Explainer: What the Durra-Arash gas field dispute means for Iran-GCC ties

Illustration - Analysis - Dura-Arash
5 min read
16 August, 2023

A contentious gas field has recently cast a shadow over rapprochement efforts between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours, specifically Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, analysts are hopeful that recent discussions can navigate the dispute, enabling the ongoing trend of improving Iran-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations to continue. 

With global energy prices still high following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kuwait City and Riyadh have seized the opportunity to capitalise on the potential wealth of the disputed offshore field, which they refer to as al-Durra.

Containing an estimated 220 billion cubic metres of readily extractable gas, with some estimates suggesting even greater reserves, the economic potential of the field is significant. The field also reportedly contains oil reserves, further enhancing its appeal.

"Containing an estimated 220 billion cubic metres of readily extractable gas, with some estimates suggesting even greater reserves, the economic potential of the field is significant"

Last year, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia agreed to develop the field, despite Iran's condemnation of the move, which it calls Arash, as "illegal". Tehran protested that any deal to drill for gas which doesn’t include Iran is invalid.  

The dispute over the Durra-Arash field goes back to the 1960s, when Kuwait granted drilling rights to Royal Dutch Shell, and Iran followed suit with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, prompting ambiguity over maritime delineation. Complicating matters further, there is still no ratified maritime border agreement between Iran and Kuwait. 

Tehran asserts that 40 percent of the field lies within its territorial waters, while the remaining 60 percent is situated in the divided neutral zone shared by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia side insists that the entire field is within the neutral zone and that Iran has no legitimate rights over it.  

“The dispute over the gas field is only one of a number of issues that could potentially undermine Iran’s relations with Kuwait and complicate the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia,” Mehran Kamrava, Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar, told The New Arab

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Iranian officials in July voiced criticism over Kuwait and Riyadh’s actions, while questioning Riyadh’s own claims to the field. However, Tehran has expressed its willingness to engage in dialogue and cultivate friendlier relations with its neighbours, as conveyed by the Foreign Ministry.  

Last month, Tehran said it was engaging in fresh talks with Kuwait, as it stated the importance of cooperation and that it would refrain from aggressively pursuing access to Durra-Arash. 

But Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have continued rejecting Iran’s position over Durra-Arash, while Kuwait had even started drilling for gas in the field in July.  

Despite this dispute, “the Raisi administration has embarked on a concerted effort to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbours and especially with Arab countries,” said Mehran Kamrava.  

[Elmurod Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

“Because of the priority attached to improved relations, I believe the parties concerned will find ways of compartmentalising issues. They will either sidestep this dispute for now in favour of better overall relations or will try to devise amicable solutions for dealing with the disagreement,” he added. 

Last week, a meeting between the Iranian ambassador to Kuwait and Kuwait's deputy Foreign Minister exemplified their willingness to engage in constructive dialogue. Amid the talks, the Iranian ambassador stated that Tehran will continue to push for trilateral access to Durra-Arash if negotiations fail. 

However, there are still hopes that this dispute won’t derail their rapprochement or could perhaps lead to a settlement that may complement wider de-escalation efforts.  

“Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours have experienced zero-sum rivalries in the recent past and know full well how they usher in a lose-lose dynamic for both sides,” Ali Vaez, Director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, told The New Arab.  

"There is a need for international arbitration over Durra-Arash to further consolidate the ongoing diplomatic progress made between Iran and its Arab neighbours"

“As such, the de-escalatory path that they're now on stems from a strategic decision and is unlikely to be derailed by tactical disagreements.” 

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Iran reportedly resumed operations last week, according to Iran’s official news agency IRNA. The embassy had been sacked in 2016 during protests of Riyadh’s execution of a Shia religious leader.

In June, Iran reopened its own embassy in Saudi Arabia, marking a notable advancement in bilateral relations following groundbreaking China-brokered talks in March. 

The Durra-Arash issue will likely be raised in future talks between Tehran and Riyadh, as well as Kuwait. And alongside China’s possible wishes to promote further dialogue, fellow Gulf states Oman and Qatar, which enjoy more cooperative relations with all sides, may also wish to support facilitating dialogue. 

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Similarly, Kuwait and Iraq currently aim to establish mutually agreeable maritime borders, as discussed in July. The UN set Kuwait and Baghdad's land and maritime borders in 1993, following the 1990 invasion by Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

However, Baghdad disputes the current maritime boundary, claiming it limits its access to Gulf waters. The Kuwaiti coastguard frequently arrests Iraqi fishermen for “illegally” entering Kuwait’s waters. 

Such maritime and border disputes between Gulf nations are clearly not new. Yet there is a need for international arbitration over Durra-Arash to further consolidate the ongoing diplomatic progress made between Iran and its Arab neighbours.

Any outcome of the Durra-Arash issue may also test how much Riyadh and Tehran are able to navigate and find common ground in handling such disputes.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey