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Kuwait opts for Gulf union initiative

Concern for loss of painfully acquired freedoms remains inhibiting factor

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Emir of Kuwait Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah
Image Credit: AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Emir of Kuwait Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah in 2006. Although Ahmadinejad’s visit revived bilateral ties,Kuwait remains wary of Iran’s regional ambitions and favours Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s resolve to defend the Arabian Peninsula.
Gulf News

Beirut: Formulating a collective security regime in the absence of a collective will was difficult to say the least. In the past, with respect to external security threats, it was safe to state that this ‘will’ was conspicuously lacking on the part of GCC states. Even if the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait resolved the perception-discrepancies in identifying what was at the time one the most formidable regional threats, significant differences of opinion remained within the GCC on the best way to deal with Iraq.

There was even less unanimity on how to come to terms with the other regional power, a country nearing 100 million, since Iran espoused a confrontational ideology that, without a doubt, aspired to rule over the Gulf region and beyond.

It must be emphasised that Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the current ruler who was prime minister in 1979, visited Tehran immediately after the Islamic Revolution that ushered in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Vilayet-e faqih [the jurisprudence of the Imam], if for no other reason than to gauge prospects for cooperation.

In the event, the Arab world was disappointed as Iran embarked on a carefully laid-out policy to export its revolution, with various attempts to spread havoc in the small northern country. Moreover, Tehran bitterly resented Kuwait’s support for Baghdad during the 8-year Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Iran pointed to the billions of dollars in military and social aid provided to Iraq, which led to Iranian sabotage efforts in Kuwait, including the failed attempt to attack a refinery complex in 1981, followed by similar activities in 1983 and 1986. In 1985, an Al Da`wah member attempted to assassinate the Ruler, Shaikh Jabr Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who survived, though it was a close call.

Ties improved somewhat after the 1990 Iraqi invasion and especially after the 2003 War for Iraq.

Although a new page between the two countries was opened after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Kuwait in February 2006, Kuwait was wary of Iranian regional ambitions, which was why the country favoured Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s resolve to defend the Arabian Peninsula.

Nevertheless, like several of its alliance partners within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Kuwaiti leaders displayed little enthusiasm for the kind of tighter union Saudi Arabia pushed for, fearing the loss of painfully acquired freedoms.

In fact, despite the legacy of the war, when Saudi Arabia took enormous risks to assist the country regain its freedom, the Al Sabah ruling family remained cautious of the proposed Saudi security umbrella. Simply stated, what they were concerned about most were inevitable pressures to curtail democratising aspects of the country’s socio-political life, including a vibrant parliament where significant debates were the rule rather than the exception.

This was the dilemma that confronted Kuwait, for in the aftermath of the 1991 liberation, GCC leaders became far more energetic in their assertions of a separate Gulf identity, which required beefed-up responses. It was therefore important to ask whether the GCC alliance would mature over the years to shoulder a greater share of the military burden and, as an entity, be able to act as a single interlocutor on behalf of its members?

Will the alliance succeed in setting up a comprehensive Gulf security system to face Iranian hegemony in the Gulf? Will it achieve a Khalijih identity, particularly in terms of building a shield from external threats — which will mark an important step forward in the life of this organisation — despite significant hurdles? These were the key questions to ponder as GCC rulers confirmed their determination to exist and prosper as independent societies.

The proposed GCC union necessitated fresh unity plans, which were different from previous steps that emphasised reliance on foreign powers, and which called on member-states to shoulder real defence burdens.

Kuwait welcomed such initiatives and accepted Saudi leadership towards that goal, though it preferred to preserve its unique political advantages, if possible.


(This is the fifth and the last in the series of articles published on Sundays discussing union from each GCC member-state’s perspective.)



Box 1.

Under the GCC umbrella


Kuwait mobilised its GCC alliance partners to help the country regain its sovereignty in 1991.

Although Kuwait objected to the 1982 Internal Security Agreement that empowered fellow GCC states to pursue criminals across borders, in May 1998, the country sponsored talks to deal with the means to develop and strengthen intra-GCC relations in the field of internal security, including airport surveillance, and cross-border pursuits.

In the aftermath of the 1991 War for Kuwait, which saw a full-scale GCC deployment alongside UN-sanctioned US-led armies that ousted occupying forces from the country, the Kuwait defence minister raised the ultra-sensitive prisoner issue on July 25, 2000. Interestingly, the minister insisted that talks with Iraq — for the return of some 600 people held in Iraqi prisons — be conducted through the GCC umbrella. In other words, by refusing to hold bilateral talks with Iraq and, more importantly, by insisting that such negotiations be conducted under regional and international legitimising institutions, Kuwait empowered the GCC further.