Democratic Aspirations and an Open Outlook to the World Make Kuwait Uniquely Suited to Mediate Disputes in the Persian Gulf.
Kuwait has been playing a leading role in resolving the latest Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis’ involving Qatar (and Oman) on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other. As a reminder, last June 5, Saudi Arabia and its partners cut off all diplomatic relations with Qatar. They issued Qatar an ultimatum made up by 13 demands it must fulfill to restore ties. Qatar has refused to comply but the tensions are such as to have attracted the attention of the United States, which have a military base in Qatar. At the root of the problem are Qatar’s good political and commercial ties to Iran. U.S. Secretary of State, Tillerson failed to mediate the dispute last July. But, the White House, which was slow to react to the crisis at first, wants a resolution. The latest effort to tackle the problem has put Kuwait at center stage.
After U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mediation efforts last July failed, President Donald Trump decided to ask Kuwait to intervene. Trump personally asked Kuwait’s sovereign, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, as an intermediary to lead a process that would reconcile Qatar with its neighbors. Emir al-Sabah enthusiastically took on the task, even triggering an angry response from the Saudis. The Emir told Trump that Kuwait would do everything possible to prevent any military action. The anti-Qatar coalition countries rejected the statement, noting that a military option (attacking Qatar) was never on the table. They also complained that the Emir was too complacent with Qatar. The four States have imposed unprecedented sanctions, including a blockading se traffic and any air and land access routes to this small gas producing emirate.
Qatar denies supporting extremist groups and claims that these countries are trying to infringe on its sovereignty. The crisis remains complex also because Doha has been accused of supporting terrorism as well as being too cozy with Tehran. In this sense, Kuwait might be the best possible mediator, since it too has relations with Iran and shares a similar ethnic/confessional mix as Bahrain. The latter has a population made up 50% or so by Shiites. Kuwait has about 36% Shiites. The main difference between Kuwait and its fellow Sunni petromonarchies is that it enjoys a far more democratic form of government. Therefore, while not entirely disengaged from the regional political and ideological struggles involving political Islam that have spread in the region, it has developed the tools to absorb and channel them through a parliament. Indeed, while much has been made about the Shiite-Sunni dispute that has characterized a great deal of the conflict in Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State (or ISIS), there has also been a growing and violent clash within Sunni Islamism itself. In general terms, this has pitted the Salafi or Wahhabi currents (including ISIS and al-Qaida) against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Salafists and the Inter-Sunni Conflict
Of course, there’s nothing new about this. The clash is old. The Salafists under Mohammad Ibn abd al-Wahhab (hence the term) a champion of the Hanbali school of Sharia Law emerged in what is now the Saudi Kingdom in the late 1700’s. They formed an alliance with the House of al-Saud. Together these two elements conquered the Hejaz, leading to present day Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, by contrast, was always more cosmopolitan. Kuwait built its social and economic roots at sea. Its main activities were fishing, pearl fishing and trade. Before oil it traded with other Gulf states, and its people mixed with Persians, other Arabs, Indians and European traders. The final element in this Gulf dispute is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It has a minor role in Kuwait, bit it has become more prominent in Qatar. In the late 1920s, Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim brotherhood. But the so-called “Arab Spring” saw the Brotherhood win a presidency in Egypt (Mohammad Morsi in 2012). Qatar sponsored the MB in Egypt. Doing so not only alienated the current Egyptian regime of President al-Sisi, who led a coup against Morsi in 2013. It spread fears throughout the Arab monarchies. The main difference between the Salafi Islamism of the Saudis (or ISIS) and the MB is that the former tends to sustain the idea of an Emirate, whereas the MB challenges monarchies, preferring a more parliamentary, even democratic approach. Finally, Kuwait, despite having endured threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s – and its allies such as Hezbollah – has woven a resilient society rich in its ethno-religious fabric. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia accuse Qatar of supporting Shiite communities in their countries. These are the same communities accused of receiving aid and guidance from Iran.
A Bridge Between States in the Gulf
Kuwait might be described as a ‘bridge’ State on the context of its region. It’s oil rich, conservative and allied with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf ‘petromonarchies’ as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy. It is headed by a Prime Minister, accountable to the parliament, composed of 50 elected deputies and ministers in office who are also entitled to vote.
But, unlike many of its fellow rentier oil producing neighbors, Kuwait enjoys a budding democracy and relatively good relations between its large Shiite minority (about 30%) and Sunni majority. Like its neighbors, its economy relies on a large expatriate population, who fill many administrative and menial positions. Out of a population of three million, only one-third are Kuwaiti citizens. But, they enjoy better living and working conditions compared to their colleagues in the Saudi Kingdom or the UAE. As for Kuwaitis themselves, they boast one the highest per capita incomes in the world and benefits such as free education, full health care costs, various services for housing, professional integration, retirement.
The al-Sabah dynasty has endured largely thanks to its ability to redistribute its oil windfall, ranging from interest-free loans to all but guaranteed employment opportunities for citizens. Because of its size and relatively peaceful society, Kuwait might be compared to a great corporation, where the citizens voluntarily identify with the country and its regime rather than being forced to cooperate. As any Arab country, Kuwait’s indigenous population is young. It has its unpleasant idiosyncrasies, as any elitist society. Only Kuwaitis descending from those who arrived within the walls of Kuwait City before 1920 enjoy full rights from the vote to the wide range of wealth redistribution mechanisms. Those who are naturalized Kuwaitis must reside thirty years to acquire the right to vote.
Nevertheless, public and political life in Kuwait is one of the liveliest in the whole Arab World. Kuwait has a rather free press and political debate is legal. There is no dominant Party, but its society has organized itself around private and family associations and NGOs, which have also been open to a string participation from women. In Saudi Arabia, women have just passed the first step of being allowed to drive. In Kuwait, women play important roles in Parliament.
From the point of view of the regional alliances, Kuwait is sufficiently distant from Iran to be reliable. It’s also close enough to go about the business of mediating. Kuwait enjoys protection from the CCG (and Saudi Arabia in the first place) and its military arm known as the Peninsula Shield Force. There are also at least 15,000 US soldiers in the country, which serves a key logistic base for American missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the longer term, there is the risk that Kuwait could become embroiled in Iraqi matters. The brewing Kurdish nationalism and related referenda could lead to a re-arrangement of the Iraqi map. It could even lead to the disintegration of the present Middle Eastern borders as devised under the Sykes-Picot agreements between the French and the British after World War I. In case of a disintegration of the Iraqi state, Kuwait would face a geopolitical question. It could end up absorbing Iraqi Shiites, given they are concentrated in the south of the country, or vice-versa…
Meanwhile, Kuwait remains the locus where the Sunnis and Shiites are conducting diplomacy these days. Iran’s President Rohani visited Kuwait and Oman last February. It represented an important effort to advance the cause of reconciliation between the Iranians and the Gulf Arabs. Kuwait and Oman are the two countries that are the GCC member states with which Iran can expect constructive dialogue.