Kuwait’s GCC Mediation: Incentives and Reasons for Failure

Kuwait has been a mediator in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the first crisis of 2013-2014 between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other. Its good relations with all parties of the GCC and equal distance from each of them have allowed Kuwait to act in a neutral manner. The sixth GCC state, the Sultanate of Oman, is uninvolved in the current crisis and cannot undertake such a mission because of tense relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These resulted from Oman’s ties with Iran and its intermediation between the Islamic Republic and the United States regarding Iran’s nuclear program—in the lead-up to the November 2013 interim deal and the final 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

An Earlier Kuwaiti Mediation

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 helped precipitate a state of tension and anxiety among ruling elites in the Arabian Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and specifically after the protests engulfed Bahrain and Oman. Conservative regimes in the Gulf felt abandoned when, during the Obama Administration, the United States decided to end its support for traditional allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And while Qatar and its Al Jazeera television network played an active role in covering the protests and supporting the uprisings, the Gulf’s regimes preferred to quietly weather the storm, hoping—erroneously—that it would not affect them. After an initial period of euphoria and enthusiasm, mistakes by revolutionary forces in the Arab world, coupled with objective circumstances, forced Qatar to seriously reconsider its foreign policy. By 2013, the old Arab regimes and counterrevolutionary forces were able to stage a comeback. Two decisive developments were essential in the counterrevolution. The first was the full reconstitution of the military regime in Egypt in July 2013 through a coup, supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which went against the democratic process and the achievements of the January 25, 2011 revolution. This specific development also aimed to blame Qatar for allegedly fomenting change in Arab societies and to limit whatever influence Doha might have succeeded in garnering. The second development was the Bashar al-Assad government’s counterattack, with Iranian assistance, against revolutionary and opposition forces that protested his regime in 2011 and demanded a political transition from authoritarian rule.

After Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s coup in Egypt in July 2013, a crisis developed between the three countries—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain—and Qatar because of Doha’s earlier support for the democratic process in Cairo that had brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Kuwait intervened, and in November 2013, an agreement was reached1 in Riyadh at a meeting of the GCC foreign ministers. Included in this agreement were commitments by all the states2 to do the following: end the mutual and negative direct and indirect media campaigns; avoid granting citizenship to citizens of other states who are opposed to their home governments; refrain from interfering in other states’ affairs; safeguard common interests; and stop supporting dangerous political trends (meaning opposition members and the Muslim Brotherhood).

But this agreement failed to resolve the crisis. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain proceeded to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in March 2014, citing disagreement with the way Al Jazeera covered the aftermath of the military coup in Egypt. Kuwait used its offices again to mediate between the antagonists, who signed the Riyadh Supplementary Agreement on November 16, 2014 which stipulated that GCC states refrain from hosting or employing unacceptable individuals and commit to supporting the Arab Republic of Egypt and its security and economic wellbeing. The agreement ended the crisis and resulted in the return of the ambassadors to Doha. The following December, the regular GCC Summit was held in Doha and a new stage in Qatar’s foreign policy soon began.3

The 2013-2014 crisis was limited in its scope to the withdrawal of ambassadors from Qatar. What was more serious for all GCC states, however, was the trajectory of the Obama Administration’s policy in the Gulf and toward Iran. While Obama supported the Arab uprisings in his first term, he concentrated in his second term on wooing the Islamic Republic in the hope of reaching a deal regarding its nuclear program. This policy resulted in a feeling of American abandonment among Gulf Arabs, aided by an expanding Iranian hegemonic role on the ground. Gulf states felt weakened and vulnerable. A Saudi-Emirati thaw ensued with Qatar, especially since military and financial support was needed for the intervention in Yemen in March 2015. Indeed, Qatar was a member of the Saudi-led Arab coalition to confront the Yemeni Houthis who had rebelled against the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and controlled the capital Sanaa. Qatar’s participation ended when its troops were expelled from the coalition following the eruption of the crisis.4

Mediation During the 2017 GCC Crisis

Despite Qatar’s adherence to previous agreements and its commitment to GCC collective action regarding Syria, Yemen, Iran, and the war on terrorism, a new media campaign was launched. Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt encouraged by the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and renewed their aggressive policies, beginning with a media assault in the United States right before the US-GCC meeting in Riyadh in May 2017. The Qatar News Agency was hacked5 and false statements were broadcast in the name of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. And according to Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, 13 anti-Qatar articles were published in western newspapers in the weeks prior to the hacking operation.6

The anti-Qatar campaign was not limited to hacking and false news; it included disparaging the ruling family and sowing doubt about its legitimacy—an unprecedented development that threatens all ruling families in the Gulf. The attacks were soon followed by a cutoff in diplomatic relations as well as accusations of supporting terrorism, enhancing relations with Iran, and destabilizing other Gulf regimes. Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, quickly visited Riyadh, Doha, and Abu Dhabi to head off the crisis. With the severing of diplomatic relations there came a blockade of Qatar that isolated it from the Gulf, cut off its humanitarian supplies, and disallowed Qataris from returning to their places of work outside of Qatar and gave them two weeks to leave the blockading countries.

From the beginning, Saudi Arabia and its cohorts were not enthusiastic about Kuwait’s mediation. Their immediate objective was to force Qatar to succumb to their conditions. However, Qatar withstood the pressure and Sheikh Tamim committed his country to “refrain from taking any retaliatory action,” while his foreign minister expressed support for mediation.7 Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah expressed his sorrow about the state of affairs in the council that he and others worked hard for 37 years to build.8 On June 22, the blockading countries provided, through Kuwait, a list of 13 demands of Qatar, following criticism from Heather Nauert, spokeswoman of the US Department of State.9 Qatar rejected the demands,10 which made Kuwait’s mediation even more essential. Kuwait’s efforts were supported by the Omani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, who visited Kuwait City,11 as did British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson,12 Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Angelino Alfano,13 former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson,14 French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian,15 and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,16 among others.

Kuwait’s Sabah then appointed Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalid Al Sabah and Minister of State for Ministerial Affairs Mohammed Abdullah Al Sabah to conduct mediation efforts.17 He also was in direct contact with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.18

Kuwait’s efforts were accompanied at different intervals by parallel efforts by then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In July, Tillerson signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar. He also appointed Retired General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking as emissaries to resolve the crisis.19 United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also supported Kuwait’s mediation,20 as did Federica Mogherini, EU’s foreign policy chief,21 and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also offered Russia’s assistance, asserting that his country maintains relations with all parties.22 But it all ended in failure.

Sheikh Sabah also visited President Donald Trump in Washington in September 2017, where he announced that his mediation indeed averted a military escalation in the Gulf. This statement and his assertions about Qatar’s readiness for dialogue prompted criticism from the blockading countries.23 However, Sheikh Sabah succeeded in persuading Trump to exert more effort to help resolve the crisis. A call from Trump to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, failed to change the status quo when the crown prince reneged on a pledge to return to a dialogue about the crisis.24

The 2017 GCC Summit

Sheikh Sabah’s efforts continued despite setbacks. He tried to use the GCC’s Head of States Summit, in December 2017, as a venue for dialogue between leaders and personally invited King Salman of Saudi Arabia to attend and contribute to the resolution.25 He also sent his foreign minister to invite and meet with the ruler of Qatar.26 Indeed, his efforts in October and November showed that he was concerned about the success of the GCC summit in ending the conflict. When Kuwait announced the date of the conference, there was a general understanding that the majority of heads of state would attend. On the eve of the summit, even US Secretary of Defense James Mattis came to Kuwait, a gesture that was understood as an American endorsement of the meeting and its goal. Interestingly, Sheikh Sabah had rejected a call to change the venue of the meeting from Kuwait City lest Qatar gets disinvited by the new host—just as Bahrain’s foreign minister floated the idea of freezing Qatar’s membership in the GCC.27

A preceding GCC foreign ministers meeting, however, failed to issue a communiqué, a bad omen for the fate of the summit.28 The summit itself was to be held on December 5 and 6, but it ended after only one hour because of the level of representation of some states. Alongside Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait and Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, only foreign ministers or their deputies from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman attended. Concomitantly, the meeting was accompanied by the announcement of the creation of a Saudi-Emirati coordinating committee, headed by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, for cooperation on political, economic, and military matters. In effect, the summit meeting was doomed.29

A final communiqué read by GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani pointed to the poignancy of the moment. It ignored the GCC crisis completely, as if the GCC as a body was not experiencing a defining moment. It extolled the GCC leaders’ commitment to joint action to defend against any challenges and the importance of relations between its peoples. This was unfolding while Qataris were prevented from entering Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Bahrain reinstated fees on visas to Qatari visitors, and a blockade was imposed on the Qatari peninsula.

Potential Reasons for Kuwait’s Failure

The Kuwaiti and accompanying efforts to mediate in the GCC crisis failed to achieve any practical results for many reasons. Chiefly, the reality of multiple players with different preferences, agendas, and relations with Qatar was dominant. The presence of Egypt as a party to the dispute from outside the GCC added complications. Indeed, since the start of the crisis, GCC states imposing a blockade on Qatar felt that Egypt added strategic heft to their power to make Qatar succumb to their demands. They also reasoned that Egypt could be a good strategic counterbalance to Turkey, which had declared its support for Qatar early on. By the same token, Israel played a role in the crisis by pushing for a firm stand against Qatar, a country that helps the Palestinians politically and financially.

Importantly, there was ambiguity in the American position vis-à-vis the crisis in its early stages. Despite the positions of the Departments of State and Defense and their support of Kuwait’s mediation, President Trump’s posture was not conducive to a clear stance by his administration. At the beginning of the crisis, he voiced support for the Saudi and Emirati positions. Later, he began to vacillate until he finally sided with the Department of State and the Department of Defense after his meeting with Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim in September 2017. This was augmented by another meeting with Kuwait’s emir in Washington in the same month. However, despite Sheikh Sabah’s urging to do more to resolve the crisis, Trump merely placed telephone calls to Qatar’s ruler and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, neither of which produced a breakthrough.

Trump’s original position and his confused response to the crisis may have given the blockading countries reason to insist on their positions. They even perceived his later public statements about resolving the crisis as a ploy, especially that they appeared to always count on the presence of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, by his side. As is well known, Kushner has had good and cordial relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

In the end, Kuwait’s mediation needed American help and sustenance, especially from President Trump. Absent that, Sheikh Sabah lacked important pressure points to use to convince the blockading countries that they should lift their siege and agree to mediation. Kuwait’s effort at reconciliation was reduced to one of “letter carrying” between the parties, a situation that diminished the country’s role and influence. The most noteworthy example of this state of affairs was the failure of the GCC summit meeting, one that was largely precipitated by the absence of the GCC decision-makers at the summit. Indeed, that meeting exposed the intractability of the crisis and the inability of old and traditional diplomatic efforts and tribal customs to force the hand of younger leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE who have allowed the crisis to get to this stage.


Since the beginning of the GCC crisis in June 2017, doubts have been swirling about the future of the GCC. Before then, it was considered the premier organization for joint Arab action and coordination. Kuwait’s failure to reconcile GCC parties, the announcement by Saudi Arabia and the UAE about a new organization, and Bahrain’s call for freezing Qatar’s membership in the entente have made continuing with joint coordination more difficult than ever.

There is an obvious schism in the GCC between two opposing factions: one includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain and represents the politics of siege, and another includes states that work to preserve their independence and free decision-making, especially Qatar and Oman. Kuwait steers a middle-of-the-road course. Still, there are many in Kuwait who decry what they see as designs of hegemony from the larger states in the GCC over the smaller ones. The failed GCC meeting actually exposed the deep fissures that have afflicted the GCC organizing principles.

In the end, the GCC crisis will continue as long as there is no real will in the White House to assist the Kuwaiti mediation effort by pressuring the blockading countries to lift their siege and allow for reconciliation. In the present circumstances, there is no dialogue between the different parties that could abort the real implications of the siege. There should be widespread refusal to allow the siege of Qatar to become business as usual and permanent. The ongoing blockade of Qatar will otherwise continue to sap the country economically and weaken it politically and in the media, and could have detrimental effects on the interests of all GCC states.

This paper is a translation of its original Arabic
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