Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
The news of the death of Kuwait’s emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, was met with an outpouring of condolences from across the political spectrum in the Arab world, with many praising his unwavering position on the Palestinian issue in the face of normalization agreements with Israel from Gulf neighbors. Many pointed to his seminal role in orchestrating Kuwait’s foreign policy since the early years of the country’s independence, imbuing it with a pan-Arab character. As the longest serving foreign minister in Kuwait’s history, from 1963 to 2003, Sabah al-Ahmed oversaw Kuwait’s emergence as a mediator in inter-Arab disputes and a supporter of various Arab causes, diplomatically and through its aid policy. However, while his role was significant in this regard, there were other factors that influenced the country’s foreign policy. Kuwait’s distinct history of state formation and the evolution of state-society relations allowed for a certain degree of popular influence on decision making. Sabah al-Ahmed’s worldview was to a large extent shaped through ongoing engagement with popular forces as well as his state’s distinctive path of institutional evolution. With the passing of Sabah al-Ahmed, Kuwait’s foreign policy will probably not change drastically, continuing to reflect popular opinion on major issues.
Sabah al-Ahmed’s political career began in the 1950s, when Kuwait had yet to attain independence from Britain. His political roles during this period reveal how he came to adopt Arabist ideas early on. At the beginning of the decade, Sabah al-Ahmed was a member of a group of young sheikhs influenced by modernist and Arabist ideas. They were close to Kuwait’s ruler at the time, Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, who was the main architect of Kuwait’s constitutional order following independence in 1961. The young sheikhs also formed alliances with Kuwait’s Arab nationalist opposition to gain popular support in their struggle against senior ruling family members. In 1954, the ruler appointed Sabah al-Ahmed to the High Executive Committee, a short-lived governmental body tasked with reforming the administration.
During this early period, Sabah al-Ahmed was also closely aligned with his older half-brother, Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who would rule from 1977 to 2006. In the 1950s, the British often referred to the two brothers’ Arabist, anti-colonial, and progressive inclinations. A 1957 British report states that they stood politically “left” of center within the ruling family, adding that they would be likely to favor “a revision or abrogation of the traditional relationship with Britain.” Another report holds that the young sheikhs were “receptive of the ideas of the rising generation of Kuwaitis and … to those from the outside” meaning external Arab influences. British officials also spoke of these sheikhs’ “sympathy” for the opposition’s “progressive ideas and constitutional demands,” describing this as a “weakness” within the ruling family. British correspondence also highlights the influence of Nasserism on Sabah al-Ahmed during this period, describing him as “the most pro-Egyptian of the Shaikhs.”
In 1956, Sabah al-Ahmed acquired more extensive administrative duties with his appointment as president of the departments of press and publishing (forerunner of the Ministry of Information) and social affairs. In this new role, Sabah al-Ahmed’s Arabist ideas took shape. The British observed that the Social Affairs Department, administered by young Kuwaiti graduates and Egyptian advisors, “prided itself since the earliest days on being … in the van of the renaissance of ‘true Arabism.’” The Press and Publishing Department was also known for its pan-Arab inclinations. Under Sabah al-Ahmed’s leadership, it began publishing the literary and cultural magazine Al-Arabi (The Arab) in 1958, which continues to this day. The magazine displayed strong pan-Arab sentiments, with the Press and Publishing Department declaring that it aspired to do “the sons of Arabism a nationalist service.” Sabah al-Ahmed also oversaw the official gazette Al-Kuwait Al-Youm (Kuwait Today), in which he published strongly worded proclamations on Arab issues, such as the formation of the United Arab Republic and the Algerian Revolution. Sabah al-Ahmed thus had strong Arabist ideas before becoming foreign minister.
Under Sabah al-Ahmed’s direction, Kuwait’s foreign policy in the first decades of independence was progressive, pan-Arab, and anti-colonial. It engaged with republican, communist, and revolutionary governments and movements, including those other Gulf states regarded with suspicion, such as South Yemen. Kuwait also actively mediated inter-Arab disputes, particularly Saudi-Egyptian tensions. Moreover, it resisted certain forms of Western influence in the region. Kuwait’s strong Arabist positions often surpassed those of other Gulf Arab states. For example, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Kuwait had a leading role in the oil embargo through hosting the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries conference in October during which the decision was made to increase oil prices and reduce production. It also formally opposed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s move to cancel the embargo, while tensions grew between Kuwait and the United Kingdom and United States due to the Gulf state’s vocal pro-Palestinian positions.
Kuwait’s foreign policy was not solely the result of Sabah al-Ahmed’s personal outlook, however, and it must be contextualized within the history of the country’s institutional development and state-society relations. Many studies of the Gulf states’ foreign policy argue that domestic dynamics play an insignificant role in shaping decision makers’ perceptions. Although Kuwait, like other Gulf states, has a monarchical system that provides few formal avenues for the public to participate in decision making, there are spaces for informal dialogue between the ruling elite and members of society.
Kuwaiti oral history holds that Kuwait’s powerful merchant class elected the Al Sabah family as rulers, marking the ruling family as first among equals. This narrative influenced the establishment of various elected bodies in Kuwait’s history. The early nature of Kuwait’s representative government continued to define politics even after the discovery of oil, which culminated in the establishment of Kuwait’s parliamentary system following independence. Though state-society relations were often far from harmonious and included periods of political repression, this legacy of consultative government nevertheless influenced Kuwait’s foreign policy decision making processes. It facilitated the movement of Arabist ideas between society and decision makers and enabled the participation of pan-Arab elements in government. For example, the first undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Jasim al-Qatami, a leader of the opposition Movement of Arab Nationalists.
Another factor that set Kuwait apart from its Gulf neighbors was the comparatively limited role of the British within internal administration, allowing the state to instead rely on Arab technical assistance. Beginning in 1942 the Egyptian government deputed teachers to Kuwait, and later judges, doctors, and other experts. After 1948, large numbers of highly skilled Palestinian refugees took up leading positions in government. This environment encouraged the spread of pan-Arab ideas in government institutions.
These institutional and societal dynamics led Kuwait to become a hub for pan-Arab activity, which was not only evident among the Kuwaiti public but also in certain factions of Kuwait’s ruling family. Sabah al-Ahmed began his career in government when Arab nationalist ideas had a strong hold on the country. He attended the same schools as other Kuwaitis and engaged in similar cultural activities and was thus connected to popular ideas and trends. This shaped how he led Kuwait’s foreign ministry and subsequently the country.
Even though the heyday of Arab nationalism in Kuwait and the region is long gone, popular interest in Arab issues, particularly that of Palestine, has forced the Kuwaiti government to continue to uphold certain principles. This looks set to continue, as evidenced by a recent letter signed by 37 Kuwaiti parliamentarians rejecting the normalization of relations with Israel. The Kuwaiti public also remains invested in the country’s position as a mediatory force so it will likely continue to play a role in brokering negotiations on the current Gulf crisis as well as regional conflicts such as the war in Yemen.
Despite tensions between the late ruler and the opposition since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which led to years of political crisis, Sabah al-Ahmed continued to mirror popular sentiment on these issues. The fundamental institutional makeup of Kuwait’s political system has not changed significantly since its early independence days. The requirement for Parliament to ratify treaties and its right to interpellate ministers will make it difficult for Kuwait to change the course of foreign policy. Kuwait’s parliamentary system also continues to encourage ruling family members to form alliances with popular forces to strengthen their political positions. With this system in place, under the new emir and whomever is to follow, popular influence will continue to play a role in charting Kuwait’s foreign policy.
is a postdoctoral fellow at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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