Stephen M. Walt

Postcard from Kuwait

I’ve been in Kuwait since Monday morning, attending a conference celebrating a ten-year collaboration between Harvard and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science. In addition to giving a talk on the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, I’ve been listening to various Harvard colleagues give talks on the situation in Iraq, public ...

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve been in Kuwait since Monday morning, attending a conference celebrating a ten-year collaboration between Harvard and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science. In addition to giving a talk on the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, I’ve been listening to various Harvard colleagues give talks on the situation in Iraq, public health in the Gulf region, urban planning in Kuwait, educational development, the future of global energy markets, Kuwaiti politics, and the prospects for democracy in the Arab world. There’s an obvious irony here: I flew halfway around the world for the opportunity to find out what my colleagues have been up to.

Despite a sandstorm that made fogbound London seem transparent, it’s been an interesting trip. It coincided with an interesting kerfuffle within Kuwaiti politics, revolving around parliamentary opposition criticisms of the current prime minister, the removal of parliamentary immunity for at least one MP, and various charges and counter-charges from the opposition and the government itself. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Kuwait’s domestic politics, so I won’t try to provide a full analysis of the situation. But as others have documented at length, Kuwait’s political system is an unusual fusion of a traditional monarchy with various participatory institutions, including a parliament that on certain issues and on some occasions exerts real influence. It is also a traditional Arab society where women occupy increasingly prominent roles, belying the usual stereotypes.

The Kuwaitis with whom I’ve spoken have been well-informed, eager to discuss a variety of issues, and quite open to talking about just about any subject. I haven’t done a random survey and for all I know the views I heard were atypical, but several themes from my conversations were particularly striking.

First, America may be unpopular in much of the Arab and Islamic world, but not in Kuwait. The United States is very popular here, for two obvious reasons. First, we liberated the country from Saddam Hussein in 1991, and then we got rid of Saddam for good in 2003. People can’t say enough good things about the elder President Bush, and I even think that Dubya would get reasonably high marks here. Kuwaitis are not happy with how the occupation of Iraq was handled (who is?), and they remain worried about political developments in Iraq, but on the whole, the United States is regarded with favor and even affection here. At least that’s the clear impression I got, and I don’t think my associates here were just being polite or trying to snow me.

Second, despite what I just said, the Israel-Palestine issue resonates here much as it does elsewhere. As one Kuwaiti official explained to me, it’s not due to any deep affinity for the Palestinians themselves — most of whom were expelled from Kuwait after Yasser Arafat foolishly backed Saddam in the Gulf War — but rather reflects both a broader Arab concern about what they regard as unjust Western interference in the Arab world and a realistic sense of how that issue fuels extremism and gives states like Iran an issue they can exploit. Everyone I spoke with emphasized the importance of the issue, with no prompting from me.

Third, although Iran was and is a concern, it’s not a particularly pressing one. They aren’t naive about Iran, and one official expressed support for the current sanctions regime and said he thought it was having a significant impact. In short, I heard nothing from Kuwaitis that would have raised any eyebrows, even if it had appeared on Wikileaks.

Given Kuwait’s history and location, in fact, Iraq continues to be a more looming worry. As one Kuwaiti remarked at one of our sessions, the central problem is that Iraq is a large country with long borders and it needs to be militarily strong in order to protect itself. Unfortunately, a strong Iraq is inevitably a potential threat to Kuwait, which is right next door and far smaller. History reminds them of how unpleasant it can be to share a border with a much stronger neighbor. They would like to think that Iraq will stabilize and establish tranquil relations with Kuwait, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.

Let me repeat that these deep and profound insights are based on a relatively small number of conversations; you should regard them as my impressions and not much more than that. But I did find them interesting, and all in all, the trip has been worth the various aggravations that I discussed in my last post.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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