It is indeed an honor for American Bedu to have the opportunity to interview Ali Al-Shihabi. This Saudi gentleman has had an interesting upbringing which culminated with his management of an investment bank in the GCC. After retiring from the banking sector, he then turned his talents to writing.
With this interview Ali Al-Shihabi shares his upbringing; factors which impacted upon his choice of career; his writing career; and analysis on current issues within both Saudi Arabia and the region.
First of all, thank you Ali for agreeing to this interview! I’d like to begin with some general background about yourself. You are a Saudi citizen, but were you born in Saudi Arabia?
I was born in Switzerland where my diplomat father was on post at the Saudi Embassy in Bern.
I understand that you grew up as the son of a Saudi diplomat. What was it like to grow up as a diplomat’s son? What different places did you live? What place was among your favorite and why?
I enjoyed it at the time but in retrospect moving around many countries is unsettling. What helped was that at age 9 I was sent to boarding school in Lebanon and spent 7 years there, so that anchored me in one place and with a group of friends, so I guess Lebanon was my favorite place.
What do you believe are the greatest benefits you received as the son of a diplomat which impacted on who you are today?
Exposure is very valuable, but maybe the more lasting impact was inheriting my father’s interest in current affairs and politics.
How did your US education at two prestigious universities impact on your ultimate career decisions?
It did not impact my career decisions, since I was determined to go back to Saudi after Harvard, although with that academic pedigree I could have easily gone to Wall Street or the City of London. High powered jobs in finance in Saudi were limited and the financial services industry, at that time, was far less developed than it is now.
I realized that government service by then, in the late 1980’s, was not very challenging. When my father joined the government in 1950 the country was a small place and opportunities in government service were many. For example he became an Ambassador in his 30’s. By my time a large bureaucracy had developed and I felt that opportunities for quick advancement were going to be much more limited.
How long had you been outside of the Kingdom before you returned to work in the banking sector? What kind of adjustments (if any) did you need to make?
Except for a few years in the 1970’s I had been out my whole life, however my father had been very conscious of that issue and had made sure I often visited the Kingdom and also that I kept my language skills sharp. All this helped me adjust very quickly when I came back.
Please share the transition from banking to retirement to writer. Had you always written or dreamed of being a writer?
I am an avid reader, and I love history and current affairs so I always thought that maybe I should have pursued a career as a writer or a journalist so when I turned 50 I decided it was time to take up this passion. The transition has been very satisfying.
Did you read many books as a child and in your later years? What authors influenced you and why?
I began reading as a child, and that was at my Norwegian mother’s insistence. Arabs, unfortunately, do not read much. I cannot say that any particular author had influence on me but my time at Princeton was important in developing my writing skills, which I always maintained after that.
There are many Saudis who do not routinely read books, whether in Arabic or another language. What message do you wish to say to them?
This is a tragedy for all Arabs and to address that we have to start producing books for children to attract them to start reading. Unfortunately this will be increasing difficult with all the TV and new media now available but at least an effort should be made, particularly in translating foreign books and allowing wide distribution without the heavy bureaucratic burden of censorship-even of children’s books!
How did you get started on your first book, Arabian War Games? What inspired you? Your book of fiction describes many of today’s issues and challenges but with predictions of future political and military scenarios. Do you believe the scenarios you describe in your book as potential outcomes?
I worry about the risks that I describe in the book and realized that talking about them in the abstract is different from carefully laying out a potential scenario, in detail, so people can see how such an event could develop. I do not expect that exact scenario to happen but think that variations or parts of it could become a reality.
Is there another book in the works?
Your blog also covers topics of keen interest. You’ve written about Al Saud and the Future; Governance Before Democracy; and the GCC Union, among other topics. Do you ever have a fear or apprehension of the topic son which you have chosen to write? They are topics people want to talk about and discuss but do you feel your blog is also closely monitored because of the issues? Do you ever wonder or worry that your blog could be blocked?
I don’t think that what I write frankly warrants any blocking so do not expect that.
As a strategist and analyst, what significant changes do you foresee for Saudi Arabia in the next 3 years?
The Kingdom should do well in the next few years. Economically it’s very strong and the leadership line is clear. Internally I expect the government to be able to maintain stability. The main risk is Iran and what happens on that front.
Last but not least, can you share with readers what your typical life is like now. Are you living in Saudi Arabia now? If not, why not?
Actually I now spend most of my time on my farm in Portugal. My son Omar has taken up commercial farming in Portugal as a career and I am supporting (and bonding with) him and also enjoying the pleasant environment, which is very conducive to writing and reading. I travel to the Kingdom and to Dubai every few months.
Your mother was not born a Saudi woman and instead from Europe. How do you feel about the foreign women today who meet and fall in love with one of the many thousands of students who are studying outside of the Kingdom? Would you encourage such relationships in today’s day and times? Why or why not?
Everything else being equal, I would not encourage such relationships. Culture is very important and a mixed marriage creates a lot of strain on the family, particularly for the foreign wife. Language, traditions, habits all become an issue later on in a marriage and while my parents managed these issues with a lot of wisdom it was not easy. This is particularly the case given the wide cultural gap between Saudi and the West.
How do you believe Saudi Arabia should change for the next generation of young Saudis? Should there be changes to the educational sector and if so, what and how?
Saudi has to change, but for change to work it will (unfortunately) have to slowly take place in cooperation with the religious establishment and not despite them. This establishment has had a hundred years to indoctrinate society and hence the vast middle and lower classes in the Kingdom are very traditional. We need to accept and respect that reality and work with it rather than against it. “Westernized” and “modern” Saudis have to be realistic in their objectives because they are the distinct minority.
What is your advice to young Saudi students who have received scholarships and attend University outside of the Kingdom?
To try and get work experience outside the Kingdom first. It will be a huge advantage to them when they come home.
Prior to concluding this interview, how can American Bedu readers obtain your book?
My book is available on all online channels like Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Nobles, iTunes etc. It’s available in Hard copy and digital form.
Is there anything else you’d like to add which I have not asked?
Thanks for talking to me.
Ali, thank you again for agreeing to this interview and the bevy of questions asked. It has been a pleasure and an honor for American Bedu blog.