Former US Congressman Paul Findley has been visiting the UAE, and in particular Dubai, for many years. He speaks fondly of a country he has learnt to love and talks about his enduring friendship with Khalaf Al Habtoor
It’s an unlikely friendship – a former US Congressman, and author, and an Arab Head of a family-run business conglomerate, known for his opinionated writing.
And yet the bond between Paul Findley and Khalaf Al Habtoor has endured for over 30 years and lasted despite the fact that both live on other sides of the world and in cultures far removed from each other.
Findley, a Republican who was first elected in 1961, having spent time in the US navy and edited a country weekly newspaper in his hometown of Illinois, is known not only for his time in Congress, but for his six bestselling books on American politics, as well as his advocacy of the Palestinian cause.
Having visited Dubai on many occasions over the years, he credits Al Habtoor with playing a substantial role in the changes that have taken place in Dubai. “The city [Dubai] had only a handful of multistorey buildings in 1988, but its skyline now rivals that of Manhattan,” he says of his first visit. “I first came to Dubai at the invitation of Dr John Duke Anthony, a scholar who was specialising in Arabic studies,” he tells Al Shindagah. “He had helped me prepare in 1974, for a lonely but successful mission to South Yemen, where I had secured the release of one of my constituents, Ed Franklin, after he was imprisoned on false charges of espionage.”
Findley fell for the city instantly a nd over the years has become even more attached to it. This is due in part he says to his friendship with Al Habtoor. “From the first moment I visited Dubai in 1988, I’ve felt at ease in the Emirates. This [feeling] has deepened into affection over the years, substantially because of my enduring friendship with Khalaf Al Habtoor and with his staff. He has always welcomed the Findleys as if we were members of his immediate family.” What’s more, he credits Al Habtoor with playing a major role in the changes that have taken place. “Thanks in substantial measure to Mr Al Habtoor, Dubai has become the central jewel of the Emirates – a bustling, cosmopolitan city in the heart of what is known as the Old World, outstripping the architecture and other features of some of the most modern of Western World cities.”
Despite the changes they have been subjected to, he believes the city and indeed the UAE have still retained their Arabic identity. “The Emirates, with all their variety, have retained the best of Arabic tradition, while adopting useful advances from the West,” he points out.
In fact Findley’s 22 years in Congress had ended by the time he first came to the UAE. He had been ousted from his position when he failed to be re-elected in 1982, after serving a total of 11 terms.
While some would have taken this defeat as a personal blow and receded into the shadows, it is testimony to Findley’s personality that he turned it to his advantage. “I made mistakes in my 1982 re-election campaign,” he says frankly. “But my defeat proved to be a blessing in disguise. It opened doors I would never have found on Capitol Hill.
He’d already published two books while still in Congress, but leaving freed him up to write more. “I immediately became engrossed in assembling material for my book: They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby,” he says. “If I had been re-elected, I’d have been unlikely to have written any of my books, which have had a substantial impact on political currents in the United States and throughout the Arab world,” he says, adding that he also remained actively involved in politics from the sidelines. “I left elective office in January 1983, but I found myself as active as ever in the opportunities that came my way in the post-Congress years.”
Such was the popularity of his third book, in which he condemned the US for its support of Israel, that he was subsequently asked to speak at a string of conventions throughout the United States, the Middle East, England and Canada. Since then, he has written three more books and he’s proud of the fact that they’ve motivated others to address human rights issues.
“In the years following the publication of They Dare to Speak Out, I received more than 1,200 letters from readers who wanted guidance on how to correct the problems cited in my book,” he says.” This led to the founding of an advocacy organisation called the ‘Council for the National Interest’, based in Washington.”
Over the years he has campaigned for human rights in relation to a number of international issues, often acting as a negotiator. “At the end of World War II, after witnessing firsthand the awful devastation of Nagasaki, Japan, caused by a US Atomic bomb, for example, I focused on measures that would help reduce the likelihood of future wars and advance the dignity and well-being of all people in all lands everywhere,” he says. “My lifelong quest has been to achieve equal justice for all people.”
However the issue of Israel and Palestine has remained at the forefront of his campaigning and where America is concerned he has never pulled any punches in his condemnation of its policy on Israel.
“I find it disgraceful that our government continues to support a small scofflaw nation, Israel, which humiliates and destroys an entire society of innocent Arabs,” he says with conviction. “Once revered worldwide, America today is reviled in many parts of the world. The root cause of anti-American protest is our unqualified support of Israel’s searing oppression of the Palestinians and other Arabs. The US lobby for Israel has established absolute control of society where Israel is concerned. Americans enjoy free speech, except in relation to Israel. It’s a sad situation.” It’s a brave stance for an American politicin and it’s over this issue more than any other that the former politician and Khalaf Al Habtoor have bonded. “That challenge, more than any other factor, brought Mr Habtoor and I together,” says Findley.
Both are passionate in their views and courageous enough to voice them. What’s more neither show any sign of slowing down as they get older. Findley remains as passionate about the subject of human rights as when he first started out. “Oppression of human rights remains common in many parts of the world, but it is especially painful when one’s own country is implicit in causing human misery,” he says with sincerity. “Thankfully, Mr Habtoor continues to speak out about the cause and this is something I very much admire about him.”
But this is not the only reason that he admires Al Habtoor. “Khalaf Al Habtoor is one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever known,” he adds. “I guess that he plans every day with great care because he wishes to make every minute count. He is personally very efficient and he encourages his employees to be the same. He has long been a personal inspiration to me.”
Findley is also a fan of Al Shindagah having read it from when it first started back in 1993. “From the first issue, I’ve enjoyed reading it,” he says. “Under the leadership of Khalaf Al Habtoor, it became a prominent editorial voice and has improved and increased its readership with the passage of each new year. Al Habtoor’s influence via Al Shindagah, in education, philanthropy, business and world affairs is great and still growing,” he adds. “I only wish the magazine could be circulated widely throughout the United States.”
Paul Findley’s latest book ‘Speaking Out: a Congressman’s lifelong fight against Bigotry, Famine and War’ is published by Lawrence Hill Books, and in Arabic as ‘America in Peril’’.