Blair begged Kuwait for arms deal as thank you for Gulf War help, papers suggest

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Labour prime minister Tony Blair begged Kuwait to buy the UK’s latest artillery as payback for supporting the Middle Eastern nation during the Gulf War, previously classified records suggest.

He repeatedly lobbied Crown Prince Sheikh Sa’ad between 1998 and 1999, even calling in on him during a brief stopover on a flight home from South Africa to press the point.

Internal briefing notes from the time show the UK government believed it was “due the award of a significant defence equipment contract in recognition of its defence of Kuwait” following the invasion of Iraqi forces by Saddam Hussein in 1990.

Minutes of the hastily arranged Kuwait bilateral, in January 1999, reveal Mr Blair heeded Foreign Office officials’ request to talk up the AS90 howitzer, amid concerns that the arms contract would go to the US and its M109.

Tony Blair in Kuwait
Prime Minister Tony Blair in Kuwait in 2003 (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A restricted memo from Number 10 Private Secretary Philip Barton to his Foreign Office colleague, Tim Barrow, covering the meeting between the prime minister and the Crown Prince, said: “The Prime Minister raised the AS90. It was an effective weapon, although he knew the US had offered the M109.

“He hoped very much that all the support we had given Kuwait would be remembered.

“The Crown Prince said that the price of the AS90 was very high. The Prime Minister pointed out that it would do the job properly.

“The Defence Minister said that they would take the state of relations with the UK into account.”

Internal briefing notes the day before the visit, contained in files now released by the National Archives in Kew, show Mr Blair was told the Government was “frankly disappointed” to have “won so little Kuwaiti defence business since end of Gulf War”, adding it had been a “loyal friend to Kuwait over many years”.

JOHN MAJOR AND SHEIKH SAAD AL-ABDULLA AL-SABAH
Kuwait’s Crown Prince Sheikh Sa’ad on a visit to the UK to meet Tony Blair’s predecessor, John Major (PA)

Mr Barton reported that Kuwait “would keep (the UK) in mind” before making a firm decision.

It was the latest in a number of attempts to woo the Kuwaitis, which included a grovelling letter from Mr Blair to the Crown Prince three months earlier, in which he described the AS90 as “the best 155mm gun in the world today”, stating its specification superiority to the US equivalent.

Mr Blair wrote: “This order from Kuwait is very important to the UK and to our industry at a difficult time. We will await your decision eagerly.”

The efforts did not immediately reap rewards, however, as Kuwait announced its intention to buy US artillery two months after Mr Blair’s visit.

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