‘To Pick Up The Torch’: In Conversation with Emma Sky, OBE

Molly Bolding 12 March 2019
Image Credit: Chatham House

Emma Sky OBE is a British academic and vocational expert on all things Middle Eastern, having worked in Iraq in a variety of capacities for Western governments between 2003 and 2010. She worked directly as General Odierno’s political adviser in the region, and later as Governorate Coordinator in Kirkuk. She is now Director of the Yale University World Fellows program and a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. I was fortunate enough to meet Ms Sky after her talk at the MENAF and Yale Arab Students Association Evening. We corresponded later by email, and I asked her about her life and work.

Firstly, I wondered why Ms Sky is the attraction of small audience/campus events like the MENAF talk? What is the draw of speaking to students?

“I was actually impressed by how large the audience was at Cambridge – particularly as food and alcohol were not on offer!” She noted this with an amused tone, before going on, “it is privilege to have the opportunity to spend time with Cambridge students, to share ideas, to listen to your concerns. You are the future. And you are the hope for the future. And I am fortunate to spend time with you, to possibly influence your ideas and hopefully to inspire you as you contemplate what you might do with your careers.”

Next I asked how Ms Sky sees the issues that you spoke about at the event – women in the Middle East, cyclical Arab world politics, civil and militia war – as relevant to the UK student population of today, and I was curious to see if she thought these events were motivating student political affectations in any way.

“In the UK, we are fortunate to have strong institutions that enable us to coexist and compete against each other non-violently. We should never take that for granted. In the Middle East, we see what happens when states fail, politicians are corrupt, and regimes collapse. But we all live in a world which is changing rapidly. The information era has diffused power and made it harder to govern. Students should explore how the system of governance in the UK needs to adapt to meet the challenges – and how the international system needs to reform to reflect the changes in power at the global level.”

In the wake of the recent Brexit vote and other world-changing events of the last few years – Trump to name another – I asked what the most curious or intriguing thing was about the situation in her opinion. With all of her experience in the Middle East, I was also interested whether this may have given Ms Sky a unique perspective on the recent negotiations. From interviews with other foreign officials such as the Lebanese Ambassador and several American legal experts, all seem to take a cautious but optimistic view on it.

Ms Sky’s response was blunt and strong. “I voted remain. I felt very strongly that the outcome of two world wars was the achievement of the European Union – an agreement that has kept peace in Europe for decades. At the moment we live in endless Brexit purgatory – and this is taking up all the energy and bandwidth. We should be addressing the legitimate concerns about inequality, economic stagnation, unchecked immigration. If we take a longer term view, then this shock to the establishment may serve to shake things up for the better. It may push political parties to reform so that they better represent their constituents. It may bring about policies that address the growing inequalities. It may encourage more people to become involved in their communities and in politics.”

Finally, I returned the origin of her talk Рher latest book, In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt. What is the key message of her latest book? What was she aiming for people to take away from it?


She elaborated on this short but philosophical idea. “The future is not pre-ordained. Young people need to be fearless and adventurous – to pick up the torch and push forward with making our world more peaceful and just for everyone.”

Check out Ms Sky’s book In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt¬†here and in all good bookstores!