Turkey and Kuwait: A New Regional Alliance?

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by Javad Heiran-Nia and Somayeh Khomarbaghi

NATO member Turkey recently signed a joint defense plan for 2019 aimed at enhancing military cooperation with Kuwait. Bilateral relations between the two countries have strengthened in recent years with deals in several realms, including economics, defense, and politics.

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Kuwait last year, he discussed the improvement of bilateral economic ties in addition to regional issues with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. The two leaders signed a memorandum of understanding for incentives on direct investment and cooperation protocols on science and technology. This cooperation has now expanded to the level of joint military cooperation, which first started in 2013.

Over the last year, the leaders of Kuwait and Turkey also discussed the crisis between the Saudi Arabia-led axis and Qatar as well as steps to resolve it peacefully. The Kuwaiti leader said that the region is going through a critical period due to the sanctions imposed on Qatar by the Saudi-led group of countries.

Relations between Kuwait and Turkey have improved at the same time that relations between the two countries and Saudi Arabia have worsened. Moreover, Kuwait and Turkey signed their recent agreement after Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to Kuwait, when he failed to resolve a longstanding dispute over the neutral zone, an area of 2,230 square miles between the two countries. Kuwait opposes the extraction of crude oil from the Saudi–Kuwait neutral zone unless Saudi Arabia recognizes the area as a Kuwaiti governorate.

Kuwait’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has long been tense, even though Riyadh came to Kuwait’s aid when Iraq invaded in 1990. Kuwait refused to send troops to Bahrain in 2011, did not participate in the Yemeni war, and, despite Saudi pressure, has not boycotted Qatar. Kuwait has opposed Saudi Arabia’s role as an older brother in the Gulf Cooperation Council and tried to maintain a mediator role in regional affairs, for instance during the ongoing Qatar diplomatic crisis. Kuwait has also tried to maintain a relationship with Iran. As such, Saudi Arabia does not entirely trust Kuwait.

Kuwait understands that the hostile actions of the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE axis against Qatar could be repeated against Kuwait and Oman. In fact, opposition and mediation by Kuwait and Oman prevented the Saudi Arabia-led axis from occupying Qatar. Accordingly, Kuwait seeks to balance the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE axis. It maintains security ties with the United States, but it worries about the durability of the relationship, particularly with Donald Trump in the White House.

This expansion of cooperation between Turkey and Kuwait from soft power to hard power results from an interdependence of interests. Turkey can reach new sources of energy through its ties to Kuwait, and Kuwait can also attract Turkish investments in the economic and security realms. Turkey and Kuwait also have joint strategic interests in the region. Both countries want to prevent the expansion of Iran’s influence in Iraq, and both want to balance both the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE axis and Egypt. Additionally, Turkey’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood mean that Ankara wants to confront Saudi-led efforts to counter that organization.

Cooperation between Kuwait and Turkey may not, in the end, enhance regional security. The demand for weapons has grown significantly since Donald Trump took office and as countries in the region seek to balance against their adversaries. Rivalries have intensified in the Middle East, and multilateral blocs are forming. Even the United States has proposed an “Arab NATO.”

Ideally, all countries in the region should participate in the creation of a regional security system—without the intervention of foreign actors. This would require replacing the current zero-sum game with non-zero-sum games that ensure that Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are no longer mutual threats. Unfortunately, the region remains far from this ideal.

Javad Heiran-Nia is the head of the international desk of Mehr News Agency (MNA), a semi-official, state-funded news agency and one of Iran’s biggest agencies. Somayeh Khomarbaghi is a journalist with MNA.

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