Here’s a bit of news that had Washingtonians choking on their coffee this morning: President Bush’s neoconservative hawk Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s architect of the US invasion of Iraq, is dating a Muslim!
While battle lines have hardened over President Bush’s nomination of Wolfowitz to become president of the World Bank, what many say is really fueling the controversy is concern within the bank over Wolfowitz’s reported romantic relationship with Shaha Ali Riza, an Arab feminist who is the acting manager for External Relations and Outreach for the Middle East and North Africa Region at the World Bank.
Political foes of Wolfowitz portray him as a leader of Washington’s Jewish neo-conservatives driving a blindly pro-Israel policy in the Middle East. Critics have also noted that his sister, Laura, a biologist, lives in Israel and has an Israeli husband.
But Wolfowitz, a married father of three, is said to be so blinded by his relationship with Riza, that influential members of the World Bank believe she played a key role in influencing the Pentagon official to launch the 2003 Iraq war. As his trusted confident, she is said to be one of most influential Muslims in Washington.
What they are said to share is a passion to establish democracy in the Middle East.
Riza, in her mid-fifties, was born in Tunis and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Her childhood is said to have done much to shape her commitment to democracy, equal rights and civil liberties in the Arab world based on her first hand experiences.
She brought those beliefs with her when she joined the World Bank in 1997.
Riza studied at the London School of Economics in the 1970s before taking a master’s degree at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, where she met her former husband, Turkish Cypriot Bulent Ali Riza, from whom she is now divorced.
After they moved to America, Riza worked for the Iraq Foundation, set up by expatriates to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War. She subsequently joined the National Endowment for Democracy, created by President Ronald Reagan to promote American ideals.
It was this time that Riza, a British citizen eight years younger than Wolfowitz’s wife – started to meet with Wolfowitz about reforming the Middle East. They allegedly began dating two years ago.
Even by the discreet standards of Washington’s powerful inner circle, their relationship is a remarkably closely guarded secret. The Washington Post says the couple rarely goes out together or demonstrates affection publicly, according to friends who are aware of the relationship. They attend low-key Washington social events and visit friends’ homes together and Riza also sometimes goes to official functions and dinners with him, but is not identified as his partner, an acquaintance said.
“His womanizing has come home to roost,” a Washington insider told reporters. “Paul was a foreign policy hawk long before he met Riza but it doesn’t look good to be accused of being under the thumb of your mistress.”
A Wolfowitz opponent at the World Bank told a reporter: “Unless Riza gives up her job, this will be an impossible conflict of interest.”
Wolfowitz married his wife Clare Selgin in 1968. But they have lived separately since 2001, after allegations he had an affair with an employee at the School of Advanced International Studies where he was dean for seven years. They are now believed to be legally separated.
The World Bank’s staff association has told executives it has been swamped with complaints from employees about Wolfowitz.
However, Wolfowitz’s only comment on the complaints has been a terse statement issued through a Pentagon spokesman. He said: “If a personal relationship presents a potential conflict of interest, I will comply with bank policies to resolve the issue.”
BARBARA FERGUSON writes for the Arab News.