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Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the U.S. consul general in Jeddah, with U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James C. Oberwetter, right, during a news conference in Jeddah, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2004. Five attackers thought to be linked to al-Qaida raided the consulate leaving five consulate employees and four of the attackers dead. (Mohamed El-Dakhakhny/The New York Times)


Diplomat to Saudi Arabia opens up about what got her through ‘one of the worst days of my life’

May 15, 2017

Upon hearing the word “leadership,” many might picture a leader who boldly determines a course, with her followers and colleagues immediately praising and applauding her wisdom and vision.

I cherish times like those. But I’ve found in my long career as a diplomat that more often leadership is a slog — a hard struggle that demands repeated efforts to convince others to support and follow. In those times, I’ve called on my values and integrity to be my guide.

I needed them when I was head of a consulate in Saudi Arabia in the years after 9/11. Despite differences in values, Saudi Arabia is a close partner of the United States. While our relationship was once based on oil exploitation and fighting communism, today Saudi Arabia is both a key partner in battling terrorism and an important geopolitical ally in a complex, volatile region. Our diplomatic mission tends to the relationship, feeds important information back to policymakers in Washington and takes care of the thousands of Americans who live and work there.

It wasn’t always easy being a woman leader in Saudi Arabia, as you can imagine, and I was the first to lead a mission there, but I could not spend much time focused on those challenges. I had to do my job, which included protecting my employees.

Like every chief of mission around the world, then and now, I began and ended each day with the question: “What can I do to increase safety for my staff?” I had reason to worry because for several years, the security situation in Saudi Arabia had been perilous, with terrorists attacking and murdering Saudis, other Arabs and Westerners. Diplomatic missions were favorite targets and ours, the Consulate General in Jeddah, made up of approximately 50 Americans and 150 locally-hired employees, was particularly attractive. With the advice of my security team, we raised the height of our walls, topped them with glass shards and barbed wire and imposed travel restrictions on the staff. We armed our guards and, unlike most diplomatic compounds, allowed military patrols inside our walls.

These measures distressed everyone, including the Americans as well as the local staff, who were essential to most of our operations and many of whom had been working at the consulate for decades. None of us liked working in fortress-like conditions.

One proposal, however, threatened to tear our community apart. My security chief wanted to require all non-American staff to pass through metal detectors to enter the compound. I understood the imperative for a careful screening. But for a community under siege, the feeling that “we were all in it together” was critical to getting us through each day. Disparate treatment was sure to corrode our cohesiveness and send a signal to the local staff that we distrusted them despite the fact that they, too, put their lives on the line every day by walking through our gates.

To my surprise, my security officer questioned my decision and tried aggressively to change my mind even though there was no specific threat information about our local workers.  So I decided that if local staff needed to be checked, all staff would be checked.

But when that new policy was announced, the Americans were angry and insulted. “How can you question our loyalty?” they said. “We’ve all have security clearances!” During a meeting to explain the decision, I reminded them that everyone was checked going into certain government buildings, regardless of their status. I shared that when I worked at the White House as a senior staff member at the National Security Council, I went through a metal detector every day for two years. I reminded them that everyone went through airport security. I pointed out that local staff were just as vulnerable on the compound and that many had been working for the American government longer than any of us had.

After it was installed, I made sure that I was the very first staff member to walk through the metal detector. I can’t say that we had a Kumbaya moment or that resentment of my decision ended immediately among my American staff.  I had to lead by example and trust that they respected my integrity even if they didn’t like my position.

Despite all our measures, on December 6, 2004, one of the worst days of my life, terrorists attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. After a long standoff, 10 of my staff members were injured, some terribly, and five were killed. These were colleagues with whom we worked alongside every day, and socialized with after work. And each and every one of them was a local staff member.

American interests, and our determination to ensure the terrorists did not achieve their goal of driving us from the region meant we, with the Saudi government’s help, retained our consulate. It was not easy, though, to rebound from the attack, emotionally and physically. But I know that my insisting earlier that we stay together as a community made us better able to help each other recover and rebuild in the aftermath of that horrible day.

So today when a staff member questions my judgment, I always listen but I also trust that my unpopular decision may be the right one.

CORRECTION: Due to a typo, the article initially misstated the date of the consulate attack. It occurred n December 6, 2004, not December 5, 2005.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley is a senior diplomat with the Department of State who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Malta 2012-2016. She has worked mostly in the Middle East including stints in Iraq, Indonesia, Israel, and Tunisia, and on counterterrorism and cyber issues. Abercrombie-Winstanley was the first woman to head up a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia and is a member of Women Ambassadors Serving America. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. government. Follow her on Twitter here