Kuwait’s New Strategy: Pursuing a Partnership with China

Building on the decades-old Sino-Kuwaiti relationship that has only strengthened in recent years, Kuwait is set to play an increasingly important role in China’s grand vision for the Middle East, as the wealthy Arabian emirate positions itself as a vital Arab partner to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
Giorgio Cafiero
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Kuwait's New Strategy Pursuing a Partnership with China

Against the backdrop of the current United States administration’s tilt toward protectionism and economic nationalism, China aims to assert itself as the center, driver, and protector of free trade in the 21st century. Launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative offers countless opportunities for Arab countries that are poised to become indispensable partners for Beijing given their geographic location in the Middle East, linking Asia and Europe.

A case in point is Kuwait. Decades ago Kuwait joined other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members in beginning to capitalize on favorable conditions in China and other Far East states busy achieving astonishing economic growth. As China ambitiously pushes ahead with this ultramodern trade route, Beijing sees Kuwait as a critical and natural partner with a special understanding and respect for China.

The China-Kuwait Relationship

Indeed, this respect, which has important historic foundations, is mutual. In 1971, Kuwait became the first Gulf state officially to recognize China’s Communist government. This earned the emirate much goodwill with the post-1949 political order in Beijing. Likewise, China came to the defense of Kuwaiti sovereignty at the outset of Iraq’s 1990 invasion. Furthermore, Beijing was one of the first capitals to praise Kuwait’s liberation from foreign occupation in February 1991, five months before Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng visited the emirate to deliver congratulatory messages and praise to Kuwait’s government and society on behalf of China.

In this century, China has recognized Kuwait’s seriousness about developing its ties with Asian economies, especially after Kuwait joined the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) in 2003. By 2008, the financial crisis, which resulted in major shifts in investment to Asia from Europe and North America, had pushed Kuwait further toward China within the framework of its “Look East” drive. Looking ahead, as China’s energy cooperation is set to increase with Arab states in the near-term while the US will likely be a net energy exporter by 2020, economic forces driven by China’s thirst for oil will naturally continue to make Kuwait and other oil wealthy Gulf states key to Beijing’s vital interests.

Yet energy will be only one of many areas in which Kuwait and China are set to deepen their partnership and bring bilateral cooperation to new heights. As the first Arab state to partner with OBOR, Kuwait sees this Chinese initiative as complimenting its own grandiose plans for the future. Vision 2035, also known as the “New Kuwait,” which aims to end the country’s extreme economic dependence on its hydrocarbon sector, is about diversifying Kuwait’s economy and establishing the emirate as a hub for commerce, culture, logistics, finance, tourism, and other sectors in the northern Gulf. “Silk City”, a key pillar of Kuwait’s Vision 2035 which has been developing since 2014, is a plan to establish a new megacity to be integrated into the Boubyan island to form a state-of-the-art port and economic zone. Kuwait’s vision to have “Silk City” put the emirate further on the map as a major commercial hub will require significant Chinese/Asian investment, a potential that Kuwaiti and Chinese officials have recently discussed.

Responses to Regional Turmoil

Responding to common challenges such as global terrorism will likely also push Kuwait and China closer together. Kuwait’s deadly ISIS attack in its capital on June 26, 2015, and China’s internal menace posed by radicalized Uighurs from Xinjiang, who maintain their links to global jihadist terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, mean that both Kuwait City and Beijing share a keenness to partner in the struggle against such violent Islamic fundamentalist terror groups that operate transnationally. China’s purported consideration of military action in northern Syria to target Chinese nationals who joined ISIS and other extremist groups is illustrative of the growing perceptions of Beijing as an increasingly active actor in the Middle East.

Somewhat similarly, both states essentially embrace a pragmatic, “no enemies” foreign policy in the Middle East. They strive to maintain relative neutrality in the region’s conflicts. For Beijing, if the violent crises in the Arab world from Syria to Yemen and Iraq to Libya continue, this represents a serious threat to its OBOR initiative. Thus, Kuwait’s efforts to serve as a mediator and peace broker between different regimes and non-state actors in the region reinforce the perception of Beijing officials that Kuwait is a driver of stability in a region where turmoil harms Chinese interests.

Kuwait has a long tradition of playing a mediating role in disputes throughout the Arab world, including both civil wars (Lebanon, Yemen, etc.) and between different states/groups (Egypt-Libya; Oman-South Yemen; Bahrain-Qatar; Jordan-Palestinian Liberation Organization, etc.). Today, Kuwait stands out among Arab nations as a uniquely diplomatic state with Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah at the helm. That Kuwait’s emir previously served as foreign minister and prime minister from the 1960s until he became the emirate’s ruler in 2006 explains his skills as a diplomatic leader on the global stage. Kuwait, for example, hosted peace talks concerning Yemen, bringing Houthi representatives to Kuwait City in 2016.  The emirate reached out to Tehran in early 2017, and the Kuwait emir engaged in shuttle diplomacy amid the post-June 2017 Qatar crisis. These actions illustrate the wealthy Arab country’s sustained emphasis on diplomacy in its foreign policy, which marks a significant contrast to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s more militarized approaches to regional crises.

As the Chinese seek to deepen their ties with Kuwait’s fellow GCC members—including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side and Qatar on the other—while also bringing the Sino-Iranian partnership to new heights, Beijing will value Kuwaiti efforts to defuse geopolitical crises in the Gulf that threaten peace in this strategically-prized body of water central to China’s core interests in the Middle East.

Kuwait, on the other hand, sees China as an ascendant power taking responsible positions overall on sensitive issues in the Middle East. China’s position in favor of an independent Palestinian state and the Iranian nuclear deal are two important examples of Sino-Kuwaiti alignment on issues where the Trump administration has left the US increasingly isolated on the international stage. Kuwait has also respected the “one-China” policy, rejecting efforts to establish “two Chinas” (or “one China, one Taiwan”), and expressed support for Beijing’s right to safeguard China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security.

Despite Beijing’s pro-Assad position previously upsetting certain officials in the Gulf, China’s government appointed a special envoy to Damascus in 2016 to strengthen international mediation efforts in war-ravaged Syria. Beijing’s pursuit of a constructive dialogue undoubtedly was pleasing to Kuwait, which has also sought to play an active role in the Syrian conflict by promoting mediation and investing in humanitarian initiatives. Earlier this month, in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Shahed, Assad praised Kuwait as a “problem solver.” Ultimately, China’s support for Syria’s regime will likely be less of a sensitive issue in GCC-Beijing relations given that the mainstream Arab world of diplomacy appears to be welcoming Assad’s regime back in from the cold, underscored by recent cordial encounters and improved economic relations between Syria and other Arab states (Bahrain, Jordan, etc.) that previously supported, to various extents, forces fighting for regime change in Damascus.

Kuwait and China: A Relationship Set to Grow

Given the growing alignment between Kuwait City and Beijing on scores of international and regional issues, it is not surprising that in July 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in talks with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that China and Kuwait have remained “tried and true friends” since diplomatic relations between the two states were established in 1971. Looking forward, it is difficult to imagine that this bilateral relationship will not grow deeper. As Kuwait and other traditional Arab allies of the US take stock of the current US administration’s lack of steadiness and coherence in both strategy and policy, there is a growing trend to hedge bets by investing in closer ties with other world powers, such as China.

Kuwaiti concerns about their country one day receiving the “Qatar treatment” for not kowtowing to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s regional policies are relevant to Kuwait’s long-term foreign policy thinking. Following Doha’s lead in terms of giving all the major world powers a greater stake in Kuwait maintaining its independence and prosperity, Kuwait is clearly turning to China within the framework of a pragmatic and balanced foreign policy in which the emirate deepens its international alliances and strong ties with all permanent members of the UN Security Council to avoid remaining excessively dependent on Washington. Indeed, Kuwaiti officials took stock of President Trump’s initial reaction to the Qatar crisis (which strongly implied that the US government’s executive branch backed the Saudi/UAE-led blockade of Doha) and unsettlingly asked, “Could Kuwait one day find itself in Qatar’s current situation?”

For years there has been a growing understanding among Kuwaiti politicians, businessmen, and intellectuals of the need to look towards China to achieve greater diversification in global trade relationships and take advantage of all benefits that come with deepening ties with Beijing, particularly as China continues to ascend geopolitically in the Gulf and across the world. As China’s “Go Outward” and Kuwait’s “Look East” foreign policies continue to result in the deepening of Sino-Kuwaiti relations, there is every reason to conclude that bilateral ties will strengthen across a host of domains from investment to counter-terrorism and energy to tourism in the years ahead. Although Kuwait will remain dependent on Western powers, chiefly the United States, when it comes to national defense, economic interests will drive Kuwait closer to China, especially as OBOR continues developing.

Yet, in the longer-term, as China’s economic ties deepen with Kuwait and other Gulf littoral states, there is indeed reason to consider the possibility of Beijing inserting itself into the Northern Gulf’s security architecture with far-reaching consequences not only for China-US relations, but also the greater Middle East’s geopolitical order.