John Key chows down to conclude Gulf States visits

Prime Minister John Key tucks into a burger from New Zealand company, Burger Fuel, in Kuwait.
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

Prime Minister John Key tucks into a burger from New Zealand company, Burger Fuel, in Kuwait.

Brass bands, burgers and blunders: Prime Minister John Key's bizarre Arabian adventure has wrapped up in Kuwait.

A 24-hour visit to the tiny, oil rich country was the last stop on his mission to get six Gulf States on board with a regional free trade pact.

He had a friendlier welcome than a day earlier in Riyadh. He is the first New Zealand prime minister to call on both countries. Key met with the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who hosted Key at his 1,399,500 sq metre Bayan Palace.

He was met at the airport by Prime Minister Sheikh Janer Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabeh, a miliary guard and a brass band to play the New Zealand national anthem.

From there, the official party was whisked in a motorcade down an empty motorway - all traffic was halted - to the vast complex where he'll stay with wife Bronagh.

At the talks were Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber and six ministers. 

Key said they talked trade and security. It's almost 25 years since Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait and sparked a war between Iraq and the West and now they face Islamic State on their doorstep.

Saudi Arabia's reluctance is holding up the deal, and it seems to stem from a dispute over live sheep exports for slaughter. But the matter was not raised in meetings with the Saudi leadership. Key says the ban won't be lifted, but exports for breeding are now allowed. "If you are asking me, as a result of this particular trip and as result of resolving the issue ... is there going to be an explosion in numbers going to Saudi Arabia, I think the answer to that is no...that ban will stay."

The five-day visit to the Gulf States has made the likelihood of securing an agreement "a little bit better ... higher than before I came here."

The reception to the delegation in Abu Dhabi and Dubai was "fantastic." He added: "The Saudis, we are going to have to continue to work on that but I think we can get there."

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Key defended how he conducted discussions over Saudi Arabia's poor human rights record - he didn't directly raise discrimination against women with ruler King Salman.

"I thought some of the reporting misrepresented it. Human rights are womens' rights. And actually we had a really extensive conversation with him ... I thought we'd done a pretty darn good job."

He also shrugged off a gaffe in Dubai where he told local media Kiwis troops were at a nearby base on their way to Iraq to join the international coalition against IS. He hadn't told New Zealand journalists and answered vaguely when questioned. Asked if he should have given away their location, he said : "Yip, absolutely."

Labour's David Shearer accused him of a "frightening lack of judgement."

"At the same time the Prime Minister is telling us that disclosing operational details could be a security risk he is being loose-lipped on the world stage," he said.

Key retorted: "They were yelling and screaming at us to tell them every single detail. Now they are saying if you mention any detail you put them at risk. Neither of which can be true ... I really don't see it as a big deal."

Earlier, he woke to the news that Saudi's Crown Prince Muqrin had been removed overnight, only hours after they met. "It wasn't obvious when I had dinner if he did know about it. He seemed in a great mood."

Key also visited a branch of Kiwi fast food chain Burger Fuel, where he chowed down on a burger for the cameras - despite just having eaten a wagyu beef lunch. "I forgot I was coming here."

 - Stuff


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