Expert on international relations and the Middle East who was director of research at Chatham House, the policy institute.
Rosemary Hollis, who has died suddenly at the age of 68, was a Middle East and international relations expert and a high-profile media commentator. Her 35-year career spanned turbulent times in a region that was greatly – and often negatively – influenced by the two countries where she spent most of her working life, the US and Britain.
Her research, books, articles, lectures and seminars covered the UK withdrawal from “east of Suez”, the ever intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, the Gulf war of 1991 and the Iraq war of 2003, UK and EU foreign and defence policy, as well as focused studies of Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf states and Jordan.
Rosemary – known by many as Rosy – successfully bridged the gap between academia and the more practical side of the “thinktank” world. In both she had a reputation for being a generous mentor to her students as well as a supportive colleague, especially to women.
Journalists regularly sought her out to explain the ins-and-outs of Middle East politics and she was known for her “golden quotes”, appearing frequently on the BBC, Channel 4 and contributing to the Guardian. She was disciplined and not given to self-promotion.
Rosemary felt at home in the corridors of power and was a participant in off-the-record briefings in London, Washington and Brussels – as well as in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and Beirut. Even critics admired her skills as a networker and her ability to speak truth to power. “Rosy was a true Brit with feelings,” said a Jordanian diplomat. “The Middle East really needed her unbiased look.” A former Foreign Office minister praised her “unsparing analysis”.
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In 2013 she displayed her sophisticated understanding of complex realities when asked by the Commons foreign affairs committee to define UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “One thing I found was that you really could not talk about the national interest,” she replied. “There are lots of sectoral interests. What is in the interests of big oil or finance or the British armed forces, or indeed the British defence industry, is different from what may be in the interests of the politicians or the diplomats. Consequently, they are not all pulling in the same direction at the same time.”
Born in Dudley, West Midlands, and brought up in Stourbridge, Rosemary was the younger of two sisters. Her father, Ernest, owned a family business that ran local newspapers and a printing works. Her mother, Kathleen (nee Sharp), a teacher, came from Northumberland. Her father’s experience of the second world war – he was at Dunkirk and was later awarded a Military Cross – was a powerful influence.
Rosemary was married twice, to the journalist Michael Holland, from 1975 to 1983, and, briefly, to a Russian dissident called Dimitri in Washington in the mid-1980s. Both marriages ended in divorce.
After taking a history degree at King’s College London, Rosemary gained an MA in war studies – a lifelong interest. She then worked as a researcher for Saatchi & Saatchi but did not enjoy the advertising industry and was drawn back to academia. In the 1980s she took a PhD in politics at George Washington University in the American capital and taught politics and international relations there for several years.
On returning to the UK in 1990 she established the Middle East studies programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Notable achievements included the publication of a key article that warned of the possibility of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a few months before Saddam Hussein did exactly that.
In 1995 Rosemary moved to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. There too she ran the Middle East programme and chaired public events, with participants including Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president of Iran, and Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Under her decade-long leadership Chatham House acquired a reputation as the leading British institution for policy on the region. In addition she led high-level Track II (unofficial, non-governmental) diplomatic meetings, including often charged conversations about Iran, Libya and Syria – the latter during the hopeful but short-lived “Damascus Spring”, when Bashar al-Assad first came to power. Moderating tense and difficult sessions – “without bullshit”, as one acquaintance quipped – was her hallmark. She was able to challenge “any pompous old guy, minister or lord,” recalled another.
In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rosemary organised workshops with American counterparts, officials, the military and business experts. “In their reports they explored scenarios for ‘the day after’ an invasion, with warnings – conveyed in briefings to the UK government, including the prime minister, Tony Blair – that ‘the fallout would destabilise Iraq, the region and beyond,’” as the institute recorded.
From 2005 onwards she served as its director of research. Fellow members of the Chatham House team fondly remember evenings spent with visiting journalists and diplomats at a subterranean wine bar in St James’s.
Rosemary’s final post involved the hands-on application of her extensive expertise. While at Chatham House one of her landmark activities was convening a series of events addressing the regional dimensions of the situation of Palestinian refugees.
In 2008 she was appointed professor at City, University of London, running its Olive Tree programme, which awarded scholarships to exceptional Palestinian and Israeli students and provided safe and shared space for them to interact.
Importantly she set up a link in Northern Ireland with the poet Damian Gorman to introduce her students to the results of the Troubles to broaden their horizons and understanding. “If you can get enemies to learn from each other – not to agree – that can be valuable,” she reflected.
Alumni remembered her with affection and respect, especially Palestinians who encountered difficulties travelling from the occupied territories. “She was always a towering figure with her firm, direct and sometimes apparently brusque style, with no frills and no unnecessary compliments,” as one City colleague wrote.
Maintaining professional neutrality was important to her, but her sympathies towards the Palestinian side were increasingly obvious. Shortly before her death she joined the Balfour Project, which focuses on raising awareness of Britain’s past role as the Mandatory power as well as its current responsibilities.
The Olive Tree programme provided both the inspiration and the raw material for her last book, published in 2019, Surviving the Story: The Narrative Trap in Israel and Palestine. It was praised as combining “the sensibilities of a psychologist with those of the well-informed analyst of realpolitik”.
She is survived by her sister, Jacky.
• Rosemary Hollis, Middle East studies academic and commentator, born 27 March 1952; died 5 June 2020
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Full article and source here: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/14/rosemary-hollis-obituary