1st April 2014 London, UK
Nikesh Mehta- The Perks of Being a Diplomat
The perks of being a diplomat
by Imran Choudhury
BUILDING relationships between different countries and diffusing tensions may sound like quite a demanding job, but it does have it perks – just ask British diplomat Nikesh Mehta.
The 36-year-old has worked in Iraq, Uganda and Malaysia and mingled with British royalty, dined with Hollywood stars as well as flying out to war-torn Basra in a Chinook military helicopter.
Mehta is currently based at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. While in London last month, he visited Tower Hamlets College in East London to talk to pupils about careers in the government department.
“Every day is genuinely different,” he told Eastern Eye in an interview.
“A typical day could involve lobbying on the UN security council resolution on Syria, for example, or it could involve working on a visit for a member of the royal family. It’s an incredibly varied workload.”
Mehta grew up in west London and has been a foreign office diplomat since 2002. For the past ten months he has been leading a campaign to encourage more black and ethnic minority graduates to consider the foreign office as a career option.
Currently the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has 14,000 staff from 150 nationalities, all representing “modern Britain” and they are not all from Oxbridge, Mehta said.
“Modern Britain isn’t white male, from Oxbridge, it’s people from a variety of backgrounds, not just ethnic backgrounds, but socio-economic backgrounds, different educational backgrounds and even geographic backgrounds.
“We can’t be London centric, we can’t be Oxbridge centric, we must have diversity if we’re going to make creative foreign policy.”
Mehta completed a masters in chemistry at University College London and spent three years working as a teacher in rural Japan, a stint which sparked his interest in the foreign office.
“My first experience of culture shock was trying to explain why I was vegetarian to a group of sceptical Japanese students.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to be an ‘ambassador’ for the UK and this, together with a long-standing interest in international affairs, prompted me to apply to the foreign office,” he said.
When the father of-two joined the Foreign Office, he said his parents felt a “huge sense of pride”. Among his wider family, however, there were some reservations.
“There is the impression that working for the British government must somehow count against your values,” he reveaed. “If you’re someone who came from a immigrant background, there are a lot of people who questions as to why you should be working for the British government. I have that, occasionally.”
At the end of 2003 just after the war, Mehta was based in Iraq and a year later, moved to Uganda.
“This posting had huge significance for my family as my mother had been expelled from the country by Idi Amin’s forces in 1972.”
“My mother and grandmother travelled back to Uganda for the first time whilst I was posted there. My mother was asked to leave the country at gunpoint. But going back I think completed a pretty important part of her life.
“Children had been abducted and turned into child soldiers and turned against their own communities. It was pretty harrowing. To work on drawing the public attention to what was going on there and to ensure the right humanitarian support was going on was rewarding.”
Among his memorable incidents in Uganda was having dinner with Hollywood actress Gillian Anderson, famous as Special Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files. When the team behind the film, The Last King of Scotland, shot a scene at the high commissioner’s residence, they took the high commissioner out to dinner and Mehta was invited.
Mehta said: “It was strange to meet her in person after spending several years staring at her poster on my bedroom wall.”
After Uganda, Mehta returned to London and spent four years working on counter terrorism issues. His “dream” posting, however, has been in Malaysia where his remit is foreign policy, security and press issues. Though he would not be drawn into his role in the on-going situation regarding the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH370 earlier this month, Mehta said he has a varied role.
“It’s about promoting the UK and the UK brand overseas. It could also range from promoting our retail sectors in Malaysia, but it could also look at our values. One of things we are lobbying on at the moment is our ‘preventing sexual violence initiative’, which is a very big foreign office priority.”
In 2012 Mehta oversaw preparations for visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Malaysia to celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
“We spent a lot of time planning that visit. It was absolutely fantastic, they were an amazing couple and really transformed the way the Malaysian people thought about the UK.”
He added: “Being a diplomat is a fantastic career for somebody from an ethnic background. You have huge opportunities to travel the world, but also opportunities to make genuine differences in the places that you go to.”
*You can read more from Nikesh Mehta here; you can also follow him on Twitter – @nikmehta33