What do you want to be when you grow up? Most children upon being asked this elementary question confide in pursuing careers that capture their young imagination – I want to become a doctor, engineer, writer, actor, or musician, they say. Diplomacy is certainly a far cry from the answers you usually expect from them.
Dr Willy Kempel, Ambassador of Austria to Qatar, however, was all of 11 when he knew for certain that he wanted to pursue a career in foreign service. “I had a good idea about what diplomacy was, and that idea proved me right,” he says, seeming at absolute ease in his West Bay office at the Austrian Embassy, on a quiet, 33rd floor of the Palm Tower. Community caught up with Kempel for a chat.
How could you know about diplomacy at such an early age?
I was born in Vienna. I studied law and economics and completed my studies at the diplomatic academy. I was barely 23 when I entered the foreign ministry. I would say thanks to my family, I was very much exposed to an international perspective. Be it related to politics, culture, or travel, I picked up a great deal from my father, a businessman, and my mother, an artist. I was exposed to varied interests and I knew right away that foreign service would offer an international experience and also allow me to go out and do something interesting.
What was it that you had in mind when you embarked on this career?
It was to bring the different narratives together and create an impact. I could never be a politician, but I figured I was more attuned to diplomacy, bringing things together, reaching for a consensus where no consensus could be easily found, and to come up with ideas in difficult situations.
Briefly take us through your journey in foreign service thus far.
I started with the protocol side of the field. My first assignment abroad was in Kinshasa, Congo, back in 1987, and we were responsible for nine countries in the region then. It was exciting. I returned to Vienna and dealt with various issues, pertaining to Balkans and Africa, and then went to Geneva, dealing with arms control disarmament and environment.
I was the chief negotiator for the convention on hazardous waste, chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons, and nuclear testing, and was invited (by United Nations) to write the first draft of the climate convention at the Kyoto Protocol in Nairobi. I think I made something out of it. For me, to sit at the UN meeting behind the Austrian flag was a great feeling but also a realisation that this is the entry ticket. It’s more than meets the eye. You are allowed into the conference room to represent your country, and that’s fine. But how far you can go, based on your skills and talent, is something else. That, for me, was one of those moments when I understood the bigger purpose.
I later became a chief negotiator and was part of a lot of legal committees, and could make an impact with my work. Later, I was posted in Israel, back in Vienna, and then Brussels, before I was asked by my government if I was up to construct something new – and that task was to be the first resident ambassador to Qatar. Of course, I said yes.
You came to Qatar just two months ago?
Actually, I could have come to Doha earlier, in March, but I did not. I was seeking out all sort of important personalities and CEOs of enterprises who were interested in or had a direct impact on Austria and Qatar relations. This was across the board; from trade and commerce to OPEC Funds, and my networking covered a lot of constituencies. That work now helps me a lot because I now have the affiliations and direct contacts who I can easily communicate with. For instance, I had met the head of our National Olympic Committee, who will arrive in Doha today. Suddenly, I discovered how many different relations Austria already has, on a day to day basis, with Qatar. I know those people and their ideas and interests. And since I know the concerned people back in Austria, I have an overview of who is coming and going, and who are directly involved, on a day-to-day basis. For instance, I was at a reception hosted by a private medical clinic in Vienna. I soon realised that this clinic had close relations with Qatar, not only by the way of receiving the highest number of Qatari patients in Austria, but also to have the first ever Qatari-Austrian breast cancer awareness conference organised in Doha. It was a great learning process as I could meet doctors there and doctors here in Doha, from the Qatar Medical Association.
How have you been finding yourself and the change you see?
I had been to Doha more than 20 years ago for meetings and conferences, and at that time, there was Sheraton and two high-rise buildings. For me, this is a new Doha that transformed into the 21st century right away and is continuing to transform.
In Qatar, I find a country that’s open, hospitable, and remarkably well-connected internationally. A lot of meetings that take place here are a gateway to the world. I find some parallels between Doha and Vienna, as we, too, are trying to host conferences and important global events in Vienna. I feel there’s a parallel in our thinking and attitude, too.
As a small or medium-sized country, we are going beyond what we have on our plate and finding other avenues to be helpful, to be there for the world, and also to be recognised. With the Qatari government having expressed a very strong wish to strengthen relations with us across all fields, we will be looking at adopting a clear mindset and discussing the regional agenda, and looking at ways we can co-operate and also work on cultural events.
What sectors is the Austrian community in Qatar mostly involved in?
We have a lot of Austrian presence here in Qatar, be it in the way of an Austrian company working on the Metro Green Line, or the building of Al Wakrah Stadium. However, we also have a lot of Austrian personalities working with Aspire, at schools, or as directors of hotels in Doha. We have around 500 Austrians in Qatar, and most of them are holding management positions, or working in hotel management, education, event management. There’s a lot to learn from each other and there’s a lot to give to each other. We also have an important Qatari presence in Vienna, which will only be further enhanced by the new site of the Qatari embassy, a beautiful Viennese palace that has been bought by Qatar.
What are your favourite places or things to do in Qatar?
To me, the Doha wonderland is the Katara Cultural Village. I am often there, both in my private and my official capacity. I think the place has an enormous cultural but also a very personal approach towards people. Later this month, at Katara, we will have artistes performing on the Austrian national day. It’s a fabulous place to be.
What I find most striking is meeting Qataris and opening up to them and them opening up to me. To go into deep and long discussions with them is really special. I have also been invited to teach European law, and negotiation techniques and simulations, at Qatar University and Hamad Bin Khalifa University. In Austria, we understand this as public diplomacy, which is to not just sit in the office but to reach out, go out and show what Austria is all about.
What do you like to do in your free time to unwind?
Painting, acting, writing, playing tennis, squash and badminton, going to the gym every once in three or four days, hiking, and swimming. I also catch cultural events as often as possible. Time can be a constraint but I try to cut my day into different bits and pieces and see how much of these I can achieve.
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