Five years of diplomacy in Canada
Dr Abdulla Abdul Wali Nasher
The author, a Vice-President of the Society, served for several years as Minister of Health in Sana’a before being appointed Yemen’s Ambassador to Ottawa in 2003. His tour as Ambassador ended in November 2008. We are indebted to him for contributing this account of his time in Canada.
The life of a diplomat is full of constant travel and change, like the ocean’s tides that constantly come and go. We arrive in a place, scurry around getting to know everybody, developing special relationships and growing fond of one another and then … start all over again when colleagues depart or our own posting comes to an end. Every single one of us attempts professionally to achieve the very best during each appointment that we serve, but it is the human relationships that we form during these postings that characterize the essence of our quality of life in a foreign land. Although we must eventually leave a country behind, these precious memories of special friendships and bonds that we formed are ours to keep for a lifetime.
The journey to my five years of diplomacy started in London, the city that I had fallen in love with at first sight in September of 1963, upon my arrival as a student from Aden. In July, 2003, I was vacationing there with my family and I found myself contemplating my recent appointment as Ambassador to Canada. In one of the city’s bookshops I found a publication called ‘National Geographic Traveler: Canada’ which covered the country from coast to coast, providing details on its history, geography and people.
It became immediately evident that the major cities located in each Province and Territory, were spread out over an unimaginable magnitude of terrain. I devoured the entire contents of the publication, but felt I had only just grazed the surface of this astonishingly vast and beautiful country. I was, in fact, starting to feel slightly overwhelmed, and although I had survived the rigours of medical school, graduated from Liverpool University, risen to the challenges of being a medical practitioner and junior surgeon in the UK, a Professor of Surgery in Aden and Sana’a, and had completed several successful years as The Minister of Health for Yemen, I was starting to wonder how any of this might actually qualify me to be an Ambassador and was experiencing an unfamiliar sense of disquiet about being launched into a field where I had no familiarity. To say that I found this daunting was an understatement and I was in a quandary as to where to begin wondering if this was such a good idea. I decided I must seek out the advice from someone I knew would have the answers.
Before I left for Ottawa, in November 2003, I visited my good friend Frances Guy, who was then the British Ambassador in Sana’a, and asked her to assist me in my dilemma. She did her best to calm my nerves and very kindly handed me some salvation in the form of a little book on Diplomacy, The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, which I desperately hoped would represent the definitive encyclopaedia of Ambassadorial life.
I also greatly appreciated the very kind gesture of His Excellency Edmund J Hull, theAmericanAmbassador, in providing me with an invaluable publication entitled, The Modern Ambassador: The Challenge and the Search by Martin Herz of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy of Georgetown University.
Although I was well-armed with these precious manuals, I still felt a bit like a man overboard, keeping afloat by clinging to the ship’s cat.
As luck would have it, in October 2003, I was also fortunate enough to meet with the new non-resident Canadian Ambassador to Yemen, Roderick Bell, who was in Sana’a presenting his credentials to the President. He provided me with a wealth of insight into the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs as well as directions for negotiating the tangled labyrinth of its inner workings. I learned that Ministers of State were difficult to meet – real progress came by spending one’s days scampering through the complex maze of bureaucracy and gnawing at the heels of senior officials. It was dawning on me that the life as a diplomat bore some striking resemblances to that of a rodent
… but with much better hors d’oeuvres!
I am also very grateful for the fortuitous crossing of paths with my predecessor and dear friend Mustapha Noman on his return from Ottawa, just prior to my own departure. He was a goldmine of helpful hints and indispensable advice. With supplemental encouragement and words of wisdom from
our Minister of ForeignAffairs, His Excellency Dr. Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, and the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, His Excellency Mohayaddin Al-Dhabi, as well as a crash course from the Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Institute, I was beginning to feel cautiously optimistic and rather buoyant.
On 28th November, my wife Ilham and I travelled to London, and two days later, I flew to Canada, while Ilham took the train to Newcastle to attend her convocation for her PhD in Environmental Engineering, prior to joining me in Canada.
When I arrived in Ottawa, it was a hypothermia-inducing minus 15 degrees. I emerged from the airport in utter disbelief, having left plus 28 degrees in Sana’a. My driver explained to me nonchalantly that winter had not technically begun yet and then described, in a sadistically cheerful way, the horrors of freezing rain, wind-chill factors and explained that Ottawa had the dubious honour of having the coldest January mean temperatures of any capital in the world, except for Mongolia and Kazakhstan. I was starting to have serious misgivings about whether I would survive the week, let alone January!
Fortunately my anxiety was abruptly cut short by the flurry and bustle of the diplomatic life, which waits for no one. Ilham and I found ourselves immediately immersed in an awe-inspiring sea of new faces, meetings, receptions, dinners and welcoming parties. We were oblivious to the rapidly dropping thermometers outside having quickly discovered that the extraordinary friendliness and warmth of the Canadian people kept us insulated from the cold and made us feel immediately at home away from home.
I very soon realized that the better part of diplomacy involves an enormous amount of listening and the never-ending creation of relationships with individuals from every walk of life – the Senate, Parliament, government, business, media, academia and the general public all have a role to play in the reality that diplomats create for themselves and the vehicles that they choose as the most effective to promote their countries and their relationship with the country in which they are posted. It struck me immediately that Yemen was a country that most people knew very little about. This was a positive and a negative. On one hand, there were no preconceived notions and people were fascinated by images of its unusual beauty and the sheer mystery of a land that is ‘uncharted territory’. On the other hand, Yemen, having a low profile, meant that it did not appear frequently on Canada’s radar, in terms of recognition or assistance. It became abundantly clear that I had my work cut out.
I formulated a game plan and clarified my objectives. Simply put, my goals were to build upon the friendly relationship that did exist between our two countries, strengthening ties and bilateral relationships. Although this sounds quite simple, I was soon to discover that raising public awareness of this little known Arab country would entail a highly ambitious and energetic personal campaign to promote and educate people about Yemen’s unique qualities, opportunities, limitations and needs. All of this had to be accomplished in a finite period of time, under the confines of a limited budget and in a post-9/11 environment. Fortunately I love a good challenge!
I decided the best way to extol the virtues of the ‘Unknown Arabia’ was to bring in an expert who was sure to capture everyone’s attention, and that is why in February 2004 I called in my very good friend, brilliant author, and Yemen’s famous adoptive son, Tim MacIntosh-Smith. In 1982 Tim graduated from Oxford in Arabic Language Studies. His professor told him to take a break and ‘Go somewhere respectable and practise!’ He ignored this advice and went to Yemen instead where he became so completely intoxicated with the land and its wonderful people that he decided not to leave and remains there to this day. His perspective on the country is unique – words of a westerner spoken from the heart of a Yemeni. We pried him away for a week, his first trip across the ocean, and during that time he lectured at Ottawa and Calgary Universities and the Canadian Parliament. The impact was an invigorating introduction to the Land of the Queen of Sheba for our Canadian friends.
Emboldened by this visit and heartened by the response and the developing curiosity about Yemen, I managed, a few months later, to convince three Canadian journalists, along with the manager of a Canadian tourist company, to visit Yemen. Our national air carrier, YemeniAirlines, provided the tickets, while the Sheba Hotel and the Universal Travel and Tourism Company in Sana’a provided accommodation and travel around the country. This was a thundering success and generated much interest and press coverage.
This was but the first of many successful and ambitious visits between Canada and Yemen that were to take place over my term. Future missions included Ministers and Members of the House and Senate, senior government executives, trade representatives and officials from a variety of business groups. These trips were highly productive, leading to deals and contacts but most importantly they cultivated deep personal relationships based on trust, admiration and friendship, the building blocks of true success.
My days were spent immersed in an endless series of meetings, receptions and dinners. It was not long before I started to feel comfortable wearing each of the many hats that a successful Ambassador must don during the course of any given day – educator, negotiator, strategist, historian, deal-maker, promoter, archaeologist, entertainer and host. My wife and I delighted in accumulating so many wonderful friends and associates who all shared an enthusiastic fascination with Yemen – its overwhelming beauty, the magic of its people, its culture, customs and rich history. Dinner parties at the House of Yemen were always lively and informative with lastminute additions at the table being commonplace. Numerous seeds of cooperation as well as many vital Canadian/ Yemeni relationships took root in our dining room.
While most of my time was spent promoting Yemen, we could not help but become mesmerized by the beauty of Canada and inspired by its timeless values of good governance, freedom and tolerance. I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel across this great country, visiting many cities including Quebec, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Niagara Falls, St. John’s and Saint Andrews. While I was always received with customary friendship and warmth wherever I went, I feel that I must give special mention to the City of Calgary where visitors are subjected to the ultimate in uninhibited friendliness known as ‘Western Hospitality’. I made several visits to strengthen our business ties with Canadian oil and gas companies located there and each time found myself engulfed by a welcome suitable for a long-lost brother who had risen from the dead.
Calgary is the home of Nexen Inc. , Yemen’s greatest success story and corporate citizen. Few global companies can match the extraordinary philanthropic generosity and corporate responsibility of this great company which has extended support to Yemen for health, hospitals, annual medical visits, water and the most important gift of all – education. Every year Nexen awards ten scholarships for Yemeni students to study at the University of Calgary and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, thereby investing in the future of our country.
As I look back at what Ilham and I consider to have been one of our life’s greatest adventures, I cannot help but wonder what the next chapter holds in store… but I have a feeling that it may evolve out of something that Canada has taught me! I lived in the UK for 15 years and four of those years were spent in Edinburgh. The fact that we were just 50 miles from St Andrews, the town where golf was born in 1400 AD, was of no consequence to me. When I came to Canada I was surprised by the number of people who seemed to be utterly obsessed with this peculiar game. I came under a lot of pressure to play, and after much resistance I finally caved in and reluctantly agreed to take a lesson. It was amazing – before the lesson was over, I was completely hooked. Never did I dream that I would succumb to this terrible addiction that causes otherwise rational adults to spend hours chasing after a little white ball. In my case, it was many little white balls – I was so terrible when I first began!
However, within a short period of time I felt that I was improving and to quote the immortal words of President Gerald Ford, ‘I knew I was getting better at golf, because I was hitting fewer spectators’.
So when people ask me what I might do next…I smile and say, ‘Watch out Tiger Woods, here comes The Yemeni Eagle!
||Wedding of Ambassador’s daughter, Maha Nasher, 20 July 2007. From left to right: Dr Ilham Basahi (Ambassador’s wife), Maha Nasher, Abdo (groom), Dr Abdulla Nasher and Aziz Nasher (son).