The Meaning of Fragility in the Gulf

My parents raised me to believe that success wasn’t measured in the big money I’d earned but in the relationships I had forged and in what the world was meant to look like. I became a scholar of strong families and spouses in conflict, friends in extended families, and people living in violent countries.

As a low-ranking Foreign Service officer, my post during my rookie year was in the Saudi kingdom, a progressive, industrial hub in conservative Islam. Saudi Arabia, despite its recent religious push, has always been a place that appeals to American values and its sense of personal development. As I quickly adapted, the country’s tradition and religious hierarchy shaped my views and my career aspirations.

My training abroad crystallized in a medieval kind of virtue-producing ritual: submission to religion on the one hand, and personal freedom of thought and action on the other. Religious institutions in the Gulf are beloved for their hospitality to guests and devotion to peace. As one religion shapes the way a country functions, it can also transform the person behind the veil or mantle of heraldom.

In Qatar, the region’s smallest country on both a numerical and a geographical basis, a peaceful and prosperous society can be practically supported by a billion dollars in oil per year. Since the Arab Gulf is not socialist like the West, a large part of its wealth was generated before 2002, when leaders in the six countries threatened by Iran became more muscular in its post-cold war defense of US foreign policy in the region. Only through engagement with these states and a concerted diplomatic effort was the Arab Gulf able to negotiate exemptions and contributions to the US “war on terror” which commenced in 2002.

My work on the Gulf also took me to the Middle East, but I made it my job to understand what those working there meant by pan-Arabism and at the same time, persuade them to share their experience and ideas with Washington. As many as a quarter of Washington’s principal foreign-policy decision-makers were Arab. They were interested in a Middle East foreign policy based on “A Jew-free zone,” disengagement from the Iranian-American relationship, and the embrace of failed states and corrupt regimes.

Surprisingly, Washington and my bosses in Qatar weren’t the only Washingtonians to be concerned about a radical shift in the Middle East. My Washington bosses, for all their British reserve, believed that a new attitude towards the Arab world from Washington would increase the severity of the region’s instability and would send thousands of American diplomats home. I, on the other hand, believed that US foreign policy continued to shape the region and that empowering the Arab states meant the decline of Iranian influence and, most importantly, the creation of safe zones for refugees to live in, a common front against Islamist extremism, and a return to the genuine multi-national ties that once helped the US fight Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

This book is a testimony to the notion that foreign service missions force you to revisit, look at and understand familiar realities in ways that present new challenges or opportunities. True transitions happen within a group. Diplomats take on a new mission and re-shape an entire community, upending traditional ideologies and reinforcing the true essence of personal freedom or regretful retreat.

Leave a Comment