In the run up to the bitter pillaging of Kuwait by Iraq two decades ago on August 2, 1991, a day which will forever be etched in Kuwaitis' collective memory, both sides, especially Iraq, seem to have not buried the hatchet. On the contrary, a Cold war between the two rivals is brewing. This comes at a very critical juncture and brought out all the pent-up anger and the frustrations harboured by Kuwaitis.
It reminds Kuwaitis their problem was not with Saddam Hussain, who is long dead and buried, but rather with Iraq as a system, entity, neighbour and people. This is unfortunate, especially with the seeming thaw of tensions and high-level visits by officials of both countries in the last few months. Kuwait's Prime Minister Shaikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah visited Iraq in January and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki visited Kuwait in a symbolic gesture to mark Kuwait's celebration of its 50th anniversary of independence and, more importantly, the 20th anniversary of liberation from Iraq's occupation.
Iraqi and Kuwaiti officials have traded barbs over Iraq not fulfilling its obligations mandated by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions related to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait; its murky stance on Kuwait's demarcated borders; attacks by rogue Iraqi militia (later the Mahdi Army claimed responsibility) targeting the Kuwaiti embassy in Baghdad with Katyusha rockets last week forcing Kuwait to pull out all of its diplomats who returned to Kuwait; that was followed by menacing threats by another Iraqi rogue militia (Iraq Hezbollah) threatening to target the South Korean firms building Kuwait's Mubarak Kabeer Port on the northern Boubyan Island close to Iraq's Shatt Al Arab waterway. Iraqi parliamentarians claim the port will suffocate Iraq and deny it access to the Arabian Gulf and negatively affect the Grand Faw Port under construction. On the other hand, Iraq points to the Kuwaiti port as a manifestation that Kuwait is back to its old tricks to keep Iraq shackled in hardship and has conspired against Iraq to thwart its prosperity. Kuwait has repeatedly insisted that the port does not impinge or negatively affect Iraq's access to the Arabian Gulf and Kuwait has the sovereign right to build and will carry on with the construction.
David Roberts described it last week in Foreign Policy as "Kuwait's war of words with Iraq". He made the point that "even in the turbulence of today's Middle East, such an incident raises eyebrows". This was a reminder of Iraq's intentions. Kuwaitis still remember what Iraq's permanent representative to the Arab League, as Roberts aptly put it, "suggested that Iraq did not accept the UN demarcated border — a comment that sounded eerily similar to one of Saddam Hussain's flimsy pretexts for the 1990 invasion." Roberts argues that considering the large Kuwaiti official and private sector's investments in Iraq "one might suppose that such burgeoning economic portfolio…could act as a foundation for better bilateral relations. It might yet, but the outlook is not good thus far."
There are a lot of misgivings on both sides, as I argued in my piece two months ago, Kuwait-Iraq Ties: The Curse of History and Geography.
"Iraqi officials made xenophobic and inflammatory statements depicting this Kuwaiti project as part of a conspiracy to undermine Iraq and negatively affect traffic at its ports, especially the Faw Port which Iraq is considering building not too far from Kuwait's Mubarak Port. This touched off anti-Kuwait demonstrations in Iraq and calls to expel the Kuwaiti ambassador... What haunts Kuwaitis is the belief among many Iraqis that Kuwait belongs to Iraq — historically and geographically. There are other issues such as the fate of Kuwaiti prisoners of war, border demarcation, loans, the UN-approved compensation, return of the bodies of missing Kuwaitis and the management of jointly-owned oil fields. On the other hand, Iraqis' misgivings centre on Kuwait's role in the US invasion of Iraq, sanctions and unjust border demarcations."
It is deja vu all over again. Iraqis accusing Kuwaitis of conspiring against them to keep them down and launching an economic war against them which plays well into the hands of xenophobic Iraqis, and Kuwaitis who have been suspicious of Iraq's real intentions have validated these concerns and worries which refuse to fade away. Thus we are unfortunately back to square one.
A Cold war has been in the making between these two neighbours who continue to be bogged down in the past and fail to make the leap to the future. Maybe other countries, mainly Iran, have a stake in fanning the flames through its cronies in Iraq to keep Kuwait and Iraq at bay. The demons and shadows of the past are still alive and keep surfacing at any inflammatory statement or gesture.
I find it appropriate to close with the last sentence from my previous piece. This is unfortunate, as the two sides should instead bury the hatchet and look for ways to engage in strategic and joint venture projects. The Iraqi side, with its dysfunctional politics, is keeping the country cocooned in a vicious cycle of distrust and acrimonious relations with its smaller neighbour. Until when will both sides squander opportunities and remain cocooned in the past and remain hostages to other countries' designs and projects, conspiracies and the demons of the past?
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department — Kuwait University.