Still, this small oil-rich Arab country has an agenda of its own that it wants to fulfill as it ends its last presidency on the Council — in probably decades — on a strong note. For June, Kuwait plans to work on the topic of missing persons in armed conflict, an issue that touches its own citizens who went missing when Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded, severely damaging Kuwait, in 1990. The concept note explains that the resolution to be voted on aims to address the issue of missing people when a conflict starts rather than in a post-conflict setting, while such information is more readily available. (The draft resolution, as seen by PassBlue.)
Kuwait will also hold a meeting on conflict prevention and mediation through the advice of the Elders group of former international and national leaders, such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Most important, Kuwait wants to improve the working relationship between the United Nations and the Arab League, a consortium of countries from the region.
After the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and left Iraq devastated economically, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, related to longstanding claims on the country. The move was condemned by the UN Security Council, which supported the intervention of the United States-led coalition of 32 countries to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait.
Now that Kuwait’s relationship with Iraq is normalized, Kuwait wants to use its presidency to shed light on the major problems Iraq faces while dealing with the remnants of ISIS there and the other volatile geopolitics in the region, such as the Syrian war. Kuwait is also a member of the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen. In addition, a June 26 meeting in the Security Council, on nuclear nonproliferation, will focus on the six-month briefing by the UN on the status of the Iran nuclear deal. As of this writing and despite rumors, it is unconfirmed whether John Bolton, the US national security adviser, will brief.
Kuwait is one of the world’s largest per-capita emitters of CO2, and with Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US, it blocked the endorsement of the UN’s special report on the impacts of global warming at the climate-change conference in Poland in 2018.
Every month since July, PassBlue has profiled UN ambassadors whose countries hold the rotating presidency of the Security Council; so far that means Sweden, Britain, US, Bolivia, China, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany and Indonesia.
The column aims to provide a look at the ambassador who holds this high-profile seat and his or her home country. The interview has been edited and condensed and contains information from a media briefing on June 3, below, as well.
Ambassador to the UN: Mansour Al-Otaibi, 52
Languages: Arabic, English
Education: B.A. in political science and public administration, Kuwait University, 1989
His story, briefly: Al-Otaibi has spent most of his professional life in New York City. He says that for him, the city feels a bit like home. He wanted to become an ambassador since he was in high school. After studying political science at the University of Kuwait, he started thinking about becoming a professor and getting a master’s degree and a Ph.D., but he changed his mind after he was accepted in Kuwait’s foreign service.
His first international posting was in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He said about his experience there: “We were young diplomats in Riyadh along with a number of Kuwaiti officials during a very difficult time for Kuwait, that being the Iraqi invasion . . . ,” he told PassBlue. “I learnt the importance of teamwork during that critical time in our history in which Kuwait’s diplomacy was focused on the liberation of Kuwait.”
Al-Otaibi moved to New York City in 1992 to work at the Kuwait mission to the UN and was appointed it permanent representative in 2010, which is the professional accomplishment he is the most proud of: “Representing your country at the United Nations, and anytime you achieve something for your country are things to be proud of,” he said. New York is also home for his children. Married and a father of three, his other big accomplishment besides being ambassador was to “see my children succeeding in their lives.”
How do you like New York City? I feel like I’m a New Yorker! I have spent about 24 years in the city so far. I enjoy walking in the city with my family and discovering new places. New York is one of the most livable places on earth. It’s very safe — nothing like what it was in the 1990s. New York is a very friendly city for families. I like the cultural scene, too, the cinemas and theaters are everywhere, modern and very convenient.
[Only] one of my children was born here, but they all spent most of their life in the city. One has already graduated from college and the other one will hopefully graduate next year. The younger one is still in high school. They go back to Kuwait twice a year so they are not detached from their family, and even though English is their first language, they speak good Arabic.
What do you miss the most about Kuwait? When you are away from home, you miss your family and relatives. In Kuwait, society is like an extended family. When you are away, they don’t forget about you, but it’s not easy to reintegrate myself when you come back because I’ve been away for almost 27 years. When you are working for your country but are away, you feel the love for your state maybe even more than when you live there.
What drove you to diplomacy? I am the first and only member of my family to be involved in politics. I wanted to study political science to become an ambassador since I was in high school. When I graduated, I didn’t change my mind but thought about continuing my studies to be a professor. The foreign ministry accepted me in 1989, but I didn’t give up on becoming a professor, and I may do it one day, for myself!
What are your priorities for the presidency? We will hold three signature events. The first will be about missing persons in armed conflicts. This is an issue that is very close to us because we still have more than 360 people missing in Iraq. We were able to account for 236 in Iraq, who cooperated with us and managed to locate the people and recognize them by DNA. We do this for the families. It’s not only about our own missing people but about missing people in general. The draft resolution, which is meant to raise awareness about the matter, has been written closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross. The goal is to adopt the resolution on June 11.
The other event, with the Elders, is going to be a meeting about mediation and conflict intervention, learning from the rich experience of what the Elders think the Council should do to strengthen the prevention of conflict. As a small state, we are very supportive of multilateralism, and we see the UN as not only a tool we should keep, but one that we should maintain and strengthen to maintain peace. The meeting will be June 12, with two Elders briefing: Mary Robinson [a former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights] and Ban Ki-Moon. Secretary-General António Guterres is also expected to brief the Council.
The third event, on June 13, will focus on the cooperation between the UN and regional organizations. We are, as you know, occupying the Arab swing seat on the Council, and we are indirectly representing the Arab League. We want to have this kind of dialogue between the UN and our regional organization. [The secretary-general of the Arab League, Aboul Gheit, will attend the meeting.]
We will have one open debate on the reforms of the Council. For the first time, the E-10 [the 10 nonpermanent members] all came up with this proposal to improve the working methods. This will take place on June 6. We will also vote on resolutions to renew the mandate of many UN missions.
How do you think the relationship between the Arab League and the UN can be improved? Chapter 8 of UN Charter calls on the UN to have a good working relationship with regional organizations. The UN has a good relationship with the African Union. We don’t want to copy that with the Arab League, but we could do something to strengthen the relationship. Especially considering that the Council currently has nine Arab issues on its agenda, and we are dissatisfied with how it is going — and maybe it is the Arab League’s fault.
What are your expectations for Trump’s peace plan for Israel and Palestine? What we really expect is that any proposal to solve the Palestinian issue has to be based on a UN Security Council resolution and international principles already agreed on. You cannot forget about all that and say, We deal with the reality on the ground. We will welcome any proposal on the occupation of Palestine. East Jerusalem should be the capital of the Palestinian state and Palestinians have a right to have their own state: this is the Arab position. [The United States] shouldn’t come up with a solution that contradicts principles and norms in the world.
What is your position on the tensions with Iran and the US? We are concerned: the region suffered from a lot of conflicts in the last years. We have a good relationship with Iran but are not always happy with its policy in the region. The best way to solve this is to have a discussion with Iran. Iran is not going anywhere: they are our neighbors, a very proud Muslim country, that has its own interests. They have to respect sovereignty and internal integrity.
Head of State: Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (Emir)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah
Type of Government: Constitutional, hereditary monarchy
Year Kuwait Joined the UN: 1963
Years on the Security Council: 1978-1979, 2018-2019
Population: 4.1 million
2019 Contributions to UN Regular Budget: $4,658,155 (or $0.14 per capita/year)
2019 Contributions to UN Peacekeeping: $15,594,390 (or $3.77 per capita/year)
Membership in Regional Groups: Gulf Cooperation Council, Opec (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
2015 Maternal Death Rate: 4/100,000. By comparison, the US rate in 2015 was 26.4/100,000
2017 Per Capita GDP: $29,040; EU, $33,723; US, $59,531; world, $10,721
2018 CO2 Emissions: (in tons, per capita): 25.0 (world average, 5)
Electric Power Consumption: (1,000 kWh/per capita and year): 15.2 (world average, 3.1 kWh; US, 13)
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.