During the 1970s in Saudi Arabia, there was a well-known joke about Kuwait that went something like this: King Faisal asked the members of his cabinet to look into what the great powers were thinking regarding an issue facing the kingdom and to report back. At the subsequent cabinet meeting, the foreign minister reported on the US position, the finance minister discussed the Soviet view, and so on and so on. When they were all done, Faisal said they had forgotten one of the great powers. Everyone was stunned. Who could it possibly be? Ah, the king told them, it is Kuwait.
It was of little surprise to many in the region when Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait in 1991. Why? Saddam’s war effort against Iran had been financed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. After the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam was in need of cash to rebuild his armed forces and his country. Saudi Arabia quickly transformed its financing of the war into a gift, but during discussions in Jeddah, Kuwait took a different position, insisting on being paid back. It went about negotiating an appropriate interest rate. Moreover, the Kuwaitis, with Saudi encouragement, had been exceeding their OPEC oil production quota, further angering Saddam—he needed oil revenues. Saddam, rightly or wrongly, felt he had fought the war with Iran in part to save his rich Arab brethren from the mullahs in Tehran. When he invaded Kuwait, Saddam had the expectation both that Washington wouldn’t come to Kuwait City’s aid and that getting his hands on Kuwait’s foreign assets would solve Iraq’s financial problems. Saddam’s big miscalculation, of course, was the US reaction—a reaction that might have been very different had Saddam occupied only a part of Kuwait (to afford him better access to the Persian Gulf) or had he also marched into Saudi Arabia and occupied its oil-rich Eastern Province, instead of stopping on the Saudi border and hoping that the US would see him as good little boy! After the liberation of Kuwait, and as it should be with all invaders, Iraq was declared the aggressor and assessed reparation payments.
Kuwait is again taking bold action that could threaten its sovereignty. It has dispatched its small navy to Bahrain in support of Saudi Arabia’s misadventure to crush peaceful Shia protestors. It has accused Iran of interference in its and Bahrain’s internal affairs and expelled a number of Iranian diplomats. It has frustrated Iraq’s ability to rebuild its national airlines by seizing Iraqi aircraft around the world. Yes, Iraq owes Kuwait reparations, but is this a good tactic for collecting reparations from a more powerful neighbor (especially when, in contrast, Iran has forgiven any claims to reparations by attributing its war with Iraq only to Saddam Hussein)? To put it mildly, Iran and Iraq have been irritated to no end and Kuwait has their attention.
But the realities of the Persian Gulf are very different in 2011 than they were in 1991. Saddam has been replaced by a Shia-led regime with close ties to Iran. The United States is in a difficult military and financial position, reducing its ability to intervene on behalf of its friends. Kuwait should tread lightly.
The question for Kuwait is simple: Are its actions against Iran and Iraq (in part in support of Saudi Arabia) in its national interest given the new realities in the Persian Gulf? If Saddam assumed that the takeover of Kuwait would be a financial bonanza in 1991, today that calculus is even more compelling for Iran and Iraq, especially given the fact that the risk of US intervention is slim to none. It will take time for Iraq to rebuild its economy and its military and to see the last of the US forces removed. But five years should afford it sufficient time. Iran, in all likelihood, will have limited nuclear capability within three years. Iran and Iraq will not stand by and be humbled by Kuwait or the GCC. Kuwait would do well to realize that its geography and size are very different than Saudi Arabia and that Saudi Arabia will be in no position to defend Kuwait if invaded yet again.
In short, over the next three to five years, it is more likely that Kuwait will be invaded by Iran or a combination of Iran and Iraq than it was in 1991 before Saddam marched in; and this time around, its only defenders may be its militarily-untested GCC brethren. Kuwait could be its own worst enemy.