Monday, September 15, 2014

Kuwait Mends Ties With Palestinian Leadership

Kuwait's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, made an historic visit yesterday to the West Bank and the Temple Mount. The significance of the visit is couched in a tumultuous relationship between Kuwait and Palestinian leadership. 

The Foreign Minister's appearance in the West Bank is the first by a senior Kuwaiti official since 1967. His visit, part of a larger tour, is likely intended to mend relations and to increase Kuwait's general influence in the region. Kuwait's regional role is not particularly activist. The Emir was congratulated just last week at the UN for Kuwait's humanitarian efforts on Syria. Yet Kuwait has been hesitant to join a Saudi-led regional force, and did not follow suit when Saudi, the Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March. Rather, it worked with Oman to mend ties and maintain regional stability. As Kuwait seeks to use its mediating power to gain regional influence, its relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be important. A quick look at the history of this relationship explains why.

In the mid-twentieth century, Palestinians played a vital role in Kuwait's development. Oil drilling required technical expertise, and many highly educated Palestinians came to Kuwait to fill these positions. Palestinian engineers in the 1950's and 60's were in high demand in Kuwait. They had the expertise to run oil extraction sites, and were also proficient in both Arabic and English.

Kuwait was originally one of the main financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and it had a presence in the country. However, governments in the region, including Kuwait, became fearful of the PLO as a political force. Since many of the region's governments were installed by Western powers, these governments feared the PLO would target them as illegitimate. As a result, Kuwait kept a close eye on PLO activism within the country.

Relations because critical after PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met with Saddam Hussein two days after the Kuwait invasion. As Kuwait University Professor Shafeeq Ghabra describes, the PLO chairman expressed support for "the Iraqi policy" and incurred the lasting animosity of Kuwait as a result. After an attack on a Kuwaiti aircraft in October 1990 in which Palestinians were implicated, the Kuwaiti government fired over 3,000 Palestinians from government jobs. Fearing arrest and intimidation, around 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait during the invasion and liberation of Kuwait. 

Mutual animosity continued after the end of the Gulf War. It lasted for over a decade. In 2001, Kuwaiti MPs spoke out strongly against the visit of Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini to a conference in Kuwait against normalizing relations with Israel.

Relations began to mend in 2004, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas apologized for the PLO's support of Iraq during a visit to Kuwait. A Palestinian embassy opened in Kuwait last year. Currently, Kuwait chairs the Arab Peace Initiative of the Arab Summit. In the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to withdraw from the initiative. However, in comments at the Arab Summit meeting held in Kuwait last March, Kuwait's Amir expressed support for the initiative.

Given Kuwait's status as a close US ally, the development of stronger relations between Kuwait and the Palestinian leadership is a positive development. At the same time, the sensitive history of Kuwait-Palestinian relations is an issue in which the US should avoid becoming entangled.



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