Sunday, August 23, 2020

Kuwait's Anti-Israel Rhetoric in Spotlight after UAE Deal - Seth Frantzman

by Seth Frantzman

Kuwait's historic role has been to stay out of the spotlight.

In sharp contrast to the reaction of other Arab Gulf states to the recent Israel-UAE accord, Kuwait insists it will be the last country to normalize relations with Israel.
On the surface there's no reason why Kuwait, the kingdom at the end of the Persian Gulf, would be a leading critic of Israel.

Not only does it have no historical connection to Israel, either positive or negative, it is also far away from the Jewish state.

However, in the wake of the UAE decision to normalize relations with Israel, Kuwait has appeared to be the coldest toward Israel of all states in the Gulf.

Kuwait has indicated it would be the last country to normalize relations with Israel, according to a report on Sunday in the Al-Qabas daily newspaper.

Clearly, Kuwait feels pressure to comment after the Abu Dhabi decision. It is known that Oman and Bahrain are more keen on relations with Israel and that Qatar holds discussions with Israel in the context of funding Gaza. This leaves Kuwait as an exception.

The explanation for Kuwait's exceptionalism is complex. In the 1960s and 70s, many Palestinians moved to Kuwait, and the country played a formative role in their life.

Later when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait the Palestinians supported him, seeing him as the region's most anti-Israel leader.

This led Kuwait to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after the country was liberated by the US-led coalition.

One might imagine that Kuwait, with its many US bases and close relations with Saudi Arabia and the West, might be more flexible regarding Israel. Instead, it has been staunch in its pro-Palestinian approach and not wanting to deviate from this more hardline position.

Kuwait's daily newspaper Al-Jarida, for instance, highlights comments by US presidential advisor Jared Kushner that claimed the country's approach was "radical."

Kuwait knows that its position between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran is precarious, and wants to preserve its neutrality on some issues.

That means the West Asian country has not taken a strong stance on the dispute between Riyadh and Doha. In 2017 Saudi Arabia led the UAE and Bahrain to break relations with Qatar.

Kuwait was more cautious. It seeks to be more like Jordan in its affairs, a monarchy but one that does not want to have as active a role in the tectonic shifts in the region between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, Kuwait does express support for Saudi Arabia on other issues, such as recent missile attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis are backed by Iran.

On the Palestinian issue, Kuwait continues to pay lip service to supporting the Palestinians. It has other issues to worry about – its aging ruler recently underwent surgery.

Kuwait's historic role has been to stay out of the spotlight.
It also has had to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and unrest in neighboring Iraq's port city of Basra. All this means that the Israel-Palestinian issue is an easy one for it to express a hardline position on, without actually doing much.

That has been Kuwait's historic role: trying not to cause any trouble and staying out of the spotlight. The trauma of the 1990 invasion continues to overshadow its foreign policy – and it knows how fragile the affairs of the monarchies can be when facing larger states in the region.

Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.


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