British High Commissioner Asif Ahmad beat off 17 diplomats to snag Jamaica post

By Desmond Allen
Executive editor - special assignment

Monday, October 29, 2018

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If British High Commissioner to Kingston Asif Ahmad seems completely at ease with Jamaica and Jamaicans after only a year, it's not by chance. He fought for the position, employing every ounce of his considerable skills…and won.

Ahmad, who had served as ambassador to Thailand and then the Philippines, was waiting for his third post as head of mission in 2017 when the Jamaica vacancy came up. Before that he had lymed with many Jamaicans in London where he was born and frequently heard their patriotic talk about their homeland.

But it was more than that. He had an agenda. Ahmad had worked as head of the Commonwealth Department between 2003 and 2007, during which he had travelled extensively but never worked in a Commonwealth country. Jamaica would represent that challenge which he craved. Still, it was not going to be easy.

Seventeen of his colleague diplomats also had their eyes on the picturesque northern Caribbean island, which had had a long history with Britain since becoming a colony in 1655. But Ahmad was undaunted by the competition, formidable as it was.

As he had always done when faced with great odds, the envoy prepared himself thoroughly. The selection panel was spellbound as he argued fervently that Jamaica, for him, was not merely another foreign affairs assignment.

He whipped out statistics showing that over 800,000 persons of Jamaican heritage lived in the United Kingdom and had made a significant contribution to the social, economic and cultural development of the country.

He, therefore, saw the job as one of domestic affairs for Britain, and he would be going to Jamaica to modernise relations beyond what it had become since Independence in 1962. There had been talk about Britain building a prison in Kingston, and there was a focus on security and justice that had crowded out everything else.

At the same time, the figures showed some 200,000 Britons — escaping the icy chill of their northern clime — travel to Jamaica yearly to laze away on its sun-baked beaches and soak in the warm blue waters of the Caribbean Sea that caressing its shores; among the number were British-Jamaicans who were visiting home.

“I wanted to transform that into something more productive, with greater focus on areas of growing importance such as small business, agriculture, music, sports and the like,” Ahmad told his Foreign Office audience. No one was surprised when he got the job.

In the years leading up to that date with destiny, Ahmad's life had taken a certain trajectory, with an uncertain childhood that warranted escaping civil war-torn East Pakistan — which became Bangladesh — and meandering through Pakistan, Iran, Japan, China and Poland, before settling down in the UK.

Upon reflection, it could be argued, Ahmad was always in preparation for the time when he would cast a shadow that was more imposing than his short stature would suggest, in the hallowed halls of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

His dad, Salahuddin Ahmad left what was then East Pakistan in 1953 to join the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a newsreader. In London, he met his wife Bandana who had been sent there to do nursing. They got married in Scotland and Asif was born in London in 1956.

Salahuddin returned to Pakistan where his cousin was minister of commerce in 1962. From there he entered the diplomatic service, and was in China in 1971 when the civil war broke out in Pakistan.

Young Asif, who was caught in the war, had been left behind because there was no school for his age (13 at the time) in China. He managed to escape after three harrowing months on the run and rejoined his parents in China.

That episode might have influenced his mother to start the first international school in Beijing — then called Pakistani Embassy School and now the Pakistani College. It's a measure of how much progress has been made since because at the time Beijing, now the economic powerhouse, did not have an international airport.

After the civil war the people were given the choice of becoming Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, and his dad chose Bangladesh, eventually returning to the diplomatic service.

But the problems were not yet over. His father was posted to Poland and for three years could not be paid a salary because the new Bangladesh Government had no money.

“We lived on the generosity of the Polish people. They took care of us until things got better,” Asif told the Jamaica Observer.

He was sent to Iran to finish high school and spent three years there, living with an uncle before rejoining his mother in the UK in 1973.

Given the poor financial state of his parents, Ahmad was forced to pass his General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level exams on top of his United States International Certificate in one year, in order to enter the Durham University on a free tuition grant. He did a variety of jobs in the catering industry to help finance his education.

But the struggles and uncertainties would soon begin to pay off.

He sent out 30 job applications, did 15 interviews, and received offers from five. He ended up accepting the offer from National Westminister Bank as a graduate management trainee, where he chalked up many firsts and won an unprecedented three successive double promotions.

While at the bank he developed a strong international profile, travelling extensively to set up branches in Miami, New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong, among others. But when the traditional concept of banking gave way to new thinking, less personal and more target-driven, he felt he had had enough.

“They were unraveling all the things we pioneers had built and were taking bad risks with the organisation. I took three months' pay and left to become a business consultant for a government agency, working with small businesses which were struggling to grow,” he recalled.

Finally, the moment arrived. This was 1999. It started with an advertisement from the Foreign Office, seeking professionals for mid-career positions which had just been introduced. Response to the ad was swift and voluminous; 600 applications flooded the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and of that, six were chosen. Asif Ahmad was one of the six.

At 43 years old Ahmad was appointed first secretary, having been singled out for his formidable financial background, and assigned to the finance department. He recalls with typical British humour how staffers would ask him “Can I help you, sir?” when he turned up for work. “I was a rarity. All that has changed now.”

Within three years he was promoted to the senior civil service rank, notably head of the Resource Budgeting Department and then head of the Commonwealth Department, which administered Britain's prized and historical relations with its present and former colonies in the four corners of the globe.

In that capacity, he met the then Jamaican Prime Minister P J Patterson at the 2003 Commonwealth Summit in Nigeria, long before the Jamaican job entered his consciousness, but nonetheless a sign of good things to come.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's office grabbed him from the Commonwealth Department to head up his Communication and Information Centre at 10 Downing Street, and later as director Asia for trade, accompanying him on many treks to Asia as part of a big push to develop relations with that region.

Ahmad would leave a lasting impression when he helped to negotiate Jaguar Land Rover's big break in India; and won permission from China for Lloyd's Insurance to open an office in Shanghai.

That appointment was followed by his recall to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as director for foreign policy for Southeast Asia, covering Burma and other ASEAN members, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. He acted as unofficial UK ambassador to Burma in the midst of efforts to free political prisoner Aung San SuuKyi, who is now the Burmese leader.

In 2010 Ahmad was appointed ambassador to Thailand, followed by the Philippines and then high commissioner to Kingston, Jamaica, fulfilling a cherished dream.

Reviewing the year since he presented his credentials and listing the potential for growth, he described as transformational British agricultural aid to Jamaica, which is now valued at 55 million pounds.

Noting that music could be a springboard between Jamaica and the UK, as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh had found in the 1970s, he said hosting big sporting events could be a lucrative business, given the island's sporting prowess.

In energy there is the Tullow Oil exploration which he hoped would pay off for Jamaica, as well as the imminent return of Shell to Jamaica.

Work is going on to generate electricity from waste materials; in education, 22 Jamaicans were sent to the UK on Chevening Scholarships, seven more than the previous year.

Contrary to perception of a clampdown, 86 per cent of Jamaican passport-holders were successful in getting a visa to visit the UK.

“The visas are processed now in the UK but the bias is towards allowing people to come to the UK — certainly for training and tourism,” said Ahmad.

He disclosed that 1/2 million pounds had been earmarked to support a cross-party commission on violence in Jamaica. British funds, including a 21-million euro programme by the European Union, will beef up law enforcement and focus on faster justice and action on corruption.

The high commissioner is convinced that trade between Jamaica and the UK “has not made any impression…and is almost more of a statistical error than a serious proposition”. Citing figures, he said Jamaica was buying US$5 billion from the outside world. Of that, the UK was selling a mere US$80 million to the island.

“Jamaicans can be doing a lot more to sell to the UK. There are many Jamaican brands that have great potential. I am happy to see that Usain Bolt's Tracks and Records has opened a branch in London. Jamaica has the best avocado in the world. We could be doing much better,” Ahmad said with obvious conviction.

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