The Yemeni Ambassador: D.C.'s Dean of Diplomacy

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Courtesy of the Yemeni embassy

Yemeni Ambassador Abdulwahab Abdulla Al-Hajjri

Almost no one outside the Beltway has ever heard of Yemeni Ambassador Abdulwahab Abdulla Al-Hajjri, since the 12-year veteran of the diplomatic corps has always been more inclined to work behind the scenes. But inside the Beltway, he's a fixture on the Georgetown social circuit. He often graces the pages of D.C.'s society magazines and hosts near nightly dinners and parties, some of which end with dancing until the wee hours of the morning.

But life in Washington is not all fun and games for the ambassador, especially these days. President Barack Obama last week named Yemen as a priority front on the war against al-Qaeda and briefly closed the U.S. embassy there as security concerns mounted. The would-be bomber of Flight 253 on Christmas Day was allegedly trained in Yemen, and Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army major accused of killing 12 people and wounding 31 others at Fort Hood, was taking spiritual guidance from a Yemeni imam with ties to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Recently, the ambassador has been in intense negotiations with the Obama Administration about what to do with the 80-plus Yemenis at Guantánamo Bay, who make up the bulk of the prisoners left in the detention facility. "This Administration is different in a way," Al-Hajjri said in an interview in his private study at the Yemeni embassy in Washington's tony Kalorama Heights, just a block away from Donald Rumsfeld's home. "I think they deal with countries, especially small countries, with more respect, and they're willing to listen to others."

This is the third U.S. President that Al-Hajjri has dealt with, having spent more than 17 years in Washington, 13 of them as his country's top representative — more time than any ambassador from any other country save Djibouti and Singapore. His three children all grew up in the U.S., and two of them work in Washington. "It is unusual. It's usually four years, and then it's year by year afterward," he says. The reason his bosses have kept him there so long, he says, is that "they think it's an investment, because they think you develop experience and an understanding of how the system works."

Al-Hajjri comes from the kill-them-with-kindness school of diplomacy. He totes bags of Yemeni almonds, pistachios and coffee with him around town, and most of Washington's élite, from Saudi princes to four-star generals, have been invited to his home — a sprawling mansion near American University. He has been voted one of the top Washington hosts by society glossies Washington Life and DC magazine. But his serial socializing isn't just for laughs. "It helps me tremendously," Al-Hajjri says. Indeed, he hosted General David Petraeus for dinner a month ago, and three weeks later, the general visited Yemen.

The ambassador decided at an early age to follow in his father's footsteps and become a diplomat. Al-Hajjri's father served as ambassador to Kuwait before becoming Prime Minister. Al-Hajjri did two tours in Washington as cultural attaché and deputy chief of mission before becoming ambassador in 1997 (he also serves as nonresident ambassador to Mexico and Venezuela). When he arrived, relations between Yemen and the U.S. had deteriorated to the point of virtual nonexistence. His first task was to convince the U.S. of the danger of the open Yemeni coastline — one of the longest on the Arabian Peninsula. Just across the Red Sea — and closer than Cuba is to Florida — lie Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, three of Africa's most war-torn countries. After the U.S.S. Cole bombing, the U.S. helped Yemen start a coast guard and a navy, though only 25% of the coast is patrolled today and pirates and terrorists cross the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden regularly and easily. Yemen is home to the largest population in the region, 23 million, and one of poorest — 75% of its income comes from the 300,000 barrels of oil it produces daily, a drop in the proverbial bucket compared with the 11 million produced by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the 8 million produced by the U.S. It is the second largest country on the Arabian Peninsula (roughly the size of California and Pennsylvania put together); it has the highest mountains (with terrain similar to that of Tora Bora, Afghanistan) and the longest border with Saudi Arabia, an open one that has seen traffic rise since the Saudi government started cracking down on Islamist militants. All of which is to say, what Yemen seeks from the U.S. above all is help. "The problem is, there is no limit to what we need. Yemen is a very poor country — the development challenges are beyond imagination," Al-Hajjri says.

During Al-Hajjri's tenure, aid to Yemen has gone from nearly nothing to as much as $80 million in a single year — peanuts compared with the amount that goes to, say, Egypt, where for decades the U.S. has been spending upwards of $1.75 billion annually. "The Administration has always asked for more money for Yemen, except it gets slashed every time by Congress," Al-Hajjri says. "I think the Congress now is convinced that Yemen needs to be helped."

Al-Hajjri maintains that Yemen would not be so vulnerable to terrorism if it did not have such an open society: it was the first Arabian country to institute regular elections, limit presidential stays to two terms and allow women to vote and be elected to government. "You see other problems exposed when you have a free society," Al-Hajjri says. Is there any chance that Yemenis might one day feel bought if there is a big influx of money? "Ironically, Yemenis have been one of the few populations in our neighborhood that would welcome any help," laughs Al-Hajjri. "When countries were hiding their alliances with the United States, our President was going village to village telling people that we are allies with the United States in fighting terrorism. We're partners; we say this publicly."