From Board Rooms to War Games: A Conversation with Ali Al Shihabi

Published: June 30, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

There’s no shortage of supremely important, intriguing, and suspenseful scenarios playing out in the Middle East which makes you wonder why there are not more novelists taking advantage of the dramatic tableau that plays out every day in the real world. We recently learned about a book by a very insightful fiction writer who is new to the trade but very experienced in the ways of the Gulf. In “Arabian War Games,” published in March, Ali Al Shihabi explores the geostrategic danger zones in the Middle East that confront and confound today’s policymakers. The book is described, and available for purchase, at

“Ali al Shihabi analyzes the two most dangerous political fault lines running across the Middle East today: the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arabian-Iranian tensions. In ‘Arabian War Games,’ the author proposes, through the use of fiction, a scenario where these issues all come to head in an explosive climax. It is 2013, and the regime in Iran, by then nearly choking to death under sanctions, attempts to cut the noose around its neck by invading Arabia in collusion with its ally Iraq. At the same time, Israeli elites, increasingly obsessed with preserving their Jewish majority and visualizing the ‘Jewish state’ as slowly drowning in a sea of Arabs, conclude that the time has come to forcibly expel their rapidly growing Israeli-Arab minority into Jordan. The U.S., fatigued by Middle East wars, confused by Iraq’s collusion with Iran, overwhelmed by the resultant collapse of global financial markets, and impotent in front of a determined Israel, helplessly watches events play out. Eschewing the tendency of professional predictors to avoid forecasting the ‘outlandish,’ Shihabi explores these potential scenarios in a granular fashion, paying particular attention to the mind-set and thinking of the ruling elites who are driving these events. Far from mere sensationalism, Arabian War Games is a careful analysis of the stress points currently at play in the region. Not only does Shihabi dissect these fault lines and their possible outcomes with incisiveness, he also proposes alternative, creative solutions, in the hopes that such scenarios can be avoided.”

In addition to tackling fiction writing after a business and finance career in the Gulf – including prominent director and board experience at institutions like The National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah, RAK Petroleum, Rasmala Investments Saudi and others – Shihabi also blogs at, sharing his “Thoughts on Middle East Politics and Economics.”

Today we would like to bring you our brief interview with Ali Al Shihabi, conducted by email exchange while he was in Dubai.  It is a brief look at his background and perspectives on several current issues. We are also pleased to provide, in a separate posting, his prescriptive essay, “Al Saud and the Future.” Lastly, as a bonus we are also bringing you an excerpt from Shihabi’s book, “Arabian War Games.” We thank Mr. Ali Al Shihabi for taking time to share his perspectives with you today and for permission to circulate his writings, thought-provoking fiction and non-fiction, with you through SUSRIS.




From Board Rooms to War Games: A Conversation with Ali Al Shihabi

[SUSRIS] You have recently transitioned from the business world in the Gulf, where you established a distinguished record leading a number of institutions, to the world of writing commentary and novels. Can you fill in the blanks for us on your background? You grew up in a diplomat’s family? What were your experiences, education and travels that formed your perspectives on your country, Saudi Arabia, and its relationship with the United States?

Ali Al Shihabi

[Shihabi] I recently retired from managing an Investment Bank I had founded and now focus on writing. I am a Saudi Arabian citizen. I grew up in Turkey, Lebanon, Switzerland and the U.S. In 1985 I returned to Saudi Arabia and began a career in banking and finance, subsequently moving to Dubai in 1998. My late father, Samir al Shihabi, born in Jerusalem, was a Saudi diplomat for close to fifty years, serving as ambassador to Turkey, Pakistan, Switzerland and the United Nations, and was elected president of the U.N. General Assembly in 1991. My mother, Widad Kari Stonjum, born in Bergen, Norway, met my father in 1948 at Cambridge University. They settled in Saudi Arabia in 1950. I am married to Nadia Hisham Shihabi, and we have three children.

[SUSRIS] Your academic credits include two prestigious American institutions, Princeton B.A. and Harvard MBA. After an early wave of Saudis being educated in the United States, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a cutback in the numbers of students until 2005 and the King Abdullah Scholarship Program provided for tens of thousands to be educated abroad, many of them in America. Can you comment on the value to Saudi Arabia and its people to have higher education opportunities, such as you experienced?

[Ali Shihabi] The impact of a foreign education on a Saudi student is immense. He/she not only gets educated but even more importantly gets exposed and for a student who has not left Saudi that was/is a huge and positive impact. In the case of the U.S, which traditionally receives the lion’s share of Saudi students, this certainly works towards strengthening the ties between both societies. I think King Abdullah’s decision to re-open the gates of government scholarships for Saudi students will probably be seen as his most important legacy.

[SUSRIS] The Saudi Arabian economic reforms over the last 20 years have transformed the business, finance and investment landscape and landed the Kingdom in the World Trade Organization, the Group of Twenty premier global economic states and at the doorstep of being named among the “emerging markets” like China and Brazil. How would you characterize the importance of this economic transformation to the country?

[Shihabi] Saudi economic reform over the last 20 years has been adequate but not exceptional. The Kingdom is still a very bureaucratic place to do business and a difficult place for an entrepreneur to start a business. A lot more needs to be done to simplify the red tape and also open the market up to more competition. Here, for example, I would mention the agency system, which still maintains the rather archaic system of exclusive import agencies that have been held by the same families for decades. Eliminating that exclusivity and opening up the market to other importers would introduce more competition and reduce prices — as a result of this competition — and create more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Also the problem of Saudisation continues to plague the business environment. This problem has continued to be addressed by creating more bureaucracy and rules and hence difficulty for businessmen. The government should re-introduce a concept they introduced briefly and then abandoned in the late 1980’s, which is taxation on expatriate labor. This would increase the price to the Saudi employer of hiring an expatriate and hence make hiring a Saudi more attractive but it would allow the market forces to work and decide this labor allocation, instead of the current system of a huge bureaucracy and red tape, which I think, will not succeed anyway.

[SUSRIS] What personal interests and experiences led you to a new career in writing after a very successful life in business? What surprises and rewards or pitfalls have you discovered as a blogger writing political commentary?

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[Shihabi] I just started writing about six months ago. This was always a passion of mine but one that I did not have the time or opportunity to indulge in so I am enjoying it a lot. So far I have not experienced any pitfalls but it is still early in the game so we shall see.

[SUSRIS] You recently wrote about the importance of stability in Saudi Arabia as an element of advancements there, in your “Al Saud and the Future” essay, However, you laid out the case for change, for the necessity to adapt, to abandon the “traditional absolute tribal monarchy” and restructure. As you noted the Al Saud have proven incredibly successful in maintaining rule in a tough neighborhood for decades despite many challenges, proving many critics wrong. What is it about the present circumstances that makes change so important and do you believe the ruling family has the flexibility to accomplish the necessary adaptations?

[Shihabi] The region is changing and one cannot ignore that, so change, or more precisely adaptation, will be important. As to flexibility to change, we will have to see but I am hopeful.

[SUSRIS] The decades long relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has endured despite shifts from severe strains to harmony and back again. It has always been a marriage of necessity, but how would you characterize the current state of the overall relationship?

[Shihabi] I talk about the U.S/GCC relationship in my book quite extensively. The problem here is the underlying differences in values between a U.S democracy and a traditional Arabian monarchy and that difference has to be managed carefully and with great skill by both sides. The opportunity for misunderstanding is great.


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