H.E. Jonathan Gilbert
Ambassador of Australia

By Reaven D’Souza
Managing Editor

Australian Ambassador H.E Jonathan Gilbert has completed a very successful tenure of over four years in Kuwait. The charismatic and friendly diplomat in a recent exclusive interview with The Times Kuwait managing editor spoke expansively on many topics related to Kuwait, as well as about the fond memories and close friendships that he and his family have made over the years in this country.

The ambassador, who also has a keen understanding of the region and its people, has been using this expertise and experience in his interactions with decision and opinion makers in the country. The amicable ambassador, who has endeared himself to the local community with his easy going and cheerful personality, will be sorely missed in diplomatic and social circles at the end of his tenure.

Ambassador Gilbert began by telling us what led him to choose the diplomatic field as a career, and narrating some of his experiences in representing Australia around the world: “Diplomacy was something I always wanted to do in terms of a career. I loved studying history, geography, and current affairs. Travel was also a very important part of my life after I left high school. In true Australian style, I backpacked all over the world.

“I should add my mother was a librarian, so from an early age I was reading all sorts of books about the world and different events. My grandfather was also a strong influence, as he lived a very interesting life first as a British soldier and then as a diplomat in Southeast Asia and India. Between 1954 -58, he was the British Resident in Brunei before retiring in South Africa.

“I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 2007. But before that I worked as a local staff member at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC. This was a great experience and exposed me to a range of different issues about the US-Australia relationship, including defense, education, and science and technology.

“Between 2007 and 2011, I worked in several different roles within DFAT, including on defense and security issues, as well as deepening Australia’s engagement with India. In early 2011, I was posted to Manila in the Philippines, where I spent over three years. It was a terrific experience and fascinating posting. My son was born there, and we had some very memorable moments traveling the country as a young family.

“Having returned to Canberra for a brief stint, I was sent to our Embassy in Baghdad in Iraq, where I served as Deputy Head of Mission between 2015 and 2017. Following an exacting stint in Baghdad, I was then posted to Kuwait and arrived here to begin my tenure as Ambassador in late January 2018. Over four years later, we are preparing to conclude our posting. It has been a terrific experience and our friends in Kuwait will be something myself and my family will always cherish.

Ambassador Jonathan Gilbert with Managing Editor Reaven D’Souza

“There have been plenty of challenges during my three postings abroad with DFAT. In the Philippines, I worked on the release of an Australian citizen that was kidnapped in the south of the country. I also was part of the Australian team that responded to Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the country in late 2013.

“Iraq was always going to be a challenging posting, but it was further complicated by the conflict with ISIS during that time. Large parts of the country were controlled by ISIS fighters and countries like the US, UK, France, Italy, Canada, and Australia were engaged in daily efforts with the Iraqi military to defeat them. There was terrible violence and suffering across the country, including in Baghdad. I recall some awful incidents of car bombings and shootings. Thankfully, we had an excellent security detail and were kept safe. I was pleased to see good parts of Iraq liberated from ISIS by the time I left the country, although the resulting death and destruction was very, very sad.

“In Kuwait, the past few years have been a challenging time for Australian exporters and Kuwaiti importers of food given the COVID-19 crisis. Initially, there were delays and a shortage of food items coming into Kuwait due to disruptions in air, land, and sea cargo. We worked closely with Kuwaiti authorities to resolve these and to find practical solutions to challenging problems. For example, in early June 2020, a live sheep shipment for one of Kuwait’s leading suppliers of livestock, Al-Mawshi, was stuck in the Australian port of Fremantle, following an outbreak of COVID-19 on board its vessel. We had to ensure the crew were safe and looked after, that Australian and Kuwaiti health regulations were followed, and that animal welfare protocols were adhered to.”

Focusing on his diplomatic experiences in Kuwait and interactions with officials and the government, Ambassador Gilbert explained: “I presented my credentials to the late Amir, His Highness Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah, on 27 March 2018. It was a memorable day and I enjoyed meeting and talking with the late Amir, especially given his extraordinary political, diplomatic, and humanitarian legacy.

“In terms of our engagement with the Kuwaiti Government, we have extensive and productive dealings with ministers and senior officials across the system. Pleasingly, Kuwait and Australia held their first Senior Officials’ Talks in November 2020, which involved a variety of government and commercial stakeholders. Trade, investment, and education formed a key focus of discussions and follow-up actions. Several agreements and commitments were discussed, including on finding ways to streamline Australian food exports to Kuwait. We look forward to working with Kuwait on this issue and implementing new processes and procedures to ensure fresh and high-quality Australian food arrives in Kuwait as quickly as possible.”

Besides strong relations in political and diplomatic fields, the two countries share similar views and goals in several other domains, said the ambassador, adding: “Australia and Kuwait share a warm, friendly, and long-standing relationship. During my time in Kuwait, I have seen firsthand the benefits to both countries of our close engagement and cooperation. This year marks the 31st anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation, and it is timely to recall Australia’s contribution to the US-led Coalition during the 1990-91 Gulf War. Since then, the relationship has continued to grow and deepen.

“The trade in food between Australia and Kuwait goes back to the 1960s and is an important aspect of the bilateral relationship. Additionally, education is another area of close cooperation between Australia and Kuwait. Thousands of Kuwaiti students have studied in Australia over the past decade or so. There are also two Australian affiliated higher education institutions in Kuwait, the Australian College of Kuwait, which is about to become a fully-fledged university, and Box Hill College Kuwait.

From Left; Krysia Derecki, wife of Ambassador Jonathan Gilbert, Ambassador Gilbert, Sheikha Bibi Duaij Al Sabah Chairperson of Al Sadu Weaving Cooperative Society and Sheikha Altaf Salem Al Sabah, Patron and Chairperson of Al Sadu House.

“Education is a very important part of the bilateral relationship. Australia is one of the top five study destinations for Kuwaitis. Our campuses have students from all around the world who come to Australia for the high-quality education the country provides. Kuwaitis like the safe and multicultural environment in Australia, as well as the fact that it is a fun place to be and a great country to explore. Why endure the cold and bleak winters in the USA, UK, Canada, and Ireland when you could be enjoying great weather and beaches while studying in Australia. It is a no-brainer. And with seven universities ranked in the world’s top one hundred, it is also a great place to study.

“Since Kuwait’s liberation in 1991, Australian and Kuwaiti scientists have been working together on important environmental issues, including marine conservation, fisheries management, and land preservation. Also, up to 1,000 Australians reside in Kuwait, employed mainly in the education, banking, oil and gas and security industries. Turning to bilateral economic relations and mutual investments between the two countries, Australia’s top envoy in Kuwait noted: “Investment is another success story. Kuwaiti investment houses continue to take advantage of Australia’s high performing economy, strategic location in the Asia Pacific, and strong regulatory environment. We are pleased to see that investment flows from Kuwait to Australia continue to grow and deliver profits.

“Kuwait’s investments in Australia are estimated at between $15-20 billion, including significant investments from the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA, and the Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Company (KUFPEC). Areas of investment include real estate, infrastructure, renewable energy, hotels, banking and the oil and gas sector. “The trade relationship is also substantial, with strong potential for further expansion in agribusiness, the energy sector (professional services and related equipment), education, tourism, health and other services.

“Australia’s merchandise exports to Kuwait continues to grow strongly and amounted to approximately $553 million in 2021 (excluding exports trans-shipped through Dubai). Kuwait is a significant market for Australian wheat and live sheep. Other key commodities include barley, dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Imports from Kuwait are almost entirely petroleum products and fertilizers.

“Despite the number of Australian food and beverage products in Kuwait increasing in recent years, there is considerable scope for Australia to further develop the bilateral commercial relationship with Kuwait. Pivoting to tourism in his country and the appeal that Kuwaitis seem to have for travel, especially places that provide excitement and challenge, the ambassador added: “Kuwaitis love to travel. And they also love Australia. Thousands of Kuwaitis travel to Australia every year, with many of them owning homes in places such as the Gold Coast. We often have parents and family members traveling to Australia to visit their Kuwaiti children studying in Australia. I am constantly surprised about how adventurous Kuwaitis are and the places they travel to in Australia — nowhere in Australia appears to be too remote for a Kuwaiti and they often travel to parts of the country even I have not yet been to.”

Pointing to cultural exchanges, an aspect of bilateral relations that strengthens people to people ties, the ambassador said: “The human engagement between Australia and Kuwait is close and growing. We enjoy each other’s company and like doing business together, as well as learning from each other. And I believe this is reflected in the bilateral relationship and the issues we work together on. I also think that since both Australia and Kuwait are maritime and outward facing countries, we both naturally enter trade and engage with the world.

“Regarding cultural exchanges, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we partnered with the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyah, and the National Council for Art, Culture and Letters, on a major exhibition in December 2019 telling the story of the famous Australian maritime adventurer, journalist, novelist, sailor and photographer, Alan Villiers. Fifty photographs were shown at the Amricani Cultural Centre and the National Assembly from December 2019 to March 2020. The photographs highlighted Kuwait’s unique maritime past at a time before modernisation and oil, as seen through Australian eyes.

Last week, on 16 April, the Australian Embassy opened an exhibition at the Sadu House titled ‘The Jarracharra: Dry Season Wind’, which tells the story of over 25 artists from the Babbarra Women’s Center located in Maningrida, in the Arnhem Land region of Australia. We are partnering with Sadu House in this exhibition and are thrilled to present these vital works of Australian Indigenous craftsmanship to the Kuwaiti community.

Ambassador Gilbert rounded off the interview with his thoughts on Kuwait and its future by stating: “Kuwait has been our home for over four years. After not being with my family in Baghdad because of the security risks involved, it has been a special time for us. We have made friends, got to know the different neighborhoods, and explored all corners of the country. We feel very comfortable and relaxed here. I think a good part of this is because of the warmth and hospitality of Kuwaitis. We have been invited into homes, farms and chalets and shared some wonderful moments with our Kuwaiti friends. We have always been made to feel welcome.

“Looking at Kuwait and its future, I wish the country the very best and every success. I am impressed with young Kuwaitis. And from my experience they have the ideas, energy, and enthusiasm to take the country forward. They will drive the connections, business links, and international engagement. It will be important that they are supported and provided with opportunities going forward.”

“I also encourage young Kuwaitis to embrace the country’s trading traditions and entrepreneurial culture. In a fast moving and interconnected world, it’s important to be outward looking, open to different people and cultures, and comfortable with engaging in some healthy competition not just in the Gulf region but gloablly. There are some outstanding Kuwaiti brands and products that I know would have lots of success outside of this country. And I sometimes get the sense that Kuwaitis are a bit reluctant to promote and market them. But I really believe they are just as good if not better than many international brands and products. It just takes that first step, a bit of confidence and Kuwaiti charm. Success will follow.”

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