From decades of diplomacy to helping drive the development of the region’s infrastructure, David Welch’s successful career has been inextricably linked with the Middle East
David Welch is both an optimist and a pragmatist. In many ways, that is not surprising. A career diplomat who seven years ago successfully made the transition from public service to the world of private business as the regional president of a global construction firm delivering projects worth billions of dollars across the Middle East, he, perhaps more than most, understands how politics and business work in this complex part of the world.
Welch’s nomadic working life mirrors his formative years – having spent the majority of his career working in or with the Middle East over nearly 40 years, first in the US diplomatic service and then at engineering and construction firm Bechtel.
Born in Munich, Germany, in 1953 – his father was serving in the US Foreign Service in the European country – Welch and his siblings spent their early years living there, as well as in Brazil, Morocco, Ecuador and Mexico.
In his early twenties, and with a career in international relations and economics firmly in his sights, he graduated from Georgetown University in Washington DC, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston.
“My father grew up on a farm in rural Missouri,” he recalls of the Second World War veteran he credits for inspiring his – and his brother and sister’s – decision to enter public service.
“He valued public service, and participated, albeit modestly, in some of the major events of the 20th century, as did so many others. As a result, I believe public service is important for everybody, but it does not always have to be defined by working in government.”
IN PUBLIC SERVICE
But it was indeed in government service that Welch’s 31-year career was launched in 1977 under the Carter administration.
“I was lucky enough to have had positions of responsibility in our national security area, and appointments under both democrat and republican presidencies,” he says.
Welch met his wife, Gretchen, while they were both on a tour of duty in Pakistan from 1979 to 1981, and they subsequently had assignments together in Syria, where he headed the political section of the US embassy in Damascus from 1984 to 1986, Jordan (1986 to 88), Saudi Arabia, where he was chief of mission from 1992 to 1994 and Egypt, where he served as ambassador from 2001 to 2005. From 2005 to 2009, he was Assistant Secretary of State responsible for all of the Middle East.
Such diverse experience has afforded Welch a unique understanding of the Middle East’s rich tapestry, not least the social, cultural and political nuances, which make it such a challenging and rewarding place to live and work in.
He brings the lessons learned from his experiences into his current job as President of Bechtel for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Bechtel has especially strong ties with this region, and is synonymous with some of the biggest infrastructure and industrial projects ever built on the Arabian Peninsula.
The company was involved in the restoration of Kuwait’s oil fields in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and its portfolio includes the expansion of Dubai International Airport and Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone (Kizad) in the UAE, the massive Jubail Industrial City and the Ras Al Khair aluminium smelter in Saudi Arabia, the new Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, the Muscat airport and the Sohar aluminium smelter in Oman.
Bechtel’s current major projects include the Riyadh Metro in the Saudi capital and Waad Al Shamaal, also in the kingdom. A remote Saudi plateau just below the border with Jordan, Waad Al Shamaal is being transformed into an industrial city of about 100,000 people with Bechtel’s Civil and Mining & Metals business units jointly managing, for Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Ma’aden), the creation of the city and an associated mining complex, together known as the King Abdullah programme.
Welch suggests that his decision to retire from public service in late 2008 and assume a post at Bechtel was a natural career extension, and a refreshing one in many respects – even if both roles brought pressure, profile and the power to change lives in equal measure.
“When I was in charge of the Middle East at the State Department, I would wake up and ask: ‘what can go wrong today?’ Now, I say ‘what are the opportunities ahead of us today?’”
“I now work in an industry that builds things,” he continues. “The wonderful thing about Bechtel is we do these very exciting projects with enormous economic and social meaning in all parts of the planet, and they last a long time, producing real value for communities.”
His obvious pride in and passion for foreign policy sees him engage in lively debate with his three daughters, who broke ranks with family tradition by steering away from careers in public service.
The eldest, aged 27 and born in Jordan, works in a privately-held IT firm in New York City. His 23-year-old daughter, born in the US, works for a publicly-traded internet firm in London, while the Saudi Arabia-born youngest, at 21, is finishing her third year at Stanford University.
“I have a pet project, which is to convince them about the value of real business,” he smiles. “Their career choices have real value but Americans of their generation don’t remember the industries that built the economic juggernaut that is America.”
Although he describes the family as well travelled and interested in current affairs – Welch admits to being a “news junkie” – politics is not a common conversation around the dinner table.
“I’ve been out of politics for six years, which feels like a long time. We’d rather discuss the issues that affect my daughters. Working in the software and IT industries, they have a lot to say about privacy and intellectual property.”
Privacy was also a highly coveted attribute during his diplomatic days as he rose up through the ranks, his diplomatic career reaching its first zenith in August 2001 when he was appointed by President George W Bush as the US envoy to Egypt – a position of tremendous prestige and pressure. The four years in the post, would be a momentous time for the US and the Middle East.
“I arrived in Cairo weeks before the 9/11 attacks, and by the time I left the post Iraq had been liberated from Saddam Hussein,” he says.
By March 18, 2005, Welch was back in Washington DC, having been sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, his last government post. One of the milestones was in August 2008, when he was in Tripoli, Libya – to sign the US-Libya Comprehensive Claims Settlement Agreement, paving the way for the restoration of full diplomatic and commercial relations between the countries after a 25-year break.
Despite having a deep-seated track record across the Middle East, Welch admits that the region is still capable of surprising him.
“I have a rule to mitigate that: never assume anything, because your assumptions could be completely off base.”
Welch doesn’t normally need to resort to assumptions. He has been privileged to have witnessed at close hand some of the most momentous political, social and economic milestones in the Middle East since the start of his career. If there is anything that has left an indelible mark on him, it is respect for the ruling families of the Gulf in balancing societal and economic change.
“The internal and external pressures and demands on these societies are enormous. In some cases, they have built entire nations where not long ago there was no economic, social or political infrastructure. Take the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – unified in the early part of the last century, it only began its arc of development in the post-Second World War period.
“But with globalisation and communications among people, it is ever more apparent that the Arab world has a clear identity.”
It is an identity that outsiders often struggle to understand, but for Welch and Bechtel the strength of relationships with and friendships in the region going back decades have provided a solid business platform.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my time in this region, it is that the quality of relationships is incredibly important, and that the history and culture are incredibly diverse,” he says.
Time spent in this region has given Welch and his wife Gretchen a broad appreciation for the diverse history to which he refers.
With his father having seen service in the Second World War, it is perhaps unsurprising that he takes a keen interest in the Middle East’s place in that pivotal time in world history.
“During my time in Egypt, I would visit El Alamein with the British and German ambassadors to commemorate the lives lost there – since my father is of that generation. It is important for people to know how that such a horrible war could have a transformational impact.”
Similarly, he also takes a personal interest in the region’s arts and culture.
“My wife and I are fond of modern Egyptian artists. We collect things that represent the places we’ve lived. I like old maps and I have an old British map of what is now Saudi Arabia with the tribal names of the regions,” he explains.
CHALLENGES AND CHANGES
The Middle East is, of course, a very different place today. While Welch acknowledges the unique challenges the region faces, particularly since 2011, he believes there is enough strength of character and resilience in its people to overcome adversity and embrace change.
“Some of the events [in the Middle East] have been and continue to be deeply distressing. But human beings are resilient and optimistic at their core,” says Welch, who is currently based in Dubai, UAE.
“So in the time I have been associated with Bechtel I have seen enormous change – several waves of economic stress, the events of recent years have layered political stress on top of that and in some places we have some of the most disturbing humanitarian issues not just of the last few years but of the last 50 years.
“When my wife and I worked in Syria, we could drive all over that country. It was historically extremely interesting with a heterogeneous population and beautiful things to see. That has undeniably changed a lot.”
“But despite the distressing events in the region since 2011, it is important to bear in mind what has been going well – that is, not to ignore things that could be improved but instead appreciate the value of real leadership.
“What we have seen in this part of the world is that if people work hard, are determined and have a sense of common purpose, and are united to help themselves rather than be divided among themselves, they can do a lot. And they are doing a lot.”
And Bechtel, he says, is playing its part in driving positive change in the region.
“The image many people have is that Bechtel is an American company. That is technically true. But in fact we are a globally deployed multinational with the majority of our revenues from outside the US, with an exceptionally diverse workforce – in this region alone, we have 70 different nationalities,” Welch explains.
“Some of our demographics would surprise you. For example, we have a very important percentage of Saudis working on the Riyadh Metro project, something you wouldn’t have seen maybe 20 years ago.”
RISK AND REWARD
Welch concedes that doing business in the Middle East carries an element of heightened risk, even in an industry such as construction where the stakes, and rewards, are high.
“We have had tense moments since 2011. Bechtel has had personnel in regions which are volatile,” he says. “We have to be attentive to security risk. No effort should be spared to protect people, and in this regard we take a zero-accident approach.”
Reflecting on Bechtel’s legacy in the region, Welch is refreshingly honest.
“Our experience in this region is not one of unblemished success, but rather one of learning lessons, so we do better in the future. My bosses at Bechtel know they run a global company. But they think local – they’re thinking what corporate responsibilities do we have, and how can we fulfil those responsibilities?
“Today, to be competitive, it is not enough to have the right engineering and construction answer. You need something that sets you apart. Every single day we have an opportunity.”
With a job which demands all of his regional experience as Bechtel continues to deliver some of the Middle East’s biggest infrastructure projects, Welch is reluctant to dwell too long on the specifics of his time in politics. Perhaps it is fitting that, when asked to recount some of his favourite anecdotes when in the diplomatic service, he is equally diplomatic in his reply.
“In government my job was to keep secrets. In business my job is to be reliable to my partners, so I’m not going to compromise either. I have a different job now. If I can make a small contribution to making Bechtel’s next few years in this region a success, that would be very satisfying for me.”
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