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News > Alumni Stories > Simon O'Donnell (OS: 2001-2008)

Simon O'Donnell (OS: 2001-2008)

Simon O'Donnell, the Embassy's Political Officer, has shared a story from his posting in Beirut.
23 Mar 2023
Alumni Stories
Simon (second from right) meeting the Druze of Mount Lebanon.
Simon (second from right) meeting the Druze of Mount Lebanon.

We were delighted to hear recently from Simon O'Donnell, who works for the Foreign Office and has shared a story from his posting in Beirut, where he is the Embassy's Political Officer.

As the massive explosion ripped through my flat, I realised something might not be quite right…

I found myself in Beirut on my first overseas posting with the Foreign Office, following three years in London, working on arms control, Brexit and learning Arabic (each with varying degrees of success!). Lebanon is a fascinating but deeply troubled country with four million citizens and over one million refugees from 18 different religious groups crammed into a country half the size of Wales. This sensitive demographic balance and Lebanon's difficult neighbourhood in the heart of the Middle East goes some way to explaining its bloody history of conflict, but Lebanon is also known for its beaches, mountains, incredible food and wine and general hedonism. As the Embassy's Political Officer, my job was to spend time with the warlords, playboy millionaires and celebrity politicians – and frequently people who were all three at once – and report back to London on what was really happening. All told, a dream first posting for a career in the Diplomatic Service…

Simon (above left) briefing the Ambassador as, in the background, HMS Enterprise delivers vital aid supplies after the 2020 Beirut explosion.


More recently, Lebanon has been in the news for the wrong reasons again; the 2019 revolution and an unprecedented socio-economic collapse have thrown the country into yet more turmoil, and the 2020 Beirut Port explosion destroyed half the city, including my flat. The response to the explosion, working 20 hours a day with nothing but the clothes I was wearing when I escaped my apartment, was intense and required extreme resilience. But, more than dodging the flying glass, the professional and personal experience of working in a country in such turmoil was deeply humbling.


Throughout my career, I have reflected on the experiences at school that helped form my character and equipped me to deal with the most challenging moments I've faced. I am grateful not just for the excellent education I got at SGS, but that I was encouraged to be curious about the world and the people in it. Most of all, my school experience underlined the fundamental importance of good sense and good humour for navigating even the most acute challenges.


Simon (third from left) being warmly welcomed by the Druze of Mount Lebanon. The Druze are an enigmatic minority religious community with an enduring affinity for the UK going back to the 1850s when the British armed the Druze to help counter French influence in the Ottoman Empire.


My job has its frustrations and difficult moments. But I would massively recommend it to any Sutts, or Old Sutts, reading this who are up for an adventure. On my first day my new boss promised me it wouldn't be boring – he was right.

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