Press conference with Prime Minister of Kuwait

Prime Minister David Cameron and the Prime Minister of Kuwait, Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah gave a press conference on the relationship between Britain and Kuwait on 22 February 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Cameron

Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah

Good afternoon, everyone.  Prime Minister, let me welcome you to Kuwait.  Let me welcome the Right Honourable David Cameron, Prime Minister of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and his accompanying delegation for their first current visit to Kuwait.  We look forward, Prime Minister, to working together and advising the Kuwaiti-British relation. 

We have ties, historical ties with Britain to go back more than 100 years, signing the treaty friendship in 1899.  We praise the role of the British Government.  We praise the role of the British military in assisting us when it was during our independence, 1961, and also in 1990. 

This week, Prime Minister, we welcome you because we are celebrating our 50th anniversary of independence, 20th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait from the force of Saddam Hussein and the 5th anniversary of the accession of His Highness, the Emir.

Also on this occasion, Prime Minister, we recall the sacrifice of the brave men and women of the British armed forces in defending our country, and we want to thank them for their bravery and commitment in the liberation of Kuwait.  That we will never forget Britain’s military and diplomatic support liberating us in 1991. 

Gentlemen, we have had a very fruitful discussion with His Excellency the Prime Minister, on bilateral relations and the situation in the Arab world.  I am glad also to mention that we have signed several economic and energy memorandums, which we hope will double bilateral trade between both countries in the next two or three years.  We will set up a joint Kuwaiti-UK Trade and Investment Task that will give support to the joint venture between BP and KPC for Kuwait’s Burgan oil fields, cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, agreement between KPC and Shell on technical assistance and support.

Regionally, we have discussed the rapid changes occurring in the region.  Kuwait and Britain have agreed that while it is necessary to address longstanding public grievances, reform should be home-grown and based on the needs of individual states. 

Having understood the importance of citizens’ empowerment, Kuwait continues to advocate socioeconomic development in the Arab world.  We understand the importance of citizen empowerment on these levels.  This prompted Kuwaiti initiation of the Arab economical, social and development summit, which Kuwait hosted in 2009 and produced a number of important geo-economic decisions on pan-Arab levels.

Internationally, Kuwait continues to provide, since 1961, numerous grants through the Kuwait Economic Development Fund with the aim of developing basic needs for various countries. 

Again, Prime Minister, let me welcome you and your esteemed delegation to Kuwait, and again, Kuwait appreciates its longstanding ties with Britain and we look forward to further advancing these ties with you, Prime Minister.

Prime Minister

Thank you.  Thank you very much, Your Highness, and it’s a great pleasure to be here in Kuwait; and may I start by thanking you, Your Highness, for the invitation to visit and for the excellent talks that we’ve had today.  Recent events in the region have highlighted the critical importance of the most basic rights, including freedom of speech and of the media, so it’s important, I think, that we stand here together not only talking to each other, but also taking questions from the press.

But before I move on to the details of our talks I want to say something about the truly awful events today that have shocked New Zealand and all its friends around the world, including Britain and the British Government. 

The people of New Zealand have been hit by a devastating earthquake not once but twice in a matter of months, and I want to pay tribute to their resilience.  They have our deepest sympathies and condolences.  I’ve been in touch with my good friend, Prime Minister John Key.  He knows that Britain stands ready to provide whatever assistance is required in support of the local emergency services.  We’ve agreed to send a search and rescue team, which is deploying immediately.  Our High Commissioner is on her way to Christchurch as we speak to see if there’s anything more we can do.  We’re also scaling up our resources in-country; reinforcements to our consular team will arrive today with more on standby to ensure we do all we can to help any affected British nationals. 

There are many people in Britain with ties of friendship or family to New Zealand.  They will be following events particularly closely and with understandable anxiety, but I also believe I speak on behalf of everyone in our country when I say that we all stand with New Zealand at this moment, at this dark and difficult hour.

Turning to our discussions today, we covered our bilateral relations, how we can work together to promote economic growth and, finally, our shared agenda for a more secure Middle East, which moves forward with political and economic reforms.  Let me take each in turn.

First of all, we renewed today an old and very special alliance between Britain and Kuwait.  As you said, Your Highness, our friendship goes back more than 200 years and this year you mark 50 years since independence and 20 years since liberation, and I’m proud to be part of those historic celebrations.  But I’m even more glad that today we’ve agreed to take our relations further than ever before, whether it is trade, culture, education, sport or security.  Today we’ve injected fresh momentum into our shared agenda for the future.  Kuwait’s commitment to increase political and economic openness, the gradual development of a liberal democratic society that you are overseeing, the vital steps you’re taking on your own journey to democracy will lead to a stronger, better Kuwait and to an even closer partnership between our two nations.

Trade remains an important pillar of our relationship.  Yes, more two-way trade and investment is good for jobs and economic growth in both our countries, but I also believe our closer economic cooperation goes hand in hand with your political changes.  At a time of real dynamism in the Gulf, with a new generation seeking jobs and access to education, our economic partnership can be a driver of real change and a source of stability for the future. 

So I can announce today the creation of a UK-Kuwait Trade and Investment Task Force, a new commitment to double our trade to $4 billion a year by 2015, and the signature of a memorandum of understanding on business, trade and technical cooperation, all of which will position British business, we hope, as the partner of choice for Kuwait going forward.  I also welcome the agreement reached between Shell and the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, which provides long-term security for that important business relationship.

Third, security: let me assure you, Your Highness, that our commitment to Kuwait’s security is undiminished.  Britain wants a stable Iraq at peace with its neighbours and we will continue to press for Iraq to meet all its international obligations towards Kuwait.  We also want to see an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and while our offer of engagement remains on the table, we will also continue to apply real pressure on the Iranian regime.  We agreed today that our governments will continue to work closely together on the full range of threats, from counterterrorism to cyber-security, and we are committed to a strong defence and security relationship in the years ahead.

Thank you once again, Your Highness, for the productive talks we have had today and I wish you well for the rest of the week’s celebrations.  Thank you.

Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah

Thank you, Prime Minister.  We share the grief, as you have mentioned, with our friends back in New Zealand.  His Highness the Emir has already sent a message to the Governor of New Zealand; I have also sent a message to my colleague Prime Minister Key to share the grief of what happened last night.


Mr Prime Minister, is there a plan for the Middle East, towards the Arab countries?  In the Middle East we notice that there are many revolts happening in the region; by this we mean, does the West - the US and Britain - promote these revolts in the Arab countries?  Do you wish for the same events to happen in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait as they happened in Libya, Tunis and Egypt?

We saw the killing in Iran but there was very little comment on that front.  On the other hand, Egypt was highlighted and the US wish was quite clear for Mubarak to leave instantly, yet in Libya the situation is much worse but the comments were much lighter.  Is the West working on a secret agenda to close the Middle East internally and if this happens in the Gulf countries, will the West be having the same agenda concerning the Gulf countries?

Prime Minister

Thank you.  Most of my speech at the parliament this morning was addressed at this exact issue.  I would say this to you, first of all: there is no secret agenda.  The West - a country like Britain but also the United States - we have condemned violence and repression against people wherever it has happened. We were very clear about that in Egypt, in Libya and elsewhere, and we have supported greater openness and putting in place the building blocks of more free and open societies wherever that has taken place.  We very much support the moves that you have taken here in Kuwait in your national assembly, your parliament, where I spoke this morning; we have supported what has happened in Bahrain over recent years to open up that society and that political system and, as I said in my speech, we make no secret of the fact that we in the United Kingdom are in favour of greater freedom, greater openness and greater democracy.

In the end, we do not believe that there should be a trade off between democracy on the one hand and stability on the other; we think that over time, countries putting in place the building blocks of democracy and free societies will actually lead to greater stability rather than less stability.  But there is no secret agenda here and it is not a Western agenda.  We believe, as I said in my speech, that we should not point the finger and tell people what to do or which exact path to take; we should proceed with respect, recognising as I said in my speech, that democracy is a process rather than an event of simply holding an election.  It is about putting in place those building blocks, and we should do all of this with respect.

What I see in Egypt and Libya and elsewhere is people, particularly young people, coming forward and wanting aspirations not just for a job but also a greater voice in their societies, and I think that is an aspiration that should be supported.  I would not accept the contention that somehow we have been inconsistent between different countries or different situations; we respect the differences in different countries but when, for instance, you mentioned Iran, there was violence against people in Iran, we condemned that very rapidly.

I condemn absolutely what I have seen in Libya where the level of violence committed by the regime on the people is completely unacceptable, and I would call on Libya today to end the violence and to give full protection, particularly to foreign nationals, to those who might want to leave.  I believe there needs to be a full investigation into the events in Benghazi and in eastern Libya, and I would call on them to give access to their country for human rights monitors and to lift the restrictions on the internet and the press.  I think what is happening in Libya is wrong and I think we should be clear in speaking out about that.


Your Excellency, Kuwait enjoys democracy, freedom and social justice.  Does Your Excellency have any comments about the regime in Kuwait?

Prime Minister

I have been impressed by what I saw at the National Assembly, at the parliament.  It was very interesting for me to go and to have meetings with the speaker, and also with some of the members of parliament, and we had something of a debate about this issue I was asked in the first question about what is happening in North Africa and across this region, and what our response should be. 

I think that it has been a great success for Kuwait that you have this openness, this debate - that your ministers, just as I have to answer in my parliament, so your Prime Minister has to answer in his parliament.  And I think giving people a voice, giving people a say, I think is important, and I think it is important in your part of the world as it is in mine.  I think it is also, as I argued in my speech today, one of the ways in which we can make sure that there is an alternative path for people to take part and admire and look up to their societies and their political systems as a way of turning them away from some of the extremism and alternatives that do so much damage to your society and to ours.  So, I make both those arguments. 


May I ask a short question of both prime ministers?  Mr. Cameron, you said in your speech that in the past, this country - our country - has made a choice between values and interests.  Could you be more specific about what you mean there? Would you not accept that the reason that you’re pushing the reform agenda so hard is because you too are playing catch-up - your hand too has been forced by the events across the region?

Could I ask you, Sir: the British Prime Minister talked about the need to make his arguments in a respectful way.  Do you think that you and your countrymen feel it is respectful to be coming here and telling you the way that you should govern your country?

Prime Minister

Shall I go first? Thank you.  First of all, as I said in giving the speech, in terms of not believing there is a trade-off between our values and our interests, I think we should be recognizing that in the end, our long-term interests are from greater openness, greater democracy, and greater freedom in other countries with whom we have a partnership.  I think that’s important.  What I’m saying is, it is not in respect to any one particular country; it’s in respect to the way we have perhaps thought about and gone about our business with respect to quite a large number of countries.  That’s the point that I would make. 

In terms of, is this an effort in playing catch up?  I would say absolutely not.  I often say the first sign of madness is quoting your own speeches, and so I am just about to show that I’m suffering from it, but in Beijing I talked about the importance of political and economic reform going hand in hand.  When I was in Islamabad, I spoke about democracy being the work of patient craftsmanship - about these building blocks taking time to put in place.  The speech that I made on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, where I specifically argued about the importance of putting in place the building blocks of democracy and wanting to stand up for those values as a liberal conservative, as I put it then - not a neoconservative - I think that argument today is still absolutely right, and it’s the same argument that I’m making. 

So, I don’t feel I’m playing catch up; I feel that I’m making a consistent argument about how Britain should engage in the world - not lecturing, not finger-pointing, treating other countries with respect, respecting our differences and historical circumstances, but putting forward the values that we have in terms of a belief that progress towards liberal democracy is good for the progress of those values, but good for encouraging stability and good international relations as well.

Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah

Thank you.  You are inquiring about the trade between the two countries and our trade relations.  Our relation goes back to the last century, as you know.  Our investment office was one of the first offices in 1953.  Our constitution gives guarantees, even to the foreign investor.  There are laws which protect you, and there are conditions that also protect you.  In this way, with the democracy that we have, with the constitution that we have, trade in Kuwait is very stable, either with Britain or with other countries.  If you want to know how many countries that we have trade with, or companies that are based here in Kuwait, or have their headquarters in Kuwait - I think it is because of our constitution, and our economic stability and the guarantees which the foreign investor has - the guarantees that if anything happened, there are courts which gives you a right. 


Prime Minister, how can you come here to make the case for democracy and political reform at the same time as travelling with businessmen whose job it is to sell arms to this region?

Prime Minister

I simply don’t understand how you can’t understand that democracies have a right to defend themselves.  I would have thought this argument is particularly powerful right here in Kuwait, who 20 years ago was invaded by a thuggish, bullying neighbour, who disrespected your sovereignty, invaded your country, and destroyed parts of your capital city.  Are we honestly saying that for all time, forever and a day, countries like Kuwait have to manufacture and maintain every single part of their own defences? I think there are very few people who would give that argument for any consideration at all. 

Let me make three points quickly.  First of all, the five memorandums we have actually signed today - none of them actually have anything to do with defence.  They are about energy, they are about technology, and other subjects, and I am very proud to have brought to Kuwait such a wide range, not just of business people but also people involved in cultural and other endeavours.  I think it’s important, as Britain wants to link itself to some of the fastest growing parts of the world, and to improve our trade relations, that we take such delegations of businesspeople.  The second point is the idea that Kuwait should not be able to have its own armed forces and its own armed forces that are able to defend its own country, and take part in the defence trade in that way. I find that an extraordinary argument for us to make when we extended such help to Kuwait and when British service personnel played such a huge role. 

The third point I would make is that when Britain does take part in the defence trade, we do so with probably the tightest set of export licences and rules almost anywhere in the world.  It is obviously a difficult process to get right on every occasion, but we do have very, very tough controls, very clear controls.  But I would just end where I began: the idea that we should expect small and democratic countries like Kuwait to be able to manufacture all their own means of defence seems to me completely at odds with reality, and so a properly regulated trade in defence is not something we should be ashamed of, and the fact that there are British companies on this visit, like British Aerospace or Thales or others, that have a perfect right in this regard, I think stands for itself. 

Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah

Thank you.  The distinguished delegates who arrived with the Prime Minister are not only of a military aspect but also various trade and investments.  As you know, in our four-year plan, the budget is 35 billion dinars, which is more than £70 billion.  The distinguished delegates and the Prime Minister have mentioned not only military but various aspects, various types of business.  We welcome all the British companies to be here and to go ahead with us, to go ahead as we have this historical relation with Britain.  Thank you.

Prime Minister

Thank you very much.

Published 22 February 2011