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Understanding Kuwaits Geopolitical Significance


States are described as small or mini states when their size is significantly small; the descriptive terms are with reference to the size of the state in particular and not the size of the population of the state (Sutton, 2011). Although, international relations theorists, may also base the description of small or mini state on the basis of vulnerability, or lack of capabilities of the states (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016). Kuwait has been called “the Little Fort” and a “a sandy littoral, a lip of the Gulf, south of Basra” in western literature as a testament to its status as one of the smaller states of the world (Winstone & Freeth, 2017, p. 11). As Kuwait is somewhat dwarfed by many of its own neighbours, like Iran and Iraq, it is believed that western literature has ignored this country to some extent (Winstone & Freeth, 2017). At the same time, Kuwait has been considered to be important in the foreign policy of many of the western and Asian colonial powers in the 18th century and early 19th century, including Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and Turkey, due to its geopolitical importance (Assiri, 2019). This means that although ignored in literature, it has been geopolitically significant in this period. If you are willing to seek in-depth insights into the geopolitical significance of Kuwait and its dynamics within the region, consider seeking a geography dissertation help to get all the details and information.


Kuwait’s small state status aside, it plays an important role in the Middle East. Consequently, Kuwait’s foreign policy is significant to the political landscape of the Middle East. Kuwait’s geographical location and its geopolitical significance cannot be underestimated despite the size of the nation. Kuwait itself is categorised as a city state with a small territory of 6880 square miles (Assiri, 2019). One of the critical aspects of its foreign policy concerns is that it is located amongst powerful and bigger neighbours, such as, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Even immediately after independence in 1961, Kuwait was faced with the Iraqi claim to its territory and this led to the seeking of support from external states. As a small state, the economy and polity of Kuwait is sensitive to external changes, which makes its proximity to somewhat volatile polities like Iraq very interesting (Al-Ebraheem, 2016, p. 38). Kuwait is also an oil economy, which makes it vulnerable to external changes because its economy is based on oil exports (Al-Ebraheem, 2016). Another aspect of its foreign policy is the role that it plays in the inter-Arab political spheres (Assiri, 2019). As a member of the regional body, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Kuwait is an important player in the formulation of the inter-Arab cooperation in the Gulf region (Al-Mawali, 2015). The GCC is an important regional body in the Middle East.

At the outset, it is necessary to understand how Kuwait’s small state status is relevant to understanding its positioning with reference to foreign policy. Small states are usually driven by survivalist motives as noted in literature (Handel, 2016). Small states are generally characterised as being somewhat weak within the international system, leading to some external influence on their foreign policy (Handel, 2016, p. 4). This can lead to the small states focussing on their survival, or having an emphasis on the disproportionality of their strength as compared to the stronger states, some of which may have influence on their foreign policy (Handel, 2016, p. 6). These aspects of small states is also applicable to Kuwait. Added to that is the concerns of Kuwait emanating from its geopolitical location as a neighbour of bigger and powerful countries, which are at times at variance with each other. It is a historical fact that the relations between Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are often fraught with tensions; this would also impact Kuwait’s positioning in the regional context of foreign policy. Kuwait has consequently also developed a ‘security oriented’ approach to foreign policy (Crystal, 2016). This is also a factor in how it has developed relations with the GCC and with Great Britain and the United States. These are political and security collaborations that Kuwait has formed over the years with an eye on developing relations with external powers for military support. It may be mentioned here that even in 1961, when a newly independent Kuwait was threatened by Iraq, it sought military help from Great Britain, which allowed it to avert the threat to itself from Iraq (Crystal, 2016, p. 91). At the same time, the Arab League forces also helped Kuwait (Crystal, 2016). These aspects are significant to its small state status and the fact that it often depends on the bigger states to provide military support.

Government Structure

The Kuwait constitution was enacted in 1962 soon after the independence of Kuwait. As per the constitution, the Amir is the head of state. He is vested with the power to rule the country. The Amir is also the commander in chief of the armed forces. The prime minister is appointed by the Amir, and he also has the power to suspend the parliament. The Amir has often used his powers to appoint the members of the Sabah ruling family to government posts. The National Assembly of Kuwait is an elected body and has power of making legislation, and acting on legislation drafted by the national government.

As Kuwait is governed by the Amir, who is the head of the state, the Amir is also in charge of the foreign policy. Thus, one of the unique aspects of Kuwaiti foreign policy is that it is an executive matter, with the amir having the last say on matters involving the foreign policy (Crystal, 2016). The Amir relies on the prime minister and foreign minister for the formulation of the foreign policy. This system has been criticised for being non democratic and opague (Crystal, 2016, p. 146). Suggestions for reform in the foreign policy have been made for making it more transparent and democratic (Katzman, 2013).

Kuwait has a well established government; and it has transformed significantly in the period of the Arab Spring (Mohamed, 2019). The government of Kuwait responded to the Arab Spring by allowing greater voice to its citizenry and allowing it a role in the decision-making process, which was not the case for all countries that experienced the Arab Spring (Mohamed, 2019). Consequently, the government structure in the Kuwait has allowed greater space for opposition especially since 2010. Kuwait also has more participation of women in the administrative process, unlike some other countries in the Middle East.

Like other Middle Eastern countries, Kuwait has a mix of Shia and Sunni population, Kuwait too has a sizeable population from both factions. However, Kuwait has managed to avoid conditions of strife between the two Islamic factions till 2019 when the Amir was hospitalized in the United States. This was followed by some tensions in the different factions leading to the resignation of the prime minister. Therefore, there are some indications of tensions between the Shia and Sunni factions, which has political implications. This may also have foreign policy implications with respect to the countries in the immediate neighbourhood like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. An important factor in Kuwait governance relates to the economic policy. At this time, Kuwait’s overdependence on oil and exports of the same is the driving factor of economic policy of Kuwait.

Research Objectives

The objectives of the study are as follows:

To study Kuwait’s foreign affairs strategy since 1961;

To explore the role of Kuwait as a small state in international politics as well as the impact of domestic forces on political actors;

To evaluate how the country’s foreign policy has evolved over the years; and

To determine the effects of foreign policy decisions made by Kuwait’s government on the stability of the region.

Research questions

The following questions will guide research initiatives done throughout the study:

What is the nature of the relationship between Kuwait and states with which it has alliances, and how has this shaped the political landscape in the Middle East?

How do the foreign policy stances taken by Kuwait on different issues affecting the Middle East shape the geopolitics of the region?


This is a desk based research utilising a systematic literature review. Therefore, the principal method employed to collect the data for this research is through a literature review. Thus, this is a secondary methods research study. The literature review method has been used for the purpose of exploring the major themes in existing literature on Kuwait’s foreign policy from the period of 1961. The method is used to identify and appraise the existing quality literature and empirical data without missing any important research studies on the issue (Bettany-Saltikov, 2012).

Systematic Review

Systematic literature review helps the researcher collect data from books, journals, reports, and even from what is called as ‘grey literature’ and can be found in the PhD theses or conference papers that may provide useful empirical data to the researcher (Bettany-Saltikov, 2012, p. 68). The term ‘systematic’ signifies the methodological process involved in a literature review wherein the researcher collates “all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question” (Green, et al., 2011, p. 6). This method is also useful because it helps the researcher to limit the scope of their research and avoid having to go through irrelevant data sources as the researcher uses search strings and Boolean Logic to identify the most relevant and quality data sources on databases (Bettany-Saltikov, 2012, p. 5).

The advantages of using the approach of systematic literature review include elimination of bias due to the use of inclusion and exclusion criteria. As the researcher is identifying the literature only on the basis of the predetermined inclusion and exclusion criteria, there is no possibility for the researcher to employ bias for the selection of the data sources. There are other advantages of adopting a systematic literature review, particularly in that the researcher employs a systematic and methodological tool to ensure that the highest quality literature can be identified. However, for this, as explained by Linares-Espinós, Hernández, Domínguez-Escrig, Fernández-Pello, Hevia, Mayor, Padilla-Fernández, and Ribal (2018), the researcher should formulate a research question that allows him to design the measures that will lead to the answer to the research question. The importance of research questions in shaping the outcomes of a search strategy was discussed by Sovacool, Axsen, and Sorrell (2018), who argue that studies may have have limited impact because the research questions adopted are effective, which do not lead to the desirable condition of increasing the understanding on the issues under investigation.

Systematic literature review has come to become a common method in health research (Bettany-Saltikov, 2012), however, the employment of this method in other kinds of research has also come to be supported (Green, et al., 2011). The process of systematic review involves collection of all available literature on a given area of research and collating the literature so that the important themes in all of the literature can be summarised and analysed (Gough and Richardson, 2018). However, an understanding of available knowledge on a given subject is a necessary to ensure the desired outcomes from the literature review (Gough & Richardson, 2018).

Search Strategy

As the study utilizes a systematic literature review, a search strategy was created to identify the relevant literature. The search strategy involved formulating exclusion and inclusion criteria, which was to be used for the purpose of matching the literature that would be appropriate for this research study. The inclusion criteria was: studies on Kuwait foreign policy that have been published in the past 5 years. Therefore, studies that were outside this time frame were excluded. Also excluded were studies that were not in English language, as it was thought that it would be most appropriate that the studies are in English. Furthermore, the inclusion criteria for the literature review was that the articles should be academic in nature. This was because the researcher only wanted to use credible sources such as journals, books, and government publications. A search string was formulated for locating sources on databases; two databases were used, which were Google Scholar and Proquest. The search string was formulated using the keywords pertinent to the research and also using Boolean Logic terms to make sure that synonyms were also taken into search string. The key words included in the search string were Kuwait foreign policy, Kuwait foreign relations, Kuwait foreign relations with GCC countries, Kuwait foreign relations with China, and Kuwait foreign relations with the United States.

Theoretical Framework

The study was based on existing theories in International Relations literature that help to explain the foreign policy behaviour, especially in context of small states. A theoretical framework is essential because it helps the researcher to explain the path that the study will adopt and create the theoretical constructs with relation to which the researcher is observing a specific phenomenon (Adom et al., 2016). The theoretical framework is essential to the researcher grounding their research on the basis of the existing theory unless they are trying to formulate a new theory based on inductive methods (Adom et al., 2016). As this is a study related to International Relations, the theories that were considered for formulating a theoretical framework include classical realism, neo-realism, neo-classical realism, liberalism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and cognitive theories.

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Levels of Analysis

International relations between states can be explored or examined on the basis of several levels including, system, state, organizational, or individual levels (Asal, Miller, & Willis, 2020). Based on these levels of analysis, a researcher can describe how a state behaves within the international system (system-level analysis); in the context of the domestic foreign policy (state-level analysis); or in the context of organisations of the states (organisational level analysis). In a system level analysis, the researcher can consider how changes to the international system results in changes in the state’s behaviour to the international system (Asal, Miller, & Willis, 2020). In an individual level analysis, the researcher would consider how specific individuals cause changes or important influences in the foreign policy. In an organisational level analysis, the researcher could consider how specific organisations within the state affects their foreign policy.

Realism Theories of Foreign Policy

Realism approach focusses on four aspects of state behaviour: groupism (group solidarity is conducive to domestic politics and cooperation in international politics), egoism (narrow self-interest drives individual and group behaviour), anarchy (absence of government shapes international politics), and power politics (intersection of groupism, egoism and anarchy makes international relations a politics of power and security) (Wohlforth, 2008). The realist approach is based on politics that is considered from the dimensions discussed above and which lead to the adoption of the conflict-based paradigm as realists consider the absence of government to be the primary determinant of outcomes in international politics (Korab-Karpowicz, 2017). According to the realists, there is no uniform approach to rule creation in international politics which leads to the development of a self-help system in international politics. States define their own interests and pursue power from a realist point of view. Realism is a wide approach that has included within itself different ideologies like classical realism, neo-realism, and neo-classical realism (Wohlforth, 2008). Classical realism is based on the premise that by default, state conduct is aimed at creating and increasing their own power and taking measures to reduce the power of their rival states (Morgenthau, 1962). Neoliberalism is based on the premise that the desire of the states to create power for themselves is a characteristic of the international system itself. Neo-classical realism shifts the significance that Classical Realism placed on the role of the state to the international system in foreign policy decision making. This is discussed in greater detail in the section below.

Liberalism and Neoliberalism Theories

Waltz (1959) was responsible for bringing focus to the role of the state as he argued that classical realists were not able to differentiate between arguments about human nature, internal attributes of states, and the international system. In the Theory of International Politics, Waltz (1959) wrote about how features of the overall system of states affect interaction between the states. Classical liberalism focussed on the role of the state rivalry and cooperation as foreign relations are shaped by both rivalries between states as well as cooperation. However, it did not emphasise on the international system and the role that the system itself can play in shaping foreign policy of states within the system. This is where neo-liberalism fills the gap and is able to show how foreign policy is not just impacted by the state itself but also the international system; for instance, international institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations can play a role in the way foreign policy is shaped (Springer, Birch, and MacLeavy, 2016).

Ethical Considerations

This is not a primary research, but a research based on secondary data. As such, the ethical concerns involved in this research are particular to secondary research. There are two principal ethical concerns involved in this research. The first relates to the collection of quality and academic data. The second relates to the ensuring of the giving of credit to the sources used for the research. In this research study, only academic sources from peer reviewed journals and academic books are used for data collection. The research also ensures that all the sources are property cited and credited.

Overview of Kuwait foreign policy

What is of importance in this study is the significance of factors such as, ideology, religion, and value systems for the shaping of Kuwait's foreign policy. This dissertation explores the ways in which these factors have guided and shaped Kuwait’s foreign policy since 1961 with the help of a literature review. Ethnic, religious, historical, and political experiences are significant in the context of Kuwait foreign policy not the least because inter-Arab cooperation in the Gulf region is also influenced by these common factors in their experience. Indeed, the establishment of the GCC is also linked to the commonalities of the ethnic, religious, historical and political factors (Assiri, 2019). Kuwait is a small state and as such it is vulnerable and sensitive to external changes, which also impacts its foreign policy in a significant way (Al-Ebraheem, 2016). As Kuwait has an an oil-producing and exporting economy, it is susceptible to external factors that can affect its economy and for that reason also, its foreign policy is associated with the fact of it being a small state (Al-Ebraheem, 2016).

Kuwait’s geopolitical location is also a significant point in how it formulates its foreign policy. Kuwait is situated in the Gulf, which is an important geopolitical space and has significance not just in the Middle East region but also in the world. At the same time, its geopolitical location has played an important role in the formulation of its foreign policy. First, as Kuwait is situated in this region, it has been exposed to some external threats from Iraq in particular, since the very inception of Kuwait’s independence. This has impacted Kuwait’s foreign policy in that it has sought alliances outside in order to counter the threat posed to it by other countries within the Gulf region. Second, as Kuwait is situated in the Gulf region, it became important to states outside the Gulf for whom association with Kuwait has been important because of its geopolitical location. This is true for the United States as well as the UK. In other words, Kuwait’s location did not just impact Kuwait’s foreign policy with respect to other states, but also other states’ foreign policy with respect to Kuwait. Against the backdrop of realism and neo-realism approaches discussed earlier, the geopolitical location of Kuwait explains why its foreign policy was shaped the way it did with respect to countries within the Gulf and outside of it. Therefore, one of the key factors in the determination of the Kuwaiti foreign policy is the geopolitical location of Kuwait.

Thus, as Kuwait was situated in the Gulf, when it was threatened by Iraq soon after its independence, states like the United States and the UK, who had interests in the Gulf, came to the aid of Kuwait against Iraqi aggression. This impacted not just the way Kuwait devised its foreign policy with respect to other states, but also how other states shaped their foreign policy with respect to the Gulf region as a whole and Kuwait in particular. The first ever foreign policy crisis in Kuwait was related to the Iraqi claim to Kuwait, which was responded to by Kuwait by asking military support from Great Britain under a treaty arrangement between the two countries (Crystal, 2016, p. 91). Thus, the British forces came to Kuwait dealt with the Iraqi invasion (Crystal, 2016). Kuwait also increasingly aligned itself to the United States as the latter came to its aid in the Gulf War (Crystal, 2016, p. 146). The alliance shelter theory can be used to explain how Kuwait has increasingly used reliance on western countries like the United States and the UK to respond to threats within the Gulf region, especially from Iraq. Alliance shelter is defined as follows:

“series of strategies that small states adopt to alleviate the inherent vulnerabilities of being small. It is a unique form of alliance relationship with a great power or regional or international organisation whereby the small state yields effective control of its political decision-making in specific areas” (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016, p. 10).

Alliance shelter theory is based on the premise that as small states are aware of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses, they adopt strategies that are meant to offset these vulnerabilities and provide addressing to the weaknesses. In the case of Kuwait, what is seen is that it has used a strategy of formation of alliance relationships with more powerful countries outside of the Middle East and with its neighbours through regional or international organisations. By formulating such alliances, Kuwait is able to address the specific weaknesses that it has identified with respect to itself (being a small country) and respond to these weaknesses by allying with more powerful states. As alliances formed by small states is not just aimed at international reasons, but also domestic reasons (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016), one of the ways in which Kuwait seeks to gain advantage from the alliances formed with western countries like the United States through mutually beneficial cooperation especially in the area of development of capabilities (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016). Kuwait has certainly used its foreign policy with respect to countries like the United States to this effect. It has formed mutually beneficial relationships with the United States, the UK, and the GCC through which it seeks to derive economic, military and political benefits. Kuwait has been a recipient of military and diplomatic support from the United States and has also received support in development of its capabilities through such relationship with the more powerful and advanced ally (Cordesman, 2018 ). Through its alliances with the United States and neighbours like Saudi Arabia (Cordesman, 2018 ).

Other factors that impact the foreign policy of Kuwait include ideology, religion, and the value systems in Kuwait (Assiri, 2019). For Kuwait itself, there are three national goals that have driven its foreign policy, and which are linked to religious and ethnic concerns as well as historical and political factors. These three national goals are related to the domestic concerns of political and military security, which can be linked to its small size, its geopolitical location, and external threats. The second national goal is related to Islamic and Arabic values, which is related to domestic conditions also as well as its relations with other Islamic and Arab nations. The third national goal is related to its concern for the less developed Arab countries, and Kuwait’s commitment to providing aid and support to such countries (Assiri, 2019). This is also linked to its Arab and Islamic identity and its purposeful efforts to have relations with other Arab and Islamic states. It may therefore be said that there is a significant impact of a pan Arab ideology and a focus on Islamic values on Kuwait’s foreign policy. At the same time, Kuwait has aligned itself with western nations, such as, the United States, particularly after the Gulf War and it uses this alignment with United States for increasing its security (Crystal, 2016, p. 146).

The factors briefly introduced above will be discussed in greater detail in the chapters of this dissertation. The important themes that are made out in this introduction relate to the small state status of Kuwait and how it influences the foreign policy of the country, the ethnic and religious concerns and goals and how these relate to the way Kuwait forms relations with other Arab and Islamic states in the region, the concerns of Kuwait against external threats to its security and economy and how this drives the positioning of Kuwait to its regional allies and allies beyond the Middle East and Gulf region, and the internal influences of ethnicity, religion, history and politics for the foreign policy development of Kuwait.

Mini state and foreign policy

Literature on states in the political science field, refers specifically to the size of the states to make classifications of states based on small and big states. Size of the state is an important criterion in determining whether the state is small or big (Thorhallsson, 2017). Literature also indicates that the foreign policy of the states will also depend to a great extent on the size of the states and the strength of the states based on the geographical, demographic, and economic features (Thorhallsson, 2017). Thus, states may behave differently in terms of their foreign policy and relations with other states based on whether they can be classified as small or big states. Kuwait is a small state and is also called as a city state or a major metropolis owing to its size (Assiri, 2019). This chapter discusses how the small state status of Kuwait may impact its foreign policy.

Baehr (1975) argued that the size of the state, particularly, if the state is small, can be a major determinant of foreign policy for the state and a tool for analysis of the behaviour of states within the international system for the scholars of political science (Baehr, 1975). The behaviour of states within the international system can be significantly impacted by the fact of its being small (Thorhallsson, 2012). This is because the size of the state is related to the capabilities of the state; a smaller state may not have a significant military or may be disadvantaged by the fact of having a smaller human resource base (Thorhallsson, 2012, p. 140). Small states are considered to be unique in international politics requiring nuanced theoretical approaches for the purpose of understanding their behaviour as compared to the behaviour of the bigger states or more powerful states (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016, pp. 9-10). For instance, as compared to big or powerful states who use their membership of international organisations in more strategic manner (politically, economically, militarily), small states may primarily seek the membership of international organisations for the purpose of receiving official approval and international recognition for their independence and sovereignty (Thorhallsson, 2012, p. 141). This is particularly true for the countries that have emerged as independent after a period of colonisation (Thorhallsson, 2017).

Small states have certain sources of weaknesses that may be peculiar to their size. These sources of weaknesses are internal and external. Internal weaknesses may relate to the smaller geographical data, material data, fewer human resources, and weaker organisational capabilities (Handel, 2016, p. 68). This may have significant impacts for the foreign policy of smaller or weaker states. For one thing, small states may look outward towards regional or other allies who could be expected to help balance its weaknesses with reference to size, human resources, military capabilities, and economic and technological capabilities (Handel, 2016). Thus, weaker states often seek to depend on stronger states for gaining more bargaining power within the international system (Handel, 2016, p. 171). It is not always necessary that weaker states may be in a position to command who to align with, as sometimes weaker states may not have the freedom to maneuvour and align itself with any state that it wants (Handel, 2016). Depending on its own resourcefulness and position, a weaker state may find itself aligned to stronger states either in a competitive system, where it has the freedom to maneuvour or hegemonial system, where it has no such freedom (Handel, 2016, p. 171). However, it may also be said that the complexity within the international system does not give complete freedom of maneuvering to any state (Handel, 2016).

Although Kuwait is a small state, it has not been insignificant or completely bereft of freedom of manoeuvring; this is due to its significance for colonial powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its centrality in regional politics in the early decades of the twentieth century (Assiri, 2019). Even in the 1950s, although smaller in size as compared to Iraq and then Persia, Kuwait was considered by the British as having more advantages for them and other western powers (Assiri, 2019). In the 1980s, Kuwait continued with an non aligned foreign policy (Guazzone, 1989, p. 63). This allowed Kuwait to formulate relations with bigger powers irrespective of their own positioning and stand in the bipolar international system. Although Kuwait is a small state, it is also one of the richest countries in the Third World (Assiri, 2019). This is a key factor in whuy Kuwait chooses to provide aid to other Islamic states as one of the key components of its foreign policy goals.

As a small state, Kuwait does have some concerns that puts it apart from other bigger powers in the Middle East itself. Kuwait’s vulnerability and sensitivity to external changes is one of the continuing concerns of the nation and it affects its foreign policy (Al-Ebraheem, 2016, p. 36). One of the vulnerabilities of Kuwait is that being an oil economy and exporting economy, it is affected by changes in external markets (Al-Ebraheem, 2016). Due to this, it may have to adopt a more neutral international political condition in its foreign policy (Al-Ebraheem, 2016, p. 54). Moreover, Kuwait may have to rely more on its diplomacy to ensure its friendly relations with other countries as something that is essential to the survival of its small community (Al-Ebraheem, 2016, p. 54). The size of the state has a clear impact on the status of Kuwait as a mini state and on the formulation of its foreign policy (Assiri, 2019). Another country in the Middle East whose foreign policy behaviour indicates that it is affected by the small state status of the country is Jordan (Ryan, 2003).

Small states have generally adopted a survivalist approach because they need to define their limitations and vulnerabilities before they can identify appropriate measures that can help them sustain themselves within the international system (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016). Small states can have significant limitations related to human capital, resources, economic capacity, and military capacity. Due to these limitations, small states may have to explore internal and external options to balance against these weaknesses (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016). Foreign policy is largely concerned with the external options that the small states may explore for purpose of strengthening themselves and responding to their limitations. One of these options that is frequently employed by small states is in the nature of strategic arrangements and alliances with stronger states or entities. Thus, small states may try to bolster their capabilities by aligning themselves with or associating themselves with more powerful states or even regional and international organisations (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016).

The significance of alliances in foreign policy

The previous section has established that the status as a small state has significant implications for the foreign policy of that state. This theory of small states’ approach to foreign policy was also applied to Kuwait and literature explored in the previous chapter indicated that Kuwait’s foreign policy is influenced by the fact of its small state status. The literature discussed in the previous section also indicated that small states have generally adopted a survivalist approach. The general consensus in traditional international relations theory is that in order to counter their weaknesses and respond to the need to bolster their capabilities, small states may make arrangements with their larger neighbours or even with more powerful countries outside their neighbourhood (Alyson, Thayer, & Thorhallsson, 2016). In this section, the dissertation will discuss the theory of alliances and apply the principles to the case of Kuwait. In theory, alliances are projected as methods or measures that are used by states as a way of balancing threats from external factors. The last point is very significant theoretically as it links formation of alliances to threats from external factors; the purpose of alliances is to balance the external threats. This section will first discuss the theory of alliances, starting with the definition of the term in political theory; then it will discuss literature on how Kuwait has utilised alliances for the purpose of balancing external threats.

Also important to this discussion are the perceived external threats that Kuwait has sought to balance against using alliances and the ways in which Kuwait may approach alliances in a way that is different from western states. This is relevant for two reasons: first, Kuwait is a small state for which the concept of security may be different and more multifaceted than it is for the western states (Ryan, 2003, p. 136); second, as a Middle Eastern Arab state, Kuwait may have different and more complex meanings of state, security, and alliances as compared to the west where alliances are defined in more formal terms. In Kuwait, as in other Arab countries, alliances can also be informal and have ethnic and tribal contexts (Ryan, 2003).

Alliances have been defined in the political theory literature as associations formed by countries with each other for the purpose of enhancing security or for other common purposes, which may generally relate to economic alliance. In the context of Kuwait for example, alliances are said to have economic as well as military contexts, which is different from the traditional notions of alliances in security contexts as seen in western theory (Ryan, 2003). One of the foremost theorists on alliances, Walt (1987), defined alliance as "a formal or informal arrangement for security cooperation between two or more sovereign states" (p. 12). This definition of alliance links the association purpose of the allying countries to the objective of security. In a similar way, Snyder (1990) defined alliances as "formal associations of states for the use (or non-use) of military force, intended for either the security or the aggrandizement of their members, against specific other states" (p. 104). Thus, the concept of security is shown to be central to the formation of associations between states. Recent literature on defining alliance has also chosen to define alliance in the same way, that is, the association that states may choose to enter into for the purpose of enhancing their security (Nexon, 2009).

In political theory, alliances have sought to be explained within the domain of the balance of power theory, which is based on the argument that alliances are sought by states when they are faced with more powerful enemies or rivals so that they can balance the gap in the power between themselves and the more powerful enemies by associating with friendly powerful states (Nexon, 2009). In other words, balance of power approach explains that the less powerful states seek alliances with other powerful states so that they can augment their own power as against the threatening states (Nexon, 2009). The core thesis of balance of power theory is that an imbalance in power threatens survival of weaker states leading them to form alliances with powerful states (Nexon, 2009). Within the realism approach, it is argued that states are always trying to balance their power approach even of internally because they are always trying to ensure that they have secured themselves against adversaries or stronger nations that may threaten them (Mearsheimer, 2010).

Kuwait’s actions may also be explained in the context of balance of threat theory. Walt (1985) has argued that states do not balance power, rather they seek to balance threats that they perceive, and they associate their own security with such perceived threats. States apply balance of threat approach through international relations with other states. There are four elements for assessing perceived threat to the state: aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive capabilities, and offensive intentions (Walt, 1985). States use these four criteria to evaluate the perceived threat by other states; for instance, if the other state has more aggregate power, is proximate, and has offensive intentions and capabilities, then the perceived threat from that state is high (Walt, 1985). Walt (2000) uses the example of the Cold War and the actions of the American and Russian states to explain how the states were not acting from the perspective of balancing the powers of the others but to balance the actual threats that they faced.

The balance of threat theory has been used by some political theorists in the context of the Gulf region and how foreign policy of the states in the region has been affected by the need to balance threats. For instance, the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been explained in the context of balance of threat theory (Priess, 1996). Alliances in the Middle East are explained on the basis of the balance of threats that are perceived by the states within the GCC (Gause III, 2003). Cooper (2003) does provide a different view though on whether or not the states are driven by power perception or threat perception within the GCC. Walt (1985) argued that the formation of the GCC is an example of states cooperating in response to security threats from Iran and the Soviet Union. Similarly, Priess (1996) has argued that the formation of the GCC was in response to the threats that were perceived by the member states especially from some of the countries within the Gulf region itself. Priess (1996) assessed that the members of the GCC were affected in their threat perception from Iran after the ouster of the Shah in Iran and the Iranian revolution because they foresaw some internal threats to themselves from these events and were concerned about how these events in Iran could have internal impacts in their own countries.

Either in the case of balancing of power or in the case of balancing of threats, the important point is that Kuwait would enter into some alliances with other countries in order to respond to such perceptions. In other words, for the purpose of this dissertation, the focus is on how Kuwait has responded to the need to balance the power with others or respond to the threats from other states through the formation of alliances. To come back to the GCC, this is an important step in the instituionalisation of cooperation in the region and was formed with six member countries including Kuwait (Al-Mawali, 2015). The question is whether this step of the Gulf countries can be seen as a way of forming alliances and what were the motivating factors for Kuwait to be a part of this organisation. The explanation to this may not just be in the balance of power or balance of threat theory although these theories may be relevant to providing theoretical basis for understanding part of the reasons why Kuwait has become a part of GCC. There may be other explanations that may be linked to common historical and ethnic cultures in the Gulf region.

In one way the Middle East is different from the west (and which affects its notions of alliances) in that the promotion of close ties and alliances may be based on “common religion, history, language, culture, and tribal affinities” (Hellyer, 2001, p. 162). It has been argued that one of the reasons why the Gulf countries came together to form a regional cooperative organisation like GCC is because they are similar in terms of ethnicity, religion, historical experience, and political systems (Al-Mawali, 2015). At the same time, the economic and geographical sizes of member countries of the GCC is varied and this may impact the dynamics within the GCC. Kuwait for instance is a small state and geographically as well as economically it cannot be compared with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is the strongest economy and is also the largest in terms of geographical size. It is the highest contributor to the region’s GDP, for which reason it is considered to be the foremost player in the GCC growth (Al-Mawali, 2015). The second highest contributor to GDP in the region is from the United Arab Emirates (Al-Mawali, 2015). Kuwait is not close to these countries in terms of economy and geography. Kuwait’s reasons for joining the GCC may be also related to its vulnerabilities and need to align with stronger countries in the region to counter the powers or threats from others. Some aspects of Kuwait’s own history may be relevant to understanding why it has sought to use alliances with other countries through mechanisms like the GCC and otherwise as a part of its foreign policy. First, at the very inception of Kuwait as an independent, sovereign nation, it was threatened by Iraq, which claimed Kuwaiti territory. Kuwait responded by reaching out to Great Britain and other countries in the Gulf to support it against Iraqi aggression (Assiri, 2019). Thus, Kuwait was forced to look outwards for political and security collaborations with countries for the purpose of security at a very early stage of its inception. At this point, Kuwait addressed the crisis that faced it by asking military help from Great Britain (Crystal, 2016, p. 91). After this point however, Kuwait was also again threatened by Iraq during the Gulf War. Once again, Kuwait was supported against Iraqi aggression by countries like the United States and the other friendly nations in the Gulf region. Therefore, from the perspective of its own history, Kuwait has experience with external threats for which purpose it has sought to strengthen itself by formulating alliances with stronger countries. Kuwait’s membership of the GCC can be understood from this perspective also. It is driven by the need to form alliances to repel threats that arise externally.

It can be said that the Gulf War exposed the vulnerability of Kuwait to external threats arising from the countries in the Gulf region itself. This led to the increased concern for Kuwait to formulate alliances with foreign powers. In all of this, the American role in Kuwaiti military security is particularly interesting and important. American forces helped Kuwait repel an Iraqi invasion at the time of the Gulf War. Since then however, American forces have continued to be based in Kuwait (Katzman, 2013). Kuwait’s mini state status is also relevant here because this does colour Kuwait’s approach to security, which it does not feel confident about providing for itself and therefore the American collaboration is important from that perspective. At this point, it may also be noted that Kuwait chooses to let the Unites States station its troops in its territory as a security issue even though it is a member of the GCC; it may be assumed that GCC membership is not perceived as providing Kuwait with an extensive security umbrella, which gap is filled by the American forces (Katzman, 2013).

Therefore, it can be said that the engagement with the United States is a part of the Kuwaiti foreign policy aimed at enhancing its security against possible threats from Iraq and Iran (Katzman, 2013). As part of the engagement with the United States, Kuwait receives military assistance from the United States, as well as assistance for the Air Force (Katzman, 2013). Interestingly, the engagement with the United States is not just limited to getting assistance because Kuwait has also donated to American security operations in the region and purchased war technology like the purchase of $1.6 billion worth of articles and services through the Foreign Military Sales Programme (Katzman, 2013). Therefore, the foreign policy towards the United States is not just about getting assistance from the United States, there is an expansion of that engagement to Kuwait also being a purchaser of the American war technology.

Another way of understanding Kuwaiti foreign policy is in the context of realism. Defensive realism uses alliances and may be a response to a hegemonic power in the region or beyond (Mearsheimer, 2010, p. 83). Offensive realism uses increased defence spending and military conscription and does not necessarily respond to a specific hegemonic power but is a consistent and continuous process (Mearsheimer, 2010, p. 157).

Support for Palestine

Kuwait has taken an approach to Palestine and Israel conflict in a way that is different to the approach taken by other Arab countries that tend to support Palestine. On the other hand, Kuwait which often takes a neutral position on most issues in the Middle East, has taken a different approach to Israel-Palestine conflict because of the approach adopted by Palestine to the Iraq and Kuwait war in which Palestine extended support to the former (Katzman, 2016). This puts Kuwait at variance with the other GCC nations who have supported Palestine in the conflict with Israel. Many countries have taken decided stand on whether they support Israel or Palestine in the conflict based either on the Holocaust-Hitler analogy where Israel is seen as being vulnerable or the apartheid analogy where Palestine is seen as a country being subjugated by colonialists (Turner, 2019). However, Kuwait does not support Palestine’s cause because of Palestinian history of supporting Iraq (Rosen, 2012).

United States

Kuwait shares a diplomatic relationship with the United States since 1961 after it obtained its independence from the UK. United States sees Kuwait as an ally in the Middle East. The relationship between the United States and Kuwait strengthened after the former provided the latter with military support in the Gulf War; in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Kuwait offered its territory to the American troops for launching of their operations (Terrill, 2007). Kuwait is also cooperating with the United States in counter-terrorism efforts by providing support in the military, diplomatic, and intelligence arenas. On the other hand, the United States too provides technical assistance to Kuwait (Terrill, 2007). United States and Kuwait also have an agreement on trade and investment and Kuwait is the largest market for the United States in the Middle East.


China and Kuwait have established diplomatic relationships since 1971 (Chaziza, 2020). The mutual cooperation between the two countries is related to political, economic, cultural, and military cooperation. China supported Kuwait’s claims to just resolution of issues of the Gulf War and it opposed the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Diplomatic relations between the two countries include visits by members of the government including at the highest level; for instance, in the past, President Yang Shangkun, Premier Li Peng, and important leaders from the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) have visited Kuwait and the Emir of Kuwait has visited China (Shichor, 1992).

There is direct trade between China and Kuwait since 1955. In 2008, the trade volume between China and Kuwait was US$6.78 billion (AlSabah, 2015). The trade volume between China and Kuwait was US$13 billion in 2014 (AlSabah, 2015). Kuwait loaned a significant amount of money through the preferential official loans to China among Arab countries initiative (AlSabah, 2015). There are trade agreements between China and Kuwait including an agreement on trade signed in 1980, Agreement on Promotion and Protection of Investment from 1985, and the Agreement on Establishing Joint Economic and Trade Committee from 1986 (AlSabah, 2015). Similarly, Agreement on Avoiding Double Taxation got signed in 1989 while the Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation is from 1989. China and Kuwait are also involved in mutual cooperation in culture, education, and sports. Exchange visits between the two nations continue to foster a good relationship between the two nations (AlSabah, 2015). China and Kuwait have student exchange programmes as per an agreement for cultural cooperation which was signed in 1982. China and Kuwait also have an agreement on Civil Aviation Transportation since 1980 and an Agreement on Sports Cooperation since 1992 (Mostafa, 2019).


The foreign policy of Kuwait is consistent with the theories on small states’ foreign policy approaches discussed in the literature review chapter. Kuwait, as other small states is driven by survivalist motives due to its somewhat weak position in the international system (Handel, 2016, p. 4). Kuwait’s concerns about its weaknesses also emanate from its geopolitical location as a neighbour of bigger and powerful countries and the Middle East as a ground for regional differences as between Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia which also impact Kuwait’s ‘security oriented’ approach to foreign policy (Crystal, 2016). The decisions made by Kuwait in shaping its foreign policy also impact the geopolitical situation in the Middle East as noted by Katzman (2016), who writes about the development of cooperation between the United States and Kuwait after the Gulf War. Katzman (2016) argues that Kuwait has used its relationship with the United States to strengthen its position with respect to the other states like Iraq from whom Kuwait has security threats. The position of alignment is in accord with the literature on small states, which suggests that smaller states are more interested in alignment with stronger states either in a competitive system, where it has the freedom to maneuvour or hegemonial system, where it has no such freedom (Handel, 2016, p. 171). As United States is a stronger and more powerful country within the international system, Kuwait’s alignment with the United States adds to its own strength and makes it competent to take on competitors and rivals in the Middle East from whom Kuwait fears threat.

Kuwait’s neutral position on most issues in the Middle East has also been an important part of its foreign policy in the Middle East as it has used this position for mediating conflict between different entities in the region (Naser, 2017). Kuwait’s approach in this context can be defined as being driven by realism as it is not aligning itself with any specific positions or stances, rather it uses a realist approach by maintaining neutrality in most situations (Korab-Karpowicz, 2017). The maintenance of neutrality has also meant that Kuwait has offered support in mediation efforts in the Middle East (Naser, 2017) including in situations related to Yemen, Iran’s claim over Bahrain, and Bangladesh and Pakistan.


Kuwait is a small state located in a region which is sensitive and important from the geopolitical perspective. As a small state, Kuwait has had to modulate its foreign policy that is more suitable to a small state. Thus, it has focussed on maintaining a neutral approach to the conflicts between bigger nations, and has looked to consolidate its position by alliances with countries like the United States and China that complement its weaknesses with their own strong points. In the years past, Kuwait’s foreign policy appears to be consistent on these important points.

Kuwait’s foreign policy is driven by its executive with the Emir at the head of the decision making chain of command. This has come under some criticism because Kuwait’s exercise in foreign policy making is not seen to be democratic because of executive control. At the same time, the foreign policy has remained consistent with a focus on building alliances with more powerful countries like the United States and within the GCC. Its approach to foreign policy decision is aimed at ensuring protection from external threats as well as help in the economic development of the country. For example, the country's bilateral relationship with China has economic benefits to the country. Relationship with the United States is aimed at deriving both economic and military advantages. Kuwait’s foreign policy can largely be characterised by the realist impulses and can be seen as a combination of realism and neorealism as it is based on its own motivations as well as the compulsions within the international system. As a small state, Kuwait’s position in the international system in not strong, therefore, the international system plays a role in determining Kuwait’s foreign policy as a small state.

The limitation of the current study is that as it is based on the secondary method of data collection, it is based on prior research and does not utilise primary data. However, as the study utilises a literature review method, it has ensured that only academic research and literature is used to derive findings. This has helped the researcher to arrive at findings after collating the data. A future research with primary data however, will be an effective method for arriving at conclusions based on primary data.


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