Muhammad Bin-Salman in Kuwait

Why did the Saudi crown prince’s visit go so badly wrong? 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

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.

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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 its warplanes or to defend itself from attack.

Experts say that, for logistical reasons, Saudi Arabia is unable to quickly produce an extra 2mb/d from its own fields. The government thus saw the shared fields with Kuwait in the Neutral Zone as part of the solution. They would be able to supply the market with an extra 500,000 mb/d or so, helping to bring down prices. Moreover, this could be presented as a normal consequence of Muhammad Bin-Salman’s visit to Kuwait, to avoid angering other oil producers. At their recent meeting in Algiers, oil ministers from both OPEC and non-OPEC countries had agreed to freeze output at current levels and not produce a single barrel more.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have not been good for the past 15 months. They have been merely ‘proper’, due to Kuwait’s neutrality in the Gulf Crisis and its failure to send significant numbers of troops to fight in Yemen as part of Operation Decisive Storm. Its warplanes played a merely symbolic role in that war. Tensions increased as a result of Kuwait maintaining diplomatic relations with Iran. It also condemned the recent shooting in Ahvaz that caused the deaths of 85 people, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which indirectly supported the attack. Their media outlets justified it and hosted guest commentators who backed it and deemed it to be a legitimate act of resistance and not terrorism.

Kuwait, whose emir knows how to contain his irritation and anger, pursues a policy of calming and non-confrontation. It particularly avoids raising tensions in its dispute with its Saudi neighbour. But this policy may be undermined by the relative freedom accorded to the Kuwaiti media. Much may yet to be revealed  about  undisclosed details of the Saudi crown prince’s visit and the disputes that led to it being cut short and to no agreement being reached.

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If tensions between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait persist, it could have a negative impact on Kuwait’s mediation in the Gulf crisis, if not suspend or terminate it. Observers believe that this could hurt the Saudi side more than the Kuwaitis. Muhammad Bin-Salman needs to appease the US government in order to ease his path to the throne in succession to his father. Failing to resume production from the shared oilfields does not help in this regard. Moreover, the Saudi crown prince needs money, both to fund his costly war on Yemen and, perhaps, to bankroll the reconstruction of the American-controlled part of Syria east of the Euphrates — as Trump has instructed. Prince Muhammad had hoped to sell off part of the state oil firm Saudi Aramco to plug his budget deficit. But this step was put on hold, for reasons there is no scope to discuss here. So it became imperative to find other sources. Resuming production from the shared al-Wafra and al-Khafji, seemed like the best, if not the only, option for now.

The circumstances surrounding Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman’s visit to Kuwait; the American pressure that surpassed all moral norms; and the widening rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council that has begun to split it into two clear-cut camps; are portentous. They presage deep divisions and far-reaching changes in the region in light of the US’ quickening attempts to turn it into a stage for an impending war on Iran.

The Saudis should put an end to this shameless American extortion and the policies that enabled it. Restoring relations with their Arab and especially Gulf neighbours on a new basis, and ending all their declared or undeclared military, political or economic wars of attrition against them, should be their utmost priority. If not, the damage on all fronts will be very great indeed.