OPINION - Legacy allows new ruler to turn Kuwait model for Gulf

Pursuing balanced foreign policy, stressing on mediation, Kuwait is only Gulf country with robust democratic structures

Suleyman Kiziltoprak  | 07.10.2020 - Update : 07.10.2020
OPINION - Legacy allows new ruler to turn Kuwait model for Gulf


Located at the tip of the Persian Gulf and in the northeastern Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait may be geographically a smaller country, but commands considerable economic clout. With a population of approximately 4.2 million, the country boasts 102 billion barrels of proven crude oil stocks, accounting for 6% of the world reserves.

The national average per capita income of approximately $72,872 makes Kuwait the fifth rich country in the world. The oil contributes more than half of its gross domestic product, accounting for 92% of export revenue and 90% of overall state revenue.

Since Kuwait spends its oil revenues on public spending, it has not established an economic structure based on production and has not achieved the expected success in including the private sector in economic activities.

Ruled by the Al-Sabah dynasty since the 18th century, the history of Kuwait goes back to the Sassanid period. In 633, Arab forces led by Khalid ibn al-Walid defeated the Sasanian forces in this region. Kuwait’s significance in the Persian Gulf increased in the 16th century, with the increase in Far East trade following geographical discoveries.

The Portuguese had also established a base in Kuwait and Bahrain. When the Ottoman Empire took Basra under its full control in 1545, the geographical area including Kuwait was included in the Basra governorate. In the late 17th century, it became a kind of custom to appoint representatives of the Utub tribe as governors. A century later, its Al-Sabah branch in the Utub tribe, gained prestige among the Ottomans and district governors were chosen from the heads of this sub-tribe.

Opposite the state of Kuwait in the Gulf are two islands, the larger ones in the north are called Bubiyan, and the south one is called Failaka. Also, there are four more small islands between Kuwait mainland and Bubiyan.

Kuwait City gains importance

Kuwait City was established in the first half of the 17th century on the cape close to the island of Failaka. This natural port, which allows heavy tonnage ships to anchor, gradually reduced the importance of the Basra river port. Thus, Kuwait made the northeastern region of the Arabian Peninsula its hinterland, making it its largest port and warehouse, gaining geo-strategic and geo-political importance.

On the other hand, the occupation of Basra by Iran from 1776-1779 caused Far Eastern trade ships, led by Britain, to move to the Kuwait port, which contributed to the social and economic development of the city.

When Mithat Pasha became the governor of Baghdad in 1869, Kuwait's loyalty to the Ottoman Empire strengthened. The Governor of Kuwait Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sabah and his brother Mubarak Al-Sabah showed their highest level of loyalty to the Ottoman Empire by supporting Mithat Pasha's expedition to Najid by land and sea.

However, Mubarak al-Sabah, who became the district governor in 1897, started to pursue a policy of rapprochement with England. Indeed, Lord Curzon, the British colonial governor of India, made a secret agreement with Mubarak on January 23, 1899.

According to this agreement, Mubarak would not meet with a representative of another state without Britain's approval. While the part of the agreement relating to the obligations of England remained verbal, the part of Mubarak's responsibility was written, which also allowed England to lease land in Kuwait.

With this agreement, Britain achieved its long-standing goal of establishing relations with Kuwait and safeguarding roads leading to its colonies in South Asia. In 1901, the British ambassador to Istanbul announced an agreement, according to which Ottoman Empire would not send troops to Kuwait, and Britain would not occupy or protect Kuwait.

The British who had begun the search for rich oil resources prevented the Ottoman Empire from extending the Baghdad Railway to Kuwait. When Abdulhamid Han II was dethroned in 1909, the British became more comfortable in continuing their policies over Kuwait.

The members of the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki) recognized the interests of Britain in the Gulf to a large extent to gain the support of London for settling internal and external problems. The unionists, who came to power again with the 1913 Ottoman coup d'état (Bab-i Ali Baskini), sent Hakki Pasha, one of the former grand ministers, to London with a special mission to solve the problems in the Gulf.

In an agreement signed in London on July 29, 1913, Hakki Pasha and Sir Edward Gray settled the Kuwait issue. Accordingly, Kuwait remained a district under the Ottoman Empire; but it gained administrative autonomy. The district governor would also be appointed by the Ottoman sultan, as the Kuwait district was directly under the central administration, not the administration of the Basra province.

Sheikh gives priority to improving relations with the UK

After the break out of World War I, the agreements signed by Hakki Pasha in London were not approved and, therefore could not be implemented. When Britain invaded Basra in 1914, it took Kuwait under its protection; but the Kuwait administration did not recognize this. Especially, Salem Mubarak al-Sabah, who was the Sheikh of Kuwait in December 1916, declared that he did not recognize previous agreements with England.

When Salim passed away on February 27, 1921, Ahmed al-Jabir al-Sabah, who succeeded him, gave priority to improving relations with Britain and led Kuwait's administration until he died in 1950. In his time, the Kuwait Oil Company, which was established in 1934 with British and US capital, enriched Kuwait and strengthened his power.

However, Kuwait became dependent on the US as well as the UK. Kuwait declared its independence on June 19, 1961, during the time of Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, who took over after Ahmed al-Jabir al-Sabah. After that, the title of Emir of Kuwait was used instead of the Sheikh of Kuwait. British troops remained in Kuwait until 1971. Iraq did not recognize Kuwait's independence until October 1963. It had continued to regard Kuwait as a geographical part of the Basra state.

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), tense relations, Kuwait aligned with Iraq. In addition to supplying Iraqi oil to world markets from Kuwait ports, the Al-Sabah family also extended financial support to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain. However, soon after the war, the relations between the two countries were strained.

Iraqi ruler invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, accusing it of not giving out some of the oil revenues sold from Kuwait ports during the Iran-Iraq War. The US-led forces under the permission granted by UN resolution 678, removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait on Feb. 28, 1991. The Emir of Kuwait took his throne again.

Arab Spring in Kuwait

The Arab Spring comprising a series of protests against despotic administrations that started in Tunisia in December 2010 reached Kuwait, the ruling family was also tested. Stateless Arabs were in the midst of these protests; in early 2011. They organized small protests that prioritized citizenship, work, health, education, and other fundamental rights. In addition to the demands for equality with Kuwaiti citizens, there were also demands for citizenship.

Kuwaiti protesters and opposition MPs wanted to remove Emir’s control over the government and parliament and achieve a Western-style monarchical structure. Opponents were also complaining about corruption as well as the unaccountable attitude of the government. Although the legitimacy of the Emir family was not challenged. They demanded loudly the establishment of a new order in the country shaped around a full parliamentary system and a new constitution.

Tens of thousands of Kuwaiti people started to take to the streets using social media to make their voices heard. As a result, the prime minister, unable to control the events, resigned. Other groups in Kuwait, especially the Islamists hailing from tribes, joined the protest movements that increased in a short time. At the end of 2012, the reactions against the royal decree that changed the electoral law took the public back to the streets. An opposition coalition of Sunni leaders, tribal figures, and some liberals opposed the new parliamentary reform, which they saw against their interests. They also boycotted the 2012 and 2013 legislative elections.

The subsidies for necessities, which the Kuwait government has been implementing for over half a century to control prices of essential services and commodities, had now been slashed due to the global economic crisis. With the depreciation of oil in world markets in 2015, the Kuwait budget had a deficit for the first time. Opposition members and independents actively participated in the November 2016 parliamentary elections and won almost half of the seats.

Opposition fails to deliver

The opposition blocs that won the 2016 election against the groups that supported the government did not deliver the desired results. Instead of solving the country's problems using common wisdom and putting forward a program, they fragmented, with each power prioritizing its interests.

After the Emir ascended the throne in 2006, he dissolved parliament several times. He changed his cabinet almost every year. Generally, economic stagnation and responding to the demands of the people were presented as the justification for these acts. In the final analysis, Emir Al-Sabah successfully controlled the events that had caused chaos in many other Arab countries, thanks to the consistent policies and reforms he implemented by accepting most of the demands.

He expanded the opposition's representation in the parliament within a certain process and gave powers to the parliament to legislate on social, economic, and political issues. The Emir appointed few ministers preferred by the opposition, thus strengthening his Kuwaiti identity.

Compared to other Gulf countries, Kuwait has managed to maintain political stability despite the turmoil that has occurred in the region in the last century. One of the factors affecting this is the parliamentary body. Although the Kuwait Assembly cannot be compared with Western democracies, it comprises elected members and is competent to perform all functions. Political blocs similar to political parties and independent members discuss every law and public issues on the floor of the house. Such an arrangement is no-existent in neighboring countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia.

Balanced foreign policy

Unlike other Arab countries, the Emir of Kuwait pursued a balanced policy towards Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, and remained almost neutral in issues related to the US and Iran, protecting its national interests. Kuwait did not participate in the exclusion policies pursued by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain against Qatar. Instead of taking a position against Qatar, Kuwait mediated between the two sides.

Emir Al-Sabah, who knew the religious, political, and tribal dynamics of the region well, remained quite active, even though he was 85 years old. He flew from one capital to another trying to find a common ground. In 2017, when the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia broke off ties with Qatar, taking Egypt with them, al-Sabah mediated again, albeit much less success.

Emir of Kuwait Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah died at the age of 91. Al-Sabah, who served as foreign minister for 40 years from 1963-2003, was in power as the Emir of Kuwait since 2006. The Emir managed to keep this geographically small but oil-rich country away from the chaos caused by competition and feuds in the Middle East. He was successful in protecting Kuwait from the shocks experienced by neighboring countries.

His 83-year-old brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, has assumed office as Kuwait's new Emir. Although the policies of the new Emir are not yet clear, it is most likely that Kuwait will continue to mediate in the turbulent Gulf area.

The late Emir Al-Sabah was the architect of this independent foreign policy, compatible with the great powers. He did not pursue blindly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait's rapid healing of its wounds after the invasion of Iraq and strengthening its independent identity can be regarded as a valuable legacy. Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah has the opportunities and experiences to develop his rich country and solve the social and economic problems of his citizens.

* Translated by Mahmoud Barakat

**Suleyman Kiziltoprak is a professor at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul

**Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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