By Nicolai Due-Gundersen
On the 24th of April 2019, Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
At the signing in Baghdad, GCC Secretary-General Abdul
Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani praised the agreement as a call to frequent
“political consultations [between Iraqi and GCC representatives] to
allow for regular dialogue on issues of mutual interest.” His Iraqi
counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali al-Hakim agreed. “The security
and safety of the Gulf,” al-Hakim insisted, “is the security and safety
On this point, GCC members do not fully agree. For smaller members such as Kuwait, Iraq represents a painful stain on so-called Arab solidarity. Museums across Kuwait City commemorate the 1990 Gulf War and Iraq’s attempts to annex Kuwait under Saddam Hussein. “One of the released Kuwaiti [prisoners of war (PoW)] has depicted through these drawings the sufferance of Kuwaiti PoW’s in the Iraq prisons,” explains one exhibit. “I support the [US] troops,” announces an old badge on display. Its brothers express similar sentiments. “Free Kuwait. Kuwait will be free.”
Although Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations have improved, that does not mean Kuwait is ready to forgive the wounds of the 1990 War. As one of the smaller GCC members, Kuwait saw eventual support against its occupation from not only the US but Saudi Arabia . This latter aspect is significant, as the Saudi-dominated GCC has now led a blockade against Qatar for almost two years. While Kuwait attempted to mediate the beginnings of the blockade, unlike a successful 2014 arbitration, these efforts have so far failed.
With Saudi Arabia not only leading GCC-Iraqi relations but forming a new GCC military alliance without Kuwait, this oil kingdom cornered in the Gulf must be wondering how long it can balance interests as a neutral party. So long as the blockade continues, Kuwait’s alliances with neighbors will weaken, and Kuwait knows from past experience that it needs military assistance to fend off external threats. With some Saudi royals calling for military action against Kuwait for its perceived disloyalty, Kuwait requires a united GCC more than ever.
The GCC as Iraqi and Iranian Containment
The GCC was founded not only as a response to Iran’s Shia’a revolution of 1979, but on the winds of the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam’s Iraq was regarded as expansionist and ambitious in its desire to be the Gulf’s supreme head. Hence, the GCC’s relationship with Iraq was always complex, with members courting Iraq with caution to counter Iran. “With its perceived military power [under Saddam Hussein], Iraq was highly placed to play such a role,” explains Ghanim al-Najar, Political Science Professor at Kuwait University. “GCC states contributed heavily to the support of Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran.”
At the same time, GCC members proximate to Iraq were always wary of Saddam’s expansionist image as he took advantage of the Iran-Iraq War to crown himself the Knight of the Sunni Gulf countering Iran’s Shia’a exportation. The GCC’s fragmented relations with Iraq in its beginnings reflected further disunity on other major political trends in the region. From its inception to 2000, the GCC did not “solve any major bilateral disagreement arising between members,” insists al-Najar. The GCC only functions when there are mutual interests, with infighting and factions thoroughly emphasized by the ongoing Qatar blockade.
Mutual Interests and Mutual Fears
Two GCC members that share proximity to Iraq are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait shared border disputes with Iraq that were ostensibly solved by British decisions in the 1922 Uqair Conference. It took two days for Britain’s Baghdad representative to finalize borders. The rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia acquiesced but Iraq would not back down.
Even after the 1922 borders, Iraq’s Hashemite Monarchy proposed a union between the two kingdoms. Kuwait and Britain objected. By the 1960’s, Arab revolution and anti-monarchical nationalism had taken Baghdad. The Baathist Republic under General Abdulkarim Qasim continued Iraq’s claims to Kuwait. However, it was Saddam Hussein who would attempt to turn rhetoric into reality. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait would succeed a financially crippling war with Iran. As Kuwait demanded Iraq repay loans that had financed this war, Saddam Hussein increased his calls for annexation of Kuwait and accused his neighbor of slant-drilling into Iraqi oil fields across the border. The claims of Iraqi royals and republicans emphasizes how the 1990 Gulf War did not happen in a vacuum. “The Iraqi invasion,” outlines al-Najar, “was part of a process and not an isolated incident. Historically, Iraqi politicians have found it useful to play on Kuwaiti fears whenever necessary.”
Yet, the invasion was not without irony. Kuwait had supported Iraq in its war with Iran and had gone so far as to allow Iraqi Intelligence Services to kidnap opposition figures in Kuwait to face Saddam’s wrath back home. Such generosity meant that even though tensions existed between Iraq’s Saddam and Kuwait’s al-Sabah monarchy, the invasion came as a psychological shock that traumatized the smaller Gulf nation.
Saudi Arabia supported Saddam as the lesser of two evils when Iran became a Shia’a theocracy. The year before Saddam seized Kuwait, Saudi Arabia had signed a non-aggression pact with Iraq’s strongman. It was only when the Saudis felt that Kuwait may be the start of a further expansion that they acted. Five months into his occupation of Kuwait, Saddam gave a televised address in which he declared that the House of Saud was “a traitor to the two Holy Mosques [in Mecca and Medina] and the Arab nation.” Calling out the monarchy for its US relations, Saddam insisted that “the kings, the traitors will be overthrown.” Kuwait and Saudi Arabia now had a mutual enemy, and Riyadh was only too happy to allow over half a million US troops to deploy in their kingdom and participate in airstrikes against Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait.
It was mutual interest that saw the GCC’s de facto head come to Kuwait’s aid in a form of collective security. Mutual interest continues to define the GCC and Kuwait’s relationship with the GCC.
Ironically, neither the blockaders nor Qatar and their allies have any interest in ending the blockade. For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, making the first move would be a tacit admission of the blockade’s failure and hence the failure of their leaderships. For Qatar, the blockade has reignited nationalism as locals rally around Emir Tamim al-Thani. With gas wealth and a small populous, Qatar can ride the new wave of nationalism while shielding citizens from economic effects of the siege, increasing their US and global ties while also ramping up production industries at home.
As a neutral member of the GCC, Kuwait stands with Oman. Like its neighbor, there is a risk that the longer the blockade drags on, the more likely such neutrality will earn Kuwait Saudi displeasure and political consequences of failed mediation. Unless other GCC members are willing to create a new Gulf forum without Saudi involvement, Kuwait may be forced to pick sides or stand alone. The GCC, once a hub of mutual goals, may soon fragment into a lost symbol of the Middle East’s last region of stability.