With the US 2020 Presidential elections looming, many across the world are waiting impatiently to see who will be the next leader of the world’s only superpower.
Although 10,000km away from Washington DC, several within Kuwait are wondering if the outcome will have an effect on their country and the US-Kuwait bilateral relationship.
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The two countries have an established and dependable partnership that has not changed drastically even during economic crises, armed conflict and diplomatic rifts.
“The US government’s attitude towards Kuwait will remain fairly stable, regardless of who wins. That said, the two candidates have a different approach to foreign policy. President Trump’s relationship with the Gulf has been very transactional, while Vice President Biden would likely increase engagement through diplomacy and soft power,” Bayly Winder, a graduate student at the University of Oxford and an independent Gulf analyst, told Gulf News.
Trump vs Biden administration
While both candidates have considerable experience in dealing with the Gulf, including Kuwait, each has differing policies when it comes to several issues from foreign policy to the economy.
One of the main polarising differences between the two is their approach to the Iran-nuclear deal. Given Iran’s proximity to Kuwait, a deal between the US and Iran – or the lack thereof in this case – has a significant effect on Kuwait.
A year after taking office in 2018, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal that signed by President Barack Obama in 2015.
“Biden feels that Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal was a serious mistake, which resulted in negative consequences for regional security, including for Kuwait and the broader GCC,” Winder explained.
Although Biden has yet to explain how he will plan to persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table, he is likely to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which aims to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran reducing its nuclear and ballistic missile work.
The relationship between Iran and the US has deteriorated since the abandoning of the deal, with tensions escalating after the US killed Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike in January 2020. Fearing retaliation, the US announced an additional 700 troops will be deployed to Kuwait, with an extra 3,000 on standby.
Many in Kuwait believe that better relations with Iran would lead to more stability in the region and less of a security threat to Kuwait.
While Iran is one of the reoccurring topics that comes up when foreign policy is discussed in the US, it is part of a larger discussion about the US’s role in the Middle East.
When the Gulf dispute first began in 2017, the late Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, established Kuwait as the key mediator between the two sides
A few months into the Gulf crisis, the late Emir spoke at a joint press conference with Trump and expressed his optimism that a resolution could be found.
“A Biden administration would seek to re-energise diplomacy in the region and engage with Kuwait, an important diplomatic partner, to manage the internal GCC rift,” Winder said.
Although not discussed much during the presidential debates, both candidates have a different approach when it comes to relations between the Arab countries and Israel. The UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords, which Trump has described as the “dawn of a new Middle East”.
The Kuwaiti Cabinet of Ministers put out a statement last month stating that Palestinian issue is a key and pivotal issue to Arabs and Muslims and reaffirmed Kuwait’s firm and committed stance in support of the Palestinian people.
“It is likely that if Trump wins he will put pressure on Kuwait to normalise relations with Israel. On the other hand, although Biden will continue down the path of normalisation, it is unlikely that his administration will put any pressure on Kuwait,” Charbal Barakat, head of the international section at Al Jarida newspaper, told Gulf News.
Depending on what policies each candidates enacts in terms of the economy, as an oil dependent country, Kuwait, will mainly be affected only if there are drastic changes to oil production.
During the October 22 presidential debate, former vice president Biden pointed out that he would “transition from the oil industry”. Following the debate, Biden told reporters that the fossil fuel industry is not going anywhere anytime soon, and that he plans on cutting subsidies for the fuel industry.
It is unclear if this policy will have a direct impact on Kuwait as the move would increase oil prices in the US and in the short run will not effect oil production worldwide.
Any move to cut or increase oil production within the US will be felt around the world as the oil industry fluctuates depending on the supply of oil.
As for Trump, during his time as president the American energy industry got a huge boost as he stated that the “golden era of American energy is now underway.”
He also enhanced the US’s emergency stockpile of crude oil which helped keep the oil market steady even when major events effected the price of oil, like the attack last September on Saudi’s Aramco.
While Trump has helped keep the oil industry well-supplied, many have pointed out how it is beneficial to Kuwait in the short term, but has major implications in the long run, mainly from an environmental point of view.
“The Trump administration’s roll back of environmental regulations and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is reckless and sets a bad example. The US is the second largest emitter of green house gases. If they don’t bring the situation under control soon then the impact will be felt across the planet, including in Kuwait,” Samia Alduaij, an environmental specialist, told Gulf News.
While each administration has differing foreign and economic policies, it is likely that whoever sits in the Oval Office after teh election will focus more on domestic issues, given the grave damage the COVID-19 pandemic has done to everything from the health care system to jobs.
Public opinion in Kuwait
A survey was conducted for this article to understand what the general sentiment is in Kuwait towards the upcoming elections, as well as the larger topic of US-Kuwait relations.
Around 68 per cent of the 250 people surveyed think that a Biden administration would be better for Kuwait at the current moment. Of those, around 52 per cent stated that foreign policy is one of the main aspects within Kuwait that is influenced by the US.
Many pointed out that they think Biden would bring back the Iran nuclear deal, will help restore diplomacy in the region and assist in de-escalating tensions in the region.
“A Biden administration will be more friendly towards Muslims in general and could lead the world during the pandemic. [He] will de-escalate tensions in the region through diplomacy, maybe a nuclear deal with Iran and will possibly have less pressure on Kuwait to normalise relations with Israel,” Abdullah Al Anjari, told Gulf News.
In addition, although a majority thought that a Biden administration would be best for Kuwait many pointed out that it is not ideal but it would be better than a Trump administration.
“The Trump administration is, objectively speaking, both morally and ethically terrible, but is ultimately in the best interest of the Government of Kuwait and its GCC neighbours, because it’s always been a quid pro quo relationship,” a Kuwaiti national told Gulf News.
As for those that stated a Trump administration would be best for Kuwait, 72 per cent believed that security and stability are one of the many aspects in Kuwait that are affected by the US.
“Trump is an incompetent US president, if I were an American I would vote for Biden because I agree with his domestic policies, but I’m Kuwaiti, I’m looking after my own interest and I believe that Trump is great for the GCC,” Waddah Al Mutairi, told Gulf News.
“Due to his undiplomatic attitude, we know where he [Trump] stands with clear borders in relation to the challenges we face in Kuwait,” Hamad AlJuwaiyan, a medical doctor, told Gulf News.
While a majority of those surveyed are Kuwaitis living in Kuwait, of those who stated they don’t live in Kuwait, 50 per cent reside in the US.
“We saw how many of Trump’s policies effect Kuwaitis living in the US like the announcement of possibly cancelling student visas, the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the overt racism towards Arabs and Muslims,” Yousef H. AlShammari, a Kuwaiti writer who focuses on global culture and politics, told Gulf News.
AlShammari added that from a cultural stand point, “we consume Americans culture so when we see an increase in right wing fanatical discourse it effects everybody around the world because of US cultural hegemony.”
While policy was brought up multiple times in the answers, many pointed out that an administration’s values have a significant impact.
“The US elections today are a core value issue more than a policy issue. The current administration lacks empathy and the encouragement of the collective benefit. Today, the US needs an administration that encourages a culture of tolerance, acceptance, and empathy; true American values that have been lost in translation in the last 4 years,” Faisal Alothman, a Kuwaiti national and former US resident, told Gulf News.
The two countries share a long history, of cooperation, mutual benefit and friendship, that began well before Kuwait gained independence.
In 1911, by invitation from Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah, the Reformed Church of America opened a medical centre in Kuwait, known to Kuwaitis as the American Hospital, or Al Americani.
Then around 20 years later, with the discovery of oil, Kuwait formed a joint venture with the American Gulf Oil company in 1933.
Ten years before Kuwait gained independence, the US government began fostering its relationship with Kuwait as it set up a US consulate. Then in 1961, the US government established diplomatic relations with Kuwait and upgraded the consulate to an Embassy.
Shift in relationship
Since the 1980s, much of the relationship has been one of security and stability, as both parities have benefited from one another. With around 13,000 US military personal stationed across the country, the number of troops in Kuwait make up one-third of the total US forces deployed in the region, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although Trump vowed to reduce US troops abroad, minimal change has been seen on the front, especially in the Middle East.
“It is unclear if the US military presence in the Gulf would change drastically. Taking that step would require a lot of political manoeuvring and be a major undertaking for the US Department of Defence. A reduction in troop levels may well take place, but fundamentally changing the military relationship beyond that would be a longer-term and laborious process,” Winder said.
The respondents – about 41 per cent – pointed out that security and stability was the most aspect in Kuwait that is influenced by the US.
When Iran began attacking Gulf shipping tankers, mainly Kuwaiti vessels, in 1986, the US and the Soviet Union were invited by Kuwait to ensure the security of its tankers.
Then during the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US spearheaded a coalition of 34 countries that launched an aerial campaign against the Iraqis.
Following 1991 liberation, the US increased its military presence in Kuwait, to ensure its interest in the region as well as curb a future Iraqi attack.
Currently there are around five known military bases and one joint base between Kuwait and the US. The bases are mainly used for training purposes, supporting regional operations and serve as a stop for all forces going into and out of Iraq. Camp Arifjan is situated approximately 37km from the Iraqi border, as it is used as a transit base for US personnel deploying to Iraq.
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