Kuwait in for hard fight over normalisation with Israel

The Kuwaiti Ministry of Trade and Industry recently announced the closure of eight stores, one of which sells Israeli products, and the referral of their owners to the Public Prosecution Office.
Tuesday 03/11/2020
Kuwaitis participate in a protest against normalisation of ties with Israel, in front of Kuwait’s national assembly in Kuwait City on September 22, 2020. AFP
Kuwaitis participate in a protest against normalisation of ties with Israel, in front of Kuwait’s national assembly in Kuwait City on September 22, 2020. (AFP)

KUWAIT CITY –Kuwait is continuing to adhere to its traditional position rejecting normalisation with Israel, prompting questions as to whether it is trying to buy time before agreeing to the move like other Arab countries.

The Kuwaiti Ministry of Trade and Industry recently announced the closure of eight stores, one of which sells Israeli products, and the referral of their owners to the Public Prosecution Office. This came in contrast to a rapid progression in economic and commercial cooperation between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after Abu Dhabi and Manama agreed to normalise relations with Tel Aviv.

Kuwait’s move also comes amid talk of extensive and undeclared financial and commercial transactions between Qatar and Israel dating back to when an Israeli commercial office opened in Doha in 1996.

So far, Kuwait has shown that it is not among the countries US President Donald Trump believes are on their way to normalising ties with Israel after the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.

By sticking to its traditional position, Kuwaiti authorities have been able to appease strong political currents, mainly Islamists and nationalists who root their political propaganda in issues of popular conscience and frequently provoke religious and nationalist feelings by exploiting the Palestinian cause.

Recent Arab moves to develop ties with Israel come as Kuwait endures a severe economic crisis resulting from the decline in oil prices and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kuwait has also been mired in a state of political fragility following the illness and death of the late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and the transfer of power to Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad and his crown prince, Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad.

Under these circumstances, Kuwait does not seem ready to make a decision on the thorny and sensitive issue of normalisation, which would put it under tremendous pressure, especially from Islamists who fully align with Turkey’s position.

In recent weeks, Turkey, which maintains official relations with Tel Aviv and has mutual interests with it in various fields, including the economy, security and defence, has launched a fierce campaign against Arab countries that have opted to normalise relations with Israel.

Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (C) delivers a speech during the opening of the 5th regular session at the country’s National Assembly (parliament) in Kuwait City on October 20. AFP
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (C) delivers a speech during the opening of the 5th regular session at the country’s National Assembly (parliament) in Kuwait City on October 20.(AFP)

This shows how Ankara has been manipulating the general public in Arab countries through its agents in the region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoots and groups.

Kuwait’s failure to respond to the wishes of US President Donald Trump and Washington’s direct requests for Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel seems quite illogical and outside the Gulf country’s political capabilities.

In fact, Kuwait still maintains strong relations with Washington and considers the Americans a primary ally that helped liberate the country from Iraqi occupation in the early 1990s.

That being said, Kuwait seems to have benefited from the position of its major Gulf neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which has linked any progress in its relations with Israel to progress in the peace process in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative that Riyadh proposed in 2002 and was approved as an Arab framework for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In addition to relying on the Saudi position, Kuwait is betting on the time factor, hoping for a change in US leadership after the country’s presidential elections. If Democratic candidate Joe Biden succeeds Trump, who insists on bringing the largest possible number of Arab countries on the path to normalisation, Kuwait may be in a better position.

However, both of the factors that Kuwait is relying on are unreliable, as Riyadh has not yet said the last word on the normalisation issue.

Riyadh may in fact change its position according to its interests, especially as it has not expressed any objection to the Emirati and Bahraini decisions and even seemed understanding of them by opening up its airspace to direct flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi and Manama.

Betting on a Biden victory in the US may be an even more tenuous strategy, as there is little indication the Democrats will break from Republican policy on the normalisation issue, which is of vital interest to the US.

As such, the battle for normalisation in Kuwait is far from over. It is expected that the issue will be an important political factor in the coming period.

Kuwaiti policies are often affected by Islamists and the degree to which they hold control over state institutions.

This was quite evident in the Kuwaiti trade ministry’s decision on Israeli products and in the drafting of a press release announcing the move, which reported that “inspection teams have seized products imported from the ‘Zionist entity’ and banned in local markets in accordance with law. These products were to be sold in an auto spare parts company in the Shuwaikh area located in Kuwait City, the capital.”

The ministry indicated that a complaint was filed by a consumer that a company had been selling Israeli-made goods. The ministry added that inspection teams received the complaint, checked the company’s goods and found that there was indeed Israeli merchandise, including 77 boxes of small thermostats with a “Made in Israel” tag, in violation of the country’s law and regulations.

The ministry confirmed that the inspection teams had taken steps to close the company and refer those responsible to the Commercial Prosecution department.

Islamists maintain their influence in Kuwaiti political life through some of their leading leaders’ strong relations with sheikhs within the ruling al-Sabah family.

The sway of Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, also remains within associations and non-governmental organisations that have long played a major role in opposing normalisation. Forty-one civil society groups and organisations have even called for the country’s National Assembly (parliament) to pass a law criminalising normalisation with Israel.

Among those organisations, which have been vocal in criticising the UAE’s normalisation with Israel, are the Bar Association, the Teachers’ Association, and the Kuwaiti Economic Association.

In a previous statement, those organisations said, “We join our voice to those of free Kuwaiti people by calling on the National Assembly and the government to quickly pass the law criminalising normalisation with the Zionist enemy.”

The statement also condemned “all forms of normalisation with Israel or signing any peace agreement with it, whatever the reasons.”