Jane Marriott’s living room is one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The UK’s new ambassador to Yemen, living in a tight cluster of metal boxes inside the fortified compound, had only just unpacked when she was back on a flight back to the UK, the embassy gates chained shut.
Intelligence officials had intercepted a alleged bomb plot, said to have been carved out by Ayman al-Zawahri, the al-Qaeda chief, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the jihadists in the Arab Peninsula. It meant an immediate, urgent evacuation of the entire UK embassy, with the US outpost stripped down to only essential staff.
“My staff think I am cursed,” Marriott says, speaking to HuffPost UK in a Skype call from her tiny living quarters. She isn’t joking. Her last post abroad was Iran, and the embassy there was stormed and firebombed by protesters in 2011.
As the Yemen embassy staff arrived back at UK airports, seven US drone strikes tore through the country, killing 31 people. The Yemenis claimed two of the country’s most wanted terrorists had been killed.
Drones strikes “certainly do make a difference,” Marriott says.
She does not agree that they make British diplomats less safe, because of the bitterness they engender.
“We saw here, after the events in August, the threats went away after the drone strikes.
“So whatever one’s personal feelings might be, there was a correlation in my mind.”
This week alone, a US drone strike killed 13 members of a wedding party, mistaken for an Al Qaeda convoy. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs are unequivocal in their condemnation of drone strikes in Yemen, saying several have “killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war.”
Because of constant security threats, Marriott says she cannot speak as candidly as she would wish to the people who are more likely to have had their lives and livelihoods ruptured by the US machines.
“The government of Yemen is very supportive of the drones programme,” Marriott says.
But she admits that the view of elites and governments is a different story to the experience of civilians in the more torrid parts of the country.
“I imagine if I was wandering around on my own in some areas in south, near Al Mukalla in the south, that would be a constant message, that the West doesn’t understand the War on Terror, that drones are doing more harm than good,” she says.
It would be fair to say that Marriott has not been shy of a challenge in her foreign office career. She was Chargé d’Affaires and deputy ambassador in Iran, before that, she was in Afghanistan with General Petraeus and at the British Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and has been a political consultant for coalition forces in both countries.
But even coming from Tehran, Yemen, home to the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate, has been an extraordinary challenge. Just last week, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a brazen attack on the Yemeni defence ministry that killed 52 people, saying the complex hosted US personnel behind drone strikes against its militants.
So grave is the security threat, it has greatly impacted on how well she feels she can get to the heart of raw feeling in Yemen, she is always surrounded by “men with huge guns, so you aren’t going to have a normal conversation.
“Travelling around I have such high protection, you’re not exactly low key, you can’t stop off at a corner shop and say ‘so, what matters to you?’
“In Tehran I was forever slinging my Lonely Planet in my rucksack and an just heading off for the hills for a week or so, talking to ordinary Iranians,” she says, a tad wistfully.
But “people are keen to see us”, especially because of Britain’s historic connections with the south of the country, and Marriott says she is often stopped to pose for photographs with Yemenis “though that could be because I’m a tall, Western woman”.
Before 2011, Marriott’s home would have been a luxurious residence in an upmarket residential district of the capital Sana’a, with lush grounds.
Her home now is the opposite of opulent ambassadorial living. In a Skype video-tour – which takes all of around 10 seconds – she shows off her “port-a-cabin” with a small bed, piled with clothes, cupboard and toilet.
The military-style compound has imposing earthen barriers to absorb the impact of a car bomb, the homes and offices are metal pods. They do have a bar though, where staff put up decorations for the holidays.
The morning we spoke, a bomb alarm had just been sounded “We work on the assumption that we could get a car bomb into the wall any day, she says.
“The previous ambassador had a suicide bomber leap onto the bonnet of his car, the previous deputy ambassador had an rocket propelled grenade through the side, which fortunately didn’t go off.”
The killing of US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012 had “a very human impact” on Marriott, and on colleagues. She did not know him, she says, but knew many who did. “You have to rationalise, but also compartmentalise it, you can’t live every day thinking ‘this could be my last’.
“Some nights you do find yourself thinking about it, and you find yourself writing your will and remembering to tell people back home that you love them, on a regular basis. But that’s actually not healthy.
Shortly after we speak, the nuclear deal is reached with Iran in Geneva. It is something Marriott predicted could be on the horizon, saying she believed the cards had “lined up in the right way”.
We speak on email after the deal is reached, about the psychological circumstances needed for old foes to begin to feel their way toward each other. “Neither side, understandably trusts the other, perhaps it is more about suspending distrust, whilst keeping healthy scepticism in the back of the mind,” Marriott says.
“There is still a long way to go with the negotiations in 2014 and progress may not be linear, but out of all the possible routes out there on the nuclear issue, this has to be the best course of action.”
In her job, Marriott says, she cannot afford to lose faith in diplomacy, even confronted by the most entrenched corruption or ideology. “Colleagues in Iran said the situation was intractable, and I knew we just had to wait for the right sanctions to take effect, or the right people to be in power. This job is slow, the results you get don’t always match the effort you put in.”
In Tehran, Marriott said they always planned for a possible American or Israeli attack. And for Iranians, the possibility of a strike “felt very real indeed”.
“There was a big explosion in a missile area north of Tehran in 2011.” she recalls. “And a contact of ours on the scene said all the Iranians were saying ‘It’s the Israelis, it’s the Israelis’. Of course, we didn’t think it was. But the Iranians on the street did.”
Marriott is rarely in contact now with colleagues in Iraq and Afghanistan, from her time there, but says she still has fears for the future of the latter nation. “In 10 years time, Iraq will be fine, it has oil money, and it will be on the road to stability. Afghanistan has not got that. What is going to happen when we leave? That should be the question on our lips for 2014.”
In Yemen, major shifts are underway too, since the revolution in 2011. Attending the National Dialogue conference in recent months, established to proved a clear focus for the future of Yemen’s governance and constitution, Marriott says she still has major concerns about on-going violence, the lack of focus on basic human rights and needs and a growing sectarianism, a problem being felt throughout the Middle East, post-Arab Spring.
There have been “key successes” she says, including on the rights of women, but there are still “fundamental issues around the state of the nation, the role of sharia in the law, and we are quite a long way from agreement on that between parties.”
On sectarianism in the region, especially with conflicts with the Sunni-related Salafis and the Shia-related Houthis, with funding from Iran, she says one “has to get a balance on whether this is true sectarianism, versus tribalism, versus people just wanting power. Is sectarianism a cover, an excuse, or a reality? It certainly is an issue, and more than it was a decade ago. An agreement needs strong political leadership, and it has been hamstrung a bit by some of the political elites.”
In a patriarchal society like Yemen, Marriott has come across some obstacles because of her sex, she says, but female ambassadors are a kind-of “third gender,”, not a Yemeni woman or a Western man. And it grants her the luxury of being able to sit in the kitchen, and fuss over the kids and grandmothers, and then saunter into to the next room to speak high politics with a tribal sheikh.
“I know who is married to who, which my male colleagues say is ‘such a girl thing,’” she laughs. But it is essential she says, to get a handle on power dynamics.
She is one of very few women working for the FCO in such perilous locations- the only female British ambassador in the Middle East and North Africa. “There are a few of us in Yemen though: EU and German Ambassadors are both female, as is the US Charge d’Affaires,” she adds.
She cannot have her boyfriend live with her in Yemen, because of the risks, and says she knows that will discourage women with families. “Posts in a nice European city might have 20 applicants, and just one for a more difficult region. You are asking one partner to give up their career and move to a different country.”
“This isn’t Paris,” she jokes. “But you’re less likely to get mugged here.”