Kuwait stands with Palestine as Israel normalisation deals tested

Israeli border guards detain a Palestinian youth during a demonstration outside the Lions Gate, a main entrance to Al-Aqsa mosque compound. [Getty]
7 min read
19 May, 2021
Analysis: Violence in Gaza and Jerusalem is testing the limits of the Abraham Accords signed by the UAE and Bahrain, while Kuwait has been further vindicated in its decision to reject normalisation with Israel.

The entire Arab world is watching the escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine. For the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which normalised diplomatic relations with Israel last year, the ongoing situations in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and parts of Israel-proper constitute "awkward" dilemmas.

Although both Abu Dhabi and Manama condemned this month's Israeli raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, there is good reason to doubt that these Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members will suspend the Abraham Accords over it.

These countries stand in strong contrast to Kuwait, which has resolutely opposed normalisation agreements with Israel.

How does this affect the Abraham Accords?

As the death toll rises, the UAE and Bahrain have been, at least officially, supporting Palestinians and speaking out against Israeli aggression. On 11 May, the UAE, along with others in the Arab League, called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to "investigate [Israeli] war crimes and crimes against humanity."

"The UAE is drawing a distinction between the Palestinian people and Hamas, which Abu Dhabi is fine to see take a pounding"

The foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi voiced opposition to Israeli plans for evicting Palestinians from their stolen homes. Addressing his country's stance on the Palestinian plight, Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa, stressed that Abu Dhabi remains committed to its "historic and principled position that does not budge."

At the same time, the UAE is drawing a distinction between the Palestinian people and Hamas, which Abu Dhabi is fine to see take a pounding.

Ultimately, the Emirati leadership sees the Islamist group as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and thus a terrorist organisation with a radical ideology. To no one's surprise, the UAE has called on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The UAE and Bahrain must contend with the risks of being seen as too close to Israel at a time in which other Arab societies are rising in solidarity with Palestinians.

But as the UAE and Bahrain’s leaders see it, having regional and global attention stuck on the warfare between Israel and Gaza is preferable to a focus on Jerusalem and the West Bank. As some experts have put it, Hamas' intervention on behalf of Palestinians in Jerusalem gave some political cover to the GCC's two countries in the Abraham Accords.

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"Unless the conflict pivots back to Jerusalem, and especially the Al-Aqsa Mosque, to a significant degree the UAE and Bahrain are likely to try to ride out the storm – keep a low profile and allow this confrontation to play itself out with minimal engagement from them," argued Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

But at the same time, if the conflict's focal points shift away from Gaza back to holy sites, the overall situation could prove increasingly difficult for Abu Dhabi and Manama.

What about the other four GCC states outside of the Abraham Accords? It is reasonable to predict that Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are now less likely to go down the normalisation route. 

Who opposes normalisation?

Among the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait is the most resolute in its opposition to normalising relations with Israel. "In the current climate, Kuwait is the only Arab Gulf state left without any visible outreach or relations with Israel," explained Dr. Dania Thafer, the director of Gulf International Forum, in an interview with The New Arab.

"The official policy has been clear: Kuwait will be the last Arab state to sign a peace agreement with Israel, only following full implementation of a peace process that includes a two-state solution that Palestinians accept," Amnah Ibraheem, a researcher of Gulf politics at the University of Tennessee, told TNA. "Therefore, normalisation is not a viable political option for Kuwait."

"The official policy has been clear: Kuwait will be the last Arab state to sign a peace agreement with Israel"

Indeed, in recent years Kuwait has stepped up in terms of its foreign policy and used international forums to advocate on behalf of Palestinians. For example, in 2018, Kuwait, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, stood in defence of Lebanon and accused the Israelis of violating the country's sovereignty amid Operation Northern Shield.

In contrast to Bahrain, which expressed its support for Tel Aviv in the military operation, the Kuwaiti representatives said that the Israeli actions posed a graver threat than any action on the part of Hezbollah. That same year, Kuwait considered opening an embassy in Palestine.

In terms of the nightmarish situation in Gaza, Kuwaitis have called for establishing an international protection force tasked with protecting Palestinians from Israeli belligerence.

How is Kuwait reacting now?

Following the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Kuwait was the first GCC member to issue an official statement in response. Yet, under pressure from the Kuwaiti public, the government had to pull this statement and put out another with much stronger language. Shortly after the Israeli raid on Al-Aqsa, Kuwaitis held a pro-Palestine solidarity protest outside their parliament.

On 10 May, Marzouq Al-Ghanim, Speaker of the Kuwaiti National Assembly, condemned Israel's "ethnic cleansing" in East Jerusalem, calling on the Arab League to "take a clear and decisive stance" against the "ethnic cleansing" in Palestine and violence waged against those worshippers at Al-Aqsa. Five days later, he called Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh to affirm Kuwait’s support for the Palestinians.

Israeli security forces in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound
Israeli security forces walk past the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Aqsa Mosque compound on 10 May, 2021. [Getty]

Kuwait's foreign ministry also summoned the Czech ambassador to Kuwait City after he took to Instagram to express solidarity with Israel, pushing him to delete the post and issue a public apology.

One day after hundreds of Kuwaitis took part in a "solidarity drive" in Kuwait to protest Israel's bombing of Gaza and evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, the Foreign Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah addressed the crises in Gaza and Jerusalem before the UN Security Council session on Palestine.

"Kuwait renews its utter denunciation of the crimes and offensives carried out by the Israeli occupation forces in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the city of Jerusalem," said al-Sabah.

"Kuwait denounces all Israel's illegal settlement schemes, its bids to seize Palestinians’ houses and properties, particularly citizens' assets in Jerusalem, namely in Sheikh Jarrah district, seeking to evacuate the holy city of its population for sake of Judaising it."

Kuwaiti media and NGOs have also taken strong stands in defence of Palestinians. Among other organisations, the Kuwait Society of Lawyers, the Oil & Petrochemical Industries Workers Confederation, the National Union of Kuwaiti Students, and the Kuwait Teacher's Society have joined together to call on their country’s leadership to criminalise the normalisation of relations with Israel, Amnah Ibrahim told TNA.

Why is Kuwait so pro-Palestinian?

Compared to other GCC states, Kuwait is relatively free, with more space for dialogue about sensitive issues.

"If you want to pulse 'Gulf opinion,' Kuwait is the best litmus test given it has the most freedom of speech among the Arab Gulf states"

"Kuwait is the most democratic state in the GCC and therefore public opinion has significant influence on foreign policy outcomes," Dr. Thafer told TNA.

"If you want to pulse 'Gulf opinion,' Kuwait is the best litmus test given it has the most freedom of speech among the Arab Gulf states."

Many analysts have pointed to a generational divide in the Gulf with older GCC nationals caring more than younger citizens about Palestine. Yet this does not appear to be the case in Kuwait.

Dr. Thafer noted that a number of factors influence Kuwaiti sentiment.

"First, the younger generation in Kuwait is raised and influenced by their 'Arab nationalist' parents and teachers, and to fully disentangle the two generations' influence on each other would be a mistake. Second, there is a rise of populism and anti-colonial movements that has increased in popularity among many Kuwaiti youth. These movements have contributed Kuwaitis' support for the Palestinians and framed it into a broader anti-colonial movement."

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As Ibraheem explained to TNA, the Palestinian cause has a "cross-generational sentiment" based on political memory.

"Older generations pass down awareness of the Palestinian struggle to their children. It is an issue discussed in both mosques and schools in Kuwait and support for Palestine is adopted as a community value. At the same time, the Palestinian cause has been embraced by a progressive youth movement that has global impact… Kuwaitis of all ages have utilised social media to bring exposure to the events unfolding in the conflict and express their support publicly."

What is clear is that at a time in which normalisation has been a trend in the Gulf, Kuwait is standing by its principles and refusing to follow in Abu Dhabi and Manama's footsteps. Kuwaitis overwhelmingly support their government's firm stance against joining the Abraham Accords and only accepting 'peace' with Israel when conditions have changed for the Palestinians.

As events this month have demonstrated, conditions are worsening for Palestinians and Kuwait is becoming even further convinced that it has been wise to reject normalisation.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero