Dignitaries attend a state banquet for His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah of Kuwait, given by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, in Windsor Castle on the first day of his state visit to the UK, Nov 27. (AP)
An ongoing friendship

THE VISIT of His Highness the Amir of Kuwait to the UK this week, as a guest of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, provides an opportunity for those in the UK to see an enduring friendship in a modern light. It will be a chance to welcome the ever closer ties between us, given renewed strength through the initiative of a Joint Steering Group which will be announced during the visit.

Kuwait, like the rest of the Gulf, has a historic and close friendship with the UK. It is almost 250 years since the first ship from the East Indian Company dropped anchor in Kuwait. The UK has been a friend ever since — and a protector in times of need, under the Treaty of Friendship from 1899-1961, from 1961-1963 when we defended Kuwaiti from Iraqi attempts to occupy the country and most recently during the liberation of the country from Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991.

But equally important are the shared values that go alongside this shared history. Although Kuwait has been navigating a political crisis of late, the country remains one with long traditions of freedom and political participation. The Parliament — an abiding symbol of the Kuwaiti state — is elected via universal suffrage — and while Kuwait is not a full democracy, it is a country where democratic values, freedom of speech and human rights have strong roots. Indeed there is a strong culture of debate, with Kuwait’s citizens voracious users of social media.

Kuwait’s path to reform and progress has — rightly — been its own. Its constitution was drafted, fifty years ago, just after independence, and has kept the country on a course towards democracy that had been set since the founding of the state. Recent years have seen increasing debate about the nature of that democracy. Governments and Prime Ministers have come and gone. Election campaigns have been fought and re-fought. Protestors have exercised their right to make their views known on the streets. Analysts have written reams about the past, present and future of the country. All of these are things we in the UK would recognise from the pursuit of politics in Europe.

Currently we’re seeing the next chapter in Kuwait’s development unfold. What turn this development should take is politically contested, and the path forward is not clear, much as it would not be clear in any other mature society. But what is certain is that Kuwaitis will continue to choose their own path. And the long term trajectory will, I hope, remain progressive, reformist and Kuwaiti-led.

Support for this is a key tenet of UK policy, not just in Kuwait, but in the Gulf and the wider Middle East region. We support the ongoing transitions to democracy in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. We hope to one day see a transition to democracy in Syria. But in each case, our role is to support, not to lead. It has been the people of these countries who have spoken out and who have changed their destinies, setting their own pace of change. Revolution is not, and nor should it be, the only option for change. Indeed, it is the option of last resort. Over the long and continuing evolution of British democracy we have learnt well the benefits of stability, gradual reform and responsiveness to the will of the people.

These are lessons well understood in the Gulf and in Kuwait where there has been a gradual evolution in governance. Some might argue that this allows its rulers to shirk the hard decisions. I would strongly disagree. Kuwait, despite its challenges, is a clear example of how political reform can and does happen in the Gulf. As it continues, the UK will offer advice when sought and support when needed as we already do in working with the government to promote transparency and accountability as well as combat corruption. And as Kuwait continues on its journey we will also give our views on progress honestly and openly, as any friend should do.

The Joint Steering Group that was launched in London Tuesday, provides a forum for this, as well as a chance to deepen our relations across the board on trade and investment, foreign policy and critical issues like migration and education. The group, like this week’s historic visit is a concrete illustration of the commitment that this government set out when coming into office to invest in our relationship with our allies in the Gulf.

I hope that the sight of His Highness the Amir visiting Her Majesty The Queen will give a window into the vibrancy of Kuwaiti politics, and a glimpse beyond the shallow stereotypes into the political and social depth of this inspiring country and fascinating region.

By: Alistair Burt British Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Affairs

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