Top Role

At the diplomatic forefront of efforts to resolve the ongoing GCC crisis and Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, Kuwait has taken a behind-the-scenes leadership role in shoring up the bloc.

As the diplomatic crisis embroiling the GCC passes the six-month mark, hopes that a quick resolution would emerge from the blockade of Qatar have long been dashed; that they have not yet led to despair is thanks in part to cooler heads in places like Kuwait. In contrast to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which spearheaded the blockade with an American green light, and regional players Bahrain and Egypt, only Kuwait and Oman declined to partake in the concerted blockade that closed air and sea traffic and restricted travel to the small country whose only land border lies with much larger Saudi Arabia. Now with the unofficial role of bringing the GCC back from the brink of its worst diplomatic crisis in its 36-year history, never has Kuwait’s mediation as the most neutral member of the council been more important.

Under the leadership of Sheikh Sabah, Kuwait could be in far worse hands. The foreign minister from 1965-2003 and prime minister from 2003-2006, Sabah is one of the most experienced diplomats in the world, having practiced the craft since well before several of the region’s leaders were even born. For starters, Kuwait’s decision to stay outside the GCC’s most recent spat was nothing new. In 2016, it hosted several UN-sponsored talks between warring factions in the ongoing Yemeni civil war (and the Saudi and Iranians backing opposing sides) and in January 2017 sent a delegation led by Sheikh Sabah to meet with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Teheran to stress the need for Iran to work toward mending ties with the GCC.
This flexible approach is a result of geography as much as individual acumen. For decades sequestered between an aggressive Saddam Hussein and an increasingly confident Saudi Arabia, Kuwait had little choice but to remain on friendly terms with closely neighboring Iran, especially after Saddam’s violent ouster following the first Gulf War. Though it withdrew its ambassador from Tehran in solidarity with Riyadh after the Saudi embassy was burned to the ground in January 2016, it has still maintained working diplomatic ties with Iran. Part of this is hedging one’s regional bets, but another aspect is that one-third of Kuwaitis are Shia. Though this segment of its population is much better integrated than its equivalent in other Gulf states and fully supports the House of Sabah, it does not hurt to keep its distance from more sectarian initiatives in the region (such as Kuwait’s decision not to send ground troops to shore up the regime in Bahrain from largely Shia protests in 2011-2013).

It has taken that same equanimity into the present crisis. Barely 24 hours after the Saudi- and UAE-led blockade of Qatar began on June 5, 2017, Kuwait’s Amir met with leading officials in Jeddah and Dubai on June 6-7 before heading to Doha to convey the 13 demands being made on the latter. While Qatar is unlikely to ever concede to them, its ability to restore working ties with the rest of the GCC will depend in large measure on Kuwait’s ability to broker a broader agreement

Whatever comes of the internal GCC squabble, 2017 was a hugely fruitful year in an oft-overlooked regard: Kuwait’s burgeoning ties with Turkey. The only regional power to come out firmly swinging for Qatar, Turkey’s stock in the Arab Gulf is not at an all-time high, but that did not prevent it from cementing much stronger regional and commercial ties with the region’s most neutral carbon-power, Kuwait.

The record amount of diplomatic visits between the two countries began in March when Sheikh Sabah visited Ankara at the behest of Turkish President Erdoğan, where the latter bestowed upon the nearly nonagenarian statesman the Turkish Order of State for his “skillful approach… which… constitutes an assurance of regional peace and stability.” In turn, Sabah awarded Erdoğan Kuwait’s highest award for foreign heads of state, the Order of Mubarak the Great, an award commemorating Mubarak al-Sabah, the seventh dynast of the Sabah clan who signed the Anglo-Kuwait Treaty of 1899, marking the birth of modern-day Kuwait.

Six months later, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah visited Turkey with a high-level delegation to sign a further six agreements related to civil aviation, telecommunications and information technology, security, double-taxation, youth-related affairs, and SMEs. In 2016 alone, the Kuwaiti PM noted, 160,000 Kuwaitis visited Turkey, more than 13% of its (Kuwaiti national) population, on top of the USD1.5 billion Kuwait had invested in Turkey to date. More significantly, Erdoğan made a record three visits to Kuwait in 2017 in May, July, and November, having now met with Amir Sabah six times in the past two years to cement the countries’ increasingly strategic relations, dominated by politics, the economy, and defense.
According to Kuwait’s Al-Qabas newspaper, it was a combination of the Amir’s deft shuttle diplomacy and Turkey’s rapid-fire engagement in the days after the blockade that prevented the crisis from escalating militarily. Regarding the latter possibility, the 88-year old Sheikh Sabah has not grown naïve: if left unresolved much longer, he warned in October, “History and the future generations of Arabs will not forget those who contributed to the escalation of the conflict and caused the destruction of the Gulf.” Any escalation, he warned the Kuwaiti parliament, would only invite foreign intervention in the region, which in turn would “destroy the security of the Gulf and its people.”

Ever aware of what the destruction of the “last bastion of Arab cooperation,” as Al-Jazeera referred to the GCC, would entail for the small oil-rich kingdom, Kuwait is not wrong to hedge its bets with non-Arab players such as Iran and Turkey. Though bilateral trade with the latter already stands at USD542 million, Kuwait and Ankara want to boost that to USD3 billion by 2020, in part through schemes such as the establishment of an industrial trade zone “to serve the Turkish private sector,” the Kuwait News Agency reported. Whatever the case, Turkish contractors have already been reaping huge benefits from Kuwait, where they already have an estimated USD6.3 billion in projects underway according to Turkish Development Minister Lütfi Elvan.
Released at the beginning of 2017, Kuwait’s ambitious National Development Plan is also hoping to capitalize on strong ties with Turkey to give its national infrastructure a massive facelift by 2035. And Turkish building contractors are not the only ones who will benefit from the action; its defense industry also stands to cash in on increases in Kuwaiti defense spending to the tune of an additional USD10 billion over the next decade. This year alone Turkey sent over 80 armored personal carriers and 12 anti-riot water cannon vehicles—devices the Turkish state has come close to perfecting in recent years.

In a separate but particularly ironic twist, Kuwait even came out ahead in a 2017 German court ruling that defended Kuwait Airlines’ right to refuse to fly Israeli passport-bearing passengers (including Arab-Israeli Muslims). After being forced by an American court in 2015 to abandon its London-New York route for said discrimination, fears were rampant in 2017 that the national airline would face similar sanctions when tried in a German court. That it got a German court to rule in favor of discriminating against Israelis shows how sharp the teeth of its “principled neutrality” really are.