A distinguished diplomat

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An article in Saudi Gazette on 9 Dec. 2017 dealt with a number of veteran Saudi diplomats who helped build Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations. Having enjoyed the privilege of belonging to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and spending more than 40 years as part of the Kingdom’s diplomatic community, I know the eminent personalities mentioned in the report. I have had personal knowledge about some of them while I know others through their writing or from the information contained in the records of diplomatic missions.

I would like to shed light on Sheikh Mohammed Al-Shubaili, one of the most humble, generous and popular of these distinguished diplomats. I don’t think that anyone who is a contemporary of these personalities would disagree with me in this regard. Though I did not have the opportunity to work with him directly, I maintained a friendly and affectionate relationship with him just like the relationship of a student with his teacher. I learned a lot from him although we worked at a distance.

I worked in two countries where he had worked as ambassador. I began my relationship with him when I was transferred to Pakistan. At that time, he had completed his tenure in Pakistan and was appointed Saudi ambassador to India. While I was receiving my ticket from the financial department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the director told Sheikh Al-Shubaili, who was then present, that I was being posted to Pakistan. Hearing this, Al-Shubaili stood up from his seat and took my hand and led me to a corner of the office. He said: “Come on; I will tell you about Pakistan” and he talked nearly 10 minutes about that country, saying that I was lucky to be transferred there.

I considered what he told me about Pakistan to be the first lesson that I received for my diplomatic life abroad. Al-Shubaili impressed me with his kindness, humility, good nature and his keenness to ensure that I should not feel alienated in Pakistan. When I reached Pakistan, I found that the name of Ambassador Al-Shubaili figured in everyone’s talk in most circles. At one party, I met the mayor of Karachi, and when he learned that I was from Saudi Arabia, he gave me a warm handshake and exclaimed: “Are you from the country of Sheikh Al-Shubaili?” He added: “He was the king of Karachi without a crown. Apart from that, he was dear to everyone for his generosity, humility and respect for both the young and the elderly.”

One year after his departure from Pakistan, Al-Shubaili came from India to Karachi to meet King Faisal when he visited Pakistan. During that occasion, I had almost forgotten my meeting with him in Jeddah, but I was surprised to see him entering my office and reminding me of the conversation that took place between us in Jeddah. After the visit of King Faisal, he stayed on in Karachi for about a month. The suite where he stayed at the InterContinental Hotel was like a beehive with a large number of Arab and Pakistani visitors from the city, which at that time was the capital of Pakistan.

When I was transferred to India, Al-Shubaili had already left to take up his new mission as ambassador to Iraq. In India, I found many people talking about him and his generosity and humility. Some of them called him a legendary ambassador while others described him as the most generous ambassador that they had ever met. A colleague told me that Al-Shubaili used to invite all the staff to have their iftar meal with him during the month of Ramadan.

After my return from Japan, I worked in the Department of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At that time, Sheikh Al-Shubaili asked the postal department to have me deliver letters and other postal articles to him. I used to go to meet him in the evening in one of the villas belonging to Al-Kandara Hotel, which was the best hotel in Jeddah at that time. The salon of the hotel was always full of people from all segments of society who came to visit Al-Shubaili and the visits continued until midnight. It was very rare to see his dining table without any guests.

Al-Shubaili was transferred from Iraq to Kabul as ambassador to Afghanistan and then moved to Malaysia as the Kingdom’s top diplomat in that Southeast Asian country. He asked me to work with him in Malaysia, but I had just returned from Yemen and my family conditions did not allow me to travel abroad at that time. I explained my situation to him and the reason for not taking up his offer. He was very generous in accepting my explanation.

After serving as ambassador in Malaysia for several years, Al-Shubaili became sick and was transferred to the military hospital in Riyadh. I was among other colleagues who used to go to the hospital to see him. The corridors of the hospital were full of visitors, but doctors prevented them from visiting him.

With the demise of Sheikh Al-Shubaili, the Saudi diplomatic corps lost one of its most famous and most generous, modest and sincere ambassadors.

— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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