Before becoming the Emir of Kuwait in 2006, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah’s responses to global crises as Kuwait’s foreign minister and prime minister from the 1960s until the 2000s earned him high levels of international respect. Not only is he the world’s longest serving diplomat; Kuwait’s emir also experienced one of the only conventional armed conflicts of the post-Cold War era when Iraqi forces invaded and occupied his country in 1990-91. Unsurprisingly, since the Qatar crisis erupted on June 5, he has led regional efforts to mediate a resolution and done so with the moral and political support of virtually the entire international community.
There is a rich history of Kuwait serving as a mediator in disputes and armed conflicts between states in the region. Dating back to the 1930s, Kuwait’s emirs have worked with numerous Arab governments (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South/North Yemen) to resolve territorial disputes, diplomatic spats, and wars.[i], [ii], [iii], [iv], [v], [vi], [vii], [viii], [ix] During the GCC’s eight-month-long rift of 2014, Kuwait remained ‘neutral’ and sponsored talks that ultimately led to the return to Doha of the ambassadors from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.[x] In 2016-17, Kuwait’s leadership has also sought to pursue a resolution to the gruesome conflict in Yemen and defuse tension between the GCC and Iran.
Although Kuwait’s decision to maintain relations with Qatar in June disappointed some in the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – it was unsurprising. Had Kuwait, with its significant political clout in the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, and the United Kingdom and the United States as well as the Emir’s respect as an honest broker, chosen the ATQ’s side, the crisis could have unfolded rather differently.
The Emir of Kuwait’s speech last month in the presence of President Trump outlined some of the continuing fundamental foreign-policy differences between Kuwait and its neighbors. The Emir tactfully noted that sovereignty is every country’s right, and that some of the demands were unrealistic because “anything that affects sovereignty we would not accept.”[xi] Unquestionably, in the GCC’s history there have always been concerns on the part of smaller members, even the UAE, despite Abu Dhabi’s close alignment with Riyadh, about Saudi Arabia’s infringing on their national sovereignty. Kuwait permits an inclusive political arena in its National Assembly and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist movement, and Shi’ite religious groups take part in a vibrant and relatively liberal environment. Kuwait’s particular political system would be highly vulnerable to rapid transformation into a true political union, as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s leaders have advocated on past occasions.
Perhaps the most controversial parts of the speech were when the Emir said, “What is important is that we have stopped any military action.”[xii] Was there really a threat of military intervention in Qatar? The Emir of Kuwait clearly intimates that there was a distinct possibility although the four Arab countries immediately pronounced that they "regretted" these comments, denying that there was ever consideration of a military intervention against Qatar.[xiii]
Yet no objective analysis of Kuwaiti-Qatari relations can ignore a history in which Doha has undermined Kuwait’s government during times of vulnerability, which has led to degrees of sympathy in Kuwait for the ATQ’s grievances and lack of trust of Qatar.
The launch of al-Jazeera in 1996 added friction to Kuwaiti-Qatari relations, as the Qatari state-owned pan-Arab network allegedly supported Saddam Hussein throughout the late 1990s until his fall in 2003. In June 1999, al-Jazeera was closed in Kuwait for broadcasting live programs that insulted the emir’s predecessor. Ten years after the 1991 liberation, a court in Kuwait ruled in favor of Kuwaiti plaintiffs who sued al-Jazeera for accusing Kuwaiti nationals of killing Palestinians and Iraqis toward the end of the war, ordering the network to pay the plaintiffs $16,000.[xiv] In November 2002, Kuwaiti authorities closed al-Jazeera again in the run-up to the US/UK-led war against Iraq, due to authorities’ allegations that the network was hostile toward Kuwait.[xv] Al-Jazeera was not allowed to open its offices again till May 2005.
Yet in December 2010, Kuwait again shut down al Jazeera’s office after the Qatari news channel showed provocative images of a contentious police crackdown on opposition leaders in a Kuwaiti suburb.[xvi] In November 2011, the Kuwaiti National Assembly witnessed a chaotic day when opposition representatives and youth activists stormed the parliament. This event enjoyed significant coverage by the Qatar-operated channel, which maintained that Kuwait’s government was oppressive, leading a growing number of Kuwaitis to conclude that al-Jazeera was guilty of meddling in Kuwait’s domestic affairs. [xvii]
Although these rumors are unsubstantiated, Qatar has also been implicated in directly financing political and opposition figures in Kuwait, including Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, a former Deputy Prime Minister and member of the International Olympic Committee, who is a possible contender for the position of crown prince. A few parliamentarians have accused Musallam al-Barrak, once considered the head of the parliamentary opposition movement in Kuwait, of taking over 200 million riyals from Qatari sponsors.[xviii]
To be sure, some tension between Kuwaiti authorities and al-Jazeera persists. Last month, Kuwait arrested and handed over to Saudi authorities a Saudi citizen who was to chair the new local al-Jazeera al-Arabiya channel. Kuwaiti officials argue that the new channel was interfering in political affairs and was therefore shut down indefinitely.[xix] Also, al-Jazeera recently published an article blasting the Saudis and Emiratis for their demands and said that the Emir was “just a mailman.”
But as the Emir noted in his speech, only “normal” diplomatic actions, rather than blockades, can resolve the Qatar crisis.[xx] Despite some areas of tension between Kuwait and Qatar, these two GCC members share an important modern history. Kuwaitis have not forgotten that Qatar’s military was one of the first sent into battle at the beginning of the liberation of Kuwait (Battle of Khafji, January 1991). This was the first time that Qatari troops had fought and died in combat.[xxi]
Kuwait has a high stake in helping the six-member regional organization weather the Qatar crisis. Although maintaining neutrality may lead to greater pressure from the ATQ, Kuwait’s foreign policy is pragmatic when it comes to geopolitical rivalries. Kuwait has learned many lessons about diplomacy that have shaped this pragmatic approach. Despite the serious challenges the Kuwaiti emir faces in moving the Council’s months-old kerfuffle in a positive direction, he has deepened his country’s reputation as a center for promoting diplomacy across a destabilized and war-torn region. This being said, it is not clear whether the Kuwaiti leader’s diplomatic wisdom and skills on the global stage can help defuse the Qatar crisis and restore Doha’s official relationships with the quartet countries.
Geoffrey Martin is an advisor at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.