David Rundell: A Shining Example of Dedicating to Your Life's Work
By Samantha Skelton
Talking with David Rundell was easily one of the most fascinating interviews I've ever had.
While I learned an incredible amount about Saudi Arabia, and I was enlightened to hear how similar journalists and officers in the Foreign Service are (with the main difference being one writes classified articles), I was even more fascinated by David's dedication to his life's work and his extensive knowledge about one of the world's most important and often over-looked countries.
We talk about how David got into this field and what it was like writing his first book, Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads.
Can you tell me about yourself and how you became an American Diplomat?
I went to Colgate university and studied Economics. I knew from an early age that I wished to join the American Foreign Service. I thought about doing graduate work in Economics in Chicago, but I concluded that I didn't need a PHD in Econ to join the Foreign Service.
I knew it would be good to learn a difficult foreign language. Many people knew French, Spanish, and German, but not many people knew Arabic or Chinese. The test to get into the Foreign Service is very competitive. Fifteen thousand took the test and only 300 got in. I wanted to distinguish myself and so I thought learning Arabic was a good idea.
I got accepted to a variety of graduate schools in the U.S. and I also got into Oxford. I sought counsel from a professor at Colgate University and he said I should go to Oxford, so I could experience living in a foreign country. I ended up studying for three years and passed the Foreign Service test.
What was the impetus for writing Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads? Was there a moment where you knew you had to write it?
My career was very different than most Foreign Service officers. The officers are divided into "cones:" commercial, administrative, etc. to name a few. You stay in your cone and travel from country to country doing the same work within your cone.
I, on the other hand, stayed in one place, and did many different jobs. I did seven tours in Saudi Arabia; most people do one tour in a single country and never go back. I was a junior person in the political section and later became the head of the political section. I was a junior in the economics section and later became head of that section. I was also the Chief of mission. This range of experience over the course of thirty years gave me a deep understanding of Saudi Arabia.
When I was in graduate school, not many people knew much about or studied Saudi Arabia, but it interested me. I also thought it was poorly understood. It's probably the most poorly understood important country in the world. Many countries are poorly understood but aren't as important.
It's an odd place, it's the last strategically important traditional monarchy in the world. The level of prosperity for most places is directly related to the productivity of the people, but it's not like that in Saudi Arabia.
For all the years that I was there, people would ask me what book they should read on Saudi Arabia. I've read many, many books about Saudi Arabia, and I couldn't find one that really explained how Saudi Arabia actually works.
I felt I had been given an opportunity by the U.S. government to learn about Saudi Arabia. Because of the jobs I had I was able to learn a lot. I spent fifteen years physically there. I spoke to all kinds of people there with various occupations and I talked with the King too.
When I was the Chief of Mission, I had a dinner party and two previous ambassadors were in attendance. They expressed how unique my experience was and they encouraged me to write a book. It started out as me writing out everything I had learned for my colleagues, but I was encouraged to make it more general interest and less encyclopedic.
Did you consider yourself a writer before then and what was the writing process like for you?
The most valuable skill as a political officer is their ability to write. So, I write well and reasonably quickly. I'm good at doing political analysis too. So writing wasn't new or difficult to me, because being a political officer is a lot like being a journalist - only the articles you write are classified.
For the structure, it was more of an organizational feat. I made outlines and thought about the ways in which I thought about how Saudi Arabia works.
What's the main takeaway you want readers to know?
There's the thesis of the book and the argument. The thesis is that for many years people have been predicting that Saudi Arabia will collapse, but they're wrong. I was putting forward the idea that it was time to stop assuming that it would collapse.
Saudi Arabia was more stable than people expected for a long time, but today it's less stable than people presume. However, it's about understanding why it's been more stable in the past and why it's less stable today.
It's important that the U.S. remain engaged with Saudi Arabia. The U.S. needs friends and allies. The Saudis have a lot of oil and want people to keep using their oil for a long time.
Things that the Saudis have done have saved American's lives more than once. They've been the leaders in trying to get the Arabs to come up with an agreement with the Israeli's. There are a number of reasons why the U.S. should maintain their relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is changing very fast. There's a lot of social changes: women driving, for example. There's been many social reforms. Women used to be restricted by the guardianship rule. They had to get written permission to get married, have a bank account, open a business, travel outside of the country, etc. That has all been ninety nine percent eliminated now.
I think in the next five years, the country will become either more of a police state or more of an accountable and transparent monarchy and if we don't remain engaged with the Saudi's, then our ability to influence is small indeed.
Are you writing any other books?
I was asked to contribute to Founding Fathers, a book that compares and contrasts the founding fathers of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Where can people buy your book?
You can purchase by book here on Amazon.
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