Mondays with Matthew: Open for questions – Ask Me Anything

Post by Matthew Lodge

AMA

Today I thought we’d try something different – and throw conversation open for all of you to Ask Me Anything. For those of you familiar with reddit, you may recognize the idea.

I’m happy to take questions on any subject you want. If I can’t answer openly (which I will always try to do) I shall say so.

Please ask away – it’s good to talk!

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge

Update: AMA session is now closed


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Mondays with Matthew: A level playing field and an honest game

Post by Matthew Lodge

corruption

Today – 9 December – is United Nations’ World Anti-Corruption Day. Is this just another “World Day”, or is it something that really matters and that we should take an interest in?

Before you answer that, let me note a few things about Kuwait that I have learned or have been reminded of since arriving in the summer:

Kuwait is an open society, with a rich history built on trade and commerce. Kuwait’s political system is more open and genuinely democratic than almost all of its neighbours in the region. This is a society with an independent judiciary, where Kuwaitis believe in the rule of law, value their rights and cherish their ability to express their views openly and freely. Kuwait is also a rich country – with abundant wealth which the Government uses to provide extensive, high quality services for Kuwaiti citizens. Kuwaiti assets are invested across the world and in international markets. But not all Kuwaitis are rich. Kuwait, like all societies in the modern world, needs to think about how best it can maintain social harmony and address the legitimate expectations of all its people.

True? I believe so. You may argue some points of detail, but the key elements are accurate.

So let’s now turn to corruption, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said:

“Corruption…undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organised crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish…corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice”

Undermining democracy? Distorting markets? Undermining a government’s ability to provide services? Feeding inequality and injustice?

Left unchecked, those strike me as pretty serious risks for any society. I would argue that tackling corruption is something that should matter to us all – British, Kuwaiti or whatever our home or nationality. No country is immune. Corruption is present in every society.

Some may argue that it is part of every-day life, necessary to get things done. Even if it is, sadly, true to say that a favour here, a back-hander there can help to get things done, that doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t change the fact that corruption erodes trust between people, within societies, between businesses and amongst nations. Corruption diverts resources from where they are most needed, fuelling inequality and holding back development. Corruption also stifles economic growth and investment, and it increases the cost of doing business.

So what are we going to do about it?

Kuwait signed the United Nations Convention against Corruption in December 2003, and today the Kuwaiti Government is taking concrete steps with the establishment of Kuwait’s Anti-Corruption Public Authority. This body – and the wider fight against corruption – deserves our full support.

What are you going to do? Do you think corruption is a problem? Do you even have a clear view on what is and isn’t corruption? How do you think we can help combat it? It’s down to each of us individually to take a stand, and try to make a difference.

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge


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Mondays with Matthew: Flowers of Scotland

Post by Matthew Lodge

scottishflag

If you were passing by the British Embassy yesterday you may have noticed that we were flying a different flag. 30 November is St Andrew’s Day – the national day of Scotland. We were proud to raise the Saltire – the flag of Scotland – and delighted to see it flying in the beautiful Kuwaiti sunshine. As well as being a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland is part of our identity, part of my identity. Here at the British Embassy in Kuwait we have a number of staff who enjoy Scottish heritage, family connections or both. I am one of them. I am proud to be British. I am also proud to represent Scotland, alongside England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
So how much do you know about Scotland?

St Andrew’s Day is a good moment to remind ourselves of the impact Scots and Scotland have had on the world. Did you know that James Bond is a Scot? Or that penicillin was discovered by a Scot, and that television and the steam engine were invented in Scotland too?

Scotland today has a huge amount to offer whether you are a tourist, a student or looking to do business. Take a look at www.VisitBritain.org for an idea of what Scotland has to offer for visitors. This year looks like being a record year for tourism, but in a usual year, 20 million people can be expected to visit Scotland, four times more than the entire Scottish population!

Visitors come for Scotland’s mix of vibrant, cosmopolitan cities; the biggest arts festival in the world; the beautiful, clean and unspoilt scenery, with thousands of historic castles, houses, battlegrounds, ruins and museums, and don’t forget Scotland’s contribution to global fashion. You can also enjoy Scotland’s food and drink, famed around the world, and the great outdoors. So, if you want a change from Kuwaiti heat, sunshine and sand, Scotland can offer something different!

And 40,000 overseas students (including quite a few Kuwaitis!) travel to Scotland every year to seek an education fit for a King. It was, after all, at one of Scotland’s world-class universities, St. Andrews, that HRH Prince William studied and where he and the Duchess of Cambridge met.

2014 has been Scotland’s year. The Commonwealth Games brought 6,500 athletes to Glasgow. They came from 71 nations and territories, representing a third of the world’s population, to compete in 17 sports over 11 glorious days. Over a million people filled Glasgow’s sporting arenas, and over a billion more were willing on the athletes from their homes. A short while later, the eyes of more than half a billion viewers in 183 countries turned to Gleneagles as Europe’s and America’s best golfers battled it out for the glory of winning the Ryder Cup.

2014 was also the year that the United Kingdom demonstrated that values aren’t just something we talk about abroad – we live by them at home. In a defining moment in British history, and by a decisive majority, the people of Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, one of the most durable and successful political unions ever seen.

In a world where separatism all too often leads to conflict, the Scottish referendum demonstrated Britain’s confidence in her own democratic institutions and processes.
A free and open debate electrified the nation; a peaceful, lawful and democratic vote drew admiration from around the world; and, with a record turnout, the settled will of the Scottish people was determined.

So when you think of Scotland, I hope you think of all the above and more. Scotland has an enormous amount to be proud of, and we have an enormous amount to celebrate with Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge


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Mondays with Matthew (on Tuesday): Sport – let the games begin

Post by Matthew Lodge

lewis

The United Kingdom has a new champion! Formula 1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton was crowned world champion at the end of yesterday’s end of season Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. British newspapers are full of images of a jubilant Hamilton and headlines such as the “Start of something special” and “Best day of my life”. Perhaps the fact that he beat his team-mate and long-term rival, German driver Nico Rosberg, makes the victory seem even sweeter. For the UK, our rivalry with our European friends always adds an extra twist to the competition.

So what if journalists play down the fact that Hamilton and Rosberg both drive for a German team? Painful memories of England’s exit from this summer’s FIFA World Cup, and Germany’s victory, are long forgotten. Glory is in the moment and the victor enjoys the adulation. Who cares if Germany won the World Cup, we have Lewis!

Well, lots of people care, and not just 80 million justifiably proud Germans (congratulations mein Freund), but that was last summer.

Today, I feel Kuwait’s pain. Losing 0-5 to Oman last week appears to have caused a national shock. As a Briton, I’m not unused to sporting disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I am no football expert. I enjoy a kick-around with the kids, but that’s it for soccer. However, I learned a few years ago that it’s very difficult for a British Ambassador not to take an interest in sport, and football in particular. This initially posed a problem for me. Apart from my rather limited ball-skills, I had grown up playing rugby, hockey, and athletics. I have always enjoyed watching the World Cup and European Championships, but not much more. Suddenly I needed a “team”. Naturally, I chose Liverpool. I was born there. I also remember Kevin Keegan, John Toshack and Kenny Dalglish. So I have become a Liverpool supporter. At least I’ll never walk alone.

liverpool

Except, here in Kuwait, I keep meeting Arsenal or Chelsea fans. Why is that? Where are all the Liverpool supporters? I did meet a Tottenham supporter the other day. And of course, I know about Kuwaiti links with Nottingham Forest and Ebbsfleet United. I’ve even met some enthusiastic Kuwaitis who fly to the UK to watch the occasional match before heading home again the following day. That’s more dedicated than I’d ever be, but it’s great to know that football is so popular here. It has also been good to learn about other Kuwaiti sporting interests – and successes: the shooting team and other medallists at the Asian Games in South Korea this autumn; the early morning cycling clubs out on the Gulf road every Friday; the numerous youth football clubs playing across the city; and the Triathlon that took place last month. People taking part in these activities may have been disappointed too by last week’s score. But they keep training, enjoy the competition, and play for the fun and thrill of the game.

People always rediscover their love of sport. Anyone and everyone can have a go. It brings people together. What do you think of sport in Kuwait today? Can more be done to help people enjoy the benefits it brings, and the joy it can give?

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge


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Mondays with Matthew: Things that money can’t buy

Post by Matthew Lodge

poppies

Around this time of year, red poppies (red flowers symbolising Remembrance) are worn with pride. They are also seen by some outside the UK as a particularly British tradition. Alongside red London buses, black taxis, Big Ben, the Tower of London and Fish and Chips, they are associated with Britain.

As a newcomer to Kuwait and the Gulf, I have asked myself what comes to mind when I think of the country which is now my home. I think of sand and the desert, of the searing summer heat, and of men in dishdashas. I think of the invasion by Saddam Hussein and more importantly Kuwait’s liberation, and last but not least, I think of oil. Those old, but still dreadful images of fires burning in the desert filling the sky with black smoke, contrasted against modern images of large, shiny and thirsty cars that drive up and down Kuwait’s Gulf road and cost less to fill with petrol than it does to buy my friends a round of cappuccinos.

These are all quick, lazy and superficial stereotypes, but the fact remains that Kuwait, with vast oil reserves that generate enormous sums of money for the country and its people, will continue for the foreseeable future to conjure up images of sand, deserts, oil and money.

In less than 3 months, I have already seen how much more there is here, just as I know the UK is about more than Beefeaters and the Union Jack, but stereotypes persist. On average Kuwaiti visitors to the UK last year spent more than any other nationality. Kuwaiti banks, investment funds and finance houses are amongst the richest in the world. The support that Kuwait gives to individual citizens, whether in free healthcare, educational scholarships, free utilities, subsidised services etc is a source of admiration (and some amazement) for those of us arriving from cash-strapped European economies where public debt remains stubbornly high and sustained economic growth frustratingly elusive.

But it’s not all about money, is it? Easy perhaps for me to say, living in an historic Residence and enjoying the privileges of being an Ambassador. However, as an individual, as a father, as a husband, I know very clearly how it is those things that can’t be bought that matter to me the most. The friendship and trust. That understanding which only develops after time spent together. The sense of a common purpose and shared interest. The desire to do the right thing, not always the easy thing. And the hope and belief that there’s something more we can achieve, something better we can build. I have seen all these things amongst the people I have met here. Young Kuwaitis excited to study abroad. Dedicated activists determined to stand up for the rights of those who might otherwise struggle to be heard. Visionary leaders with exciting and ambitious plans. None of these are easy, and certainly none are quick. All take hard work and investment – not simply of money (although that is often necessary and usually helps), but investment of energy, drive and belief. Personal commitment to get things done and make a difference, not just for you but for those around you. The close UK-Kuwait friendship, built on years of shared experience and understanding, means we can talk about the issues and challenges we all face. The business and economic partnerships are more important than ever, but it is our partnership on those things that money can’t buy that will really make the difference. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that money can’t buy?

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge


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Mondays with Matthew: Visitors Welcome (2 of 2)

Post by Matthew Lodge

visa

Hello again. I knew that my post last week on why we need a visa system would prompt a lot of comments, and I was not disappointed! I have attempted to answer as many of them as I can – please take a look (especially if you posted a comment).. and let me apologise if we have fallen short on occasion. No system is perfect, but we are doing the best we can.

I am glad to say that the vast majority of visas are processed smoothly, efficiently and without incident. We need to make sure that happens all the time. It is obviously more challenging in busier times. But, for example, we are currently processing priority applications in 2 working days (against a target of under 5 days) and ordinary applications in 3-5 working days, rather than 15. On another point one of you has raised – we have updated the VFS website so that it now explains correctly the number of photos needed (thank you Khaled for pointing that out). And yes, the parking arrangements need to be better. We’re working on it…

For this week’s second part on visas (I promise I’ll move onto something more exciting next week), I said I’d offer some tips on how to make the process work as well as possible for you. Our responsibility is to make sure visa applicants are served courteously, quickly and efficiently and that you have all the information you require. Here’s a few pointers about how you can help yourselves (and help us!):

– Always apply as early as you can. Not only does this mean it is cheaper (you don’t need to pay for the priority service), it also allows more time to sort out any difficulties and should reduce any stress. Why not apply for your visa as soon as you have booked your flight?

– Make sure you apply for the right visa. Sounds obvious, but if you’re going for medical treatment, make sure you have a medical visa. If you’re going to study, get a student visa. If you do either of these things on a visit visa you risk getting into difficulties with the immigration authorities – and that will make it harder for you next time you apply or travel.

– Always provide the correct documents (details on the website)

– Fill in the forms yourself – don’t get someone else (like an agency) to do it for you to ensure you’ve input all the correct information

– Please provide a personal e-mail or mobile number so we can contact you if necessary – and we can then provide progress updates on how your application is going.

– If you’re a regular traveller, it may be worth paying extra for a multi-entry 5 or 10 year visa. They are expensive, but worth it in the long run.

Finally, please let us know if we are not doing what we say we will do. That way, I hope we’ll be able to do better in future. Now to more exciting topics, what would you like to talk about next week?

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge


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Mondays with Matthew: Visitors Welcome (1 of 2)

Post by Matthew Lodge

Hello again. It’s good to be back for a second week of “Mondays with Matthew”. I have enjoyed reading all your comments on my first post – even the more critical ones! I’ll respond to as much as I can, and I’ll always respond honestly.

In the spirit of that approach, I wanted to say a few words about visas – the first thing that comes to mind when you mention that you’re the British Ambassador to Kuwait. Yes it’s not the most exciting subject, but it’s clearly one that generates a lot of frustration and emotion. “Too expensive”, “too slow”, “too complicated”, “unfair”, “unnecessary”, or even “insulting”. These are all comments I have heard when listening to Kuwaitis talk about visas to travel to the UK. Let me tackle this head on. My hope over the next two posts is to explain why we do what we do, and how travellers can make the system work as smoothly for them as possible.

Let me start by saying that the United Kingdom welcomes visitors. We are delighted that so many Kuwaitis enjoy travelling to the UK, visiting London and other cities and we want that to continue. Last year, the visa team here at the Embassy received around 100,000 applications for visas from Kuwait for people wishing to travel to the UK. That number doesn’t include all those who have longer-term visas, who are studying or those visiting the UK for medical treatment. In addition, a study by Visit Britain (the UK’s tourist agency) showed that Kuwaiti visitors did more shopping in the UK than any other nationality last year. The UK’s close relationship with Kuwait and the strong human ties are something very special and I am anxious that we maintain and strengthen them.

So, why do we need a Global visa regime at all?

It’s all about security and control. The UK is open, tolerant and welcoming. It is also a country that continues to be shaped by its past with large immigrant communities, an increasingly diverse society and a genuinely global outlook. Add to this the English language, the National Health Service and other factors, and the UK becomes an enormously attractive destination for migrants from many different countries. And then consider the UK’s high profile internationally, the determination of successive UK Governments to stand up for those elsewhere who face oppression, injustice and violence – and you also see a UK that is viewed as a target for those who want to do us harm, who don’t share our views and don’t like our engagement overseas.

One of the prime responsibilities of any national Government is to keep its country – and its people – safe. In the 21st century, that responsibility has become even harder to fulfil. Controlling who crosses our borders is a fundamental element of this. That is why we need to operate a visa regime. It’s not about making life difficult for honest travellers and welcome visitors. It is about stopping those who would do us harm, discouraging those who want to enter the UK illegally, and controlling those who might want to stay on after they have finished what they came for.

So, if we accept that we – sadly – need a visa regime, how can we make it as smooth as possible? More on that next Monday, but for now I welcome your thoughts and input in the comments section!

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge

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Mondays with Matthew: Hello Kuwait

Post by Matthew Lodge

embassy

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

Post by Matthew Lodge
British Ambassador to Kuwait
Instagram: @HMAMatthewLodge Twitter: @HMAMatthewLodge


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