After the death of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah in September 2020, the question of Kuwait’s future role in the Middle East is worth considering. Sabah, as an emir, and foreign minister between 1963 and 2003, was critical in establishing Kuwait’s neutral role in the region. His family has ruled the country for almost two hundred fifty years, has been crucial in the creation of Gulf Cooperation Council, and often used a shuttle diplomacy approach.
It was in 2017 when he realised that ‘unsolved surplus power’ was being possessed by some gulf states. In his last speech, in the 15th legislative session in the national assembly, following a visit to Saudi Arabia, he had warned of the collapse of the Gulf house, stressing that any escalation would be damaging to the region. This warning led to a Kuwaiti mediation effort, which undeniably achieved an important step as it was able to hold the 38th Gulf Summit in Kuwait on 5th December 2017, despite the fact that this success was accompanied by a low representation of several participating countries, namely that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, thus forcing the Kuwaiti mediator to reduce the duration of the summit to one day instead of the usual two.
After his death, the reactions were unusual for any Arab leader. Apart from Israel, even Iran had passed commiserations. At the same time, he was instrumental in maintaining close relations with United States as well, helping them to fight ISIS, an incredibly difficult, yet noteworthy task, against the backdrop of sentiment that was rising against the West.
Sabah was known as the ‘king of cooperation’, as his attentive vigilance improved relations with Iraq after the First Gulf War. Sheikh Sabah stressed the importance of reconciliation with Iraq and brought about the Kuwaiti verdict to adjourn Iraqi reparations payments in 2014. He also brought back Qatar to the Gulf Cooperation Council in 2014. But when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates boycotted Qatar first in 2014 and then in 2017, both politically and economically, newer political liabilities emerged in Kuwaiti monarchist circles. However, Sheikh Sabah didn’t manage to put an end to the stalemate at that point in time, even after meeting face to face with crown princes of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Some say, the stalemate to be resolved is something that will pass on to his successor, Sheikh Nawaf, while some others say that when Sheikh Sabah did not convince these Gulf nations to come to the table, how will his eventual successor command respect?
Elana Delozier, a Gulf specialist at the Washington based Institute for Near East Policy, also affirmed that Kuwait’s role as a mediator in the future, under new leadership, is uncertain. It is because Sheikh Sabah, along with Sultan Qaboos of Oman, was part of the old guard, a generation that managed foreign policy issues differently than today. This raises the question of whether the celebrated reputation of mediation is tied to Kuwait as a whole or, more specifically, the late Sheikh Sabah.
In reaction to this development, Elana Delozier, in an Oped for Washington Institute, wrote: ‘The gloves were off, and the very public nature of the rift, underscored by the citizens being tacitly allowed to criticise regional states and leaders on social media to an unprecedented degree, prevented any of the parties from saving face without the other side capitulating.’
Ever since Sheikh Nawaf, Kuwait’s crown prince, has assumed the role of the succeeding emir, his coming to power sparks concerns over the future of Kuwait’s role as a mediator. Experts believe that Nawaf falls short of experience and positive neutrality, factors essential to sustain Kuwait’s ability to successfully mediate current disputes and those in the future.
To attain some leverage, Sheikh Nawaf will have to first address Kuwait’s longstanding unrest with Iraq along with its proximity to Iran.
Kuwait’s neutral policy upto now has resulted in two things: proximity to the US, and maintaining domestic stability.
As for the US, it has historically relied on Kuwait’s neutrality within GCC disputes and most importantly, Sheikh Sabah’s skill in addressing them. Despite Kuwait’s endorsement of Palestinians, it is still considered one of the administration’s most important partners in the region, but United States will always be open to a discretion regarding to re-evaluate their policy with Kuwait.
Analysts believe that the proximity between both US and Kuwait will persist, despite the Sheikh Sabah’s passing. However, this does not mean that the succeeding emir will have the same role and influence of the late emir. In the longer term, Kuwait may be obliged to take on sides on various other political issues, besides Iraq, as well.
Unfortunately, as other Gulf states are in rifts, analysts believe that Oman might fill in Kuwait’s shoes, but it’s policy of neutrality on hot button issues such as Qatar rift, Yemen war, and Iran has irked Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Some are also of an opinion that young, assertive leadership of UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, may choose to meddle in Kuwaiti politics in the future, directly through its national assembly, setting a dangerous precedent.
Naveed Qazi is an author of seven books, and editor of Globe Upfront. For feedback, he can be mailed at email@example.com. Views expressed are author’s own.