The rhetoric is once again rising along the strategic northern end of the Arabian Gulf, where four countries are involved in competing narratives over national sovereignty and territorial waters, raising fears of a return to disputes of a kind last seen four decades ago.
Though the spat seems to be over two separate issues, the disputes are increasingly overlapping, and they could bring the four neighbouring nations of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia into a broader regional flare-up.
The row intensified after Kuwaiti Oil Minister Saad Al-Barrak declared on 27 July that his country would commence drilling and production in the Al-Durra offshore gas field that Kuwait claims jointly with Saudi Arabia.
Iran also says it has rights to the field, which it refers to as Arash, which in Farsi mythology means a heroic archer.
The gas field, whose recoverable reserves are estimated at some 220 billion cubic metres (nearly eight trillion cubic feet) of gas, was discovered in 1967 and has long been a focal point of contention between the three countries that disagree over the boundaries of their territorial waters.
In 2000, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia made an agreement to share sovereignty over the area, and in 2022 the Saudi oil company Aramco and the Kuwait Gulf Oil Company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to jointly develop the Al-Durra which means pearl in Arabic.
The development aims at producing one billion cubic feet of gas and 84,000 barrels of liquified natural gas (LNG) per day.
Iran has remained firmly opposed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s claims to the field, which it says is situated in the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran. It has threatened to commence drilling in Al-Durra to explore and exploit the field.
Iran and Kuwait have held unsuccessful talks for years over their disputed maritime border area, which is rich in natural gas, but no deal has been reached. Recent attempts to revive the negotiations have failed, and Iran has said it may pursue work in the field even without an agreement.
Surprisingly, the escalation has come amid a growing diplomatic thaw between the Gulf Arab nations and Iran after years of icy relations. The rapprochement was made possible by a China-brokered deal under which Iran and Saudi Arabia resumed formal diplomatic ties after a years-long rupture.
The diplomatic breakthrough opened the door to a larger normalisation process intended to dial down tensions in the region, which is beset with old, deep, and seemingly intractable conflicts and regional geopolitical competition.
Improved ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia have revived hopes that the three countries will resume talks on maritime border issues, known as the Partitioned Neutral Zone (PNZ), and finalise an agreement on the Al-Durra field.
Capitalising on the Iran-Saudi deal, Kuwait invited Iran for a new round of talks last month to try to resolve their maritime border dispute after Tehran said it was ready to start drilling in the Al-Durra field.
Tehran reacted quickly to the Kuwaiti oil minister’s statement, its own Oil Minister Javad Owji said that Iran is ready to “make use of this field jointly and that we regard this as the [undeniable] right of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
“We will not give up even one iota of Iran’s right to make use of the Arash field,” Owji told reporters last Wednesday.
In response, the Kuwaiti and Saudi authorities said in a joint statement last Thursday that “they alone have full sovereign rights to exploit the wealth in that area.” The two countries renewed “their previous and repeated calls to the Islamic Republic of Iran to negotiate” the demarcation of maritime borders to settle the issue.
Meanwhile, another border dispute has been unfolding further to the north around the strategic waterway of Khawr Abdullah between Iraq and Kuwait that threatens to spark a larger crisis over the two countries’ UN-demarcated border.
The dispute permeates the entire history of modern Iraq, as 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.
Iraq’s main objection remains that the British-drawn border line denies their state a proper outlet to the Arabian Gulf. It effectively mortgages Iraq’s transportation route in Khawr Abdullah to Kuwait.
Iraq also complains that Kuwait’s management of the waterway and its construction work there impedes Iraqi efforts to build a multi-billion dollar port on the Gulf.
Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi forces to invade oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990, annexing it and declaring it to be Iraq’s 19th province before being driven out seven months later by an international coalition led by the United States.
The recent escalation began when a memorandum by Iraq’s Minister of Transport Razak Al-Saadawi was leaked to the media in which he suggested that the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs “contest” a 30-year-old UN resolution that finally defined the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
In the memo, the minister complains that Iraq’s efforts to expand its port in Al-Faw and other maritime facilities are being hampered by “increasing [Kuwaiti] encroachment on its sovereign territorial waters” in the northern end of the Gulf.
Al-Saadawi stressed that the 1993 UN-imposed demarcation has “inflicted damage on Iraq by denying it its sea outlet and its historical maritime rights.”
“We are morally and patriotically obliged to declare the UN’s [measure] as nonbinding,” he was quoted as writing in the memo.
Though the Iraqi government later played down the minister’s suggestion, Kuwait dispatched its Foreign Minister Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah to find out what was on the mind of the Iraqi leaders and to try to contain the escalation.
After meeting Al-Sabah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein said that during their talks “the emphasis was placed on resolving border issues.”
He told reporters that the border talks would “continue through various technical committees” with a group of legal experts to meet on 14 August.
Government officials in Iraq and Kuwait have avoided making public statements on the bickering, probably in order to avoid a further flare-up, but politicians on both sides have nevertheless talked up the border dispute, some apparently for reasons of political opportunism.
Al-Sabah stirred public fury when he told reporters that the governor of Basra, an Iraqi province neighbouring Kuwait, had agreed to evict residents in Umm Qasr who have remained opposed to the demarcation process, saying that the new border has robbed them of property and territory.
Social media was awash with comments by Iraqis, some of whom were MPs or figures in political parties, blasting the government for its “complacency” and demanding a review of the UN demarcation of the border or even repeating the old narrative of an Iraqi claim over Kuwait.
Forty eight lawmakers have also asked the Iraqi parliament to open a debate on the UN-demarcated border. In their letter to the speaker, the MPs, mostly representing Iran-backed Shia groups, vowed that “not one single inch of Iraqi land” would be surrendered to Kuwait.
In Kuwait, newspapers and social media commentators displayed anti-Iraqi sentiments ranging from mockery and stereotypes to xenophobia and recalling Iraq’s invasion of their country in blaming the Iraqi hostility towards Kuwait.
Another mantra repeated by many Kuwaitis, mostly Sunni Muslims, is that post-US-invasion Iraq is dominated by pro-Iranian Shias and that these could be just as threatening as an Iraq led by the Sunni Saddam.
“We have been used to these media or parliamentary voices coming from Iraq. They are either ignorant or simply barking,” wrote former Kuwaiti information minister Saad bin Tefllah Al-Ajami in a newspaper column.
After Kuwait’s liberation from the Iraqi occupation in 1991, Saddam formally accepted UN resolutions appointing the organisation to assist in making arrangements with Iraq and Kuwait to demarcate the boundary between them.
The UN Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission was established to help define the border between the two countries, its mandate saying that its decisions regarding the demarcation of the boundary would be final.
The UN Security Council also provided a map for the demarcation and decided to “guarantee the inviolability of the international boundary and to take as appropriate all necessary measures to that end in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
At a closer look, however, the two disputes seem inseparable not because they are playing out at the same time and in the same place, but because border rows in general have a detrimental effect on regional geopolitics. The conflict could become even more significant as huge natural resources are involved.
It is evident that whether it is maritime rights or energy deposits in the still un-demarcated narrow northern tip of the Arabian Gulf, the dispute is four-fold and involves Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
While the Iraqi-Kuwaiti territorial waters are still to be delineated, Iraq could easily pivot its strategic attention and show an interest in the hydrocarbon-rich waters as well, arguing that the Al-Durra field boundaries could extend northwards towards the poorly defined border zone.
Increasing tension between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with Iran will also deepen the alignment between Tehran and the Iran-backed groups in Iraq that have a big say in Baghdad and are believed to be behind the recent escalation.
The two disputes in the Gulf could jeopardise the swell of diplomatic deals that have rolled across the region since the landmark Saudi-Iranian rapprochement in March. They have the potential to serve as the underlying drivers of conflicts that remain unresolved and could reverse the entire normalisation trajectory in the region.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly