In this interview, Dr. Saba Sattar (’22) shares about her international travel, her work as an Asia Pacific analyst, and her studies in IWP’s M.A. and doctoral programs.
Below is a transcript of this interview:
Katie: Hello and welcome to another episode of the IWP files, the Alumni Spotlight series, where we delve into the successes, the challenges, the advice, and the lessons learned from a national security graduate’s perspective. My name is Katie Bridges.
Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Saba Sattar, one of the first graduates of our Doctor of Statecraft and National Security program in 2022. Saba, it’s great to talk to you today.
So, Saba, you are originally from the Indian subcontinent, is that correct?
Saba: Yes, I spent the better half of my formative years in Bangladesh, and my family traveled quite extensively, and our family is now spanning across three different countries and two continents across the world.
Katie: Oh my goodness. Well, I was going to ask how you got interested in international affairs, but I’m guessing perhaps all of this travel led to that?
Saba: It certainly has. It’s also because of all of the wonderful instructors I’ve had since high school. Being introduced to the subject matter made me appreciate the different cultures and distinct societies that we have and that we continue to work with.
Katie: And I understand that you were the valedictorian at your high school, which is really cool. So skipping ahead, I know that you are currently working as an Asia and Pacific Analyst with Crisis 24, which for any listeners who are not familiar, is a leading risk management, crisis response, consulting, and global protective solutions firm. So, Saba, I’d love to hear just what a “day in the life” is like at work.
Saba: Absolutely, a typical day at work usually differs. I work as an open-source Asia and Pacific Security Analyst for Crisis 24. Crisis 24 was recently acquired by the world’s largest private security company in 2020, and I joined the company in April of last year. An IWP faculty member also happens to be one of the board of directors of my parent company, which is fantastic.
Now as a primary representative of the Asia and Pacific team in the Western Hemisphere, I am typically tasked with monitoring and analyzing real-time developments, as well as tracking long-term trends that can pose a threat to business operators and other clients. In the critical infrastructure sector, I also examine potential issues at the tactical and strategic levels while coordinating any developments that may match the company’s severity thresholds with the ops department. These analytical pieces are produced in various comprehensive forms, and it helps to mitigate risks, and typically go up to folks at the C-Suite level.
Katie: That’s really interesting. So, what is it like? Are you usually meeting with clients, or are you at your desk doing research? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? I know you said that it’s different every day.
Saba: It’s all of the above. So if there is a special briefing that is requested, it will happen on an add-hoc basis. You usually get a bit of time to prepare for that, but on a day-to-day basis, there’s a lot of real-time research and analytical work that’s being spearheaded, and like I said, depending on how meetings accompany special requirements, we’ll look to mitigate those disruptions. Like I said, real time. So, it’s very time-sensitive work and requires a lot of attention to detail.
Katie: That’s very interesting. And I see that you earned the highest tactical intelligence alert output rate on your team, so congratulations.
Saba: Yes, that is based on our Annapolis office. On a day-to-day basis, I actually coordinate with folks from four different locations across the world, that is, Singapore, the U.K., Cape Town, and the Annapolis office, which is where I am based out of.
Katie: That’s really neat. So your team is very international.
Katie: So tell me about your journey to arrive in this position, professionally. How did you get here?
Saba: Well, it’s certainly been a long journey. It goes back to the time I began the M.A. program here at IWP. The practical component of the curriculum is really what has enabled me to create a foundational basis for examining geopolitical issues to an empirical one. I’ve learned a great deal from our faculty members as well as the student community with real-life anecdotes and through seminar-style discussions in a smaller-sized classroom. It has also helped me to create a sense of appreciation for new career opportunities that I never really knew about. Then the doctoral program is really what reinforced these interests and enabled me to establish actual subject matter expertise in the Indo-Pacific. I was granted a great deal of academic freedom, where I was able to focus on specific areas of concern and in some cases develop my own courses with the instructor when a specific class was not offered. The academic freedom has also helped me quite a bit in sort of translating and articulating complex geopolitical issues to non-technical audiences. It has made the overall transition into the workforce much easier.
Katie: So how did you choose to go to grad school if that is where this journey started?
Saba: Well, it was completely unexpected with how I was introduced to the IWP graduate school programs. It was through an IWP alum who was an academic mentor back at George Mason where I did my undergrad. Basically, what had happened was, I was pursuing a minor in intel, and my professor had requested me to attend a career seminar where I would receive extra credit for an assignment. So I went to the career seminar/fair and I met with some representatives from school, and they introduced the concept of scholar-practitioners and all of that neat stuff –which other schools did not provide. So it was an intriguing step forward for me and has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Katie: I’m so glad it worked so well! I know that you have other professional experience as well, before grad school. Has that been helpful to you in your current role and setting you up for success?
Saba: Absolutely! A lot of the work that you undertake, however unrelated it may be to the field you want to specialize in long-term, can be translated in a different work setting. So being able to be a good team player and to understand circumstances that might be beyond your control or mitigating stoke pipe-related challenges across multiple time zones. All of that can sort of help you become a more mature person and to be able to tackle things later on as you’re thinking on your own two feet and so forth.
Katie: And I know that in addition to your current job, you’re also doing a lot of different writing for various outlets and journals. Are you continuing that, even after graduation?
Saba: Yes, so I’m working with multiple different print outlets, including think tanks, prestigious news media outlets, and potentially a book publishing outlet as well. I’d like to see the three-hundred page monographs that I worked on during the doctoral program to be published into mini books.
Katie: I’d love to hear more about the three big papers. For anyone who is not familiar, our Doctor in Statecraft and National Security requires, instead of one big dissertation, it requires three also lengthy papers, but they are not as long as a dissertation. So it gives our professional doctoral students an opportunity to focus on either different areas entirely or different aspects of the same issue. So Saba I would love to hear what you focused yours on.
Saba: Absolutely. I worked on three interrelated topics about how the U.S. could potentially use India as a strategic counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific, and each of these papers looks at different issues at hand, and they employ a whole of government and integrated approach in tackling this new essential cold war that are undergoing.
Katie: That’s interesting. Well, I hope that you are able to get published. I would love to read that. What was it like to do the doctoral program right after graduating from the M.A. program?
Saba: It was exciting and overwhelming all at the same time. I didn’t expect to dive right into the doctoral program after obtaining my M.A. degree. But, because it was so new, I had this vision to be a part of the first graduating class and to grow simultaneously with the program.
Katie: And you were! Congratulations, that’s amazing.
Saba: Thank you. It was because of the help of the entire community. Honestly, we all worked together, and whatever hurdle that came our way, we worked through it. So, it was wonderful.
Katie: That’s great. So on a day-to-day basis, do you use anything that you learned at IWP at work?
Saba: I sure do! The research I conducted over the span of three years of the Doctoral program essentially serves as the bedrock of the work I am currently undertaking. It’s been instrumental in tackling special projects with my regional team, and it actually makes a tangible operational level difference for top-level businesses and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific.
Katie: That’s awesome. What do you feel like is the biggest impact you’ve made so far at work? (As much as you can share.)
Saba: As much as I can share – There is a critical infrastructure company that is seeking to expand its operations into a very sensitive part of the Indo-Pacific, and I have to essentially run a scenario analysis for this company and brief them on what the security implications would be there.
Katie: That’s really interesting. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into your career path?
Saba: I would recommend a couple of things. First, you can’t walk into this career path thinking other people will potentially approach the same issue based on your real-world experiences. We can’t be ethnocentric. It’s all about maintaining a balancing act. We’re prone to work with folks from all walks of life, and it’s important for us to productively balance differing opinions and approaches.
The second advice that I would recommend is to be enthusiastic and to clearly demonstrate your eagerness to learn. I strongly believe that these two traits are helpful when you’re doing a job interview or networking. It’s certainly what helped me land my current gig. It was recommended to me by a highly accomplished and humble female mentor from IWP.
Katie: Thats wonderful. For any new students joining the school, how can they make the most of their IWP education?
Saba: My first advice would be, don’t be shy. IWP is a very special community. People are here from all walks of life and are service-oriented. They are here to help you and provide unconditional support, and it’s the ideal time to learn what interests you. It also provides excellent networking opportunities. After all, we have designated scholar-practitioners who are at the top of this field and want to see their students succeed.
Katie: That’s awesome. And is there anything you are doing differently at work as a result of your education? I know that it’s given you a lot of background knowledge and everything.
Saba: I think the background knowledge that I acquired during my time at IWP was so practical. I look at the world for what it is, as opposed to conducting a normative assessment and looking at it for what it should be like, because it’s important to understand that every society is different. What people want for, let’s say, Afghanistan or Iraq, or for any other country for that matter, does not work. It’s through mutual interests, and through good values that we are able to create better partnerships and to make it a sustainable working relationship. So, I think that it has helped me to spearhead a lot of publications as a result and to be taken more seriously at work and so forth.
Katie: Saba, did you use IWP career services when you were studying at the Institute?
Saba: I sure did, and it’s because of Mr. Derick Dortch that I am essentially able to think on my own two feet.
Let me give you an example that really stands out. During the height of the pandemic, I started looking for a full-time job, having to navigate through multiple hurdles while I was enrolled in the doctoral program. It was probably one of the worst times that you could look for work, so I reached out to Mr. Dortch. He’s someone who employs multiple strategies, with several pieces that move in the background.
While I was searching for jobs in the field that had more time-consuming applications, I reached out to a placement agency to find a temporary gig. I was sort of demotivated at the time and didn’t think it was possible for me to find something so quickly. So when the time came, I didn’t know how to leave that temporary gig that I had just signed up for, and Mr. Dorch’s advice to me was to give a three-week notice but to also suggest possible replacement candidates.
His advice worked out perfectly, an IWP student at the time was searching for a temp remote gig, and he ended up replacing me. I had trained him for a few days that overlapped together, and it helped to establish a good working relationship with the placement agency, the non-profit that we had worked for, and the best part out of all of this is the fact that one of my friends got a new job out of it.
Katie: That’s great Saba, I’m so glad it worked out. So Saba, given that you are looking at the Indo-Pacific region all of the time, tell us where you think our relations with the countries in this region are going in the future.
Saba: Well as the newly designated priority theatre, we’re seeing a lot more high-level diplomatic visits to the region. We’re seeing more of the tit-for-tat geopolitical campaign between the U.S. and China as each state is vying for more influence for each country. They are attempting to advance their own respective geostrategic agendas.
Just last week, the Secretary of State went to Tonga, a very remote Pacific island country that has about 100,000 people, and then he went to New Zealand and Australia. This was in tandem to Lloyd Austin’s visit to Papua New Guinea, where the U.S. has secured a bilateral security deal. It was a historic accomplishment, and he also visited Australia to spearhead a lot of different discussions, including talking about the AUKUS deal.
Now, while all of these high-level engagements are impressive, the issue is we have neglected the region for a long time. So, for a while we are seeing this pattern develop in multiple areas. In the Solomon Islands, China signed a historic security deal with the Solomon Islands, and this is something that enables an increased Chinese security presence if Chinese policymakers perceive some sort of a threat to Chinese-related infrastructure. So that’s the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure.
Another issue with that is the U.S. sort of acted more defensively and reopened its embassy after three decades. We’re seeing similar patterns with other countries as well, where we’re trying to gain more influence back after being bogged down with the wars in the Middle East for nearly two decades.
I think it’s really important for the U.S. to remain very proactive through various instruments of national power beyond the use of military force because right now what’s happening is you’re seeing a lot of grassroots-level opposition, including in Papua, New Guinea, where academics and youth activists and other groups have come out and said, “No, we do not want an increased U.S. security presence in the region.”
And so, I think what needs to happen is we need to sort of create a foundational level trust at the grassroots level through other means of statecraft, including cultural and educational exchanges and so forth in order to have a more sustainable foreign policy in the region for generations to come. Again, in a lot of other areas where there has been dwindling American influence and has required more urgent U.S. involvement, all of that makes sense, but what can we do to be more proactive and to sort of mitigate the opposition voices to show that, no the U.S. is actually a good regional power that is seeking to ensure unfettered access to airways and waterways and all of that, while we’re trying to contain and roll back Chinese influence in the region.
Katie: That’s really interesting Saba. Well I hope our country is able to move forward using all of the instruments of power as you mentioned, in a productive way. So Saba what are you thinking of the future for yourself professionally?
Saba: Well, my initial goal is to establish subject matter expertise for as long as I possibly can. It takes you a lifetime just to master learning about one subregion of the Indo-Pacific, and there are four. The four subregions include Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific.
So, my goal is to be realistic about each of these subregions and to recognize the distinct operational realities that come with each country and hegemon’s set of strategic imperatives, history, and so forth.
From there, my goal is to enact changes, one day hopefully at the policy-making level. While working with a lot of our distinguished faculty members, I was sort of inspired to look at issues that reach up to the National Security Council level. I have also been tracking scholar-practitioners from the field, including Lisa Curtis who formerly served as the director for South Asian affairs under the Trump administration, and so following in her footsteps is quite aspirational, but it’s something I certainly strive toward.
Katie: That wonderful Saba. Well it’s so exciting to hear about what you’re doing and to hear a little bit about the region. Thank you so much for doing this interview with us, it was such a pleasure to speak with you.
Saba: It’s my absolute pleasure, Katie, thank you so much for inviting me today.