Recent years have not only brought a new verve to investment and development within Kuwait, but have also seen its foreign policy liberated to some extent. For more than a decade, and arguably up until 2008, the emirate at the head of the Arabian Gulf formulated its international relations based on the uneasy legacy of the 1990 invasion by Iraq. However, relations with its northern neighbour have thawed considerably in the past five years. The government has been reaching out to a number of countries, bolstering diplomatic ties and economic relations. In the years prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, much of this outreach centred on countries that had supported the liberation of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, such as the GCC countries, Egypt, Syria, the US and the UK, and serving members on international bodies such as the UN Security Council.
BREAKING THE ICE: More recently, the government has been broadening its agenda and has even begun to build bridges with Iraq. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have improved markedly in the past eight years. The visit by then prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Ahmed Al Sabah, to Baghdad in January 2011 was the highest-level Kuwaiti delegation to the country since the invasion of 1990. During the visit the two sides agreed to form a committee to resolve all outstanding issues between the countries, including border demarcations, outstanding Kuwaiti war reparation claims, security and oil production. The meeting was heralded as an important step in the détente between Baghdad and Kuwait City. Recently, the dispute about the construction of Mubarak Al Kabir port on Boubyan Island, a few kilometres from Iraq’s planned Grand Al Faw terminal, has again strained the relationship. Kuwait argues its port will benefit the wider region yet Iraqi officials have said the new facility would block waterways and strangle its own terminal.
AMICABLE RELATIONSHIP: The ramifications of the invasion, therefore, continue to haunt Kuwait. However, over the past five years it is arguably Iran, rather than Iraq, which has become the single most important country in defining the emirate’s foreign policy. According to Alanoud Al Sharekh, the corresponding senior fellow for regional politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Relations with Iran have resumed.
Mejdi Bishari, the ambassador, is willing to talk about border demarcations, which is a sensitive subject as there are oilfields that straddle the border. Right under the surface, relations are pretty amicable, even though Kuwait supported Saddam before the invasion.”
RECENT ISSUES: Recently, the government has raised concerns over Iran’s meddling in the country’s affairs and Iranian attempts to gain a base in the GCC to act against any aggression from the US or Israel. Still, in the wake of Bahraini protests and GCC intervention, rhetoric between Iran and the GCC has been ramped up.
Kuwait, at the head of the Gulf, a near neighbour and with Shia Muslims accounting for up to 35% of its population, has been at the vanguard of the GCC’s joint approach to Iran, almost by default.
However, relations between Kuwait and Iran are not quite as cold as they may first appear. An important move in this relationship was the appointment of Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Ahmed Al Sabah as the first prime minister of the country under the new Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, in 2006. Al Ahmed Al Sabah had previously held the post of Ambassador to Iran and, as such, his appointment was seen as an important signal from the Emir towards Tehran.
In May 2011 Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, visited his counterpart in Kuwait City in an attempt to repair relations. After the talks it was announced that the countries would restore full diplomatic relations.
As it supports GCC unity efforts and offers its loyalty to US interests, Kuwait also remains aware of the more immediate neighbourhood in which it lives and its often vertiginous balance act of building links with Iraq while maintaining its relations with Iran. The emirate has largely achieved this equilibrium over the past 20 years and, despite the odd bump in the road, there is every reason to believe it will continue to do so in the future.
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