The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps is stepping down after a posting spanning three decades. We pay tribute to Ambassador Khaled Al Duwaisan GCVO for his immense contribution to diplomatic life
In June – as Britain and the Commonwealth celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – the London diplomatic corps gathered to pay tribute to another icon: the Ambassador of Kuwait, Khaled Al Duwaisan, who has represented the diplomatic corps at the Court of St James’s for a quarter of the Queen’s reign. Now, after a 29-year posting (longer than many diplomatic careers) the Dean is hanging up his ceremonial dress for the final time.
It is the end of an era. As Dean – a role he has fulfilled with dedication, warmth and generosity for nearly 20 years – he has met and advised almost a thousand newly-arrived heads of mission on diplomatic life in London. A familiar face at the Palace, Ambassador Al Duwaisan has always been able to ease the nerves of new ambassadors as they prepare for the carriage ride to meet the Queen for the first time.
He vividly remembers his own credentials ceremony back in 1993 – and worrying whether he would trip over his Bisht (a long ceremonial robe) as he stepped backwards after presenting his credentials. In those days ambassadors and high commissioners were still expected not to turn their back on the Queen, a convention the Palace dropped a few years later.
It’s a small example of the change he has witnessed. During the ‘distanced diplomacy’ of the covid pandemic, the Palace adapted and ceremonies were conducted over Zoom, a practice they have continued, to ensure the Queen can continue to perform her duties at the age of 96. The Dean also went digital, hosting courtesy calls for new ambassadors on Zoom.
New ambassadors benefitted from the wise counsel of a keen political observer who has had a ringside seat to major events in Britain. “I have seen so many political changes in this country,” says the Ambassador, who has served alongside six prime ministers and a dozen foreign secretaries.
Arriving in 1993, a year into John Major’s term, he witnessed the embattled Prime Minister face down a Conservative Party riven by differences over the Maastricht Treaty; he saw Labour’s Tony Blair sweep to victory in 1997 and sign the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, bringing peace to Northern Ireland; he watched Labour’s Gordon Brown take the lead in the global financial crisis in 2008; he experienced the upheaval of the epoch-changing referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2016 under David Cameron and then the high drama of Brexit negotiations led by Theresa May. He ends his epic posting as Boris Johnson, after taking Britain out of Europe and through a global pandemic, makes way for a new Prime Minister. But when Prime Minister Johnson hands over the reins in September, there will be a new Dean in post.
The Ambassador’s unrivalled knowledge of British politics he credits to his close friendship with another British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who rallied behind Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s army invaded the country in the summer of 1990.
At the time the Ambassador was serving in the Netherlands, but was on a visit home. He experienced the horror of war and occupation first-hand. “Saddam destroyed our infrastructure, he burned 700 oil fields – I saw them burning with my own eyes. He looted our property.”
Trapped in Kuwait, he remembers secretly 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 H W 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, topping his to-do list was to pay a courtesy call to the Iron Lady. “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. 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.’”
So once a month Ambassador Al Duwaisan would visit Lady Thatcher and together they would share in the satisfaction of Kuwait’s recovery: “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,” he says.
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 time in this country; my friendship with Lady Thatcher.”
Like most heads of mission, Ambassador Al Duwaisan expected his posting to end in four or five years, but with Saddam’s continued defiance of international law and with the presence of British forces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, his Emir asked him to stay on and use 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.”
So he continued for another 19 years, witnessing the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and staying on for the Platinum Jubilee, his final tribute to The Queen, whom he admires and respects.
“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.”
And given the warmth with which the Queen always receives the Dean, the feeling is mutual. During his tenure he has represented the diplomatic corps at more than a hundred state occasions and given countless speeches at National Days and ceremonial events.
“You know, these days it is getting hard to find new jokes for all the speeches!” he chuckles in typical good humour. He was again in top form at the Easter Banquet in April – his last – for which he received a standing ovation.
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.
And here we must pay tribute to the Doyenne, Ambassador Al Duwaisan’s wife, Dalal Al Humaidhi Al Duwaisan , who is not only a gracious hostess but a diplomatic force in her own right.
For nearly 30 years this formidable diplomatic duo has been at the helm of the largest Kuwaiti Embassy in the world – even larger than Washington – and both have played a vital role in deepening the ties between Kuwait and Britain extending back more than 200 years.
In that time, they have been in the engine room for two State Visits – a rewarding (but stressful) time for any diplomat. The first, in 1995, was the visit of Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah and the second, in 2012, was the visit of Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber. Both were emblematic of the abiding friendship between Britain and Kuwait and between the royal families.
The people-to-people bonds between the two countries have broadened 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.” Before the pandemic around 300,000 visitor visas were issued from British Embassy in Kuwait, from a country with only four million people, and visitor numbers are up again.
But perhaps the most lasting legacy of Ambassador Al Duwaisan will be his inspiration to the next generation of diplomats. In 29 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 war, 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 Network. With his encouragement and advice, our network has been able to grow and thrive and serve the diplomatic community better.
In particular, Ambassador Al Duwaisan has been a fixture at the Embassy Induction Seminar for new diplomats. For more than a decade, he has given his guide on the Seven Channels of Diplomacy to 14 generations of new diplomats at the Court of St James’s. He has not missed a single year. Even during the pandemic he mastered the art of ‘zoom diplomacy’ and gave a virtual presentation to new diplomats eager to make connections while confined to their home offices.
And although digital diplomacy is now a conventional part of diplomatic practice, there can be no better tutor in the good old-fashioned skill of inter-personal connection than Ambassador Al Duwaisan.
Whether in person or online, in times of celebration and hardship, Ambassador Al Duwaisan has played a vital role in keeping the huge and diverse London diplomatic community connected. At the diplomatic reception to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee at Lancaster House, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, now a candidate to be Britain’s next Prime Minister, summed up Ambassador Al Duwaisan’s contribution to diplomatic life in London: “Ambassador, you have done a fantastic job as Dean of the Diplomatic Corps; you have brought huge energy and fortitude to the role. You have been a formidable voice for Kuwait in the United Kingdom.”
To say Ambassador Al Duwaisan will be greatly missed is an understatement.
Main photo: The Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps Alistair Harrison (left) and the Senior High Commissioner HE Cenio Lewis (right) at the farewell reception for the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps HE Khaled Al Duwaisan