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The 15 billion dollar man

Interview - January 23, 2012
The Kuwait Fund for Development has provided over 15 billion dollars in loans: Director General Mr. Abdulwahab Al-Bader discusses its work

Can you give us an overview of how you see the current strategy implemented by the Administration to achieve sustainable economic development in the years to come? What are the challenges that lie ahead for Kuwait?

That is a very general question, especially with the expectation of change with the upcoming elections. There are a lot of expectations with a new government. People are expecting 60 to 70% changes. We are always optimistic with regard to the changes. Everybody likes to be optimistic. Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk of changes and high expectations. We are going to have elections on February 2nd, so by mid-February we will have a new government and parliament. The potential is there. Kuwait is one of the few countries around the world that has good potential, especially in view of the current economic situation around the world. You can budget for what you want without really worrying about the financing. I think we have the potential to do a lot, but we have to agree on it.
We will not have issues in the foreseeable future. We should take care of those issues in the next few years; otherwise we will not know what the future will bring. I hope it will be a new start for Kuwait after the elections.

What is your personal insight on the Emir’s vision? He has very ambitious goals for development and infrastructure and moving from oil to financial services in order to become a financial hub in the GCC region. How does the Kuwait Fund fit into this?

We think we are one of the catalysts and financial figures in Kuwait. Nevertheless, Kuwait has always been known as a trade hub in the region, long before anybody else. I think in general, we have the history and the know-how. We lost track over the past 20 years and other areas surpassed us, but I do not think it will be easy to get that edge back. But we all have to agree on what is Kuwait’s main objective. I believe that the financial sector is the only other field we can succeed in, other than oil.  We have an edge on that. For any industry, we need different elements including know-how, capital, raw materials and labor. We have 2 of the 4 pillars here in Kuwait, but I believe the financial sector can be developed. We have the know-how and the finance. This is an area where we can go forward. We are part of other financial sectors in the region, and Kuwait is the main driver in other countries when they build their financial sectors, so why not do it here too? We need to refocus, because we are not focused at the moment. We have to look at our regulation. It is not difficult to get back on the right track, and we can do much better. We just need the will to do it.

There is a lot of talk at the moment with regard to Kuwait becoming a hub for Islamic finance and sharia-compliant facilities in the region. What is your opinion on this? Do you have high hopes for this?

I believe that a lot of people would like to use sharia-compliant facilities. The most successful Islamic bank in the world is the Kuwait Finance House, and it was established here in Kuwait as a financial institution. We have been there from the start. I think Kuwait has always played a great role in this. If you look back to 2007 and 2008, a lot of international financial organizations were placing sharia-compliant projects in their programs. It is creating a lot of new products in the Islamic market and they are more favored by individuals. It covers areas that were not covered before, because of restrictions on investment.  

It is open to anyone in the world, and I think it has a future. 

When the financial crisis occurred, sukuk was going through the roof.

The Kuwait Fund for Development was established in 1961 and it has provided $15 billion in loans in recent years. What changes have you implemented since you became Director General and how are you following the founder’s vision?

The fund was established at the year of independence. The principle of aid and assisting others was always there in Kuwait. The Kuwait Authority for the South provided aid to the southern area of Kuwait, including Bahrain, Dubai and Sharjah. It then moved into the south of Sudan a little bit. It was an authority which worked and gave grants to build schools and hospitals. Kuwaitis wanted to think about aid, because after all, we are part of the larger community. There are only a handful of aid organizations around the world. Kuwaitis believe that you cannot live by yourselves, because of Kuwaitis’ constant relationships with other countries as traders. A lot of changes occurred during the early years. We started off in Arab countries and then we went into Africa and Asia.
As Head of this institution, I have tried my best to strengthen the financial base of institutions. You want to keep it on the right program.  You go through ups and downs over the years, but at the same time you can work on your programs. We also have to cope with the changes around us. 

You have invested a lot of capital in Africa, if I am not wrong. I believe you have strengthened the tendering process. There is a lot of corruption in Africa, especially in Nigeria for example. How do you ensure that the money that Kuwait Fund gives to certain countries is being invested as initially agreed with the Fund?

Let me start of by saying one thing. Corruption is everywhere, not just in Africa. But sometimes it is magnified in one area and you forget to talk about it in other areas. I am sorry to say that human nature is weak. Individuals are weak with money and you cross your fingers and hope that you are dealing with the right person. You try to follow things as much as you can. You want to do the best you can, and that is what we have tried to do. Our counterparts know that, and that is why a lot of them know we are coming to assist, not with any ulterior motives. You need the endorsement plus financiers. Most of our payments are directly to contractors. At the same time, the project under construction is under the supervision of the recipient governments. We need the right staff over there to follow that up. Our main aim is to follow that. That is why all of our loans and payments are not tied to a date or a signing; it is tied to the completion of a specific step in any project. We follow the project up and the appraisal as well as the finalization. We look at if the selection procedure is acceptable to us or not, and if we have an objection, we will tell them.
We want to ensure that it is fairly distributed, and when we sign we support the Government so that the contractor finishes the project. It is human nature to find a way to milk the cow.

You have 5 year programs and you have increased the budget allocation to 250 million KD. How expectant are you for 2012?

I do not see ourselves reaching that target, simply because when we started that program, other countries have over 50% of our commitment. Because of what is going on in the Arab region, there are some delays when finalizing projects. 

You are very concerned about your investments being environmentally friendly and sustainable.  How did this idea come to mind and is it one of your main strategies at the moment?

It is always good to talk about the environment. The environment is really something that everybody should look at. But at the same time, I should not make it an obstacle. I think the environment is a big issue as a whole. The biggest demon of the environment is the industrialized world. We should never forget that. We are working with developed countries, especially in Africa, and the environment is at the top of the list of everything I do, but they cannot afford to engage in environmental projects in Africa.  However, they need to. At the same time, there are environmental projects that can support development plans, but not all projects are. If we all want to get involved in an environmental project, there are not enough projects for everyone. What the industrial world has done over the past 70 years is too much, and it is not easy to eliminate the environmental issues.

We have to think about environmentally friendly projects, but we have to consider the plight of the problem in other developed countries, because of their own resources. We cannot enforce rigorous programs on them. They cannot afford to do it without us helping them with the cost. I am a firm supporter of an international fund for subsidizing increases due to environmental regulation, especially for developing countries.

We are talking about tsunamis now, but look at some areas that have dried up over the years. Just think about how many rivers have dried up over the years and how the rainfall has changed in some areas and the effects of this. There are areas and irrigated land that has dried up. 

Can you give us a brief overview of the design and engineering programs in Kuwait?

Over the years as an institution we have had good relations with a lot of contractors. We know them very well and the program came at the same time. We tried to support the private sector. We started a program and before that we had a program with the University of Kuwait. At the same time we discussed it with the engineering society here as well as the private sector and we came up with a program that allows us to take on a number of engineering graduates and train them. 

Promotion is vital in this world. What message would you like to send to the American readers of USA Today?

I do not like to say we should have Kuwait as a brand, because we are not going to sell something. Oil is very important, but everybody has to know that Kuwait is not only oil – it has had a lot of things over the years. Kuwait has been one of the pioneers as regards aid around the world. I think the individuals here in Kuwait have always been open-minded to what is around us.  Whenever you see anything in the world, you will find Kuwaitis watching or talking about it. I think we always like to be in the middle of things and part of the international community and feel what others feel and be with them. We hate to be in a disaster, but we always try to work with the international community on any solutions that the international community comes up with.