U.S. Ambassador to Qatar: Who Is Dana Shell Smith?

Monday, June 30, 2014

On May 1, 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Dana Shell Smith to be the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar. If confirmed, it will be the first ambassadorial posting for the career Foreign Service officer.

 

Shell Smith joined the State Department at age 21, right after graduating from University of California San Diego with a degree in political science and Middle East studies in 1992. She was first assigned to the United States Information Agency (now the Bureau of International Information Programs). In 1993, Shell Smith went to Cairo to study Arabic at the American University there. She remained in Egypt, serving as the cultural affairs officer in the embassy there until 1996.

 

That year, Shell Smith was reassigned to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. While in there, she met the man who would become her husband, Diplomatic Security Service officer Ray Smith. In 1999, Shell Smith was moved to Jordan, where she was the spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Amman.

 

In 2003, Shell Smith had her first posting outside the Middle East when she was assigned to be public affairs officer at the American Institute in Taiwan. The Institute serves as a de facto embassy in the nation with which the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations.

Shell Smith returned to Washington in 2006 to serve as the senior advisor to the director general of the Foreign Service. In 2009, she returned to the Middle East to work at the State Department media liaison office in Dubai. She was the designated representative to appear on Arab news programs to explain the U.S. position on various issues.

 

The year 2010 brought a return to Washington, first as deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs, establishing an office of international social media engagement, pioneering the State Department’s use of Twitter in Arabic, then in May 2011 as principal deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs.

 

Shell Smith raised some eyebrows outside the diplomatic world in 2012 when she wrote an article in The Atlantic that was a response to an earlier piece about life in government service entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In Shell Smith’s response, “How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children,” she wrote that while she did make some sacrifices, she was in general able to balance a career with progressively more responsibility with raising her two sons. Predictably, Shell Smith drew a mixed response from the article, both from inside the Foreign Service and among the general public.

 

Shell Smith stirred more controversy with a response to another article written by colleagues. In 2013, Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post decrying what she and her two co-authors perceived as a breakdown in the Foreign Service system in favor of political appointees and regular civil service employees. Shell Smith and another Foreign Service officer circulated a letter expressing disagreement with the op-ed. In response, 11 former AFSA presidents asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to approve Shell Smith’s nomination. However, the committee approved her appointment and sent it to the full Senate for consideration on June 24.

 

In addition to Arabic, Shell Smith speaks Spanish, Hebrew and Chinese. Her husband, Ray Smith, is an agent with the Diplomatic Security Service.

-Steve Straehley

 

To Learn More:

Official Biography

Why is the State Department Tweeting in Arabic? A Conversation with Dana Shell Smith (by Jillian C. York)

Testimony Before Senate Foreign Relations Committee (pdf)

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