Kuwait has pursued a low-key foreign policy since the 1990-1991 Gulf War, but the experience of the last three decades has shown that such a passive posture has not remedied the country’s security and sovereignty problems.
Kuwait, a Gulf country of 4.67 million people, has pursued a conciliatory foreign policy strategy that emphasizes Kuwait’s role as a mediator between the region’s conflictual parties. One must emphasize that Kuwait contains its diplomatic efforts to its own backyard; the country rarely, if ever, seeks to broker international issues beyond the greater Middle East. Such a limited approach is not irrational given the perils and difficulty of brokering international conflicts that risk incurring significant backlash from abroad. That said, certain regional states—Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in particular—have pursued activist foreign policies, to great benefit. This begs the question: should Kuwait revisit its conciliatory strategic approach to international relations?
Strategy Rooted in Leadership
Kuwait’s short history as a country dramatically shaped its foreign outlook. The late Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah served as foreign minister for four decades (1963-2003) and then as emir for 14 more years (2006-2020). His long tenure and reign shaped the country’s foreign policy for nearly 60 years. Sheikh Sabah adhered to a neutral foreign policy and kept Kuwait on the sidelines of international conflicts, while actively seeking to negotiate their resolution. His successor, the incumbent emir, Sheikh Nawaf al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah, has followed in his footsteps—so far. The Kuwaiti foreign ministry’s website enumerates the principles and goals of the country’s foreign policy, including “no interference in the internal affairs of other nations, respecting the sovereignty of nations, mediation, humanitarian assistance, and protecting state interests,” among others. These fundamental aspects of Kuwaiti foreign policy would appear unshakeable.
Indeed, the Kuwaiti state has attempted to further its interests in accordance with these principles throughout its history. For instance, Kuwait spends nearly 12% of its GDP on humanitarian aid—making it by far the biggest donor per capita among GCC countries. Also, as Dr. Faisal Mukhyat Abu Sulaib, Political Science Professor at Kuwait University argues, “Before it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990, in many ways, the Kuwaiti foreign policy resembled Qatar’s after 1995. Kuwait’s attitudes were to a large degree independent of regional and international powers.” This period was not without its blunders, however. Kuwait funded Saddam Hussain’s war against Iran but could not stop Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait itself in 1990. Some pundits point to Kuwaiti aloofness as a contributing factor to the 1990-1991 Gulf War; in their view, Kuwaiti foreign policy had come to clash with that of its large neighbor, Saudi Arabia, while its refusal to host U.S. troops before 1990 indirectly led to its vulnerability.
Nevertheless, Kuwait has pursued a low-key foreign policy since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Yet, the experience of the last three decades has shown that such a passive posture has not remedied the country’s security and sovereignty problems. Kuwait’s occupation by Iraqi forces laid bare the weakness of a neutral and conciliatory strategic outlook in the face of regional aggressors. Of course, pursuing an interventionist policy is also not an option. The recent experience of Qatar, which faced a four-year blockade by three regional states, clearly demonstrates the flaws of an overly activist foreign policy. However, unlike Kuwait, Qatar had prepared for the worst-case scenario by hosting American and Turkish troops on its territory. During the blockade of Qatar, unfounded rumors swirled that Kuwait itself could be blockaded after Qatar. Though these fraught developments never came to pass, the scenario illustrates the near-continuous danger Kuwait faces from its neighbors, despite the appearance of friendly bilateral relations with nearby states.
Kuwait faces an unfortunate reality; it is a small state surrounded by middle-power neighbors with ideological or irredentist and expansionist foreign policy aims. Therefore, Kuwait recognizes that its national-level policies must further the security and sovereignty of the country above all else. This state of insecurity has forced Kuwait to jump on the bandwagon of great powers, maintain good relations with neighbors, and pursue a hedging strategy to offset threats (Kuwait’s development of ties with China and Turkey exemplifies this approach). Whether Kuwait’s efforts will bear fruit is yet to be seen, though some revisions to foreign policy are in order if the country desires sustainable security in the future.
It should be emphasized that Kuwait’s pluralistic domestic political structure— unique among GCC states thanks to its parliament’s ability to balance the executive branch—also influences the state’s foreign policy. Both the incumbent emir and his predecessor pursued a moderate domestic and foreign policy worth appreciating. The country may strike out on a more assertive course in the future, but Kuwait should not forget that its regional friendships constitute a pillar of its security. It needs to ask if these friendly neighbors would appreciate a more vibrant and flexible foreign policy from this small country.
A Flexible Foreign Policy
Diplomacy and neutrality are good policies in the right situation, but Kuwait’s efforts are limited to the Middle East region and cannot be employed unless conflict threatens. By comparison, the proactivity of the UAE and Qatar allows these states to expand their influence across the globe. Through humanitarian engagement during natural disasters, as well as astute diplomatic efforts during times of international conflict, Abu Dhabi and Doha have maintained neutrality or preserved their interests while enhancing their prestige. Kuwait can and should pursue a similar, extra-regional policy not only to improve its image, but also to establish and cultivate new international relationships.
In addition—and like Qatar and the UAE—Kuwait should boost its soft power. For example, Kuwait may diversify its economy by encouraging the establishment of well-known brands like Qatar’s Ooredoo and Qatar Airways, and the UAE’s Etisalat and Emirates Airlines, and increase its revenues through them. This recommendation might appear economic in nature, but it is more appropriately an extension of Kuwait’s soft power. While Kuwait is more connected to the rest of the world in terms of its political system, it has fallen short in achieving global economic integration. Kuwait also lags far behind its neighbors in terms of media, tourism, and foreign investment, all important indicators of a state’s soft power.
Kuwait can take lessons from its more successful neighboring states in fashioning a new, more proactive foreign policy strategy. When Qatar was blockaded, it achieved deterrence through the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces—effectively the hard power of other countries—and drew on its soft power to raise the costs of the blockade on its adversaries. Important international actors like China, Japan, and the EU sided with Qatar against the blockaders and assisted Doha throughout the ordeal. Turkish and Iranian support for Qatar stemmed not from Qatar’s harmonious foreign policy and peaceful outlook, but rather from Doha’s close bilateral relations with these two countries. As a small state, Kuwait may strengthen its soft and hard power, pursue a maverick foreign policy, by amplifying its foreign policy to increase its international standing beyond the Middle East and thus expand its international influence.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.