The ever popular and highly respected British Ambassador to the Philippines Asif Anwar Ahmad is grateful to his 18-year-long experience in international banking and finance for preparing him for his true life calling in the diplomatic service.
For it was during this long tenure at the National Westminster Bank that he learned international corporate finance, private banking, head office leadership functions and bank management, which he uses to this very day as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Philippines, and also to Palau.
Moreover, it was his sound credentials from the financial agency that landed him his first official post in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as First Secretary for the Resource Planning Department. He then moved into foreign policy work on Commonwealth issues, before heading the Communications and Information Center of the Prime Minister’s Office for six months in 2002.
After five years of work within the FCO, he was then tasked to focus on UK’s international trade and investment in Asia, which also makes up a large part of his responsibilities in his current office.
However, in this one-on-one interview with The Manila Times, the very articulate ambassador believed it was prudent to clarify his duties for the British Embassy in Manila.
“My role in trade and investment is different from being an ambassador, but it is an important aspect especially here in the Philippines where the UK has the largest investment among the European nations. Although my role is different, trade and investment is not separate from diplomacy.
“When I was head for foreign policy in the SEA region—this is considered basic diplomacy already—we worked on political relationships, discussed dealings on global issues, and upheld the UK’s interests internationally.”
Before coming to the Philippines, Ahmad briefly served as UK Ambassador to Thailand for two years, when then-Ambassador Quinton Qualey unexpectedly resigned from his post in 2010.
He was considered for the high-profile position while he was head of the Southeast Asia and Pacific Group. He was previously Director for Asia in the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) from 2004 to 2008.
At the end of his tour of duty in Thailand, Ahmad was given the choice to serve in the Philippines or Mexico, and chose this island nation since he had traveled to the country numerous times while in the UKTI. The banking and finance man found the Philippines interesting, recognized as an “emerging power” in Asia with its economy equally growing alongside Malaysia, and coming to be a close second to China.
“Recognizing the country’s fast-growing economy, we have decided to put our extra effort in the Philippines, not just in trade, but in relation to global issues, shared values, people-to-people links and travel, which has increased our presence in recent years. We also have 17,000 British citizens living here, and a growing number of 120,000 British tourists visiting the country,” the 57-year-old British ambassador enthused.
“I felt that with the way I worked, I would make more of an impact here than I would in Mexico,” he added.
Born of Bengali parents in the UK, Ambassador Ahmad was always exposed to diverse nationalities and cultures. His late father also served as a diplomat in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Japan, China, and the former Soviet Union (now Russia), so that his interest in the workings of the international community was but natural.
“I had an international outlook early on. I grew up studying in different international schools, and we’ve been moving around since I was four. I was always interested in international affairs until I entered the private banking sector,” Ahmad narrated.
Unknown to many, the ambassador has lived through trying times in his youth especially during the civil war in the 1970s. After graduating high school and living comfortably as an expat child in Iran for six years, he had to leave his comfortable life to join his mother and two sisters in the UK.
At the time, his father decided to pledge alliance to Bangladesh when it broke away from Pakistan. The senior Ahmad was then serving a three-year diplomatic posting in Poland without pay.
“Our lives went from this rich, giddy life to sudden deprivation. After graduation I expected to study in the United States, but because we had no money, I had to continue my education in the UK.
“Shortly after my return from Tehran, I overheard my uncle telling my mother that I will not be able to settle in the UK because of the drastic lifestyle change. My mother then told him that she had £8 left for the week. She was doing door-to-door selling then, which I took on as a job with her. So from the time I was 17-years-old until now, I had never asked for a single cent from my parents,” he proudly shared.
Securing a full government scholarship, he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Economics (with Honors) at the University of Durham, and considered a college education as a “means to an end and ticket to life.”
“I worked during summers and holidays. I did all types of jobs in hotels and factories, and worked my way through college. Before finishing at the university, I sent out 30 job applications while everyone was playing rugby or football,” he recalled.
Having accepted his fate and working to overcome it, Ambassador Ahmad developed the marks of a true leader—one who serves with passion and determination.
Moreover, his Asian roots combined with his English orientation enable him to understand and communicate with people on a deeper level, while drawing from experience in his youth.
Under his leadership as British Ambassador to the Philippines, Ahmad has propelled a 25-percent growth of Filipino visitors to the UK. He also saw to the completion of Emperador Brandy’s acquisition of the Scotch whiskey maker Whyte & Mackay, as well as facilitated the agreement between the Philippine government and a British company for a privately developed international airport to rise in Mactan, Cebu.
Ahmad has also actively supported the Bangsamoro peace process, making the British government’s presence felt in this historical landmark.
With a clearly-defined mission to the Philippines as mandated by the British government, the ambassador identifies his responsibilities to fall into four categories: security, economic prosperity, the protection of British citizens in the country, and the redefinition of the UK’s engagement with the European Union and its relations to the world.
In all these, the optimistic ambassador performs his duties with a “clear sense of what is right and wrong”—a British principle, which he strictly upholds.
“It is the conduct of each individual and respect for the institution that makes the British government effective. In making decisions, I tell my staff to work with two conditions: If you can withstand media revelation and you can defend your actions when you face a judicial parliamentary inquiry, then you can’t go wrong,” he related.
Truly dedicated to his current post lasting three more years, he is close to mastering the Filipino language, which he believes is very crucial in implementing his numerous projects. Besides endless business meetings, these also include well-received cultural events such as the “Great” Britain campaign, as well as the annual Chevening scholarship program in the Philippines.
As a practicing vegan, Ambassador Ahmad enjoys the Philippines’ fresh fruits and wide variety of seafood, especially when cooked in tamarind soup (sinigang). He loves spending time underwater and playing tennis with friends from the diplomatic community, including a weekly game with Swiss Ambassador to the Philippines Ivo Sieber.
In keeping an active lifestyle, he takes up diving lessons as much as he can, and continues to improve on his golf game on weekends.
Most of all, he loves how technology enables him to constantly communicate with his wife Zubeda, his daughter and grandson Raees, as well as his three sons who are all pursuing different passions in their chosen fields. Just as they should, each member of the Ahmad family has taken on the ambassador’s passion in living life as citizens of the world.