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.
"I was not given a choice to stay," Riza said, according to a transcript of her statement. She pointed out the "irony of my working to ensure women's participation and rights through the work of the World Bank and to be then stripped of my own rights by this same institution."
She told the committee in her memo that she felt discriminated against by the World Bank "not only because I am a woman, but because I am a Moslem Arab woman who dares to question the status quo both in the work of the institution and within the institution itself."
Despite their different cultural and religious backgrounds -- Wolfowitz is Jewish -- the two share a formidable self-assurance. Friends also often point to the couple's intellectual common ground. Both are true believers when it comes to spreading democratic ideals in Arab lands where dictators repress free elections and free expression.
Few details about Riza's youth or family are publicly known, but acquaintances say she grew up in Libya. She attended Catholic boarding schools in England and on the island of Malta, received a bachelor's degree from the London School of Economics and a master's in social studies from St. Antony's College in Oxford. There she met Turkish Cypriot Bulent Aliriza. They married and had a son.
They moved to the United States. Today Bulent Aliriza is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Turkey Project. He declined to comment for this story.
In the early 1990s, Riza joined the National Endowment for Democracy and is credited there with development of the organization's Middle East program. Wolfowitz was on the endowment's board -- which is how Riza first met him, according to Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar, a friend of the couple. "Shaha was married at the time and Paul was married," Candar recalled, and it wasn't until late 1999 -- after Riza divorced and Wolfowitz had separated from his wife of 30 years, Clare Selgin Wolfowitz -- that the couple began dating.
Riza also worked at one point at the Iraq Foundation, a group that supported Iraqi exiles agitating for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Her views were said to be admired by Ahmed Chalabi, the patrician Iraqi expatriate whom then-deputy defense secretary Wolfowitz and others in the Pentagon backed to succeed Hussein while they were drawing up war plans. (In April 2003, after the U.S. invasion, Riza took a month's leave from the World Bank to work with Iraqi women in Baghdad on forming a new government. Defense Department documents show that Wolfowitz, then still at the Pentagon, played a role in sending her.)
"Shaha was a very early promoter of the idea that we should not exclude the Middle East from the process of democratic change," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, an international peace organization, who has known Riza for years.
Riza started at the World Bank as a consultant in July 1997 and became a full-time employee in 1999. According to her résumé, she speaks five languages, including Arabic and Turkish. When she and Wolfowitz began quietly dating, Wolfowitz was dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University but headed for the No. 2 job at the Pentagon with the incoming Bush administration.
Though Wolfowitz told friends he was divorcing, it remains unclear whether he and Clare ever did so.
Clare Wolfowitz would only say in an e-mail: "Shaha Riza is a dedicated and serious reform advocate who has my respect. I hope she will be able to continue her work in spite of everything."
In 2004, Riza organized in Beirut a major conference of North African and Middle Eastern groups pushing freedom and reform after the fall of Hussein -- attempting to capitalize on a central neo-conservative theme: that planting democracy in Iraq would ignite change in autocratic, male-dominated regimes of the region. "She was quite formidable because she almost single-handedly brought everyone together," recalls Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese law professor who also helped organize the initiative. "I would have never participated myself had it not been for my sense of her probity and professionalism, and indeed her vision."
The manifesto that emerged from the 40 civil society groups and democracy advocates, and later presented to Group of Eight foreign ministers, said: "Dictatorship must now be declared a crime against humanity."
"It was extraordinary," says Mallat, now a visiting professor at Princeton. Yet Riza did not seek the spotlight for her role, he says.
Wolfowitz had detractors at the bank before setting a foot in the door. "People at the World Bank were ill-disposed of him from Day One," says Desmond Lachman, a resident fellow and bank watcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "His girlfriend is a sideshow."
After Wolfowitz assumed the bank's presidency, Riza went briefly to the State Department, where her colleagues included Elizabeth Cheney, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and the daughter of Vice President Cheney. Later Riza transferred to become an adviser to the president and board of the Foundation for the Future, a nonprofit entity partially supported by the State Department to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.
Wolfowitz and Riza's romantic involvement was for years one of the most well-guarded secrets in Washington and the Arab world. "It wasn't known at all," says Mallat, whom Riza introduced to Wolfowitz and Elizabeth Cheney just before the Iraq war started in 2003. "She was extremely careful at the time; and it is not the kind of question you ask," says Mallat.
In the past, Riza has expressed concern about ramifications from her relationship with Wolfowitz. Even so, she attended private parties in Wolfowitz's company with prominent Washingtonians, including journalists.
The public airing of their private life together has taken a toll on both sides.
Will their relationship survive this Washington tempest?
"I think so," says journalist Candar, who has known Riza for 22 years. "There is nothing that suggests the opposite for me at the moment."
Staff writers Sridhar Pappu, Al Kamen and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.