Expert Commentary

Kuwait Sees No Benefit from Gulf Sqaubbling

Richard LeBaron
Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council

With the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors nearing the two-month mark with no resolution in sight, Kuwait has stepped in as a mediator in an effort to resolve the conflict. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Richard LeBaron, former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, to discuss why Kuwait did not take sides in the ongoing crisis and the country’s counterterrorism record.

TCB: Why did Kuwait not side with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain in the ongoing crisis with Qatar?

Richard LeBaron: There are a number of issues that have kept Kuwait from taking sides. The primary issue is one that confronts virtually all of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, (GCC) except Saudi Arabia, and that is how they manage Saudi dominance in the region, namely how they attempt to avoid being dominated in their foreign policy, and how they mitigate against having their freedom of decision-making limited and constricted by the Saudis.

That fear also relates to the lack of interest in virtually any other GCC state in following the Saudi model of social development – even though much change is taking place now in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis see others in the GCC through the prism of their own cultural and religious values, as well as their political system. So there’s a hesitation in varying degrees among all of the other GCC states to be dominated either culturally, religiously, or politically by the Saudis.

There is also a history among the Gulf states of border disputes and so forth that have had to be managed over the years, as well as shared resources in some cases. The Kuwaitis, for example, share an oil field with the Saudis, and that’s been a source of contention from time to time. So it is also a management problem for smaller players who are members of an organization that is essentially dominated by a much larger single member – Saudi Arabia.

TCB: What is Kuwait’s record as it relates to counterterrorism? Is it a true partner in this fight? How does it compare to Qatar’s record?

brLeBaron: Kuwait has several large Islamic charitable organizations that are sometimes not monitored thoroughly or that have turned a blind eye to where their funds are going. In some cases, individual Kuwaitis have supported particular groups that we consider terrorists but they don’t consider terrorists for one reason or another.

The Kuwait record has been mixed in cracking down on this. They tend to try to do this in quiet and subtle ways by putting pressure on families. But these methods have never really been satisfactory to the Treasury Department and others in the U.S. government.

On the other hand, Kuwait’s cooperation in terms of trying to protect U.S. troops based in Kuwait against terrorist threats has been very good. There have been very few incidents related to those troops. So it’s a mixed record.

Qatar is a special case where they’ve reached out to some groups that others find repugnant with the intention of trying to find some common ground on regional conflicts that involve these groups, be it Hamas or others. So, these issues have been more of an intentional policy on the Qatari part, whereas they’ve been more of a result of inattention to flows of funds and how they’re used on the Kuwaiti part.

TCB: What are the level of relations between Kuwait and Iran?

LeBaron: Most importantly, Kuwait has a significant Shia population, which has family ties to Iran. There is a significant back and forth among those families who go and visit each other and conduct trade with each other. But Kuwait’s Shia population has traditionally been well integrated into Kuwaiti society.

There’s also the hesitation by the Kuwaitis to label Iran as an enemy as the Saudi’s would because, in geopolitical terms, Kuwait and smaller countries, such as Qatar and Oman, are caught between two regional powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s rarely in their interest to go out of their way to irritate either one, so they try not to put themselves in a position where they could be the target of criticism or attacks by one side or the other.

As a small country in an area where two regional powers are vying for influence, how do you steer a course that doesn’t irritate either one? The options are never completely satisfactory. Countries such as Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar would say that they are just doing their best to protect their own national interests.

TCB: Why is Kuwait uniquely positioned to serve as a mediator in this crisis?

LeBaron: Before he became leader of Kuwait, the current Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, was the longest serving foreign ministers in the GCC. He is widely respected for his experience and his stature. The other aspect of it is that Kuwait sees no benefit for the GCC in this sort of squabbling. They see it as a distraction, as a danger, and as something that could potentially turn into a dangerous situation in which they will be forced to pick sides. And there is no side on which they want to be. Therefore, this is a disagreement that was forced upon them, and they therefore want to use their good offices to see if they can alleviate it.

Sheikh Sabah has done this before, in 2014, when they were involved in negotiations about essentially the same issues involving Qatar and other GCC countries. So they are not new to it.

The difference now, however, is that the Saudis and Emirates are practicing a much more assertive foreign policy in the region. The likelihood that they would be swayed by the Kuwaitis has been significantly reduced. The Saudi and Emirati leadership also believes (and has for a long time) that the amount of democracy that goes on in the Kuwaiti internal political system is somewhat dangerous. They have said that, and it is certainly something that they do not want to emulate.

TCB: What are your thoughts on the recent accusations that the UAE was behind the hacking of Al Jazeera? What is the outlook for the GCC?

LeBaron: I don’t have any way to verify the accusations of the cyber leaking and so forth. It wouldn’t surprise me that it would be used as an instrument, but I don’t have any way to verify that independently, and I don’t know why our intelligence agencies found it useful to leak it. I would think it would be more useful to use this kind of information as leverage in quiet negotiations.

But it bodes ill for the state of trust among GCC members. My sense is that trust between member states is at an all-time low, and bringing it back to near anywhere it was even six months ago will be very difficult.

The Author is Richard LeBaron

Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council with a special focus on the Gulf region. He previously served as deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in London from August 2007 to August 2010. Ambassador LeBaron served as ahargé d'affaires in London from February to August 2009. Previous to his assignment to London, Ambassador LeBaron served as the US ambassador to Kuwait (2004 to 2007).

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