Will Kuwait's new emir continue to play role of Gulf mediator?

Will Kuwait's new emir continue to play role of Gulf mediator?
Comment: Under Sheikh Sabah, Kuwait cemented its position as an mediating power in the region. His successor is likely to continue that legacy, writes Courtney Freer.
4 min read
06 Oct, 2020
Kuwait's new ruler Sheikh Nawaf has not yet named his crown prince [Getty]
After the death of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah last week, the question of Kuwait's future role in the region is one worth considering.

Indeed, Sheikh Sabah, as emir and previously as foreign minister between 1963 and 2003, was critical in establishing Kuwait's regional role as a neutral actor supporting multilateralism in a region increasingly rife with competition and conflict.

It is difficult to think of another ruler in the Middle East whose death would spur messages of condolences from both Israel and Iran. Similar to concerns about Oman changing its foreign policy direction under Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, however, there have been concerns about whether Kuwait's policy direction will fundamentally change, particularly when it comes to the GCC crisis and normalisation with Israel. 

As far as the GCC crisis, Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attended the funeral held in Kuwait on Wednesday, even giving a prayer at the event. The Deputy Emir Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad al-Thani subsequently arrived in Kuwait, as well as former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.

Further, while Saudi Arabia failed to send members of the senior leadership to Sheikh Sabah's funeral, leading to some speculation about a rift, King Salman had arrived in Kuwait as of Sunday. Notably, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's last visit to Kuwait in September 2018 ended abruptly amid 
reports about difficult conversations surrounding the countries' shared neutral zone and the GCC crisis.

It's likely that Sheikh Sabah's vision will continue to drive Kuwaiti regional policy

Further, Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman called to offer condolences to Deputy Chief of the National Guard Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmed al-Jaber, one of Sheikh Sabah's brothers who had accompanied him to the US for medical treatment and potentially could become the new crown prince at age 81.

Meanwhile, Dubai ruler and Emirati Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum had arrived in Kuwait as of Sunday, demonstrating high-level representation from both sides of the GCC crisis, signalling Kuwait's continued role as a neutral arbiter in the rift.

Notably, the first ruling of the Kuwaiti Criminal Court under the new Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah came down on Sunday, leading to the 
pardoning of Abdullah al-Nafisi for charges of insulting the UAE, which had been filed by the ministry of foreign affairs in August 2019 due to his tweets.

Although it is difficult to make assumptions from one ruling, the pardoning is certainly an interesting development and one that may spur other pardons or make possible public criticisms of the UAE and other GCC allies in Kuwait moving forward.

Still, it is difficult to determine the impact of new leadership on the ongoing GCC crisis. Both sides of the rift have great support and respect for Sheikh Sabah and for the position of Kuwait in the region, particularly as a mediator (in fact, it successfully mediated the 2014 diplomatic rift between the blockading states and Qatar).

Kuwait, will very likely remain a place where Saudi, Qatari, and Iranian dignitaries can travel, and hopefully where new solutions to the GCC rift can sought. And although Sheikh Sabah was widely and rightly identified with efforts to end the GCC crisis, it is likely that his vision will continue to drive Kuwaiti regional policy.

Read more: Saudi Arabia, UAE will pressure Kuwait's new emir to normalise with Israel, report says

As far as normalisation, as I have written elsewhere, it seems highly unlikely that Kuwait will change its stance on this issue. Indeed, a group of 37 of Kuwait's 50 members of parliament have signed a statement firmly against any move towards normalisation, demonstrating that the policy of Palestinian solidarity enjoys broad domestic support beyond just the emir and foreign minister.

Further, the policy of not normalising is popular regionally, bolstering Kuwait's position as a supporter of the Palestinian cause. Popular opinion matters in Kuwait, perhaps more so than in many other GCC states, with parliament often involving itself in foreign policy decisions. Further, 
with around 80,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait today, commitment to the Palestinian cause represents a commitment to supporting a segment of the local population.

It seems highly unlikely that Kuwait will change its stance on the issue of normalisation

Notably, the Palestinian prime minister had travelled to Kuwait to pay his respects to Sheikh Sabah as of Sunday, while Israel's foreign ministry sent condolences earlier in the week.

Since taking power on Wednesday, Sheikh Nawaf has not yet named his crown prince – a key question for Kuwait watchers and potentially an indication of the direction of his foreign policy. And while some candidates have better ties with Saudi Arabia or Iran, it is unlikely that foreign policy positioning will fundamentally change, in my view.

Indeed, the area of foreign policy is not one that Kuwait needs to reform; instead, it will need to focus on its domestic economic position moving forward - a measure that will also help it maintain its foreign policy independence.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

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.