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“Doubling bilateral trade can’t be achieved by paper, it has to be achieved by actions”

Interview - May 23, 2013
Jassim Al Kharafi, former Speaker of the National Assembly of the State of Kuwait for 13 years and former Minister of Finance, currently serves in the private sector as the Chairman and Managing Director of Mohammed Abdulmohsin Al-Kharafi & Sons Company (MAK Group), a private Kuwaiti-based group with more than 100 years of experience in diverse interests and activities worldwide. Here, he discusses with World Report the close bonds between the UK and Kuwait, which are unlike any other in the Gulf region, and the opportunities for British businesses to strengthen them further
Kuwait has been blessed with about 10% of the world’s natural oil reserves. As the former speaker of the National Assembly and Minister of Finance among other postings, you would appreciate more than most the aims of the National Development Plan.  What is your assessment of Kuwait’s economy at the moment, and your perspectives for growth over the next year, especially coming on the back of the installation of the fresh government?

Well, it’s very dangerous to depend on just oil, but because the income we are getting from the oil is covering our expenses, we are not – although we talk a lot about – finding another source of income. The easiest income now for us is oil. You might ask what thoughts you have as another income for Kuwait. What we have always been talking about and hoping our government will take it into consideration is the bio products of oil. If you notice, everything wherever you go is linked to bio products of oil, so my hope and my concentration is pushing our government towards working on this resource. 
The other point which is also very important – I mean Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar; it’s true Saudi Arabia is the largest – but small countries not linked properly together in the economical sense will be a burden in the future to its people. And my hope is again that our government will concentrate on the cooperation and coordination of more links, especially economic links, which I hope will lead to a Confederation between the Gulf States. I am very happy to hear that King Abdullah has initiated this thought and that this has gone in their agenda and I hope that they will reach a stage where we can benefit from a coordination, which has become very urgent now.   
Kuwait cannot continue working with a small market like it is now, neither can Qatar, neither can the Emirates, nor Oman. But once we open the market for all of us and then are united towards the world, we can also gain benefit from the coordination, which will indirectly benefit our people. Political decisions are not sufficient now, the world has become smaller, and the smaller it becomes, more important is for us to unite and cooperate in order to face what is coming. And what is coming is not easy.   
When we talk about the UK and Kuwait, bilateral relations go back to 1775. In recent years there have been mutual visits: Lord Mayor of the City of London’s visit in February, David Cameron in 2011. In your opinion, why should British businesses come to Kuwait instead of its GCC neighbours?  

The bilateral relations between Kuwait and the UK have been always special, but unfortunately they have decreased over time. For example in the economical aspect, the UK was not just one of the leading, but the leading country which exports and imports from Kuwait. Unfortunately they’ve lost this lead and I wish the UK could concentrate on retaking its leading position. And we don’t come to the UK to get jobs, or to take money out of the country; we come to the UK to put investments in and to spend our holidays, or buy a property. 
The other aspect, which the UK can participate in our area is in Iraq by coordinating with Kuwaiti companies and work on some of the projects which are in Iraq, and they want to be shown soon. Iraq is a rich country and it has a good income but it is politically not stable yet. The UK is more careful than the United States in helping politically in stabilising the country. And the problems we are having now in Iraq have been due to the reason that the Americans took over from the UK and not letting the experience of the UK take control. 
This is why the United Kingdom can take into consideration the situation and can help in Iraq through the participation with Kuwaiti companies that are eager to establish themselves there, especially in the construction field. We are looking forward for the safeguard of an international country like the UK, which is respected, and it has its power from the political point of view. At the same time, they can cooperate with locals, who can make them more competitive and getting the jobs and getting projects. 
Did you meet Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit to Kuwait in 2011? Did you talk about Britain’s contribution in moving Kuwait forward and playing a more central role in the diversification of Kuwait? 

Yes, I was the speaker of the National Assembly. We had a joint press conference and talked about the opportunity of encouraging the British companies to follow up here. The British follow up system is not as solid and good as it should be. 
Right after David Cameron’s visit to Kuwait, both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to double bilateral trade to £4 billion by 2015. What are your thoughts about that and how do you think it can be achieved?

It can’t be achieved by paper, it has to be achieved by actions. And from what I see, we start now using agreements without going back and checking what has been achieved in this agreement. Unfortunately I also discovered that sometimes we duplicate our agreements and even forget that we have already signed similar agreements in the past, which have not been fulfilled for the same activities. So again you see, I hope that there will be more solid follow up. And also when a government changes, or prime minister changes, we should start where they ended and not start from the beginning; and this is what hinders progress. 
The Kharafi Group is one of the most solid representations of Kuwait’s private sector, going back in trade in more than 100 years. It has become one of the Middle East’s most influential companies, a multinational conglomerate. Can you explain the formula of success that has been sustained in the Kharafi Group for so many years and any expansion plans in the near future? 

I can put it in a brief sentence: it has started with my grandfather, my father and us, his children, and we hope to follow it up with our children. And the reason for our success is that we move with time. We don’t stand still and run it in accordance to the progress of the requirements for the future. We believe in diversification and we believe in working for the benefit of the country we are in. This gives us the reputation we’ve had. And I hope we will continue as a family business but even this might change in the future and have a different vision.   
Regarding expansion plans, I think the situation of the economic draw back does not give us the opportunity to expand at this moment. We have to make sure that our investments are properly run and at the same time give as much profit as possible is available because of the economic situation. But again in business your opportunities come and you have to take it or not take it, it’s not a plan you might envisage and then you don’t fulfil; sometimes you do things which you find it hasn’t been planned. And this is the difference between the public sector and private: the flexibility we have is much different than the government.
Talking about Kuwait globally, what do you believe the international communities’ perception of Kuwait is at the moment, and what do you believe perception should be? 

The problem we have is that we are very independent as individuals and we speak our minds very frankly, without taking into consideration that the international community might consider it grumbling, or perhaps they could think that something is very wrong in Kuwait, which is not the case. 
If you know Kuwaitis you know that they love their country, they love their system. Our people go home and they are taken care of by the government, from when they were born until they die, they even pay for the plot they are buried in, the houses are given, the studies. I remember one of our handicapped people when he was in an international forum. He said I was explaining what the government was doing for us and the other said, “I wished I was a handicapped in Kuwait”. But again we have our problems. One of the main problems we have is that we do not have a serious problem. 
Something that I find quite interesting, apart from the many business opportunities available in Kuwait, is democracy and women’s rights. This is something we would like to emphasise internationally, the openness of Kuwait’s society and the fact that you are able to speak your mind as you like. Is that correct? 

Not only that, but you see the link we have as a society: you don’t see it in other countries, not even in the Gulf. If we know you, we trust you. It’s a blessing.    
On the other hand, you can easily see the facilities that are given to our people. When you work 30 years, the pension you get is almost the same as what you were paid when you were working. And women can go and draw a pension after 15 years. The facilities that are given to build a house: the land is free, interest is 1% for the loan you take, or you take a house already built by the government. It’s easy to find those social inputs. The amount which the woman takes: if she is married or divorced, she takes the loans and now also she is given the house for her children. 
The question is how long could this last? This is what we are trying to tell our people. We, as a generation, have lived in a situation they don’t ascertain. What are we going to leave for the next generation? I remember when I was Finance Minister, the barrel was $7 and they are speaking about $85-90. Now it’s $100 approximately. 
The amount also which is being paid for about 120 countries we assist: the only condition we have is that it is for an infrastructure project. You see Kuwait, this small country, giving a loan to China, or Russia, to build an airport or an infrastructure project. We help 120 countries, with no strings attached. The only string we have is that it’s for an infrastructure project. We don’t give anything for castles, or palaces, the loans are for infrastructure projects, to benefit the people        
What would you like readers, the British business community and UK citizens to know about Kuwait? 

That Kuwait is a democratic country. I’ll give you an example if you allow me: when Kuwait takes certain action against somebody who talks illegally against the ruler, you call it freedom of thought. This is not the case here, and the reason it is not the case is because in our constitution, which has been implemented not by the Emir but by an elected parliament; the Emir’s reputation is important because he is like a father figure to all Kuwaitis. Would you accept anybody insulting your father or saying anything hurting your father? 
The world is becoming smaller and there is no way which we can continue having wrong messages to each other. We have to live together, and to look at third world countries down a snobbish nose is not correct; to look at countries from the third world, from the United States, bullying them, or trying to show the muscles they have, that they are the police of the world, it’s not correct. And this I hope that could be portrayed so that everybody knows how to vote, who to vote for and what to learn from the vote.