Lobbying 2017: US turns to Kuwait as mediator in Gulf dispute
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson needs help in the Middle East, he calls on one of Washington’s closest allies in the region: Kuwait. The tiny emirate has proven itself particularly useful in the early months of the Donald Trump administration, emerging as a key mediator after a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries cut economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June....
Author: Jack Detsch
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson needs help in the Middle East, he calls on one of Washington’s closest allies in the region: Kuwait.
The tiny emirate has proven itself particularly useful in the early months of the Donald Trump administration, emerging as a key mediator after a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries cut economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June. Sheikh Sabah, the country’s emir, visited Trump at the White House in September while Tillerson made Kuwait his first stop on a trip to the Gulf in July.
"I want to thank His Highness [Sheikh Sabah] for his leadership role and the role he's playing to help the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council follow through on their pledges from all over,” Trump said at a press conference during Sabah’s visit to the White House. “We are addressing the ongoing GCC dispute, and the emir is leading those discussions and hopefully it will be resolved very soon.”
Kuwait’s move to broker the conflict, which hinges on demands that Qatar cease supporting political Islamists and take a tougher stance against Iran, isn’t the emirate’s first diplomatic salvo. The oil-rich nation has long pursued negotiated outcomes to the region’s bitter divisions, whether it’s cultivating ties with Tehran, empowering its parliament or denouncing Sunni-Shiite sectarianism.
“[Kuwait is] a low-key country, and they want as little drama as possible,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Al-Monitor. “This kind of theatrical, ideological struggle is not something they see as useful. They find it to be extremely dangerous.”
In turn, the United States has consistently backed Kuwait with arms, bases and other forms of economic and military assistance. In November, the State Department approved the sale of 28 Boeing F-18 Super Hornets — jets that the emirate has used in the past to assist the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
Kuwait will soon have better munitions to carry out that fight, too. The State Department has recently given the go-ahead for US contractors to sell M1A1 Abrams tanks, air-to-air missiles and hundreds of laser-guidance bomb kits to the emirate.
More than 13,000 US troops are stationed in Kuwait, most of them at Al-Mubarak air base, home to the country’s air force, which the US Army Corps of Engineers plans to overhaul to improve barracks, hangars, training areas and overall operations at the facility. Another 2,500 US troops from the 82nd Airborne Division shipped out to the emirate in March to advise and assist local fighters taking on the Islamic State.
Kuwait also shelled out $523 million to US contractor Raytheon last year to begin upgrading its Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries. While a congressional hold on arms sales to the Gulf by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., could threaten future sales to Kuwait, the Patriot deal is already moving forward.
In a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, the US commander in chief praised the emir of Kuwait for buying American arms.
“They buy tremendous amounts of our military equipment and they invest in the United States,” Trump said. “That’s what we like to hear. We like to hear about jobs, jobs, jobs, and they are spending a lot of money on the new planes.”
What’s more, the United States has a long-standing tradition of offering military protection to Kuwait, culminating in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to liberate the oil-rich emirate after it was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And in the midst of a destructive phase of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War where both sides trained strategic bombs on shipping lanes, the US Navy raised the American flag on Kuwaiti oil tankers to protect them from attack.
Bilateral relations took a hit after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with Kuwait spending millions of dollars until as recently as 2015 to get 12 detained citizens out of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since the transfer of the last Kuwaiti prisoner in January 2016, the government has ceased its US lobbying operations.
Kuwait’s KGL Logistics shipping company however has been lobbying since 2010 over a contract dispute worth hundreds of millions of dollars in support of US forces in Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. Lobbying records show the firm paid Washington, DC law firm Crowell and Moring $120,000 last year to lobby policymakers on “US procurement policy.” The company has long faced allegations of controversial ties to Iran, culminating with the arrest last year of one of its shareholders on charges of trying to transfer airplane parts to Iran.
The emirate’s centrality in dealing with the Qatar crisis could give Kuwait a future leg up as it seeks US help to grow its military and diplomatic influence in the region, however.
“There is a real question mark about how effective [Kuwait] could be on its own. At a certain point you need American leadership,” Ibish told Al-Monitor. “The United States alone probably does have the heft, but if it’s backed up by the local knowledge of the Kuwaitis, it’s extremely helpful.”