US Mission Saudi Arabia: Consequences of One-Year Tours/Staffing Gaps

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State/OIG has released its inspection report of US Mission Saudi Arabia conducted last fall.  I should note that the inspection occurred between September to October 2009.  The new Ambassador James B. Smith assumed his assignment in Riyadh in August 2009 while his new DCM Susan L. Ziadeh assumed post in September.   Ambassador Smith succeeded Ford M. Fraker, a Bush political appointee who was posted as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2007-2009. The “Executive Direction” section of this report is quite forward looking; and only talks about the current occupants of the Front Office. A quick review of the OIG website with documents going back to 2005 did not show any inspection report for US Mission Saudi Arabia in the last five years. It doesn’t mean, none was conducted, of course; only that no other report seems to be available to the public besides this one.

First off — here’s something interesting. In the five month gap when there was no ambassador in Riyadh, the chargé d’affaires position changed six times. Six times! The DCM normally would be chargé d’affaires, unless he/she also rotated out following the ambassador’s departure. I remember at one post, when the Ambassador and DCM were both gone, the chargé d’affaires position was “spread” around the section chiefs. So one week you have the Pol Counselor as top boss, the next couple weeks you have the Econ Counselor, another week you have the USAID director. And on and on it went. Supposedly to give those folks executive experience.  Or perhaps so they could put this in their EERs? Can you imagine the disruption of having a different boss every couple of weeks?

Mission Saudi Arabia struggled through a five-month transition between the departure of the previous Ambassador in April 2009 and the arrival of the current Ambassador in September. During that period, the chargé d’affaires position changed six times, rotating among the DCM, management counselor, and a when-actually-employed (WAE) retired ambassador. A number of employees commented in their OIG questionnaires that they felt a lack of front office direction and sometimes did not know who was in charge during that period.

Other issues prominently discussed in this report are the one-year tours and staffing gaps and its impact on the Mission. Excerpt below:

“Limiting tours of duty to one year has undermined the effectiveness of Mission Saudi Arabia and hampered its outreach.
[T]he OIG team found morale throughout the mission to be relatively good, with a few individual exceptions. Part of this may be owing to the fact that, given the policy until now of one-year tours, the large majority of staff members had recently arrived at the time of the inspection, and most had bonded well with each other. ELOs in particular were eager and enthusiastic about their jobs and the adventure of coming to Saudi Arabia to work.
Inexperienced ELOs serving in mid-level grade positions and extended vacancies characterize mission-wide staffing, hampering policy advocacy and program operations. Supervisors give serious attention to training ELOs, diverting their time from conducting regular operations. The transition from one-year to two-year tours should improve the officers’ ability to build and apply new skills and to cultivate relationships with Saudi contacts.
Officers have not implemented Departmental procedures on information sharing and document management, as is required by Foreign Affairs Manual (5 FAM 400) and the Foreign Affairs Handbook (5 FAH-1 H-300). Instead, officers retain material in personal email folders that are not accessible to colleagues when an offi cer is out of the office, away on leave, or departs from post. The exceptions are the consul general and office management specialist (OMS) in Jeddah, who maintain files correctly—a practice not extending to the Jeddah political-economic section. Reliance on individual email folders causes inefficiency in terms of time spent searching for information, the inaccessibility of model documents for inexperienced offi cers, and a loss of retrievable material for the Department and historians.
In 2009, the Department downgraded the mid-level officer position covering the banking and finance portfolio to an ELO-level position. A fi rst-tour offi cer will fill the position in summer 2010. Rank conscious Saudis are unlikely to work extensively with a first-tour ELO on sensitive banking and finance issues. This means that the counselor and the deputy will need to plan on devoting more of their time to banking and finance issues, in addition to the existing demands that already generate substantial overtime.
Recent turnover of Foreign Service staff in the information management section has resulted in only one person serving longer than four months. The embassy and consulates general have been one-year tours, and consequently items have been neglected. Two-year tours have just been implemented in the last year. The loss of corporate knowledge and continuity is apparent in the documentation.”

On the challenge of maintaining morale:

“Maintaining morale at Mission Saudi Arabia can be a challenge, in view of the security concerns, difficult climate, heavy office workload, limited recreational opportunities, and the highly conservative Saudi culture, in which norms are enforced by the religious police. It can be a particular challenge for women, since they are not allowed to drive or ride bicycles and—although not required by embassy regulations— they are expected, by Saudi culture, to wear a floor-length, black abaya whenever they go out in public.”

About those compensatory time for locally employed employees:

“For budgetary reasons, LE staff members often are required to work for compensatory time, in lieu of overtime. Current guidance from the Department’s Office of Human Resources/Overseas Employment (HR/OE) provides LE staff members with only eight pay periods in which to use compensatory time. The mission’s workload often prevents LE staff members from using their earned compensatory time in that short timeframe, and as a result, they lose it. This dilemma is not unique to Embassy Riyadh, and the Bureau of Human Resources (HR) is aware that it is a worldwide issue. HR currently is developing a global policy to allow LE staff 26 pay periods to use their earned compensatory time.”

On the overall challenge of US Mission Saudi Arabia:

Mission Saudi Arabia faces challenges that will tax its resources. These include supporting a large influx of personnel to support a joint U.S.-Saudi critical infrastructure protection program, meeting its target to double visa issuances, accommodating the return of families after several years in unaccompanied status, moving to the new housing and consulate compound in Jeddah, and locating property for and constructing a new housing and consulate compound in Dhahran.

Adherence to Saudi local practice has led Mission Saudi Arabia to run afoul of Equal Employment Opportunity precepts and complicates monitoring contractors’ compliance with their obligations regarding basic worker protections and freedom of movement.

You can read the whole thing here.

Related Item:
-03/31/10   Embassy Riyadh and Constituent Posts, Saudi Arabia (ISP-I-10-19A) March 2010