Kuwait has long played a constructive role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by bringing opposing parties together. It also enjoys strong relations with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So when Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain cut ties to Qatar in early June, Kuwait was seen as an acceptable mediator that can mend the latest rift within the GCC.
Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah served for 40 years as foreign minister (1963-2003), and then as prime minister before becoming the emir of Kuwait in 2006. The vast experience he had in these positions and the intensity of his involvement in the issues that affect the region as a whole made him the right man for this hard task.
So when the crisis erupted, both the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar turned to Al-Sabah. But they had very different motivations for doing so.
For Qatar, Kuwait is a trustworthy neighbour that has no vested interest in any kind of internal GCC conflict. Also, Sheikh Al-Sabah is praised in Doha as a wise and experienced statesman. Most importantly, Kuwait – as a small country – knows very well from its own experience with Iraq what it is to face aggression from a big and powerful neighbour. Thus Doha believes that Kuwait can easily understand and help to solve the current situation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies.
On the other hand, the Saudi-led bloc has a very different perspective regarding the nature of the role Kuwait can play in this crisis. Although they also seem to be welcoming Kuwaiti mediation, their motivation for doing so is to lessen the influence of outside actors in the crisis. They seem to be unwilling to solve the crisis which is posing serious challenges for Kuwait.
Blocking mediation efforts
Even though there is a broad regional and international consensus to support the role of Al-Sabah as a mediator in the crisis, Kuwait was unable to be effective and three rounds of mediation didn’t lead to the desired outcomes yet. US President Donald Trump’s toxic influence also played a role in the failure of Kuwait’s efforts; however, the most important reason behind it was the Saudi-led bloc’s refusal to participate in and show any enthusiasm for a meaningful mediation process.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Saudi-led bloc imposed serious restrictions on the role Kuwait can play in the crisis. By doing so, they wanted to ensure Riyadh’s strong influence over small GCC countries and to force Qatar to comply.
At the very beginning of the crisis, on June 5, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, adviser of the Saudi King Salman, visited Kuwait to deliver a message to its Emir. Kuwait’s state-run news agency KUNA didn’t disclose the contents of the message; however, one source with knowledge of the situation told me that “The purpose was to discourage the Emir [of Kuwait’s mediation efforts]”.
The bottom line here is that without at least neutralising Trump's negative influence in the crisis and applying pressure on the Saudi-led bloc to participate in meaningful negotiations, Kuwait will likely have no chance to succeed in its mission.
The same source said that at that time: “The Emir of Qatar was preparing to deliver a strong speech with retaliatory measures in response to the measures taken against his country.” But, despite Saudi efforts to discourage mediation, “al-Sabah called [Qatar’s Emir] Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and urged him for restraint”.
The Emir of Kuwait was interested in avoiding a vicious cycle of destructive actions and reactions by both sides. And Qatar’s Emir aided his mediatory mission by not delivering the strong speech he had prepared. However, actions of the US President Donald Trump disrupted Qatar and Kuwait’s efforts to de-escalate the situation.
On June 6, a tweet by Trump implying that Qatar is “funding a radical ideology” empowered the Saudi-led bloc, and made Kuwait’s job much harder. Following the US president’s now infamous tweet, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE escalated their attacks against Qatar. UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said: “There is nothing to negotiate with Qatar,” thus sabotaging the first round of the Kuwaiti mediation efforts.
During this first round of efforts, the anti-Qatar quartet also refused to disclose the real causes that triggered the crisis and did not present any proof for the serious allegations they had raised against Doha. Furthermore, they did not present a list of demands, guaranteeing the failure of Kuwait’s mediation efforts.
Just a mailman
The second round of the Kuwaiti efforts started over a month later, when the Saudi-led bloc finally prepared its list of 13 demands. At this stage, however, the Saudi-led bloc limited the role of Kuwait to a mailman.
Adel Al-Jubair, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, once again made it clear that there would be “no negotiations” with Qatar. Kuwait was only allowed to deliver the list of 13 demands to Doha and receive Qatar’s response in a period of 10 days. These restrictions made any Kuwaiti effort for mediation completely futile.
During this time, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made visits to the region to help Kuwait in its mediation efforts, and slight progress was achieved.
According to one Gulf official, “Kuwait asked Doha not to disclose its response on the 13 demands to the public in order to help its efforts in mediation”. The same source told me: “A roadmap and a set of principles were conveyed to the Saudi-led bloc after Doha signed an agreement with US on combating terrorism.”
However, at this point of the process, a set of agreements made between Gulf countries between 2013 and 2014, known as Riyadh Agreements, were leaked to American broadcaster CNN, which has regional headquarters in Abu Dhabi. This leak was widely seen as another attempt to block the joint efforts of Kuwait and the US Secretary to solve the crisis.
Despite the Saudi-led bloc’s reluctance to help the mediation efforts, on July 22, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani showed willingness and readiness for dialogue in his first speech about the crisis. Yet, only a week after his speech, top officials from the Saudi-led bloc met in Bahrain and reasserted that there would be no negotiations with Qatar unless it fulfills the 13 demands.
For Kuwait, this was like going back to square one again.
At this stage, there is still no direct communication between the opposing sides of the GCC conflict. Kuwait is deprived from an effective mediation role and the UAE seems to be content with the idea of a stalemate. Because of all this, Kuwaiti efforts for mediation remain fruitless.The bottom line here is that without at least neutralising Trump’s negative influence in the crisis and applying pressure on the Saudi-led bloc to participate in meaningful negotiations, Kuwait will likely have no chance to succeed in its mission.
Dr Ali Bakeer is an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher. He holds a PhD in political science and international relations. His main research interests include Turkey’s foreign policy, Iran and GCC countries.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.