In 1980, when a 22-year old Majdi Al-Dhafiri, a political science graduate fresh out of Kuwait University was selected to join the country’s Foreign Ministry there were a lot of surprised faces. Questions were raised on how an inexperienced freshman would fare in an entrenched world of traditional global governance structures.
Forty years later, when the Cabinet last week approved a draft decree appointing Ambassador Majdi Al-Dhafir as Deputy Foreign Minister of Kuwait, there were no such questions.. Though the new deputy head of Kuwait Foreign Ministry is faced with the huge challenge of filling the wide chasm created by the retirement of veteran diplomat Khaled Al-Jarallah, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the unassuming, mild-mannered and affable Al-Dhafiri was up to the task.
The appointment of Majdi Al-Dhafiri as the new Deputy Foreign Minister was the culmination of more than four decades of diplomatic career marked by accomplishments and achievements. During this period he has diligently sought to hold aloft the flag of Kuwait, both as the country’s ambassador in several countries and as representative of the country in various regional and international organizations and forums.
From the day he entered the portals of the Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Al-Dhafiri has remained committed to fostering and preserving the interests of Kuwait and contributing to strengthening the country’s relations and promoting its credentials on the regional and international diplomatic stage.
In 1981, a year after joining the foreign ministry, Al-Dhafiri made his first foray into international diplomacy by attending the 36th session of the United Nations General Assembly, as part of a group of diplomats selected to undergo a course in diplomacy at New York.
A student of Sheikh Sabah school of diplomacy, Al-Dhafiri represented Kuwait as ambassador to many countries. Even before heading the country’s embassy as ambassador, Al-Dhafiri had worked in several diplomatic missions. He was first appointed a Third-Secretary at Kuwait’s Embassy in Washington, then a second secretary at the Kuwait Embassy in Italy, and he was also a permanent representative of the State of Kuwait to the Arab League, before being appointed as Ambassador of Kuwait to Canada.
However, it was during his long tenure as Ambassador of Kuwait to the Islamic Republic of Iran that Al-Dhafiri grabbed the limelight for his deft handling of several contentious issues. During his tenure that began in 2001, when he was first appointed as Ambassador to Tehran, Al-Dhafiri went on to hold the same post for nearly two decades. During this extensive period he not only managed to bring political ties between the two countries on an even keel based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs of each other, but also helped consolidate relations between Iran and its neighbors across the Gulf and in the region.
A major escalation in tension between Kuwait and Iran was in 2011 when diplomatic relations between the two countries soured after three members of Kuwait’s army, two Iranians and one Kuwaiti, received death sentences for spying on behalf of Iran. Kuwait expelled three Iranian diplomats alleging links to spying scandal and recalled Ambassador Al-Dhafiri from Tehran for ostensible consultations. The situation worsened with Iran expelling several Kuwaiti diplomats and later detaining two Kuwaiti citizens, Adel Al-Yahya and Raed Al-Majid on charges of espionage in Iran.
It took months of intensive efforts in the background on the part of the Kuwait government and other mediators before Tehran decided to release the two Kuwaitis. Iran’s then Ambassador to Kuwait, Ruhollah Ghahramani, said that the Iranian authorities had determined that the two Kuwaitis had engaged in press activities without permission but were not involved in espionage. Relations were smoothened further in 2012 with an appellate court in Kuwait reducing the death sentence to life imprisonment on the Iranians convicted of spying. Eventually, Ambassador Al-Dhafiri returned to his post in Tehran.
In 2014, while serving as ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ambassador Al-Dhafiri was instrumental in arranging a visit to Tehran by the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah at a time of thaw in relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Tehran following the election of Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rowhani in 2013.
The Amir’s visit at a time when he was holding the rotating presidency of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the Arab League was of huge political significance and the visit helped coordinate peace efforts in the region, and helped further strengthen bilateral relations between Kuwait and Iran.
During his tenure in Iran, Ambassador Al-Dhafiri also served as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Kuwait in Turkmenistan, and helped strengthen relations with the former Soviet republic. In 2018, Al-Dhafiri held discussions with Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister R. Meredov to discuss the creation of a joint Turkmen-Kuwaiti intergovernmental group on trade and economic cooperation. During the meeting, the parties also considered the possibility of organizing business meetings on the use of the transit possibilities of the Central Asia-Middle East transport corridor, and the importance of establishing and developing cooperation in the fields of science, education and culture.
While as ambassador to Iran, Al-Dhafiri was assigned to head the Boundary Committee on the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that also included the contentious issue of joint oil-field activities between the two countries. He headed the Kuwaiti delegation negotiating the issue of the divided zone with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The committee successfully concluded negotiations in December 2019, and Al-Dhafiri stressed at the time that the agreement in the divided zone is an achievement that embodies a clear framework for the level of relations between the two countries.
The foreign policy of Kuwait is focused on creating alliances and partnerships that can protect Kuwait, smoothen difficulties in the region through diplomacy and discussion, and leverage its foreign aid to strengthen ties and help social, economic and humanitarian development around the world.
Ambassador Al Dhafiri has always believed that the system of inter-state relations is one based on morals and values that govern interaction between the various countries and parties. He remains committed to resolving differences through discussions, while pursuing and strengthening common interests thereby helping drive bilateral and multilateral relations between states to new levels and horizons of constructive cooperation that serves the interests of peoples and nations.
At a time when Kuwait’s traditional way of doing diplomacy — by keeping internal and regional conflicts behind closed doors and elder leaders having the last word— appears to be fading as a younger generation of Gulf leaders take the helm, it is more than ever important to have diplomats such as Ambassador Al-Dhafiri in the forefront of Kuwait’s foreign policy.