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From Syria chemical weapons deals to Dutch coalition bargaining, Sigrid Kaag’s diplomatic skills bear fruit

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When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte secured a fourth consecutive term in office in March, the D66 party led by Sigrid Kaag was also a winner on election night.

Ms Kaag’s liberal, pro-European D66 party is positioned as the gatekeeper of the next coalition deal to form a new government after winning a sharp increase in votes. What she now is hoping to avoid is negotiations that drag on for more that 200 days, as was the case in 2017 when the last Cabinet was formed.

With a background in UN diplomacy, Ms Kaag has already served as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Co-operation.

Torturous talks are nothing new for a woman who led the international mission to destroy the chemical weapons in Syria almost a decade ago. From Damascus, the Dutchwoman supervised a team of 100 experts while remaining at the core of talks between the US and Russia on her mission.

Ms Kaag has said mediation efforts between the centre-right and left parties to form a new Dutch government is making slow but painful progress.

“The convergence is greater than the differences people are now focusing on,” she said this month.

Journey through the Middle East

Her diplomatic career began as the deputy head of the UN Political Affairs Department within the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990.

Three years later, she secretly married the then-deputy PLO minister Anis Al Qaq in Jerusalem, which led to her dismissal from the diplomatic position.

In 1994, she commenced her career at the UN, which would last until 2017. She worked in a number of leading posts within agencies in the Middle East, including senior programme manager for the external relations office of the Unrwa in Jerusalem in 1994, regional director for Mena for Unicef in Amman in 2007 and the special co-ordinator for Lebanon in 2014.

As an Arabic speaker who is married to a Palestinian, she has been perceived as someone who understands Arabs well and empathises with their culture.

From Jerusalem to Amman, from Damascus to Beirut, Ms Kaag found herself at the negotiation table with decision-makers and state leaders, and familiarised herself with the nuances and power dynamics within the region, from high society to refugee camps.

Sigrid Kaag was previously a senior official for the United Nations in Africa and the Middle East. Getty.
Sigrid Kaag was previously a senior official for the United Nations in Africa and the Middle East. Getty.

Hearing her talk about the economic situation in Lebanon at the World Economic Form in 2020, where she confronted the then-minister of foreign affairs and immigrants Gebran Bassil, was to witness the confidence and vigour with which she often speaks about the region.

Forever attempting to integrate

In 2017, she returned to Dutch politics as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Co-operation. At the time, Ms Kaag was far less known in the Hague than in Amman or Beirut.

Her long professional career abroad is a double-edged sword for her reputation in her homeland: while some see her as a seasoned politician with international experience, to others she is an elitist who represents Brussels and Davos more than the Netherlands.

Ms Kaag’s many years abroad and her marriage to a Palestinian also put her knowledge of Dutch politics and her political motivations under scrutiny.

In 2018, for instance, she was criticised by radical right parties that accused her of “treason” and “subjugation” because she wore a headscarf on a visit to Iran, which she did in compliance with local rules. Two years later, when she announced her plan to run for the prime minister’s office, Geert Wilders, the leader of populist, right-wing Party of Freedom tweeted: “No Arafat-Islam-terror-lover as prime minister.”

Still, she quickly made a name for herself and rose within the ranks Dutch politics. Driven by a desire to respond to populism, she ran in the 2021 Dutch general election just four years after relaunching her career in the Hague.

Ms Kaag passed with flying colours. She succeeded in drawing the second largest number of votes, hence seats, in the Dutch Parliament – the image of her dancing on a table when the first exit polls came in is one that will endure.

This win paved the way for her to potential to become the first female vice-president of the country.

A dividing yet uniting figure

Despite the charges of elitism, Ms Kaag does not come from a privileged background. Her father was a musician and her mother a schoolteacher.

Aged 13, she was placed in foster care for six months when neither of her parents were healthy enough to take care of her and her older sister.

In the mid-1980s, she moved to Cairo to major in Middle Eastern studies at the American University and, after graduating, enrolled at the University of Oxford to graduate in international relations.

For the populists in the Netherlands, however, Ms Kaag is the epitome of what they refer to as the “globalist elite” and their politics.

Her name is associated with international institutions such as the UN, the EU and the World Economic Forum, which are deeply distrusted by those supporting parties on the radical right.

Regardless, her win at the election gave her party the platform to form a coalition and create the new government.

As the head of a centre party, she is trying to bring the centre-right VVD and the Christian Democratic Appeal) together with the Green Left and Labour Party. However, parties on the right and the left are resisting, creating a deadlock for the coalition process.

Ms Kaag, who is no stranger to being at the negotiation table – be it between sovereign states, political parties or international organisations – is calling for all Dutch parties to unite.

How her rise to power will change Dutch politics is yet to be seen after a government is created. But she remains ambitious to become prime minister one day, a role that has not been assumed by a woman in Dutch history – yet.

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