Monday, May 30, 2011

Kuwait-Iraq Ties: The Curse Of History And Geography

Abdullah Al Shayji writes: The two sides should bury the hatchet and look for ways to engage in strategic and joint venture projects 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 30/05/2011 

Once again history and politics seem to trump reality and realpolitik in this turbulent region. Iraq continues to reel from its traumatic politics, more than 14 months after its election. It is bogged down in a dysfunctional system and continued occupation, with the Americans having second thoughts about departing. This has in turn led to alarming and threatening displays of rejection by Iran's allies in the country, led by the Mahdi Army. Kuwait and other GCC states are worried that America's drawing down of its forces will allow Iran to take advantage of the situation, and this will lead to greater instability and allow Tehran to exert more influence.

Iraq's large neighbours continue to meddle in its affairs, with Iran itching to fill the vacuum that will be left by the departing Americans. In the meantime, Iraq continues to grapple with its mutliple crises, which are a result of its chaotic relations with its GCC neighbours, who continue to shun Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki due to his sectarian politics and his government's murky stance vis-a-vis Bahrain, which led to the scrapping of the Arab League summit in Baghdad this month.
Finally, there is the resurrection of old hostilities and grievances with Kuwait, Iraq's smaller neighbour. ­The country which Saddam Hussain occupied, pillaged and claimed as Iraq's 19th province two decades ago. This brings back bad memories for Kuwaitis, leaving indelible marks in the psyche of the current and the future Kuwaiti and Arab generations, who see the 1990 invasion as the low point of Arab solidarity and betrayal of Arab brotherly relations.

It is a pity that when relations had finally started to thaw with high-level official visits and joint committees to resolve longstanding disputes and address major issues between the Kuwait and Iraq, things have gone back to square one.

What haunts Kuwaitis is the belief among many Iraqis that Kuwait belongs to Iraq — historically and geographically. There are other issues such as the fate of Kuwaiti prisoners of war, border demarcation, loans, the UN approved compensation, return of the bodies of missing Kuwaitis and the management of jointly-owned oil fields. On the other hand, Iraqis' misgivings centre on Kuwait's role in the US invasion of Iraq, sanctions and unjust border demarcations.
What is alarming and has resurfaced recently is Iraq's belief that Kuwait wants to deny Iraq its legitimate right to a passageway in the Arabian Gulf. Iraq for too long believed that geography and history collaborated against it, with Kuwait conspiring to keep Iraq a land-locked state. What touched off the latest round of recrimination from the Iraqi side was the decision by Kuwait to build and lay the foundations of the Great Port of Mubarak on the strategic northern Kuwaiti island of Boubyan. Iraq vehemently rejects the building of the mega Kuwaiti port, which Kuwait sees as an integral part to its future industrial, trade and residential cities.

Iraqi officials made xenophobic and inflammatory statements depicting this Kuwaiti project as part of a conspiracy to undermine Iraq and negatively affect traffic at its ports, especially the Faw Port which Iraq is considering building not too far from Kuwait's Mubarak Port. This touched off anti-Kuwait demonstrations in Iraq and calls to expel the Kuwaiti ambassador.
Iraqi views over this sensitive issue could not be more divergent. The new Iraqi ambassador to Kuwait, Mohammad Bahr Al Ulum, expressed satisfaction after the meeting of the visiting Iraqi joint committee with the Kuwaiti side over the port, describing the meeting as "very reassuring and comprehensive as it tackled all questions posed by the Iraqi side, and answered professionally, and accurately by the Kuwaiti side".

The official Iraqi side, represented by Transportation Minister Hadi Al Amiri and other members in the Parliament who belong to different political groups than the Iraqi ambassador in Kuwait, upped the ante. Al Amiri threatened to annul the UN Security Council resolution 833, which demarcated the Iraqi-Kuwaiti borders in 1993. He went as far as to threaten to resign if Kuwait did not halt building the Mubarak Port "because the port violates Iraq's territory and harms its economy". The minister appealed to his government to speed up the construction of the new Al Faw Port.

Not to be outdone, the former Iraqi minister of transport Amr Abdul Jabbar called for shutting down the only Iraqi border point with Kuwait at Safwan to cut off goods and travel to pressure Kuwait to stop construction at the Mubarak Port. This issue has become a hot potato in Iraq and is being used by different blocs to score political points. The Sadrists threatened "to take a path that will surprise all the political blocs". Other local politicians in Basra claim that the Mubarak Port will harm business, and trade will go down by 60 per cent if Kuwait goes ahead with construction, with thousands of dock workers losing their jobs.
This is unfortunate, as the two sides should instead bury the hatchet and look for ways to engage in strategic and joint venture projects. The Iraqi side, with its dysfunctional politics, is keeping the country cocooned in a vicious cycle of distrust and acrimonious relations with its smaller neighbour.

Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department — Kuwait University.

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