A tribute to the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps at the Court of St James’s, HE Mr Khaled Al Duwaisan GCVO to celebrate his 25 years of service
At some point during every diplomatic reception in London, a ripple of electricity will enliven crowd, followed by handshakes and hugs. This signals the arrival of the most familiar face on the circuit – the Dean.
The Dean beam
Even though the Ambassador of Kuwait, Khaled Al Duwaisan, has attended thousands of such occasions during his 25-year tenure, he always arrives beaming and takes time to greet everyone.
As Dean – a role he has fulfilled with dedication, warmth and generosity for the past 15 years – he has met and advised around 750 newly-arrived heads of mission on diplomatic life in London; he has represented the diplomatic corps at least a hundred state occasions and given countless speeches at National Days, the Lord Mayor’s Easter Banquet and other ceremonial events – “You know, these days it is getting hard to find new jokes for all the speeches!” he chuckles.
And that tally doesn’t count the many behind-the-scenes meetings he convenes, both as Doyen of the Arab Ambassadors, as well as multiple private dinners he has hosted to bring the best minds in politics, business and culture to discuss the issues of the day. His elegant residence in Kensington Palace Gardens (recently refurbished and looking splendid) is one of the finest salon’s in the London diplomatic scene and the Dean, with his vast array of contacts, is the consummate host.
And here we must pay tribute to the Doyenne, Ambassador Al Duwaisan’s wife, Dalal, who is not only a gracious hostess but a diplomatic force in her own right. Dalal has been at her husband’s side during international postings in Washington, where she also headed up the fundraising for the Arab Women’s Council; and The Hague, where she helped Ambassador Al Duwaisan establish the first Kuwaiti Embassy in the Netherlands and arranged events to introduce people to her country’s heritage. Their post coincided with the Gulf War, to which she responded with efforts to mobilise the resistance in Holland and abroad.
Here in London, Dalal has been pivotal in the setting up of the Diplomatic Spouse Club of London in 2015, by convening a huge gathering of spouses at the Embassy of Kuwait to discuss the scope of a proposed spouse association and how it would support its members – not just the spouses of ambassadors, but crucially for all spouses, junior and senior; male and female. It was a resounding success and three years on, the DSCL is a permanent fixture on the London diplomatic landscape doing vital work.
His wife’s achievements are no surprise to the Ambassador: “Kuwaiti women are very independent – this is from the days before we discovered oil when the men would be at sea for months and the women would run the show. They are very strong; you don’t mess with Kuwaiti women,” he chuckles. “That’s why we were trailblazers in women’s rights in the Gulf. We were the first to give women more freedom and equal pay. Women now occupy top positions in all fields – we have MPs, ministers, ambassadors, business leaders.”
Friendship with the Iron Lady
There has been another significant woman in the Ambassador’s life… Margaret Thatcher. During the shock Iraqi invasion in the summer of 1990, the Ambassador remembers tuning into the BBC World Service to keep track of the international response and followed the instrumental role that Margaret Thatcher played in persuading US President George HW Bush to take decisive action.
“We have huge respect for Margaret Thatcher in Kuwait because she rallied international support to liberate Kuwait in 1991,” he recalls.
So when he arrived in London in 1993, topping his to-do list was to pay a courtesy call to Lady Thatcher.
“She talked to me about her role at the time and after my second visit, about two months later, we had a visit from Sheikh Sabah (our Emir now, but back then he was minister of Foreign Affairs). He wanted to visit her because in our country she is an icon. She said to him: ‘I have a request. I would like to see your ambassador regularly, to keep me updated on the situation in Kuwait.’”
Ambassador Al Duwaisan was ideally placed to do this: “Prior to my posting in London, I served as negotiator to the demilitarised area between Kuwait and Iraq and then I was asked to join the Commission for the Restitution of Stolen Property.”
So once a month Ambassador Al Duwaisan would visit Lady Thatcher and from there a close friendship grew that endured until her death two decades later. “I learned a lot from her. I felt like a student – she told me so much about how Downing Street really works; I would sometimes stay for one or two hours,” smiles the Ambassador. “What a lady she was; she was so strong right until the end. That is the highlight of my 25 years in this country; my friendship with Lady Thatcher.”
Initially Ambassador Al Duwaisan wasn’t expecting his tenure to extend beyond four or five years. But with Saddam’s continued defiance of international law and the presence of British forces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, his Emir asked him to stay on, deploying all the useful contacts he had made in Parliament and Government to keep Iraq on the foreign policy agenda.
“Then, in 2003, after 10 years in post, the coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussain. I told my wife our mission was complete and that we should probably get ready to leave London.”
But The Queen had other plans. “I received a letter from Buckingham Palace telling me that HM The Queen appointed me as the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps!” he smiles. “So my Emir said, ‘Stay – it’s a privilege for us for you to be the Dean of a very friendly country.’ Even when I reached retirement age at 65, the Foreign Ministry made an exception. And so here I am, 25 years later!”
The Ambassador has been a witness to seismic changes, both in Kuwait and here in the UK.
When he arrived in London, Kuwait was recovering from the Iraqi invasion. “Saddam destroyed our infrastructure, he burned 700 oil fields – I saw them burning with my own eyes. He looted our property. So I witnessed how Kuwait recovered. The world said it would take five years to put out all the burning wells; it took us seven months. We worked day and night; Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis. And then we used the funds that we had invested to rebuild our country. I was proud to witness Kuwait rising from the ashes, literally.”
Ambassador Al Duwaisan has witnessed huge political swings in Britain too. Arriving in 1993, a year into John Major’s term, he saw the embattled Prime Minister face down a Conservative Party riven by differences over the Maastricht Treaty to keep Britain in the EU; today Theresa May sees the Conservatives tearing itself apart again as she tries to find a satisfactory way for Britain to withdraw from the EU.
Ambassador Al Duwaisan has had a ring-side seat to it all – and everything in between: “I have seen so many political changes. I arrived and John Major was the Prime Minister, then 13 years with Labour – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – then the Coalition government led by David Cameron and then a majority Conservative government under Cameron and now a minority government under Theresa May…”
On Brexit, the Ambassador prefers to keep his counsel, as any good diplomat would. “But I can say one thing,” he says: “When people ask me as a Gulf ambassador ‘What are you going to do after Brexit; are you going to withdraw your investments?’ I tell them no; our investments are long-term. We will not under any circumstances withdraw our investments. We opened our Kuwait Investment Office here in 1953 – and look how much has changed since then.”
Perhaps a quarter of a century gives him perspective. “I have seen all the positive changes in the City of London over the past 25 years. When I first arrived Canary Wharf was a building site! The City of London has become more and more attractive as a truly global city – although we still complain about the high property prices!”
The people-to-people bonds between the two countries have evolved and deepened in that time too, adds the Ambassador: “When I came here we had about 400 students; now we have 6,500 students and we are in talks to increase the numbers. Our people love London, they consider it a second home. Last year we had around 300,000 visitor visas issued from British Embassy in Kuwait, from a country with only four million people!”
So the relationship – on every level – is very deep, extending back more than 200 years, which is why the Kuwaiti Embassy in London is its largest in the world, even larger than Washington.
The next generation
In 25 years, scores of young Kuwaiti diplomats have honed their skills under the Ambassador’s tutelage at the embassy in Albert Gate – and no less than 20 have gone on to become ambassadors themselves.
Training the next generation of diplomats is important to the Ambassador. Perhaps this is borne out of personal experience – as a first-hand witness to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Ambassador understands the consequences failed diplomacy, and what can be achieved when it succeeds.
The Dean was also an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Embassy Induction Seminar, where for the past decade, he has given his guide on the ‘seven channels of diplomacy’ to 11 generations of new diplomats from more than 150 countries represented at the Court of St James’s.
And although the practice of diplomacy has changed over time, notably with the rise of digital diplomacy (he is not on Twitter), there can be no better tutor in the good old-fashioned skills of making connections and exerting influence than Ambassador Al Duwaisan.
After 25 years the Ambassador shows no signs of slowing down. Looking ahead to next year, the two countries will commemorate the 120th anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Treaty, signed in 1899, in which Britain undertook to protect Kuwait’s territorial integrity and, in exchange, Kuwait agreed to consult Britain on its foreign policy (more specifically, to keep Britain’s rival powers at arm’s length). The Ambassador and his team are busily preparing a series of events to mark the occasion.
“Even after independence in 1967 we kept excellent relations with the UK; and we maintain very warm ties with the Royal Family. Since I have been here, Kuwait has been fortunate to have had two state visits, one in 1995 and one in 2012,” he says.
This leads to the third woman in the Ambassador’s life: The Queen. For the past 15 years, he and The Queen have been like to fixed stars in the diplomatic firmament at state occasions. “I love The Queen,” he beams. “The British people are lucky to have such a person. She is wonderful, and so knowledgeable. All of us diplomats admire Her Majesty.”
A personal tribute
My first encounter with Ambassador Al Duwaisan was 20 years ago when I was just starting out as a diplomatic reporter. Back then in 1999 we were discussing the centenary of the Friendship Treaty between Britain and Kuwait and all the many reforms Kuwait was undertaking (many of which have now borne fruit).
I fumbled through the questions but Ambassador Al Duwaisan was reassuring and patient as I tested out my interviewing skills. By the end of our discussion I had learned far more than Kuwaiti foreign policy.
As a parting gift, the Ambassador gave me a set of misbaḥah (prayer beads). “I use them to count the number of receptions I have to attend, or the cigarettes I shouldn’t be smoking!” he joked.
Since 1999 I have kept those beads on my desk; it’s reassuring to reach for them when the deadlines pile up.
That sense of reassurance is something I think many of us on the diplomatic circuit feel when the Dean enters a room. Even when the politics is bewildering and ever-changing, our Dean is a constant. Long may he serve.