The Arab Spring has ruined Abdulwahab Abdulla al-Hajjri’s summer.
“I was, of course, planning a vacation this summer,” said the Yemeni ambassador to the United States and the reigning diplomatic darling of Washington society. “And, of course, now I cannot.”
Life has gotten extremely complicated for the highly social Hajjri. His brother-in-law, authoritarian Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment for severe burns suffered in a rebel attack on the presidential palace.
The Obama administration is sending CIA-operated drones for potential strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants while powerful tribes, pro-democracy activists and teetering government forces are fighting to fill the power vacuum.
Even by Yemeni standards (the attack on the USS Cole, the would-be underwear bomber, the Fort Hood shooting suspect, the explosive printer packages, etc.), this is a lot to contend with for the man Time magazine just last year dubbed D.C.’s Dean of Diplomacy.
“I know Americans think serving in Yemen is a hardship post,” said Hajjri (pronounced Hadg-ree). “I think serving here is a hardship post just because of Yemen’s complexity.”
Hajjri has always done his best to ease that hardship. While other Middle Eastern ambassadors have resigned to protest violent crackdowns by their governments, he insists that, for the time being at least, he will stay put.
The ambassador spoke last week at the Yemeni Embassy, a stately beige brick building with a Mediterranean clay roof on Wyoming Avenue NW. Hajjri, 52, sat on a leather sofa and poured hot water onto Chinese tea that blossomed into flowers in the glass. Arrayed around the room were photos of the ambassador with presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Saleh, who is married to his sister.
Hajjri, the son of a former prime minister and ambassador, first came to Washington in 1986 as a cultural attache and graduate student at American University. He returned in 1995 as a senior diplomatic official and was hired in 1997 for the embassy’s top job. Since then, he has raised his three children in the States and become a fixture of the city’s social circuit. He speaks rapturously about his adopted home.
“You can craft the life you want here,” Hajjri said. “If you want to be busy, you can be busy. If you want to be quiet, you can be quiet. It’s a combination of suburban life and also city life. It’s just the perfect city.”
He has made so many friends here, he boasts, that to fit them all in one place, “you’d have to have a room for 2,000, 3,000 people. And I’m not kidding.” He also throws a pretty good party.
One typical affair took place in October 2009, when Hajjri organized a farewell dinner and dance for J.D. Gordon, who was the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. About 300 people, including more than 60 reporters and television producers, feasted on traditional Yemeni meats and desserts at his Kalorama home before heading downstairs to dance.
Concerned that his nocturnal basement jams, which reportedly go on until the break of dawn, won’t play well back home, Hajjri was reluctant to discuss details. “The problem is that what might look intriguing here might not look intriguing in Yemen. If you mention dancing, people kind of flip out.”
Even before its current crisis, Yemen was not a prosperous nation. The incongruity between the ambassador’s abode, where he lives alone, and his country’s standard of living does not always go unnoticed by his guests. Hajjri shrugs at the comparison.
“People understand, especially here, that a good office and good house are important for you as a diplomat,” he said, adding: “The house is not mine. It’s for the government. For any government that comes. Why would they be mad that they have a good house here?”
With all that is going on in Yemen, Hajjri argues, his fellow citizens have more pressing matters to worry about.
So does he.
On March 8, Hajjri met with National Security Council officials in the White House to discuss the worsening situation in Yemen. Not all of his colleagues have stuck around. In March, Abdullah Alsaidi, Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, quit to protest the killing of dozens of demonstrators by snipers loyal to Saleh.
Alsaidi said Hajjri is “morally conflicted” and “agonizing over what is taking place” in Yemen. He said he knew “for sure” from conversations with Hajjri — before and after the U.N. ambassador left his post for the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think thank — that Hajjri “sympathized” with his former colleague’s public objections and wanted real reform.
But he did not fault his friend for sticking around.
Hajjri’s situation is more complicated, Alsaidi explained. “You have to understand, culturally he is linked to the family and the president. The social mores in the Middle East say that even if your brother is in the wrong, you will defend him,” he said. “Even now, he is more morally obligated not to speak against the president publicly, because in our country that would be bad, very bad. Because the impression is that [Saleh] is now in decline.”
Hajjri, a seasoned diplomat, answered all questions about his potential resignation by saying, “I have confidence in the president.” He said he was not worried by opposition activists’ demands that Saleh and his family be brought to justice and was expertly opaque on nearly all issues related to his service to Saleh and Yemen.
He rejected the notion that the Obama administration doesn’t want Saleh back in power, and when asked about the ramped-up drone and jet-fighter attacks against radicals in his country, he said, “We don’t comment on such stuff.”
Yemen, he said, “will be saved.”
A momentary crack in Hajjri’s diplomatic imperturbability appeared at the mention of Saleh loyalists killing protesters.
“I thought this interview was about me,” he said cautiously. Asked to clarify his feelings about the killings, he offered: “Listen, I know the president and I know he has no intention whatsoever to create violence. He has been always for peace and for bringing everybody together. I don’t think he is part of any direct — I don’t think he wanted to do any harm to anybody. Violence happened, but it has circumstances.”
The Obama administration has made clear that it wants the Yemeni government to make an orderly transfer of power even if done while Saleh is in Saudi Arabia. Hajjri refuses to entertain the prospect that his president, and the bankroller of his Kalorama lifestyle, is not coming back. The denizens of the D.C. social universe in which Hajjri shines likewise refuse to imagine Washington without him.
Yet despite the high social profile Hajjri has attained here, he has privately sought to move on. Alsaidi, the former U.N. ambassador, said Hajjri had been “arguing for years” to leave and once “tried to convince me to accept coming to Washington” as his replacement.
Hajjri acknowledged his efforts to leave his favorite city.
“I love my position here,” he explained. “It was a life-changing experience. The thing is this: Everybody likes to change jobs once in a while.”
Given the situation in Yemen, the ambassador may have a job switch on the immediate horizon. The question is whether he can remain untarnished by his association with a regime and a family retaliating against its own people.
Recent indications are not promising. A few weeks ago, after Alsaidi quit his post in protest, Hajjri asked his old colleague to meet him for a lunch in New York but was met with a response about a prior engagement. As Hajjri shrugged off the snub as the result of last-minute planning, an assistant leaned into the sitting room and knocked on the door.
“Sorry,” she said to the ambassador. “Your driver is downstairs.”