Back to the Negotiating Table

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah alights from a plane as he arrives at Amman airport on May 17, 2010 in Amman, Jordan. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images) Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah alights from a plane as he arrives at Amman airport on May 17, 2010 in Amman, Jordan. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah alights from a plane as he arrives at Amman airport on May 17, 2010 in Amman, Jordan. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

Three recent developments have highlighted Kuwait’s burgeoning potential role as a regional mediator. Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, used a visit to Kuwait to urge its ruler, Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed Al Sabah, to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassahseparately claimed that the Emir would attempt to mend relations between Egypt and Qatar ahead of the Arab Summit set to take place in Kuwait City at the end of March.

Finally, the withdrawal of the Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar on March 5 was accompanied by speculation that Emir Sabah would seek a compromise acceptable to all sides to defuse the row upon his return from medical treatment in the United States.

Both on their own and together, the examples illustrate how Kuwait’s Emir is seen as a respected father figure in the Gulf drawing upon his seniority and experience among his regional peers. Before becoming prime minister in 2003 and then Emir in 2006, Sabah served as Kuwait’s foreign minister for forty years.

Approaching his eighty-fifth birthday, the Emir has amassed vast experience of regional and international affairs that he has sought on previous occasions to put to good use. During the February/March 2011 unrest in Bahrain, Kuwait sought to mediate between the two sides,. Then in November 2013, Emir Sabah travelled to Riyadh with Qatar’s new young Emir, Tamim Bin Hamad Bin-Khalifa Al Thani, to meet with King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in a bid to resolve Saudi—Qatari tensions, and subsequently hosted a further mediation effort in Kuwait City in February 2014.

In recent months, a space has opened up for the return of Kuwaiti mediation to the regional stage. In the decades following Kuwait’s independence in 1961, the country became known for playing a leading role in the region’s diplomatic affairs. This came to an abrupt and brutal halt with the Iraqi invasion in August 1990 and the realization that some of the major beneficiaries of Kuwaiti largesse were among the states that offered their political support to Saddam Hussein. As Kuwait entered a post-liberation period of introspection, the center of gravity shifted elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, initially to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, in the late-2000s, to Qatar.

Under the leadership of former emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and former prime minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar took the lead in mediation initiatives in Lebanon, Yemen and Darfur in the period immediately prior to the Arab Spring. However, Qatar’s activist and interventionist policies towards the transition states in the Middle East and North Africa triggered a regional backlash against Qatar’s policies, most strongly in Egypt following the toppling of the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood government in July 2013. With Qatar out of the picture, Oman briefly stole the limelight when it emerged that the Sultanate had facilitated months of secret negotiations between US and Iranian officials ahead of the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement in Geneva. However, Oman is peripheral in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) politics, leaving the way open for Kuwait and its Emir to take up the mantle of regional mediator.

Much is riding on the next phases of the diplomatic row between Qatar and its neighbors. In the short run, Kuwait will not want the row overshadowing the Arab Summit, but looking further ahead, the unprecedentedly public spat risks accelerating moves to a two-tier Gulf. Particularly on issues of regional stability and security, the gap between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar and Oman on the other, has widened significantly. Yet this comes as external partners look to the GCC to play a greater (and responsible) role in supporting Arab states undergoing transition, and with the US recently authorizing the sale of arms to the GCC as a bloc in its latest push to get its members to coordinate more closely on defense issues. Hence, these latest divisions are a setback to hopes that the GCC could become a significant regional participant and committed stakeholder as attention turns to the intricate—and long-term—challenges of stabilization in the Middle East and North Africa.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.


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