Port crisis brings Iraq-Kuwait relations to new low

Sectarian undertones compound commercial worries, experts say; called "worst crisis between the two states since the Saddam era"

Iraq kuwait (photo credit: Reuters)
Iraq kuwait
(photo credit: Reuters)
On the eve of the 21st anniversary of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, a new port being constructed by Kuwait has sparked diplomatic tensions between the two countries in what experts say is the lowest point in bilateral relations since the First Gulf War.
The Iraqi government officially asked Kuwait on Wednesday to halt construction on the Mubarak Al-Kabeer port, a $1.1 billion project being built on Kuwait's Bubiyan Island. Iraq fears that its Gulf shipping routes, emanating from the ports of Basra and Khor A-Zubair will be hurt by the Kuwaiti port, which is scheduled for completion in 2016.
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"This is the worst crisis between the two states since the Saddam era," Youssef Ali, director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies at Kuwait University, told The Media Line. "But I believe that if politicians on both sides deal with the matter intelligently, it will be solved."
The ports conflict is critical to Iraq, which is struggling to rebuild its economy and oil industry after years of destruction and neglect. Iraq exports some 1.8 million barrels of petroleum every day through the ports of Basra and Khor al-Amyah while most of the country's imports enter through the Um Qasr and Zubair terminals. Iraq says all four ports would be hurt if waterway access was limited by Kuwait
Iraqi government officials fear the loss of business to its smaller and much richer neighbor, but the port dispute is just one of a host of disputes between the two countries.
Last month two Katyusha rockets struck the Kuwaiti Embassy in Baghdad.  In April last year, lawyers seeking $1.2 billion in damages for Kuwait Airways tried to impound an Iraqi Airways plane as it landed in London.  Late last year Qais Al-Azzawi, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League, suggested that Iraq did not accept the UN demarcated border. A Kuwaiti Coast Guard officer was killed in January in an altercation with an Iraqi fishing boat.
Nevertheless, Ali said he is confident that if politicians failed to reach an agreement, international institutions led by the United Nations would succeed.
On Monday Kuwait tried to calm the tension, stressing its diplomatic good will towards Iraq. "Kuwaiti diplomacy has striven for stable relations with Iraq, first and foremost by not escalating the situation," the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) wrote on Monday. "Such issues require calm political deliberations."
But popular comments on both sides were anything but calm, reaching thinly masked threats of military confrontation.
"The Arab world shouldn’t remain silent in the face of the maritime strangulation facing Iraq," pro-Iraqi commentator Muhammad Al-Musfir wrote in a column titled "Do Not Provoke Iraq," published in London's Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily on July 27. "Continuing to inflict damage on Iraq will have grave consequences for the entire region."
Ali Al-Saffar, an expert on Iraq at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said the port issue was part of a larger list of grievances voiced by Iraq, which has felt disenfranchised since the first Gulf War.
"Iraqis are feeling victimized, arguing they've being dealt a bad hand by the international community," Saffar told The Media Line. "Five percent of their oil revenues are still paid to Kuwait as reparations for the Gulf War."
Sectarian animosity is playing a roll as well. Saffar said that Iraqi Shi’ite politicians are using the port as a foreign policy issue that can unite their community. The port city of Basra, Iraq's only ocean outlet, is a predominantly Shi’ite city. "It's an emotive subject in Iraq, and politicians are capitalizing on it," Saffar said.
Gerd Nonneman, a professor of Gulf Studies at the British University of Exeter, said the construction of the port indicates Kuwait's growing self-confidence in the post-Saddam era.
"Under Saddam, this move could have erupted in violence, but at the moment Kuwait feels confident enough to take on the Iraqi bluster," Nonneman told The Media Line. He said, however, that Kuwaitis may be biting off more than they can chew, because blanket international support is not guaranteed if the conflict escalates.
Kuwaiti columnist Yaaqoub Youssef Al-Ghneim argued that deep-seeded Iraqi animosity towards Kuwait, sown by Saddam Hussein, stands at the core of the Iraqi opposition to the port.
"Saddam Hussein has planted a bad sapling in the hearts of his people, whose filthy offshoots continue to spout new issues at us every day," Ghneim wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan Sunday. "Today they direct false accusations at Kuwait… and have now begun issuing statements that are close to insanity."
Among other things, Iraqi politicians have accused Kuwait of tapping into Iraqi oil reserves, echoing charges made by Saddam two decades ago, as well as subsidizing terrorists and smuggling drugs into Iraq, he said.  
The Shi’ite issue cuts both ways, enlisting support in Iraq at home but fanning the fears of Iranian backed Shi’ite expansionism in the Gulf by frightened Kuwaitis, Nonneman said, as well as their peers in other Gulf states.
"The new Iraq is seen as threatening; fear of Shi’ism is feeding Kuwait," he said.
"At the moment there's a head of steam about Shi’ism."
Nonneman added that a new military conflict was not imminent - as Iraq's military is not in a position to attack Kuwait as it was in 1990. He warned, however,  that it is certainly possible five or ten years down the road.
"Iraq will reassert itself eventually," he said. "There's serious trouble ahead."