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Assessing Kuwaiti Mediation in the Gulf Crisis

Ahead of the Kuwaiti Emir’s postponed September 12th meeting with President Trump at the White House, there had been an air of cautious optimism that the veteran diplomat would use the occasion to announce a breakthrough in the 27-month blockade of Qatar by four Arab states. Weeks of quiet diplomatic engagement and message exchanges had raised hopes among Kuwait officials that Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah had brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The fact that the Emir was due at the White House for the third September in a row has highlighted his value to the White House as an experienced mediator for an impasse that seemingly has become intractable. Meanwhile, the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais has made it likely that the Emir’s meeting with the president will be rescheduled for sooner rather than later, and possibly as early as during the United Nations General Assembly which runs through September 30.

Emir Sabah turned 90 in June and has six decades of experience in regional affairs that began with a forty-year stint as Kuwait’s Foreign Minister between 1963 and 2003. During that period, Sheikh Sabah acquired a reputation for engaging in diplomatic mediation that has continued since he became Emir in 2006. As the oldest head of state in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) after the January 2015 death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Emir Sabah assumed the role of elder statesman just as decision-making in other Gulf capitals was passing into the hands of a generation of younger and more assertive leaders. When the blockade of Qatar was launched without warning by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt in June 2017, Emir Sabah shuttled between capitals to ensure that the crisis did not escalate, and in September that year told a press conference during his first White House meeting with President Trump that “what’s important is that we have stopped any military action.” The Emir’s words were chosen carefully to send a clear signal to all parties that escalation was off the table.

The postponement of the White House meeting does not mean the end of the Kuwaiti mediation attempts as these have been ongoing via multiple diplomatic channels for some considerable time. Kuwaiti officials spent the leadup to Emir Sabah’s September 2 departure for the U.S. receiving and conveying written messages from senior representatives of the Saudi and Qatari governments and expressed cautious optimism that an agreement to de-escalate tension might be reachable. Comments by the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, Lawrence Silverman, added to the growing perception that the Trump meeting was set to focus on resolving the Gulf rift, which U.S. officials have made clear they want ended. Speaking on September 6, two days before the postponement of the Emir’s White House meeting, the new Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, stated bluntly that “Our point to the GCC countries is that they need to resolve this quickly. It’s gone on too long. Because the bigger challenge for the region is Iran.”[1]

Any thawing of ties within the Gulf is more likely to involve Saudi Arabia, rather than Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Recent changes in the makeup of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s advisers at the Royal Court in Riyadh appear to have sidelined some of the more hawkish ‘anti-Qatar’ voices such as Turki al-Sheikh and Saud al-Qahtani.[2] Separately, developments in Yemen have opened up fault-lines between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over future political arrangements in the country. Such divisions may or may not spill over into the quartet of states that launched the blockade of Qatar in 2017 but they do highlight how Riyadh and Abu Dhabi differ over key aspects of their visions for regional geopolitics built as they are on different political objectives and endgames. While the relationship between Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi remains close, there has been far less coordination of Saudi and Emirati decision-making at institutional and bureaucratic levels lower down.

There is a spectrum along which an agreement to de-escalate tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could occur, from full normalization of political relations to practical measures that lift the blockade and allow for the resumption of the movement of people and trade. A reluctance to acknowledge in public that the blockade has failed is likely to mean that any reconciliation is gradual and takes the form of incremental measures rolled out quietly to save face and minimize the risk of political embarrassment – especially as the Qatar blockade has become part of a broader litany of foreign policy missteps associated with Mohammed bin Salman since he first rose to prominence in Saudi Arabia in 2015. Suhaib Jamal Nasser, an independent Doha-based analyst, has suggested that initial points of conciliation could be around Hajj/Umrah permits, family meetings, and Qatari overflights in Saudi airspace.[3] Such acts could address some of the most contentious societal and commercial aspects of the blockade and be followed later by more visible measures such as reopening the land border crossing to trade.

One reason that Kuwait’s mediation has a higher chance of succeeding than the Trump administration’s aborted early-2018 plan for a set-piece ‘reconciliation summit’ at Camp David is that the Kuwaiti initiative is organic to and rooted in the political culture of leadership in the Gulf. If a way can be found to address points of friction between Saudi Arabia and Qatar it is probable that Bahrain and Egypt will follow the Saudi lead and peel away from the blockading quartet. Were this to occur it would leave the UAE as the holdout and be consistent with the evidence that suggests that it was Abu Dhabi rather than Riyadh that originated the attempted power play against Qatar. While a resolution of the Gulf rift would neither be comprehensive nor complete without the UAE on board, it nevertheless would offer the basis for trying to rebuild the ties of trust and mutual confidence that have been strained to breaking point since 2017. A later phase could then focus on issues of regionwide significance thrown up by the blockade, such as the use and misuse of media and social media in fomenting and spreading campaigns of vilification and abuse.

There remains a lot of work to be done before even such modest steps at de-escalation might take place, and media statements from Saudi Arabia and Egypt have in recent days reiterated their support for the blockade of Qatar. Such statements might be public posturing to deflect from the possibility of talks succeeding, or they might signify that the time is not yet ripe for a breakthrough in mediation. One issue that does need to be addressed as a matter of urgency is the location of the forthcoming annual Summit of the GCC which is scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi in December 2019. There has been recent speculation that the summit might be moved to the GCC headquarters in Riyadh just as the 2018 summit – chaired by Oman – was. Qatari officials have continued to travel to meetings of GCC committees, most recently for heads of intelligence and security agencies, which have taken place in Saudi Arabia, signifying that for all the regional difficulties the GCC is at least continuing to function. It has been the GCC’s good fortune that during the first two years of the crisis its rotating leadership has been held by Kuwait (2017-18) and Oman (2018-19), allowing many meetings to take place in the ‘safe’ neutral spaces of Kuwait City and Muscat. How events develop in the runup to the December summit will determine the next phase of a Gulf crisis that already has become a semi-permanent feature of the regional landscape.


Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy


Read the article in Arabic / لقراءة المقال بالعربي HERE


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.



[1] Dominic Dudley, “U.S. Defense Secretary Calls On Gulf Allies To Heal Their Rift And Focus On Iran,” Forbes, September 6, 2019

[2] Suhaib Jamal Nasir, Twitter Post, September 2, 2019 10:35 AM

[3] Suhaib Jamal Nasir, Twitter Post, March 8, 2019 2:28 PM

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Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, his research examines the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer-term, nonmilitary challenges to regional security. Previously, he worked as senior Gulf analyst at the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies between 2006 and 2008 and as co-director of the Kuwait Program on Development, Governance and Globalization in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2008 until 2013.

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