The biggest question being asked in most diwaniyas and gatherings in Kuwait and the Gulf region is about Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman’s visit to Kuwait. Why did he postpone it for a day, from Saturday until Sunday? And why did he then shorten it to a mere couple of hours?
The visit was reduced to a brief meeting with the deputy emir, during which there were arguments about contentious issues, followed by an official dinner in his honour hosted by the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad.
This was described as ‘cold’. None of the topics that were on the agenda for discussion were raised. Chief among these were the shared oilfields of al-Khafji and al-Wafra located in the Neutral Zone separating the two countries, from which production has been halted since 2014 as a result of a decision by the Saudi side. The second issue was the Gulf crisis, or rather the Qatar crisis – though discussion of this has become pro forma and clearly less important than it used to be, given that both rival sides have been sticking to their positions and refusing to make any concessions.
The social media, especially Kuwait’s, have been busy offering explanations for the failure of the visit. Most attributed it to the Saudi crown prince’s anger at the Kuwaiti government’s failure to submit to his dictates, as many of them put it. This prompted the Kuwaiti foreign ministry to issue a statement expressing regret at what it called the false information circulated in the media about the Saudi crown prince’s visit. The statement said the talks between the Saudi and Kuwaiti delegations were characterised by the warm spirit of fraternal cooperation between the two countries.
What we know for sure is that this diplomatic language did not convince many Kuwaitis or Saudis. The Saudi guest’s first-ever visit of this kind was supposed to last for two days rather than two hours. The Saudis were counting on it to achieve a breakthrough on the issue that mattered to them most: an acceptable deal enabling resumption of production from the two oilfields. Muhammad Bin-Salman had also been scheduled to meet with a delegation of businessmen in Kuwait, as well as groups of politicians, parliamentarians and journalists.
A source at Kuwait’s emiri court told Reuters that the visit took place in a highly tense atmosphere, and that no political or economic agreements were signed by the two sides. The Kuwaiti daily ar-Rai al-Aam, for its part, quoted a high-level source as saying that the visiting Saudi prince and his delegation appeared visibly displeased and angry. He only exchanged a few inconsequential words with the Kuwaiti ruler, and headed for his private plane along with his delegation as soon as the dinner was over, and flew back to Riyadh.
When such high-level meetings are held, delegations of experts and officials are sent in advance to discuss the agenda items. They draw up draft agreements, which the visiting prince and the Kuwaiti emir, or whoever deputises for him, then sign. But in this case the Kuwaiti side rejected the proposed Saudi wording, according to the same Kuwaiti source. This led to the postponement of the visit by one day in the hope that the obstacles and differences could be overcome, But the delay changed nothing. Both sides stuck to their positions. Muhammad Bin-Salman reportedly considered calling off the visit altogether after his foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, went to Kuwait a few hours ahead of him and reported back that the Kuwaiti side was rejecting Saudi demands and hinting at going back to international arbitration.
The crisis over the oilfields began when Kuwait refused to issue visas to maintenance technicians from the Chevron corporation who had been sent to supervise work on the fields to increase their output and oversee further exploration in the area. Their company had positioned equipment on the Kuwaiti side without consulting the Kuwaiti government. The Saudi government responded by halting production from both fields on the pretext of undertaking maintenance. This maintenance has lasted for four years, shutting the fields down and costing Kuwait some $18 billion in lost production.
The Saudi crown prince’s visit to Kuwait came in the context of the pressure exerted by US President Donald Trump on Saudi Arabia to increase its oil output by around two million barrels per day (it currently produces around 11mb/d) in order to force down prices. Trump called the Saudi monarch twice to reiterate this demand, brazenly. The first time was two months ago. He demanded a Saudi output hike to compensate for the 2.4mb/d of Iranian oil that might be taken off the market once additional American sanctions against Iran come into effect in November. The second time was just two days ago. The call was threatening and extortionist in tone. Trump reminded the Saudi king that his country would not survive for long without American protection, nor be able to maintain
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of the London-based electronic Arabic daily Rai-al-Youm. He is the author of several books on Islamic extremism, the latest, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate is published by Saqi books.