A Distinguished Gentleman

Michael Binyon chats with His Excellency Khaled Al-Duwaisan, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Ambassador of Kuwait in London

At the State Opening of Parliament on 25 May, a familiar face among the lords, politicians and dignitaries assembled to witness the Queen’s 58th legislative speech, delivered as always from the throne in the House of Lords, was that of Khaled Al-Duwaisan, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the UK. 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 Khaled Al-Duwaisan, a career diplomat, Anglophile and moderate Muslim, 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, Mr 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 organising a state visit to Britain by the Emir of Kuwait, the successful outcome of which earned him a GCVO from the Queen in 1995. He became Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in 2003, and so for the past seven years has had a hectic double job, not only heading up the Kuwaiti mission here – his country’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. Mr Al-Duwaisan spent 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, Mr 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:

• 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’).

Mr 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, Mr 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 socialising 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 organised by Buckingham Palace – that Britain urges its resident ambassadors to attend: the Queen’s Diplomatic Reception in November, the State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s Birthday Dinner and the Royal Garden Party. ‘Of course there is also Ascot,’ says Mr 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, Mr 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.

The Dean, though not formally responsible for his fellow ambassadors’ behaviour, is kept informed of any diplomatic incident that arises. He urges every diplomat to obey the law, but by the same token insists that if any of them should be declared persona non grata then the British Government must strictly follow the established protocol.

How then, does Mr Al-Duwaisan find any time to see his family? ‘Thank God, I have a wife who understands my role and supports me,’ he replies, 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. Last year he received the Lifetime Contribution to Diplomacy in London award at Diplomat magazine’s first annual awards ceremony – a richly deserved tribute indeed.