– Kuwait was the first Gulf state to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. How have our relations evolved and developed throughout the period of our cooperation?
Relations between Russia and Kuwait started in 1961, after Kuwait had declared its independence. These relations are considered to be new, though we already had exchanges at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the first Russian ship came to the port of Kuwait. Then there were meetings with the governors of the state of Kuwait, including Sheikh Sabah, who is the great-grandfather of today's Emir.
In 1961 Kuwait decided to become a member of the UN. It was during the Cold War and Kuwait’s ran into difficulty because the USSR refused to give its permission. The reason was in close ties between the Soviet government and the President of Iraq.
In 1963 this problem was resolved. After the military takeover in Baghdad, Kuwait became a member of the UN. The Embassy of the State of Kuwait in Moscow and the Embassy of the Soviet Union in Kuwait were opened in the same year. Since then, our relations have been constantly developing.
His Excellency the Emir of Kuwait, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time, played an important role in this regard. He had very close and strong relations with Soviet leaders, especially Andrei Gromyko, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs. He often visited Russia, at least twice a year. As Kuwait was the only country in the region that had friendly relations with the USSR at that time, it became a link between Gulf countries and the USSR.
Sheikh Sabah promoted and strengthened relations between the USSR and Gulf countries. In the 1980s, Kuwait played a significant role in arms deals and military relations in favor of Iraq during its conflict with Iran.
November 2015 saw the first official visit of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs to Russia as Emir. During the meeting, he concluded a number of agreements on cooperation, including in energy, military equipment, culture and transport, providing for a visa-free regime for diplomats. The Emir and Putin also concluded an agreement on intergovernmental commission to control the implementation of these agreements. Recently, various Russian folklore and cultural groups visited Kuwait, a Government Tourism Office was opened to increase the tourist flow.
According to the Russian Ambassador in Kuwait, the number of visas issued increased from 300 to 1,000. It is a large number in comparison with the population of Kuwait. The states constantly hold political consultations supported by Kuwait.
We think Russia is important for the Arab region and plays a leading role in resolving the challenges facing the Arab East. Russia's relations with this region are very important for supporting development and preserving security.
– What opportunities are there for tourists? Was a direct flight opened?
There are various tour and transport agencies in Kuwait that can help aspiring travelers.
– What about the tourism infrastructure?
It is top-notch. We can’t compare it with other countries since the Kuwaiti community is conservative. However, there are hotels including five-star hotels, beaches and islands for tourists, large world-class shopping malls, and restaurants offering different cuisines. I think Kuwait is a good tourist destination, but it is important to choose a suitable time for visiting.
– What is the best season for tourism?
The best time is between late October and early March. It is better to come in February as there is the Independence Day of Kuwait during that month. There are various cultural and festival events, and discounts. It is the best time for a visit.
– Is there any Kuwait restaurants in Moscow?
There is one in the Ambassador’s residence. There are few Kuwaiti people in Moscow. Our tourists prefer Russian and Central Asian cuisine, because it is close to Kuwaiti. Kuwait enjoys a special geographic location lying on the border with Asia. So Asian spices come through Kuwait. There are ties with West through the Mediterranean Sea and Syria. Therefore, Kuwait cuisine is special, it is a mixture of Asian and Mediterranean cuisine.
– What are your national dishes and drinks?
It is rice. There are various dishes with rice, primarily fish dishes since we have a long coastline and there is a lot of fish. Lamb is in second place.
– What about oil cooperation between our countries. How do you estimate its prospects?
Just like Russia, the state of Kuwait produces oil and depends on its revenues. We maintain stable oil prices. I think all oil-producing states are trying to do it and they have made great progress.
Although Russia is not considered a member of OPEC, it plays a big role and maintains cooperation with OPEC member states in order to stabilize market prices. Kuwait heads the organizing committee, which is engaged in stabilizing oil prices for both OPEC members and non-members. Russia is a member of the committee. The first committee meeting was in Vienna and it reached an agreement on oil output cuts. The second round took place in Kuwait last March where we discussed how all states could comply with the agreement.
This issue was also considered during the meeting between the Ministers of oil of Russia and Saudi Arabia at the International Conference in Beijing, where they reached an agreement on the limitation of oil production until 2018. Kuwait is implementing this agreement and considers it as a very important step for price stabilization and, perhaps, for stimulating higher prices.
With that, Kuwait needs large volumes of natural gas. Next year, the volume of natural gas consumption will increase. Currently, Kuwait is mulling the construction of a special port for ships with petroleum products for next year. This port is supposed to be the largest in the world. Kuwait’s National Oil Company cooperates closely with Gazprom in providing Kuwait with the necessary amounts of natural gas.
Kuwait tries to diversify energy sources to avoid fuel shortages. There are also contacts between Russian and Kuwaiti energy companies. However, as you know, such meetings and negotiations are always confidential. They can be made public after reaching a certain agreement only. Next October will see a conference on energy in Kuwait, Russian companies have been officially invited. We hope that they will come.
– What are our main areas of cooperation? We have already discussed oil, tourism and trade. Perhaps there are other key areas?
There is a great interest in the development of political relations between Kuwait and Russia. There have been political consultations and exchange of views in these areas for a long time. A month ago we had another meeting of this nature between our countries. On behalf of Kuwait we had the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Russia was represented by Mr. Bogdanov.
As I said, since Russia has common borders with the Arab world, it plays a great role in resolving political problems and has its position on the hot spots of the Arab world.
It is impossible to achieve political stability in this region without Russia's participation, as it basically has good relations with all countries of the Arab world.
Your country has a possibility to bring together and unite the positions of the Arab countries. That’s why Russia and the Arab countries have mutual interest in developing relations.
As Moscow has its own interests in the region, it will only gain from its stability. For the Arab countries it is also beneficial to have stability, peace and opportunity to cooperate with the Russian Federation.
It means the relations between Russia and the East are important and mutually beneficial.
Perhaps, the interest was slightly weakened after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
But I think Russia has recovered and its influence on region will further increase.
– Can you tell us more about the “Kuwait 2035” government plan for the development of infrastructure?
The "Kuwait 2035" plan has been published on the official website of our state. We will give you an official password, so you will be able to get acquainted with it.
The current economic situation, the dependence on oil as the main source of government income and constant growth of population have forced Kuwait to review its economic architecture.
In essence, we seek to reduce dependence on oil as the main source of revenue and cut government expenditures by supporting the private sector and increasing opportunities to invest in the infrastructure, as well as supporting the youth of Kuwait in their ambitions to set up private businesses.
To get an idea of how our economy functions, you have to go back in the early period of economic development. Oil reserves were discovered in 1938 and the first exports took place in 1948 after the Second World War.
We re-allocated resources and developed infrastructure in healthcare, building schools, medical institutions and so on. The state bought large plots of land from private owners to build modern cities.
In 1952, Kuwait created the world's first sovereign fund. Its goal was to preserve part of income from oil exports to invest into other non-oil-related sectors in order to have parallel sources of income in addition to oil. We invested in foreign companies. We established an office in the UK to control these investments. In this way the government began to control all areas of the economy, healthcare and others.
With the growth of the population, the state had to review the amount of support and development of the welfare system. This is what brought about the “Kuwait 2035” plan. It goals were to nurture and support a private sector. Therefore, the state currently cooperates with international organizations which could provide us with the legal and administrative foundation for this new area. It is the main goal of our plan.
– Which of the six Kuwaiti provinces is the most developed, and why?
The State provides to all provinces the same opportunities for development. The difference is in the scale of operations only. Certainly, the capital is the most important region thanks to its important financial, administrative and other areas. Therefore, it is the top province among others. There are some regions which are like uptowns in Moscow. They have schools and some commercial organizations, trade, etc. People only reside there. It is the only difference. The capital is different because all functions and services are concentrated there.
– Kuwait has become one of the first Arab states which recognized equal rights of men and women. What impact does it have on modern society?
It has a great influence since women are half of the population. If we forbid them to fulfill their duties, we will lose a half of the society, or 44 % of our labour force. Kuwait was the first of the Arab states to send women to study abroad despite its conservative approach. It was in the early 1950s.
It is not so surprising for Russians as for our people. For comparison, let’s go back to the beginning of diplomatic relations with Russian in 1963. It was dangerous to build such relations at that time since the USSR was a closed communist state. However, Kuwait managed to communicate with the Soviet Union. Therefore, the region considered Kuwait to be an outstanding state at this regard, which doesn’t pay attention to external pressure. And women play a significant role in our society both at home and at work.
– Going back to the visit of the Emir in November 2015. You said many agreements were signed. What has been the outcome?
I think the visit of our Emir is a great step towards better relations between two countries. During the meeting, Mr. Putin said that our Emir is well-known in Russia. As I said, he founded diplomatic relations between Russia and Kuwait. He constantly visited Moscow as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and played a significant role in building and maintaining diplomatic relations between Russia and Gulf countries.
I consider this visit to be historically important since it was his first visit as the Emir. The agreements certainly gave a push: the meetings and consultations at the level of various committees have been more often, they are now considering these agreements. We have constant negotiations and meetings on oil and gas, on military equipment and drills, and on culture and tourism. Russian companies have been invited to participate in projects as part of the 2035 plan, especially in electric power and transport sectors, and their contribution will play an important role for the economy of Kuwait.
– What about cultural cooperation between the two countries?
In the early 1970s, the Bolshoi Theater was our first visitor. There were two ballet performances last year. We sent our artists to Russia, and they presented their works at the Embassy. The good thing is that they reflect the nature of Kuwait. The Kuwait Opera House was opened with the participation of 120 Russian musicians last year. Last year the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation visited Kuwait to open the Russian Cinema Week and the Tourist Office. In return, the Minister of Media of Kuwait visited St. Petersburg last December.
Kuwait organized an exhibition of the ancient works of the Islamic world. I think Russians constantly pay great attention to culture, history, they are very cultured. They read and watch a lot.
The organizer of the exhibition was a private company owned by the elder son of the Kuwaiti emir and his wife, daughter of the former emir. This is their hobby, they are keen on collecting ancient works of the Islamic world. They began this work in the late 1960s.
Their Islamic collections are considered to be the largest in the world in this area. They were displayed in a number of world museums, in the Kremlin Museum, in the Hermitage, in the Louvre of Paris, in New York, Singapore and other museums. In 1990, the exhibition should have been held in the Hermitage, however before two days of its opening, there was Iraq invaded Kuwait. The director of the Hermitage Mr. Piotrovsky insisted on its opening. All this collection was kept under his personal responsibility until the liberation of Kuwait and then was returned back to Kuwait.
Our state appreciates what Mr Piotrovsky did to preserve this collection. We think the culture of Kuwait plays significant role in the development of relations between nations. The world is full of wars, depressions and so on. Therefore, when a person looks at a beautiful picture, listens to good music or visits museums, he or she is reminded of life’s positive moments. They appreciate artistic work and the unlimited opportunities that this piece of art contains. It is better to use these opportunities to create something beautiful, something that all humanity can enjoy rather than using this energy to destroy each other.
– I would like to ask about a very interesting Humanity Leader title awarded to emir by the UN Secretary-General. What does this title stand for?
We became active internationally after Kuwait was declared an independent state. It all started with the support of friendly relations with neighboring Arab countries. Charity has been a long-standing tradition in our country, it all began 300 years ago, but then it was carried out by individuals. After our independence in 1961, we established the Kuwait Fund For Arab Economic Development. Its main goal is to provide Arab countries with subsidized loans to support and develop their economy, including healthcare, education and housing. The interest rate was less than half a percent.
Later such loans were provided to African countries. As of today, the fund has provided 106 countries with 936 loans worth almost 20 billion dollars, not to mention the support for Palestinians and Syrians. In recent years, Kuwait has organized special conferences to support Syrian refugees and provided aid worth 500 million dollars. Kuwait also helped East Sudan, Arab and African countries, our Iraqi and Palestinian brothers. We support the people of Yemen. Kuwait and His Excellence the Emir of Kuwait are concerned about the situation in the world.
Now their assistance is completely legal. These are our political, cultural, brotherly duties to our people. In addition, the so called “Zakat House” was set up. Islam obliges every Muslim to pay 2.5 percent of their income to the poor. Now it is legally implemented at the state level since there are no more poor people – the country provided everyone with housing, education and so on, and it has become difficult for people to share. In this regard, the state tries to collect this zakat on a voluntary basis. This money is spent on infrastructure and other projects both in Kuwait and other countries. Everyone who makes a contribution know where it goes. We also established the Charitable Islamic Fund which provides Islamic communities with help and services.
In addition, the General Secretariat of Awqaf has been established. It means that, for example, one wealthy person creates a certain project, builds a house or organizes an event. This project works on the basis of self-financing. If no one monitors the project, it may disappear eventually. The state took the responsibility to monitor these initiatives in order to ensure their viability.
The goal of such projects is to support poor families and to integrate them into society. Therefore, considering all of the above, the UN decided to call Kuwait a humanitarian state, and the Emir was elected as humanitarian leader.
Since 2006, when he became the Emir, Kuwait has organized various conferences and events providing assistance and support to brothers in Arab countries.
– The Emir has been a ruler for many years. Could somebody become his worthy successor or is there no such person in Kuwait?
Nobody knows it. But Kuwait's constitutional system stresses that there is the Emir and the first in line to the throne. According to the constitution, in case the Emir's position becomes vacant, his heir automatically becomes the Emir. During a certain period the heir may propose to one of the members of the royal family to become the Emir. A person who is called a candidate should be supported by Parliament. If the parliament rejects his candidacy, three other candidates can be proposed. Parliament must choose one of them. The chamber consists of 50 people plus 16 ministers elected by people. It means that they are representatives of people.
– What is Kuwait's stance on regional issues?
The Syrian civil war as a bad development since during this war a person can lose faith in his own brother. It is the downside of political differences as well as external interference and various religious and ethnic groups. The Kuwait’s official position is that the parties must sit down at the negotiating table and find a political solution to this problem. There should be no military solution as it can destroy the country. We don’t think that somebody can win through resolving the issue by military means.
Kuwait uses its opportunity to provide destitute persons with humanitarian assistance. Everyone knows that now there are many Syrian refugees in all countries, their number increases daily. Countries, where refugees appear, bear additional burdens, for example, according to the UN, there are about 2 million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. It is a big burden for the economy of these countries, which already have certain financial problems. We try to provide them with our support and help.
I also think that states must strengthen their ties to defeat terrorism. It is necessary to admit that terrorism has no relation to religion. The fact that these terrorist organizations sometimes call themselves Islamic organizations is wrong since they destroy Muslims more than others. When the supporters of Islam discovered other countries, their goals were not to destroy others, but to spread Islam. They did not force anyone to change religion. Today criminal groups have taken over our faith. They interpret Islam in their own non-human way. Their goal is to freeze human mind and force them not to think, but only to execute orders.
I think all Arab countries and international community must unite in order to destroy terrorism. The terrorism will develop if everyone is interested in their own aims only. This subject needs to be discussed at various levels. I think an uncoordinated policy in the fight against terrorism can further create great difficulties.
– Now, on a personal note, what is your favorite place in Moscow?
I will tell you one story. Before I came to Moscow, I was Ambassador to Singapore. It was in 2013 when I was told that I would be sent as Ambassador of Kuwait to Moscow. Then I considered it as a promotion. But an hour later I thought that I was not alone, I had a family. I had never been in the Russian capital before. I received information from the Western mass media which said that Moscow was a very cold city with unfriendly people and a high crime rate. The pressure on my mind continued until I came to Moscow.
I think Moscow is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and Russians are one of the most developed people.
They might not smile at strangers, however, you become very generous as soon as this initial barrier in communication disappears. Your mentality is more oriental and Asian than European. Russians can easily invite a person to their home, introduce him to their families.
The family plays a significant role, it is important for Russians. As for cold weather, I think it is normal. The reports of a high crime rate are not true. Me and my family enjoy living here.
I may only criticize Russians for their unwillingness to change an attitude towards themselves. It is also necessary to fight bureaucracy in your country. I am surprised that Russians go abroad on vacation.
I think Russia is the first country in the world in terms of to its territory. It takes 9 hours to fly from west to east. You have tourist opportunities but you need infrastructure. If there is more investment in tourism, a larger number of people would spend their holidays inside the country.
It would be a great support for the Russian economy. Besides, it is possible to attract foreign tourists. Currently, it is difficult for foreigners to get a visa. The language barrier is also important.
I do not think that Russia is worse in terms of tourism than neighboring countries. What does make Turkey different from Russia? What does make Baku different from Russia? The most beautiful places are in St. Petersburg. Sochi, Kazan, Moscow are beautiful, too.
Tourist destinations require investment and advertising. Russia is not only an ancient country, but also a modern one.
Investments in recreational infrastructure, especially in tourism, are of great importance. We enjoy the season of cruises along the Moskva River, it's very interesting.
Me and my family come to Zavidovo both in winter and summer, even when snow is everywhere, when the river is under ice, or when summer plants blossom.
This is the foundation of tourism and it all needs investment. For example, such place as Siberia, with its Trans-Siberian Railway and Baikal, is very beautiful. I am surprised that in order to get to the lake, you need to drive three hours by car. And when you get there, you have to come back on the same day as there are no places where you can spend the night.
The same is true for Vladivostok. Some things need to be developed. Many people want to visit Russia. Since foreigners receive information only from the Western media, it makes it a very difficult job. Then there are visa issues.
Russia needs to take a number of measures to spur the development of tourism. If Russia starts actively developing this area, its income could be greater than oil and gas revenues.
Tourism has become a very important source of income. For example, Egypt, Turkey, France, even the US have been active in developing their tourist destinations. These investments are of great importance, you build infrastructure, create new jobs, earn money in foreign currency, and humans contacts help people get rid of stereotypes.