"I probably could not live with myself if I had been given this opportunity to serve and did not take it," said Philippine Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, H.E. Adnan V. Alonto midway through the interview with the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO). "And to me, not taking that opportunity will be my biggest frustration, more than renouncing my American citizenship," he continued.
He recalled that his children told him he was really crazy for taking such a big risk of giving up his US citizenship at 58 years old. Plus, the move to the Middle East after getting used to life in America for over 20 years was yet another risk. Chuckling, he said that he even had to pay US$ 2,350.00 for the renouncement. "But my father, my grandfather and some other relatives who have served [in government] helped me in that decision," he explained further. "My children cannot argue with it because it goes right into the core."
When he assumed the Ambassadorship in November 2017, the first order of business for him was to "unscramble a lot of things." There are about a little over 2 million Filipinos in the Middle East, 850,000 of whom are in Saudi Arabia, the biggest number in terms of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). "The first thing I noticed was that there was no case management system in place, which is kind of concerning with almost a million of our workers there. And at that time we were handling almost three thousand cases," he disclosed.
Prompted by the many sleepless nights in his first few weeks in office from calls of colleagues in other migrant-serving agencies, among them Justice Nick Acosta of the CFO, asking about updates on pending cases of some of our OFWs, Amb. Alonto urgently took action in setting up a database, within his first 3 months in office, from which to gather information necessary not only for families of the OFWs concerned but also for government to make strategic decisions on the cases. "It had to be quick, because if it had prolonged for a few months more, I might have died on the job," he laughed.
The second "unscrambling" he did was to open the Office of the Ambassador. "No more appointments. So, anyone who wants to see me, can see me," he beamed. His reason was simply to gather ideas straight from the OFWs themselves on the ground, on how to improve consular services, such as renewal of passports, notarial service, administration of the Assistance to Nationals program, and the handling of their cases, which are mostly labor cases.
The third thing he considered material to his function as Ambassador was to reach out or be visible to the most far-flung Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, which has a land area 7 times bigger than the Philippines. He set in motion an Embassy on Wheels (EOW) where consular services are performed on a weekly basis in far-flung areas. He got rid of the backlog in the appointment system in Riyadh, turned it into a walk-in service, by serving the far-flung Filipinos right where they were. "That freed up a lot of time and space," he cheerfully added.
When the pandemic hit, despite having to revert to the appointment system at the Embassy, Amb. Alonto managed to stop any complaints from coming by innovating an Option 2 for OFWs. In Option 1, if the appointment is already full, and one cannot get one's date and time of choice, he can go to Option 2 in which he can leave his name, his personal circumstances and click what services he needs.
Amb. Alonto analyzed the Embassy's service performance data and noticed that around 30% who got an appointment on a certain date do not show up. So those who took Option 2 may be booked on any of those days, still on the same month. The Embassy will give that person a notice period of 3-5 days to comply with Option 2, so he has time to ask permission from his employer to get a day off on the date set for him. For now, the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh doesn't get complaints from Filipinos in Saudi that they cannot get an appointment.
"I never aspired to be an Ambassador," he quipped after being asked about his dream career. "I have always wanted to be a litigator because I liked litigation drama in court even as a child. Becoming an Ambassador gave me the insight to say now that there are more ways than one to attain a certain goal. Even if I've gotten used to arguing my way through anything as a litigator, there is also such a thing as diplomacy where you use your charm and a little bit of wisdom, use a little bit of your smile to get what you want," he said quietly.
When asked about his royal ancestry, the Ambassador was quick to say that our Constitution has effectively abolished the concept of royalty, and replaced it with the ideals of freedom and equality, a belief he shares with his father, the late Senator Domocao Alonto. But he also thinks that his understanding of royalty has helped him better manage his dealings with Arabian royalty.
Amb. Alonto wants to add another paradigm in the Philippines' bilateral relation with Saudi Arabia. He thinks the latter is loaded with opportunities for Philippine trade and investment, and not just Filipino labor, which has been the sole paradigm of our country's relationship with them over the years. The Saudis have launched a strategic framework called Vision 2030 worth 500 billion Riyals that seeks to bring their country out of its oil dependence by venturing into full-blown tourism, gold mining, and other industries that are non-oil based. He believes we Filipinos already have an advantage in this Saudi undertaking, having much experience in tourism and an equally compelling 50 or so years of experience in mining. Add to that the fact that Saudis are already familiar with us and therefore, already trust us.
"That is what I want to do in my remaining months in my ambassadorship," finished Amb. Alonto, when asked of his remaining plans for Philippine-Saudi relations for the rest of his term.
Asked how he raised his children with his wife, Jo, a Catholic Ilocana, he replied that although Islam is a very tolerant religion, they had to agree on one religion for their children to avoid the ensuing confusion. "We agreed to raise our children Muslim but I allowed her a wide latitude on the practice of religion because I have my own relatives who are Christians and even a first cousin who is with the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC)."
He explained further that a lot of his maternal relatives are Catholic and he is very familiar with the religious rites so much so that when he entered a Catholic school in his elementary days, he became part of the church choir. He grew up with the conviction that religious belief is of no moment in terms of whether you are going to be friends or not with someone. For him, it's the character that counts, and this, he and his wife taught their children, i.e., to conduct themselves and make their judgment calls of other people not on the basis of their religious beliefs but on the basis of their character. "I never educated them to grow up to become a good Christian or Muslim, but to become a good person."
Asked how he sees himself after his term, he said that he is still open to public service but that he certainly will not aspire to it or pursue it actively. If there is something offered and he thinks he can still contribute something for his fellow Filipinos, he will certainly consider it. He is also writing a book about his time as Ambassador, drawing from the worthwhile things he didn't use to know that he now knows because of the job.