I am Michael Collins, one of the AUK writers, and in my coverage of the 2022 MEPS Forum I had the profound pleasure of interviewing one of the many accomplished attendees. Mr. Mark Hambley is a former Ambassador of the United States to two different Middle Eastern countries, Qatar and Lebanon, and in the years since he has worked with the United Nations on sustainable development and climate change, two concepts raised repeatedly over the course of the three-day forum. I initially noted Mr. Hambley’s expertise as an observer to a November 15 workshop, “The Middle East: Between War, Peace, and Volatility,” during which he was one of the major speakers.
In the interview, I first asked him about his specialty and his research interests. I was somewhat surprised that he did not immediately mention diplomacy or the countries in which he served as ambassador. He named “the loss of heritage” as his specialty. I asked if an example of what he meant by that was the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic art, and he confirmed that that type of activity was what he was referring to but added that his particular focus was on the Gulf region. His answer when asked about his research interest was an unhesitating one-word reply: “Yemen.” It only took a little bit of revealing my own Yemen knowledge for an ocean of wisdom about that land to flow forth from Mr. Hambley. I let him know of my amusement as a child when seeing on a map that there was a Yemeni city called “Mocha,” and he told me about the rich coffee culture in the country in general. I told him I had heard that the large Yemeni island Socotra had an “otherworldly” look to it, and he agreed based on his personal experience there, bringing up the possibility that Socotra could fall under another state’s control. I raised two other issues about Yemen that presumably would be appropriate talking points for a MEPS panel: firstly, its creation only about 30 years ago through the fusion of two states that, for stability’s sake, should arguably be separated again and, secondly, Yemen’s exclusion from the GCC. Mr. Hambley had no definitive response for either, but neither does anyone else, evidently.
I next asked him how AUK compared to other universities with which he had personal experience. He said it was amazing how far along the school was considering it had only opened in 2014. He commented glowingly on the facilities, as he sat beside me in the clean and capacious AUK cafeteria, with the clock ticking until we would both return to the comfortable and high-tech AUK auditorium. He recounted his visit to the American University of Beirut (still usually recognized as the best tertiary institution in the Middle East) as a young man, long before residing in that same city as the Ambassador of the United States, and he was struck back then by how lofty that school’s academic standards were and the brilliance of its student body learning in a second language. He claimed that AUK, in spite of its newness, gave him remarkably similar impressions, in both regards.
I went on to ask him if it was his first time in Iraq generally or Iraqi Kurdistan specifically. It was not his first time in either place by a long shot, so I asked him to comment on how the places had changed over time. His maiden voyage to Iraq was in 1968, at which time, according to his best estimate, the population of Iraq was 9 million; it is now 41 million, exacerbating if not causing many of the problems with the economy and the environment spoken of during the MEPS sessions, accounting for a population increase which perhaps on its own (i.e., without the apparently related problems) would be enough to make Iraq feel like a totally different place. He said he came to Duhok itself in 1968, then more a hamlet than the medium-sized city it is today. He made his way to Erbil, now the fairly cosmopolitan capital of the largely autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, during that same 1968 sojourn, and he said Erbil was then little more than its “medina” (traditional citadel and immediate surroundings). He tried to impress upon me how terrible the roads in Iraq were back then, but I must acknowledge that I did not have enough of a basis for comparison to appreciate what he was saying. He said he came back to Iraqi Kurdistan in the early, exciting post-Saddam days of 2003. He confirmed my assumption that he was at that time heartily welcomed in Iraqi Kurdistan as a citizen of the United States (and, in fact, an official of its government); I knew that Iraqi Kurdistan received significant expansions to its autonomy within Iraq in the wake of both of the US-led Gulf Wars. When he concluded by saying that Iraqi Kurdistan seemed like it had progressed by a century since his visit, I said it was not hard for me to believe that, since 1968 was already 55 years ago; he corrected me by saying the seeming century of progress had taken place since his 2003 visit.
Since I had made Mr. Hambley’s acquaintance through the MEPS Forum, it only seemed right for me to ask him next which of the panels that had been held so far was his favorite and why. It took little time for him to determine his favorite was the second session of the third day, “De-Escalation & War: Is Peace in Iraq & the Middle East Possible?” This happened to be the session we had just come from, but he assured me it was not just because it remained so fresh in his mind. He described the session as “forward-looking” and “heartening,” saying he appreciated how it was not all “doom and gloom.” I did not make the connection until the interview was over, but I find it extremely likely that this particular panel, which included two current ambassadors, resonated with him so much because of his own work history.
The interview was conducted right before the session “Special Conversation with HE Prime Minister Barzani,” which neither of us wanted to miss (if even for a second), so time constraints impacted the final question. With it, I was looking to the future, taking issue with the title of the forum’s upcoming last session, “Restoring Order in the Region: Are External Actors Part of the Solution?” I asked Mr. Hambley if he thought that title was a misnomer. “Restoring order” would suggest that the Middle East had “order” at some point and lost it, but it was up for debate what “order” even meant, when the Middle East had “order” if it ever actually did, and how “order” was lost if indeed it was. Mr. Hambley agreed with me that the phrasing in the session title was problematic, and he recommended “stability” over “order.” He named the interwar period, during which Iraq was briefly a League of Nations mandate administered by the UK, as a time of “stability” in the region. I suggested a period of time centuries earlier, the so-called “Islamic Golden Age,” but the chime telling us it was time for the Prime Minister’s session meant we could discuss the matter no further. I was gratified to see that one panelist in the closing session, Dr. Christine Cheng, critically examined the concept of “order” in the same way I had.
I was beyond gratified to interview Mr. Mark Hambley. My own favorite “session” of the MEPS Forum was my one with him.