Kuwait and Saudi Arabia: Still Negotiating the Neutral Zone

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Saba

by Khalid Al-Jaber

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) paid a formal visit to Kuwait on September 30. His visit only lasted for a few hours. Since he returned to Saudi Arabia, pundits have speculated that the meeting went poorly, despite the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement to the contrary aimed at setting aside any doubts about the strong alliance between the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Still, little progress seems to have been achieved at the meeting. According to Kuwaiti media reports, the meetings between the Saudi delegation and its Kuwaiti counterpart addressed a wide range of issues, from trade and security to culture—all areas where both states seek to increase bilateral cooperation within the framework of the newly established Saudi-Kuwaiti coordination council.

One of the main purposes of the MbS visit to Kuwait was for Saudi and Kuwaiti officials to discuss the oilfields of Wafra and Khafji, located in the Neutral Zone shared by both GCC members. In fact, questions about the management of these oilfields drove Riyadh and Kuwait City to form a coordination council earlier this year. Both states want to increase their oil capacity because of Washington’s sanctions on Iran. Such measures are expected to cause the Islamic Republic’s oil output to decrease, alongside declining oil production in Venezuela. But because of sovereignty disputes, oil production in the Neutral Zone has been halted since 2014.

According to Bloomberg, the most recent talks between Saudi and Kuwaiti officials failed to produce a resolution. Apparently, issues concerning Chevron’s role in the Neutral Zone stalled the talks. The main problem is related to “sovereignty issues” that have been “unsolved between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for the past 50 years. And they [Kuwait] want to fix it now before we continue to produce from that area,” MbS said in his Bloomberg interview. Nonetheless, MbS is confident that the two governments will settle the dispute and begin production. “It’s good for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, so I believe it’s a matter of time until it’s solved,” said the crown prince.

Before MbS traveled to Kuwait, the Gulf country driving mediation efforts between the parties involved in the GCC’s Qatar crisis, there was speculation that the Saudi crown prince would discuss the emotional dispute with Kuwaiti officials. That no such breakthrough occurred during the Kuwaiti visit was no surprise. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo appear to be in no rush to reconcile with Doha. Moreover, Kuwait’s refusal to join the Anti-Qatar Quartet in 2017 and maintenance of warm relations with Qatar throughout the GCC dispute continue to fuel tensions between Kuwait City and Riyadh.

Additionally, Kuwait’s limited role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen has not been what MbS would have liked from a close ally. The Saudis believe that Kuwait is beholden on them on all regional matters after the kingdom fought for the emirate’s liberation from Iraqi occupiers in 1991.

Thus, when Kuwait breaks with the kingdom on major regional security issues, the Saudi leadership gets frustrated. The Jamal Khashoggi case, meanwhile, has potential to significantly heighten friction between Saudi Arabia and Turkey on top of the Qatar crisis and the Egyptian coup of 2013, which both fueled tension in the Ankara-Riyadh relationship. Finally, Kuwait’s recently signed military cooperation agreement with Turkey may further upset MbS given how the Al Sabah rulers are joining Qatar in facilitating a Turkish military presence in the Arabian Peninsula.

Although both states want to strengthen their alliance, Kuwaiti-Saudi relations are experiencing some tension, and the latest visit by MbS failed to ease this friction that has harmed bilateral ties. However, Riyadh is attempting to capitalize on the issue of resuming oil output from the Neutral Zone to pressure Kuwait into changing its regional foreign policy vis-à-vis Qatar, Yemen, and Iran.

In this post-GCC period, exclusionary politics are shaping the Gulf’s environment to the detriment of Kuwaiti interests. For decades, the Kuwaiti leadership has been committed to inclusive politics based on strong institutions that deepen Arab-Arab and pan-Islamic relations as well as foster discourse to overcome disputes and conflicts.

In Washington in September 2017, the Kuwaiti emir stated that Saudi/Emirati military action against Doha was an option after the Qatar crisis erupted, but mediators from Kuwait and other countries had prevented the outbreak of war. Kuwait thus realizes the grave security threats to its independence, stability, and sovereignty that such action would incur. Such dangers to Kuwaiti interests, moreover, have been exacerbated by the sidelining of the GCC. Meanwhile, tensions between Washington and Tehran are mounting as the Trump administration encourages Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama to take a tougher stance against Kuwait’s Persian neighbor. The gap between Kuwait’s position on the Iranian nuclear accord and that of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain further underscores the growing misalignment between Kuwait and both the kingdom’s foreign policies and the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward Tehran.

Kuwait will likely find it difficult to navigate areas of disagreement with Saudi Arabia, as the two oil-rich Arabian Peninsula states remain committed to their bilateral council for coordination. At stake for Kuwait in this post-GCC period are fundamental interests—including national sovereignty—that Kuwait’s leadership must protect at a time when the Gulf’s geopolitical order is changing in ways that challenge Kuwait’s ability to maintain autonomy from Saudi influence.

Khalid Al-Jaber (@Aljaberzoon) is the director of MENA Center for Research in Washington, D.C. 

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