Kuwait has been struggling to preserve its neutrality in the midst of a polarized region. When Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain declared their blockade against Qatar in 2017, Kuwait came under significant pressure to join, or to at least condemn Qatar for what they described as activities aimed at undermining regional stability.
While Kuwait often attempted to mediate between the two camps, it was also acutely aware of its lack of leverage and the looming threat to its own economic interests, as the blockading Quartet took active steps to punish companies that continued to deal with Qatari entities. This resulted in an awkward balancing act for Kuwait, between its neutrality, its semi-democratic traditions, and its foreign policy interests.
Though Kuwait maintained official neutrality, it conceded to Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian pressure to rein in the vocal Kuwaiti commentators who criticized Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s policies towards Doha. In 2019, Kuwait surrendered Egyptian opposition figures who had sought refuge in its jurisdiction, and also temporarily imprisoned prominent Kuwaiti commentator Nasser Al-Duweila, who had enraged Riyadh with his vocal opposition to the blockade and mockery of Saudi policy in Yemen.
Kuwait has doggedly maintained its overarching neutrality in the region’s affairs and refused to toe the Quartet’s line against Qatar.
However, regardless of these specific instances of appeasement, Kuwait has doggedly maintained its overarching neutrality in the region’s affairs and refused to toe the Quartet’s line against Qatar. With the advent of the Biden administration, Kuwait’s policy was vindicated, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman sought out the Kuwaiti Emir to facilitate a rapid reconciliation with Doha. Bin Salman also dragged his bewildered allies in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Manama with him, in order to temper the anticipated antagonism from the new US administration.
Yet, at the same time that there appears to be a trajectory towards de-escalation in the tense regional polarization, Kuwait has been rocked by the death of long-time Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber in late 2020, and the uncertainty over his succession. The new Emir, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, is 83 years of age. In a bid to quell rumors of a family rift, Nawaf swiftly appointed Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as Crown Prince within eight days of his coronation, despite Kuwaiti law allowing a year before such a decision needed to be made.
Indeed, the appointment presented more questions than answers. Mishal Al-Ahmad is 81 years old, and therefore his selection alludes to the uncertainty amongst the ruling family over how to pass the rulership to the next generation. Moreover, Mishal Al-Ahmad is popularly perceived to be more sympathetic to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s views on regional issues.
It is in this context that Kuwait has become the focus of attention amongst Saudi and UAE policymakers.
For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Kuwait presents a long-term threat in so far as it continues to be touted as an example of a more desirable and preferable system of governance by Saudi and Emirati opposition. Unlike in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where the reigning monarch’s power is absolute, Kuwait’s governing structure endows democratic institutions with the power to strike down government policies, including those endorsed by the monarch himself.
For example, whereas Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been able to unilaterally declare a hike in Value-Added Tax (VAT) as part of government attempts to reform the economy despite putting pressure on ordinary Saudis, a similar policy introduced by the Kuwaiti government was roundly struck down by a democratically elected Parliament.
Kuwait’s model enshrines powers to representative institutions.
Similarly, though the UAE’s Mohamed Bin Zayed can unilaterally make decisions on the Emirati economy, Kuwait’s model enshrines powers to representative institutions to ensure that there is effective popular say in the most important decision-making processes directly affecting the people.
Kuwait is also unique as the only environment in the Gulf to host an intellectual community of diverse political leanings and sympathies. For instance, leading political analyst Ayed Al-Manna is known to be sympathetic to the policies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and commentator Nasser Al-Duweila is perceived as especially sympathetic to Turkey and Qatar. Contrarily, the intellectual environments in Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi are overwhelmingly dominated by a single ideology and worldview.
Kuwait therefore differs from all the other Gulf states in the way it has been able to establish and maintain an environment where conflicting views can co-exist among its vocal intellectual elite— a stark distinction from its regional neighbors.
Moreover, where the UAE and Saudi Arabia have embarked on a PR campaign to shift public opinion on normalizing ties with Israel, by coordinating a media campaign blaming Palestinians for the latest Israeli aggression, Kuwait has done the opposite and unanimously passed a law banning any form of normalization or bilateral deals with the Israeli regime. Kuwait’s utter defiance has been hailed by Arab public opinion, prompting famous UAE commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdullah to declare in a tweet that “the UAE needs a more creative approach to convince [the public] of the benefits of its policies.”
This is not to suggest that Kuwait’s system is perfect or ideal. Much of the democratic freedoms, rights, and privileges are reserved almost exclusively for Kuwaiti Arabs and not the large communities of non-Kuwaitis, both Arab and non-Arab. Nevertheless, the semi-democratic model of Kuwait, in which institutions can prevent a monarch from exercising absolute power, is of concern to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Kuwaiti succession issue presents Saudi Arabia and the UAE with an attractive opportunity to curtail the democratic processes in Kuwait.
This is also not to imply that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi believe Kuwait poses any imminent or even medium-term threat. Still, the Kuwaiti succession issue presents them with an attractive opportunity to engage with relevant stakeholders and curtail the democratic processes in Kuwait.
This is part of the reason why the visit of Kuwait’s Crown Prince to Riyadh on June 1, and his subsequent return home afterwards, without visiting any other Gulf capital, raised eyebrows.
The Kuwaiti Crown Prince had legitimate, pressing reasons to visit Riyadh. He was accompanied by the country’s Oil Minister, suggesting a continuation of talks between the two states over the shared oil fields in the “neutral zone.” Indeed, after the visit, the neighboring countries announced a long-awaited agreement on the resumption of production at two major oilfields.
The accord comes amidst tensions between the members of OPEC+ over the suggestion that more production cuts may be needed for a longer period than originally anticipated. This is undoubtedly bad news for the oil-based economies in the Gulf, which are creaking under the pressure and finding their diversification attempts hampered by limited financial reserves.
Kuwait also has much concern over Biden’s approach to the new nuclear deal negotiations with Iran. Kuwait shares Riyadh’s sentiments that Washington may be prepared to agree to a deal that gives concessions to Tehran at the expense of the Gulf states.
Among the issues that Kuwait is particularly worried about is an ongoing maritime border dispute with Iran, which has implications on access to the Dorra gas field. After the Crown Prince’s visit to Riyadh, Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry announced that a tripartite summit would be held between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran on the issue. However, no date was announced.
Thus, it is clear that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are moving closer to one another and engaging more than they have been over the past decade. To what extent this will influence an overhaul of Kuwait’s internal processes remains to be seen. Still, with the wider fault line shifting in the region, Kuwait will not be immune from the reorienting of priorities by its larger neighbors.