Kuwait and the China-U.S. Geopolitical Rivalry

Silk City

by Theodore Karasik and Tristan Ober

Countries worldwide are eyeing Kuwait’s economic diversification agenda, the New Kuwait, as a geopolitical investment opportunity. Most recently, German and Austrian ministers expressed their countries’ interests in being involved more deeply in the Arab Persian Gulf emirate’s ambitious modernization plan.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the Western countries will be the preferred partners since Kuwaiti interest appears to be shifting to China. Kuwait’s Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah was happy to encourage more Chinese business in Kuwait, which currently numbers around 40 companies working on about 80 different projects.

Kuwait’s pursuit of a partnership with China goes beyond just economic interests. In December 2018, Minister of Defense Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, who is also the emir’s son, met with Chinese officials on his extensive trip to the country and discussed more comprehensive strategic cooperation. As the partnership between China and Kuwait ostensibly moves beyond merely economic collaboration, questions arise as to what this will mean for the US, which is traditionally seen as Kuwait’s ally and protector since the Iraqi invasion and occupation of 1990-91.

Washington: An Unreliable Partner?

Whereas America’s Middle East policy suffers from multiple policy streams based on personality, China’s long-term vision and leadership reassure the monarchs of the Arabian Gulf of Beijing’s ability to promote prosperity and stability in the tumultuous Middle East. The Kuwaitis pride themselves on their role as regional mediators, and they treasure their neutrality is a precious commodity. As a result, Kuwait is sympathetic towards China’s insistence on non-intervention in foreign states’ domestic affairs and (generally) neutrality in Middle Eastern disputes from the Qatar crisis to the Iranian-Saudi rivalry and the Yemeni civil war.

In contrast to China’s neutral and relatively stable foreign policy, the United States has implemented several seemingly whimsical policies in the region that have had negative implications for Kuwait’s security and status. Possibly the most recent example was Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement via Twitter of the planned U.S. military withdrawal from northern Syria. Although there are multiple plans being discussed about how to proceed, the idea of “retreat” is clearly on the minds of the Kuwaiti elites.

Washington’s decision to withdraw several Patriot missile systems from Kuwait, Jordan, and Bahrain in September was another example of U.S. foreign policy decision-making that unsettled Kuwait’s leadership. Although Kuwaiti officials defended the removal as “routine”  at the time, they could hardly have felt comfortable at the reduction of specialized air defense systems when regional tensions are flaring up, including across the border in southern Iraq.

Moreover, while the United States appears to be pushing for improved relationships between Israel and the Gulf states, with successes including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic visit to Oman’s capital in October, Kuwait has been pushing back. Making use of its role as a UN Security Council Member, Kuwait supported Lebanon, not Israel, during the latter’s operation Northern Shield against Hezbollah. This event was unsurprising given Kuwait’s historic role as a champion of the Palestinian struggle.

As the United States seeks to bring Israel and the Gulf states together in unified opposition to Iran, Kuwait’s continued rejection of Israel may put it at odds with Washington’s vision of establishing an anti-Iranian force, the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), commonly referred to as an Arab NATO. Based on the lessons that Kuwait learned from the Iraqi invasion and occupation of the early 1990s, the Al Sabah rulers are keen to avoid excessively antagonizing any of Kuwait’s larger neighbours, instead opting to balance the opposing interests and agendas of the other five GCC states, Iraq, and Iran off each other to maximize Kuwait’s standing.

Kuwait also refused to join Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in supporting the U.S. administration’s decision to pull Washington out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iranian nuclear deal. As Kuwait looks abroad for gas imports, keeping the door open to possibly one day importing Iranian gas is another factor prompting Kuwait to opt for a foreign policy that is more accommodating of Iran.

Ultimately, when it comes to Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, and Iran, the Kuwaitis are likely to see China’s positions on such Middle Eastern conflicts and diplomatic rows as far more conducive to Kuwaiti interests. This is in marked contrast to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which are far more aligned with Washington’s policies against Tehran and its regional proxies/partners in the region, chiefly Hezbollah and Hamas.

Sheikh Nasser and the China Connection

Given China’s interest in the long game, the future of Kuwaiti leadership becomes more important. At the age of 89, the current emir is unlikely to remain the ruler of the state of Kuwait for long. The position of emir should technically pass on to Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, but his age (he is in his early eighties) and persistent health problems make him an unlikely long-term candidate. Instead, one of the favorites to take the throne is Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the son of the current emir and minister of defense.

Should Sheikh Nasser indeed follow in the footsteps of his father, then the partnership between China and Kuwait could see a rapid expansion. Sheikh Nasser has been a big proponent of Chinese projects and companies, particularly those linking Kuwait to the Silk Road.

For example, Silk City, the mega-project that is supposed to turn Kuwait into a modern trade hub, is supposedly one of Sheikh Nasser’s top priorities. Silk City would include a duty-free zone, large business zones, and even a sizeable nature reservation, allowing Kuwait City to finally rival its regional counterparts such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Manama. Chinese is slated to become the third economic language in Silk City, after Arabic and English.

Overstating the Threat?

China is not alone in competing for the attentions of the Al-Sabah family. The French have already established ties with the Kuwaitis in the military domain, and the EU is slated to open its delegation in the Gulf state soon. Moreover, Kuwait received a flurry of European ministers in December, including those from Austria, France, Germany, Holland, and Sweden.

Meanwhile, U.S. influence remains important. Kuwaitis still love American brands. American companies still receive big contracts, including the Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah causeway slated to open in February. Perhaps most importantly, the Kuwaitis are unlikely to forget the way in which the United States came to their aid during the first Gulf War.

Moreover, the U.S. military presence in Kuwait and the surrounding region is unrivalled. China’s reluctance to get involved in foreign squabbles also means that Beijing doesn’t want to get involved in the Middle East’s hornet’s nests. Instead of any comprehensive Sino-Kuwaiti security initiative, the two countries will likely limit themselves to smaller-scale security cooperation.

Still, despite rumors that Trump ordered the emir to cease all projects with Chinese companies, a certain complacency has creeped into the U.S. relationship with Kuwait. As legitimate as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reasons were for skipping Kuwait during his January 2019 tour of the region, the United States is not speaking at the same diplomatic level with Kuwait as the Chinese or the Europeans. This is not necessarily a problem, as the emir spoke to Trump in Washington last September. But more extensive face-to-face diplomacy may hold the key to maintaining the U.S.-Kuwaiti relationship.

Although it cannot offer the grandiose economic projects that the Chinese are laying out for the Kuwaitis, the United States can provide signals of commitment in the security domain that China can’t or won’t make. However, as these signals come at a price, Washington will need to carefully weigh the importance of the northern Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East and decide what level of commitment it’s willing to make to Kuwait.

Theodore Karasik (@TKarasik) is an advisor at Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Tristan Ober is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.

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