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Kuwait's careful balancing act with Iran, Saudi Arabia

The muted responses to the US withdrawal from the Iran deal among smaller Gulf Cooperation Council member states reflect careful policies designed to balance ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait's Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference after their meetings at the White House in Washington, U.S. September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC182A22B640
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Reactions to US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have varied around the world, including in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have strongly backed the US move, other Gulf states have been cautious and declined to adopt a clear stance on the matter. For instance, Kuwait has not echoed the Saudi position and rather announced its understanding of the US decision to withdraw from the deal. The Kuwaiti position on the JCPOA is significant considering its close relationship with Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and its alliance with the United States on the other.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait has used different tools to secure its existence. First and foremost, it has relied on international powers for its protection, a trend that became critical after its liberation from Iraq in 1991. In addition, Kuwait has sought to protect itself by balancing its relationships with its neighbors — with the notable exception of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when it sided with Iraq. Kuwait has further relied on mediation as a tool of its foreign policy. This tool is not new, but rather boosted in recent years as Kuwait has mediated to end the ongoing war in Yemen. The eruption in 2017 of the crisis between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar on the other has further strengthened Kuwait’s role as a mediator. Kuwait benefits from this position because it shows the importance of the country both regionally and globally. While its efforts do not always succeed, the regional and international recognition of its mediator role is critical for its security. Hence, it is important for Kuwait to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran — the main rivals in the region — to gain the trust necessary to pursue its mediating efforts. As such, its reaction to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA should be seen as part of this balancing strategy.

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