Prime Minister urges reform in the Middle East

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for political and economic reform in the Middle East at this "precious moment of opportunity".

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

Mr Speaker, Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a privilege to speak here in the Kuwaiti National Assembly in this very special year when you celebrate half a century of independence from Britain and, together, we mark the twentieth anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s forces.

When Saddam invaded your country two decades ago, two world leaders immediately saw what was at stake. President Bush and Prime Minister Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher put the issue with characteristic candour. “Iraq’s invasion”, she said “….defies every principle for which the United Nations stands. If we let it succeed, no small country can ever feel safe again. The law of the jungle would take over from the rule of law.”

Britain, America and a great alliance of Arabs and non-Arabs alike came here to stand with you in your darkest hour and show that proud and independent nations should not be trampled into the desert sand. I am particularly proud to be in Kuwait today with Margaret Thatcher’s successor as Prime Minister, and the man who helped lead that remarkable coalition to victory: Sir John Major. He joins me today in paying tribute to the British servicemen and women - and all their colleagues in the Coalition forces - who fought here and to remember in particular those who gave their lives for Kuwait’s liberty including 47 British servicemen.

Their sacrifice is honoured every day by the sovereignty of this Parliament and by all you have achieved as a nation, not only in the 20 years since invasion, but in the 50 years of independence.

Now once again this region is the epicentre of momentous changes, but pursued in a very different way. History is sweeping through your neighbourhood. Not as a result of force and violence, but by people seeking their rights, and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully and bravely. Across the Arab World, aspirations are stirring which have lain dormant.

They can take inspiration from other peaceful movements for change, such as the Velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, the civil rights struggle in America, or the peaceful transition to democracy in Muslim countries like Indonesia.

It is too early to say how things will turn out. Too often, in the past, there has been disappointment. But there are some grounds for cautious optimism. Optimism, because it is the people - especially the young people - who are speaking up. It is they who are choosing to write their history - and doing so for the most part peacefully and with dignity. It is they who are showing that there is more to politics in this region than the false choice sometimes presented between repression and extremism.

As I said in Downing Street ten days ago, and as I repeated yesterday in Cairo, this is a precious moment of opportunity for this region. Just as we stood with Kuwait in 1990 to defend your right to self-determination, so we stand today with the people and Governments who are on the side of justice, of the rule of law and of freedom. It is not for me, or for governments outside the region, to pontificate about how each country meets the aspirations of its people. It is not for us to tell you how to do it, or precisely what shape your future should take. There is no single formula for success, and there are many ways to ensure greater, popular participation in government. We respect your right to take your own decisions, while offering our goodwill and support.

But we cannot remain silent in our belief that freedom and the rule of law are what best guarantee human progress and economic success, and that each country should find its own path to achieving peaceful change. Here in Kuwait you have set out down this path. So, here - here in this country - here in this Parliament - here is the right place to speak of these things.

Britain and Kuwait share a long history of Al Sadaqa (friendship) from the time the first British ships called into Kuwait in the 17th Century through the treaty of Al Sadaqa in 1899 right to the present day. And my argument today is this. Yes, ours is a partnership based on a shared economic future. As we need our economies to grow and diversify in this challenging globalised world. And yes, ours is a partnership to deliver shared security interests. Not least as we confront the terrorist threat we face from extremism. But crucially, far from running counter to these vital interests of prosperity and security, I believe that political and economic reform in the Arab world is essential not just in advancing these vital shared interests but as a long term guarantor of the stability needed for our relationship to strengthen and for both our societies to flourish.


The friendship between our countries was born from trade between two maritime nations. Indeed it was the captain of an English ship, “The Eagle” who made the first accurate survey of Kuwait Bay in 1777. And today trade remains a great engine of growth and opportunity not just for Britain and Kuwait, but right across the region. But anyone who thinks this trade is just about purchasing oil on the one hand and selling manufactured goods in return is completely out of date. It’s much more complex and diverse.

From the new international airport to be built here in Kuwait to Yas and Saadiyat Islands in Abu Dhabi and Education City in Qatar British companies are playing a pivotal role in exciting and ambitious development plans across the Gulf. In turn the Gulf countries are investing heavily in Britain, like the Kuwait Investment Authority which has its overseas headquarters in London and has invested some £150 billion over the last fifty years, the majority of it in the UK.

As your economies grow and diversify, Britain is in an excellent position to help you make the most of these opportunities. Our timezone. The English language. The easiest access to the European market. Superb universities. And our culture and sport from next year’s Olympics in London to formula one motor racing and premiership football teams supported across the Gulf region.

Already today the UK exports more goods and services to the Gulf than to China and India combined. Right now, the value of trade and investment between Britain and Kuwait alone is already over £1 billion a year. And the Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser and I have today set a new challenge to double this over the next five years.


Advancing our shared economic interests also requires security and stability. We value our security co-operation with Kuwait and the Gulf highly. Over 160,000 British nationals now live in the Gulf but the security of the Gulf doesn’t just affect the British nationals living here it affects the British people back at home too.

The continued failure of the Middle East Peace Process to achieve justice for Palestinians or security for Israelis the threat of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and the growing threat from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are not just security problems for the region, but security problems shared by the whole world.

We must be clear about the Middle East Peace Process. In responding to the most recent developments in the Middle East, there is a serious risk that governments will draw the wrong conclusion and pull back. I draw completely the opposite conclusion. Far from pulling back we should push forward.

We need to see an urgent return to talks so that people’s legitimate aspirations for two states can be fulfilled through negotiations. Just as the Palestinian Authority needs to shoulder its responsibility to tackle violence from the West Bank Israel needs to meet its Road Map obligation to halt illegal settlement activity as the Resolution Britain supported at the UN Security Council last Friday underlines.

The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees. This is not just a problem of rights, territories and people, complicated as they are it is a recruiting sergeant for terror an excuse for authoritarianism and a cause of deep-rooted instability. A lasting settlement would be the greatest step along a new path for this region. The same unity of purpose and message is necessary for the threat coming from Iran.

As the whole international community has made clear in successive Resolutions of the UN Security Council Iran must comply with its international obligations. We have offered Iran the hand of friendship. But the response has been disappointing and gravely concerning. We will not stand by and allow Iran to cast a nuclear shadow over this region nor accept interference by Iran in the affairs of its neighbours.

Meeting the threat of extremism

In understanding the nature of the threat to our security we cannot ignore the threat to all our countries from international terrorism. As we have seen, Al Qaeda has mounted attacks on places as far apart as Saudi Arabia and the United States and in recent months we have seen attempted suicide plots in Sweden, Denmark and in my own country.

The fact a bomb was put on a plane in Yemen last October and carried to the UAE to Germany to Britain en route to America shows the threat we all face, and how together, as friends and allies, we can deal with it and save lives. Indeed, I believe this is the most important global threat to our security. And it comes from a warped extremist ideology that tries to set our societies against each other by radicalising young Muslims all across the world.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about Islam. Islam is a great religion, observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. I am talking about the extremist ideology of a small minority. An ideology that wants a global conflict between Muslims and the rest of the world, and in the process sets Muslims against Muslims. It is this extremism that is the source of the global terrorist threat.

Now, of course, increasing our security co-operation is a vital part of how we meet this threat. And above all it is vital that we challenge the warped thinking that fuels the extremist ideology. But as I argued in Munich earlier this month, we, in the West, must also do much better at integrating young Muslims into our society.

People should have a positive identity with the country in which they are living. We in Europe have to recognise that without a society to integrate with or a proper sense of belonging our Muslim communities risk becoming isolated and young Muslims in particular become more prone to the poisonous narrative of separateness and victimhood that can lead to extremism.

Recent developments

And a similar risk of young people turning the wrong way applies in the Arab world too. Young people yearn for something better, for their rights to be respected, and for responsible and accountable government. They want systems and societies they can believe in.

One of the most remarkable things about the historic events we’ve seen in Egypt and Tunisia in these past weeks is that it is not an ideological or extremist movement but rather, a movement of the people - an expression of aspiration predominantly from a new generation hungry for political and economic freedoms.

A British businessman who had been in the square in Cairo during the demonstrations told me how when the extremists turned up and tried to claim the movement as theirs they were shouted down and disowned.

This movement belongs to the frustrated Tunisian fruit seller who can’t take his product to market. And to the students in Cairo who can’t get a fair start, and the millions of Egyptians who live on $2 a day. In short, it belongs to the people who want to make something of their lives, and to have a voice. It belongs to a new generation for whom technology - the internet and social media - is a powerful tool in the hands of citizens, not a means of repression. It belongs to the people who’ve had enough of corruption, of having to make do with what they’re given, of having to settle for second best.

For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.

As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse. Our interests lie in upholding our values - in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.

So whenever and wherever violence is used against peaceful demonstrators, we must not hesitate to condemn it. The whole world has been shocked in the last few days by the appalling violence which the authorities in Libya have unleashed on their own people.

Violence is not the answer to people’s legitimate aspirations. Using force cannot resolve grievances, only multiply and deepen them. We condemned the violence in Bahrain, and welcome the fact that the military has now been withdrawn from the streets and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince has embarked on a broad national dialogue.

If people’s hunger for a job and a voice are denied there is a real risk that the frustration and powerlessness people feel and the resulting lack of connection with the way their country is run: can open the way to them being cut off from society or worse drawn to more violent and extremist responses. That’s a problem for the Arab world but it’s a problem for the rest of the world too.

That’s why I think political and economic reform in the Arab world is not just good in its own right but it’s also a key part of the antidote to the extremism that threatens the security of us all.

Reform, far from undermining stability is a condition of it.

How do we support economic and political reform?

So how do we support economic and political reform?

I believe two things are important. The first is to understand that democracy is a process not an event. And important though elections are, participatory government is about much more than the simple act of voting. Democracy is the work of patient craftsmanship it has to be built from the grassroots up. The building blocks have to be laid like the independence of the judiciary, the rights of individuals, free media and association, and a proper place in society for the army. It can’t be done overnight. And if you want evidence of that just look at the history of Britain, a constitutional monarchy which has evolved through time, and where so many of our rights under our laws predate our right to vote by 700 years.

My second belief is this. Political and economic reform is vital but it has to be pursued with Al E’htiram with respect for the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation. We in the West have no business trying to impose our particular local model. The evolution of political and economic progress will be different in each country. But that’s not an excuse, as some would argue, to claim that Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy - the so-called Arab exception. For me that’s a prejudice that borders on racism. It’s offensive and wrong, and it’s simply not true.

Oman established a Human Rights Commission for the first time last year in Oman. Qatar is now considered to be among the twenty least corrupt nations in the world. Above all, just look around this National Assembly elected by universal suffrage where every community is represented where men and women sit side-by-side and where Ministers are held to account.

This movement for change is not about Western agendas it’s about the Arab people themselves standing up and saying what they want to happen. And it’s about governments engaging in dialogue with their people to forge a way forward, together. The security and prosperity of this region will come hand-in-hand with development towards more open, fair and inclusive societies.

The question for us is simply whether we in the West play a role in helping to ensure that change delivers as peaceful and stable an outcome as possible. And I believe we should - by looking afresh at our entire engagement with the region, from our development programmes, to our cultural exchanges and to our trade arrangements.

Conclusion - A new chapter in our partnership

So I come here today offering a new chapter in Britain’s long partnership with our friends in this region. Over generations we have built a partnership based on our shared interests in prosperity and security. But in a changing world ours must now also be a partnership that recognises the importance of political and economic reform.

I know that for many these are days of anxiety as well as hope - anxiety about the risks that come with change; the risk of military power entrenchment; the risk of a slide into violence extremism; the risk of sectarian or internal conflict. For sure, the path will be an uneven one. But a sober assessment of the risks need not mean succumbing to pessimism.

While this story does not yet have an ending there is a more hopeful way, as we have seen in the television pictures of young people across the region, and as we have seen in the way the Egyptian army refused to turn on its own people. And we know one more thing: in the end, twenty-first century economies require open societies.

As I said in Beijing, so here in Kuwait: “I am convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.” We all need to adapt to give our young people new ways of making their voices heard and their opinions felt. A job, and a voice. Active citizens with a say in effective, accountable government.

As the 18th Century British liberal conservative, Edmund Burke once said, “A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

And I believe that the most resilient societies rest on the building blocks of democracy: Transparency and accountability of government and the removal of corruption. The freedom to communicate. A fair stake for all - an education, a job, the chance to build a business and the space for participation in politics, and shaping your society.

In short, reform - not repression - is the only way to maintain stability. There are some who argue that the Arab world is destined to decline or simply accept second best. They look backwards to the great age of Arab learning: law, science, arts and architecture, and say that something went wrong, and cannot be recovered. But I believe the best is yet to come.

As a new British Government renews it partnership with the Arab world, I look from the new cities of the Gulf shores to the, diversity of the Near East and North Africa. And I look forward to a future that is rich in prosperity strong in defence and open in its handling and pursuit of political and economic reform. It’s a future we must build together.

Published 22 February 2011