiate with them again next week and the week after. Your job is to get your way, if you can.
It helps to be as open and frank as possible. Just as an ambassador must know how the other country’s leaders think, he or she must not leave anyone in any doubt as to what their own country’s policies are. Diplomacy is not really skating on thin ice while fishing in murky waters, as I have heard said. It is much better to be an open and trusted intermediary.
The Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, seems to have done an excellent job in spotting the key players in the Trump administration and getting close to them even before they assumed office. He is perhaps guilty of getting a little too close to the action, but there is much to learn from his approach. No one has suggested that he has done anything other than his job.
For the Saudi ambassador in Washington, explaining to the new administration what is going on in the Middle East, in all its complexity, is a huge task. Even if Trump is a bit sketchy on the details of the war in Syria or the dispute with Qatar, and sends out confusing messages on the Gulf, there is an enormous well of expertise in the US, and many who will be keen to hear and debate policy with the new ambassador.
One area that is relatively new in modern diplomacy is social media. The ambassador in Washington will need a first-class press secretary or media adviser, preferably one who never sleeps. Every ambassador and every minister in government now uses Twitter and Facebook to express policy and commentary, not to exchange family news and photographs. Demands on the modern ambassador have grown exponentially: Everyone can now be in touch with the embassy all the time.
Prince Khaled’s youth and energy will stand him in good stead. If he has the stamina and can build up his contact list in the new administration while looking out for the next one, and if he can see his job as an extended jazz concert, with endless variation on a theme, he will have the tools to handle this most taxing appointment. There is no better job on the planet. I wish him well.
• Anthony Harris is former British ambassador to the UAE and a career diplomat in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected]