Jane Marriott didn’t get on an aeroplane until she was 23 but has spent the past two decades working in some of the world’s most dangerous locations. Richard Blackledge reports.
Jane Marriott has worked in some of the most dangerous and controversial parts of the world. The UK’s new high commissioner to Kenya, who for the past three years has been one of British intelligence’s leading professionals as director of the Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit, was sent to Iraq and Afghanistan alongside coalition forces, and had to be hurriedly evacuated from Foreign Office postings in Iran and Yemen amid bomb threats and attacks by protesters.
So her new appointment possesses a certain appeal for the South Yorkshire-born diplomat – namely, a bit more stability.
“I’ve spent most of my career in conflict places,” says Marriott, who flies out to Nairobi to start her four-year term on August 31. “I’m the girl who does guns and bombs and rocket-powered grenades... and I quite wanted somewhere that was not those things.”
The title of high commissioner, she says, is merely “a posh way of saying ambassador to a Commonwealth country” – and Kenya, with all its historic ties to Britain, is “a really exciting place to be”. The East African nation produces half of the tea drunk in the UK, 70 per cent of our roses are grown in its fields, 8,000 British troops are trained there annually and one in 10 Kenyan workers are employed by a UK company.
“There are just these incredible links,” Marriot enthuses. “And that’s before you get to the fact that William proposed to Kate out there.”
But – lest anyone assume she will be getting too comfortable – there is a terrorist threat in Kenya, Marriott stresses. The Al Shabaab group, which is connected to Al-Qaeda, is bitterly opposed to the republic’s military intervention in Somalia and has killed at least 300 people in more than 20 attacks in the past five years. Gunmen struck in January at a hotel and office complex, murdering dozens.
“We have 100,000 Brits that go on holiday there every year and they, I hope, diligently read the Foreign Office travel advice,” says Marriott. “It’s safe, but there’s a chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Top of her in-tray in September will be the need to secure a free trade deal with Kenya, “on the assumption we will be exiting the EU at the end of October”.
“The second thing will be around security, making sure UK interests are protected and that we’re working with the Kenyan forces to help them protect their interests, which obviously then benefits us. And then thirdly, the elections are in 2022, which seems like a really long way away, but Kenya is one of those countries where the elections start the week after they’ve been held, so already the politics and manoeuvring is going on.”
Kenya is socially conservative – homosexuality remains illegal – and the nation is one of the biggest recipients of overseas aid from the UK. Funding primarily goes towards supporting Somali refugees in Kenyan camps.
“Obviously if you can support refugee populations there, then they don’t get on to migrant boats and find their way to Europe,” explains Marriott.
Kenya, she says, is a very ambitious country – it has just begun producing its own oil and hopes to export 400,000 barrels this year. “They’re a young country, but there’s a real entrepreneurial zeal. It’s about partnership and making things happen, standing on your own two feet and getting stuff done. As a Yorkshire girl, I very much appreciate that approach to life.”
Marriott grew up in Intake and Wheatley Hills in Doncaster, studied history at Durham and international relations at Cambridge, and quickly rose through the ranks at Whitehall after joining the civil service.
Next Marriott moved to the Foreign Office, where she worked on nuclear non-proliferation before going to Iraq as a political advisor during the war.
Marriott, who was stationed in Al Amarah, Kabul and Baghdad, agrees that Iraq was a baptism of fire. “I didn’t get on an aeroplane until I was 23 – my only experience outside of Europe was a package holiday to Luxor in Egypt. I was in the south of Iraq, with the Shia Muslims, who were very excited that Saddam Hussain had gone. They were very pleased to see us and wanted to make their country better.”
Marriott – who was honoured with an OBE in 2004 for her work in Al Amara – accepts that the invasion was divisive, but says lessons were learned from the conflict. “I worry sometimes that we human beings proudly go around doing lots of lesson-learning, but then don’t necessarily remember it next time. I think with Iraq and Afghanistan we really did take the lessons on board, on everything from how you interact with local populations to how you fuse different government efforts.”
In Iran she was based in Tehran as chargé d’affaires and deputy ambassador, and from 2013 was the UK’s ambassador to Yemen. In both countries, she had to be bundled out because of fears for her safety.
The Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit, meanwhile, was launched in 2016, and Marriott was picked as its first director. The aim was to promote British practices abroad and gain better intelligence about terrorists’ capabilities. “I think it’s had mixed success,” she says. “The reality is that we are driven by budgets, quite rightly, and we are driven by responding to things in the shorter term. I was trying to do long-term counter-terrorist thinking. And it’s not always that popular. No-one really likes paying their insurance premiums. It was very hard work, and when there’s an operational tempo – we saw the terrorist attacks in the UK in 2017 – there’s a lot of different interests. I look back at it and there are definitely things I wish I’d been able to achieve or done differently.”
The curtain was pulled back on the world of diplomacy in an unprecedented way in July when secret cables sent by Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the US, were leaked to the Press. His views on President Donald Trump’s administration – that it was “dysfunctional” and “inept” – were laid bare, and Darroch resigned after Trump said America would “no longer deal with him”.
Marriott, 43, expressed support for Darroch on Twitter when the row broke out. “To be honest we all got a little bit nervous when the whole thing happened because we want to be able to safely send our very blunt opinions back into London so our advice can be listened to. That’s something we’re very keen to preserve. It’s at the heart of who we are and the integrity of the civil service – no matter who is in power, we can tell it like it is.
“Leaks happen, they’re not great and we’d all rather they didn’t, but they are a fact of life in a social media world. To my mind, a diplomat is someone who is sent abroad to be honest for their country. It’s a win-win situation, you’ll achieve more than if the other country thinks you’re trying to screw them over. For me the key qualities are around honesty, integrity, understanding the culture and leadership.”
Intelligence agencies ‘are the best in the world’
MI5, MI6 and their fellow UK intelligence agencies face a harder job than ever in preventing deadly terror attacks, says Jane Marriott.
The outgoing director of the Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit saw details of plots being planned by extremists, and knows the full scale of the problem.
“With plots, sometimes you get to see them early on, sometimes it’s when they’re quite well-developed – often it’s after the event,” she says.
“One of the things that is changing with social media and different sorts of encrypted communications is it’s easier for terrorists to talk to each other.
“Ten years ago they would have picked up their desk telephone. Our intelligence agencies, and I am biased, are the best in the world.”