Tech Exec Ahmed Rubaie on Trump’s Travel Ban and Silicon Valley
In late January, when President Donald Trump’s first executive order banning all refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries was announced, Ahmed Rubaie’s mother-in-law was out of the country visiting Jordan.
Although his mother-in-law is a green card holder, and Jordan wasn’t included in the ban, Rubaie’s wife was beside herself. She began making frantic phone calls to ensure her mother would be able to get back into the United States upon her arrival.
“Even though I was worried, I had to stay calm for my wife,” Rubaie remembers. “I told her, ‘At the end of the day, it can’t pass. She has a green card. This is America!’”
A green card, as we know now, wouldn’t necessarily have granted her readmission if Trump had had his druthers. Instead, the ban was struck down in short order by a series of federal judges, who found such a sweeping ban on refugees and immigrants to be unconstitutional. So the administration went back to the drawing board and tried again with a slightly less sweeping ban, which also was struck down last week. (More on that in a minute.)
Rubaie (pictured) has seen a lot of ups and downs in the 40 or so years he’s lived in the U.S., but never have things seemed quite as fraught as they are right now. After two decades working in finance and technology, the Silicon Valley-based tech veteran worries that the nation’s sharp swerve toward nationalism and isolationist policies will affect not only his family’s life, but Silicon Valley’s ability to churn out innovative companies staffed by some of the world’s most brilliant people. He is also concerned about the country’s long-term prospects and competitiveness. As an immigrant with a law degree and a successful track record in business, he has an uncommon perspective on the politics currently roiling the nation, and, despite the many uncertainties, he’s optimistic about how things will turn out.
Rubaie first set foot on American soil as a child, after his family relocated from Iraq to Ann Arbor, MI, in the early 1970s. He has fond memories of his early life in Michigan.
“We came with nothing and started all over,” he recalls. “I’ve worked in 171 countries throughout my career, and there’s nowhere like America. You realize there is no place to live your dreams like the U.S.”
Rubaie’s name isn’t as recognizable as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, of course, but he’s well known in business and financial circles. An accountant by training, he eventually found his way to California. He began working in senior financial positions and is arguably best known for helping to grow several tech companies. During his tenure at Ariba, where he served as chief financial officer starting in 2008, the company’s valuation went up by a factor of 10 to nearly $4.5 billion before it was bought by SAP. Most recently, he worked for Sitecore, where he helped lead the company to a “unicorn sale,” he says.
These days, Rubaie is on a deliberate six-month break and enjoying time with his family, which gives him time to reflect. When asked about his success in the tech world, he attributes it to his mentors and the teams he has worked with, as well as luck and timing.
When his family first arrived in Ann Arbor all those years ago and moved into university housing, Rubaie remembers feeling welcomed by his new community: “Nobody knew where Iraq was back then, and, in a college town, everybody is from somewhere else.”
But with his Middle Eastern name, people sometimes had questions. “I remember once in my career, a guy asked me, ‘With a name like that, how do you survive on Wall Street?’ I’m very proud of my heritage and mostly, it hasn’t been a problem,” he says.
However, Ahmed Rubaie isn’t just an Iraqi-American financial expert who has had a little luck and a successful career. He also has a passion for Constitutional law. It’s from this perspective that Trump’s quest to ban immigrants from certain majority-Muslim countries offends him the most. “It’s unconstitutional to start with,” he says. “It’s very un-American. We’re supposed to be a melting pot.”
Although the status of Trump’s travel ban is ever-changing, it appears to be dead, at least for the time being. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a temporary, nationwide restraining order; on Thursday, a different federal judge in Maryland also blocked the 90-day ban, which targets citizens from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan.
Both judges cited Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric during the presidential campaign as part of the reason for their rulings, saying the ban would inevitably result in religious discrimination—which, as Rubaie points out, is still prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. Trump has called the rulings “unprecedented judicial overreach” and has vowed to appeal the decisions all the way to the Supreme Court.
To Rubaie, the travel ban represents the cyclical nature of global relations. After all, when Rubaie’s family emigrated to America in the 1970s, Iraq and the U.S. had a relatively neutral relationship, and by the early ’80s they had a common enemy in Iran. Today, Iraq and Iran are both considered enemies of the state.
“I’m not a student of politics, but dirty stuff happens, and everyone gets their turn to be demonized,” he says. (In fact, he recently admonished Iraqi friends who suggested they no longer had anything to worry about, since Iraq was left off the second iteration of the travel ban. In Rubaie’s view, nobody should feel comfortable until the ban is truly dead.)
He also concedes that the United States is sometimes right to be suspicious of travelers from the Middle East: “There is quite a basket of bad apples in that part of the world, and they should not be allowed to come here. But in order to address the bad apples, the question you have to ask is, why?”
It’s clear to Rubaie that the region’s youthful population, lack of educational options, and overall dearth of hope add up to “bad news.” Just as clear, however, are his memories of living there in harmony with people of all different ethnicities and religions.
Back then, Iraq also had one of the highest literacy rates on the globe. But as of late, according to 2015 data from UNESCO, that rate has fallen to 79 percent, or 111th in the world, which he calls a “disaster.” (The literacy rate in the U.S. is 86 percent, roughly on par with Botswana, Jamaica, and Honduras.)
“I went to Catholic school in Baghdad, and there was no religious tension between common people like you and me—that’s geopolitically engineered, just like here. Everyone was living together just fine,” he says.
Rubaie believes the U.S. government can both limit bad apples and address the bigger, bleaker picture in the Middle East, but the travel ban is not a sustainable solution. He comes back to the idea that, eventually, we all get our time in the proverbial hot seat.
“What goes around comes around, and that’s what we have to be careful of,” he adds.
The travel ban is already creating anxiety in Silicon Valley, he warns, particularly among workers on H1-B visas. He’s already heard of people canceling their plans to move to or take jobs in the U.S. Rubaie remembers the early ’90s, when he’d hear grumbling from the managerial ranks about foreign-born engineers. The sentiment was: “We don’t want them here.”
These days, he points out, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful tech company without a foreign-born person working in senior management. “It’s very detrimental in the long run—you can’t put a tariff on talent. That’s going backwards.”
When he thinks of all the potential young innovators now trapped in the banned countries, it makes his heart sink. “It’s sad, because there are a lot of smart young people over there trying to get a break, and now they can’t.”
To him, the answer is fairly simple: If we’re going to spend our resources on the Middle East, then let’s help its residents live a more dignified life.
“I think helping people is more productive, and I think the majority of people in Silicon Valley agree,” he says. “Address the economic problems of those who are unemployed and angry. You’ll always have lunatics, but most people are hard-working, law-abiding folks. I’m not a student of theology, but it’s not about religion. No religion advances hatred.”
If Rubaie had a five-minute private audience with Trump, he says he would tell the president to surround himself with open-minded advisers who want to protect American interests over the long haul and, above all, to be kind. “There are bad apples, yes, but understand how they got that way. The average person is going to come here and contribute to society.”
At the same time, he wants to see his fellow Middle Eastern immigrants do a better job of assimilating into U.S. culture. The more Americans see Iraqis living “just like them,” he says, the more they relax. He offers an anecdote from his own life to illustrate his point.
A few years ago, he was living in an exclusive suburb of Atlanta, GA. It was a homogeneous place: wealthy and politically conservative. For the most part, he says, that wasn’t an issue. Except for one neighbor, who we’ll call Fred. Eventually, the Rubaies invited Fred and his wife over for dinner. But no matter what conversational avenue Rubaie tried to go down—family, business, the weather, even sports—Fred would not engage.
But then they started talking about college, and Fred learned that he and Rubaie were members of the same fraternity. Suddenly, Fred’s face broke into a smile and he was up and out of his seat, clapping Rubaie’s back affectionately and pulling him close for the secret handshake. Fred was suddenly accepting of his new friend with the funny name once he knew they had something important in common.
“He called me in distress when the first travel ban was announced,” Rubaie says. Fred was distraught, worried that Rubaie’s family and friends would be impacted, he says. “If he hadn’t been exposed to our family and seen us as normal Americans, he might not have been so sympathetic. But he changed his view instead of demonizing us.”
When you ask Rubaie what his uncensored thoughts are about the Trump administration’s travel ban, he’ll tell you he feels sickened. But he also feels optimistic because, he says, America is a just and fair place.
“I have faith that enough people will stand up against it,” he adds. “I don’t think it will stick, because the repercussions are untenable.”