Kuwait, Balancer in the Gulf
Three decades ago, on August 2, 1990, the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein occupied his small southern neighbor of Kuwait. This aggression both divided the Arab World but particularly impacted the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During the invasion, the current emir of Kuwait who was then the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, played a major role in the diplomatic efforts of the GCC states and other nations involved in Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991
Currently, the emir’s health has become and the issue of succession has become a topic of concern, not only Kuwaitis but also for their fellow GCC states as well. Among his peers, the emir has a reputation for being a master of diplomacy. He has dealt with many events that changed the fate of the Gulf region and the broader Arab world. This includes the Iranian Revolution, Iran-Iraq war, terrorist attacks on Kuwait, 9/11, the Arab Spring, as well as the disastrous invasion of Kuwait.
Skilled Diplomacy in a Turbulent Region
Undoubtedly, the emir has been one of the best balancers in Gulf politics as well as the most experienced statesman in the Arab world. As Kuwait’s leader since 2006, the country’s foreign policy has proven capable of counter-balancing ambitious regional powers. At a time of intensifying geopolitical instability and strategic clashes in the Middle East, Kuwait has assumed the role of mediating and defusing tensions in various conflicts.
Three decades after Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the country’s leadership has sought to prevent any scenario that results in Kuwait becoming an enemy of any government in the Middle East. Sheikh Sabah has maintained his country’s close partnership with the United States, born out of the invasion of Kuwait. Yet in an increasingly multipolar world, Kuwait’s ruler has been keen to also strengthen his country’s relationships with China, France, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom, ultimately hedging Kuwaiti foreign policy while Washington’s influence declines throughout the Arab region.
As China moves ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which seeks to put China at the center of international trade in the 21st century, Kuwait is determined to capitalize on its strategic location between Asia and Europe. The capacity of Kuwait’s ports and logistics infrastructure should allow it to play an increasingly important role in China’s ambitious BRI projects. Kuwait has partnered with Beijing to develop one of the world’s largest megaprojects, the Silk City. Meanwhile, as Russia becomes more of a power broker in the Middle East and North Africa, Kuwait has capitalized on its historically warm ties with Moscow to further diversify its partnership beyond its close friends in the West.
Despite being a founding member of the GCC, an organization created in response to Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Kuwait has pragmatically dealt with Tehran. As a neighbor of the Islamic Republic and an Arab country with a sizeable and influential Shi’a minority (roughly one-third of the national population), Kuwait has sought to avoid hostility in relations with Iran. In contrast to some of the other Arab Gulf states, Kuwait tried to accommodate Tehran’s concerns without triggering Saudi fears that might push Riyadh and other GCC states to think that Kuwait has abandoned its GCC allies. As a small country bordering the three most powerful states in the Gulf region (Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia), Kuwait has always played a delicate balancing game between them.
In recent years, Kuwait and Iraq have taken steps to overcome tensions in bilateral affairs that lingered since 1991. With both countries under pressure stemming from US-Iran brinkmanship as well as the Saudi and Emirati blockade of Qatar, Kuwait City and Baghdad have started to rebuild their relationship. For the Kuwaitis who are uncomfortable with the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis, Iraq offers greater strategic depth. From Baghdad’s perspective, Kuwait is a promising investor that can help rebuild war-torn Iraq.
Maintaining Neighborly Relations
After three GCC members — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — and Egypt started the 2017 blockade of Qatar, the Kuwaiti emir led the mediation efforts to end the crisis that polarized the region. The emir’s main accomplishment was stopping a possible military operation against Qatar by fellow Arab Gulf states, a bitter experience Kuwait suffered in the 1990’s. With support from nearly the entire international community, Sheikh Sabah continues to lead the mediation efforts to bring Qatar and the blockading states toward reconciliation.
As the GCC dispute continues to internationalize, Turkey’s role in the Gulf and wider Middle East is becoming increasingly relevant to internal GCC tensions, especially regarding the UAE’s foreign policy agenda. While a “Cold War” is heating up between the Qatari-Turkish bloc on one side and the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian bloc on the other, Sheikh Sabah has positioned Kuwait as a neutral state on good terms with both blocs.
The Kuwaiti political group Hadas, which is Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood party, has for decades enjoyed good standing with Kuwait’s government. While Arab regimes, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others view the Islamist movement as a terrorist organization, Kuwait does not regard Hadas as a security threat or an extremist movement. Hadas has never threatened the Al Sabah family’s legitimacy, opposed Kuwait’s close partnership with the US or any other Western power, nor has it ever been connected to any act of terrorism on Kuwaiti soil. Moreover, the Kuwaiti state treatment of Hadas as a legitimate political group, including the right to hold seats in the Parliament, serves Kuwaiti interests by neutralizing hostility with other Muslim Brotherhood groups in the Arab World.
At a time in which others in the GCC are abandoning the Palestinians in favor of tacit partnerships with Israel, Kuwait refuses to join the trend. Kuwait’s leadership believes that Arab states should not take steps toward normalizing relations with Tel Aviv unless Israel makes concrete concessions to the Palestinians in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Despite serious problems in Kuwaiti-Palestinian relations resulting from Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein amid the 1990-1991 invasion, Kuwait has established itself as an Arab Gulf state committed to the peace process.
In the near future, Kuwait might find itself under pressure from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE reacting to domestic Kuwaiti debate. Some Kuwaitis expressed positions on regional issues that do not sit well with the governments in Tehran, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. Consequently, officials in these neighboring Gulf states have protested Kuwait’s free speech and called for Kuwaiti authorities to silence these citizens. Thus, even if Kuwait has embraced neutral positions on most conflicts in the Arab region, the country’s semi-democratic political system, which has granted its citizens more freedom to express their views on regional and global affairs, could complicate Kuwait’s relations with its neighbors.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.