Q&A with Hassan Al-Damluji

January 22, 2016
Hassan Al-Damluji

Hassan Al-Damluji, CMES AM ’08, is Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is responsible for the foundation’s Middle East strategy across program areas and serves as the lead Middle East adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates.

What are your goals and responsibilities as Head of Middle East Relations at the Gates Foundation?

At the Gates Foundation, all our goals are tied to the belief that everyone deserves the chance to lead a healthy and productive life. Stemming from that, we work to remove the biggest drivers of inequity for the world’s poorest people, such as removing diseases that primarily poorer people suffer from, or lifting agricultural production for poor farmers. I’m responsible for leading our work in the Arab world, which means, for example, representing the foundation publicly, making grants to development partners, and advising my colleagues as to their investments to the extent they intersect with the Arab world. My team’s focus is on working with other major donors in the region to forge sustainable partnerships that can impact poor people across the region and the world. As an example of that, I am leading the efforts to create a $2.5 billion development fund in the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). The Lives & Livelihoods Fund will pool grant money (including up to $100 million from us) with loans from the IDB, to finance projects across the Muslim world, targeting health, agriculture, and basic infrastructure. We work closely with the IDB to help shape those projects, and ensure they are really helping the poorest people.

One of the most interesting parts of my job is arranging, and participating in, visits to the region by Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill Gates has been coming to the Middle East once or twice a year in recent times, and it’s always an opportunity to meet some of the key decision makers, and rapidly advance our agenda. One of the highlights was joining Bill in a meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in 2014. The trips are also a great opportunity to spend time with our leadership, who are truly inspirational people.

Prior to joining the Gates Foundation, you worked at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. What did you do there, how did this experience prepare you for your current position, and why did you make the switch?

At McKinsey I worked entirely on education reform and economic development, in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE. McKinsey is a great experience because it gives you general tools that can be applied in any business or management setting, but it also prepared me specifically for this work because I got to know how different countries function in the Middle East, the way governments work, and the broad field of development. It was still a big jump to the Gates Foundation though, because I had never worked on health or agriculture, and those are the biggest things we focus on here. I had to trust in the value of my regional knowledge, which is what I was hired for, and then rapidly learn about things like malaria, wheat production, and many other issues. I made the switch because coming to the foundation to set up their Middle East presence was a rare opportunity that would not come around again soon. The impact we are working to achieve is so meaningful, and is at such scale, that it is hard to beat for starry-eyed dreamers like me.

How did you decide to come to Harvard and CMES rather than a Middle East studies program elsewhere, or some other kind of graduate program entirely?

The truth is that I wasn’t planning on doing postgraduate study at all. When I was graduating from Oxford the President of my college encouraged me to apply for a fellowship to Harvard because he thought I’d have a good chance of getting it. So I applied to that and nothing else. Miraculously, I got it, and could choose any subject to study at Harvard for a year. I chose Middle East studies because it was my passion—I had spent the previous years learning Arabic and reconnecting with my Iraqi roots, but still had a lot to learn in that journey. I thought that spending that year continuing the journey, and then an additional year to finish the master’s, was a great way to spend my time. It was a very personal journey to me. And it’s one I’m still on now.

Did you come to Harvard with a career path in mind? Did your time at CMES help clarify a career path for you?

When I arrived at Harvard I knew I was passionate about contributing to positive change in the Middle East but I didn’t know how to translate that into a career. It was definitely during my time at CMES that I clarified my goals. I decided that if I wanted to have maxi­mum impact I should not stay in academia, work in the UN, or go back to journalism, which I had spent a year in before Harvard. I needed to go to the region, pick a sector in which to get deep expertise, and try to get to the top of that space. I picked education, and decided to work for McKinsey because they do a lot of education work in the Middle East, and I knew I’d get great training in a range of important skills.

What kinds of courses did you focus on here? Were there any favorite courses or faculty that stand out?

I followed my passions, and did a wide range of courses. To pick a few that I remember most fondly, there was French literature, where we read many of the greats through the ages, and undergraduate economics. To be able to study medieval French literature and pure economics was just incredible, and both were directly helpful in my Middle East career (there are many French speakers across the region!). Emad Shahin’s political economy of the Arab world was another great one. I loved all of the faculty I worked with, but the single biggest influence on me was Khaled Al-Masri, because he introduced me to Iraqi poetry that I still read and even remember by heart to this day.

What advice would you give to students interested in foundation or NGO work?

If you want to work in a foundation, NGO, or similar, be a management consultant first. You will get business skills which will are valuable, and respected, in the field, but which many other job applicants will not have. Plus it will be more easy to go and do private sector work later, if you decide to.