Iraq and Kuwait Should Get to the Bottom of Their Border Dispute

September 2, 2023 Topic: Iraq Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Silk Road Rivalries Tags: IraqKuwaitIranPopular Mobilization ForcesBorder Dispute

Iraq and Kuwait Should Get to the Bottom of Their Border Dispute

Given Iraqi instability and Iranian meddling, demarcating the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border is imperative to prevent future conflicts.


On July 30, Kuwaiti foreign minister Salem Al-Sabah embarked on a crucial visit to Baghdad and met his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein and later Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani. The visit aimed to address the bilateral relations between the two nations and urgently tackle the longstanding and contentious maritime border dispute revolving around the Khor Abdullah waterway. This dispute remains a major source of contention between Iraq and Kuwait. The diplomatic visit holds special significance due to its close timing with the twenty-third anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which still reverberates in the region’s memory. Moreover, the visit occurs within a context of profound internal power shifts in Iraq, which have favored Shia groups.

The implications of these developments for regional stability are noteworthy, as they could bear on the future geopolitical landscape. In light of these complex dynamics, resolving the maritime border dispute takes on heightened importance, underscoring the urgency for both countries to find a constructive and lasting solution.


Borderline Disorder

The border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait is centuries old. Back-and-forth conflicts, meddling by colonial powers, and great power competition have influenced the current boundaries between the two countries. Even before the discovery of oil, the boundary conflict remained a contentious issue. Despite signing agreements and recognizing Kuwait in the past, various Iraqi governments, whether the Hashemite Kingdom or Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, have never relinquished their claims to parts of Kuwaiti territory. The Iraqi claim on Kuwait has shifted between complete and partial control, often depending on Baghdad’s political stability. Whenever Baghdad is politically stable, it escalates its demands on Kuwait and refuses to demarcate the border, leading to more problems for Kuwait.

In the past, Iraq has tried various tactics to force Kuwait into a settlement, such as announcing the Sheikh of Kuwait as a deputy governor of one of its provinces, making incursions into Kuwaiti territories, and deploying troops on the islands of Bubiyan. They also pressured Kuwait to cede the islands of Bubiyan, Warbha, and Falaikha on security and commercial pretexts. Kuwait, desiring peace, agreed to some of Iraq’s demands, including allowing Iraqi troops on the islands to counter Iranian aggression. Kuwait also provided substantial financial and political support to Iraq to prevent military actions.

Despite these efforts, on August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein rolled his army into Kuwait and annexed it as the nineteenth province of Iraq. The invasion triggered a forceful international reaction, uniting Western powers and Arab countries to eject Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Following the conflict, Kuwait and Iraq signed several agreements, under the supervision of the United Nations, to demarcate their land border. While significant progress has occurred in determining most of the land border, maritime borders remain undrawn. Resolving this dispute was the main goal behind the visit of the Kuwaiti foreign minister to Baghdad last month.

At the core of this disagreement lies the strategically significant Khor Abdullah estuary, a crucial passage for 80 percent of Iraq’s imports and exports. Since 2003, Baghdad and Kuwait have entered into multiple agreements to settle this dispute. The deals encompassed collaborative navigation efforts and security measures to safeguard the area. However, Baghdad’s implementation has often been sluggish, influenced by both commercial considerations and geopolitical factors.

In the foreseeable future, Iraq aims to complete the Al Faw Grand Port by 2028—anticipated to be the largest in the Middle East. This ambitious project could revolutionize Iraq’s economic landscape, providing unimpeded access to the sea and reducing reliance on existing routes and resources. However, it’s improbable that the Grand Al Faw Port will significantly alter the perspective of the Iraqi political elite concerning Khor Abdullah. Consequently, this might prolong the controversy between Iraq and Kuwait for years to come.

Furthermore, territorial disputes often prove too intricate to resolve due to the substantial influence of a state’s status and identity, which can outweigh political and economic considerations. These conflicts often invoke feelings of national pride, victimization, or resentment, complicating the search for common ground and resolution. The emotional and historical dimensions can add complexity to negotiations, necessitating delicate and thoughtful approaches to achieve peaceful outcomes.

Public Outrage

As part of the conflict resolution framework, the Iraqi government took the initiative to establish a high-level committee responsible for overseeing a subcommittee dedicated to seeking mutually agreeable resolutions for border-related matters and other disputes existing between Iraq and Kuwait. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government’s approach to resolving these issues has yet to garner unanimous support. The Kuwaiti foreign minister’s visit, intended to address the border demarcation, swiftly evolved into a heated political and public topic within Iraq.

The relocation of residents and a neighborhood transition became a hot public opinion issue, triggering significant public resistance from the Iraqi side. A portion of this opposition has arisen due to misunderstandings and manipulation by populist politicians aiming to position themselves as ultra-nationalists for political gains, particularly in light of the upcoming Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for November 2023.

These populists have falsely accused the Iraqi government of treachery and ceding Iraqi territory to Kuwait, an assertion far removed from reality. Despite this, the messaging has gained traction within Iraq. Citizens, tribal leaders, and politicians from both Sunni and Shia backgrounds have accused the Sudani government of relinquishing Iraqi territory, gaining significant traction on social media.

The residents of the neighborhood have expressed their rejection of the relocation proposition. Some Iraqis have even reminded Kuwait of its role in Iraq’s devastation, alleging actions such as siphoning oil from Iraqi oilfields and aiding the United States in its occupation after 2003.

Protests have erupted in Basra, with people expressing concerns over concessions related to the Khor Abdullah canal and “Um al-Qasir to Kuwait.” Some individuals fired shots over the Kuwaiti border in defiance of any agreement recognizing Kuwaiti authority over Khor Abdullah. Furthermore, the tribal leaders in Basra have adamantly rejected the border demarcation outlined in the UN-brokered deal between Iraq and Kuwait. They argue that Iraqi territory was seized under extraordinary circumstances, prompting them to call for an amendment to the UN agreement to align with Iraq’s historical territorial boundaries. These tribal leaders have also leveled accusations against Kuwait, alleging land grabbing and the displacement of Iraqis from their land in Um al-Qasir. Such discourse can stir intense emotions on both sides of the border and escalate tensions. These events underscore a critical truth: intense emotions have intertwined with the border matter. Mishandling it could lead to instability.

In reaction, the Iraqi parliament formed a special committee to inquire about the progress of negotiations with Kuwait and assess alleged undue concessions to Iraq’s southern neighbor. Faced with significant public and legislative opposition, the Iraqi government had no choice but to clarify its Kuwaiti border position. Basim Al-Awadi, the spokesperson for the Iraqi government, strongly refuted any notion of territorial concession to Kuwait, characterizing the reaction as a form of “political blackmail.” Al-Awadi asserted that the government’s actions were in accord with the UN-endorsed 1993 agreement between Iraq and Kuwait. He emphasized that previous Iraqi administrations had also remained committed to upholding the terms of the agreement.

Shia militia threats

Latent tensions over the border have resurfaced elsewhere. Shia militia groups have frequently threatened Kuwait with violence and claimed Kuwait to be a historical part of Iraq. The issue over the Khor Abdullah demarcation has added intensity to such claims. Shia militia groups have targeted the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border in the last few years. The situation deteriorated further in 2022 when Kuwaiti border guards allegedly harassed Iraqi fishermen in the disputed territory of Khor Abdullah. Shia MP Ala Al-Haidari, affiliated with the Al-Fateh Alliance and the state-sponsored, mostly Shia paramilitary, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), accused Kuwait of “assaulting Iraqi fishermen.” He even posted a video on social media, calling the PMF to deploy their forces in Khor Abdullah to protect Iraqi fishermen. This escalation was accompanied by reports in news sites belonging to pro-Iranian militia groups, amplifying the voices of the PMF. This accusation led Kuwait to summon the Iraqi Ambassador to protest the allegations.

No doubt, if the border dispute remains unresolved, the situation could worsen for Kuwait in the coming years. The recent doubling of Iraq’s budget for the PMF and a personnel expansion potentially threaten Kuwait. The underlying tensions surrounding the disputed area are evident, raising concerns about possible escalations in the future. Consequently, it is paramount for both nations to actively pursue a peaceful resolution and prevent further tensions and potential regional instability. Establishing a clear demarcation of both the land and maritime borders is essential to mitigate the risks of future conflicts.

Implications for the United States

Kuwait has played a significant role in assisting American military involvement in the Middle East. In 1991, the United States orchestrated an extensive global military operation to expel the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government also assisted the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. While American and coalition forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, unresolved historical and border disputes could draw Washington into diplomatic efforts.