Ship ahoy!, 5.5.06

As the first ethnic minority Royal Naval officer to become Rear Admiral, Pakistani-born Amjad Hussain is now the highest-ranking, non-white officer among the British armed forces.

Hussain’s appointment as the first Asian admiral in 400 years of Royal Naval history has undoubtedly made him a symbol of multiculturalism.

Like many of his generation, the 47-year-old’s achievement is rooted in his immigrant background. In 1963, aged only five, his family travelled from Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan to England “in search of better opportunities.” Little did he know that 40 years on, he would be one of a band of elite naval officers in Her Majesty’s navy.

“My father and uncle were in the Pakistan army with another uncle in the air force, so there was a bit of family history with the forces. But no one had been in the navy,” he says.

While his peers drifted into business, law and medicine, Hussain decided he would join the navy and did so in 1977. “Like a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds, I didn’t want a career that involved catching the same train to Waterloo every morning. I wanted adventure and excitement and the navy or the forces seemed to be a place where I could do lots of sports.”

A warm, intelligent character with a well-spoken voice, Hussain is a far cry from the strict personality you’d expect from a senior officer. But herein lies his appeal, and perhaps one of the reasons behind his success. “I count myself very lucky to live in a country where the opportunities have been beyond my imagination,” says the father-of-three, who lives with his English wife Wendy in Hertfordshire.

Hussain, a Muslim, first made headlines in 1989 when he showed Diana, the princess of Wales around his frigate, HMS Cornwall, and later escorted the Queen on the Antarctic patrol vessel HMS Endurance as she reviewed the fleet off the south English coast in June last year.

During his distinguished career, his operational jobs have included inspecting trawler nets, training frigate teams, working as a weapons engineer officer on HMS Invincible in the Gulf and in the heart of British bureaucracy as a strategic defence equipment planner. For the past three years, until December 2005, Hussain was Naval Base Commander Portsmouth.

“I effectively had more than 3,500 people working directly and indirectly for me. It was like running a small town with everything from our own medical services to GCSE courses and some of the UK’s largest industrial facilities. A hefty responsibility to shoulder,” but one he says was “enormously fun”.

Like the army, air force and police, Hussain realises the navy is still struggling to boost numbers of ethnic minority recruits and tackle problems like racism despite a policy of zero tolerance. But this has not stopped him from cheering the institution’s commitment to equal opportunities.

Hussain admits he has often faced the “odd stupid bout of (racist) name-calling’ but that was “more in the early days”. Fortunately, he claims it “never affected” him or “made any difference to my job. When people got to know me, all preconceptions disappeared.”

In a climate of political correctness, Hussain debates any allegations that his promotion is due to his ethnic origin. “I really hope that isn’t what has happened and the best judges of that would be my contemporaries. But the system in all three services is a very fair one.

“I’ve sat on in promotion boards and it’s a time consuming effort. We read through reports and evidence going back many years and build up a strong profile of a person. There is no political angle to it. It’s done purely on merit.”

While genuinely embarrassed about the media attention, Hussain acknowledges the social responsibility that accompanies it. Particularly when it comes to inspiring young Asians. “Do I want to be singled out as a role model? No. I’m just an ordinary chap getting on with my work.

“I’ve shied away from publicity but then there’s the other half of me saying well how else do we get the message across? We are like every other organisation in the country. We want talented young people to join and we need to reach out to them to get them.

“If some kid or parent sees me and thinks the organisation is palpably fair, then they may not exclude it as a career option.”

Although Hussain says he has noticed a slight increase in the numbers of new ethnic minority recruits joining the navy, it is still not enough. “When I joined I didn’t see any other Asian besides myself, but that’s slowly changing. We have been going out to schools and targeting youngsters and parents in areas where there are a higher percentage of ethnic minority families. We are trying really hard but not meeting out targets, which are roughly three per cent of new entrants, rising to five per cent.”

Hussain understands the pressure for Asian youngsters to opt for conventional, well-paid careers, and even admits his own mother wanted him to be a doctor. However he believes preconceptions about the navy need to change in line with the times.

“The navy isn’t the 1950s type you see on television. It is a disciplined force but there is a sense of enjoyment about the place. Plus there are an enormous variety of jobs within the navy. One can be in submarines, on an aircraft squadron or in surface ships like I was. I was in surface ships and typically, a frigate has 200 or so people on board and you live in close proximity. So the sort of people we have are the type that are easy going and get on with others.”

When it comes to entry qualifications it is not only high academic achievers who are admitted. “You might think youngsters who don’t do terribly well at school may not do well in the forces, but having joined the navy at junior level they get excited by it and start to do very well. One third of our officers join as sailors. Not many companies can boast of one third of their management coming from the shop floor,” says Hussain .

Life at sea may sound appealing but it isn’t necessarily for everyone, as Hussain describes. “Of course, travel is a huge part of navy life and you can end up being six months away. That sounds like a long time but you often get to stop over somewhere every week or so and see different ports and countries. The navy is ideal for kids who like being part of an organisation that values every member of the team. We sometimes end up working under crisis situations and at that time you don’t need one member or part of your team to break up.”

For those attracted to a career in the navy, Hussain has a few words of advice. “Look at it carefully as well other career options. Talk to people who are in the navy. If you want more than just a nine to five job involving travel, excitement and variety, then it’s a career worth considering.”

Currently posted at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London, Hussain runs a strategic studies course where prominent military and political figures such as Pakistan’s President Musharraf and King Hussein of Jordan have been former students.

Almost at the peak of his career, the secret of his success is simple. “I’ve found something that excites me and that I enjoy. I’m not a person who accepts the status quo. I’m quite driven to achieve success and that will to win has probably come through. If ever there was affirmation that the navy does treat people well and is interested in what they do, rather than where they are from, then I’m probably pretty good evidence of it.”