[Asharq Al-Awsat] One political commentator (Fahd al-Mutayri) has written that there is a crisis between the “government” and the building of a “modern state” in Kuwait. In the days of Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah after independence, the government granted the merchants privileges in real estate in order to pacify them. Then, in the days of another government and to pacify the poorest of the poor, it granted their tribes Kuwaiti nationality. This has strengthened tribalism and weakened the government. After that, the government pacified the clergy and paid them generously, and so on. What do you think of this analysis?
[Al-Sabah] If there is something that distinguishes Kuwait, it is the numerous analysts and their varying views. However, one thing remains true in the final analysis: this is that this family (Al-Sabah) in particular has built a modern civilized state in spite of difficult social and material circumstances. It was not a gradual process and the regional circumstances were not favorable to a gradual natural evolution over time. There was the occupation of Palestine, which caused a major shock in the Arab world. With the independence of Kuwait came the Iraqi claims in the days of Abdul-Karim Kassem that Kuwait was part of Iraq and the latter demanded its annexation to Iraq. Then, after that came the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. There were many disturbances, but this family had a vision. This was the building of a contemporary modern state based on the values on which this society was built, particularly openness and communication among all members of this society. Thus, when the 1962 Constitution was written, it did not come from a vacuum, in the same way that the Kuwaiti Parliament did not come from a vacuum. The first quasi-parliament in Kuwait began in 1920, when a group of Kuwaitis agreed on the need for communication between the ruler and the ruled, as well as that the ruled, meaning the people, should have a say in who the ruler should be. In the late 1920s, this was followed by the establishing of educational and municipal councils, which led to the establishing of a legislative council in1939.
Accordingly, any talk about the government adopting tactics to pacify or please this or that is not corroborated by historical evidence. This actually testifies to the contrary and affirms that, from the very beginning, this family made a covenant with itself to communicate, consult, and be open with its people and the world at large. I think this is what allows the commentators to provide interpretations that absolutely are contrary to historical evidence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many Kuwaitis complain that, in spite of their attachment to the electoral process, they have not seen a single parliament in Kuwait that has looked after the national interest, and most members of parliament look after their own objectives, be they authority, wealth, or showing off. All agree on the necessity of having a parliament, but they question the “flattery and flirtation” on the part of members of parliament.
[Al-Sabah] The suggestion that the parliament does not represent. . ..
[Asharq Al-Awsat] (interrupting) It is representative, but the tendency is for them to represent their own interests and the authorities’ interest, not the interests of Kuwait as a whole.
[Al-Sabah] If we all had the same vision as to what Kuwait’s interests are there would have been no need for a parliament. Regimes where only the ruler knows and understands the interests of his country are dictatorial regimes. We all try to understand where the interest of Kuwait lies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But is your parliament too spoilt?
[Al-Sabah] How is that?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Because parliaments around the world do not waste their time continually discussing disenfranchising or divesting a minister, but this happens in Kuwait frequently.
[Al-Sabah] It is not the parliament; it is the Constitution that gives every Member of Parliament the right to question ministers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However, does this not obstruct the implementation of government programs?
[Al-Sabah] It is based on the Constitution, and perhaps this is among the things that are used arbitrarily. However, the fact remains that it is a constitutional tool, and in doing so the Member of Parliament is only exercising his rights, albeit arbitrarily.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is also is the Constitution that forbids the “mobile” Diwans [mobile surgeries] as has happened lately?
[Al-Sabah] Exactly, what used to happen was a form of appropriating of state property. When somebody builds on land that is not his, he is regarded a transgressor
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However, you accepted that in the past.
[Al-Sabah] No we did not. We only were lax in enforcing the law, and this should be a credit to this government. We have other laws, such as the prohibition of smoking in public places and wearing car seatbelts, but there is laxity in their enforcement. For example, we have seen that the issue of the seatbelt might come next to stopping transgressing against state property.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you fear that the next parliament may have more opposition members of parliament than government MPs?
[Al-Sabah] I do not believe that there definitively opposition and government members of parliament, because it varies according to the subject under discussion. There are issues on which a member of parliament will vote against the government, while on other issues the same Member of Parliament will support the government. It is a matter of issues, not of opposition and government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Unlike Western democracies, there is no political opposition front in Kuwait. Do you think that may come one day?
[Al-Sabah] That is a matter decided on the basis of programs; we do not see that this government has a program and someone is against it. Usually, the criticism is over the government’s inability to implement the programs it has undertaken.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why inability?
[Al-Sabah] That was among the accusations; it was not true. In Kuwait, we do not have elections based on a political party basis that are based on political programs in turn. Elections are conducted on a personal basis, or some on specific programs of one or more issues, but not on whole integrated and complementary programs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the speaker of parliament in Kuwait have the power to dissolve the parliament?
[Al-Sabah] This is a “booby trapped” question.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the Constitution give the speaker of parliament that competence?
[Al-Sabah] The parliament belongs to the people and is owned by the people, and the people have delegated one person and given him the power to dissolve the parliament for a limited period of time, after which he has to return to the people. That person is the head of the state, his Excellency the emir of Kuwait. The parliament is fundamental to the political life in Kuwait.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you been surprised at the holding of a “memorial ceremony” for Imad Mugniyah in Kuwait and the appearance of one of your members of parliament in military uniform?
[Al-Sabah] The government’s position was clear on this issue. We believe that a memorial ceremony for a terrorist who has innocent blood on his hands does not deserve these kind of provocative sentiments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It was reported in Lebanon that the Kuwaiti Government intends to deport Lebanese Shia from Kuwait. Was this true?
[Al-Sabah] No, it was not true, and I am telling you for honesty’s sake that the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora contacted me enquiring about this issue. I told him that the Lebanese came to Kuwait for honest work to earn a living, “we keep them in our eyes” and look after them as we look after our own people. No. There was no intention of deporting any Lebanese.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has been stated that Iran has dormant cells in the Gulf and in Kuwait in particular.
[Al-Sabah] If the cells were dormant, how would I know that? All I know is that there are disturbances in the region and that Iran is challenging the international will, international legitimacy, and the UN Security Council. We know that this challenge causes tension and repression. At the same time, Iran knows that Kuwait is a friend, not an enemy state. I cannot read what the Iranians keep to themselves; however, when I visited Teheran recently, the Iranian leadership assured me they want to have strong steady relations with Kuwait and develop that relationship for the better.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] At the time it was stated that your visit was not 100-percent successful.
[Al-Sabah] What are your criteria for success?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You could not convince the Iranians to suspend their uranium enrichment.
[Al-Sabah] That was not my mission; my mission was to prepare for the joint Kuwaiti-Iranian Committee. There were several issues to discuss, such as drawing the border, which is a thorny and complicated issue and may need several meetings. I believe a positive step was taken, because we agreed on establishing a Technical Committee to draw the maritime boundaries between Kuwait and Iran.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you establish the committee?
[Al-Sabah] Yes we did.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did Iran establish the committee?
[Al-Sabah] Yes it did.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you informed of the names?
[Al-Sabah] There will be a meeting between the two committees in Kuwait shortly.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What mediation is Kuwait undertaking at preset? Is it true that there was Kuwaiti mediation between Saudi Arabia and Syria?
[Al-Sabah] No, and I have stated this previously. We and the Saudi Kingdom are partners, not mediators. We are in one trench and we have strong relationships with the Arab brethren in general. However, our relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are special. This is why we always consult with our Saudi brothers to mend the Arab situation in general, not for any particular case such as the relations of the kingdom with state A or state B.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever tried to mediate for a Gulf state or an Arab state?
[Al-Sabah] If we do so, we do not announce it; we believe in quiet diplomacy away from the media.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is your relationship with Syria?
[Al-Sabah] It is excellent. His Excellency the emir visited Syria; that was followed by a visit by the prime minister. We advocate Arab rights at every international forum for having a just comprehensive and durable peace, we mention the Golan Heights in particular. Perhaps, we talk about the Golan Heights more than others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost his credibility with the Lebanese, with many Arab countries, with Europe, and with the United States. How will he restore some of that credibility, and how can Kuwait help in this matter?
[Al-Sabah] You are positing a hypothesis and then building on it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If you read today’s newspapers, you will have seen what French Foreign Minister Kouchner has stated for instance.
[Al-Sabah] You stated that he has lost his credibility in Lebanon. This is a hypothesis. If I reply to it, it would mean that I am accepting your hypothesis. I do not have any certainties regarding what you are saying.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do the Lebanese feel that the credibility of the Syrian president is shaky?
[Al-Sabah] Direct your question to those who have lost faith in the Syrian president. Honestly, I am not concerned with Lebanese-Syrian relations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] At the meetings of Arab foreign ministers, have you felt, as the foreign minister of a brother country to Lebanon, that Syria has abandoned its former ambitions in Lebanon?
[Al-Sabah] It hurts me to see an Arab country unrepresented at the Arab summit. What we have in common with Lebanon is not just pan-Arabism, language, and so on. It is much more than that. We are a product of a distinguished political dynamism in the Arab world. Kuwait and Lebanon are two small countries that are open, have a free media, and are democratic and dynamic. We see our image in Lebanon and I hope the Lebanese see their image in Kuwait. In addition, it so happens that the seat of Lebanon is next to the seat of Kuwait at the Arab League; when I see the seat to my right empty, I feel pain. That is why we felt that the language of dialogue was missing at the summit without a representative for Lebanon, which puts a burden on the Arab states collectively. It was from this perspective that the Arab initiative was made as a rallying attempt, as well as because “Mu’awiya’s hair,” the metaphor for flexibility, was born in Damascus with the state of the Omayyads, whose founder was Mu’awiya. I do hope that “Mu’awiya’s hair” will not snap.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have not answered my question. Did you feel that the Syrians have abandoned their ambitions in Lebanon?
[Al-Sabah] Simply and honestly, Lebanon’s case was not discussed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have alluded to the Arab initiative. Initiatives usually are made to loosen up things and facilitate reaching a solution. However, this Arab initiative seems to have complicated the situation in Lebanon, because each party interpreted it the way they wanted to do. Was it meant to be like this? Today, we have seen the Syrian interpretation stating that the initiative did not make the election of the president a condition for him to chair the national dialogue.
[Al-Sabah] In the joint Arab initiative we have something called observations on the Arab joint action. Sometimes, we believe that we can come up with a formula that has a margin of what might be called “positive vagueness” or deliberate vagueness,” which leaves a margin for different interpretations in the hope that a compromise solution maybe reached through these margins of interpretation. However, it seems this “positive vagueness” was not very positive. I agree with you that we need to reduce that margin of vagueness and be more clear and realistic in explaining what needs to be explained.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You may call this “positive vagueness” trying-to-be-clever vagueness. The fear is that the Arab initiative might face the fate of UN Security Council Resolution 242, where each party interpreted it the way they wanted, the years passed, and neither “the land” nor “land” referred to in the resolution has been liberated.
[Al-Sabah] Only one state is objecting to Resolution 242.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is only one state objecting to the Arab initiative. At any rate, how do you see Lebanon in the foreseeable future?
[Al-Sabah] As a politician and a foreign minister, I have to be optimistic, but as an Arab citizen who loves Lebanon and considers himself Lebanese, I feel pessimistic. However, history has taught us that when they fall from high the Lebanese land on their feet. They are persevering, they love their country, and they have distinguished their country, but I feel frustration over Lebanon. Nevertheless, our consolation is that Lebanon will come out of this crisis in good health, and that this crisis will strengthen Lebanon, not weaken it.
I do not know whether this a result of wishful thinking or a result of knowing the capabilities of these people and the bitter experiences through which they have been. No Arabs have been through the destructive civil war through which Lebanon went. Nevertheless, the Lebanese people came out of it strong, able, and steadfast. Will they not be able to emerge from this crisis, which is far less destructive than the civil war? The optimism is there, although the frustration also is there in the Lebanese street. In the Gulf region and in Kuwait, the bet is that Lebanon will emerge from the crisis much stronger than previously.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some Arab countries have interpreted the Israeli military maneuvers as being preparations for war with Syria. Are you of this opinion, or of the view that any Israeli intervention in southern Lebanon will upset the US efforts in Iraq and that Washington is not prepared to sacrifice its achievements in Iraq?
[Al-Sabah] Your questions are interrelated.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the United States allow the launching of anew war now?
[Al-Sabah] For a start, I do not know what the United States will allow or not allow; this is between the United States and Israel. What I do know is that one should not trust Israel. For one, in any dealing with Israel, I build my position on the worst proposition; accordingly, I do not exclude any irresponsible or childish behavior by Israel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If Iran entered this war, would that affect the Gulf?
[Al-Sabah] Of course it would. Any war in the Gulf will have a negative impact. You cannot feel safe if your next door neighbor’s house was on fire. Any war in the Gulf will have a negative effect on the Gulf States, Arab States, and the Middle East as a whole.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many Arab countries are betting on a change of US administration.
[Al-Sabah] I do too, and this will happen in November.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you betting negatively or positively?
[Al-Sabah] The administration will change in any event. The two main parties have the same approach as far the main issues of the Middle East are concerned.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Hence, is the betting misplaced?
[Al-Sabah] In the past, we have made many bets and that cost us a lot. I believe we have to be realistic, not adventurous. Realism requires us not to bet on anyone but ourselves. Our problem is from within, and I am stating this frankly. How can there be an Arab position when the Palestinian body is divided? How can there be a peaceful solution while the Palestinians are at war among themselves? The disease is with us, and it is time we stop betting on the others. It is time that we look into ourselves, instead of pinning hopes on outsiders.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is behind the Palestinian division?
[Al-Sabah] It is the disease that is within us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are the Arabs responsible for the Palestinian division?
[Al-Sabah] I think we are in need of a stand within ourselves, and it is high time that we had such a stand. We had a chance for that in Damascus, but it did not materialize. There has not been a stand within the self to review and soul search and reconcile and be frank with ourselves. Nothing of the sort has happened.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the Palestinians, is there an Iranian element now?
[Al-Sabah] We allowed the outsiders to interfere. We opened the door; it was not opened by force. This is part of the reason why the Arab body politic is dysfunctional.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there likely to be an inevitable US-Iranian rapprochement allowing for Iranian influence in Iraq? Will Kuwait be at ease with Iranian influence in Iraq?
[Al-Sabah] Kuwait only will relax when there is a democratic Iraqi regime that is a master of its decisions, lives in peace with its people and neighbors, and favors democracy and peaceful intentions as basis for its relations with its neighbors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Kuwait has called for convening the fourth Conference of Iraq’s neighboring countries. For what purpose?
[Al-Sabah] Our neighbor is complaining of troubles and disturbances. Their house is on fire and Kuwait cannot stand by idly. We have called for the meeting as neighbors, and we invited the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the industrial states, meaning the G8 countries, in order to extinguish the fire and restore the building of Iraq. This is according to the principles I just have mentioned: a democracy that is open, at peace with itself and with its neighbors, and master of its own decisions. This is the purpose of the conference.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Iraqis might regard this as an intervention in their domestic affairs.
[Al-Sabah] All the steps are taken in complete coordination with the Iraqi Government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the Iraqi Government want to have a democratic Iraq?
[Al-Sabah] Of course they do, and the government is practicing that. This is the new Iraq that we hope will materialize through practice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does Kuwait encourage a US-Iranian and a US-Syrian rapprochement?
[Al-Sabah] If that helps to ease the situation, of course we do.