Emir's visit breathes life into alliance

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, arrived in Britain yesterday for a state visit intended to underline the political, military and economic ties between the two countries.

The Emir is the only Gulf ruler obliged to share power with a vigorous National Assembly, elected by male-only suffrage, which is engaged in a constitutional struggle for influence with the Sabah family.

Most Londoners will only have been aware of the Emir's presence because the ceremonial procession caused traffic jams. But at Buckingham Palace he was assured of a welcome from the Royal Family, before talkswith the Prime Minister.

Britain exported pounds 312m of goods to Kuwait last year, and substantial defence contracts underpin the British commitment to the Emirate's territorial integrity. Kuwait signed agreements with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council after the 1991 Gulf war. The agreements were invoked when the US, Britain and France sent reinforcements last autumn after Iraqi troops deployed near Kuwait's border.

The Emir and his government will be keen to deliver the message that President Saddam Hussein remains a menace and that sanctions should be maintained against Iraq.

Kuwait's adoption of a form of democracy makes it easier for the US and Britain to justify their alliance with the Emirate. The National Assembly, dissolved by the Emir in 1986, was revived by popular demand after the Gulf war.

Britain would like to present Kuwait as an example to absolutist rulers in the Gulf. The Kuwaiti monarchy allows relatively open debate, which is reflected in a sometimes outspoken press. By contrast, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman maintain the traditional combination of repression and silence.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said yesterday that he believed there was a movement towards democracy in all the Gulf states. But, he said: "Each Arab country will move in its own way."