Spend a few minutes at Kuwait airport and you are reminded that people are coming and going every day. Families returning from holiday, business travellers heading off, air crew stopping over. Amongst all these you may occasionally spot the new arrivals, and I don’t mean those visiting for a few days, but those who have arrived to make Kuwait their home. Maybe for a year or two, maybe for longer. At the end of August, amidst the hustle and bustle of the airport, my family and I arrived in Kuwait. For my wife and kids this was the first time they’ve been here, but Kuwait is now home, and will be for the next 4 years.
I want to start a conversation with you so let me start by telling you what my own reactions have been.
Kuwaitis are welcoming, open and friendly. Irrespective of any conservative traditions and social customs, Kuwait feels modern, vibrant and dynamic. As you drive into town from the airport, you also get an immediate sense of Kuwait being quite westernised. Fast food outlets light up the roadsides. Cars are big, the roads are wide. This is a land of comfort, consumerism and confidence. Kuwait is not shy. Kuwait has money, and more importantly Kuwait has oil.
But that initial, essentially superficial, impression is just that – superficial. As British Ambassador, moving into a house that claims to be the oldest continually-occupied residential building in Kuwait, I am reminded every day about the history. Kuwait’s history. Our shared history.
Firstly, the house itself – the notes left for me explain how the British architect was brought from Bushehr and the funding approved by the Government in India. Then there’s this sepia photograph on the wall showing the Residence of the “Political Agent”, constructed in 1935-6, taken in 1951 when the gates opened onto the beach and there was no Gulf Road. More recently, I am also reminded of the wonderful 50/20 celebrations that took place in 2001 – half a century since independence from Great Britain, two decades since the liberation – followed in 2012 by the State Visit of His Highness The Amir.
But it’s about more than official commemorations or grand occasions. For many Kuwaitis London and the UK is their home away from home, many more have studied there, and Kuwait sends more visitors to the UK each year than any other GCC country. So when it comes to my plans and hopes as the new British Ambassador, I remember that there is a huge amount already there between our two countries. Kuwait and Britain are, and will always be, connected – in every sense.
Before coming here, we had heard a lot about the country and the people, and during the last eight weeks we’ve learned a little more. One thing, which I perhaps knew already, is that as an Ambassador you enjoy a very privileged existence. Everyone is always very polite and courteous, but if you really want to understand how people feel (rather than just hear what they think you want to hear) then you have to work hard to get out, meet people and listen.
My goal is to do precisely that. I want to listen to you. I’d like you to tell me what you think I need to hear. So tell me, is the Kuwait I am seeing the same as the one you recognise?
In any case, thank you Kuwait for welcoming me. It’s good to be here