PRIMARY DESTINATIONS

Kuwait 2017 | DIPLOMACY | GUEST SPEAKER

TBY talks to Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka, on the strong ties that bind Kuwait and Sri Lanka.

Maithripala Sirisena
BIOGRAPHY
Maithripala Sirisena joined mainstream politics in 1989 as a member of the Parliament of Sri Lanka and has held several ministerial posts since 1994. He was the general-secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and was Minister of Health until November 2014, when he announced his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election.

The two countries have around USD250 million in total trade, with petroleum derivatives exported to Sri Lanka, and tea, precious stones, fruit, and jewelry heading to Kuwait. Could you tell us more about economic relations, and what are the important areas of focus to bolster trade and investment?

Kuwait is a preferred trading partner for Sri Lanka. Yet, the current amount of trade between our countries does not reflect the huge potential for bilateral trade. For the most part, it has been based on traditional items from both sides, such as tea and petroleum. While they form an important share of to our trade relations, there is scope for diversification through fostering more people-to-people and business-to-business trade relations. Currently, value addition in food industry has seen some positive developments. Furthermore, the fisheries industry has been in focus and many opportunities are available given the resource-rich large extent of sea area of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has identified green energy as a top priority. This offers ample investment and business opportunities in Sri Lanka for socially responsible businesses and entrepreneurs. It is a good time to do business in Sri Lanka. The country's economy is growing at a healthy rate over 5% and our middle class in expanding fast. Sri Lanka's workforce is one of the best skilled in the region. What makes Sri Lanka most attractive to investors is the access they will enjoy from Sri Lanka as we have a solid FTA with India, which we are improving further. At the same time, Sri Lanka is negotiating two more FTAs with China and Singapore. Once complete, these trade agreements will make Sri Lanka a launching pad to a market of three billion people.

Sri Lanka serves as one of the primary Asian destinations for Kuwait, both for tourist destination and as hub for further travel by Kuwait Airways of Sri Lankan Airlines. Kuwait, in return, is home to more than 120,000 Sri Lankans who work in a variety of sectors. How do you envision mobility in both directions to develop?

Throughout history, Sri Lanka has been referred to as a place of idyllic scenery and exotic beauty. In the ancient Arab world, Sri Lanka was once known as Serendip. Today, Sri Lanka is one of the top emerging tourist destinations in the world. Tourist arrivals from Kuwait to Sri Lanka have risen formidably in the recent past. While Sri Lanka's rich geographical and natural diversity is a treat to most visitors, Sri Lanka's central location between the Middle East and Eastern Asia offers a convenient meeting place for business travellers. Sri Lanka is agreeably located in the middle of Asia's many growing economies to serve as a central travel destination. Sri Lankans employed in Kuwait also contribute heavily to the frequency of travel between the two destinations. Both Sri Lankan Airlines and Kuwait Airways operate frequently and the airlines are ready to increase the number of flights further. Expansion of the Katunayake airport is also taking place to cater to the growing demand of the travellers. Sri Lanka is emerging as a travel hub in the region, thanks to the many travellers who wants to stop over in Sri Lanka during their Asian tour. Tourism is one of our fastest-growing industries and the expanding Asian middle class has helped Sri Lanka become a preferred travel destination.

Sri Lanka and Kuwait have had cordial relations for more than five decades. What are your hopes and expectations for Sri Lankan-Kuwaiti relations in the near future?

Kuwait is more than an economic partner for Sri Lanka. We are a few years away from celebrating five decades of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Kuwait has been a “home away from home" for many Sri Lankans who work there. Sri Lanka and Kuwait have stood in solidarity in many international fora, and acted with mutual understanding and respect. In terms of bilateral relations, as Sri Lanka prioritizes science and technology sector as declared in the Asia Co-operation Dialogue, where Kuwait is a member, I welcome the priority Kuwait has given to sustainable development. We are also keen to diversify and upgrade the skilled labor migration to Kuwait from Sri Lanka. As such, we will see more skilled employees seeking employment opportunities in Kuwait. Both countries have agreed to promote more and more business-to-business linkages as a key strategy in strengthening trade between the countries. We also look forward to increased people-to-people linkages for achieving sustainable business and cultural ties. After all, we are one big Asian family and it is those ties that bring real benefits for people.