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The Ambassador of Nowhere

He decided to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy at Columbia—a favorite professor was Arthur Danto, the art critic and philosopher. His graduate studies further disappointed his father, who hadn’t wanted him to go to college at all. He had expected Alsaidi to join him and the Yemeni community in Dearborn (there are an estimated 10,000 immigrants from Yemen there). “But Detroit is not a city where you talk about a critique of Kant,” Alsaidi said. “People there are consumed with money. Rich or not so rich, it’s how much does your job pay you, how much is that house, how’s business?”

As he rose through the Yemeni foreign service, which he joined in 1984 (he had returned home two years earlier to work for USAID), there was more chafing against socioethnic type. “Most of the people who come to this job are interested in gaining power by getting into the field of finance,” he said. “I wasn’t. They thought I was dumb.” He was posted in Berlin at the time the Wall fell.

Alsaidi was in the U.S. when Iraq invaded Kuwait. “There was this infatuation with Saddam in parts of the Arab world, especially those who resented Kuwait and their wealth,” Alsaidi explained, adding that he’d gone out of his way to let a deputy in the Yemeni foreign ministry know that their country was betting on the wrong horse. “I told him, ‘Realistically, this guy cannot impose his will on the international community, not when you have a match between a superpower and a mediocre Middle Eastern military. He has to retreat.’ I knew that from my reading of Foreign Affairs.”

Saddam Hussein was a mentor to Saleh, who was known among Yemenis as “Little Saddam,” but Alsaidi insists it was only recently that his longtime boss—Saleh has been president of Yemen for nearly 33 years—became incapable of brooking dissent. “He used to call me at night to ask my opinion, and when I disagreed with him”—about Iraq and Kuwait—“he said, ‘You know what? I think you are right.’ Around 2005, that sort of thing stopped. Last year, when I wrote in a report to him that the U.N. was thinking of contingency plans in Yemen in the case of an uprising, the administration phoned me five times to say, ‘The president is not happy with your report, because it isn’t true.’ ”

There’s a lightness to Alsaidi’s life that was absent a month ago. He has already started a new job, at the International Peace Institute, a think tank where he had occasionally participated in panel discussions. “They are making me a senior analyst,” he said. “The money is better than an ambassador’s salary. We have some savings. What do you save for in life if not a time like this?”

Now his nation is New York City—even if he’s not going to live in one of its finer residences. It’s a citizenship he’s been moving toward for a while. “It’s not only the moral issue,” he said candidly. “It’s the way my colleagues at the United Nations would look at me. I believe people there think highly of me. Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, told our foreign minister that I am his adviser. So after witnessing the president authorizing the killing of our people, to remain in his administration and try and rationalize it? Well, it would not look seemly. I would rather take the subway.”


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