English gent with an Arab heart: Nabil Najjar’s humanitarian passion

British-Jordanian is a Conservative Wiltshire councillor and Middle East consultant attached to the land his family left when his grandparents fled Palestine in 1948

Nabil Najjar in Wiltshire, where the international development consultant lives and serves as a Conservative Party councillor. Photo: Rob Greig
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If, as the proverb goes, clothes make the man, then Nabil Najjar – in blue and white Winchester shirt, navy suit, tweed shooting jacket and two-tone brogues – is your quintessential English country gentleman.

Home is an old-world cottage, all exposed timber beams and original 1860s fittings, in Wiltshire where the international development consultant lives and serves as a county councillor.

Scratch a bit deeper, however, and a more cosmopolitan past emerges.

Raised in London as the grandson of Christian refugees from Palestine, with a half-Swiss grandmother and a Jordanian father born in Libya, his assimilation into the bucolic Bourne Valley has been anything but straightforward.

“It took a while to settle,” Najjar tells The National. “For a long time, I didn’t know where home was. Now, I love it here.’’

A vivid reminder of how the family came to be in the UK is usually kept folded away but is currently out in a frame having been shown to a guest a couple of days ago.

It is an original poster recording the British Army's proclamation of martial law delivered in Jerusalem by Gen Sir Edmund Allenby in December 1917 after entering through Jaffa Gate on foot with Col TE Lawrence.

Written mainly in English and Arabic, the document assures inhabitants they need not be alarmed because the British recognised that the Holy City was regarded with “affection by three of the great religions of mankind”.

Given the family’s connection to the land, Najjar regards the yellowing rectangle of paper as an important bit of history to own.

“My father collects stamps and coins – Jordanian, trans-Jordanian, Palestinian – and it just came into his possession a number of years ago.

“That’s people who speak three languages functioning and living coherently together. It has been very different since,” he laments.

Najjar’s birth in England came as a direct result of the end of the British Mandate in 1948, and he traces much of the continuing military conflict back to western influence in the region.

His are not perhaps views expected of a young man whose political beliefs are aligned with the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, which he represents at a local level in Fovant and Chalke Valley.

He chooses his words carefully but denounces as unjustifiable "the scale of indiscriminate death and destruction" being wrought on civilians in Gaza.

“This is part of an 80-year cycle of violence and response," he says. "I think a lot of people form opinions on the subject without taking the time to really understand the history and the facts.

"There is a great amount of misinformation, not least this idea that there was nothing there before 1948.”

Source of inspiration

Three days after the creation of the state of Israel, his mother’s parents fled to the UK through Jordan. His father’s side eventually moved to the same destination via Jordan and Libya.

His maternal grandfather, Dr Albert Jamil Butros, was awarded a British Council Scholarship to England by the Jordanian Ministry of Education, and would go on to be an enduring source of inspiration to Najjar.

Dr Butros, a founder of the University of Jordan, acted as special adviser to the then Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal, served as Jordanian ambassador to the UK, Ireland and Iceland during the first Gulf War, and was a member of the Board of Governors of the International Development Research Centre.

Childhood obsession

Perhaps as a result of such a distinguished career, the young Nabil was obsessed as a child with the idea of becoming a British Member of Parliament in later life, eschewing medicine, much to the chagrin of his parents, in favour of history and politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“I’ve met a lot of smart people but my grandfather was the smartest one out of all of them,” Najjar says.

“I learnt more from him than I realised at the time. Sometimes even now if I have a problem, I think to myself, ‘Well, what would he have said to me?'’’

Ever mindful of his family’s displacement and their typical Arab appreciation of academic success, Najjar grew up with a strong desire to prove himself.

The grades achieved were strong at various fee-paying schools in London, where he was surrounded by people from around the globe, and the West Country, despite being the only child of ethnic minority.

“When I was younger, I was a lot less willing to embrace that side of who I am, and maybe that’s a subconscious part of trying to adapt or to integrate,” he says of his diverse ancestral roots.

“But as you get older, you think differently.”

It is telling that his first friend made during those early weeks of relocation was the son of a farmer who had fled Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe. They understood each other.

“He’s 6ft 2in and white but the narrative of losing what you had and ending up having to start again is as true for him as it is for me.

"Millions of people around the world in their own way have found themselves having to rethink who and where they are.”

Najjar wasn’t quite of such physical stature. A Chelsea FC fan who had formerly played football in the bustling metropolis, he made the transition to loose-head prop on muddy rugby pitches for Salisbury but, under-height and with little sign of pace, was resigned to never getting far.

His mother, Maysun, was not displeased when he switched from running out on winter afternoons in the pouring rain for stints of clay shooting and judo.

Summer holidays were often spent in his father’s office at a publishing house in London and Najjar soon began to feel the pull of the cottage not far outside Porton village on the return journey, reciting the names of the roads as they flashed by the car’s windows.

Sense of belonging

He might forgive the observation that he seems to have taken to his new habitat as effectively as the handful of Chinese water deer that escaped from Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford’s seat, many decades ago.

“There are now thousands of them living in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, those sorts of areas, totally wild," he says, by way of explaining the presence of a furry specimen hanging, stuffed and mounted, next to the antler trophies behind his desk.

"It’s the best meat you’re going to get: it’s healthy, it’s organic, it’s an animal that’s lived life the way it should and died without the stress of being driven off to slaughter.”

Najjar says the influence on his life from his father, Abed, particularly on his various hobbies and running his own business, was considerable.

But the nascent leanings towards politics and a desire to be of public service first led to work experience in the office of the local MP, John Glen, chief secretary to the Treasury until Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reshuffled his cabinet last week.

A year was then spent on Boris Johnson’s 2012 mayoral campaign, with Najjar also taking up the chairmanship of the Young Conservatives in London, and standing for election at the age of 21 in Fulham and Hammersmith where he had lived as a boy.

On moving back to Wiltshire, he co-founded Conservative Progress as a bridge between the parliamentary party and the grassroots, but turned his sights to also working outside the political bubble.

Beyond the politics

“If all you’ve ever seen is Westminster, you’re always going to be inward looking,” Najjar says.

“I think you have to go out – whether it’s serving in the Armed Forces or running a business or whatever it might be – and look at things from different perspectives.”

After a tricky period that he surmises might be penance for the arrogance of youth, Najjar undertook some work in Jordan for Prince Hassan and for a UN project.

“And that's when I started to clarify that there was a gap in the market there,” he says of setting up Delta Strategies.

“The delta is kind of the mouth of the river. It is where ideas meet, it's where things happen, it's where civilisations develop.”

The company became an international development consultancy that now works across seven countries in the Mena region with governments, UN agencies and some of the biggest NGOs.

Lessons in humility

He regularly encounters people from both ends of the spectrum – “prime ministers and presidents to people living in tents with nothing, and it makes you humble, but also adaptable”.

A visit to the Zaatari camp in Jordan, seeing people living on old mattresses juxtaposed with a smiley face spray-painted on a wall with the words “Don’t cry, be happy", was particularly affecting.

“I do a lot of work with refugee camps, and I think: ‘Well, had it not been for a little bit of fortune and my grandparents being pretty clever people, we could in theory be living there.’

“You realise that people have to make the best of whatever scenario they have, and that’s as relevant for somebody living in that environment as it is for somebody who's been born with everything.

"You have a duty to yourself and the people around you to try and make a success out of it.

“It's hard. I was in Egypt recently in a village about 40 miles north of Cairo with abject poverty: stray dogs and litter blocking up the sewerage system.

"But the people are friendly and they're happy and they can't do enough for you. You can't not be inspired … and want to try and do something to help because somebody has to.”

World to ward

After winning the ward of Fovant and Chalke Valley in May 2021, Najjar was given the arts, heritage and tourism portfolio, allowing him to bring experiences from consultancy projects around the world to what is happening in Wiltshire.

He has ambitions of creating a cultural offering that attracts people to spend time in the area as opposed to just stopping off for a look at Stonehenge or Salisbury Cathedral on their way to Dorset or Devon.

Six months after his election, he was shocked and angered by the death of Sir David Amess, the MP for Southend West, who was murdered by Ali Harbi Ali at his constituency meeting in a church hall.

The assassination, Najjar believes, should serve as a wake-up call that everything must be done to protect those who dedicate their lives to public service.

“The idea that somebody will, in cold blood, stab you for no apparent reason other than that you are an elected representative …” he says, trailing off as though at a loss for an explanation.

In harm's way

Thoughtful for a moment, he mentions the fate of his great uncle, Munir, a retiree visiting family in Toronto who was killed by Alek Minassian along with 10 other people in 2018 in Canada’s deadliest vehicle-ramming attack.

“I lost a family member to an act of indiscriminate terrorism. I know that it can happen to anybody when you're not expecting it. These things can find you anywhere.”

Those who know Najjar well would say that such a threat could not dissuade him from his yearning to represent a constituency in the House of Commons as a chance to make the country where he grew up a better place to live, work and raise a family.

“I don't think it can,” he says. “There's the speech that politicians give after every terrorist attack, every school shooting, every disaster, which is that these things will not deter us, they will not break us.

"It's the idea that if you let the fear of the hypothetical stop you doing something, you're never going to do anything.”

Peace and quiet

When not at work, Najjar admits he needs to always be busy to fend off boredom. He is comfortable in his own company, especially while out in nature, running or walking with his German shepherd Troy, or mindfully stalking the next set of antlers for his walls.

“When you’re shooting, it’s just you and whatever you’re chasing, and silence. That’s a beautiful way of finding clarity sometimes.”

Even so, he can’t help pushing boundaries and satisfying his curious mind by reading in his spare time for a master's in public administration with a focus on international development.

One day, the Foreign Office is his dream job. “When you work internationally, you see there is much more to the world than a lot of people think, and there's also external pressures that many don't realise. But every element of government is critical.

“None of us knows what the future has in store but I have hopes.

"If I can make a meaningful impact on communities and people’s lives, and I can go to bed thinking I’ve achieved something worthwhile, then I’m happy.”

Updated: November 23, 2023, 6:43 AM