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Book Review: Tomorrow There Will be Apricots: An Australian Diplomat in the Arab World

05 Apr 2023
Reviewed by John Tilemann

Dr Bob Bowker is a former Australian diplomat, intelligence analyst, and academic who has followed affairs in the Middle East since the 1970s. His book offers insights into the complexities of Middle East politics and the challenges facing a practitioner in shaping Australia’s foreign policies in this sensitive part of the world.

As explained in a foreword by John McCarthy AO, a long serving Australian ambassador and former president of the Australian Institute for International Affairs, this volume is two books in one. The first is Bowker’s foreign service career as a Middle East specialist; the second, flowing from the first, is a scholarly analysis of the major issues which beset today’s Middle East.

Tomorrow there will be apricots is an Arabic saying equivalent to “pigs might fly,” capturing, our author explains, a distinctive element of Arab culture of droll optimism and a scepticism towards those in positions of authority. It also captures Bowker’s subtle understanding of the Middle East.

At a time when Australia’s diplomatic capabilities are being questioned and side-lined by defence and national security agencies, it is important to raise awareness about the strengths and weaknesses of our foreign service. Bowker’s book is a very welcome addition to several recent studies of Australian diplomacy including Jeremy Hearder’s biography of Sir James Plimsoll, Jim Plim: Ambassador Extraordinary, Sue Boyd’s Not Always Diplomatic, and David Connolly’s Sunshine and Shade.

It is a must read for anyone contemplating life in the Middle East, but as importantly, for those wishing to balance our burgeoning military commitments with a strengthening of Australia’s security through diplomatic engagement.

Bowker joined the then Department of External Affairs in 1971, perhaps the start of the golden age of Australian diplomacy. Annual recruitment rounds to the foreign service were still small and closely supervised by the department head and other senior officers – no longer feasible when the annual intake of new trainees reaches one hundred. It was not at all uncommon for the secretary or deputy secretary (there was one) to appear at your desk for a chat about issues of the day. Formal diplomatic training was haphazard, and career planning non-existent.

In the 1960s, under Secretary Plimsoll, the Department of External Affairs went to extraordinary lengths to acquire Asian languages skills, from Chinese and Japanese to Sinhalese and Bengali. This breadth of expertise was not sustainable for a small foreign service, but the attention to training in the most politically important languages, including at times Arabic, has been a consistent theme to this day.

Beyond that, Australia’s foreign service management has been ambivalent about developing and retaining specialist expertise – an issue that needs to be addressed in today’s increasingly complex and contested foreign policy environment.

Building on a base of Indonesian language training at university and acquiring a familiarity with the Arabic script on posting to Malaysia, Bowker created his own career path, happily ending up a self-proclaimed “Middle East diplomacy tragic.” Many others have managed to achieve this satisfying end point, but many did not.

Modern communications have revolutionised diplomatic practices, but as Bowker observes, not always for the better. As McCarthy speculates, it is unlikely that Bowker would have relied overly on Canberra’s views on what he should say in his numerous encounters with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. Today, posts abroad can be micro-managed from headquarters – and increasingly are.

Once, ambassadors about to depart a post would pen re-assessments of policy settings relevant to the country and region of their assignment. That practice has died: and as Bowker observes, it has become virtually unthinkable to use the official cable system, which in principle reaches all senior levels of the government, to question policy settings. As this reviewer witnessed at one point during the Iraq war, it became commonplace for ambassadors to seek informal clearance by email from Canberra before sending cables on potentially sensitive issues. This situation prompted an instruction from Canberra banning the practice, which of course only further stifled policy discussion.

Bowker notes another development which impinges on the effectiveness of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as an agency of national security, the priority accorded to the immediate vote-catching appeal of trade and consular crisis management over foreign policy formulation and advocacy.

Drawing on his experience in the Middle East, and his academic study of the role of Australia, and in particular Prime Minister Robert Menzies in the Suez crisis of 1956, Bowker points to the challenges in times of crisis and strategic change of engaging considered opinion about foreign policy objectives and the means for achieving them. In his judgement, External Affairs lacked a forward-looking foreign policy analysis mechanism capable of influencing Australia’s response to the Suez crisis. The evidence is that DFAT today still lacks the clout and processes to ensure that its special expertise and skills are utilised, especially at times like these of major shifts in our geostrategic environment.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, our author offers two particular insights. First, while on assignment outside DFAT in 2003, Bowker wrote a paper on the implications for Australia of the then looming conflict. His analysis was spot on. The promise of the Australian government and others of a smooth transition to a post-Saddam, democratic, and economically sound Iraq was patently illusory. Before the invasion, DFAT maintained that there would be no need for Australian assistance in post-conflict reconstruction – Australia’s aid program did not extend to the Middle East. But in the event, the first Australian officials to arrive in Baghdad were from AusAID and the Australian Wheat Board (AWB), eager to salvage as much as possible of our wheat trade.

Not unrelated, Bowker’s second comment on issues surrounding the Iraq war is on the conduct of the Cole Inquiry set up by the Australian government to examine the actions of Australian companies, principally the AWB, in relation to the United Nations Oil-For-Food Program. Bowker documents how the AWB shrouded its activities from Australian officials in Canberra, and in the field: indeed it had practiced a deliberate policy of deceit. It was determined to sell the crop at any cost to what was a very lucrative and long-standing market. Several DFAT officials, our author and this reviewer included, suffered a media campaign suggesting falsely they were complicit or at least negligent in failing to blow the whistle on the AWB. Bowker himself sustained three hours of cross examination in the Inquiry. As Bowker concludes, the AWB had misled officials and the government with extraordinarily damaging consequences for itself and also at some considerable cost for the reputations of those associated with it.

The essays on Middle East issues distill a lifetime of engagement, observation, and moral commitment and warrant careful reading. The tragedies of the Palestinians and now of the Syrians offer no easy solution. For the former, Bowker has been forced to abandon a career long commitment to the “two-state solution” concluding there is now no alternative to working from within the state of Israel for a better if far from perfect future for Palestinians.

He also comes to a view, to the dismay of some of his colleagues, that progress in Syria must involve carefully calibrated re-engagement with the Assad regime.

More generally he documents the shortcomings of western approaches to the Middle East. He characterises President Donald Trump’s approach to the Middle East as a Jackson Pollock style of diplomacy, most recklessly the US abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal which has only served to increase the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation in the Middle East.

There are two concluding chapters, one a whimsical exploration of the parallels between the professions of diplomacy and archeology. Australian archeologists have rightly earned enormous respect in the Middle East and have been willing tutors for generations of passing diplomats.

The last Chapter 26 is a balanced and sensitive summation of a career of commitment. I would invite the reader to start with this chapter. It is a reflection on a life of diplomacy in the very best sense of the term, of a practitioner dealing with the personal and professional challenges of engaging others across national and cultural borders. And it underlines the complexities of diplomacy as a two or three level game, balancing domestic political interests with our regional and global interests.

Tomorrow there will be Apricots is also a deeply personal tribute to the contributions of Bob Bowker’s family. Partner, Jenny Bowker AO, has pursued a career-long focus on the culture and artisans of the Arab world: soft diplomacy rarely recognised. Children don’t get much of a say in the moves that a life in diplomacy requires, but it seems the Bowker family mostly profited from the life of disruption and accompanying challenge.

This is a review of Robert Bowker, Tomorrow There will be Apricots: an Australian Diplomat in the Arab World, (Shawline Publishing Group, 2023). ISBN: 9781922850423 (Hardcover).

John Tilemann is a Senior Associate Fellow of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a former career diplomat and was chief of staff to IAEA directors-general Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. He was Australia’s Ambassador to Jordan 2001-06. 

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.