When Kuwait sent a draft resolution to the Security Council in early June calling for an "international protection" force at the Gaza border and demanding that Israel stop using "excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate force," it was all symbolism. Knowing that the U.S. would veto the resolution, Kuwait still considered it important enough to risk offending its most important ally.
Ever since Hamas' "March of Return" operation, Kuwait has emerged as the Palestinians' most important ally, convening emergency meetings at the UN to condemn Israel and provide diplomatic cover for Hamas. This activity marks a major shift from decades of antagonism towards Palestinians – whom it has been accused of ethnically cleansing from the emirate. A newly-politicized Kuwait is on a dual mission to bolster its international image in the Muslim world and appease its growing domestic Islamist movements. Palestinian advocacy serves both ends.
Before the first Gulf War, Kuwait was among the Palestinians' most important ally. The 400-450,000 Palestinians living among 2 million Kuwaitis were professionals, skilled and unskilled workers. Fatah was in fact founded in Kuwait. But when Saddam Hussein invaded, the Palestinian leaders faced a dilemma, benefitting from both Iraqi and Kuwaiti patronage. Compelled to choose between the two, Yasser Arafat foolishly chose Saddam.
After the U.S.-led coalition forced the Iraqi pillagers out, half of the Palestinian population fled Kuwait. The restored emir, Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, vented his anger by cutting ties with the PLO and expelling nearly all remaining Palestinians. Rumors persist of summary executions, imprisonment and torture of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Saddam. Arafat later complained that "What Kuwait did to the Palestinian people is worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians."
In 1991 Kuwait ended almost all diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians, but Saddam Hussein remained their loyal patron until he was toppled by another U.S.-led coalition. With Saddam gone, the two sides almost reconciled in August 2003, but it was another 10 years before Kuwait reopened a PLO embassy. But the reconciliation seemed lukewarm at best, and many Palestinians claim they still face widespread prejudice in the emirate.
In 2014, the Arab League's Summit, held in Kuwait, issued the Kuwait Declaration which stated "We express our absolute and decisive rejection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state." In 2015, the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion, Al-Jazeera reported that "the ice has started to melt" between Kuwait and the Palestinian leadership. And now three years later, Palestinians seem to have regained their former patron. Or have they?
After the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, Kuwait announced that it was considering opening an embassy in "Palestine," hinting that it would be located in East Jerusalem. Knowing full well that Israel would never allow such a move, Sheikh Sabah Al Khaled, Kuwait's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, nevertheless signaled a willingness to lend at least the appearance of legitimacy to a "Palestine" should Abbas or his successor unilaterally declare statehood, adding that "Kuwait is one of the most committed countries to Arab and international resolutions, rejecting the Israeli occupation of the occupied Arab territories."
Kuwait's lobbying on behalf of the Palestinians should not be mistaken for concern about them. Even prior to the Gulf War, few were ever granted permanent resident status, let alone citizenship. If the current emir, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, really loves the Palestinians so much, he would welcome them as Kuwaitis. Rather, he is interested in what he can get out of them.
The Palestinian cause may still be a diplomatic priority in parts of Europe, but its allure has faded in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia now prefers an alliance with Israel, and Egypt has actually flooded Hamas tunnels at Israel's request. Kuwait is positioning itself as the preeminent supporter of the Palestinians among Arab nations.
Kuwait sees itself as an ascendant power among the shifting alliances in the Middle East and the Palestinians are stepping-stones to this goal. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain boycotted last year's Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit because Qatar attended, Kuwait made its debut as a regional peace broker between the sides. Perhaps it was an audition for a larger role in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. After all, Mahmoud Abbas says he will no longer accept the U.S. as mediator.
Even more valuable than establishing diplomatic bona fides, Palestinian advocacy is a way to assuage Islamists. Unlike most of the Arab world, in Kuwait the Muslim Brotherhood is legal and active. It has spawned other Salafist groups as well, and they have been successful lately, for instance pushing through a law in 2016 that "bar[s] from running or voting in elections all those convicted for 'insulting' God, the prophets, or the emir."
Kuwait's Islamist political forces were on full display last December when the government allowed them to hold protests outside the Palestinian embassy in Kuwait City. Against a backdrop of "Terrorism is an American business" chants, Ossama al-Shahin, a Kuwaiti MP with the Islamic Constitutional Movement, demanded the government "take measures against US interests." Shia MP Khalil Abdullah urged Kuwait to use its upcoming Security Council seat to oppose the U.S. embassy move. December's atmosphere explains May's nose-thumbing at those who rescued Kuwait from remaining the 19th province of Saddam's Iraq.
Kuwait's cynical politicking on behalf of the Palestinians is at once an attempt to earn the requisite credentials for the prominence it desires and a hedge against its Islamist opposition. The emir of Kuwait is just another opportunistic dictator in what Efraim Karsh calls the long "history of Arab leaders manipulating the Palestinian cause for their own ends while ignoring the fate of the Palestinians."
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.