Kuwait: Bridging the Gaps … A Nation's Destiny




Dr. Mohammad Sabah AlSalem AlSabah's lecture upon receiving the Honorary Docotrate degree in Communication Systems in International Relations from the University for Foreigners of Perugia

Perugia, Italy

October 6, 2011

Ladies and gentleman, esteemed members of the faculty and scholars of the University for Foreigners of Perugia, it gives me great pleasure to be here today amongst you in this special and in many respects unique center for learning and scholarship.

This great capital of Umbria is renowned for its cultural diversity and the richness of its past. Indeed, one of Perugia’s brightest sons was the medieval jurist Baldus de Ubaldis, who contributed greatly to canon law. In art history, the influence of another great son of Perugia, the Renaissance artist Pietro Perrugino can never be overestimated. You are lucky to also have access to one of the most famous romantic spots in this part of Italy. The idyllic Lake Trasimeno which lays just few kilometers from where we gather today gives this magical land an aura comparable to none.

Before I begin my talk, I am aware that an important anniversary is being celebrated this year in Italy, namely the passage of 150 years since the unification of Italy and the birth of the modern Italian state. Its transformation from a state of fragmentation to one of unification is considered as one of the most significant developments in European politics during the second half of the 19th century. It is an act that has weathered the test of time and contributed to making Italy an influential player on the world stage. This year also marks our own important anniversary in Kuwait, for we are celebrating at home the Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence. In 1961, Kuwait became a fully sovereign state, joining the fold of newly independent nations and setting out a path for itself to becoming a global player in the international community.

Allow me to address you today as a once upon a time fellow academic, with the spirit that drives every academic, be it Kuwaiti or Italian, and that is the pursuit of greater knowledge. An academic is never satisfied with the
status – quo. He or she is marked by a restless and unquenchable desire to seek the path of truth by means of critical thinking and constant questioning. Thus, it is in our nature as Kuwaitis, Arabs and Muslims to set sail in pursuit of greater knowledge wherever it may be, even if it takes one to the farthest corners of the earth. And as the old Arab proverb goes: "Seek knowledge from cradle to grave."

Other principles that are equally important as knowledge for us Kuwaitis are family, religion and country. I have no doubt that you, my Italian friends, hold these notions with the utmost importance as much as we do. They are the pillars that stir up bravery, courage and hope when all else has failed; and rebuilt nations when nations have been invaded. Having briefly outlined what dictates the Kuwaiti frame of mind, let me address the role of Kuwait as a nation-state.
If one asked me to define Kuwait's role in one sentence, I would say that Kuwait is in the gap-bridging business, a business that transcends time and space. The four gaps are:

- The East – West gap

- The Rich – Poor gap

- The Present – Future gap

- The Modernity – Tradition gap

1- East Vs. West

Since its independence in 1961, Kuwait firmly decided to adopt positive neutrality in the East-West ideological divide. Kuwait was the first Gulf country to establish diplomatic ties with the USSR in the early sixties whilst playing a very constructive role in the North-South dialogue, or better known as the Brandt Commission. This commission envisioned a new form of global security which highlighted key international issues that were integral to the gap between the rich North and the poor South such as; food and agriculture development, energy, trade, financial and monetary reform amongst other issues. Stemming from our belief that this gap must be addressed to ensure global harmony, Kuwait hosted a meeting of the Brandt Commission in 1982 and was a key financer of it.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the bi-polar world, Kuwait did not lose its bearings. In fact, Kuwait recalibrated its foreign policy strategy to continue to ensure its sovereignty and security through International Law and legitimacy.

To be sure, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 solidified our total and categorical commitment and adherence to the rule of Law and to the principles of global citizenry.

From the plains of Kosovo, Nagorno–Karabakh, and Abkhazia, to the dangerous quick sands of the Middle East Peace Process and the Iranian Nuclear file, Kuwait has taken a very confident and secure position, well entrenched in the doctrines of international legitimacy.

As for our diplomatic outreach, Kuwait’s diplomacy has seen a pragmatic shift since the fall of dictatorship in Iraq in 2003. Foreseeing a future deep rooted in harmonious co-existence, Kuwait immediately set out to chart the course of its relations with its neighbors and the region based on the driving factor to the prosperity of all societies: Economics.

The changing environment of the region since the liberation of Iraq in 2003 changed many nations' priorities, including our own. Kuwait's foreign policy prior to 2003 was characterized by an extreme degree of risk aversion and suspicion because of the evil intentions that Saddam Hussein had towards his neighbors, specifically Kuwait. Since the collapse of Saddam's despotic regime, we moved from an era of preventive diplomacy to the more promising horizon of economic diplomacy and a movement from geo-politics to geo-economics to maximize our natural socio-economic objective.

Since 2003, Kuwait has undertaken many steps to further its
socio-economic objectives, while staying true to its principles of honesty and good-will seeking in its dealings with nations. Kuwait's prime geo-economic comparative advantage is its strategic location; right in the center of the region's crossroads. It is a gateway to the Arabian Gulf States, the Mashreq and Northern Africa, Iran and central Asia. Historically, caravan routes crossed Kuwait, connecting major trade roads from East to West that enabled Kuwait at that time to be a regional trade hub.

Today, Kuwait is one of the most active diplomatic hubs in the Middle East. Currently, the number of foreign embassies in Kuwait has jumped to 94, with 12 opening up last year alone. Bilateral committees are increasing by the year, with economic issues taking the lead in these negotiations. Consequently, the number of agreements and memoranda of understanding with other nations has shot up from 42 in 2006 to 163 in 2010. The past few years has also seen us broadening our global diplomatic presence, specifically in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America; driven by the future challenges that will face the globe (such as food security) and the opportunities in untapped markets (such as emerging economies). Over the past 5 years, 22 new Kuwaiti embassies opened up abroad, taking our total number of diplomatic missions to 90 worldwide. It is a testament to the success of our engagement with the world community.

Kuwait aspires to regain its status as a thriving trade and financial hub in the region once again and our economic diplomacy complements the vision of His Highness the Amir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber AlSabah, in reviving that role via our 2035 Development Plan. A four year plan
(2010 – 2014) – the first of many to come – with a budget of over $120 billion, is underway and our international and Italian friends no doubt have a role in assisting us with their expertise to achieve this ambitious vision.

2- Rich Vs. Poor

One of the most basic, intrinsic and existential strategies for
post – independence Kuwait, is to be a global citizen. The most effective way to support this strategy was the creation of the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development in December of 1961, just six months after our independence.

The Amir at that time, Abdullah AlSalem wanted to send a message from the Kuwaiti people to the rest of the word: ‘Here we are embarking on the tide of change, but we will not forget our friends in need.’

Furthermore, Robert McNamara, the president of the World Bank from 1968 - 1981, wrote: “When first established in 1961 the Kuwait Fund was without precedent. Here was Kuwait, a tiny country, until recently among the poorest places on earth, establishing a development fund in the year of its political independence. While welcoming its new found prosperity, it was declaring a willingness to share its future wealth with its Arab neighbors.”

Half a century later, the fund has allocated assistance worth over $15 billion to more than 100 countries, and this aid is specifically aimed at development projects in order to help societies prosper. Our target is not to give handouts, but to invest in the well-being of people. This makes the Kuwait Fund the largest development assistance institution after the World Bank.

We are proud of our track record in the field of foreign aid. According to the 2005 UN Millennium Development Goals Progress Report for Kuwait, the overall average Kuwaiti official development assistance over the period 1990 – 2003 stood at 1.31% of GNP. That accounts to almost double the agreed UN target of 0.7% of GNP for advanced countries. On the other hand, the average OECD’s rate is 0.46% of GNP, which makes Kuwait’s generosity triple that of the most advanced economies. Our effort in the foreign aid domain has been dubbed as pioneering. It is true that we are a small nation, but our footprint in the field of sustainable development is significant.

We as nations and as societies have a moral duty to helping those in need. We have all heard of the global financial crisis and its detrimental effects on companies and societies. However, there are other crises that deserve as much recognition and concerted action, such as the 'silent hunger crisis'; affecting one sixth of all mankind. To put it bluntly, 1 billion people every night go to bed hungry. Every day, 17 thousand children die of hunger. These statistics are staggering. These are deaths that can be prevented if people had the basics: clean water, sufficient food, and shelter.

Poverty and unemployment are other obstacles facing many societies, hindering them of their potential for greatness. Today, 1.7 billion live in absolute poverty. According to a recent report published by the International Labor Organization, 205 million people worldwide were unemployed last year. Unemployment amongst youths (15-24 years) stood at 12.6%. We are all well aware of the socio-political impact unemployment has on nations. As witnessed in the Arab world lately, unemployment – and specifically amongst the youth – was a key force behind the uprisings. Opportunities are there for a better future. Sometimes all that is required is a road that links towns together to encourage trade, a new well for clean water, a school for the young to learn, or simply a sewing machine for an elderly woman to enable her to make a living.

Other initiatives undertaken by Kuwait to bridge this Rich-Poor gap include the idea of holding an Arab Economic Summit. We in Kuwait foresaw several years ago the discontent felt today by the average Arab, and for that reason proposed the idea of holding such a summit biannually to address the social, economic and development concerns facing our peoples. Education, housing, infrastructure and healthcare were the forefront topics for such a summit, and Kuwait successfully held the first summit in 2009. For once, politics took a back seat.

One of the many initiatives put forth by His Highness the Amir was the establishment of a $2 billion fund, to which Kuwait contributed $500 million, specifically aimed at financing medium and small businesses. It is initiatives like these that impact the everyday Arab, providing those with an idea the sufficient capital to fulfill it. Furthermore, Kuwait established the “Decent Living Fund” in which it contributed $100 million as an emergency fund set up to help less developed countries to address the issue of rising food prices in light of the global financial crisis.

We recognize that it is our duty to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, as both hold the keys to future progress. Kuwait's enemies are not its neighbors, and they should not be; but rather a common enemy that should unite all nations. Ignorance, poverty and disease are the enemies. Blessed with wealth since our independence, we have fought unrelentingly to bring to reality the passionate aspirations, fervent dreams and righteous demands of impoverished people around the globe. The foreign aid dynamism of our diplomacy has been and remains to be a corner stone of Kuwaiti foreign policy since our independence, and will continue to be the pulse of our economic diplomacy.

3- Present Vs. Future

Recognizing that Kuwait’s wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in exhaustible form, the former ruler of Kuwait Abdullah AlSalem decided in the early fifties to diversify Kuwait’s wealth portfolio more in favor of financial wealth. Therefore, he created the first sovereign wealth fund in the world in 1953, eight years before the independence of Kuwait. Today, the Kuwait Investment Authority (K.I.A.) is one of the leading and most responsible sovereign wealth funds in the world.

In 1976, the former Amir Sabah AlSalem, signed into law the creation of the Fund for Future Generations. This revolutionary idea of taxing the current generation in favor of their unborn grand children is a testimony to the far sightedness of the Kuwaiti leadership. The idea is to generate enough financial resources to enable the post-oil generation to create a viable and sustainable economy.

Despite its relative short post-independence history, Kuwait has repeatedly exhibited determination and commitment to democracy. The dynamism of our democratic system is well renowned in the region and it is that political dialogue that has sustained us as a nation throughout our history. Our Arab Spring happens every spring.

13 general elections were held since our independence 50 years ago. The last elections witnessed a historic achievement in which Kuwaiti women took 8% of seats in parliament, only four years after gaining their right to vote and run for office. This has added to Kuwait’s efforts to achieve women’s empowerment, one of the UN Millennium Development Goals, and encouraged other MPs to accelerate legislations in this field. With a free press, one of the freest in the region, and a vibrant civil society movement; the avenues, channels and platforms our citizens have to express their opinions has steered us through as a nation over the years to become a model of democracy in the region.

Each time a man stands up to speak his mind freely or a journalist expresses his opinion in a newspaper or a blogger criticizes without fear of retribution and reprisal is a time that we know our democracy is thriving. Representative democracy was the form of government Kuwaitis chose in their constitution of 1962, and is still the way they perform their day-to-day politics and planning for the future. Entrenched in this centuries old democratic process are the principles of good governance and respect for the rule of law.

4- Modernity Vs. Tradition

In modern times, man's search for freedom and liberty has taken a new twist in the age of the internet. It has taken him to the world of cyber space. In today's world of social networking, using such sites as Facebook and Twitter has allowed more gaps to be bridged. Social network sites have provided people a platform to voice their opinions, express their frustrations at politicians and demand a more functional government that meets their needs for political reform and economic opportunity. It has long been recognized that the press is the "fourth branch" of government. In today’s world, I think social networking is the "fifth branch".

Just to go over a few numbers with you, Facebook users have reached over 750 million. That would make citizens of Facebook part of the third most populous country in the world. In the Arab world, Facebook users amount to 27.7 million, with the first quarter of 2011 registering a phenomenal 30% increase in users since the start of the year. This is no coincidence in light of the Arab uprisings. It is a strong indicator that Arabs have resorted to a platform where their voices can be heard by not only their fellow citizens, but by the entire world. The new social network trend is Twitter, with 200 million users tweeting 1 billion tweets per week. Kuwait is one of the five leading countries in percentage of Facebook and Twitter users in the Arab world. One must not diminish the influence of such social networking sites as their influence is only beginning to be understood.

However, for Kuwaitis, our understanding of modernity and tradition are very much intertwined in our DNA. The bridge between modernity and tradition is not alien to us as a society. People usually associate modernity with openness to the world, diverse cultures and new ideas; be it political, economic or social. Thus, one can consider Kuwaitis to be traditionally modern, and Kuwait City to be a global city. Having been a sea-faring society prior to the discovery of oil, our forefathers set sail on the rough seas to make a living by trading with other societies. Their journeys took them to Iraq, India and as far away as Zanzibar – we call it the Trade Triangle. Along these treacherous waters, our forefathers had to have the knowledge of communicating in Swahili and Hindi to trade, and in English to escape the British Armada! Consequently, their exposure to different people, cities and religions instilled in them a strong sense of tolerance, which has been passed down from one generation to another. This sense of openness can be found even in our homes in what we call the Diwaniya. It is at such gatherings that any stranger can freely walk in at a given sitting and mingle and discuss politics, business and religion – no topic is ever off the table. Prior to the establishment of our parliament as we know it today, these Diwaniyas essentially were mini-parliaments scattered all over Kuwait. People networked, voiced their opinions and concerns. Our Diwaniyas were our Facebook and Twitter, long before these social networking sites came into existence. No successful politician would dare not to visit them; they served and continue to serve as the pulse of society and the principle measure of public opinion. Therefore, even our democracy is indigenous; well before it was "fashionable" and "modern" for nations to be termed as democratic.

For that reason we have a culture of tolerance and a deep-rooted understanding of globalization derived from a centuries old skill-set passed down by our forefathers. Thus, as Kuwaitis, our transition from traditionalism to modernity is not a process determined by the latest of technologies in our fast-paced globalized world. Rather, it is self-made. It is in fact, within us.

I conclude tonight with the most important bridge that we need to build, and that is between us as people – Kuwaitis & Italians; Muslims & Christians; Arabs & Europeans; Orients & Occidents. It is this gap between our cultures, languages and traditions that must be bridged in order to learn from one another and educate each other with the ultimate aim of mutual benefit. Beneath all our differences are ultimate universal rights as humans that each and every one of us here today shares.

I leave you my friends with a quote by the great poet Gibran Khalil Gibran, a man who was instrumental in helping to bridge the East-West gap: "The true wealth of a nation lies not in its gold or silver but in its learning, wisdom and in the uprightness of its sons."

God bless the State of Kuwait and God bless the Republic of Italy.

Thank you.

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