Dominic Simpson

Middle East commentator, investigator and diplomat
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The Independent Online

Dominic Simpson had, in his brief life, made a profound professional and personal engagement with the Arab world. It stemmed from his strong social concern and sense of morality, his intellectual fascination with the region's problems, but also the friendships he made in a time of turbulent change.

Dominic Mark Simpson, diplomat and risk consultant: born North Shields, Northumberland 22 December 1963; staff, Kroll Associates 1998-2004, managing director and head, Middle East Practice 2000-04; married 1991 Georgina Little (one son, one daughter); died London 14 July 2004.

Dominic Simpson had, in his brief life, made a profound professional and personal engagement with the Arab world. It stemmed from his strong social concern and sense of morality, his intellectual fascination with the region's problems, but also the friendships he made in a time of turbulent change.

His parents were both professional educators, and Simpson had all the intellectual stimulation he could want as a child. Born in 1963, he grew up in Sheffield, where his brilliance and articulacy at Silverdale and High Storrs schools marked him out for Oxford. His political and intellectual inclinations made Balliol the logical choice.

He absorbed the Balliol culture of "effortless superiority" as if born to the place, and revelled in its unique mixture of radicalism and intellectual ferment. He was a popular figure, well liked by the college's organised (and disorganised) left as well as those with completely different politics, or none at all. His politics were close to those of his hero George Orwell, mixed with the ideas he had imbibed in the "People's Republic of South Yorkshire" - an anarchist Tory with a solid underpinning of socialist ideals.

He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after taking a First in Modern History in 1985. They sent him to Cairo for Arabic language training, a period that would set the foundations for the rest of his life. He became immersed in the Arab world, its people, language, culture, politics and society. And he met Georgina Little, a fellow diplomat with whom he shared a flat. It was not long before they were engaged and married.

The life of a diplomat who followed the Arab world was changing rapidly. Simpson was working in the embassy in Riyadh the day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and as Political Officer found himself deeply engaged in the struggle to defeat Iraq and liberate the emirate. But in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, his next posting, he was also involved in the emerging conflict with Islamist forces that sought to change the balance of power in the Arabian Peninsula more profoundly still.

The first conversations I had about Osama bin Laden were with Dominic Simpson in the mid-1990s. Yemen had been the home of the bin Laden family. The tensions there between Islamism, the conservative forces around the government, and the socialist remnants of the former South Yemen provided plenty of intellectual engagement, not to mention some pretty hairy moments for two young diplomats.

On his return to the UK, Simpson worked on commercial relations with the Middle East. While he found the work very stimulating, there were limits on how far he could go in the work he undertook with the FCO; and in 1997 he felt the need to change.

Kroll, the investigations and intelligence company specialising in "risk consulting", provided the challenge that he needed. Most of the London office of Kroll had walked out in 1997 to found a competitor, and the operation was rebuilt from scratch. It created new opportunities for Simpson professionally, but more importantly he found a new environment where he himself would change. After two years as a business case manager, he built a Middle East Practice that, from 2000, was a pillar of the company's efforts in the region. He proved an inspirational leader, much loved by his colleagues and respected by clients from Denver to Doha.

For the first time, he could start to talk openly about what he was doing professionally. He spoke and wrote on the region, appearing regularly on television and in print as a commentator.

His most notable work at Kroll centred on the issues around terrorism, those who suffered from it - and those who suffered from the responses, sometimes misdirected, of the US and UK. After the 1998 African embassy bombings, Washington launched a cruise-missile attack on a factory in Sudan that it alleged was a chemical weapons facility connected to Osama bin Laden. Saleh Idris, a Saudi Arabian businessman who owned the plant, found himself branded a terrorist and his assets were frozen. The law firm representing Idris retained Kroll to investigate. Simpson established that the facility was a factory capable of producing only pharmaceuticals, presenting evidence in Washington that helped to turn the case. Idris's lawyers were able to overturn the US government order freezing his assets.

Simpson worked with US and European firms investing in the region, helping them to understand the risks. But much of his work was about re- establishing trust, trying to stitch together relations between the Middle East and America at a time when the two seemed to be drifting irrevocably apart.

Dominic Simpson was in some respects an Arabist in the British tradition, but very far from the traditional stereotypes. He saw the Arab world with all its flaws, with a critical eye, and with a view to a brighter, more progressive future. He argued for change, publicly and privately with his network of contacts in the region. He regarded al-Qa'ida as a monstrous parody of Islam. But he understood the social and political dynamics behind it, and the reasons for its success. He cared deeply and passionately about the Palestinian cause and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But he also realised that more was required to restore any kind of future to the Arab world, and to the young men and women growing up there. Shortly before he died, he wrote in Arab News:

It is time to wake up. Of course the Palestinians should have their own state. Quite apart from its relevance to any other issue, natural justice alone demands nothing less. But the idea that this is a magic wand to be waved over the problems of the Middle East and the Islamic world is illusory. The wound that always remains covered can never properly heal, and the wounds of the region have remained covered now for too long. Palestine alone cannot be the medicine. Arab societies generally have to reach out to themselves, not simply as a pact between rulers and ruled, still less because of the agenda of President [George W.] Bush, but because the social, economic and cultural emancipation of the Arab world demands it.

He was a fine writer, and had completed two novels in manuscript. The realities of the Arab world provided the subject matter for both, the interplay between its society and people, which he loved, and its politics, about which he had both understanding and scepticism.

Sane, informed and practical people with the intelligence, energy and sensitivity required to engage with the Middle East are few; with Dominic Simpson's death, they are one fewer.

Andrew Marshall