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From Ambassador to advisor

Wadi-Shab_OmanFrom olive groves to embassies in Muscat and Bangkok, Catherine Sharp discusses life after retiring from the FCO, and protecting British interests abroad.

What do diplomats do when they retire? For some, it is a much-awaited opportunity to settle down after many years of travelling to distant lands, get back in touch with pursuits long put on the back burner and to catch up with family and friends. But for others, new doors open a world of opportunities, as they continue serving UK plc on behalf of the private sector. This can entail accepting positions on boards of companies – ranging from banking and industry to educational trusts and commercial concerns. They may also become advisers to British companies, keen to set up in non-domestic locations.

It is this option which has appealed to two recently retired former Ambassadors of Her Majesty’s Government, Dr Noel Guckian CVO OBE and Quinton Quayle. With over 70 years of service to Her Majesty’s government between them, they are discovering that there are different avenues to pursue, particularly within the countries they came to know and love so well.

The thought of actually retiring didn’t really enter their minds – new challenges lay ahead and they were anxious to get back to work, albeit in ‘civvy’ street, using their particular talents and thus ensuring that the ties and friendships they had built up over the years would not be broken. Indeed, relationships would deepen.

Dr Noel Guckian, former Ambassador to Oman retired in 2011 after spending over nine years in Muscat, Oman’s picturesque capital where, in certain quarters, time appears to have stood still. His first experience of the Arabian Gulf Sultanate was in 1980 when he wrote a paper on the border between Oman and the then People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. This was shortly after he had joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office following graduation from the University of Wales with an MSc in Economics – prior to this, he had graduated with a BA in History from the same university.

It was to be some 20 years later that Sultan Qaboos of Oman had agreed borders with Yemen, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By then, Noel had become an authority on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

‘One falls in love with the Middle East – it embraces you and you embrace it,’ he said. ‘It’s a case of either loving it or hating it and there is no middle way. The culture, the people, the friends one makes, the Arabic language, the environment, the politics… they get under the skin and become the embodiment of something one cannot break ties with. As an Ambassador to the country – as I was for six years and deputy head of mission prior to that – the foreign policy and the experiences of strengthening ties between the UK and Oman, the highs and the occasional lows, last a lifetime.’

Noel is proud to have been associated with the strengthening of understanding between the UK and Oman: the excellent bilateral relationships which he has largely been responsible for, the close ties between the two royal families and the close political, military and personal bonds on all levels. It was a sad day when he hung up his Ambassador’s hat, left the wonderful surrounds of what is recognised as one of the finest British Ambassador’s residences in the world and entered the private sector.

But he knew that he would not sit and rest on his laurels. A fluent Arabic speaker, with over 30 years’ experience of the MENA region, he now serves UK plc as an advisor to the region. The Sultanate of Oman is a particular magnet for him and he has been influential in assisting British companies gain further footholds in the country, and ensuring that other aspects of British interests are elevated.

Education is one such example: while Noel was Ambassador to Oman, 37 per cent of British students were studying in the UK – this number has increased exponentially. It is also interesting to note that all of Oman’s English teachers are taught by the University of Leeds. He encouraged British educational establishments to set up branches in the Sultanate and continues this drive on behalf of British education – one of its finest exports – through an advisory capacity.

While continuing ties with Oman and the wider Middle East region, Noel also serves on a number of private sector advisory boards, including that of the KCS Group, one of the world’s leading strategic intelligence and risk management consultancies, which is headquartered in London. His knowledge and deep understanding of the Middle Eastern ‘psyche’ and its modus operandi enables him to play a vital role on that board from an Arabist’s perspective.

But life in semi-retirement isn’t all work and no play. Noel derives pleasure from his olive grove in the South of France where he is very much a ‘hands on’ producer, particularly at harvest time when he can be found picking the fruits until darkness falls. ‘I grow the olives for oil,’ he explains. ‘This is a most rewarding pastime and one which allows me time to wind down and enjoy life in the outdoors.’

After 33 years of diplomatic experience, Quinton Quayle retired from the FCO in 2010, the final three years of his career having been spent as British Ambassador to Thailand and, concurrently non-resident Ambassador to Laos. This was his second Ambassadorial posting as he had previously been head of Her Majesty’s mission in Romania.

Quinton joined the FCO in 1977 after gaining an honours degree in English from Bristol University and diplomas from both l’Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris and London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His first appointment was as desk officer for the Central and Southern African Department at the FCO. This was followed by his first overseas posting – to Bangkok as Second Secretary at the British Embassy.

Working up the diplomatic career ladder and enjoying postings both at the FCO and overseas in British missions including Paris, Jakarta, and Romania, he was eventually to return to Bangkok as Ambassador. Thailand is quite literally ‘in his blood,’ since leaving diplomatic service, he has retained strong links with the country and makes many sojourns there in his capacity as senior advisor to several companies with British interests.

During his tenure as Ambassador to Thailand, Quinton worked closely with such British organisations as Tesco, Boots and Standard Chartered  Bank, helping them expand their interests in the country. He also worked closely with the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand.

His deep knowledge of commercial interests, which stemmed largely from a three year period (1999 to 2002) that he spent as International Director for UK Trade and Investment, offer him a positive spin on his activities today. He is Honorary Chairman of International Beverages Ltd, the international arm of ThaiBev which has a strong portfolio of brands across spirits, beer and other categories which promotes, amongst others, Scotch whiskies.

He is senior adviser to Thailand’s Salamander Energy, and also senior adviser to De La Rue Thailand and to Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, again promoting British interests.  A non-executive board member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, he also serves on the Advisory Board of KCS Group.

The many opportunities he has to return to Thailand and enjoy both its beauty and the vibrancy of its capital city are high on Quinton’s yearly agenda. But, away from his business interests in the private sector, he can also be found in book shops, following his hobby of collecting first editions – his library is immense and a fascinating walk through a world of literacy.

And, at weekends when he is in the UK, you will likely spot Quinton sporting the navy and white colours of West Bromwich Albion football club – he is an avid fan and watches them whenever travels and business duties permit!

As far as Noel and Quinton are concerned they, like many other ex-British Ambassadors, are proof that there is a new and exciting life after loyal service to Her Majesty’s government. Their knowledge and experience ensure that British business interests abroad are being well taken care of for many years to come.

Catherine Sharp is a UK trained journalist based in the UAE. She has spent the majority of her career in the Middle East region and has extensive contacts in the diplomatic world.


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