‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

lllustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 26 May 2018
0

‘Naked Diplomat’ author Tom Fletcher bares all on life as UK ambassador to Lebanon

Tom Fletcher might be best described as “the anti-diplomat.” Not in the sense that he sees no value in diplomacy, but in his steadfast refusal to live up to the stereotype expected of the ambassadorial profession.
While British ambassador in Beirut, he tweeted his way to acceptance by his hosts with an informal style and social accessibility that was in distinct contrast to the stuffy image of the traditional diplomatic circuit.
He told the BBC that there was not a single Ferrero Rocher in the embassy building — referring to the chocolates jokingly associated with the job after a 1990s TV commercial — and his “Dear Lebanon” farewell blog in 2015 after four years in the job boosted his broad international online appeal.
Now, Fletcher is running a portfolio of careers in the space where business, technology and public policy intersect. He is a visiting professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, specializing in international relations, and is also involved with the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, the “ambassadors’ finishing school” in the UAE capital.
The former envoy is also chairman of the international board of the UK’s Creative Industries Federation and a member of the United Nations’ Global Tech Panel, as well as continuing a career as a successful author. His book “The Naked Diplomat” explored the interactions between governments, technology and big business, and became an international bestseller.
His experience and Internet renown make him a star attraction on the international forums circuit. He was on a panel in Dubai recently to discuss the findings of the 10th Arab Youth Survey, and afterwards went into some detail on the findings of the poll, which showed — alarmingly for some — that the US was waning in popularity in the region under President Trump and that Russia was increasingly regarded as a friend for young people in the Middle East.
Fletcher told Arab News that there was some reason to be worried about those findings, but also cause for optimism. “We have seen a striking fall in reputation among young people in the region since the US elections. But it was also worth noting the wider admiration for the American people as a whole, which looks quite resilient.
“The Russia results were interesting, because Russia has not always been a stabilizing force in the region. On Trump, they are further confirmation that the election of the leader of the free world created a vacuum. But the lights will eventually come back on in the shining city on a hill,” he said.
The survey seemed also to reveal a generational split in the Arab world, with many youngsters demonstrably not sharing their elders’ view of the US president. “I think that the region has access to the same information as the rest of us, and can take from it a pretty clear assessment of Donald Trump’s reliability. There are clearly some areas of alignment with some countries, such as the rejection of the Iran deal. But the survey shows that people across the region also hear the Trump administration’s wider messaging on the Middle East,” Fletcher said.
The Iranian situation was clearly on his mind, but he said there were alternatives to an escalating confrontation between the US and the Gulf states on the one hand, and the regime in Tehran on the other. “Wherever you stand on the Iran deal, its violation is a concern for regional security. The issue we have to ask ourselves is ‘what is the alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear potential?’ Personally, I haven’t seen a better answer to that than the existing Iran agreement.
“Of course, the Iran deal in itself isn’t sufficient in reacting to Iran’s wider regional role, not least in Syria. But I worry that it is the hard-liners in Tel Aviv and Tehran who seem keenest to end the agreement,” he said.
A lot of his time in Beirut was spent dealing with the regional fallout from the Syrian crisis, which started just as he began the ambassador’s job. Surely, seven years on and with no solution in sight, that represents a failure of traditional diplomacy?
Fletcher’s response was, well, diplomatic. “Not all has failed. Huge effort has gone into keeping Lebanon relatively stable, despite the scale of the Syria crisis just across the border. Diplomacy has failed on Syria and on Palestine/Israel. But George Mitchell (the American politician credited with helping bring about an end to the Northern Ireland conflict in the 1990s) said that making peace was 700 days of failure and one of success. We have no choice but to keep trying, and to work harder than those who want to see diplomacy continue to stumble,” he said.
Fletcher’s work in the Gulf has enabled him to take a broad overview of developments in the region, and there is no more intriguing situation than in Saudi Arabia, which is going through a rapid transformation of the economy and society under the Vision 2030 strategy. “I think there has been a shift in international opinion on Vision 2030 over the last year. Initially many were curious, and conscious of the obstacles.
“But there is now a growing realization of how important a reform agenda is, especially if it succeeds in creating more opportunity for young people, including women. We all should hope it succeeds — I think it can, but will need maximum involvement of citizens themselves in shaping an open approach,” he said.
Fletcher also has a clear view of the kind of socioeconomic order that will emerge from the transformational policies of regional leaders.
“The Gulf has clearly realized that there is a need to move away from oil dependency well before the oil runs out. The answer has to lie in a knowledge economy. I’m heartened by the kinds of issues that my students at NYU AD want to work on and pioneer. And by the government focus on themes like wellbeing and education reform.
“Twenty-first century skills will need to be at the heart of the school curriculum, with learners encouraged to be curious, to seek out sources of knowledge and wonder, and to learn teamworking and innovation. This is happening increasingly in the larger cities, but there is still work to be done to mainstream knowledge, skills and character in education systems,” he said.
With the power of Big Data coming under scrutiny as never before in cases such as the controversy over Facebook’s role in the political process in the US and elsewhere, Fletcher’s work for the UN is more relevant than ever, and he believes there is a big role for the Gulf states to play in that debate.
“The Middle East needs to ensure it is better represented in the international architecture. It needs to be a key part of the debate about security and liberty online — the UAE Artificial Intelligence Minister (Omar Bin Sultan Al-Olama) is a great example of this. And it needs to help get everyone on to a free Internet,” he said.
Before entering the diplomatic service, Fletcher was an adviser on foreign policy to three British prime ministers, which gives him a unique perspective on the big current issue in the UK — the increasingly bitter process of leaving the EU, or Brexit.
The search for new trading partners has seen a succession of British ministers visiting the Gulf region in a bid to clinch new business. Fletcher does not share the view of some that the UK is destined for insularity and isolation in the post-Brexit world.
“The UK is going through a complex process, but it is always at its best when it has a worldview formed from having actually viewed the world. When it is open minded, outward looking. When it stands for more liberty — rights, trade, thought.
“The creative industries are already showing the way. And the royal wedding was a brilliant reminder of what the UK can be — diverse, modern, self-aware, creative. We all badly needed that reminder,” he said.
Fletcher was the youngest person ever to get a major ambassadorial post, and seems well set to pursue a handsomely paid career in virtually any sector, from international policy-making, to domestic UK politics or the private sector.
But he still regards himself as a diplomat with a creative twist. “I still write diplomat on the landing cards in planes.” And there is a second book in the works, he revealed: “I’ve just finished a murder novel, featuring an ambassador detective,” he said.
It is doubtful there will be a Ferrero Rocher mentioned in the book.


Oil up on OPEC uncertainty regarding production levels

Updated 52 min 44 sec ago
0

Oil up on OPEC uncertainty regarding production levels

  • Saudi Arabia and Russia are in favor of raising output. Other OPEC-members including Iran have opposed this, resulting in a flurry of backdoor diplomacy ahead of the meeting
  • Phillip Futures said in a note that it expected “an approximate 300,000–600,000 barrels per day (bpd) hike by Saudi Arabia and Russia collectively”

SINGAPORE: Oil prices rose by around 1 percent on Friday, lifted by uncertainty over whether OPEC would manage to agree a production increase at a meeting in Vienna later in the day.
Brent crude oil futures were at $73.78 per barrel at 0502 GMT, up 73 cents, or 1 percent, from their last close.
US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were at $66.26 a barrel, up 72 cents, or 1.1 percent.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a producer group with top exporter Saudi Arabia as the de facto head, is meeting together with non-OPEC members including No.1 producer Russia at its headquarters in the Austrian capital to discuss output policy.
The group started withholding supply in 2017 to prop up prices. This year, amid strong demand, the market has tightened significantly, pushing up crude prices and triggering calls by consumers to increase supplies.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are in favor of raising output. Other OPEC-members including Iran have opposed this, resulting in a flurry of backdoor diplomacy ahead of the meeting.
“The actual decision by OPEC and its partners — which may not actually become apparent until Saturday — is the big one traders are watching,” said Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at futures brokerage AxiTrader.
Phillip Futures, another brokerage, said in a note that it expected “an approximate 300,000–600,000 barrels per day (bpd) hike by Saudi Arabia and Russia collectively.”
US investment bank Jefferies said an increase in “the range of 450-750,000 bpd seems the most likely outcome” of the meeting, driven largely by Russia and Gulf OPEC members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Jefferies said these increases “would essentially offset Venezuelan declines and falling Iranian exports,” but the bank warned that global “spare capacity could fall globally to around 2 percent of demand – its lowest level since at least 1984.”
That would leave markets prone to supply shortages and price spikes in case of large, unforeseen disruptions.
The other big uncertainty is potential Chinese tariffs on US crude imports that Beijing may impose in an escalating trade dispute between the United States on one side and China, the European Union and India on the other.
Asian shares hit a six-month low on Friday as tariffs and the US-China trade battle start taking their economic toll.
Should the 25 percent duty on US crude imports be implemented by Beijing, American oil would become uncompetitive in China, forcing it to seek buyers elsewhere.
Chinese buyers are already starting to scale back orders, with a drop in supplies expected from September.
“If China’s import demand dries up, more than 300,000 bpd of US crude will have to find a new destination,” energy consultancy FGE said.
“This will certainly depress US Gulf Coast prices,” it said.