Some Lessons Learned

by Ambassador William A. Rugh [1]

As a former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen (1984-1987), some of my most memorable moments were the occasions when I met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh [2]. But the most vivid pictures that remain in my mind to this day; however, were the times when I made mistakes in those meetings and was embarrassed. A few of those times stand out.

One day the Foreign Minister at the time, Dr. Abdel Karim Al-Eryani [3], asked to see me and he brought up an issue that he said the president would raise with me. Al-Eryani, a highly educated man with a Yale Ph.D. and a great deal of experience, was a delight to deal with not only because he was fluent in English but because he understood Americans so well. I met with him frequently, and each time it required little effort to explain my government’s point of view. He always represented Yemeni interests and articulated them eloquently, but it was also clear that he understood the American perception of the issues very well, too. On this occasion, Al-Eryani said he wanted to give me a heads up that President Saleh planned to ask me to arrange for the delegation of the U.S. embassy to move to a new location in Sana’a and build a new facility on a site that he had in mind.

It became clear in this discussion with Al-Eryani that he and the president had heard about a recent project in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi government had opened a new “diplomatic quarter” in Riyadh, and arranged for all foreign embassies to move into it. Yemen wanted to do the same, Al-Eryani said, to help ensure that foreign embassies had “the security they needed.”

I asked Al-Eryani for specifics of this Yemeni proposal. Did Yemen plan to provide us the land free of charge, as the Saudis had done? And would Yemen provide water and electricity and build recreational facilities in this diplomatic quarter like those in the new Riyadh facility? “No,” said Al-Eryani, “Yemen is a poor country and would expect the United States to buy the land and pay for the building of its embassy and any other amenities it needed.”

I told him I would report Yemen’s request to Washington but that I knew that funds for a new embassy construction were in very short supply and that I frankly doubted that Washington would approve the project. 

Al-Eryani smiled and nodded. He seemed to understand my argument, as he usually did, without my having to elaborate much. He did not pursue the Yemeni view any further. He merely said that I should explain the U.S. position directly to the president.

I reported this conversation to Washington and received a prompt reply. The State Department said that the U.S government saw no need to move our embassy, which there was no money available to do so, and that the Saudi case was different because of all the financial incentives the Saudi government had provided. About a week later, I was summoned to see the president of Yemen. 

My conversations with President Saleh were always in Arabic since he did not speak English; moreover, he had little familiarity with the United States, so I still had to do more explaining to him than I did in my conversations with Al-Eryani. Among the topics the president raised was his request that we move our embassy to a new diplomatic quarter that he planned to authorize. He said he had a large plot of land in mind for the project and he knew the owner would be willing to sell us part of it so that we could build a new embassy there. He mentioned the Riyadh project and said Yemen could do a similar one.

I asked the president if the Yemeni government would pay for the water and electricity and provide other financial support as the Saudi government had done. “No,” said the president, “the United States is a wealthy country,” and he was sure we could easily pay all costs. I responded that I would pass his request to Washington, but added that I had already had some preliminary discussions with the State Department on the basis of my earlier conversation with Foreign Minister Al-Eryani: the State Department had said that they have no money for such a project now, and there was no need to move the embassy. 

The president looked very skeptical at my remarks. He reviewed his arguments again. How could the United States not afford to build a new embassy? I tried to explain, but clearly, he was unconvinced. At that point, I did not know how to make myself any more precise. In my earlier meetings with the president, he had always seemed to understand what I was saying, but not this time. Usually, I met with the president one-on-one, and we always seemed to understand each other quite well. I had occasionally asked if I should bring an interpreter, and he always had said: “No, don’t bring anyone with you.” I think he did not want anyone to hear our conversations, and he probably did not trust anyone I brought as an interpreter, whom he knew would be from another Arab country. 

On this occasion, I thought perhaps my Arabic had failed me. As it happened, Foreign Minister Al-Eryani was present at this meeting, listening quietly to our discussion. After making my case again, I turned to Al-Eryani and said in English, “Perhaps I am not getting through because of my poor Arabic.” I meant this as a signal for Al-Eryani to step into the discussion and help me explain. But he just smiled and said nothing. I was alone in making the case.

I suddenly realized how foolish and naïve I was to expect the Foreign Minister to take my side against his boss! Al-Eryani is a superb interpreter and could have made my case eloquently. But that was not his job. All I could do was to tell the president I would pass his request to Washington and report the official answer to him. But I already knew what Washington would say. 

The moral I took away from that experience was that convincing someone in private of your point of view does not necessarily persuade him to defend your perspective in all circumstances.

Another embarrassing moment with the former president that I vividly remember was when I met him to discuss issues relating to the South Yemen, which at the time was a separate country [4]. The government of the South of Yemen was hostile to the United States that we had no diplomatic relations with it, and we were concerned about its close ties with the Soviet Union [5]. President Saleh was also worried because that government was also hostile to him, so we often exchanged information with him about what was going on there. One day when I received new intelligence data from Washington that I could share with him, I made an appointment and went to his office, carrying a large map of the South so I could illustrate my points.      

As usual, I was alone with the president. I had prepared my presentations in advance, checking difficult Arabic words in my dictionary. I told the president I had some new information on military deployments in South Yemen and with his permission, I spread my large map on his table in front of us. After I started talking, a servant came in and brought us small glass cups of tea, which he set on top of the map. After the servant left, I began my presentation. Sweeping my hand across the map, I accidentally hit both glasses, spilling tea all over the map. The president immediately grabbed a handful of Kleenex tissues from a box and began mopping up the mess I had made. I was shocked that I had been so clumsy and was momentarily paralyzed. He finished the cleanup and just smiled, indicating that I should continue with my briefing. I was glad nobody else had seen that gaffe.

Ambassador’s house in Sana’a.

Ambassador’s house in Sana’a.

On a different occasion, I went to a meeting with President Saleh carrying a different map, this one showing the entire Arabian Peninsula. At the time, there was a Saudi-Yemeni discussion about the location of their shared border [6], which was unmarked in some places. Washington wanted to know where the Yemeni government considered the line to be, so I decided the best way to find out was to ask the president himself. In the meeting, I was - as usual -  alone with him, and I asked if we could look at the map together so he could show me his country’s boundaries. I unfolded the map, and it was so huge that the president said I should put it on the floor, and the two of us got down on our hands and knees to look closely at it. He immediately noticed that the mapmaker had given Yemen and Saudi Arabia different colors; there was a defined border between them. President Saleh asked who made the map and I said it was a U.S. government publication. He looked irritated and asked why we had put the border where the map indicated, “who decided that line?”.

I said that since the two countries were shown in different colors, the mapmaker had to put the border somewhere, but I read the caveat to him on the map that said that part of the border was “undefined.”  He still seemed upset at the mapmaker’s arbitrary borderline, so I used the moment to ask what Washington wanted me to: “Well, where does Yemen consider the border to be?”

The president’s answer shocked me, and I realized at once I should probably not have asked my question. Still on his knees on the map on the floor, he waved his arm with a flourish over the southern part of Saudi Arabia, close to the middle of the country where its capital, Riyadh, was and said, “Perhaps the border is here!”

I knew this was a rhetorical flourish to make the point that the border was not officially demarcated. Bedouins from both countries wandered back and forth across this unmarked area, as did smugglers. But I also knew that if I told Washington that the Yemeni president was pointing to the outskirts of Riyadh as the possible Yemeni border, and the Saudis heard about it, this in itself would raise the temperature of the ongoing border discussion considerably. 

I realized I made a mistake putting the president in a situation where he gave me an answer that was not helpful. All I could do was try to report the conversation very carefully to Washington so that his outburst and my account of it did not add fuel to the fire. Fortunately my superiors in Washington knew how to play down the incident, and in the end, it caused no harm. But I still can see that scene in my mind’s eye, and I even remember how chagrined I felt that I had provoked an unhelpful comment from the president of Yemen.

Early in my tour, I made another mistake that I should have anticipated. I made an appointment to see the president because I had received some documents from Washington that I was asked to hand over to him personally. I put them in a briefcase and went to his office. The guard at the gate stopped me and said I could not take the briefcase inside. I tried to reason with him, saying I had important papers for the president in it, but he insisted. I reluctantly removed the documents from the briefcase and left it behind, carrying the materials  in my hand. Only later, I realized that the guard’s instructions were probably based on the fact that the president’s immediate predecessor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi [7], had been assassinated in 1978 by a briefcase bomb carried into the presidential office by a visitor. I should have remembered that.

Ambassador Rugh with his Yemeni bodyguard and driver.

Ambassador Rugh with his Yemeni bodyguard and driver.

I usually visited the president in his palatial office, going for my appointment there in my armored limousine with my bodyguard, Ali, and my driver (shown in the photo, on my right and left).  Sometimes, however, Yemeni protocol would phone me and say the president wanted to see me in the evening and would send a car around to pick me up. My embassy security officer did not like that arrangement, because he always wanted to know exactly where I was, and maintain radio contact with my driver in case of an emergency. But I told him that I had no choice, assuming the president wanted to meet me in one of his private locations and did not want anyone else to see where that was. So, a presidential car would take me off to a secret location, and my security officer would worry until I got back and told him that I was safe. In fact, I never worried as long as we were in Sana’a. When I traveled outside Sana’a, however, I relied on Ali for protection and his diplomatic skills navigating us through checkpoints [8]. Ali knew precisely which tribe controlled which area, and how to talk to the checkpoint guards.

During my three years in Yemen, many people showed us great kindness and generosity. Most of all, I learned a great deal from them. They are only a few. Diplomats must be cross-cultural communicators. Effectively doing that job must involve careful listening and observing. When I left Yemen, when my three-year assignment ended, I realized that I had fascinating experiences, but also that I still had a lot to learn.

[1] Former US Ambassador to Yemen 1984-87 and the United Arab Emirates 1992-95. He served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Syria 1981-84. Ambassador Rugh is the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Between 1995 and 2003 he was President and CEO of AMIDEAST.

[2] (b. March 21, 1942 - d. December 4, 2017) Ali Abdullah Saleh was the President of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) from 1978-1990, and then the President of the unified Republic of Yemen from May 1990-February 2012. 

[3] (b. October 12, 1934 – d. November 8, 2015) Dr. Abdulkarim Al-Eryani served in the government of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) as Minister of Development (1974–1976), Minister of Education (1976–1978), Prime Minister (1980–1983)and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1984–1990). Post unification, Dr. Al-Eryani was appointed in the Republic of Yemen as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Development and Prime Minister till 2001. Al-Eryani was an advisor to Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and current President Abdurabbu Mansour Hadi till the time of his death. 

[4] The South of Yemen under the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was its own country until May 22, 1990. 

[5] The North of Yemen, or the YAR, was allied with the United States during the Cold War while the South of Yemen, or the PDRY, was allied with the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1990.  

[6] For more on the subject, the editors recommends “More than just a Boundary Dispute: the regional geopolitics of Saudi-Yemeni relations” by Dr. Fadhl Al-Maghafi (2012). 

[7]  (b. August 21, 1935 – d. June 24, 1978) President Ahmad al-Ghashmi ruled the north of Yemen and was assassinated during a meeting with an envoy sent by the PDRY who claimed that he was delivering a secret message. The briefcase of the envoy exploded, killing both al-Ghashmi and the envoy. It is not conclusively known who set off the explosion. 

[8] Checkpoints in Yemen can be manned officially the government or by local tribes based on their geographical placement. These checkpoints, at times, marked tribal boundaries and influence. They operated on tribal codes in order to facilitate travel.