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A Diplomat and Distinguished Gentleman
July 6, 2014, 9:41 am
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His Excellency Khaled Al Duwaisan

The longest serving full-time ambassador in London, Ambassador of Kuwait and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, His Excellency Khaled Al Duwaisan has lived a life of extremes. From avoiding being captured by occupying Iraqi troops, to being honored by the British Queen, Ambassador Al-Duwaisan has seen it all.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he was trapped in his country, in hiding and living under a false identity. Despite being stopped and interrogated on several occasions, Al Duwaisan remained undiscovered as he was moved from house to house and the Kuwaitis took down all the street signs and house numbers to confuse the Iraqi forces. It was a very disturbing period with no law and he did not know if he would see his family again, who were still in the Netherlands where he was posted at the time.

In his embassy office the Ambassador is surrounded by his most precious items, including a commemoration sculpture of two hands breaking the chains of imprisonment, given to him by the people of Kuwait as a thank you for helping to negotiate the release of Kuwaiti prisoners of war in Iraq.

As Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in London, one of the world’s largest bodies of foreign emissaries, the Ambassador is a respected and popular figure on the diplomatic scene; he also bears the heavy responsibility of ensuring not only that the interests of thousands of foreign representatives are properly understood in Whitehall, but also that his fellow ambassadors pay their respects to the Queen by attending her annual opening of Parliament.

By tradition, a dean (or doyen) is the longest-serving diplomat in the capital. The job is purely honorary, but nonetheless vital in maintaining smooth relations with the host country. And few could be better qualified for such a position than Al-Duwaisan, a career diplomat steeped in the cultures of East and West, who never fails to find a friendly word for the hundreds of people he meets every day at receptions, dinners and official functions.

Having joined the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry in 1970, Al-Duwaisan served as Ambassador to the Netherlands and Romania before being posted to London in 1993. Within two years he was faced with the heavy responsibility of organizing a state visit to Britain by the Amir of Kuwait, the successful outcome of which earned him a Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) from the Queen in 1995. He became Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in 2003, and so for the past eleven years has had a hectic double job, not only heading up the Kuwaiti mission in London – Kuwait’s largest overseas embassy – but also representing London’s vast diplomatic community to the Foreign Office, in which it is his duty to inform of any issues that arise under the Vienna Convention governing international diplomacy.

Mostly these issues are fairly straightforward: what privileges diplomats should be afforded when passing through Heathrow, what parking fines can be collected, how embassy protection should be co-ordinated with the Metropolitan Police and so on. But occasionally they can prove tricky. Take the congestion charge, for example. Al-Duwaisan had to once spend hours mediating between Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, who insisted that all diplomats should pay the charge, and those embassies – most prominently the US – which opposed it as an unjustified tax. He told the Foreign Office that poorer countries must not have the charge deducted from British aid budgets, and that no diplomat should suffer the embarrassment of being clamped. Even today, the diplomatic community remains divided: whereas most EU embassies dutifully pay up, others, including the US, now owe millions of pounds in unpaid charges.

In his capacity as Dean, Al-Duwaisan must also welcome new ambassadors to London and brief them on matters of protocol. He advises them to make full use of various platforms to communicate and build crucial relationships. He particularly recommends the Foreign Office, the two chambers of Parliament (“I tell them in particular not to ignore the House of Lords, as there are many wise and experienced people there who can advise them”; the City of London (“This is a very important relationship, especially if an ambassador wants to develop investment in his country”); the media, as well as think tanks such as Wilton Park and Chatham House; annual party conferences (“They will give you good access and understanding of how British politics functions”), and social functions (“I urge ambassadors to go to everything at first – they can be selective later”).

Al-Duwaisan clearly follows his own advice. Two or three times a month, if not more frequently, he hosts dinners at his residence to discuss the main issues of the day – in particular, of course, those that affect the Middle East. There, MPs, academics, broadcasters, journalists, overseas visitors and civil servants meet over a fine Middle Eastern buffet for a structured and extraordinarily frank debate on world affairs.  “I started this in 1995 with dinner discussions on Iraq,” he says. “I sent the reports to my government, who found these brain-storming sessions so helpful that they advised me to continue hosting them.” As a good diplomat, however, Al-Duwaisan always strives to avoid unnecessary friction at these events: “I send everyone the list of invitees. Sometimes they call back to say this might be difficult. That way we avoid problems.”

Entertaining and socializing are burdens that Mr Al-Duwaisan manages to wear lightly, notwithstanding his enormous workload. He tries to attend every embassy’s national day. ‘There are more than 162. Sometimes this means five or six functions in one evening. I don’t stay long – but the hosts normally understand.’ Fortunately, he adds, ‘God gave me a bit of memory for names. It takes time, but I know most of them.’

There are also six functions a year – five of them organized by Buckingham Palace – which Britain urges its resident ambassadors to attend: the Queen’s Diplomatic Reception in November, the State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Color, the Queen’s Birthday Dinner and the Royal Garden Party. “Of course there is also Ascot,’ said Al-Duwaisan. “That’s not obligatory, but it is worth going. Each occasion is a chance to show your respect to the country.”

At least once a month, Al-Duwaisan meets ambassadors heading regional groupings – from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, etc – to discuss world issues and relations with Britain. Not all of these groups, of course, enjoy the same warm links with London as they might with Kuwait.

He likewise follows his own advice on keeping in with the City, having been awarded the Freedom of the City of London in 2001 (thus becoming the first Arab ambassador to hold the distinction since its inception in 1237). He sits on the advisory board of the London Middle East Institute at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), is a trustee of the London Mosque and attends numerous functions in the Republic of Ireland, where he is also accredited as Ambassador.

How then, does Al-Duwaisan find any time to see his family? “Thank God, I have a wife who understands my role and supports me,” he replied, before going on to describe her vital functions in charitable work and in ensuring that London’s diplomatic wives are happy. Fortunately the couple’s son and daughter, both of them now grown-up, also live in London. And when there is a brief moment away from diplomacy, he keeps fit by playing tennis and swimming.

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