Interview with Matthew H. Tueller, U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait

Kuwait Matthew TuellerA career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Matthew H. Tueller arrived in Kuwait on September 23, 2011. Tueller’s previous overseas assignments have included Deputy Chief of Mission at Embassy Cairo; Political Minister Counselor at Embassy Baghdad; Deputy Chief of Mission at Embassy Kuwait; Political Counselor at Embassy Riyadh; Chief of the U.S. Office in Aden, Yemen; Deputy Chief of Mission at Embassy Doha; Political Officer at Embassy London; and Political Officer and Consular Officer at Embassy Amman. His Washington assignments have included Deputy Director in the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs and Egypt Desk Officer. A Utah native, Tueller holds a B.A. from Brigham Young University and a M.P.P. from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I had the privilege of growing up in the Foreign Service. My father was a Foreign Service Officer, so from a young age I was familiar with the career. Like many of my colleagues in the Foreign Service, I was attracted to it partly out of a sense of idealism: the opportunity to serve. It also presented exciting career opportunities, like the ability to travel and to be on the front lines of historical events. I was attracted to the career from a very young age, and I am delighted to be doing today what fifty years ago I had hoped to be doing.

The Politic: For someone who may be considering a similar career, do you have advice for those aspiring Foreign Service Officers?

The career really does require the best and the brightest. I tell people that they really need to think hard about preparing themselves for a career that is going to require that they constantly develop new skills. We have a set of skills that we look for in entrance: substantive knowledge and intellectual skills. But equally important are interpersonal skills, the ability to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds, and the ability to be able to communicate effectively.

In preparing for the Foreign Service Exam, I often suggest to aspirants that they spend at least a year reading widely in every field, particularly by getting a subscription to The Economist, and read that cover-to-cover every day for a year. If you can do that and you can find every single article in The Economist interesting then you are probably a pretty good candidate for the Foreign Service.

The Politic: Do you personally come with a background in Arabic?

One of my father’s early assignments was in Morocco, where he did Arabic study and subsequently served his Consul in Tangier. So I spent four years in Morocco and learned colloquial Arabic. While I was in University, I studied Arabic. I did a year in Cairo while in graduate school at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad. When I entered the Foreign Service, I already had Arabic and an interest in a career in this position.

The Politic: On a related note, you have served throughout the Middle East. You have served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Cairo, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Kuwait and have also served in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, and Jordan. Have you learned any lessons, serving across the Middle East in particular with regards to how they apply to your current role as Ambassador to Kuwait?

Through every assignment I’ve had in the Foreign Service, I have learned things and been able to use lessons that I’ve gained along the way. There have been skills that I have acquired sometimes the hard way that have helped me in my current position. The unique thing about the Foreign Service is that there is the opportunity for people to come in to serve as Chiefs of Mission who come from different backgrounds. About two-thirds of the Chiefs of Mission come from Foreign Service careers who, over the course of many years, have sent time in diplomacy. Interestingly enough, when I have served non-career Ambassadors, I have learned fascinating things about how they conduct diplomacy, coming in some cases from private sector backgrounds, from U.S. military backgrounds and in one case from a legal background. I often have the opportunity to think back on how I face problems in my current position and to think about the skills that every Ambassador has have and how they apply those skills to solving problems.

The Politic: As a follow-up to that, would you say that there has been any single moment, person or experience that has been most influential in terms of your career path and your career in Foreign Service?

That is really hard because as I look back on every single assignment, there has been something in each of those assignments that really stands out as unique or special. I think that is part of what is so attractive about a Foreign Service career. I had the opportunity to first come to Kuwait right after the liberation, as we re-opened the Embassy and reset the relationship, and that was just an extraordinary time. I served in Riyadh, [Saudi Arabia,] arriving there as the Political Counselor back in August 2001. About a month after I arrived, we received the devastating blow to the relationship — following the events of 9/11. It took a long time for the relationship to reset itself. During my time in Riyadh, I found myself having to think about the relationship in new terms. I think that all of us at the Embassy at that time had to do that. The Saudis, of course, had to undergo the same exercise on their part. I look back at that experience as one of the most challenging.

Of course, being in Cairo as the Deputy Chief of Mission from 2008-2011, particularly during the upheaval that led to the ouster of President Mubarak from office, posed management challenges. We were challenged in terms of how we kept American citizens and American facilities safe and how we worked within a very, very uncertain political environment. We see that continuing today.

The Politic: As a final question with regards to a career in Foreign Service, has there been any single thing that has been either most unexpected or surprising with regards to your current job as Ambassador to Kuwait?

None of us ever like to admit that anything is unexpected or surprising. The role of an ambassador or Chief of Mission requires that you have the ability to think strategically in the long-term and not just in terms of what impact you are having today, but rather what needs to happen to advance U.S. interests in the long-term. I was prepared for that, but, perhaps, what has been surprising to me has been how quickly the time flies by. Coming up on two years now, I have tried very hard to set certain priorities for how I would like to see the relationship build. I particularly wanted to build on what is already a very strong security relationship, as well as [establish] more people-to-people relationships in the health field and the education field. I had that in mind, and have made progress on that, but I look and see just how quickly the time has flown by. The normal tour of duty for an Ambassador is three years, and if you want to have an impact for the long-term, you have to start running from the very first day and never let up.

The Politic: I would like to now transition to more policy-related questions. During Secretary Kerry’s June 26 visit to Kuwait, he said, “The relationship between the United States and Kuwait is literally as strong as it has ever been.” Could you talk about in what ways this partnership is most tangibly felt?

Perhaps the real bedrock of the relationship is the security relationship. Our unique relationship with Kuwait allows the U.S. to project a credible deterrent presence in the region. Should any actor or country in this region seek to damage the interests of the United States or our partners, we can demonstrate credibly that we — through our relationship with Kuwait — have the ability to react to that with our presence on the ground. That is incredibly important and it serves our interests. Kuwait has been able to prosper under the security and stability afforded by that relationship, and the United States has been able to respond to threats to our interests because of our relationship with Kuwait.

The relationship, I believe, really goes much beyond security. As I mentioned, in order to be sustainable in the long-term, we have to have components in trade, commerce, and exchanges on the educational level — people-to-people relationships. I have found building those parts of the relationship to be very satisfying. Over the last two years, the number of Kuwaitis traveling to the United States for tourism, for medical care, and for education has increased substantially. I think we have had a 100 percent increase in the number of visa applicants from Kuwait over the last five years. We are working very hard on meeting the President’s objectives for the national import-export initiative, and our trade with Kuwait has been increasing substantially. Kuwait, although a relatively small market because of its population, is our fifth largest export partner in the Middle East. Seeing those things happen over the time that I have been here is something that I am very proud of.

The Politic: During the course of this interview, I hope to touch on all components of this relationship. However, I would like to start with discussing the security facet. Kuwait is giving $1.6 billion in aid to the Syrian people. Could you discuss for what purposes this money is being used?

Kuwait has taken a leading role in pulling together assistance for the humanitarian effort that the UN and other international organizations are engaged in. In January of this year, Kuwait made a pledge of $300 million that met the UN goal of $1.5 billion at that time. Kuwait has continued to work hard with other friends of Syria to raise that money. The Kuwaiti effort is largely going towards meeting the immediate, pressing humanitarian needs with the number of Syrians that are displaced either inside Syria or in neighboring countries. Kuwait’s assistance is largely going to the UN and other related agencies.

The Politic: As a follow-up, is there any tension in Kuwait, given that a number of wealthy Kuwaitis have been funneling money to groups in Syria that the United States and other related nations have deemed to be extremists? Is the U.S. Embassy or the Kuwaiti government taking any actions to deter these investments?

Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Matthew Tueller, meets with members of the Kuwaiti royal family
Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Matthew Tueller, meets with members of the Kuwaiti royal family

We know from our conversations with Kuwaiti officials that that is a matter of concern to them. Kuwait believes that it is very dangerous to be sending money to armed groups in Syria and, in fact, has had differences with some of their GCC partners on that specific question. This past year, Kuwait passed a law that gives the government new authority to monitor funding of organizations abroad that might be engaged in violent or terrorist activities. Kuwait is working now to implement those regulations. That is a matter that we care deeply about. We want to see that the funding from our partners and friends in the region are not going to groups that are working against our mutual interests. Yes, we do maintain a regular dialogue with the Kuwaiti government on that specific issue.

The Politic: The Syrian civil war has stretched out for almost two years. Do you see the situation in Syria changing in any way in the immediate future?

It is really very hard to say and I would have to refer you to some of my colleagues who are more involved with Syria on a day-to-day basis. We have all been dismayed at the failure of the UN to take a role in this. It is no secret that Bashar al-Assad has clearly lost his legitimacy. It is impossible to conceive of a situation where the Syrian people would accept a role in the country for Bashar al-Assad. But at the same time we see that his regime is intent on using any means, including, as we have been able to prove, the use of chemical weapons, against his own population. The situation in Syria is dire. We are observing that throughout the region and here in Kuwait where [the civil war] has had an impact beyond Syrian borders. I think Secretary Kerry and the President have redoubled our efforts to bring about a resolution to this conflict.

The Politic: Following a $5 billion pledge from Saudi Arabia and a $3 billion pledge from the UAE, Kuwait followed up with a $4 billion pledge of their own to the Egyptian government. Could you talk about where this stimulus is going and for what purposes it is being used?

I would have to refer you to the Kuwaiti government to talk about what they intend to do with their pledge. I will say that we are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Kuwaiti government and every country in the region about seeing the situation in Egypt resolved in a manner that is best for Egypt and best for the region. We want the Egyptian people to be able to determine their own future and to make sure that the country does not experience further chaos or instability. Kuwaitis care deeply about what is happening in Egypt. I see it having a direct impact on their own country. Certainly, they would explain that their assistance is intended to try to move Egypt towards a more stable, promising future.

The Politic: Kuwait is home to the fifth largest oil reserves and petroleum products, which account for nearly 95 percent of export revenues. Kuwait has also been labeled a classic Rentier state. With changing international attitudes towards oil, as well as a dwindling national supply, how sustainable do you see the long-term prospects of Kuwait’s economy?

I think that is one of a handful of questions that is the most important for the future of Kuwait. I would not pretend to have an answer myself, but I do know from regular conversations that I have with Kuwaitis that many are trying to answer that very question. Last night, I spent about an hour and a half with a group of young Kuwaitis whom I have met quite regularly over my time here. Almost all of them are U.S. graduates and the discussion last night was really very much on that specific issue. Coming back to Kuwait, with a first-class education from the United States, they want to be able to contribute to future of their country. They have questions about the role of government. One of the graduates from the U.S. — he is Ph.D. in economics — told me that he is a fervent adherer to the Chicago School of Economics. While I was there, we were engaged in a lively discussion about Milton Friedman, about Friedrich Hayek, and about how those intellectual concepts can be applied so that young Kuwaitis feel that their potential is being put to best use for the future and prosperity of their country. It was really fascinating and very interesting to see how the role of education, specifically education in the U.S., is going to play in answering those questions.

Another [graduate] shared with me the experience of — under family pressure, as often happens here — being forced to accept a job in the public sector that he did not want. He went to work every morning and said that he almost deliberately sabotaged it because he felt that what he had to offer was not being put to best use. He accepted the job, he told me, under family pressure, but he told his family that he would do it for just six months. At the end of six months, he went to his family and said it was not working for him, and that he wanted to go out and found his own company. He has done that; he’s been working very hard to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and family pressure to go out and build something that will bring jobs and value to Kuwait. I so admire that because, frankly, he was leaving a job with security, good pay, and family support for putting in long hours with uncertainty about how it’s going to work out. When I engage with young Kuwaitis like that, I am confident that Kuwaitis are going to be answer some of those questions themselves.

The Politic: The government guarantees a job for all college graduates, and as a result, Kuwait does suffer from underemployment. What efforts are the Kuwaiti government or U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City taking to ameliorate this situation?

I know that the Kuwaiti government attaches a high priority to this in response to pressure from young people and from their elected representatives. The government is also working with the Ministry of Youth to find ways to address this situation. Frankly, many young Kuwaitis do not want to be in jobs where they feel underutilized. We feel that as a government, we can assist in this process. We have a number of programs in the State Department that are being deployed here in Kuwait: a Middle-East partnership initiative, a summer entrepreneurship training program, and programs that encourage women and other underrepresented groups to enter into fields of science and technology. Through this array of programs, we are a junior partner to the Kuwaitis as they look for ways to address some of the questions that you are raising.

The Politic: I hope we may now talk about both women’s economic empowerment and female political participation in Kuwait. In 2005, women were given the right to vote in Kuwait, and in 2009, the first women won seats in Parliament. Do you believe that these changing sentiments towards female political participation are driven more from the grassroots or rather come from the Emir’s government? On a related note, what steps are being taken to further improve Kuwaiti women’s participation in politics?

In 2005-2006, when the issue of women receiving the right to vote was a front and center political issue, it was sometimes forgotten that the Emir initially extended voting rights to women. That decree was overridden by the Parliament that was elected. It took another year for the Parliament to extend the right to vote to women. Women ran for Parliament for the first time in 2006, but it was not until 2009 that the first women were successfully elected to Parliament. What we see is a process that is being negotiated within Kuwait. Some pressure is rising from below, but also from key decision-making positions — including the Emir — that see that the future of Kuwait requires putting all Kuwaitis to work. They know that they cannot leave women outside the political arena.

Kuwaiti women are very heavily represented in the workplace. Most Kuwaiti women who are of working age do in fact work outside the home. Kuwait has a relatively small population, so Kuwaiti women — in order to full many of the public sector positions — work. We see a lot of Kuwaiti women who have education from the U.S. and elsewhere in technical fields and occupying positions in the oil sector and the financial sector. I think it is natural that, as we move forward, we are going to see women occupying more and more roles both in government and in the workplace. Of course, that is something from the United States’ perspective that works to create a healthier and more complete relationship.

The Politic: I hope we may discuss 2012, when the Parliamentary elections were annulled after Islamists and Salafists made major gains. Could you give a background as to what happened in 2012 and to what the popular reaction was to the annulling of the Parliamentary elections?

The last two Parliaments have both been annulled by court action. On one hand, that speaks to the importance of the Constitution and the respect that Kuwaitis have for it. For the most part, the challenges brought against the two Parliamentary elections show that Kuwaitis have a respect for the rule of law. They have an independent judiciary; in the case where the government itself challenged the electoral law, the courts ruled in favor of the law and said that the electoral law was purely the purview of the elected Parliament. What led to the political turmoil after the Parliament elected in November of 2012 was annulled was the Emir’s issuance of a decree that changed the electoral law, giving one vote, rather than four, to each Kuwaiti citizen. This had become a hot-button issue with many of the independents feeling that the four-vote system unfairly gave political leverage to organized political groups. Strongly organized groups either come from the Islamists political trend or the tribal trend.

The Emir’s decision was seen by many as interfering in the political process in a way that tilted the playing field. The Emir’s position was that this was leveling the playing field and that the consequences of the four-vote system over time had exacerbated tensions between tribal and urban elements in the society. The Emir argued that he was exercising his constitutional authority to make that decision. The courts examined that decision and found that the Emir was within his rights in enacting the change to the electoral law, but that the process by which he had announced a new electoral commission did not have sufficient constitutional basis. Again, the court found a middle ground that is now leading towards elections that I think Kuwaitis will participate in. Many feel that the turmoil of the past two years has led to a certain amount of political fatigue. All that goes to say that there is real politics here in Kuwait. Kuwaitis are working to try to define their own future under the rules that they all agree to be legitimate under their Constitution.

The Politic: Out of a national population of 2.7 million, almost 50 percent of Kuwaitis are non-nationals. Could you talk about in what elements of society this demographic dynamic is most felt?

Tueller talks with U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City (Dec. 14, 2011)
Tueller talks with U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City (Dec. 14, 2011)

Like many of the Gulf countries, the number of Kuwaitis is smaller than the proportion than non-Kuwaiti citizens. Many residents are from neighboring countries and countries as far away as Asia and the Western Hemisphere because of the economic opportunities. That presents a particular challenge, exacerbated by the fact that there is also a population in Kuwait of stateless residents — family members or others who have been here in Kuwait for a generation or more but have no citizenship with any other country. That is a problem for Kuwait that, on a human rights level, we regularly discuss with officials and with non-government organizations. It is not a problem unique to Kuwait — Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, all of these economies depend on large, foreign worker populations. We always hope to see that the laws and the ways the laws are implemented meet the standards of human rights organizations around the world. We hope that workers that come to Kuwait can count on having their rights both as workers and as residents in Kuwait respected.

The Politic: Do you believe that there are any misconceptions that the average Kuwaiti citizen has of the United States or vice versa? 

It is interesting because Kuwaitis are very well traveled and many of them have been educated in the U.S. or travel regularly to the U.S. — it is a destination of choice for many Kuwaitis. It is often surprising how well they know our country and how interested they are. Whether it is sports or politics, they keep themselves current with things happening in the United States. That said, I think I still often encounter misconceptions. There is sometimes a tendency from outside the United States to see our country as monolithic and not to fully appreciate how different the various regions and states are. Even a Kuwaiti that might have spent five, six or seven years studying in the United States may have simply spent that time in New York or in California. In that case, his or her view of the United States may be quite different from a Kuwaiti who spent [his or her] time studying in Michigan or Iowa or Alabama or elsewhere…

On the other side, of course, we know that there are a lot of misconceptions that the United States has of the Middle East. As much as possible, those of us in the Foreign Service — when we are back in our home countries — try to educate our fellow Americans about the countries in which we are serving and about the types of issues that arise. One of the most common misconceptions is that Middle Easterners and Arabs are hostile towards the United States. I don’t think there is an appreciation for how much the United States is valued by many people in this part of the world. They look to us and expect the United States to live up to what they hope it can be. There is a very high regard for the United States as a country.

The Politic: Given your years of service both across the Middle East and the world, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and in addition, are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

You are inviting me to get in trouble.

The Politic: I wouldn’t dream of it.

I would say that one of the things that always attracted me to the career in the Foreign Service is the caliber of people who represent their country abroad. I wanted to be associated with those kinds of people. Everywhere that I have served during my career, I think about how much of a privilege it has been to work with the type of Americans who are willing to engage in this career. Here, serving as Chief of Mission, I look at the team at this embassy, which every single day is coming to work with creative, fresh and vibrant ideas with regards to how to serve the United States. There are people in our Consular Section that are working above and beyond the call of duty to assist Americans who run into trouble here in Kuwait. The Public Affairs section that works with Kuwaiti media has fascinating new developments that four or five years ago were unimaginable in ways in terms of how we communicate with people through social media. Every day that I can come to work and to be able to associate with Americans working so hard and so well to represent their country is probably the best part of my career.


Embassy of the United States to Kuwait:

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Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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