Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
On September 30, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led a Saudi delegation to Kuwait. As the first formal visit of the crown prince to a Gulf Cooperation Council country since becoming the heir apparent, the occasion drew much anticipation. The extremely short visit of only a few hours and perfunctory statements issued by both states at the meetings’ conclusion thus struck observers as odd. Kuwaitis on social media and some regional commentators speculated that the visit had gone badly, and that key issues – the proposed reopening of production in the Neutral Zone oil fields or the Qatar crisis – had generated disputes. This earned the formal rebuke of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which rejected this speculation and reaffirmed the close ties between the two countries.
Early reports do suggest a lack of immediate progress on key issues, though these may change with more information or further negotiations. Meanwhile, the composition of the Saudi delegation, which included an advance visit by the Saudi foreign minister followed by the ministers of energy, information, commerce, and culture, as well as the interior minister and head of general intelligence, indicate a broad engagement across the varied spheres of the economy, culture, and security. Local news reports about their meetings provide the opportunity to assess the priorities and potential of the new Saudi-Kuwaiti coordination council established in July and tasked with enhancing cooperation between the two neighboring states.
Tough Conversations: The Neutral Zone and the Qatar Dispute
A top priority of the visit was discussions to restart production in oilfields located in the Neutral Zone shared by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as recounted by Saudi and Kuwaiti sources previewing the visit, and evidenced by the attendance of Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih. The management of these oilfields has been cited as a primary motivation for the establishment of the new Saudi-Kuwaiti coordination council. The need to increase oil capacity has intensified as Iranian oil output drops under the pressure of U.S. sanctions, and Venezuelan oil production continues to slide. The administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump has been publicly hounding OPEC, and swing producer Saudi Arabia, to provide the additional production necessary to smooth oil markets, especially in the politically sensitive time as the United States heads toward midterm elections in November.
With questions mounting as to whether Saudi Arabia has the spare capacity needed to meet these demands, the untapped potential of the Neutral Zone oilfields of Wafra and Khafji loom large. The fields could contribute half a million barrels toward the 1.5 million barrels of additional output sought by Saudi Arabia. Production was halted in the Neutral Zone over the course of late 2014 and spring of 2015 due to disputes that have never been fully understood. The complex situation in which the two national oil companies jointly manage the fields alongside foreign oil groups with equity stakes seems to have raised difficult issues of sovereignty. It appears that the meetings in Kuwait have thus far failed to resolve the issue, with Bloomberg reporting that talks stalled over the role of Chevron.
Another difficult source of friction between the two countries has been the ongoing dispute with Qatar. Kuwait has remained committed to a negotiated resolution to the crisis and has fought to preserve the relevance of the GCC. Saudi Arabia and its partner the United Arab Emirates, however, have expressed no urgency to work toward a resolution without significant concessions from Qatar. An unnamed Gulf Arab official said that the dispute would be on the agenda of the Kuwaiti-Saudi meetings. But there has been no indication of such discussions, apart from post-meeting statements providing a general nod to “collective Gulf action.” It is noteworthy that Kuwait’s Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah met with Qatar’s ambassador to Kuwait shortly after Mohammed bin Salman’s departure from Kuwait.
Strengthening Bilateral Commercial and Cultural Ties
Efforts at strengthening bilateral ties were more evident in the cabinet-level meetings with the visiting Saudi ministers of commerce, media, and culture extending their visit beyond the short stay of the crown prince. Drawing Gulf and foreign investment into the kingdom is a goal of Saudi Vision 2030 and getting Kuwait engaged was likely a high priority in the meeting between Saudi Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid al-Qusaibi and his Kuwaiti counterpart, Minister of Commerce and Industry Khaled al-Roudhan. However, no specific new initiatives were announced. The Saudi desire for Kuwaiti investment will come up against Kuwaiti priorities for domestic economic development as slated in its own Kuwait Vision 2035. This vision has seen more urgency of late as Kuwait has reintroduced long-germinating plans for a massive northern port and city project. Indeed, shortly after the departure of the Saudi delegation, Roudhan held a press conference announcing “Kuwait’s new industrial era,” promising the relinquishing of state lands and funds to generate thousands of jobs for Kuwaiti youth.
The Gulf’s youth population was much on the minds of the media and culture ministers convening in Kuwait. Both countries have been expanding their outreach to youth in broad terms, with programs and initiatives in the arts, media, and entrepreneurship. Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan al-Saud, highlighted these new initiatives by visiting the new Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre during his time in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia has been particularly keen to shape youth opinion through media. To that end, an official partnership was announced between the Kuwaiti English language paper the Kuwait Times and the Saudi Ministry of Media to include “editorial and media cooperation, digital media development, youth training programs and outreach.” While this development will be welcome in Kuwait for the opportunities it may provide, it may raise questions about Saudi influence over local media, given the Kuwaiti government’s reported targeting of social media criticism of the kingdom’s rulers.
Kuwait Walks a Fine Line
In welcoming the Saudi-Kuwaiti coordination council Kuwait has made the strategic decision to deepen its engagement with Saudi Arabia on a bilateral basis, despite its significant concerns about the weakening of multilateral cooperation within the GCC. This relationship building may serve Kuwait well in having its voice considered as Saudi Arabia pursues its interests unilaterally, or in concert with its strong allies in the UAE. Still the persistence of disagreements, whether on oil or foreign policy, will remain a challenge for the smaller emirate as it seeks to protect its sovereignty and assert its fundamental interests, all while avoiding unnecessary provocations. As a longtime foreign minister, Kuwait’s emir will need to draw upon all of his considerable diplomatic skills to navigate this critical relationship and the changing power dynamic in the Gulf.
Biden will likely put weapons sales to the Gulf on the back burner, but, at the end of the day, the administration’s positions on arms sales will reflect continuity, not change.
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