Kuwait takes a different stance

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 15 Sep 2020

While more Gulf countries are expected to normalise their relations with Israel, Kuwait’s political structure makes it an exception

Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah
File photo1: Kuwait's Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. REUTERS

“If you have an ounce of dignity, get out of the hall, occupiers, child murderers!”

Kuwaiti Parliamentary Speaker Marzouk Al-Ghanem became something of a household name across the Arab world three years ago when a video clip of his fiery anti-Israel speech during an International Parliamentarians meeting went viral. 

Al-Ghanem was responding to an Israeli lawmaker’s address to the forum, which took place in Saint Petersburg in Russia.

“You represent the worst form of terrorism, state terrorism,” he said, as the hall erupted in applause, followed by the Israeli delegation storming out of the room.

Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah promptly sent a letter of praise to the country’s national assembly about “Al-Ghanem’s stand, which truly embodies Kuwait’s support for the Palestinian people’s quest to regain their legitimate rights.”

Al-Ghanem, elected in 2013, is still speaker of Kuwait’s 50-member assembly, the only elected legislative body in the Gulf region. His views, expressed on many occasions in response to developments that have followed, are in line with the small oil-rich country’s tradition of Pan-Arabism, resonating across the vibrant and opposition-majority parliament elected in 2016 and consisting of Islamists, Arab nationalists and liberals.

After the announcement that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain would be normalising their relations with Israel, there has been speculation that other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries could follow suit, possibly Oman, known for its friendliness towards Israel, and possibly Saudi Arabia, which is undergoing seismic changes under the watch of Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman.

Qatar, presently in a feud with the UAE, attacked the normalisation agreements despite Doha’s informal diplomacy with Israel.

Days before Bahrain made its announcement, US President Donald Trump told a White House news conference that “I will tell you that countries are lining up that want to go into it,” referring to normalisation with Israel.

“I think what ultimately will happen is you’re going to have quite a few countries come in. The big ones are going to be coming in. I spoke to the king of Saudi Arabia, so we’re talking. We just started the dialogue. And you’ll have them come in,” he said.

But among the Gulf monarchies openly seeking normalised relations with Israel, Kuwait, a constitutional monarchy and still ruled by a generation that has long opposed Israel’s occupation of Palestine, stands out.

“Kuwait’s political system is one reason why the country is the least likely to follow the UAE and Bahrain in normalising relations with Israel,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the US.

“The populist nature of Kuwaiti politics means that very few government ministers or MPs would be willing to openly support such a proposal out of concern at the political and electoral backlash that would likely come their way if they did so.”

Kuwait’s hybrid political system is divided between an appointed government and an elected parliament, which, unlike in the other Gulf monarchies, traces its power back to the tiny country’s foundational years.

Kuwait’s national assembly has the constitutional right to approve or disapprove of the appointment of the country’s emir, including the authority to remove him from his post.

This was enforced in 2006 when it removed then ruler Saad Al-Sabah because he could not carry out his duties as ruler due to illness. While the emir also has the power to dissolve the assembly and has done so many times, some scholars consider the political system in Kuwait, through its assembly, its judicial system and its constitutional court, to be one of the most independent in the Arab world.

The other factor that makes Kuwait unlikely to normalise with Israel, said Ulrichsen, was the fact that both the country’s emir and crown-prince are from the generation that lived through every phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict going back to 1948, and their attachment to Palestine and to the Palestinian cause remains strong.

“Kuwait therefore has not undergone a generational transformation in attitude as has, for example, the UAE with [crown-prince of Abu Dhabi] Mohamed Bin Zayed and, to some extent, Saudi Arabia with [crown-prince] Mohamed Bin Salman.”

Kuwait’s large Palestinian community is among the biggest in the Gulf region. Waves of Palestinian refugees fled to Kuwait after 1948 and 1967, where they were met with open arms by the pan-Arab Gulf monarchy.

Kuwait’s Arab nationalist position was unique in the region following the death of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970 and Cairo’s historic shift under his successor Anwar Al-Sadat who signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

In addition to hosting Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) figures, the oil-rich emirate was also refuge to Arab intellectuals from the 1960s to the early 1980s, including prominent Egyptian journalist Ahmed Bahaaeddin, editor of Al-Arabi, the Arab world’s most prominent cultural magazine at the time.

Kuwait was also home to Naji Al-Ali, an iconic Palestinian cartoonist in the 1960s upon an invitation from Palestinian author and journalist Ghassan Kanafani.

Kuwait was the first of the formerly British-protected sheikhdoms in the Gulf to gain independence in 1961, 10 years before Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. It was also the first to modernise, launching the first university in the Gulf region in 1964.

As a founding member of the GCC, Kuwait’s policy rested on regional cooperation and partnership. Throughout the recent crisis within the GCC caused by differences with Qatar, Kuwait has remained a bridge and mediator between the conflicting parties and has helped to hold the fractured GCC together.

With one third of the GCC now officially recognising Israel, some Kuwaiti voices fear the already volatile union might see more damage.

“This will cause a lack of coordination and the loss of a single political compass exposed by the Qatar crisis,” said Abdallah Al-Shayji, a Kuwaiti political scientist. The internal conflict within the GCC over Iran, Syria, Turkey and Libya has deepened the crisis, he added, which has been “exacerbated by normalising relations with Israel.”

The future of the GCC might now rest on how the UAE, a heavyweight political actor in the Gulf region, navigates its next move.

“The UAE’s and Bahrain’s announcements are unlikely to affect the rift in the GCC directly, but they may be used as leverage by the Emiratis in Washington should the UAE ever feel the need to pressure Kuwait or other GCC states that do not follow their lead,” Ulrichsen said. “But we have not yet seen any sign of this happening.”

Saudi Arabia has remained silent about the decisions to normalise taken by the UAE and Bahrain, though these are unlikely to have taken place without Riyadh’s endorsement.

Suspended between old and new-guard policies, Saudi Arabia’s slow pace towards normalisation with Israel will likely take more time, yet it puts it in the spotlight. 

It also eases the pressure on Kuwait, for now, said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“If Saudi Arabia eventually comes on board, and ties with Israel begin to reshape the region, this will isolate and endanger Kuwait. But for now, the slower pace of Saudi normalisation gives them cover,” she said.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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