Uzair Ali looks at a sad end to a diplomatic career
The Erring Envoy – Richard Olson served as the American ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, both important assignments in the complex global scenario. His first ambassadorial assignment was in the UAE from 2008 to 2011 and was then appointed as the US ambassador to Pakistan from 2012 to 2015. From 2015 to 2016 he was US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan till his retirement as career minister, the second highest rank in American service, reporting to then Secretary of State John Kerry. Richard Olson was also posted in Mexico, Uganda, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and NATO. He also served in risky stations such as Iraq and Afghanistan when they were in a state of violent conflict. His was a worthwhile career and it was duly acknowledged by his political bosses particularly John Kerry along with his colleagues. His abilities as a consummate diplomat were also applauded in the countries he served in as well as the institutions he was associated with in his long career.
Though the UAE is an absolute monarchy yet Pakistani governance system also suffers from arbitrary control. Somehow the impression taken by the diplomatic personnel of the western world posted to these parts of the world is that they can get away with anything they do while serving in these states. Accordingly, it appears that both the destinations he was posted to allured him to deviate from the strict diplomatic norms followed by his parent country despite the fact that he was aware of the possible consequences of the misdemeanours he indulged in rather wilfully. So, it happened as was expected as after he retired in 2016 after putting in 34 years, Olson came under American federal investigation for a pattern of conduct atypical of the upright, protocol-observant world of international diplomacy.
In this context, court documents were filed with a federal court in Central District of California in early April this year and the two charges brought by the Justice Department are misdemeanours stating that Rick Olson had avoided disclosing in required ethics documents that he had received a first-class airplane ticket from New Mexico to London valued at more than $18,000 and a stay in a luxury hotel in London in January 2015. In London, the ambassador met with a businessman from Bahrain who soon offered him a one-year contract with a salary of $300,000 that would start after he left the State Department. The U.S. government bars senior officials from doing lobbying work on behalf of foreign entities during a cooling off period of one year after they leave the government. Olson violated this when he went to work for the Pakistani American businessman in December 2016 and began receiving monthly payments of $20,000.
The businessman’s company lobbied for the government of Qatar. Olson lobbied on behalf of Qatar in Washington on two issues: the first involved efforts to persuade American officials to establish a U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance facility in the main airport in Doha, Qatar. Having such a facility gives a host country and its national airlines significant advantages in operating flights to the United States — the airlines can fly directly to more than 160 destinations in the United States even if the U.S. airport has no customs clearance facilities.
Prosecutors indicated that the businessman’s company was paid by a company associated with a Qatari official to get Washington to set up such a facility in Doha. According to the case, the businessman drew up a contract in October 2016 that said a holding company controlled by a Qatari government official would pay the businessman’s company $3.5 million per year plus a 20 per cent success fee. It was noted that the United Arab Emirates, a rival to Qatar and where Rick Olson had served as ambassador, had a preclearance facility. In April 2013, the State Department signed a treaty with the Emirates that established the facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
The other lobbying effort in which Rick Olson was involved occurred after Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017 and blocked flights and ships from Qatar from using their airspace and sea lanes. The rupture became an international crisis. American military officials had to scramble to deal with the consequences of the blockade because the U.S. military’s main air base in the Middle East is in Qatar. Olson was paid to lobby officials in the Trump administration to encourage the U.S. government to help get the blockade lifted and repair diplomatic relations among the Persian Gulf nations.
While Rick Olson was ambassador to Pakistan, he was also fending off a State Department investigation about a different matter. In 2014, someone tipped off the State Department’s inspector general that 11 years earlier, while Olson was serving as the head of the U.S. Consulate in Dubai, the emir of the Persian Gulf city-state had delivered a velvet box to his office, records show. Inside were four diamonds set in white gold — a pendant, a ring and a set of earrings — that federal officials later valued at $60,000. They did not name the emir though Dubai has had two different two emirs since 2003. Olson clarified that the emir had given the diamonds not to him but to his mother-in-law who was living with him in Dubai in appreciation of her taking care of Olson’s two children in absence of their mother, Deborah Jones, who also served as US ambassador to Libya. Jones said that her mother died in December and that she’s not sure what happened to the diamonds. She and Olson filed for divorce in 2018 though she said they have a cordial relationship.
During his posting in Pakistan Olson dated multiple women particularly Muna Habib, a young television reporter working in the country and they dated for two years but broke up in late 2014 after Habib, who is a British citizen, discovered that the ambassador had been cheating on both her and his wife but they resumed contact a few months later. Habib was admitted to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2015 but could not afford the $93,000 she needed to attend. Olson agreed to help by introducing her to Imaad Zuberi, a Pakistani American businessman who offered $25,000 to offset her tuition expenses and arrange a $50,000 loan. It was mentioned that he sent a $20,000 check to Columbia University and $5,000 to Habib but never made good on his promise of a loan. Zuberi was sentenced in 2021 to a 12-year prison term for tax evasion, campaign finance violations and other charges. Olson rekindled his romance with Habib and they married in June 2019 and now live in New Mexico.
Olson was not charged with wrongdoing related to the diamonds or his girlfriend’s tuition but the Justice Department has argued in connection with his sentencing that the episodes show a pattern of unethical behaviour. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Olson could receive up to six months in prison and he was scheduled to be sentenced on 12 September but his sentencing was postponed for giving due consideration to his service to the country. The Weekender