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Special ‘relationship’ behind US West Asia policy

London, Aug. 1: Political foes of Paul Wolfowitz like to portray him as a leading light in Washington’s so-called ‘Zionist conspiracy’, part of a small cabal of Jewish neo-conservatives driving a blindly pro-Israel policy in West Asia.

The US deputy secretary of defence was one of the original architects of the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and remains an enthusiastic advocate of spreading democracy in West Asia, despite the setbacks in Iraq. For his detractors, it is evidence that he is pursuing an agenda hostile to Arab regimes, particularly ones as virulently opposed to Israel as Saddam’s.

Critics have also latched on to the fact that his sister, Laura, a biologist, lives in Israel as proof for their theory. Indeed she does; she even has an Israeli husband. But although she rarely talks about politics, the reality is that she is a moderate rather than a hawkish settler or enthusiastic backer of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s hardline Prime Minister.

In fact, there is a woman from whom Wolfowitz does draw support and backing for his views, but she comes from a very different — and unexpected — background. His closest companion and most valued confidantes is a middle-aged Arab feminist whose own strongly held views on instilling democracy in her native West Asia have helped bolster his resolve.

Shaha Ali Riza is a senior World Bank official who was born in Tunis, grew up in Saudi Arabia and holds an international relations masters degree from St Anthony’s College, Oxford. Close acquaintances of the couple have told The Daily Telegraph that she is romantically linked with Wolfowitz, 61, a fellow divorcee with whom she has been friends for several years.

Even by the discreet standards of Washington’s powerful inner circle, it is a remarkably closely guarded secret. They rarely go out as a couple openly or demonstrate affection publicly, according to friends who are aware of the relationship. They attend low-key Washington social events and visit friends’ homes together and Riza also sometimes goes to official functions and dinners with him, but is not identified as his partner, an acquaintance said.

“Most people would never guess there was a relationship, even if they saw them together,” he said.

It is a sign of the sensitivity surrounding the relationship that the few friends willing even to acknowledge it last week did not want to be named. “Shaha Riza runs around with Wolfowitz a lot. I gather she is his current girlfriend but they are very careful about this,” said one.

Riza was on holiday last week on a ranch in Wyoming and did not respond to messages left for her. Wolfowitz did not return a call placed with his office at the Pentagon.

It would amaze the detractors who depict Wolfowitz as part of a narrow-minded Jewish lobby that one of the most important people in his life is, in fact, an Arab woman whose job is to promote gender equality in West Asia and North Africa. It will doubtless also surprise many of his supporters.

Riza’s childhood in Saudi Arabia did much to shape her commitment to democracy, equal rights and civil liberties in the Arab world as she experienced at first hand the kingdom’s oppressive regime, particularly for women. She has long pursued those beliefs and joined the World Bank in 1997 as the senior gender co-ordinator for Wesy Asia and North Africa, a role that involves extensive travel in the region.

So Wolfowitz and Riza are not just close personally, they have also both long espoused the same deeply held conviction that democracy should be spread across the Arab world. With his ear, she is one of most influential Arabs in Washington.

“Paul and some others always had Saddam Hussein in their sights, but she helped reinforce that resolve,” said a friend who moves in similar conservative circles.

“That was greatly helped by the fact that she is an Arab woman who is an expert on the process of democracy. Paul Wolfowitz is always being accused of being part of a bunch of Jews pushing Zionist interests with the likes of Richard Perle (a former senior Pentagon adviser) and Doug Feith (the Pentagon number three). So when an Arab woman says something similar, her views have tremendous authority”.

Asked about their relationship, Perle, a close political and intellectual soulmate of Wolfowitz, said: “You should ask her and Mr Wolfowitz about that. Any relationship they may have is a personal and private matter. I don’t know the extent or nature of it.”

Wolfowitz was, of course, already beating the drums for regime change in Iraq and was one of the signatories with Perle on the 1998 letter to President Clinton calling for Saddam to be ousted. For him, the war on terror brought with it the chance to pursue regime change and democracy across the Islamic world. In these views, he found common ground with Riza, who had often expressed her frustration at the widely held view in the West that Arab states would never embrace democracy.

Wolfowitz hoped that the invasion of Iraq that he did so much to engineer with his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, would not just topple a brutal dictator, but also set off a democracy ‘domino effect’ across West Asia.

For many of the neo-conservative cheerleaders of democracy, the next target is the autocratic Saudi state. Wolfowitz has already said that another goal of the Iraq war was to allow US troops to pull out of the kingdom to alternative bases. Riza will doubtless have offered him her views on how to deal with her childhood home.

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