David Cameron was forced to recalibrate his approach towards authoritarian regimes across the Middle East yesterday as he put democratic reform ahead of winning trade orders for the first time.
Mr Cameron had intended to use his long-planned trip to the Gulf to drum up orders for British business and had invited more than 36 executives to accompany him. But instead, he gave a speech to the Kuwaiti parliament which would have been unimaginable just a month ago. In it, he signalled a significant move from what he has previously called his "messianic" push to bolster trade towards political change.
"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," Mr Cameron said.
"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 both our societies to flourish." He declined to name any countries where the UK had been wrong to support repressive regimes.
Mr Cameron said Western countries needed to understand that it was in their interests to see basic rights established in the region. "For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk," he said.
"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."
Mr Cameron rejected the so-called "Arab exception" – the argument that Arab or Muslim countries "can't do democracy". He said: "For me, that's a prejudice that borders on racism."
He also responded to criticism about including arms company representatives in his delegation. "The fact that there are British defence companies on this visit – BAE, Thales and others – is perfectly right in this regard."
Mr Cameron, the Daily Mail reported, later told a journalist: "Are we honestly saying that for all time, countries like Kuwait have to manufacture and maintain every single part of their own defences?"Reuse content