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The Egyptian Ambassador to Kuwait, H.E. Osama Shaltout’s association with diplomacy goes back a long way. Born into a diplomatic family, he spent his growing-up years learning about different cultures in different parts of the world. In 1989, he joined the Egyptian Foreign Service. His work with the foreign service took him to different parts of the world, including Kuwait, Indonesia, Sudan and Germany. He was also appointed Assistant Foreign Minister a few years back. This is his second posting in Kuwait. In this conversation with Arab Times, he speaks about Kuwait, his experience here, his journey as a diplomat and the old and deep ties between Kuwait and Egypt.
AT: When was the last time you were posted in Kuwait?
Ambassador Shaltout: The first time I was here was over twenty-five years ago. We were here from 1997 to 2001. I was Head of the Political section at the embassy at that time. We enjoyed our stay here very much.
AT: How different is Kuwait now from when you first served here?
Ambassador Shaltout: Kuwait has grown. The population has grown. Buildings are more modern; there is much more activity. Kuwait now has more museums, sporting avenues, and gaming activities like paddles.
AT: You lived in different countries as a boy. What was it like?
Ambassador Shaltout: I was born in Germany. My father was Head of the commercial office at that time. He served in Germany for more than six and a half years. We were in East Germany in Berlin, the capital of East Germany, but we could travel from the East to the West, as there were no conditions for diplomats. My parents returned to Egypt, after which my father was posted to Geneva for four years. After that, he was stationed in Sri Lanka, Colombo. It was different moving to Asia, which has a multi-diverse culture different from Europe. It was a privilege to live in Sri Lanka. We had good relations with some of the Egyptians who were exiled to Sri Lanka in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Later on, my father moved to Denmark and Hungary. By that time, I was in University.
AT: After graduating from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, you joined the diplomatic corps. What inspired your career choice?
Ambassador Shaltout: Well, it was my dream to follow in the footsteps of my father, who was a role model to me. In addition, my grandfather, from my mother’s side, was undersecretary of the State of Foreign Affairs, which inspired me even more. My family have been in Foreign Service across generations. Therefore, I was looking forward to it. Before joining the Foreign Service, I worked for a multinational company for a year, but I wanted to serve as a civil servant and pursue my dream of working in the Foreign Service.
AT: Egypt is home to one of the world’s most ancient civilizations. The kind of history and heritage present in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria and many other places is fascinating. There is still so much that Egypt has to offer to the world.
Ambassador Shaltout: Egypt is the cradle of civilization. We have a lot of heritage because, throughout history, Egypt has been a part of different superpowers at different times. We had the pharaohs, the Romans, the Greeks, the Mamluks, the Ottoman Empire, and the French and the British. What is excellent about Egypt is that everyone who entered Egypt blended in and became Egyptian. When he comes to Egypt, a foreigner forgets about his origin, and then he advocates for Egypt. Throughout history, it has been like that. Everyone blends in, and it is a unique civilization. Therefore, there are many monuments in Egypt. We have about two-thirds of the world’s monuments. CBR: I also wanted to ask you about the Egyptian Museum. Like thousands of others, I was fascinated by the National Museum of Cairo, which has been renovated recently. This recent function was where the mummies were taken in a fascinating procession.
Ambassador Shaltout: It was the Museum of Civilization. Mummies of twenty-two kings were transferred to this Museum. They are symbols of the kings who ruled Egypt through different dynasties.
AT: It is a must-visit. When I visited Luxor, someone told us this is Upper Egypt. And that was actually towards the country’s south, which we found confusing. But I think it’s connected to the flow of the Nile.
Ambassador Shaltout: Because, as you know, the Nile is the longest river, which goes against gravity, one of God’s gifts. CBR: We now go back to talking about your life and in the diplomatic service. You served in Cairo as Assistant Foreign Minister. After that, you left the country. Would it have been more exciting for you to stay back because Egypt saw unprecedented changes during that time?
Ambassador Shaltout: Sure, but as you know, in our line of work, we have to work abroad. As you know, diplomacy is the front-line defence of any country, and we have to work on the front line. But you are right. There has been a development leap in Egypt over the past few years, with the second revolution and under the Presidency of His Excellency President Fattah El Sisi. We worked on two primary tracks. One track was to combat terrorism through security measures, controlling illegal financing, and combating illiteracy and development. Throughout the last few years, we were able to move forward in those five pillars simultaneously. We concentrated on developing Egypt in all sectors. We began with infrastructure and then went on to monetary changes. We restructured the whole system and are now more open to investment. We spent $400 billion on infrastructure in different ports, energy, renewable energy, road construction, and bridges. Egypt is ready and very open to investment.
AT: There was a time when we were worried or disturbed by what was happening in Egypt. Then, a period of healing took place. It is nice to hear what you said.
Ambassador Osama Shaltout: The situation is very promising now. Throughout the challenges that hit the world, starting from COVID-19, we did not stop development. Throughout those couple of years, although we were affected, like everybody, by a slow pace of economic growth, we moved on. We didn’t stop any of our mega projects. Now, we’re facing the crisis of the Russia – Ukraine War. It has affected food security and tourism. We have lost at least three million tourists from those two countries. But we were able to recover. Last year, we had 15 million visitors to Egypt, who contributed 10 billion USD to the budget. So we’re moving quickly and steadily to develop the tourism sector.
AT: How old is Kuwait’s relationship with Egypt? I have heard that there are ancient Egyptian artefacts found in Failaka.
Ambassador Shaltout: Surprisingly, there were artefacts found in Failaka that go back to 3000 BC. These include three stamps from the pharaohs that are on display at the National Museum of Kuwait. There was communication between the ancient dynasty and the dormant civilization here. There was a continuous connection throughout history, which continued more in modern times. Al Azhar in Egypt is one of the oldest institutions for learning. Kuwait sent four scholars tothe Al Azhar University to study in 1870. Then, in 1939, another batch of scholars was sent to the Al Azhar in the name of the Kuwaiti government. In 1945, the Kuwaiti House was founded in Egypt as a cultural space for Kuwaitis. Later, in 1958, President Nasser integrated that House into the government. Subsequently, all the Kuwaiti scholars who studied in Cairo returned to Kuwait and established institutions like theatre, music, literature, and magazines. This helped Kuwait become one of the pillars of culture in the Gulf.
AT: When did Egypt establish a diplomatic relationship with Kuwait? And how has the relationship evolved?
Ambassador Shaltout: We had our embassy here in 1961. Strong bonds between the two countries are formed by the leadership, the government and the people. Before independence, there was a lot of movement between the two countries. There were many marriages and many joint families. Therefore, we have blood relations between the two people. Since independence, our diplomatic relations have been based on the two countries’ strong-rooted relations.
AT: The relationship has developed commercially as well. I believe Kuwait ranks fourth among the countries with direct investment in Egypt.
Ambassador Shaltout: Kuwait is the fourth largest investor in Egypt. Kuwait has an investment of more than $19 billion in Egypt. Those are accumulated assets throughout the years. Kuwaitis have real estate in Egypt. They own different companies. They have a direct investment of almost $5 billion.
AT: What sectors do Kuwaitis invest in?
Ambassador Shaltout: They have invested in infrastructures, steel factories, medicine factories and telecommunications. So it’s all different sectors.
AT: As you mentioned, Kuwait enjoys excellent bilateral relations with Egypt. Which area of this relationship have you focused on?
Ambassador Shaltout: I’ve been focusing on all tracks and promoting all channels. We are bound by 105 treaties outlining the relationship between the two countries. We have a joint committee headed by the two Foreign Ministers. We have a joint committee between the Ministries of Defense,and we have a joint committee between the Ministries of Labor. These committees work in different sectors and try to promote all tracks between Egypt and Kuwait. Both countries have many resources, and we’re not in competition, but we complement each other. We are trying to increase our exports to Kuwait and increase investment.
AT: We know that education is essential to this relationship with Egypt. Many Kuwaiti students opt for higher education in Egypt, at least they used to. So, how strong is the cooperation in the field of education?
Ambassador Shaltout: About 30,000 to 35,000 Kuwaiti students are pursuing graduate and postgraduate studies in Egypt. They’re studying in different fields and at other universities throughout Egypt.We continue to have a strong relationship in the field of education. Here in Kuwait, we have 6,000Egyptian students studying in school. There are few in the university, but at least they have opened Kuwait University to expatriate students.
AT: While researching Kuwaiti women, I discovered that some of the most trailblazing women in Kuwait, who passed out in the 1960s, travelled to Cairo to get their education. Dr. Badria Al Awadhi is just one example. So Kuwait and Egypt have always had a solid relationship as far as education is concerned. The other thing I found out was that in the 1960s and 70s, Kuwait was considered the centre of the Renaissance in the Arabian Gulf. That was when lots of highly qualified teachers were coming from Palestine and Egypt, and they were moulding the minds of young people here and teaching in different institutions. Am I right?
Ambassador Shaltout: As you said, we were here before independence, and we are here after independence. The Egyptian community in Kuwait go a long way back, and they are very much welcomed. I want to take this opportunity to thank the leadership, the Government and the people of Kuwait for their openness to all communities here. These communities work in a free environment, and they collaborate in the development of Kuwait. As you know, we have been here in different sectors. We come second after India in terms of number. 467,000 Egyptian labourers work in the public and private sectors, but we are around 670,000 as a community.
AT: How do you see the contribution of Egyptians to Kuwait?
Ambassador Shaltout: As Egyptians, they have dual contributions. First,their partnership and contribution to development here in Kuwait and to the growth in Egypt through the money transfer sent from Kuwait to Egypt by the Egyptian citizens.
AT: I read that you retrieved a number of Egyptian artefacts from Kuwait. And I think these were antiquities that were smuggled out. How do you see the role of the Kuwaiti authorities in working with Egypt on this very important matter of antiquities?
Ambassador Shaltout: I would like to seize this opportunity to thank the Kuwaiti authorities because they are the ones who found those artefacts. There were five statues, and the Customs Department was able to seize them. Later, we had a delegation here to validate those artefacts, which were returned to the Egyptian government. And, of course, they are priceless.
By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times
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