Few would imagine that the small Middle Eastern country of Lebanon, blighted by civil unrest for much of the past three decades, would have such a ritzy London address for its ambassador. Located on embassy row, the palazzo faces the French delegation, and is only a stone’s throw from the gardens of Kensington Palace, the residence of Prince William and family, as its chic ambassador Inaam Osseiran points out over Turkish coffee.
Purchased in the 1950s on a 100-year lease when Lebanon was living its golden years, the grand white stucco building and garden have suffered a bit since then but Osseiran, its current and long-standing carer (she has been here since 2007), is keeping standards up. In fact, when monocle visits the ambassador, she is plotting renovations in her large office.
Of course, interior decoration is only a side responsibility for the diplomat. As she explains with the Lebanese news unravelling on the television screen in the background, Lebanon is busy these days trying to maintain peace on its borders and within its frontiers, making security an important topic at the embassy.
“Bilateral issues are always multi-lateral issues with a country like Lebanon,” explains Osseiran. That means she needs to keep a close eye on the wider region. She also reports back on visits to London by high-ranking politicians, such as France’s president or Russia’s foreign minister, whose countries both hold sway in the Middle East.
With postings at the UN, Paris, Milan and Bern behind her, Osseiran admits she likes the UK for its cosmopolitanism. “If I had to compare, I would say London is a bit like being at the UN in that you deal with issues from across the world.”
The Arab world’s rollercoaster politics could have hardened Osseiran, who was the only woman in her diplomacy classes back in the early 1980s, but with her skilful injection of soft power she has been an important asset. Culinary diplomacy plays a part, with the embassy cook – who learned her tricks from Osseiran – charged with showcasing a plethora of refined Lebanese dishes. Whether it’s fellow diplomats, members of a Lebanese charity or high-powered City bankers, they all fall for the ambassador’s approach to the turpitudes of the Middle East.
Embassy of Lebanon in London
The embassy: Home to the ambassador’s family. The interior is a mix of classic French furniture with the ambassador’s own touches, such as a painting of cedar trees picked up at Camden market. The chancellery is housed in two large mews buildings at the back of the embassy.
The staff: The delegation covers the UK and Ireland and has three diplomats working with the ambassador.
The challenges: With a limited budget, the delegation has to be resourceful to ensure Lebanon gets its voice heard at economic or cultural events in the UK.
For decades, Manhattan residents have dreaded the arrival of late September and the armoured caravan of motorcades that clog up traffic as heads of government arrive in New York for the UN General Assembly. In recent years, the jams have started even earlier as celebrities and politicians arrive the weekend before for Bill Clinton’s annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting.
Clinton’s high-class chinwag now threatens to overshadow the main show, this year lasting until Thursday, long after the UN speeches have got underway. US president Barack Obama is among those speaking at both.
Experience is crucial but young diplomats learn fast, especially this month, when around 100 of them from more than 60 countries will meet in Ankara at the first annual Young Diplomats Forum.
What the US wouldn’t do for an embassy in Lebanon like Lebanon’s in London (left). The State Department has decided that its current home in Beirut is too dangerous. Six firms, all American, are in the running to build a new embassy, including architectural big shots Rafael Vinoly and Steven Holl.
The State Department still needs to decide where the new embassy will be situated. The eastern suburb of Baabda, where the US bought a huge tract of land some years ago, is now seen as too close to a Hezbollah stronghold for comfort. One thing that is not in doubt: the new embassy will prioritise security over design aesthetic.