The diplomatic row between four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Lebanon represents new challenges and severe complications for Beirut against the backdrop of various political, financial, energy, and health crises plaguing the Mediterranean country. The diplomatic actions that Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) took against Beirut were officially a response to Information Minister George Kordahi’s remarks about the Yemeni conflict that leaders in most GCC states found as too sympathetic to the Houthis.[i] Nonetheless, this row has ultimately resulted from a perception in various Arabian monarchies that Lebanon has come under far too much Iranian influence and thus is not a country that should benefit from good ties with GCC states, which have done much to help Lebanon economically since its civil war ended in 1990. The oil-rich Gulf Arab countries have given Lebanon billions of dollars over the past three decades and GCC members are also home to hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers from Lebanon who provide their country with billions in remittances each year.
Kuwait joining Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in acting against Beirut, rather than staying “neutral” like Oman and Qatar, took some analysts by surprise. Indeed, as a GCC state that tends to balance regional actors off each other without always taking sides in geopolitical disputes across the Middle East, Kuwait is often known for avoiding confrontations and conducting a relatively “neutral” foreign policy in the region in ways that are somewhat like Oman’s approaches. Nonetheless, a closer examination of Kuwait’s navigation of delicate regional issues suggests that this decision to take a stand against Lebanon should not have necessarily been surprising.
A Longstanding Alliance with Saudi Arabia
Kuwait siding with Riyadh in this diplomatic row with Lebanon is merely the latest example of the Gulf state aligning with the Saudis and showing solidarity with the Al Saud rulers who played a critical role in Kuwait’s 1991 liberation. Although Kuwait has not been a major military actor in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Gulf state has been a participant since day one. In March 2015, when the anti-Houthi coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, the Kuwaitis contributed 15 fighter jets.[ii] That Kuwait made no military contributions to the US-led air campaign against Da’esh (Islamic State) in Syria during the previous year underscored the significance of Kuwaiti involvement in the Saudi-led push to crush Yemen’s Houthi rebellion militarily.
Despite not perceiving an immediate Houthi threat to its own security, Kuwait’s decision to join the Arab coalition was largely “political and normative” in nature, mostly pertaining to the Gulf nation’s support for the GCC and UN as multinational institutions, real fears of Tehran’s meddling in Arab countries, and concerns about the Iranian-backed insurgents disrupting oil exports.[iii] Although for several years Kuwait’s role in the Yemeni crisis has been far more about diplomacy than anything else, the country officially remains a participant in the Saudi-led coalition.
Kuwait City’s diplomatic action against Beirut “shows continuity in Kuwait’s policy of supporting the Yemen war…[and]…reflects Kuwait’s longstanding support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen,” explained Dr. Courtney Freer, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a nonresident fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.[iv] “Indeed, Kuwait initially participated in the Saudi-led strikes in Yemen and has continued to defend the intervention in Yemen, so I see this most recent policy as a continuation of that rather as than a major rupture; it is also less politically costly for Kuwait to side with Saudi Arabia in this matter than it would have been for Kuwait to take a position on the blockade against Qatar.”[v]
Beyond Yemen, there are other regional issues where the Kuwaitis have been in alignment with Riyadh and shown support for their ally and neighbor. Yet Kuwait has usually treaded carefully, backing Riyadh in certain ways that are more limited compared to other Saudi allies. For example, when Bahrain’s “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011, Kuwait stood behind the Al Khalifa regime by sending some of its naval forces to Bahraini waters—a move that was less bold than those taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which sent their military personnel and police into the archipelago kingdom. Nonetheless the naval deployment was a sign of support for Bahrain’s government that did not require Kuwaiti armed forces to come anywhere near the violent unrest plaguing the island nation.[vi]
Two years later, Kuwait joined the patrons of the counterrevolution—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—to support the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, by providing Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government with billions of dollars in assistance to help stabilize the Egyptian economy in the immediate post-coup period.[vii] Although experts maintain that Kuwait would have been content with Morsi remaining in power, Kuwait City’s position in favor of Sisi’s putschist regime was primarily about showing solidarity with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Then the Saudi-Iranian crisis of January 2016 broke out and Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Tehran.[viii] Although Kuwait stopped short of severing diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic as did other Arab states such as Bahrain and Sudan, it was a sign that Kuwait will stand in support of the Saudis amid certain periods of crises. Additionally, in February 2021, Kuwait expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after President Joe Biden’s administration released the report on the Jamal Khashoggi murder case.
Kuwait’s Own National Interests
The relationship between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is always important. But Kuwait’s position in the Gulf-Lebanon diplomatic row must be understood within a context that goes beyond Kuwait City’s alliance with Riyadh. “Arguments evaluating Kuwait’s foreign policy solely through the lens of solidarity with Saudi Arabia are reductionist,” according to Dr. Dania Thafer, the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum and a professorial lecturer at Georgetown University.[ix] “Kuwait has its own strategic calculus when making foreign policy decisions. There are times Kuwait followed Saudi Arabia in its policy and there are times in which Kuwait did not. For example, while Kuwait’s official policy refrained from following Saudi Arabia’s path in arming anti-Assad rebels in Syria, it was a participant in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Similar to the recent diplomatic row with Lebanon, both of these issues are an opportunity to roll back Iran’s influence in the Arab world, yet Kuwait took different stances.”[x]
Furthermore, independent of Kuwait’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, there are specific interests that Kuwaiti officialdom have in Lebanon which inform Kuwait’s recent diplomatic action against Beirut. Having long viewed Lebanese Hezbollah as a security threat, Kuwaiti authorities take seriously efforts in the region to counter the Iranian-backed organization which represents the most powerful force in Lebanon. “Kuwaiti responses to Hezbollah and to developments in Lebanon are colored by issues such as the 2015 discovery of large caches of arms in the ‘Abdali cell’ case, as well as, further back, reactions in 2008 to the killing of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, which provide a backstory that is absent in other GCC settings,” explained Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.[xi]
The change of Kuwaiti leadership in 2020 could be another factor contributing to Kuwait’s stance against the current Lebanese government. With a new Crown Prince who is seemingly closer to the Saudi-Emirati bloc, experts contend that the Kuwaitis may shifts their approaches to regional affairs in manners that suit Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s interests. “Crown Prince Shaykh Mishaal al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah is said to have a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, so we could see greater alignment between Saudi and Kuwaiti foreign policy moving forward,” said Dr. Freer.[xii] Other scholars attributed Kuwait’s decision to side with the Saudis against Lebanon, rather than maintaining neutrality, to the post-Sabah leadership in Kuwait City. The move to expel the Lebanese envoy and recall Kuwait’s ambassador to Lebanon “would not have happened under Sheikh Sabah,” according to Dr. Gerd Nonneman, a Professor of International Relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University-Qatar. “I am sure [the] Saudis reached out to all GCC capitals to follow suit, but Kuwait seems now more susceptible to such pressure under the ill/absent Amir and a [Crown Prince] who seems to lean a little closer to Riyadh. Oman and Qatar made a different choice.”[xiii]
For the past 30 years, there has been a delicate equilibrium between various groups in Kuwait which has enabled the country to maintain stability despite existing in a tumultuous region. To keep sectarian temperatures low, Kuwaiti foreign policy has needed to cautiously navigate issues in the Middle East that pit Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other. Physical confrontations between a Sunni and Shia parliamentarian in 2015 over the Yemen war, as well as high levels of tension between MPs the next year amid the crisis between Riyadh and Tehran that followed the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr and the subsequent violent acts against Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic Republic highlight how regional issues can play out negatively inside Kuwait’s political arena.[xiv] Within this context, the Al Sabah rulers will likely deal with Lebanon-related issues with much caution to prevent the Gulf-Beirut rift from threatening Kuwait’s peace, stability, and pan-sectarian unity.
Recent moves by the Kuwaiti Amir shortly after the country took diplomatic action against Beirut seem to suggest that the Kuwaiti leadership is attempting to thwart any negative spillover from this regional row into Kuwait’s political and social arenas. “We’ve just seen [on November 8, 2021] that the Amir is extending his amnesty to those Kuwaitis who were said to be involved in a Hizballah cell (Al-Abdali cell) in 2016, which is interesting and may signal a desire to calm potential sectarian tensions,” opined Dr. Freer.[xv] “I have not seen anything from Kuwaiti Shias opposing the latest decision to support Saudi Arabia in its row with Lebanon, but perhaps this amnesty could head that off and also show that the Kuwaiti leadership does not want sectarianism to be an issue domestically.”[xvi]
What will be important to monitor are any signs of Shia opposition to the government’s stance against Hezbollah and, by extension, Tehran, as well as how the Kuwaiti authorities may address such expressions of opposition to the country’s position in this row. “It is true that there are powerful Shia coalitions in Kuwait that can influence foreign policy outcomes to a certain degree,” explained Dr. Thafer.[xvii] “Yet as freedoms regressed in the GCC during the last decade so has the ability of domestic actors to influence Kuwait’s foreign policy, especially on issues considered security-related for the GCC.”[xviii]
As a state known for its mediation in the Gulf and greater Middle East, it caught some observers of the region off guard when Kuwait decided to align with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE against Beirut in October 2021. Whereas some analysts may have expected the Kuwaitis to approach this new regional crisis in ways like their counterparts in Doha and Muscat, it is not necessarily the case that Kuwait’s reaction represents any major foreign policy shifts. To the contrary, one could persuasively argue that such a position is reflective of Kuwait’s longstanding foreign and security policies vis-à-vis Iran and the groups which the Islamic Republic sponsors across the Arab world. Yet with new leadership at the helm since 2020, there is good reason to expect Kuwait to slightly shift its geopolitical alignments toward the counterrevolutionary bloc led by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
[i] “Saudi Arabia Expels Lebanon Ambassador amid Yemen Row,” BBC News (BBC, October 30, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-59096578.
[ii] Botelho, Greg, and Saeed Ahmed. “Saudi-Led Coalition Strikes Rebels in Yemen, Inflaming Tensions in Region.” CNN. Cable News Network, March 27, 2015. https://www.cnn.com/2015/03/26/middleeast/yemen-saudi-arabia-airstrikes/index.html.
[iii] Giorgio Cafiero, “Kuwait’s Yemen Foreign Policy,” Middle East Institute, August 12, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/kuwaits-yemen-foreign-policy.
[iv] Dr. Courtney Freer. Interview with author. November 8, 2021.
[vi] “Bahrain: Unrest, Security, and U.S. Policy,” April 20, 2021. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/mideast/95-1013.pdf.
[vii] “Friends Again? Saudi Arabia, UAE Jump in to Aid Egypt.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, July 10, 2013. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-Issues/2013/0710/Friends-again-Saudi-Arabia-UAE-jump-in-to-aid-Egypt.
[viii] Al Jazeera. “Kuwait Recalls Ambassador to Iran as Row Escalates.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, January 5, 2016. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/1/5/kuwait-recalls-ambassador-to-iran-as-row-escalates.
[ix] Dr. Dania Thafer. Interview with author. November 20, 2021.
[xi] Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen. Interview with author. November 9, 2021.
[xii] Dr. Courtney Freer. Interview with author. November 8, 2021.
[xiv] Wright, Alex. “Yemen War Played out in Kuwait Parliament.” The New Arab. The New Arab, May 21, 2015. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/yemen-war-played-out-kuwait-parliament.
[xv] Dr. Courtney Freer. Interview with author. November 8, 2021.
[xvii] Dr. Dania Thafer. Interview with author. November 20, 2021.