British PM Cameron inks $1.3b in deals in 'strategic' Kazakhstan

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron signed a strategic cooperation agreement as well as US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in deals with Kazakhstan on Monday during his first visit to the energy-rich ex-Soviet state.

PM Cameron and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev also unveiled an oil and gas processing plant on the shores of the Caspian Sea that is meant to provide a new reliable source of energy for European countries.

The British premier played up the importance of Kazakhstan to regional security as he wound down a swing through the region that included visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We're in a global race for jobs and investment," PM Cameron said on Monday.

"This is one of the most rapidly emerging countries in the world."

Western nations have attempted through the two decades since the Soviet Union's collapse to make gains in a Central Asian region that relies on Russia for its European energy export routes.

PM Cameron added that the two countries had signed a "strategic partnership agreement" that underscored the importance of their growing ties.

Plans to construct a European- and US-backed natural gas pipeline called Nabucco have already fallen through and Western powers are now seeking to hammer out a new strategy to establish closer contacts with nations such as Kazakhstan.

Britain for one has decided to focus on bilateral relations with specific Central Asian countries. PM Cameron became the first British prime minister to visit the nation - a landmark event highlighted by Nazarbayev.

Officials said the deals besides energy also covered infrastructure projects as well as those in the IT field.

"Our country is interested in having close relations with Britain," President Nazarbayev said at a joint press appearance with PM Cameron.

"I am confident that the documents that we have prepared, as well as our negotiations, will give a new impulse to economic and political cooperation between our countries."

Kazakhstan is seen as one of the more neutral Central Asian countries that enjoys equally good relations with Russia and China as well as the West - despite periodic criticism by Washington and Brussels of its human rights record.

President Nazarbayev has also hired former British prime minister Tony Blair as the nation's image consultant who has been tasked with improving Kazakhstan's attraction to investors.

PM Cameron led a large business delegation to the Central Asian nation that included top managers from Royal Dutch Shell.

The British premier and President Nazarbayev jointly unveiled the Bolashak on-shore oil and gas processing facility that operates with involvement from the Anglo-Dutch giant.

The plant is stationed on the Kashagan oil and gas field - one of the largest deposits found in Central Asia.

It is due to process 450,000 barrels of oil and 8.8 million cubic metres of gas daily by the time it becomes fully operational.

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