The Dutchwoman named Wednesday to head the vast operation to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal is a brilliant organiser and lover of the Middle East set to embark on her most dangerous mission yet.
Sigrid Kaag’s life will change radically when she moves from UN headquarters in New York to strife-torn Damascus, leaving her Palestinian diplomat husband and their four children behind, to head the unprecedented disarmament mission in a country at war.
With high-level contacts from UN headquarters in New York to Arab leaders and the cultural experience necessary to get the job done, fluent Arabic-speaker Kaag, 52, was chosen for the skills she has honed over almost 20 years in various UN bodies.
Currently UN Assistant Secretary-General within the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Kaag is to head a team of around 100 people, including UN workers and a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in Damascus and Cyprus.
A former colleague in The Hague who asked not to be named told AFP that Kaag, who also speaks Dutch, English, French and German, is “exceedingly professional and well prepared.”
“She has proved in a number of functions that she’s a leader and a modern manager,” the former colleague said: “She is not an authoritarian person.”
“They were looking for somebody well versed in laying political contacts and making sure the mission is expertly managed, with neighbouring countries as well as the UN Security Council,” the former colleague said.
She has experience of Syria, having worked for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Jerusalem, which looks after the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories as well as Syria.
Kaag worked in the Dutch foreign ministry’s UN Political Affairs Department in The Hague, before entering the UN system in 1994. She also has private sector experience, having worked for two years as analyst for Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell in London.
Dutch newspaper AD reported that Kaag had met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma at least once, in 2008, when she worked for UNICEF.
She went to school in Zeist, in the central Netherlands, and left to do Middle Eastern studies in Cairo, according to Dutch press reports.
Since then she has lived in glamorous cities such as Beirut, New York, London and Vienna, but also dustier destinations from Khartoum to Amman.
She holds two masters in international relations, from Exeter and Oxford universities in Britain, according to the UNDP website.
When Kaag talks to the press she would rather discuss her work than herself, but past interviews shed light on her typically Dutch ideals.
“I think that everyone has to make a contribution to peace and security,” Kaag was quoted as saying by Dutch media.
“Be bent on it. Make sure that you get experience. Travel. Do your bit. There are so many ways to have an important role. If it doesn’t work the first time, do it again,” she said.
In an interview with a Jordanian website in 2010, she discussed her husband, Anis al-Qaq, a former Palestinian ambassador to Switzerland, their two daughters Jana and Inas and sons Makram and Adam.
“My husband Anis, whom I met while working in Palestine and who was working at the time as a shadow minister, plays a pivotal role in keeping our family together,” she explained.
“I like my work environment to be organised and systematic and I look forward to seeing my home in order as well,” she said.
In the interview, she listed her interests as hiking, skiing, yoga, music and “taking lessons”.