Kuwaiti officials were taken by surprise last week when the Iraqi Envoy to the United Nations Mohamed Hussein Bahr Al-Oloum submitted an official letter of complaint to the UN Security Council accusing Kuwait of attempts to change the maritime borders between the two countries.
A bigger surprise came when the Iraqi government remained tight-lipped on the matter, as lawmakers, militia leaders and commentators repeatedly called on the government to revoke UN-sponsored peace deals, including one which has established the borders between Iraq and Kuwait.
The border issue has caused tensions and conflicts between the two countries since Iraq’s independence after the First World War, making their frontier one of the Middle East’s most sensitive regions.
The recent contention has sparked fears of renewed conflict as the two countries prepare to mark the thirtieth anniversary of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the emirate, overthrowing its government and annexing it to Iraq.
In its letter to the UN, Baghdad accused Kuwait of carrying out geographical changes in the maritime area off the two countries by reclaiming a shallow area in the Khor Abdullah strategic waterway and unilaterally establishing a port facility there without Iraq’s prior knowledge or approval.
Iraq claimed that Kuwait has no legal basis for building the platform, which it said violated both a long-expected joint plan to regulate maritime navigation in the waterway and international maritime law.
Iraq’s letter also noted that “Kuwait continues the imposition of the fait accompli policy by creating a new situation that changes the geography of the region.” It said that this would not contribute to two countries’ efforts to reach a final demarcation of their maritime borders.
The Iraqi move sparked anger and defiance from Kuwait. In a statement carried by the official Kuwaiti News Agency (KUNA), the government hit back by insisting that “the construction of the naval plant” was “a sovereign right of the State of Kuwait in its territory and territorial sea.”
Kuwaiti officials speaking anonymously said they were surprised by the complaint at a time when there has been a thaw in Iraqi-Kuwaiti hostility, culminating in the exchange of visits, communications and bilateral agreements.
But the Iraqi complaint provoked outrage among Kuwaiti politicians and in the country’s media and among online commentators, who demanded that their government make a stronger response.
Head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Kuwaiti parliament Abdel-Karim Al-Kindari described the Iraqi move as “provocative” and urged the government to be on the alert.
“This has always been Iraq’s course of action,” said Saffa Al-Hashim, an outspoken Kuwaiti MP, who urged the Kuwaiti government to end its policy of an “extended hand” to Iraq.
Iraqi anger also mounted over what many in the country’s political elite saw as Kuwait’s continuous efforts to strangle Iraqi ports on the Arabian Gulf. Many politicians have called for the cancellation of the country’s border demarcation agreements with Kuwait.
“Kuwait should not test Iraq’s patience,” said Hassan Salim, an Iraqi MP who represents a powerful Shia militia. “That will blow up in [the face] of Kuwait’s interests.”
“Iraq’s patience has run out. The coming battle for the sake of [our] territory and honour has become a duty,” said Khadum Al-Sayyadi, an Iraqi MP.
Riyadh Al-Masoudi, another Iraqi lawmaker, said Iraq’s diplomacy should be more proactive in “defending Iraq’s rights against Kuwait’s encroachment.”
Iraq and Kuwait have been locked in conflict for decades over territory. Many Iraqis claim that the emirate was once a “natural part” of Iraq and that it was only carved off as a result of British colonialism, a notion used by Saddam to justify his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
Other Iraqi rulers and politicians have maintained similar claims and have argued that Kuwait was formerly part of the Ottoman province of Basra in southern Iraq before it was split off by British colonialists on the eve of the First World War.
Successive Iraqi governments since the modern state of Iraq came into being in 1923 have not accepted the British-drawn borders that established Kuwait as a separate sheikhdom after the signature of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913.
The Kuwaitis, meanwhile, have challenged this Iraqi version of history, saying that their country has never been part of Iraq. However, they have remained haunted by Iraq’s claims and fear that their powerful northern neighbour could move to annex their tiny nation.
For this reason, Kuwait’s borders with Iraq have never been clearly defined or mutually agreed upon. But under the UN sanctions to force Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait after the Gulf War, Iraq was obliged to accept UN-sponsored demarcation of the border.
After Kuwait’s liberation by a US-led international coalition, Saddam formally accepted UN Security Council Resolutions that assigned the organisation a role in making arrangements with Iraq and Kuwait to demarcate the boundary between them.
Demarcation work was brought to a halt by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Later, UN bodies were established to finalise efforts to determine the borders, including the maritime borders in the Khor Abdullah estuary.
A final deal was endorsed by the Iraqi government in 2013, though many Iraqis remain opposed to the UN-imposed demarcation, saying that the new border has robbed Iraq of property and territory.
However, the two countries have remained embroiled in disputes.
One of the contentious issues has been Kuwait’s construction of a major port on Boubyan Island in the Khor Abdullah waterway, the only strategic access route to the sea for Iraq.
Baghdad has not officially opposed the Kuwaiti Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port, but many Iraqis maintain that the mega-project limits access to Iraqi ports because the Kuwaiti Port only leaves a narrow lane free for Iraq-bound ships.
Tensions over the construction of the port worsened after Kuwait revealed plans in April to cooperate with China in extending its Belt and Road projects to the Arabian Gulf.
Kuwait says the $410 million project, which includes container docks, deep-water harbours, a free-trade zone, a rail network and a resort, meets its needs for an efficient and strategic port that will make Kuwait a financial and trade centre in the region.
Iraq fears that through the partnership with China, Kuwait could transform the Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port into a pivotal financial and trade hub at the expense of Iraq and its ports.
Iraq has itself been developing plans for a giant new port on the Al-Faw Peninsula, a little more than one kilometre from the site of the new Kuwaiti shipping centre.
The Al-Faw project has long been an ambitious Iraqi project, aiming to revitalise trade and turn the country into an international economic gateway.
The construction of the Iraqi port has been delayed by the country’s prolonged period of political deadlock since the 2003 US-led invasion, however, and plans are now even more in doubt because of political feuds, lack of finance and corruption in Iraq.
With the diplomatic shouting match and the social-media frenzy continue, it is not clear how the two countries intend to solve their border conundrum.
Many experts argue that confidence-building measures between Iraq and Kuwait could be the only way to begin solving the territorial dispute. Others say that the two countries should prioritise their economic agendas and see an opportunity in creating a joint economic zone on the disputed border with foreign partnerships that would benefit both peoples.
But many remain sceptical that political conditions in either country are conducive to reaching a lasting solution, as nationalist sentiments, historical claims and exaggerated geopolitical considerations remain more important than political expediency and good neighbourly relations.
There is also a risk that leaving territorial disputes “frozen” may raise anxieties and tensions, especially on the Iraqi side, and may amplify nationalist and xenophobic sentiments similar to those that led to Saddam’s invasion and the subsequent wars on Iraq.
To address this challenge, both governments need to work out a joint long-term strategy that will start with neutralising the potentially negative impact of the border crises on public opinion.
This strategy should also aim to address grievances, build mutual trust and culminate with robust economic and social interaction on a win-win basis.