Last month, Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah passed away at the age of 91. As the Kuwaitis grieve his passing, his successor, 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Saba, will face novel challenges and blessings his half-brother did not as Kuwait’s primary foreign diplomat.
In the Middle East, transfers of power may reap a variety of results—from upending turmoil to honest reforms. But Kuwait’s shift in leadership may offer a genuine opportunity to place the country in a position of security it did not enjoy before.
The late Sheikh Sabah famously led Kuwait through the Iraqi invasion in the 1990s and helped mitigate rising tensions with Qatar within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Indeed, when ministers maintain power in Kuwait, it serves as a testament to their effectiveness. Kuwait has a parliamentary mechanism, which holds ministers accountable by wielding the power to remove them from office, that makes it unique among Gulf states.
Upon assuming his new role, Sheikh Nawaf has been confronted with a rising anti-Iran coalition—one that features Israel front and center. The new leader has been placed in a challenging diplomatic position, given the popularity of the Palestinian cause among Kuwaitis and Kuwait’s reliance on the United States as a guarantor of regional stability. However, despite fears of internal pushback, Kuwait should align itself with this broadening alliance against the Islamic Republic.
For decades, Kuwait has striven to remain a neutral actor in the region. And to its credit, it is one of the few nations that has managed to maintain decent relations with both the Saudis and the Iranians, largely staving off spillover from Sunni-Shiite tension.
However, the bleak reality of Iranian machinations in the Middle East is that most nations will be forced to pick a side. As evidenced by the Abraham Accords, several Gulf states have begun acknowledging this situation, even as internal polling suggests normalization with Israel to be an unpopular tack. Though Iran’s economy remains largely in shambles due to U.S. sanctions, the possibility of an Iran nuclear deal 2.0, replete with sanctions relief, adds renewed energy to discussions of the Iranian threat.
Indeed, for Kuwait, joining the burgeoning anti-Iran coalition would be one step towards containing the Iranian aggression that may very well prove problematic for the small country a stone’s throw away from Iran. Future steps could include normalizing relations with Israel, which would promise economic benefits to a large number of Kuwaitis in the form of increased tourism, improved access to resources, and the opportunity to form innovative economic partnerships with a highly tech-savvy nation.
Normalization with Israel would also reduce the general threat vector posed by the region’s most powerful military. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize the security benefits to be had from forming an Israeli-Sunni partnership. In the eyes of Washington, nations that form substantive relations with Israel signal their peacekeeping intentions are genuine, and the message here is no different. There is virtually no explanation as to why, for example, the Pentagon has become increasingly close to selling F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE, other than the UAE’s demonstrated willingness to normalize its relations with Jerusalem.
The Palestinian cause is often cited as the reason Arab states historically have refrained from taking meaningful steps towards normalization with Israel. However, Palestinian intransigence has offered effectively no upside for those willing to go to bat for objectively bad policymaking on the part of the Palestinian Authority. There is no reason Kuwait needs to continue to pay the economic and security price for Palestinian rejectionism, even if public opinion is not currently warm towards Israel.
With a rapidly transforming Middle East, Kuwait has the opportunity to utilize its change in leadership to shift its diplomatic energies towards staving off Iranian aggression in the region, which remains the biggest and most imminent threat to regional stability. Kuwait likely feels it would play benchwarmer to larger regional figures throwing their weight behind normalization, and this concern is especially apropos if Saudi Arabia were to seek normalization. However, there is a strong argument to be made that by remaining apart from the binary, Kuwait forfeits its seat at the table entirely.
Though Kuwait commendably has maintained neutrality in the region, the growing threat of Iranian hegemony may render that strategic positioning impossible. Bahrain and the UAE have given Kuwait a window, and it might be wise to capitalize on it.
General Frank Gorenc, USAF (ret.) is former Commander of US Air Forces Europe, Commander US Air Forces Africa and Commander, NATO Allied Air Command. General Michael Hostage, USAF (ret.), is former Commander, U.S. Air Combat Command and a member of The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA’s) Hybrid Warfare Task Force. Both are members of JINSA’s Board of Advisors.
Originally published in Newsweek