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On December 21, 2021, the Iraqi Ministry of Finance announced that it had made the final payment of compensation for Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A senior advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi noted that, with this $44 million payment, “Iraq paid all obligations imposed on it” by the United Nations Security Council.
Iraq made its payment through the United Nations Compensation Commission, a little-known U.N. organization that the Security Council created in 1991 to adjudicate and pay compensation claims from the 1990 invasion. Security Council resolutions empowered the commission to take 5% of Iraq’s oil revenue to pay claims brought by governments, businesses, and private citizens. Over three decades, Iraq paid $52.4 billion in compensation to more than 1.5 million claimants. The commission announced that it had transferred the final compensation payment to Kuwait on January 13.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was one of the world’s most internationalized conflicts. Between 1990 and 2017, the Security Council passed more than 40 resolutions dealing with issues that emerged from the war, most of which demanded actions from Iraq. Not surprisingly, Iraqis chafed at the U.N.-imposed obligations even if they understood why they were levied, particularly after Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003, when many of the obligations continued for the new Iraqi government. There is, for example, resentment over the revenue that has gone to Kuwait. In December 2021, an advisor to the prime minister noted that, had the money paid to Kuwait over 30 years been directed to productive investment inside Iraq, it would have been “sufficient to build an electricity network” that could have powered Iraq for years.
Iraq’s final compensation payment should close one chapter in this saga. Kuwait’s ambassador to Iraq noted that the U.N. Compensation Commission would introduce a resolution in the Security Council to permanently close the file of Iraq’s compensation obligations. The Security Council is scheduled to hear from the head of the commission in February and is expected soon after to consider a resolution confirming that Iraq has met its compensation obligations.
If the commitment for Iraq to pay 5% of its oil revenue to the commission is lifted, $2 billion in revenue will be restored to the Iraqi treasury annually. It will not, however, resolve other lingering disputes, including the return of missing persons and property and a long-elusive demarcation of the maritime boundary.
Missing Persons and Stolen Property
As often happens in war, people as well as personal and state property disappeared during the Iraqi invasion and occupation. In 1991, the Security Council passed two resolutions (686 and 687) that obliged Iraq, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, to release all Kuwaiti and third-country nationals it had detained during the war, repatriate the remains of any deceased, and return all Kuwaiti property seized by Iraq. Iraq did release many Kuwaiti prisoners of war who were registered with the ICRC, but the records did not contain all of those later reported captured by Iraq. Kuwait has identified 605 citizens it believes were taken and not released. The U.N. formed the Tripartite Commission, chaired by the ICRC and composed of representatives from Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, to manage the search for and return of prisoners, remains of deceased, and Kuwaiti state and personal property.
Over the life of the commission, Iraq has returned three batches of material from the Kuwaiti National Archives as well as the remains of 275 Kuwaitis captured during the war. Kuwait likewise identified and returned the remains of 98 Iraqis. Despite this progress, there are still more than a thousand missing person cases, including nearly 400 Kuwaitis, 700 Iraqis, and nine Saudis. Over 30 years after the invasion, it will require the active engagement of the Iraqi and Kuwaiti governments to encourage their citizens who may have knowledge of those who are missing or of stolen property to come forward to present that information to the ICRC without fear of reprisal.
Demarcating the Border – by Land
The land border between Kuwait and Iraq is now protected with a fence and electronic sensors. The border was demarcated and guaranteed by Security Council resolutions, however this demarcation did not come about easily and is not yet complete.
Kuwait and Iraq tried several times during the 20th century to delimit and demarcate their land and maritime borders. An exchange of letters in 1932 delimited most of the border, with Kuwait and Iraq agreeing in principle where on the map the border would be, but it was not physically demarcated. In 1961, when Kuwait became independent, Iraq refused to recognize the new state and claimed its territory. Iraq reversed course and recognized Kuwait in 1963, agreeing to the border delimited in 1932.
In 1990, after it invaded Kuwait, Iraq again claimed Kuwait as its territory. Following the war, the U.N. established a commission to finally demarcate the 1932 boundary. The commission completed its work in 1993 and the Security Council, in Resolution 833, declared that “the decisions of the Commission regarding the demarcation of the boundary are final.”
The demarcated border put a number of Iraqi families inside Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government provided funds to build a new village for those families on the Iraqi side of the border, but some of them and some Iraqi politicians publicly accused Kuwait and the U.N. of stealing their property and Iraqi territory. The Security Council, in an attempt to blunt these allegations, noted in Resolution 833 that “the Commission was not reallocating territory between Kuwait and Iraq,” but merely “carrying out the technical task necessary to demarcate for the first time the precise coordinates of the boundary” agreed upon in 1932. The ire within these families and the potential for a political escalation remains, despite the U.N.’s efforts.
And by Water
With the land border marked, blessed by the U.N., and protected with a fence, attention turned to the more difficult task of demarcating the maritime boundary in the shared Khor Abdullah waterway. This narrow, shallow, and shifting channel between Iraq’s Faw Peninsula and the Kuwaiti islands of Boubyan and Warbah provides access to the major Iraqi ports of Umm Qasr and Zubair several miles inland. The clear right to navigation in this waterway is crucial to Iraqi trade. Kuwait, wishing to avoid future Iraqi claims of sovereignty, asked the Iraqi government in 2005 to settle the maritime boundary. Although the two sides signed an accord on the safety of navigation in the Khor Abdullah in 2012, they remain far from agreement on the course of the maritime boundary.
Lack of resolution of the maritime boundary is also partly due to tension over competing development paths for Kuwait’s Mubarak al-Kabir Port on Boubyan Island and Iraq’s Faw Port project, only a few hundred yards away on the Faw Peninsula. The concern on each side rests on their competing visions for their ports. Kuwait hopes the Mubarak al-Kabir Port will be the major sea link and trading hub for both Kuwait and Iraq, with ground logistics routes supplying both economies. Iraq has similar ambitions for the Faw Port.
A Commitment to Stability and Prosperity?
The normalization of relations between Kuwait and Iraq under the supervision of the Security Council has been slow and sometimes politically torturous. While the politics of both Iraq and Kuwait, particularly in the two boisterous parliaments, often complicate forward movement, progress has been steady. Senior officials of both governments understand the importance of amicable relations to provide stability and economic development.
The late Kuwaiti emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, said that the stability and prosperity of Iraq were vitally important for the stability of Kuwait. Acting on this idea, Kuwait quietly became the largest Gulf provider of development assistance to Iraq and in February 2018 hosted a donors conference to facilitate public and private sector investment in Iraq. Likewise on the Iraqi side, an Iraqi foreign minister once argued passionately that the only way for Iraq to escape the commitments imposed on it by the U.N. was to recognize what Saddam Hussein had wrought on Kuwait – and Iraq – and fulfill Iraq’s international responsibilities. Both of these positive inclinations point to the real possibility of continued progress in the future.
The likely end of Iraq’s compensation mandate will be a positive development for Iraq. With a bit of goodwill on both sides, the relationship between Iraq and Kuwait can continue to move toward being a source of stability and prosperity for both countries and the region.
is president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016-19 and U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 2014-16.
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