01 Sep 2005
One-on-One with Thomas Riley
U.S. Ambassador to Moroccoby Garry EmmonsTopics:
On the day after the White House asked Thomas T. Riley (MBA ’75) to be the next ambassador to Morocco, a dozen suicide bombers struck in Casablanca, killing and injuring more than 100 people. As Riley watched CNN, he thought, “I hope the President doesn’t question whether I’m still up to it. I’m ready to go.”
Eight months later, in January 2004, Riley took his post at the U.S. embassy in Rabat, where he oversees a staff of 400 people. A Stanford University graduate, he is a veteran of three decades in international business, technology, and energy management, including twenty years in Silicon Valley. At HBS, he became a close friend of classmate George W. Bush and later would serve as an important California fundraiser for Bush’s 2000 campaign.
Riley (official presidential nickname: “T-Bone”) and his wife, Nancy, have two grown daughters. Fluent in French, he is a former Ironman triathlete who, egged on by his children, once toyed with the idea of auditioning for Survivor. Of his current job, Riley observes, “I’m not making a career of this, and there’s a certain freedom, even power, in that. In tough situations, it allows me to really do what I think is right.”
How did you prepare for this assignment?
I took a two-week ambassadorial training seminar and several weeks of refresher instruction in French. I read up on the history of Morocco and attended a number of State Department briefings on key areas such as terrorism, the Western Sahara, and regional issues. I tried to get better informed on general world issues and solicited suggestions from former ambassadors. When it came time to leave, the President gave me a nice send-off.
What do you do during a typical week?
My day usually starts with a management briefing and a review of the day’s press reports. I have internal meetings with my staff and then, externally, with various American interests, other embassies, Moroccan ministries, and so on. About 20 percent of my time is spent in the field visiting local Moroccan officials and U.S. projects and businesses. Two or three times a week there will be some kind of evening function as well, which I don’t particularly enjoy but know I need to do.
In this job, there’s really no one to tell you how to proceed. At first I found that a bit unsettling, but now I understand that you can shape what you do according to your interests, skills, and the host country’s needs.
Why is Morocco so important?
Morocco straddles the West and the Arab world and is a longtime ally of America — it was the very first nation to recognize our fledgling, newly independent United States. As an Arab Islamic nation, it can demonstrate that reform, moderation, and rejection of terrorism can lead to improvements in the lives of its citizens, give them hope for the future, and thus ensure greater stability for the government. A lot of countries are watching to see if Morocco is successful. If it is, they’ll start to copy it. If it isn’t, they’ll go in the other direction.
What are Morocco’s major differences with the United States?
As with most Arab nations, many people are not happy with the situation in Iraq and the Middle East peace process. Officially, we are on very good terms and rarely receive serious complaints or lectures. Informally, Moroccans want us to respect their religion and their culture and to recognize that countries are different and should not be lumped into groups.
Is popular support in Morocco for militant Islam increasing?
The government has made a number of reforms that we have supported, and we are assisting with programs related to strengthening education, the parliamentary system, job creation, and investment.
But as the top part of society is going one way, things can still slip in the other direction if problems on the Moroccan street like unemployment and illiteracy are not addressed. If we’re going to win hearts and minds, we must reach the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
What role can business play in helping Morocco’s development?
We just concluded a free trade agreement with Morocco, our first with an African country and only the second, after Jordan, in the Arab world. I just participated in the signing ceremony for an investment of $132 million by Fruit of the Loom, which is closing its plant in Ireland to consolidate operations here to serve the EU market.
One of our most successful initiatives is a microlending program. It offers loans that average about $300, for buying material for a sewing business, for example, or lights for a spice vendor’s shop. The repayment rate is 99.4 percent. It’s incredible and inspiring to see what the people in this program are achieving. We need to do more of this kind of thing because such initiatives are critical in the fight against extremism. Fifty percent of the population is under 25, and there are not nearly enough new jobs being created to provide opportunity. An uneducated, unemployed young person is someone without hope and a perfect potential target for the message of a violent extremist.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
The most satisfying things have been where the United States or our embassy has really helped Morocco: battling locusts, opening a girls’ school in a small rural town, the free trade agreement, the microfinance program. For me personally, there’s also some cool stuff, like landing on an aircraft carrier, meeting with the King, police escorts when I travel. But you get used to that — well, maybe not the aircraft carrier. Security is tight, but any freedom of movement I have to give up is a small price to pay for the opportunity to serve the President and the country.
Probably my proudest achievement to date has been reaching out to all political parties and all members of the press, and conferring with ambassadors from many nations, not just key big-country allies. I think it’s the right thing to do, and it has resulted in a better image of the United States. With some groups, I may never convince them that we’re doing good things in Iraq, but the fact that we’re interested enough to talk and listen to them is really important.
How does your business background translate to the world of diplomacy?
Although you appear to be the CEO of this venture, you can’t change the product, the pricing, your employees, or even your strategy. Your board of directors is several hundred politicians. And then there’s a huge corporate staff in Washington. As a Silicon Valley CEO, I had some metrics by which to measure progress, but in this job, yardsticks are much harder to come by.
However, instead of increasing market share for a new widget, here you have the chance to make the world a better and safer place, now and in the future. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to make a small contribution to the world.
Is HBS a good training ground for future ambassadors?
Surprisingly so. Whenever I have to make a key decision, it reminds me of a case: Here’s the info, the background, do we support this, how do we communicate this, from what angle, what’s critical here, and so on. There are no “answers,” and you must determine what information is most relevant. Your decision will always be better if you hear from colleagues, who, as in a wide-ranging case discussion, will contribute different perspectives.
And, of course, HBS training and an understanding of the economic and business world are crucial to helping implement policies and programs related to economic growth, job creation, and attracting investment.
Are there aspects of America that the Arab world still views positively?
I think we’re still admired for our freedom. People recognize that even though they may disagree with some of our policies, they know there’s no better opportunity for an individual person than in the United States.
They can greet us warmly and accept us as individuals, and still disagree with some of our official policies.
Class of MBA 1975, Section C