Instability in Iran and Iraq threatens Kuwait's deep interests

Instability in Iran and Iraq threatens Kuwait's deep interests
Comment: If Kuwait is to preserve its long-term interests in the region, it must continue to capitalise on its ability to serve as a relatively neutral state, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
6 min read
26 Jul, 2018
Demonstrators protest over the lack of basic services in oil-rich Basra [AFP]
This month, thousands of underserved Iraqis have both violently and peacefully protested in Basra, Dhi Qar, Diyala, Missan, Muthanna, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Karbala and parts of Baghdad. 

They're voicing their opposition to poor living conditions, joblessness, corruption and what they perceive as excessive Iranian influence in Iraq. In response, Iraq's central government has carried out a clampdown, deploying security forces to police the protests and borrowing a page from the Iranian regime's playbook by shutting off the internet and blocking messaging services.

Legitimate grievances with the post-2003 political order have been driving these protests in Iraq's southern Shia heartland.

In Basra province, the source of approximately 
80 percent of Iraq's overall crude oil exports, locals have spent years enduring power outages, insufficient access to drinking water and uncollected waste, while foreign corporations and corrupt Iraqi politicians have taken full advantage of Basra's resource wealth.

In late June and early July, Iranian protesters across the border in Iran's oil-rich province of Khuzestan took to the streets too, with some attacking banks and government buildings. They were demanding that Iranian officials provide basic services, including clean drinking water, and effectively address chronic pollution and other environmental threats to public health.

Although there were scores of injured in Abadan and Khorramshahr as protestors and security forces clashed, the regime in Tehran reported that no deaths resulted despite claims to the contrary from social media and the Saudi press.

Kuwait's stakes

Even with its limited abilities, Kuwait is making genuine efforts to calm unrest in Iraqi and Iranian territories within close proximity to its boundaries to, if for nothing else, protect Kuwait's own national interests. The oil-rich emirate seeks to position itself as a political leader and a major trade, financial, and logistics hub for the northern Gulf and beyond, making it a major stakeholder in regional peace.

In line with Vision 2035, Kuwait is seeking greater Chinese investment and working with officials in Beijing to pursue all the ways in which Vision 2035 and China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) can complement each other.

Kuwait will not abandon its alliance with Saudi Arabia

The ambitious plan of Silk City, whose name underscores Kuwait's determination to link Vision 2035 with OBOR, is to develop a new city connected with Boubyan island and create a new integrated free economic zone and new port.

If successful, Silk City will not only offer Kuwait the means to become an increasingly important link in Sino-European trade, but also provide the emirate with a "strategic perch from which to expand commerce and ties with Iraq and Iran" as Gulf scholar Kristin Smith Diwan 

Yet, as the arc of poor governance, corruption, and resource shortages transcends national boundaries in the northern Gulf, crises within southern Iraq and Iran's Khuzestan province are harmful to Kuwait's vision for deepening commercial links with both neighbours and threaten spillover effects into the emirate.

 Iraqis stage a protest against unemployment and power cuts, demanding the government's resignation [Anadolu]

From an immediate security standpoint, Kuwait has concerns of Shia militias in Iraq entering Kuwait while mixed in with Iraqi refugees.

Thus, preventing such a refugee flow into Kuwait from Iraq is a vital Kuwaiti interests. To try to calm the situation and help Iraq better grapple with energy shortages, Kuwait delivered 18,000 tons of gas oil to Basra on July 24 to enable power stations to operate.

As one consultant in Kuwait 
put it: "We do not believe that it is in the interest of the region, particularly Kuwait, for the poor conditions [in Iran and Iraq] to continue, neither in humanitarian terms nor in security terms."

A shifting environment

A new Gulf security architecture is emerging that puts enormous pressure on Kuwait. The deadlock in the Qatar crisis - which Kuwaiti mediation efforts have not resolved - against the backdrop of the US and its Arab Gulf allies escalating their threats against Iran, will challenge Kuwait to maintain its neutrality and autonomy.

If in the second year of the Gulf crisis, the anti-Qatar quartet increases pressure on Kuwait to join the bloc in severing diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, the challenge will prove even more difficult.

To be sure, Kuwait will not abandon its alliance with Saudi Arabia, especially considering the recently established Saudi-Kuwaiti coordination council.

Kuwait will also refuse to back the Trump administration's boldest policies towards Tehran

Nonetheless, despite Kuwait's commitment to its historic and special alliance with the Kingdom, the Gulf state will not join Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel in the anti-Iran bandwagon.

Kuwait will also refuse to back the Trump administration's boldest policies towards Tehran and inflammatory rhetoric against the Islamic Republic, as illustrated by Kuwait City (along with Doha and Muscat) not supporting Washington's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Read more: Confronting sectarianism in Iraq

Doubtless, a war between Iran and the US would leave Kuwait, which hosts US military installations, in an extremely vulnerable position.

On the domestic level, the Al-Sabah rulers carefully factor Kuwaiti Shia sensitives into account when determining how to respond to regional developments that have a polarising effect along sectarian lines in Kuwait, as would a Saudi-backed US military campaign against Iran.

The careful responses from Kuwait to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, the protests in Bahrain 2011, and Shia ascendancy in post-2003 Iraq have all managed to keep Kuwait on good terms with Riyadh without breaking the Al Sabah rulers' pivotal domestic alliance with Kuwait's urban Shia.

Ultimately, Kuwait supported the JCPOA, viewing the hard-fought accord as a guarantor against an American-Iranian war in the region, which would severely harm Kuwait's plans for expanding its trade with northern Gulf states and establishing itself as a major hub.

Memories from the 1980s - when the 
tanker wars occurred and when Iranian-sponsored attacks spilled blood in the country - inform Kuwaitis' perceptions of the risks of embracing any excessively anti-Iranian foreign policy that aligns too closely with Riyadh.

Odds are good that Kuwait will maintain its pragmatic foreign policy

Since its 1991 liberation, Kuwait's strategy of carefully balancing a deep partnership with Saudi Arabia and a relatively warm relationship with Iran has empowered the emirate to protect its unity, independence and sovereignty by counterbalancing its larger and more powerful neighbours against each other.

In this current environment, odds are good that Kuwait will maintain its pragmatic foreign policy and continue communicating with all its neighbours - including Iran - despite pressures from Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Nonetheless, even as the Gulf's geopolitical order further polarises, Kuwait will remain focused on long-term goals, namely its quest to become a strong, prosperous and unified state that leads in the northern Gulf's politics and economy.

To achieve this objective, Kuwait will continue to capitalise on its ability to serve as a relatively neutral state that provides regional actors opportunities to diplomatically work through conflicts which, if unresolved, will continue to threaten Kuwait's vital interests in northern Gulf stability.

Kuwait is also being a 'good neighbour' to Iraq at this juncture, helping Iraqis with the void created by Iran turning off its energy supplies to parts of Iraq. On the diplomatic front, however, whether Kuwait's efforts to ease regional tension can prove successful is an open question.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.