Interview with Chase Untermeyer, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar


Interview with U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar
The Honorable Chase Untermeyer

July 8, 2006, Houston, Texas

Janet Moore: Ambassador, in your opinion, what makes an effective international lawyer?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: There is no substitute in our modern world for knowledge of geographic areas, something that is often hard for Americans. We do tend to be a more insular people who might make a business trip to some particular place, but are less likely than other nationalities–like the British, actually–to live overseas. So if a person can actually spend time living in a place, or at least traveling there frequently enough, they multiply their effectiveness; they are quite obviously not just the person from out of town who is blowing into town to try to do a quick negotiation, and then blowing back out again and returning to the States. This is an American trait. Perhaps it is because we have such a large country physically that we are quite content to just roam around it for the most part except, I suppose, on vacations, but less likely to actually go live in another country, such as on business or for study. Therefore, if a lawyer is based in the United States, then they should count on travel to a particular place of interest on a regular basis for the purpose of pure familiarization and relationship building. I know that in the Middle East–and in any pretty much any part of the world– relationships are what it is all about. It is important to establish a relationship, hopefully a positive one, before even raising the subject of business. Oh yes, you can talk about your company or your law firm, I suppose, and maybe some experiences, but to actually talk business requires a period of getting to know the person. I am not just talking about a matter of twenty minutes at the beginning of the discussion, but perhaps repeated visits or meals–home hospitality of some sort or another before they begin to feel whether they are comfortable enough or like you enough to do business with you.

Janet Moore: When you have worked with international lawyers in a negotiation process, are there any particular skills that make an international lawyer particularly effective?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: Once again, the mastery of the facts, which helps after all in so many walks of life, really counts. I would recommend that American attorneys who are thinking of working overseas or traveling overseas take advantage of all the rich resources of the Internet to find out the basic facts about a country so that they are not embarrassed. We wouldn’t expect anybody traveling overseas to a particular place for the first time to be on intimate terms with its literature and history and special products, but at least the lawyer should grasp basic facts so that the person is not confusing Greece with Turkey and India with Pakistan. I recommend in particular the State Department’s excellent series of what are called background or country notes, which are available on the web. Every country in the world, including some important sub-countries like Hong Kong, is represented there. That’s where you go to get the basic history, the basic parts of the economy, some facts of note like its exports and how many people speak English and what the education levels are, etc. They are very readable reports. The CIA’s open website also has very excellent statistical reports on countries. There is less-–in fact, I think almost no discussion at all–about these facts, the way you can see them on the State Department’s website; but if you really want to know the names of people and the facts and figures about the country’s products and size and population, try that website, too.

Janet Moore: Since you have now been based in Doha for a year and a half, what advice would you give to someone coming to do business in the Middle East and in Qatar in particular?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: Qatar and the other countries of the Gulf are a bit more liberal, if you can use the word in terms of their tolerance for Western lifestyles and ways. I mean that a woman attorney should have no problem whatsoever in any sort of atmosphere there, including a working atmosphere. It’s not that they are segregated; it’s not they have to wear special clothes; it’s not that they are forbidden to be seen in public in the way that you hear. I think that is truer in Saudi Arabia than in places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Therefore I’d say that the opportunity to be at ease and to learn at leisure is easier and more pleasant in those countries. After all, they are quite used to Westerners, Western business and legal specialists over the years. They are happy to help other people learn about and are proud of their culture to the point of explaining things. It’s not that they would expect a Westerner to be absolutely skilled and schooled in their way of doing things when they first arrive. If you do know those things, then so much the better, but I think that you will find that they are very open and happy to respond to people who show a genuine interest in their life and culture and ways of doing business.

Janet Moore: Comparing your experience in the public arena working for the government as you do now with your experience in the private sector as you did with Compaq, do you see any differences in how international lawyers should handle their practice? Are there any traits that you feel would be more effective in one venue than another?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: Of course a government venue, as you say, is constrained by the laws and regulations of that government, so that the Department of State’s way of doing things is opposed to the more open, freer style that private business has. But the two worlds should not be thought of as mutually exclusive. In fact, one strong bit of advice I would give anyone who is thinking of doing business or practicing law overseas is to take advantage of the U.S. Embassy. It is an entity for which Americans pay generously through their taxes. Why not use it with its many different offices, such as the commerce office in the typical embassy meant to help introduce Americans to business opportunities and business people in the host country? Information about this is now accessible by the web. You can make the acquaintance of these commercial officers–people involved in the local business and economic life–before you even arrive [in the host country] and get all kinds of useful information. You can also, of course, take care of things like making appointments and getting an idea of any particular holidays or any other thing that might complicate a business trip. So, nobody should shy away from the embassy. That should be one of the first stops people make in order to get acquainted in a particular country.

Janet Moore: Is there any advice you could give to a lawyer in international private practice who might want to transition into government service?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: It is the advice I would give practically anybody going into the law these days if they plan to do anything more than handle divorces or wills or anything purely local: definitely become more aware of and involved in the international arena. It would be a cliché on top of cliché to say that we live in a global world where everything that is not purely local is international, but that’s true. At the very least people could benefit themselves by getting involved in an organization such as a world affairs council, a discussion group of some sort, or whatever mechanism might be at hand to learn more and appreciate what is happening in the world beyond. At the very least this is the subject of conversations that you might have when you finally reach Tokyo or Buenos Aires, making you feel more involved and connected with that country just to have had some prior knowledge–all part of what I was talking about earlier with regard to stoking up on the facts before hitting a particular country. Perhaps the parting advice is that people should probably start off thinking broader, thinking internationally because that wouldn’t hurt at all the ability to operate purely locally. And who knows? It just may be that that client is thinking of expanding to Honduras or to Hungary, and having that international knowledge and comfort will be a long step in the direction of taking care of those needs.

Janet Moore: Just as so many of us have enjoyed reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, are there any other particular books that you have enjoyed reading in the past few years that shed light on the international arena?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: Yes, and here I’m not talking about international politics or policy and the weightier subjects, but let me recommend a series of books that are available in any large bookstore called Culture Shock. It’s a book of many titles, many different countries, which help people appreciate local culture–the do’s and don’ts–and they give very helpful advice. For example, in many cultures of the world, particularly in Asia, business cards are very important. Part of the ceremony in a meeting is the exchange of business cards and woe be to anybody, a lawyer or a business person, who goes to a country like Japan with maybe a dozen business cards stuck in his wallet. They should come fully prepared with three or four times more business cards than they ever imagined they would ever need to take on a trip; that is an important part of the meeting process, and of course, it leaves behind a way to contact you, assuming a friendly encounter. These are the kind of helpful hints that the Culture Shock series will give. Not being a career diplomat, and having no connection with the Middle East before I was appointed Ambassador to Qatar, I found to my surprise the State Department did not take me aside to teach the do’s and don’ts, perhaps because they are geared to expecting an ambassador to a place like Qatar to have spent many, many tours of duty there beforehand. Therefore, I went to Borders or Barnes & Noble and found a copy of a book called Culture Shock: United Arab Emirates. The UAE is next door to Qatar and just as applicable from a cultural point of view. I found that the book gave an excellent briefing. I taught myself, and I was able to begin life and official work in Qatar prepared or at least forewarned of what to expect there thanks to that book.

Janet Moore: Harkening back to your time as President H.W. Bush’s Director of Presidential Personnel, in that capacity you had the opportunity to work with many individuals before their appointment to various ambassadorships around the world. Now you are serving as an ambassador. From your experience, what are some qualities that make a person a very good ambassador?

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: So much is made of specific country knowledge like language or customs and clearly, those are great assets to have. The typical modern ambassador must be an able manager. We tend to think of an embassy as being the branch office of the U.S. State Department (and, of course, the State Department is the lead agency and, at the very least pays the salary of that ambassador), but the modern embassy includes representatives of other federal agencies with totally different agendas many times. The Defense Department, the Agriculture Department, the Justice Department, the Labor Department, and the Agency for International Development–all of these have particular differences and they report, from a career point of view, back to somebody totally different in Washington than the U.S. State Department. Therefore, it does take the ability to be able to manage a disparate group of people. That’s a skill that many career diplomats have, and others don’t if they concentrated on the policy aspects or some of the linguistic or other specialty skills. A bit of basic management and people handling is very valuable because, after all, it is a team effort; the more effective the group works as a whole, the more effective the ambassador is in his or her mission.

Janet Moore: Thank you for your time, Ambassador. I appreciate it.

Hon. Chase Untermeyer: My pleasure.

Ambassador Untermeyer graduated from Harvard College. He served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War and under President Reagan, became assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs. Ambassador Untermeyer has held several political offices, including Representative in the Texas State Legislature, and as President George H.W. Bush’s director of presidential personnel. Ambassador Untermeyer has also spent time in the private sector, working for Compaq Corporation and, most recently, as vice president for government affairs of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. President George W. Bush appointed him as United States ambassador to the State of Qatar in August 2004. For more information, access the Ambassador’s biography posted on the official website of the U.S. Embassy to the State of Qatar.

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