The Emir and the Tsar: Kuwait Turns to Russia as Trump Clashes With Iran

Published May 19th, 2019 - 12:41 GMT
Kuwait was the first Arab monarchy to recognize the USSR /AFP
Kuwait was the first Arab monarchy to recognize the USSR /AFP


As outlets discuss whether Iran’s Nuclear Deal is finished, a proximate Gulf state asserts its right to develop nuclear capacity. For Trump, such an assertion may be worrying. After all, Kuwait is considered a traditional US ally, yet amid American concerns of a nuclear Iran and squabbles with Putin, Kuwait is considering nuclear ambitions with Russian support.


 

As early as 2010, while Iran faced renewed UN sanctions for its nuclear progress, Kuwait and Russia signed an MoU to jointly develop Kuwait’s nuclear energy capacities, including through mutual uranium exploration. This MoU was expanded upon in 2017, when Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak boasted that Kuwait may construct a nuclear energy plant with Russian assistance. Both Kuwait and Russia are pragmatic on the world stage.
 

“Monarchy,” he insists, “was a legacy passed down from the Empire to Soviet times, even though the plaque on the building changed.”

Putin sums up such pragmatism best when discussing how Russian foreign relations are at the core of its political history. “Monarchy,” he insists, “was a legacy passed down from the Empire to Soviet times, even though the plaque on the building changed.” Putin himself is a product of Soviet pragmatism. As Russia’s Tsar will do business with Arab royals, so too will Kuwait assess its political options. Despite events thanking Bush Senior for his Gulf War leadership, Kuwait does not base its future on the past. The Gulf War is over and thanks to Trump’s fragmented foreign policies, Putin has won the Cold War.

Trump’s declarations that Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are Israeli territory punctuate a US administration losing credibility in the Middle East, a fact that Russia is more than aware of.  Last month, Russia joined Turkey and Iran in condemning US recognition of the Golan. As the US considers withdrawal, Russia sees its opportunity to become a dominant and active power.  
 

Trump’s declarations that Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are Israeli territory punctuate a US administration losing credibility in the Middle East, a fact that Russia is more than aware of.

Kuwait-Russian relations began as early as the 19th Century, with Kuwait receiving military vessels of the Russian Empire. Kuwait was the first Arab monarchy to recognize the USSR. Putin’s overtures toward the small oil state are thus building on long-standing mutual history rather than solely regional tensions. And let’s not forget the mutual interest of energy. A 2015 MoU signed between Russia’s hydrocarbon giant Gazprom and the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation emphasized that relations between the two states are being cemented through energy and economic benefits. Ali Al-Ghanim, President of Kuwait’s Chamber of Commerce declared that deepening this partnership should result in mutual investment opportunities.

However, energy access and geopolitics are a dominant theme in such mutual relations. “Russian-Gulf energy relations are significant because both parties have a common interest in monetizing the value of [oil and gas] in a world that increasingly privileges low-carbon energy,” explains Professor Li-Chen Sim of Zayed University (UAE).

This is very true for the Gulf as a whole but Kuwait especially, which is struggling to emulate the Dubai framework of economic diversification through tourism and Western business models. Oil and gas are the only commodities. “Keeping the world supplied with fossil fuels extends the hydrocarbon age and its centrality to modern lifestyles,” continues Li-Chen Sim.

Such dependence on hydrocarbons is how Gulf States lavish citizens with material rewards and prepare for a post-oil era. Russia, on the other hand, can combine the domestic peace oil prices can bring with Gulf investments in Russia’s declining oil fields. New fields must be developed to offset peaking ones, and it is with Gulf wealth that Putin plans to do it.
 

Kuwait-Russian relations began as early as the 19th Century, with Kuwait receiving military vessels of the Russian Empire. Kuwait was the first Arab monarchy to recognize the USSR. Putin’s overtures toward the small oil state are thus building on long-standing mutual history rather than solely regional tensions.

For both Russia and Kuwait, their relations also have the impact of diversifying away from Western markets, including America. By 2016, Russia’s foreign energy investments into Asia saw it replace Saudi Arabia as China’s top crude oil supplier. Kuwait’s growing relations with Russia also connect with its Chinese relations. Kuwait’s trade agreements with its Asian counterpart are intended to strengthen Eurasian ties and Kuwait’s economic diversification without Western reliance.

Kuwait is not alone, as the GCC is turning toward Asia rather than the US or Britain for oil trade and investment. “Asia has developed into the world’s centre for the manufacturing of exported goods,” argues energy analyst Walid Khadurri of The Arab Weekly. “The GCC is the world’s top region for energy export.

Asia needs energy to fuel its manufacturing export industry and the GCC needs markets for its growing exports. The two regions’ goals complement each other.” As a smaller Gulf State, Kuwait can use its Russian relations to bolster access to China through a partner that has greater political clout, being active not only in the Middle East but a member of the Eurasian security forum The Shanghai Cooperation  Organization, of which Russia and China are the largest members.
 

“The GCC is the world’s top region for energy export. Asia needs energy to fuel its manufacturing export industry and the GCC needs markets for its growing exports. The two regions’ goals complement each other.”

Ironically, the collapse of an Iranian Nuclear Deal may keep Kuwait’s oil prices high. With Russia itself under threat of sanctions, Putin was no doubt satisfied that Iran’s problems also gained Russia a spike in its own oil prices. If anything, Kuwait’s and Russia’s energy gains augment a partnership away from the West that can ride Iranian containment, GCC diversification and a history based on mutual interest.

Kuwait is balancing its US relations with Russian friendship during a period of tension in the region. However, a pragmatic Emir no doubt appreciates a pragmatic Tsar. As the US considers winding down Middle East intervention, Russia is willing to fill the vacuum. Kuwait and the whole Gulf is happy to welcome the change.    

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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