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Not just about chocolates

Mar 25,2015 - Last updated at Mar 25,2015

It passed probably unobserved by most media watchers in Jordan, but UK newspapers recently had some fun at the expense of the British Foreign Office, following the formal opening of our new Diplomatic Academy in London.

The academy has been established to provide the best possible training for British diplomats, and aims to strengthen our core work skills and promote learning, innovation and networking.

But UK newspapers could not resist jokes about diplomats “going back to school” and making references to a famous 1980s TV advertisement for Ferrero Rocher featuring diplomats and guests eating rather fancy chocolates at rather fancy parties.

Did diplomats really need specialised training to do that? 

In fact the Diplomatic Academy is there to help us do our jobs better.

Everyone knows the value of quality training, and diplomats are no different.

Better-focused training allows us to cope with the challenges of delivering our objectives across a very broad range of work, both in London and around the world.

Of course, the diplomatic world probably deserves its fair share of criticism and cynicism. Isn’t it a profession stuck in another era, and an anachronism in the modern media-dominated world?

Well, although (honestly) we do not spend most evenings going to cocktail parties dressed in a James Bond bow tie and dinner jacket, there is a grain of truth in the cliché about the traditional way we do business.

As diplomats, we do go out and talk to many people. And yes, when asked about my job at the embassy, part of my reply seems to inevitably involve describing how frequently I sit down for lunch or dinner with some wonderful Jordanian guests.

But at the same time, we would reject the suggestion that our work and approach are somehow outdated.

From a diplomat’s point of view, meeting people, understanding their perspectives, and knowing how a country functions is central to what we do.

And at the same time, we embrace technological developments like everyone else. The insights and opportunities created, for example, by social media across the Middle East in recent years have been remarkable.

These channels allow the embassy to promote the UK more directly to more people than ever before, and at the same time, the likes of Twitter and Facebook open a window onto wide-ranging debates and views in Jordanian society.

By engaging proactively in this way, diplomats can help ground in a clearer reality discussions between their countries’ leaders when they sit down to talk about issues of mutual interest and concern.

And with the ongoing tragic situation in much of the Middle East, gaining an accurate understanding of what is taking place, how this is impacting our friends here in Jordan and how we can work together is hugely important.

The challenges facing the region today are obviously profound. And it is immensely difficult to predict what might happen in the future.

Of course, we also want to figure out how best to help. 

For example, the UK has spent £220m in Jordan since the beginning of the crisis in Syria and such support can only be delivered effectively if we understand what goes on.

What we do as diplomats is also very much at odds with that other famous cliché: an ambassador is sent abroad to lie for his or her country.

In my experience, working with ambassadors, that really is not true at all. In fact, the best diplomats are those that spend more time listening to their guests than lecturing them. 

And especially those that get to know a country by engaging outside of the usual cast of diplomatic contacts.

This approach remains essential for our work and we aim not only to meet politicians and officials, but as wide a slice of Jordanian society as possible. 

As is the situation in many countries, daily newspapers and official announcements can give only limited insight into the reality of local life. Listening and learning remain the best approaches for a diplomat in a foreign country.

So as diplomats working in Jordan, can we say that we really understand what is happening both here and in the region?

The honest reply is that we keep trying, and that we surely get to know more about the Middle East by living and working here.

And to strengthen that engagement, the academy is helping diplomats improve their language skills too.

Ultimately, we seek to use that knowledge to better inform our country’s foreign polices and activities. And also take time to challenge some of those classic stereotypes and conspiracies about Britain that swirl regularly around the Middle East.

Of course, none of this is new.

Many years ago, the British Foreign Office used to publish a guide for its diplomats that gave learned advice on something called protocol. This was an A to Z of how diplomats should behave. Its guidance included wisdom on how best to seat guests at dinner parties, whether to arrive before or after the ambassador at a reception and how wives (yes, wives, not husbands) could best play their part at the myriad social events in a diplomat’s working life.

The guide even carried a government security classification.

Thankfully the world has moved on somewhat. But meeting people and understanding another’s perspective remains at the core of what we do. 

Hopefully our new academy will help embed these ideas and skills in a new generation of British diplomats, too.

The writer is first secretary political and economic at the British embassy in Amman. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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