Kuwait’s Foreign Policy In Context

Will Kuwait Continue To Lead On Post-ISIS Reconstruction Efforts?

With the eruption of the Gulf crisis, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah has not only emerged as a kingmaker seeking to bring the five month dispute to an end but more broadly positioned himself as the region’s most trusted and experienced statesman.  The 88-year old monarch – who has ruled since 2006 – is also a generation older than the leaders of the feuding parties of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which pits United Arab Emirate Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, 56, and de-facto ruler, along with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, 32, against Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Kuwait’s decision to actively mediate between the parties could also be considered its own insurance policy against being forced to pick sides.

But irrespective of the crisis, which Washington seeks to resolve through Kuwaiti mediation as it considers all parties to the conflict to be important allies and therefore prefers that a solution is found within the GCC, Kuwait is the only GCC member to enjoy an institutionalized strategic alliance with the United States.

This also explains why Kuwait is uniquely positioned to solve the most significant of its kind since the establishment of GCC in 1981.

Within this context, it was not surprising that Washington supports Kuwait’s non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council 2018-19 as part of its efforts to strengthen the bilateral relationship.[i]  The announcement was made during the recent U.S.-Kuwaiti Strategic Dialogue conference in Washington.

U.S.-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue

The U.S.-Kuwait strategic alliance is institutionalized through the bi-annual U.S.-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, which alternates between Washington and Kuwait City.

The 2017 U.S.-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue was inaugurated on September 7 by Sheikh Sabah’s meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House where he was publicly thanked by the president for his role to help resolve the GCC crisis.

Following President Trump’s bilateral meeting with Sheik Sabah, U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Kuwaiti First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah co-chaired the Strategic Dialogue, which focused on the following issues: defense, security, trade, investment, education, consular, customs, and border protection issues.[ii]

Bilateral Defense Cooperation

During Trump-Sabah meeting, it was announced that Kuwait would acquire 32 additional F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets for $10.1 billion, which includes equipment and training, for its Air Force. [iii]

Kuwait’s existing fleet of F-18s consists of 40 fighter jets, and given the small size of its Armed Forces and Air Force in particular it does not threaten Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which Washington uses as a metric to regulate U.S. defense sales to the Middle East and North Africa region.

Furthermore, Kuwait is also the only Middle Eastern country to have acquired the F-18, which is not only a highly advanced aircraft – but more so than the F-16 which is a legacy fighter jet acquired by several of Washington’s NATO allies – but has also been sold to some of Washington’s principal non NATO allies such as Australia, Malaysia, Switzerland and Finland, among others. Iraq’s threat to Kuwait has after all been demonstrated, which underscores its ability to acquire the F-18.

Kuwait’s recent procurement of U.S. defense technology centers primarily on sustainment efforts, said David B. Des Roches, a former Pentagon official and associate professor at National Defense University. He added that Kuwait had first acquired U.S. manufactured Patriot Missiles after the U.S. liberation of Kuwait from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1991, formally known as Operation Desert Storm. A decade later, in 2012, Kuwait purchased 60 launching stations, which was a significant increase from the five launching stations it had acquired in 1998. The country has yet to determine whether it would acquire the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a U.S.-manufactured anti-ballistic missile defense system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase.[iv]

So far, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have acquired the THAAD.

All of these defense acquisitions, however, are tied to Kuwait’s 2015 commitment to spend a total of $20 billion on sustainment efforts of its Armed Forces, explained Des Roches.  The recently announced sale of the F-18 to Kuwait predates the Trump-administration as the arrangements were done in conjunction with the Obama-administration’s U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David of 2015.

Moreover, the U.S.-GCC security dialogue was upgraded by the Obama-administration in 2015 and ranges from technical level expertise to bilateral strategic dialogue by the respective heads of state, but only Kuwait enjoys an institutionalized framework of its kind.

The U.S. has two military bases in Kuwait.  At Camp Doha, the U.S. Central Command’s Army Forward Base is located where U.S. gear and equipment are stored. For its part, Camp Arifjan accommodates elements of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard.[v]

Even though Washington remains Kuwait’s most significant strategic ally, it also purchases defense equipment from all members of the United Nations Security Council given that it was a unified UNSC that passed the 660 resolution of 1990, which demanded that Iraq withdraw its forces unconditionally from Kuwait to the positions in which they were located on 1 August 1990, the day before the invasion of Kuwait began.

In light of Washington’s voluntary decision not to sell any surface-to-surface missiles as outlined in the Missile Technology Control Regime – which Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom –have also signed onto, Kuwait has purchased 75 self propelled howitzers manufactured by China’s NORINCO weapons manufacturer.[vi] Saudi Arabia is the second GCC country to have acquired the NORINCO PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzer.[vii]

Bilateral Political Cooperation: Focus on Defeating ISIS

During the Tillerson-al-Khaled al-Sabah meeting, it was announced that Washington would support Kuwait’s non-permanent seat on the UNSC 2018-19 as part of its efforts to strengthen the bilateral relationship. Within the strategic dialogue it was classified part of the “Political Cooperation” portfolio.

But within the broader context of the strategic dialogue, the defense and political cooperation portfolios also merge when it comes to fighting ISIS, or Da’esh, in Iraq and Syria.

Kuwait, because of its historical experience with the Iraqi invasion and geographical proximity, plays a leadership role within the U.S.-led Global Coalition against Daesh, which was formed in 2014.

Because of Da’esh threat to the West – especially towards the U.S., France and the U.K – all UNSC members, Kuwait has chosen to play a critical role within the diplomatic arena as its military is simply too small to play a decisive role within the Coalition.

Towards that end, out of 73 Coalition members, Kuwait is one out of a total of nine to co-chair, along with the U.S., a working group, which is the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Group. [viii]

It is also member of the following sub-groups: Stabilization; Da’esh Financers; Counter Messaging; and Communications.

Saudi Arabia is co-chair of the Da’esh Financing group.

The UAE is co-chair of Stabilization support, and of Counter Messaging.

Neither Qatar or Bahrain serve as co-chair of any of the working groups but both are members of all.

Oman, for its part, is a member of the coalition but does not participate in any of the working groups. Oman, long considered an outlier within the GCC, has since 1970 pursued a neutrality-based foreign policy, which informs its decision not to participate in any of the Coalition’s working groups.

How Kuwait Stands Out

Washington’s GCC allies – with the exception of Kuwait – have opted to play a minimal role within the Coalition since its launching.

Even though the brunt of the fighting to defeat Da’esh in Iraq and Syria has been spearheaded by Iraqi security forces in close cooperation with various Shiite militia groups – and up until recently assisted by Kurdish Pashmerga fighters, with the backing of U.S. air support.

This was particularly evident during the 2016 Coalition meeting which then U.S Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted for counterparts and senior military leaders at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C. in July of last year to narrow in on the strategy to defeat Da’esh, including discussing reconstruction plans for areas liberated from the terrorist group.[ix] Then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a follow up meeting at Camp David for the his coalition counterparts to raise money for the reconstruction of territory liberated from Da’esh.  At the time, Kuwait stood out as the only GCC member to pledge near-term funding requirements for Iraq.[x]

At the time, Saudi Arabia was distrustful of the Obama-administration’s regional policies and weary of then candidate Trump’s harsh rhetoric on issues pertaining to the Middle East.  The UAE, Bahrain and Qatar all harbored similar reservations, and neither of them chose to pledge to Kerry’s donor conference for Iraq.

The basic explanation for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain’s decision not to contribute to last year’s round of pledges for Iraq is almost certainly informed by their profound distrust of Prime Minister al-Abadi and his Shiite-dominated government’s sectarian policies within Iraq, and perceived closeness to Iran regionally.

However, Saudi Arabia’s fraught relationship with Iraq and its various Shiite militias could change amid uncertainty over the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s push for independence and in light of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s recent visit to Riyadh, the second this year.

Between Trump’s emphasis on destroying Da’esh, coupled with his first visit overseas as president to Riyadh and his pledge to decertify Tehran’s compliances with the Iran agreement, all serve important incentives as to why Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies are expected to play a larger role when it comes to contributing to the reconstruction of Iraq.

But even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE decide to play a larger role within the U.S.-led Coalition to defeat Da’esh, the two countries have for all practical purposes little military bandwidth to play a decisive role in Iraq and Syria as they are both bogged down in a difficult and costly war against Yemen’s Houthi militia. Towards that end, the UAE has distinguished itself as a small but particularly capable U.S. ally against terrorism, especially the counterinsurgency program it special forces are leading against fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen.

Within this context, a more realistic scenario would be for Washington to focus on increased Saudi and Emirati contributions to United Nations agencies to help pay for reconstruction of territory liberated from Da’esh and for humanitarian assistance for the millions of internally displaced people.

Irrespective of the evolving dynamics between Riyadh and Washington, Kuwait’s a leader[xi]ship role on Iraq is no doubt rooted in its traumatic experience with Saddam Hussein’s invasion.

It should be added that unlike much of the Middle East, Sunni-Shiite relations in Kuwait are not very polarized. Hence the Kuwaiti government does not regard the potential spillover or influence of the smoldering sectarian divisions in Iraq as threatening enough to prevent it from taking on a leadership role in the Iraqi context.


From a U.S. perspective, the GCC is not only a strategic partner, but as a bloc it has significant potential when it comes to strengthening both economic and security cooperation. Together, the six nations can also strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation and help to raise funds for the strategic effort to stabilize Iraq and Syria in the post-Da’esh environment.

That the unresolved crisis is threatening the U.S. regional agenda has become evident of Trump’s praise of Kuwait’s mediation efforts and his subsequent meeting with Sheikh Tamim in New York during the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Qatar is after all home to the al-Udeid Air Base, the forward headquarters of Central Command, which oversees the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign of Da’sh in Iraq and Syria and maintains a direct line to Russia to manage Syria’s crowded skies. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and crucial bases for its campaign against ISIS, as well as the war in Afghanistan.

Given Qatar’s fraught relationship with its GCC neighbors – as evident of the present crisis – could reassess its contribution to the Coalition as part of a strategy towards moving closer to Washington while freeing up its limited military resources that were used in Yemen – before it was expelled by Riyadh – to play a larger military role to help defeat Da’esh in Iraq and Syria.

Qatar, in cooperation with Kuwait, could also co-chair the next donor conference for Iraq and Syria. This would have the added benefit of helping to resolve the GCC crisis, which is threatening Washington’s regional agenda.


Sigurd Neubauer GFI Non-Resident Fellow, Middle East Analyst and Columnist based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast


[i] “Remarks With Kuwaiti First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah at the U.S.-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue,” U.S. Department of State, 8 September 2017.

[ii] “Joint Statement by the Governments of the United States of America and Kuwait on the Second United States-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue:  ‘Continued Commitment to Long-Term Partnership,’” U.S. Department of State, 8 September 2017.

[iii] “The Government of Kuwait – F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Aircraft with Support,” U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 17 November 2016.

[iv] Author interview with Associate Professor David B. Des Roches, 17 October 2017.

[v] Author interview with Associate Professor David B. Des Roches, 17 October 2017.

[vi] “Kuwaiti Gun,” Popular Science, 21 April 2017.

[vii] J. Lin and P.W. Singer: “Saudis Use Chinese-made Cannons in Yemen,” Popular Science, 21 April 2017.

[viii] The Global Coalition against Daesh.

[ix] S. Neubauer: “Anti-ISIS meeting: How can the coalition boost Syria and Iraq gains?,” Al Arabiya, 22 July 2016.

[x] S. Neubauer: “Mosul Operation: Why the Gulf states remain distrustful of Abadi’s policies,” Al Arabiya, 13 October 2016.


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