Growing Kuwaiti influence in the Gulf 

By Samuel Ramani

March 1, 2018

Since the outbreak of the Qatar crisis on June 5, 2017, Kuwait has been described as a neutral mediator within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that seeks to accommodate both Saudi and Qatari interests. Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah’s repeated efforts to host talks between Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari diplomats justify the perception of Kuwait as an indifferent stakeholder in the GCC crisis. These talks have been aimed at ameliorating tensions within the GCC and preventing the disintegration of the sub-regional institution.

Although Kuwait has distinguished itself as a regional mediator in both the Yemen and Qatar crises, it is useful to take stock of Kuwait’s aspirations for greater geopolitical influence within the GCC. Despite the striking similarities between Kuwait and Oman’s foreign policies, the former has not been content, as has the latter, to merely balance between more powerful countries.

Instead, Kuwait has used arbitration as a means to promote its unique vision for the GCC, defined by Kuwait’s desire to soften the Council’s overtly anti-Shi’ite sectarian identity, strengthen the organization’s multilateral character, and bolster the GCC’s soft power by enhancing inter-state coordination against extremism, terrorism, and illicit financial dealings.

Even though allegations of Iranian incitement of unrest amongst Kuwait’s Shi’ite minority have engendered periodic tensions between Kuwait City and Tehran, Kuwait has refused to emulate the rigidly anti-Shi’ite sectarian agenda that guides Saudi foreign policy. The Kuwaiti emir’s visit to Tehran in 2014 (the first official trip conducted by a GCC monarch since the 1979 Iranian Revolution) highlighted Kuwait’s refusal to embrace a sectarian foreign policy.

Although Kuwait withdrew its ambassador to Iran over the violence waged against the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in January 2016, and is still dealing with the consequences of its July 2017 diplomatic row with Iran, Kuwait has consistently encouraged political dialogue between the GCC and Iran. In fact, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has even described Kuwait as a potential mediator in the Saudi Arabia-Iran dispute.

Kuwait’s belief that selected diplomatic engagement with Iran will advance the GCC’s interests more effectively than stringent containment has influenced its conduct within the GCC’s multilateral framework. Kuwait’s handling of counter-terrorism issues highlights the country’s nuanced support for diplomacy with Tehran. Since Islamic State (a.k.a. Daesh) perpetrated the June 2015 Kuwait mosque bombing, Kuwaiti policymakers have urged their GCC counterparts to collaborate with Iran against Daesh, and have praised Tehran’s efforts to eviscerate such violent extremists from Iraq.

Yet Kuwait has also criticized Iran for supporting Shi’ite groups such as the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq and Syria, plus Hezbollah in Lebanon and other countries. Kuwait’s support for a November 2016 UN motion that described Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism underscored Kuwait’s opposition to Tehran’s patronage of such non-state actors.

This nuanced approach to cooperation with Iran has extended to state-building initiatives. In contrast to Saudi Arabia’s strident criticisms of Iranian political interference in Iraq, Kuwait has praised Iran for investing in Iraq’s economic reconstruction efforts, and has engaged Iran in its initiatives to rebuild Iraq from 15 years of war. Yet Kuwait has tempered this praise by periodically condemning Iran for its sovereignty violations in Iraq and other Arab states.

Kuwait has also opposed Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In sum, Kuwait has used its active diplomatic role to moderate the GCC’s hardline sectarian agenda by highlighting areas of potential cooperation with Iran while aligning with the “GCC consensus” on most issues.

In addition to encouraging issue-specific cooperation with Iran, Kuwait has used its diplomatic influence within the GCC to preserve the collective security organization’s multilateral character. Kuwait has resisted efforts from policymakers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to let the new Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) supersede the GCC in decision-making power, and has called for the reintegration of Qatar into the GCC’s diplomatic fold.

Although Kuwait’s efforts to promote this multilateral agenda at the GCC level failed at the December 2017 GCC summit, senior Kuwaiti officials have continued to highlight the GCC’s relevance as a decision-making tool and expressed optimism that the six-member organization will regain its former influence through concerted diplomacy.

Kuwait’s efforts to promote engagement between GCC countries and the UN have been more successful than its intra-regional multilateralism agenda. Kuwait’s decision to host UN-backed talks on the Yemen crisis won plaudits from Saudi diplomats. Objections from Houthi rebels to the Kuwait-sponsored peace process ultimately stymied the talks’ progress, causing widespread criticism of Kuwait’s mediation efforts in the West and Arab world.

However, Kuwait’s successful reintegration of Saudi Arabia into UN-backed peace processes represented a notable reversal from Riyadh’s October 2013 rejection of a UN Security Council seat and provided a valuable precedent for GCC-UN cooperation on other regional disputes.

Even though Yemen continues to be the primary crisis where Kuwait has acted as a bridge between GCC and UN collective security promotion efforts, has also successfully linked its investments in Iraq’s reconstruction to the UN’s broader development agenda. These efforts earned Kuwait international praise, and UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierres lauded the country’s humanitarian leadership during an August 27 visit to the country.

Favorable perceptions of Kuwait’s economic reconstruction efforts in Iraq were entrenched further during the country’s February 14 conference, which resulted in $30 billion in pledged investments in the Iraqi economy.

Kuwait’s decision to support Iraq’s reconstruction through multilateral frameworks has been also supported by Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh pledged $1.5 billion for reconstruction and trade in Iraq. By balancing Saudi Arabia’s traditional sectarian alignment with Sunni regions of Iraq with a broader national-level reconstruction initiative supported by the UN, Kuwait has facilitated GCC efforts to challenge Iranian influence over the entirety of Iraq, and improved the organization’s international image.

The positive momentum generated by Kuwait’s Iraq reconstruction efforts have caused Kuwait to emulate its Iraq strategy in Syria by proposing a joint ceasefire and reconstruction bill in the UN alongside Sweden. If this bill generates positive results, Kuwait could play an unheralded but decisive role in promoting synergy between the GCC and the UN, which would unquestionably strengthen the GCC’s global influence.

Another critical component of Kuwait’s vision for the GCC that builds closely on its broader multilateralism agenda is the enhancement of inter-state cooperation on combatting terrorism and illegal trade revenues. Despite the strength of Kuwait’s commitments to dealing with these issues, Kuwait only adopted this role as a guardian of law and order within the GCC relatively recently.

Even though Kuwait did not recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government during the 1990s, numerous members of the Kuwaiti parliament expressed vocal opposition to the regime’s overthrow in 2001, and Kuwait was the destination of an alleged Taliban fundraiser in 2004. Kuwaiti donors were also linked to Islamic extremist movements in Syria during the early stages of the civil war, and until September 2017, Kuwait maintained the closest diplomatic and economic ties North Korea of any Gulf monarchy.

The catalyst for Kuwait’s shift in policy was the realization that its perceived links to Islamic extremist and rogue international actors would damage the country’s international reputation and that of the GCC. As Kuwait’s legal system blends secularism with Sharia, and the Kuwaiti monarchy needs to transcend sectarian divisions to appease the country’s Shi’ite minority, Kuwait was uniquely positioned to lead the GCC’s charge against Islamic extremism.

The May 2014 resignation of Kuwait’s Justice and Islamic Affairs Minister, Nayef al-Ajmi, over comments that promoted terrorism in Syria was the starting point for this anti-extremism campaign. Since al-Ajmi’s resignation, Kuwait has increased government oversight over humanitarian organizations, which have historically been linked to Islamist groups, and cracked down aggressively on Daesh sympathizers within Kuwait’s borders to prevent the diffusion of terrorism.

As these measures are more comprehensive than those implemented by other Gulf countries, they suggest that Kuwait is acting as a vanguard within the GCC in deterring internal support for Islamic extremist movements.

Kuwait’s shift towards full enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea reveals a similar desire to emerge as a regional leader in the promotion of law and order. After the United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Kuwait to suspend its hiring of North Korean guest workers, the Kuwaiti monarchy swiftly responded with a cessation of its guest workers program.

On September 17, 2017, Kuwait escalated its crackdown on North Korea further by urging the North Korean ambassador and 4 other diplomats to leave within a month. After the UAE emulated Kuwait’s policy in mid-October, Kuwait strengthened its credibility as a leader in the implementation of UN sanctions, bolstering the soft power of the GCC and Kuwait’s multilateralism agenda.

Even though many Western and Arab analysts of the GCC crisis have depicted Kuwait as a passive neutral mediator, a closer examination of Kuwait’s internal and foreign policies reveals that Kuwait has a unique vision for the GCC that it is actively trying to implement. If Kuwait continues to push for the amelioration of the sectarian character of the GCC, strengthened GCC-UN cooperation, and the promotion of law and order within the Gulf, it could retain an outsized influence over regional affairs for years to come.

Photo credit: Flickr/Creative Commons/European External Action Service

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  • Samuel Ramani

    Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post, The Diplomat and The National Interest. 

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