In the Shadow of a Scandal

Shaha Riza has been described as impressive, articulate and a passionate advocate for women's rights.
Shaha Riza has been described as impressive, articulate and a passionate advocate for women's rights. (2003 World Bank Photo)

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By Linton Weeks and Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 10, 2007

She is the invisible woman at the center of the storm swirling around embattled World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz. Serious, discreet and strong-willed, Shaha Ali Riza has been variously described as Wolfowitz's "girlfriend," his "female companion" and, according to Salon.com, his "neoconcubine."

But little beyond labels is publicly known about the 52-year-old British citizen who has been dating Wolfowitz, one of Washington's most high-profile and powerful men, for the past seven years. People close to Riza have encouraged her to go public and tell her side of the story, but she remains silent.

When a friend is asked how Riza is feeling at the moment, the friend, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation, says, "What would you expect? How would you like to be portrayed as somebody's bimbo when you're a highly educated person who has actually worked hard to make life better for women and civil society in the Middle East and has actually achieved a lot."

Riza declined to comment for this story, but through interviews with friends and colleagues, the portrait emerges of a Muslim woman who draws her identity from both the Western and Arab worlds, a passionate advocate for women's rights, reform and democracy in the Middle East. Born in Saudi Arabia and educated at Oxford, she is a well traveled, multilingual woman whose expertise in the Middle East has impressed academics, think-tankers and other influential Washington figures.

"She's a very competent person and knows the region well," says former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who became acquainted with Riza as a board member of the Foundation for the Future, established two years ago to fund pro-democracy efforts.

"Her work on behalf of the Foundation for the Future has been excellent," adds O'Connor, who specifically mentions Riza's work on pro-democracy projects in Morocco and Lebanon. "Her knowledge of Arabic has been extremely helpful. She's an impressive woman."

Since Riza joined the World Bank in 1997, some colleagues say she has faced criticism for having sharp elbows, an air of arrogance and an obsession with women's rights, sometimes to the exclusion of other diplomatic considerations. Others admire her energy.

"Shaha is a passionate, articulate, perceptive woman who understands gender issues," says Jan Piercy, former U.S. executive director at the World Bank. "She gets it -- how the barriers to women's full participation impede a country's development."

When Wolfowitz became bank president in 2005, she was required to leave her position as a communications specialist and she went to the Foundation for the Future. The foundation receives support from the State Department. The bank still pays her salary.

Piercy and others point out that the World Bank would like to set a high ethical bar for the countries it serves. Nepotism -- or the appearance of any kind of non-merit-based favoritism -- can undermine a nascent democracy or economy.

After recent disclosures that Wolfowitz had directed generous pay and promotions for Riza in her "external assignment," the drumbeat for his ouster grew in tempo and volume. Amid the din, her friends say, Riza has been reduced to a demeaning caricature as "the girlfriend" whose successes relied on Wolfowitz's intervention.

She defended herself at a bank ethics committee hearing in April, saying her life and career "were torn asunder" when she was reassigned.


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