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Saudi normalisation with Israel would leave Kuwait in a tricky spot

If Saudi Arabia decides to normalise relations with Israel it could leave Kuwait with very few options
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (C) delivers a speech during the opening of the fifth regular session at the country's National Assembly in Kuwait City on 20 October (AFP)

The past few months have seen a spread of warm relations between so-called "moderate Sunni states" - primarily the GCC states - and Israel, evidenced by the normalisation of Israel’s relations with Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain, along with the recent alleged visit by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait is now the only GCC state not to have relations – direct or indirect - with Tel Aviv, which places it in a dilemma: to follow the GCC towards normalisation with Israel risks aggravating domestic political forces and regional neighbours. On the other hand, failure to normalise with Israel could lead to a loss of status as a US partner during a key transition in US foreign policy – especially if Saudi Arabia chooses to normalise.

Kuwait is now the only GCC state not to have relations – direct or indirect - with Tel Aviv, which places the state in a dilemma

Kuwait’s politics differ from that of its GCC neighbours. It has an active parliament and free elections, with more powers than states in the oil-rich Gulf. Its ruler has the final say in all matters of the state, including foreign policy. Parliament (Majlis) concentrates on domestic concerns and, contrary to what experts have recently argued, the Majlis’ role in foreign policy formulation is mainly to rubber-stamp the government’s position.

Furthermore, Kuwaiti politics is very dynamic. Political opposition has increased in the past decade, with opposition members winning 24 of the 50 seats in this month’s elections, up from 16 seats in the previous parliamentary elections in 2016. While there are no political parties in Kuwait, politicians form blocs that voice their concerns about the political status quo.

With speeches peppered with critical remarks about the late ruler and, more recently, calls for reform made by figures such as Ubaid al-Wasmi, professor of law at Kuwait University, and Hasan Johar, a Kuwaiti MP, have intensified due to allegations of corruption and the economic downturn resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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However, in spite of the rising tide of opposition, the government has been able to strike a balance between political, tribal, ethnic and religious groups, maintaining a grip and consolidating power in Kuwait.  

The recent normalisation between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, however, has led parliamentary blocs of different political currents to issue a joint statement harshly condemning any normalisation attempts. The state’s position was also a rejection of normalisation of ties with Israel, but this show of unity amongst the Kuwaiti political factions could pose a threat for the ruling elite.

Political coherence and understanding towards Palestine could be the beginning of a collaboration and rapprochement between the opposition and the pro-government groups, weakening the ruling elite’s hold over domestic politics, forcing them to implement sought after reforms and anti-corruption investigations. Unity among political powers in Kuwait could lead to a shift in the balance of power to the disadvantage of the ruling elite.

Regional tug of war

Kuwait’s position in the MENA region in general and its Gulf neighbourhood in particular has been one of a neutral actor and a force for mediation. The Yemen crisis, the Qatar blockade, and the Iranian-Saudi rivalry are testament to that. However, its overall position in relation to foreign policy stems from its alliance with the GCC states, primarily Saudi Arabia.

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Its geopolitical position in the region could prove difficult for Kuwait to pick sides. It can be argued that as long as Saudi Arabia has not normalised relations with Israel, Kuwait is not under any pressure to follow suit. However, if Saudi Arabia decides to normalise relations with Israel it could lead Kuwait into a tug of war, which may leave the country with two main options, each with a hefty price. 

If Kuwait decided to follow its "elder sister" and normalise relations with Israel, it will inevitably place it at odds with Iran, aligning Kuwait with an anti-Iran coalition of "moderate Sunni states" by default. This move could make Kuwait a target in any future regional military confrontation.

Furthermore, normalisation with Israel might result in the government losing the support of its significant Shia minority which could add to its domestic woes. Experts have argued that given their role in acting as a counter-weight to the opposition, Kuwait’s rulers cannot risk isolating the Shia. Kuwait’s Shia, having been previously been accused of being pro-Iran, have in recent years been particularly loyal to the royal family. 

On the other hand, if Kuwait does not shift its position in accordance with Saudi foreign policy, and continues to maintain its anti-normalisation stand, it risks being perceived by the kingdom as siding with the so-called Iranian-led “axis of resistance”. This too could be burdensome not only regionally, but also domestically.

Kuwait’s heterogeneous social fabric, namely its tribal and religious makeup, have extended tribal and religious links with Saudi Arabia. If perceived to be siding with Iran against the regional status quo, it risks deepening a schism among Kuwaiti social groups.

Politicians have previously criticised the government over what they deemed to be a pro-Iran policy. Tribal and Islamist legislators charged the prime minister with acts "detrimental to the national security of Kuwait and its ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states by adopting a biased policy in favour of the Iranian regime".

Furthermore, although these social groups are currently against normalisation, their position may be affected if Kuwait was perceived to be leaning more towards Iran rather than GCC states. A 2019 poll showed that 42 percent of Kuwaitis (versus 13 percent) find Iran to be a bigger threat than Israel to Kuwait’s stability. 

An international ally

Last September, during a Kuwaiti delegation visit led by the late emir’s son to the White House, US President Donald Trump talked about Kuwait’s normalisation with Israel. Trump's statement was met with a strong reaction from both the Kuwaiti public and the government.

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The Kuwaiti prime minister stressed in a statement that Kuwait would not change is position, since the "Palestinian cause is the first and most important issue to Arabs and Muslims and the State of Kuwait stands by the Palestinian people". The declaration signalled a continuity of the path set by the late emir, possibly in an attempt to wait out the final few months of a Trump presidency and the pressures that come with it. 

A Biden victory could come as a relief for Kuwait. As analysts have pointed out, a Biden administration would not resort to the pressure tactics employed by Trump, especially since the president-elect has asserted that the US will seek to reframe its foreign relations with the international community.

Thorny issues such as ending the Yemen war, the rift between Qatar and the three GCC states, and Iran are priorities for Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Kuwait has been an active mediator and has taken proactive steps in solving the aforementioned issues.

A Biden administration would find an ally in Kuwait to solve these outstanding regional problems. However, Kuwait would be in a predicament if a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement happens. Although a Biden administration may not pressure Kuwait to normalise relations with Israel, Kuwait could lose its status as a key US partner, thus undermining its position as a neutral actor and mediator in the region. This could be costly for Kuwait and jeopardise its position as an important regional ally to the United States. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dr Talal Mohammad is an Academic Visitor at St Antony’s College, Oxford and a consultant in Government Affairs and Geopolitics. Dr Mohammad’s areas of expertise include the Middle East, especially the Gulf region. He has recently completed a doctorate at Oxford University on Iranian-Saudi relations which will be published under the title Iranian-Saudi Rivalry Since 1979: In the Words of Kings and Clerics (Bloomsbury-IB Tauris, forthcoming 2021). He tweets at @DrOxbridge
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