On August 13, the United Arab Emirates agreed in principle to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for suspending the annexation of portions of the West Bank. This US-brokered deal reflects years of growing ties between Israel and Gulf states that have long rested just below the surface of official relations. Saudi Arabia has shared intelligence, Bahrain has called for peace and the UAE has penned deals with Israeli defense companies. For their part, Qatar previously maintained commercial ties with Israel and Oman has hosted Israeli leaders over the years. Although their means and motivations differ, it is clear that Gulf-Israeli relations are rising.
Israel-UAE Deal: Arab States Are Tired of Waiting on Palestine
Yet one Gulf state rejects this trend: Kuwait. According to Al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, government sources affirm that “Kuwait maintains its position and will be the last country to normalize with Israel.” Beyond Kuwaiti officials, analysts and academics, few have addressed Kuwait’s position on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Adam Hoffman and Moran Zaga acknowledged in February that Kuwait is “the only Gulf state that opposes even discrete normalisation with Israel.” In January 2019, Giorgio Cafiero wrote that “Kuwait has become the one GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] state that refuses to see warmer ties with Israel as prudent.” Even White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said to Reuters that Kuwait is “out there taking a very radical view on the conflict to date in favour of the Palestinians.”
Why does Kuwait take a different approach to Israel compared to its Gulf neighbors? Kuwait’s democratic institutions, historical ties to Palestine and pan-Arab ideals are three factors that lead both its government and society to reject normalization.
Parliament and Parlors
Kuwait’s most unique aspect is its semi-democratic institutions. The national assembly wields significant power and channels public sentiment against normalization. Notably, Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim chastised Israeli Knesset members in 2017 as “occupiers and murderers of children.” Parliamentarian Osama al-Shaheen declared in late April 2020 that “Kuwait is against any cultural, political, or social normalization with the ‘Zionist entity.’” This statement is emblematic of the relative autonomy of Kuwait‘s Islamist political opposition and their position in parliament. As of August 18, 39 of Kuwait’s 50 parliamentarians signed a statement stressing their view against normalization with Israel.
In addition to the formal institution of parliament, Kuwait’s distinct political culture is also reflected in diwaniyya. These gatherings in parlors attached to homes represent the intersection of political campaigning and social commentary in Kuwait. Diwaniyya are more autonomous from government oversight than other Gulf majlis gatherings, resulting in a more free exchange of ideas. Among the Gulf publics, Kuwaiti civil society has been most able to pressure the government against normalization.
Another factor that distinguishes Kuwait is its link to one of the Gulf’s largest Palestinian communities. Beginning with immigration in the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians settled in Kuwait and ties improved after Yasser Arafat founded Fatah while living in the country from 1959. However, Arafat’s support of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 degraded relations severely, resulting in the expulsion and exodus of most of Kuwait’s 400,000 Palestinian residents.
Ultimately, relations improved in 2013 when the Palestinian Authority opened an embassy in Kuwait City. During a recent international conference, Palestinian Ambassador Rami Tahboub praised Kuwait as “proactive in supporting the Palestinian cause.” Today, around 80,000 Palestinian residents remain as an integral aspect of Kuwait’s normative commitment to Palestine.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kuwait’s position is that its leaders, especially Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, remain dedicated to Arab nationalism and Muslim solidarity. Kuwaiti officials have been more forceful in their condemnation of Israel than their Gulf peers. In July 2018, Mansour al-Otaibi, Kuwait’s ambassador to the United Nations, condemned Israeli use of force “against unarmed Palestinian people” as “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” In February 2019, Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled al-Jarallah, was quick to affirm that a group picture taken during the Warsaw security conference, in which Kuwaiti and Israeli representatives were part of, was not indicative of normalization.
Kuwait has also broken from Gulf consensus toward American peace initiatives to end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Kuwait boycotted the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain in June 2019. Members of its parliament criticized the gathering as “consecrating the occupation, imparting legitimacy onto it, and charging the Gulf and Arab states with the expenses and burdens of installing it.” Following US President Donald Trump’s unveiling of the so-called “deal of the century,” Ghanim criticized the plan and theatrically dropped it into a proverbial “dustbin of history.”
A Steady Stance
Kuwait completely rejects the expanding cultural, diplomatic, economic and security ties characterizing broader Gulf–Israeli relations. Arguments related to divergent threat perceptions are insufficient to explain Kuwait’s exception considering it has historically been just as, and perhaps even more, vulnerable to jihadi attacks and Iranian subversion as its southern neighbors. What makes Kuwait unique is its democratic tradition, historical links to Palestinian political movements and the commitment to pan-Islamic and Arab nationalist ideals.
The Kuwaiti exception holds two implications for the study of international politics in the Middle East. First, Kuwait reveals that small states can wield sizable ideational power in international institutions. Second, Kuwait challenges a recent claim that “Arab states have lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue because there’s a whole host of other things going.” When analysts address Arab-Israeli relations, it is important to explore the causes and qualities of states’ distinct approaches. As its Gulf neighbors warm to Israel, Kuwait stands out.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.