Will Kuwait's shrewd diplomacy change course under its new monarch?

The death of Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah on September 29 has left countless people in Kuwait and across the world in a state of sadness. Sheikh Sabah was a dedicated humanitarian and a wise monarch who set his country on a diplomatic course. 

The ways in which he invested in Kuwaiti ‘soft-power’ to establish the oil-rich emirate as a diplomatic bridge between different sides of regional conflicts and disputes will be an important part of his legacy. 

As Gerald Feierstein, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Yemen, explained, “Sheikh Sabah will be remembered as a Gulf leader who steered his country along a moderate course in regional and global affairs, emphasizing the peaceful resolution of disputes.”

Born in 1929, Sheikh Sabah had a long career—serving as Kuwait’s foreign minister (1963-2003), prime minister (2003-2006), and emir (2006-2020). He came under pressure to make many difficult decisions in response to two Arab-Israeli wars (1967 and 1973), Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1979), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait (1990-1991), the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime (2003), the Arab Spring (2011), the Yemeni civil war (2014-present), and the Gulf crisis (2017-present). 

At so many sensitive junctures, Sheikh Sabah carefully directed his country’s foreign policy amid challenges which many other Arab leaders failed to navigate as shrewdly. 

After Oman’s Qaboos bin Said Al Said passed away at the start of this year, Sheikh Sabah was the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s last leader of the older generation of statesmen. Sheikh Sabah and Sultan Qaboos, who both grew up in the pre-oil era, had much experience and wisdom which many in the Gulf region and beyond will miss. 

The generation of these two monarchs has been mostly replaced by younger Gulf leaders with ambitious, maximalist, and confrontational foreign policy agendas that have had destabilising impacts throughout the Arab world from Libya to Yemen. 

Sheikh Nawaf at the helm 

With Sheikh Nawaf al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah on the throne, what will be Kuwait’s post-Sabah foreign policy? 

Much like how Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq has kept with the basic tenants of his predecessor’s foreign policy agenda, the same can be expected from Kuwait’s new monarch. Sheikh Nawaf enjoys high levels of popularity and it is a safe bet that he will receive strong support from his nation. 

One can safely assume that Sheikh Nawaf will not make any sudden or drastic changes to his predecessor’s regional and international positions. Kuwait’s foreign policy orientation under Sheikh Sabah has been popular and public opinion in Kuwait, the GCC’s only semi-democracy, is important to the country’s foreign policy decision-makers.

According to Dr Abdullah Baabood, a visiting professor at Waseda University, Tokyo, the “fundamentals” and the “core” of Kuwait’s foreign policy “will continue to be the same” in the post-Sabah era. “We may see a small change in style obviously between Sheikh Sabah and Sheikh Nawaf because they are two different people,” but the new Emir will also drive a Kuwaiti foreign policy “that is [to try] to see that the region [achieves] peace and [that] conflict [is] to be resolved through dialogue.” 

Other experts agree. “We can expect continuity,” said Amnah Ibraheem, a researcher of Gulf politics at the University of Tennessee. “Kuwait only sides with one entity over another when its own state security is challenged. For example, Kuwait only outlawed Hezbollah (and took a mildly harsher tone with Iran) when there were a series of cells active inside Kuwait and when it resulted in domestic disturbances.”

External pressures

A concern among some in Kuwait is that the country could find itself subject to pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to align Kuwaiti foreign policy more closely with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s agendas. 

The relative freedom of speech and political space which exists in Kuwait have given the citizens of the country the right to speak out against other GCC states’ policies, which angers officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi when criticisms from Kuwaitis are directed against them. A possibility is that the Saudis and Emiratis will seek to use their leverage to push Kuwaiti authorities toward clamping down on such voices within the country. 

When speaking to Al Jazeera shortly after Sheikh Sabah’s death, Kuwait University’s Hamad Albloshi summed up this thinking. “We have to keep in mind that if Saudi Arabia succeeds in its hegemonic behaviour, it would not be in our interest. We do not want to experience what Qatar is facing.”

Kuwaiti concerns about receiving the ‘Qatar treatment’ are similar to certain fears in Oman about the new Saudi-UAE axis pressuring Muscat into distancing itself from Tehran and Doha in order to align more closely with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s agendas. However, as some well-informed observers have pointed out, Kuwait City might be less vulnerable to such pressure than Muscat. 

In Ibraheem’s words, “It is quite difficult to sway Kuwait to align itself towards one particular state too closely." Kuwait’s strong institutions will give the country a greater shot at protecting its relative autonomy, even if such Saudi/Emirati pressure comes down on Kuwait City. 

Furthermore, compared to Oman, Kuwait has much deeper pockets which would prevent it from depending on other GCC members bailing it out. Also, unlike Qatar, Kuwait has geography that would make it much harder for Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama to impose a harmful land, sea, and air blockade on it. 

The Kuwaiti leadership is aware of the dangers posed by the new Saudi-UAE axis. The Kuwaitis have numerous ways to counter-balance pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. These include continuing to stand up for the GCC as a sub-regional institution, strengthening ties with the Trump (or Biden) administration, deepening Kuwait’s already strong relations with China and Russia, and exploring the potential for a deeper partnership with Turkey. 

At the same time, in order to bring Riyadh closer to Kuwait City, the Kuwaiti leadership may prove capable of taking advantage of differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE by, for example, emphasising Kuwait’s full support for a unified Yemen, which would back up Riyadh while posing a direct challenge to Abu Dhabi’s agenda of carving up the country along North-South lines.

The future

Looking ahead a major question that many are asking with respect to Kuwait’s future foreign policy has to do with who will become Sheikh Nawaf’s crown prince. Yet experts such as King College London’s Dr Andreas Krieg do not believe that Sheikh Nawaf’s successor (whoever that will be) would abandon the diplomatic approach to foreign policy in the Gulf, which Sheikh Sabah spent decades establishing, in order to embrace a more partisan one.

Dr Courtney Freer, a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre, made the important point that given the big role of Kuwait’s parliament in the shaping of national policies, there is no reason to consider the next emir becoming “Kuwait’s version of the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman,” underscoring, again, how Kuwait stands out in the GCC because of its strong institutions among other factors. These institutions will matter in many ways when it comes to post-Sabah Kuwait’s foreign policy. 

It is a safe bet that Sheikh Nawaf’s attention will be on more internal issues in Kuwait, including the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the country’s liquidity squeeze and growing deficit amid a period of low oil prices. These domestic challenges will give Sheikh Nawaf a full plate. This makes it all the more likely that he will allow the ideas and values of Sheikh Sabah’s foreign policy to continue driving Kuwaiti actions on the international stage in ways that continue to position the country as a benevolent and pragmatic regional balancer.

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