x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Peter Middlebrook: Wandering minstrel on a mission

Peter Middlebrook has seen and done a lot on the way to Dubai. Working stints in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq paved the Briton's road to co-founding the global management consultancy Geopolicity in the emirate.

Illustration of Peter Middlebrook by Christopher Burke
Illustration of Peter Middlebrook by Christopher Burke

Hitchhiking from London to India as a 16-year-old opened Peter Middlebrook's eyes to the wider world.

With a guitar slung over his back and only a vague idea about where he was heading from day to day, the trip whetted his appetite for adventure.

"For some reason, I had the bug for travel. [Those were the days] when you didn't have internet or mobile phones, you just moved," says Mr Middlebrook, now aged 46, and the co-founder and chief executive of Geopolicity, a global management consultancy based in Dubai.

After a year and a half wandering through India, he ventured over the border to China and Beijing, then only starting to open up to western travellers, before catching the Trans-Siberian railway to the former Eastern bloc.Later, he trekked across the Sahara in the peak of summer to Algeria and on to Timbuktu, where he jammed with Ali Farka Touré, a popular Malian musician.

It was only after collecting passport stamps from more than 80 countries that he finally decided he needed to return to London and complete his education.

"After three years you think, at some point this will probably have to stop," he recalls.

And yet it never really has. A career of more than 25 years spanning diplomacy to political economics has taken him to work in more than 40 countries.

Many of those have been fragile or post-conflict states: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Kosovo and Ethiopia to name a few. In Afghanistan, he drew up the country's national development strategy and budget after the president Hamid Karzai took office in 2004. In Iraq he advised the post-Saddam Hussein government on how to reform the public sector.

Despite a passion for international development, though, it was football and music that were his first loves.

He had trials with Millwall, the London-based football team. Then at aged 15, he taught himself to play the guitar and drums. By the time he was 17, he was playing concerts in front of several thousand people and supporting acts including Chas and Dave, the English pop-rock act, and the 1980s synth-pop artist Howard Jones. When he is not working, he still performs under the stage name Jamie Brooke. He has produced several albums too, most recently Violet Symphony.

"Music is an important way for me to discuss what I can't in my diplomatic work," he says.

Love, hope and desire are among the themes he sings about.

But it is the weighty issue of making troubled nations work more effectively for their people that preoccupies much of his time.

"Planet Earth is the only place in the universe where we know there's life but for some reason we don't respect each other. I'm a humanist and have spent many years working on welfare economics to try to solve the problem of famine and poverty and you realise it's not that simple. It all relates to land, and land is a national security issue."

One of his most challenging assignments came shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. He received a call from the European Union asking him to lead a team of policy experts to Afghanistan to advise on the struggling economy.

With the country mired in chaos as invading US forces battled against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it was a mission most civilian workers would think twice about accepting. But Mr Middlebrook jumped at the chance.

"There was no government in 2001," he remembers. "Under the Taliban, we always said the countryside controls the towns and villages. There were no ministries, there was no government, there was no budget."

There was no defence against the raging fighting either. His office in Kabul was blown up, while the windows of his house were blown out. But rather than beating a hasty retreat, the conflict made him more determined to stay to help stabilise the country. He would stay in Afghanistan for seven years.

He later worked in Iraq as it emerged from the war that brought Saddam Hussein's rule to an end.

But Mr Middlebrook is philosophical about the dangers involved in his work.

"The real risk in countries such as Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan is far greater for the local population. They get hit, and while we see the shells go overhead, so far it always had someone else's name on it and not mine. We always say: 'If you can hear it, you are still alive'."

For the past five years he has lived in Dubai, where he has focused on building up Geopolicity's client base with his business partner Sharon Miller. The two met in Kabul in 2005 when they were both advising Mr Karzai. She recalls Mr Middlebrook playing his guitar in the evenings.

"He's an intellectual but has a rock 'n' roll side, too," says Ms Miller.

From Dubai, Mr Middlebrook says he travels to about 20 countries a year.

"The Middle East is what I like to call Middle Earth," he says. "All of the strategic alignments between the East and West are coming here, so from a business point of view it makes sense to be in Dubai."

Dubai is also close to the Middle East nations going through tricky transitions after unrest. He's drawn to risky countries, he says, as that is where the greatest challenge and the greatest needs lie.

"The question to ask yourself is, 'do you want to live doing a job that's moribund that doesn't really change anything, or do you want to try to find some way of making a difference, even if it's hard?'."

tarnold@thenational.ae