Talk about a rapid career change.
Khaled Mahfoudh Abdulla Bahah, who had been Yemen’s friendly ambassador to Canada since January 2009, said he got the call ordering him to leave his post and take up his old job as his country’s oil and minerals minister on March 7.
He was told he had just 24 hours to leave.
He was out of Canada the next day and arrived home early in the morning on March 10. Two hours later, he was sworn in and sitting at his old desk in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, having resumed the job he held between 2006 and 2009.
Wasting no time, the new minister travelled to Paris to work on a Yemeni deal with the French. But the breakneck speed with which he was plucked from his long, five-year posting in Ottawa and deposited back at his old desk on the other side of the world meant he had no time to bid farewell to colleagues he had grown close to.
He decided to return for a brief period, flying to Ottawa after his stint in Paris.
“I just came to say goodbye to my good friends here in Canada,” he told Diplomatic Circles on April 23 from his former Ottawa office.
The tall, mustachioed Mr. Bahah could often be seen at parties sporting a smile. Perhaps it was that sunny disposition that led his diplomatic colleagues to recommend he take the presidency of the Ottawa Diplomatic Association for 2009-10—just eight months after he first landed in town.
He said it was totally unexpected.
“I was hesitant to do that, but I was forced by my colleagues—forced in a good way I mean,” he said, cracking his trademark smile.
“It’s very interesting with the ODA. It’s a very good organization, it’s something that brings all diplomats together…it was a good experience, for one year. You get more involved with your colleagues here, doing a lot of activities, plus working very closely with Foreign Affairs,” he said.
He would recommend new diplomats become active members of the organization, he said, even if they don’t necessarily become president. “That’s something you need a kind of courage to do,” he laughed.
Get out of town
In general, he suggested that new diplomats get out of their offices and go to receptions, because it’s easy to pick up information—and to get out of Ottawa, because to understand Canada is to understand the provincial system.
Mr. Bahah came to Ottawa just three months after Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his second minority government in October 2008, witnessing years of minority politics before Mr. Harper won a majority in 2011. He says he learned a lot from that time.
“I think I passed through a learning stage, where I saw a very healthy competition between parties for the interests of the country,” he said.
Another transition he witnessed was the Harper government’s various foreign ministers, ending with the current Foreign Minister John Baird since May 2011.
“We work very closely with Mr. Baird, he has a very outgoing personality which is very important for a foreign minister, he’s more friendly. He has the qualities of filling his position, which is very important,” he said.
“It’s not only with the diplomatic corps here, but we follow his travel…I think he’s made huge accomplishments. He’s added to Foreign Affairs something new to this organization.”
Parallel to these changes in Canada, Mr. Bahah’s country was also undergoing dramatic change. The Arab Spring resulted in Yemen’s former president becoming the fourth leader to be forced from office in the Arab world. Now, after a presidential panel, Yemen will transform into a six-region federation, the new Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi announced in February. The country is also drafting a new constitution. Meanwhile, Yemen has been increasingly in American news in connection with terrorism.
Mr. Bahah said Canada has helped with the democratic changes, as well as the Ottawa-based Forum of Federations. “This is a huge accomplishment toward political and democratic reform,” he said. As well, Canadian development dollars to Yemen, funnelled through United Nations organizations and non-governmental organizations, has increased from $2-3 million per year to $12-14 million per year, he said.
But that focus on democratic reform and development post-Arab Spring sometimes took the wind out of progress on Canada-Yemen energy deals, Mr. Bahah admitted. This despite the fact that during his time in Ottawa, his former employer, Calgary-based Nexen was gobbled up by state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation under the blessing of Mr. Harper.
“Economic ties are very important to us,” he said.
“If we could not achieve something for the last three years because of the reforms we are passing in the country…that’s something we still look for…especially in the energy sector.”
Now he will get a chance to deal with his new Chinese friends operating his old Canada-based company in his home country. It’s a small world indeed.
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