Mohammed Almutawa
Last updated: 3 March, 2014

Kuwait is back at center court

After years of dormancy following the Iraqi invasion in 1990, the Arab Spring has rejuvenated Kuwait’s role on the international scene.

Kuwait, which is scheduled to host an Arab League Summit later this month, has been busy trying to rebuild severed ties. Local newspaper Al-Qabas revealed Kuwaiti efforts to hold reconciliation talks between Qatar and Egypt during the summit.

Kuwait is reportedly looking to end the stalemate between Cairo and Doha following the latter’s backing of ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi. Qatar, which had previously provided Egypt with $6 billion in aid during Morsi’s rule, has abstained from any aid to the country since his ouster.

Relations between Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim and Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah have apparently strengthened during the past month. The Qatari Emir flew to Kuwait to attend a meeting of GCC Foreign Secretaries, chaired by the Kuwaiti ruler. He also received a phone call from Emir Sabah on February 22, which was followed by the Kuwaiti foreign minister announcing a trip to Qatar and Egypt.

“While some might argue little has changed in the Arab world as autocratic rule remains the name of the game, internationally the playing field has changed

Sheikh Sabah has been working closely with Tamim as Qatar’s role during the Arab Spring has strained its relationship with many of its neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia. The two nations were at odds over the Arab Spring, competing over influence in countries like Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. 

Back in November, two weeks before Kuwait was scheduled to host a GCC summit, the Saudi King Abdullah had been lobbying GCC nations to issue a statement at the summit “condemning Qatar’s actions in Egypt”. However, Sheikh Sabah avoided the episode by flying to Qatar and convincing Sheikh Tamim to join him to Riyadh in attempts to ease the tension. Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s strongest and biggest member, would most likely have gotten its way had Kuwait not intervened.

Squeezed between three regional powerhouses – Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – Kuwait has managed to strike a delicate balance that hasn’t gone unnoticed. The oil rich emirate has a relatively “open” political landscape, where a Shia’ minority has an active voice; thus forcing the government to have good relations with Iran.

Following the Iranian deal with the P5+1 on nuclear proliferation, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif chose Kuwait as his first official visit, to extent a message of peace to the Sunni monarchies of the GCC who were taken aback by the deal.

“The solution to this issue serves the interests of all countries in the region. It is not at the expense of any state in the region,” said Zarif at a press conference in Kuwait. Kuwait reiterated that its relations with Iran were “excellent” at a time where Saudi and Bahrain have both accused Iran of interference in their domestic affairs.    

Moreover, according Al-Qabas, Kuwait is currently working on a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. In an interview with Al-Rai newspaper, Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri called on Kuwait to play a mediating role between the two nations who sit on opposing sides on most issues in the region, including the Syrian war. Iran’s new found strength following its détente with the west has left Saudi Arabia scrambling to form new alliances, so the efforts don’t seem far-fetched. 

But Kuwait’s foreign policy in the wake of the Arab Spring hasn’t just been about rapprochement and bringing sides together. The emirate is placing its longstanding neutrality on the line with regards to Syria and Egypt.

Regarding Syria, Kuwait’s official stance has remained relatively neutral. The emirate was among the first Arab nations to condemn the violence and call for a political solution. However, unofficially Kuwait has become a hub for financing the war, with donations from individuals and charities acting like lifelines to rebel groups. The money sent from Kuwait is outside official channels and has been criticized by international organizations for fuelling the war.

Following the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, Kuwait quickly fell in line behind Saudi Arabia and pledged $4 billion in aid to the military-backed interim government, departing from its neutrality. Writer-activist Mona Kareem suggests that the move is a reflection on Kuwait’s own internal politics where it feels increasingly threatened by “mass mobilizations and regional shifts.”

There is no doubt that the Arab Spring has caused all nations in the region to reconsider international positions. While some might argue little has changed in the Arab world as autocratic rule remains the name of the game, internationally the playing field has changed and the lines have been redrawn. Kuwait is now back at center court.

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