A leading light

12 Feb 2014


HENRY Wotton famously said, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Leave aside the pun in this quote, not many of the ambassadors we have produced have lied for the country and maintained a discreet silence about their subterfuge. Many have gone further and lied to promote themselves.

Yet in this complex world of diplomacy there was one ambassador who was too principled a man to lie, yet found ways to safeguard his country’s interests. And he chose not to boast about it. That was Saidullah Khan Dehlavi — Said to family and friends — who lost his battle with death last week in Karachi.

Said was the chairman of the board of trustees of the Aga Khan University, an honorary position he assumed in 2001 after his retirement from the Pakistan Foreign Service. In the obituary announcement issued by the AKU, he was referred to as Ambassador Dehlavi and it is an ambassador in the true and best sense of the word that he remained till the end. In a condolence message, the Foreign Office described him as the leading light and a role model.

I knew Said as a family friend — our fathers were contemporaries in the civil service — and as the husband of Talat, the sister of a dear friend from my university days, Khalida Qureshi. For Said both these connections were important and he never tired of mentioning them. He was always there to extend a helping hand — be it during a trip abroad, when this charming couple made me feel at home, or here in Karachi, when I was in trouble.

He will be remembered as a family man who would spend his weekends taking his children out to the countryside wherever he was posted to give them an exposure to the local culture, people and geography. Today his legacy is the values he instilled in his daughter and son, who shared his love for the country and returned home after completing their education abroad.

Said had imbibed the best qualities of a diplomat early in life — his father S.K. Dehlavi was the foreign secretary in 1961-63. Said’s major assets were his negotiating skills underpinned with his proficiency in French, Turkish and Italian, apart from English and Urdu. Additionally, his capacity to be discreet and professionally correct and his Master’s degree from Oxford made him the perfect diplomat.

His quiet exterior belied his strength as a communicator especially in French whose nuances he understood better than any of his colleagues — his mother was French and continued to live in Karachi after she was widowed. During his 37-year career he was required to visit 23 French-speaking African states to use his language expertise in negotiations.

Riaz Hussain Khokhar, a colleague who became the foreign secretary, fondly described Said as one of the best career diplomats Pakistan has ever produced.

“He was a skilful negotiator and to him the country owed many foreign policy successes,” Khokhar recalled. When asked to give some examples, Khokhar spoke of the crisis in Islamabad’s ties with Paris in the wake of the disagreements on the nuclear reprocessing plant. Said’s role in smoothening ties proved to be vital.

Khokhar also attributed to Said’s painstaking efforts the success of the RCD summit in 1977 which bonded Pakistan, Turkey and Iran together and later paved the way for the Economic Cooperation Organisation, that now includes several Central Asian states. Said was director, Foreign Minister’s Office, in Islamabad at the time having arrived there after a posting in Ankara.

A long stint as ambassador in Paris (1991-1997) and two earlier postings there as well made him the longest-serving Pakistani diplomat in France. Widely respected for his professionalism he was decorated twice — once with Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and the second time with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

At times, there were unkind insinuations that he manipulated these postings and that he would stay on in France after retirement. But that would have been uncharacteristic of Said, a man of principles who loved his own country too well.

This also worked to his disadvantage for the powers-that-be felt uncomfortable having him too close to the centre of policymaking. No wonder he never made it to the foreign secretary’s post. At other times he was sidelined by those who could pull strings to win a coveted posting. This was quite well known in FO circles.

Yet Said remained a Pakistani through and through. So focused was he on returning home that he rejected all the job offers he received in Europe on the eve of his retirement when he was posted in Brussels.

Rest in peace, dear friend, in the city you loved best.