US President Donald Trump listens during a joint news conference with Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in the East Room of the White House, Washington, Sept. 7, 2017.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Kuwait under pressure to take sides as Gulf tensions fester

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Kuwait’s role as a free-spirited backchannel between Gulf rivals is coming under strain amid worsening tensions in the region.

US President Donald Trump initially hailed the emirate’s mediation in the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, touting Kuwait’s "critical contributions to regional stability" during Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah’s visit to the White House last September. A year later, the failure of those efforts has exposed the limits of Kuwait’s independent foreign policy, even as the country faces increasing pressure to get on board with Washington’s hawkish plans for the region.

With the Trump administration turning the screws on Iran, Kuwait issued a waffling statement May 9 that reiterated its support for the 2015 nuclear deal while nevertheless insisting that it “understands and respects” the US decision to pull out. Around the same time, Kuwait took the lead on a UN resolution seeking “international protection” for Palestinians against Israeli force in Gaza.

The country’s vocal criticism of Israel has put it at odds with other US Gulf allies that have quietly embraced the Trump administration’s plans to try to force peace terms favorable to Israel upon the Palestinians. The United States, for its part, promptly vetoed the UN resolution, prompting Kuwaiti media reports that presidential son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner had conveyed the administration’s “annoyance” in a meeting with Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

“Defying the United States is quite different from maintaining independence in an internal Gulf Cooperation Council squabble. Nor is there likely room for nonalignment in Trump’s strategy to contain Iran,” Jonathan Schanzer and Varsha Koduvayur of the right-wing Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in a June New York Post op-ed entitled “Kuwait best get with the program — or be prepared to face Trump’s wrath.”

The White House, however, has denied any strain in the relationship while insisting that the two countries “have a strong relationship based on mutual respect and shared strategic goals.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration has approved $887 million in arms sales to Kuwait since the president took office, including $430 million in surveillance aircraft, fast patrol boats, bombs and missiles so far this year.

This February, Kuwait hosted its National Day celebration at the Trump Hotel in Washington for the second year in a row. The move has sparked accusations of undue influence, which ambassador to the US Salem al-Sabah has rejected as "absurd." 

The emirate itself hasn’t retained any foreign agents in Washington since the government-funded International Counsel Bureau successfully pressed for the release of the last remaining Kuwaiti detainees in Guantanamo Bay in 2016. Several private firms, however, have lobbyists on their payroll.

Kuwaiti logistics company KGL 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. The firm has long faced US allegations of controversial ties to Iran, culminating with the arrest in 2016 of one of its shareholders on charges of trying to transfer airplane parts to the Islamic Republic. Lobbying records show that KGL paid Washington law firm Crowell & Moring $60,000 last year to lobby Congress regarding the Pentagon’s supply chain and appropriations in the face of legal challenges from Dubai-based rival ANHAM FZCO.

Despite the controversy, KGL in January scored a five-year contract worth up to $1.38 billion with the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency to supply food to US troops and other federal employees in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. A month later, the firm won another $550 million Defense Department contract for transportation services across the Middle East.

The Government Accountability Office however raised concerns in May with KGL’s winning bid for the food supply contract. And according to the Project on Government Oversight, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has asked the Office of Inspector General at the Defense Department to investigate whether KGL violated US sanctions and should be barred from bidding for federal contracts. Further complicating matters, Crowell & Moring is defending Marsha Lazareva, the managing director of KGL Investment, against accusations that she embezzled money from the state-owned Kuwait Port Authority.

Separately, Michigan-based engineering firm Osirius has retained the services of Washington-based Dickinson Wright and Federal Advocates in recent months to lobby on “international traffic in arms regulations” and “international contract procurement.” Lobbying records from earlier this year list “US-Kuwait commerce” as the focus of the lobbying activity.

Influencers

Kuwaiti Embassy

Ambassador: Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah

In post since: 2001

Lobbying by KGL Logistics

Crowell & Moring


Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck


Lobbying by Port Fund (Kuwait Ports Authority and Kuwait Public Institution for Social Security are major investors in the fund)

Squire Patton Boggs


Crowell & Moring
Terminated Feb. 28, 2019


Fahmy Hudome International
Terminated Feb. 28, 2019


Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck
Terminated March 31, 2019


Lobbying by Agility Public Warehousing Company

Venable


Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom


SGR Government Affairs and Lobbying


Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan


Lobbying by Saud A. A. Al-Arfaj
Lobbying by Osirius Group (Michigan-based engineering firm)

Dickinson Wright


Lobbying by KGL Investment

Crowell & Moring


R & B Strategies
Crowell & Moring subcontractor


Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan
Law firm


Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck


Fahmy Hudome International


Ballard Partners


Marathon Strategies


Travel


U.S. Assistance


U.S. Arms Sales


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