This week I am leaving Kuwait after four-and-a-half happy years here as the Ambassador of the United Kingdom. It feels strange to be touring ministries and diwaniyyas to say goodbye to people who have become close friends. Even though I know the love I have developed for this country will keep me returning, leaving here is certainly a wrench.
I am very proud of what we at the British Embassy have achieved during my time here. But what I would like to dwell on in the last article I will write as Ambassador are my experiences in Kuwait and what I have learnt about this complex and fascinating country. It is a country of so many strengths. Perhaps the most noticeable thing for those arriving here – and the thing that many Westerners perhaps don’t expect – is the country’s openness. I am constantly struck by the frank and honest way in which Kuwaitis address political and social issues, and the kindliness with which foreigners like me are welcomed. Regardless of arguments of political systems, Kuwait’s people are at their very hearts democratic; political pluralism and open debate feel like a touchstone for Kuwaiti society and culture – just as – despite our different histories – they are for the UK. A vibrant press and politically aware population should always be a source of great pride for a country in a region where such values are perhaps not always recognised and nurtured.
I think Kuwait’s other great strength is its people. In my time here I have met an amazing array of impressive and profoundly talented people. This is true in business, where Kuwaitis can compete at the very highest level in the global marketplace. And equally impressive are those young people who have embraced volunteerism, civic awareness and citizenship. Kuwait’s indigenous civil society movements are genuinely inspirational – LoYAC, Sout Al-Kuwait, Injaz, Equait, Spread the Passion – these and many others besides are at the vanguard of a movement around political inclusivity, youth empowerment and responsible citizenship that will help shape the country’s future.
If you take these two things, and combine them with Kuwait’s wealth and its deep seated sense of national togetherness – of what it means to be a Kuwaiti – then I think the country’s potential is vast.
To a large extent this potential is as yet untapped. This is to be expected; Kuwait is a young country, and the strides made in only two or three generations are vast. To go from a small town of pearlers, traders, seafarers and nomads to an international metropolis with universal healthcare and education in under a century – regardless of the wealth created by oil – is an achievement almost unheralded in human history.
But – and I have yet to meet a Kuwaiti who does not agree with this statement – the journey is not finished. And in the coming years – whether five, ten, or twenty – Kuwait will need to make another leap forward as economic and political realities change.
The most obvious challenge Kuwait faces is economic. While Kuwait’s cradle-to-grave welfare system is one of the proudest and most impressive of the country’s achievements, it requires massive investment to maintain. Kuwait’s prudent management of its oil wealth, and the farsighted investment policies of the Kuwait Investment Authority, provide the country with a buffer. But the simple fact is that without economic diversification the country will be unable to support it indefinitely. The public sector is already over-subscribed; and history has shown that large bureaucracies impede growth. With so many young Kuwaitis poised to enter the labour market, and waiting lists for government jobs expanding, growth of the private sector is the only rational solution. I salute the work being done by Dr Mohammed Al-Zuhair and others in this field. It is a huge undertaking. And it will also require a rebalancing of incentives to make entrepreneurship and private sector work a more attractive proposition than lucrative government jobs.
The other problem with large bureaucracies is that they are fertile breeding grounds for corruption. This is of course a live issue. But regardless of the politics, I think all agree that corruption is a problem for Kuwait. It erodes confidence in the state amongst its people, and it hampers business and growth. It is a cancer found everywhere in the world, including in my own country. We have worked long and hard on this, and have amongst the most advanced anti-corruption legislation in the world. We are sharing this expertise with Kuwait, both its civil society and its governmental institutions; and I hope the Kuwait Anti-Corruption Authority will – given time – be able to address this issue. Ultimately what will really make a difference is an end to impunity – i.e. someone going to jail for corruption on the basis of a professional, evidenced investigation. This is not about politics, it is about governance, and there is no reason that the structures already set up to deal with this cannot deliver.
Of course, as with any country, the most difficult challenge to delivering good governance is getting the politics right. I’m not sure that any country in the world has yet managed it. What I find heartening about Kuwait though is that – like the UK – it is a country of reform not revolution; of incremental steps and political development through dialogue and – sometimes – argument. This, I am sure, will continue. But in the short term there are some tough nettles to grasp. Kuwait’s swift uptake of social media – and the use it has been put to in the political field – has outstripped the ability of both government and civil society to react. This is true everywhere and no one has yet come up with a perfect model which guarantees the balance between the inalienable right to freedom of expression, including online, while also preventing harassment, incitement and libel. Finding a solution, as in the UK, requires a reasoned debate between NGOs and activists and government.
This of course reflects a polarised political discourse within Kuwait. When the debate is about ideology, policy, political reform, then it is healthy and worthwhile. It is how progress emerges in any democracy. But the danger is when it becomes personal, when it becomes about individuals, and when reasoned debate turns to insults and slander. Protest and opposition are natural and integral parts of democratic society – and feel like just that in Kuwait, regardless of whether you agree with the views being espoused. But just as the state should allow freedom of expression, so must opposition realise its own responsibility to engage and be constructive. Neither are easy tasks – and the history of the world, including the UK, is littered with examples of both sides getting this wrong.
The same applies when talking about human rights – a sensitive issue I know, but one I am duty-bound to address. In the case of the Bidoon, during my whole time in Kuwait I have heard repeatedly that a solution will be forthcoming. This is good, and it is welcome that the government understands the seriousness of the issue. But movement needs to be quick; both for the Bidoon community itself, which needs to be integrated into society, and for Kuwait which misses out from not using their potential and finds its reputation damaged internationally.
There is of course much more to say than can be summarised in one article. But my overriding point is that Kuwait has the capacity, through its people, its proud history, its open society, and its financial position, to meet each and every challenge. The thought that I want to leave you with is that, even though I am sadly departing this country which I love and respect so much, my successor, and his successor, and every British Embassy and British government will always be here for Kuwait, humbly to offer lessons learnt from our own mistakes, and to help whenever called upon. It is an alliance forged through history and battles fought together, and it will always endure.