The Middle East Channel

Kuwait’s war of words with Iraq

Last Tuesday, two Katusha rockets directly struck the Kuwaiti Embassy in Iraq, while another hit a nearby building. No one was hurt and all Kuwaiti employees left Iraq and returned to Kuwait for Ramadan. A Kuwait parliamentarian angrily called for the expulsion of the Iraqi ambassador from Kuwait. Even in the turbulence of today’s Middle ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last Tuesday, two Katusha rockets directly struck the Kuwaiti Embassy in Iraq, while another hit a nearby building. No one was hurt and all Kuwaiti employees left Iraq and returned to Kuwait for Ramadan. A Kuwait parliamentarian angrily called for the expulsion of the Iraqi ambassador from Kuwait. Even in the turbulence of today’s Middle East, such an incident raises eyebrows.

The attack and the political furor that followed fit an alarming pattern of escalating Iraqi-Kuwaiti tensions. In April 2010, as a part of a $1.2 billion demand for reparations, lawyers acting on behalf of Kuwait Airways sought the impounding of an Iraqi Airways plane as it landed in London for the first time in two decades — a moment of considerable national pride. In January, a Kuwaiti Coast Guard officer was killed in an altercation with an Iraqi fishing boat, which was sunk during the incident. And late last year Qais Al-Azzawi, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League, suggested that Iraq did not accept the U.N. demarcated border — a comment that sounded eerily similar to one of Saddam Hussein’s flimsy pretexts for the 1990 invasion.

These tensions have taken a dramatic turn for the worse over Kuwaiti plans to build a new port on a sensitive location at the mouth of the long-contested Shaat Al-Arab. The uproar has been exacerbated by democratic politics in Iraq and Kuwait, as issues of national pride and historical memory have proven irresistible to ambitious politicians. Yet these parliamentarians are putting at risk striking new opportunities for cooperation between the former antagonists, which could lead to conflict that nobody really wants.

Most Kuwaitis still harbor a tremendous amount of anger toward Iraq since the invasion of their country in 1990. This is understandable: the Iraqi invasion decimated their country, cost hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and lost earnings and was a profound and brutal mental shock. But the invasion was two decades ago. In the intervening time, Kuwait has long since recovered and is per capita once more one of the richest countries on earth. Iraq has itself been pummeled by war: its people have suffered to an extraordinary degree, its government has changed and its erstwhile dictator has been put to death. 

Nevertheless, Kuwait still demands war reparations from Iraq, with some $20 billion still outstanding, as well as full cooperation regarding the return of its national archives and other artifacts and the fate of Kuwaiti prisoners of war. Not until these vexatious and thorny issues are settled, or an accommodation is reached with the U.N., will Iraq escape U.N. Chapter 7 provisions — imposed after the invasion — which would allow Iraq to negotiate remaining issues directly with Kuwait.

These incidents have been interspersed with moments of real progress. August 2010 saw the signing of an important agreement on sharing the proceeds from the Rumaila oil field, the fourth largest in the world, which spans the border. And five months later, in January 2011, there was the first Kuwaiti prime ministerial visit to Iraq since 1990. Kuwait has sizable investments in Iraq to consider. Zain, one of Kuwait’s key mobile phone operators bought Iraqna, an Iraqi counterpart, for $1.2 billion and is now the market leader; various Kuwaiti banks and institutions have bought large, often controlling, shares in Iraqi banks; there has been significant investment in construction in, for example, Najaf and Karbala; and Kuwait is, with $1.5 billion, one of the largest Arab investors in Iraqi Kurdistan. One might suppose that such a burgeoning economic portfolio or indeed the calm economic analysis of some of Kuwait’s major institutions could act as a foundation for better bilateral relations. It might yet, but the outlook is not good thus far.

The latest twist to the saga began with Kuwaiti plans to construct a huge deepwater port –Mubarak Kabeer — on Bubiyan Island, at the very mouth of the long-contested Shatt Al-Arab. No one is disputing the legality of Kuwait’s right to build a port wherever it so chooses within its borders, as long as it does not adversely affect its neighbors’ rights. Yet the ramifications of these policies, which will further escalate tensions, cannot simply be ignored.

This mega port would automatically render unprofitable Iraq’s planned Grand Faw port located nearby, for which it has it already signed a $4 billion contract. Some Iraqis warn that it would impinge Iraq’s access to its waterways. Others argue that it could have devastating economic effects. Instead of Grand Faw being a catalyst for the development of southern Iraq, some estimates suggest that it could lose up to 60 percent of its business when Mubarak opens. This plays into an emerging Iraqi narrative, which accuses Kuwait of actively seeking to thwart Iraq’s recovery. Iraqi nationalists are describing Kuwait’s decision to build the Mubarak port as the start of an ‘economic war’ — a term with familiar resonance from the days of Saddam.

There is much at stake, but a change in course is highly unlikely. Ironically, increasingly contentious democratic politics are part of the problem. Any slowdown in construction with the Mubarak port would be seen by some in Kuwait’s febrile Parliament as tantamount to treacherous capitulation. And an embattled Iraqi government is unlikely to back away from any issue that promises national unity and a welcome distraction from its problems.

Attempting to draw the attention of citizens away from domestic issues to a certain ‘other’ group to boost cohesiveness and to create scapegoats is a time-honored and effective political strategy. This kind of nationalistic tub thumping is in evidence on both sides of this issue. Both Kuwaitis and Iraqis have a deep reservoir of mutual dislike from which to draw. For Kuwaitis, they simply hark back to the destruction of their country. For Iraqis the mantra of ‘Kuwait suffered from Saddam for a few years; we suffered for decades,’ suitably topped up by Kuwait’s continuing onerous demands, is more than enough fodder for nationalistic politicians, keen to distract attention from domestic ills and U.S. pressure to extend its troop presence.

Kuwait’s form of democracy, particularly in recent times, poses distinct problems. The political system engenders neither consensus-seeking nor peaceable parliamentarians. Political parties are banned in Kuwait. Without a readily identifiable set of general ideas as to what they stand for, MPs must appeal directly to the public and publicize not only themselves but their policies. One simple way to do this is by offering a service platform (i.e. no taxes, greater subsidies) or by banging a popular drum. Since MPs do not vote to accept the government and ‘their’ party is by definition never identified as ‘in power,’ when things go wrong most MPs can wholly absolve themselves of responsibility, retorting that it was the government’s fault. Thus without some form of positive responsibility on MPs they can easily, irresponsibly and merrily attack Iraq without having to deal with the consequences.

The chances of Kuwait pursuing a more mature and long-term thinking approach to the Iraqi bilateral relationship do not appear to be good. Kuwait’s Parliament has, in recent years, shown a profound inability to take difficult decisions when necessary. Instead, MPs seem preoccupied with ousting the embattled prime minister and blocking much needed investment packages. When they do come together to agree on something, it is a $70 billion budget of which a staggering 90 percent will be spent on fuel subsidies and salary increases. Moreover, were an MP to table a motion regarding resetting the relationship with Iraq, it would likely be shot down quickly and harshly by populist MPs playing to anti-Iraqi national sentiment. In a revolutionary age, Kuwait’s Parliament acts effectively as a mechanism for people to blow off steam. It would be highly difficult for the prime minister, who is perennially under pressure, to stake his political fortunes on an unpopular call to take a more mature approach to Iraq.

Kuwait should revaluate its relationship on the pragmatic basis of what is best for Kuwait. Kuwait’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is pitifully low compared to neighboring countries. Numerous political and economic policies account for this, but if Kuwait can secure its relations with Iraq this would contribute toward fostering a more secure environment for Kuwaitis to countenance (if not demand) meaningful domestic development with the help of meaningful levels of FDI.

At the moment, Iraq is broken and split, but this will not last. Kuwait needs to make its peace with Iraq now, before Iraqi hostility toward Kuwait transcends from simple anger toward a national pathology of hate. There is also the potential that dislike or hatred of Kuwait could become the single rallying point of Iraqi nationalism; one of the few topics upon which Sunni, Shia and Kurd could potentially agree. 

Kuwaitis might also ponder the question of morality. Certainly, Kuwait was ravaged by Saddam, but he is now long gone. It is questionable, therefore, given that Iraq is still struggling to regain its feet, whether Iraqis ought to be paying the price for Saddam’s misdeeds. Is it morally defensible to impel a country whose people are, according to the IMF, nearly eleven times poorer to give huge amounts of money to a significantly richer neighbor?

The only chance of fundamentally restructuring the Kuwait-Iraq relationship is for Kuwaiti citizens to see that they would be better off with Iraq as an ally and not as an embittered neighbor. This does not mean that Kuwait capitulates to Iraq over its demands. Instead of persistently viewing Iraqi relations as a zero-sum game filtered through bitter memories, Kuwaitis must look forward and see the genuine opportunities that are ready for them to grasp, should they so choose.

David B. Roberts is deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute (Qatar) and the creator and author of

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