Despite intense frictions stemming from conflicting views on the role of political Islam in the post-2011 Arab world, allegations of Emirati involvement in the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Ankara’s support for Qatar, and the Jamal Khashoggi murder case all severely straining Turkey’s ties with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, Ankara’s relationship with Kuwait has continued to strengthen. The military cooperation agreement signed by Turkey and Kuwait in the emirate in October 2018 marks a watershed in this bilateral relationship, adding a strategic layer that could qualitatively upgrade bilateral ties. As strategic shifts in the regional security architecture create challenging dilemmas for Kuwait, its relationship with Ankara should be viewed in this dynamic context.
Kuwait, like Qatar — yet in contrast to Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — did not express solidarity with Riyadh in response to Turkish authorities’ accusations about the Saudi leadership’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. This followed a trip by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to Kuwait in September, which failed to produce an agreement on outstanding issues in bilateral affairs such as restarting oil production in the contested Neutral Zone across the two countries, a priority for Saudi energy diplomacy. Reportedly, the meeting only lasted two hours and the atmosphere was tense.
To put the episode into context, it is necessary to factor in Kuwait’s concerns pertaining to the deepening of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi assertive alliance. The Saudi/Emirati axis’s contentious agenda in the region has contributed to greater polarization in the Middle East’s geopolitical order. The multiple fronts opened by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh against political Islam, represented primarily by Turkey and Qatar, and against Iran and Iran-aligned factions in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere, have shaped the perception of two transformational capitals, inattentive to consequences for regional stability.
This has left Kuwait with less room to maneuver as a “neutral state” which for many years has invested heavily in efforts to strengthen Gulf Arab unity and the GCC’s institutional effectiveness. Having suffered from the Iraqi invasion and occupation of 1990/1991, Kuwait’s rulers understand the importance of balancing neighboring, regional, and international powers against each other to the emirate’s advantage to best secure Kuwait’s independence and security.
The current “hyperactive” political context in the region, however, might be pushing Kuwait’s decision-makers towards an adjustment to this policy. In fact, there is a widespread perception that Kuwait, which has refused to join both the anti-Iran bandwagon and the anti-Qatar quartet, could potentially come under Saudi/Emirati pressure, and perhaps face the “Qatar treatment,” for refusing to fall in line with the dominant trend in regional politics. To contain and manage such risk, the Kuwaiti leadership has been keen to double-down on a hedging strategy, and diversify its alliances beyond the GCC and its post-1991 security guarantor, the United States.
The unhinged and unpredictable nature of Donald Trump’s presidency and the close alignment with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East has left Kuwait increasingly nervous about remaining too dependent on Washington, especially as U.S. hegemony declines and the world becomes more multipolar. At the global level, this strategy has entailed signing a strategic partnership with Beijing, including a protocol to boost defense industry cooperation as well as within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative as well as an agreement with London, potentially to host a permanent British military base, allegedly located in the southwest of the country, close to the Saudi border. At the regional level, Kuwait has instead been active in intensifying dialogue with Oman, Jordan, and, especially, Turkey.
In particular, according to an article published by Rai al Yawm which compared Kuwait’s growing military partnership with Turkey to that which Ankara and Doha began growing several years ago, the Kuwaiti-Turkish accord might result in a deployment of Turkish forces to Kuwait with the emirate purchasing armored vehicles. In August 2018, it had even been reported that Kuwait had pledged to inject USD 1.6 billion to back the floundering Turkish lira. While the reports were subsequently dismissed as unfounded by the state-run news agency, in itself, Kuwait’s interest in Turkey’s financial stability was significant.
Regional analysts argue that the driver for Kuwait approaching Turkey is that the emirate is seeking Ankara’s protection against the backdrop of the GCC crisis. Amid Washington’s confusing stances on Qatar, it was Turkey’s military presence in Doha that ultimately deterred the blockading states from conceiving military operations against Doha. Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen opined that Turkey played a more pivotal role than the U.S. in terms of providing Qatar’s regime with protection from the perceived threat of a looming Saudi/Emirati military invasion after the Gulf crisis broke out. The authors’ conversations with government officials and diplomats in the Gulf region have in fact confirmed that Turkey’s role has been perceived as a crucial asset for ensuring Qatar’s resilience. Proximity to Turkey, however, should not be confused with a choice of camp in the intra-Sunni power fight for Kuwait. Despite their different approaches to regional issues (from the GCC’s Qatar rift to Iran and the Yemen war), Kuwait is not on the verge of abandoning its historic alliance with Saudi Arabia and its membership in the GCC. To the contrary, in July, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia established a coordination council, a bilateral architecture similar to that established between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that should function as a privileged forum for dialogue.
As a matter of fact, looking ahead, the challenge for Kuwait will be to pursue its hedging strategy without alienating Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. That Kuwait is currently joining Saudi Arabia and the UAE—plus three other Arab states—in the “Arab Shield 1” war games being held in western Egypt, shows how any strengthening of Kuwaiti-Turkish ties is not necessarily at the expense of Kuwait’s commitments to its Arab Gulf allies.
But the picture will be complicated for Kuwait as it considers turning more to Ankara given that removal of Turkey’s military presence from Qatar was one of the anti-Qatar Quartet’s 13 demands for resolution of the Gulf crisis, which suggests that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would disapprove of Kuwait becoming the second GCC member to host Turkish troops. Fears of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s alleged “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy ambitions are widespread throughout Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.
As tensions between the UAE and Turkey continue to heat up over a range of issues pertaining to their geopolitical and ideological competition in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and Libya, there is a risk that Saudi-Turkish relations will deteriorate further amid the fallout of the Khashoggi case. How Kuwait will position itself in this increasingly polarized region with the two centers of Sunni power—the Turkish/Qatari alliance and the Saudi/Emirati bloc—increasingly pitted against each other, remains to be seen.