Kuwait role in Yemen a surprise, yet underlines frustrations with Tehran

Will Kuwait be able to use its relationship with Iran to help find a solution to the crisis?

Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah on March 31. AFP Photo
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KUWAIT CITY // Of all the countries in the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen, Kuwait’s participation is perhaps the most surprising.

The country’s military is small and the ruling family has traditionally been a regional mediator and maintained close ties with Iran, which backs the Zaydi Shiite Houthis.

Yet, Kuwait’s decision to join the alliance underscores the deep unease felt by Gulf Arab states about Iran’s expansionist policies.

The coalition’s bombing of Yemen began on March 25. Kuwait is said to have contributed 15 fighter jets, but the majority of the attacks are believed to have been carried out by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. However, the involvement of Kuwait, which did not take part in the coalition carrying out air strikes against ISIL in Syria along with other Arab states, is still an important indicator of the Gulf countries hardening their positions towards Iran.

At a meeting of the Arab League on March 28, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah warned that the Houthis posed a regional threat.

While the amount of direct support that Iran has provided the rebels might be limited, having a group allied with Tehran seizing power on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and also with a foothold along the Bab El Mandeb strait, through which millions of barrel of oil pass every day, was too great a threat for the Gulf states.

Soon after the Houthis took over Sanaa in February, increased signs of Iranian influence began to emerge. The first direct flight from Iran to Sanaa since 1990 landed in March, a day after a deal was announced that would see 14 flights per week between the two countries. Also in March, the Houthis said that Iran would supply Yemen with oil for a year, expand the country’s ports, and help construct power plants.

Concerns about a deal between the P5+1 group and Iran over its nuclear programme also encouraged Gulf states to more directly counter Iran.

This more hardline approach came after signs of a possible rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf states. For Kuwait, the shift occurred despite its geographical proximity to Iran and strong economic ties between the two countries. Many Iranians study in Kuwait’s universities.

Last June, Kuwait’s emir Al Sabah met with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. The two men emphasised the strong ties between their countries. During the visit, Mr Khamenei said regional security depended on “sound” ties between Gulf states.

At about the same time, Saudi Arabia invited Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Riyadh. Mr Zarif eventually turned down the invitation after Saudi criticism of Iranian involvement in Syria. However, Mr Zarif did travel to the Saudi capital in January to pay his respects to the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

Shamlan Al Essa, a Kuwaiti political analyst, said efforts to talk with Iran had gone no where. “They say something and suddenly they are doing other things,” he said.

But despite the fallout with Iran over Yemen, Kuwait could still play an important role in cooling regional tensions.

On March 31, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian attended a humanitarian aid conference at the emir’s palace in Kuwait city. In a short press conference, he said Iran and Saudi Arabia can cooperate to solve regional crises, particularly in Yemen.

“We support the opinion of Sultan Qaboos, the sultan of Oman, in supporting the dialogue between Yemenis,” he said of another Arab Gulf ruler who, like Kuwait’s emir, has maintained close ties with the Iranians.

Unlike Kuwait, however, Oman has not joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Kuwait and Oman have pursued policies on Iran different from other Gulf Arab states both because of their smaller military might and history of friendlier relations with Tehran.

There are indications that efforts to find a mediated settlement to the conflict are taking place, but so far the anti-Houthi coalition has shown little sign of slowing their offensive, as the rebels continue to advance across the country.

Even if Kuwait can help encourage moves towards the resumption of dialogue it is unlikely that a solution to the conflict will be found soon.

While the Iranians have supported the Houthis, the extent of their influence over the rebel group is unclear.

Yemen also suffers from a lack of interlockers who can sit down together in an effort to make peace.

For years, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was supported by Gulf countries and the United States. A Gulf Cooperation Council initiative aimed to spare Mr Saleh from being disposed of in the same manner as other regional leaders after he was ousted in a 2011 Arab Spring revolt.

But instead of encouraging the initiative, Mr Saleh used his remaining influence to partner with the Houthis and create the current unrest.

This lack of individuals to engage with means that any efforts by Kuwait to use its ties to Iran to promote dialogue in Yemen will be severely limited.