Efforts to resolve a slow-burning maritime boundary dispute between Iraq and Kuwait hit a dead end last month. Renewed political differences over Khor Abdullah, a narrow corridor with shared sovereignty, are bubbling beneath the surface of what appear to be cordial relations between the Gulf neighbours. The issue is casting a long shadow over the future of bilateral relations.
Kuwait is accused by Iraq of altering the surface area of the waterway by installing a naval platform as part of the construction of Mubarak Al-Kabir Port on the opposite bank to Iraq’s Umm Qasr Port. Referred to as Fisht El-Eij, the artificial piece of land, insists Kuwait, lies within its own territorial waters. Iraq disagrees, and says that, since 2012, such plans undermine the existing maritime borders. Once completed, the new port will make it difficult for Iraq to challenge Kuwait’s claim to territories that Baghdad has historically administered.
On 5 September Baghdad appealed formally to the UN Security Council to intervene in the conflict, protesting against Kuwaiti attempts to deprive Iraq of joint ownership and the freedom to navigate the narrow waterway.
The story began in 1993 after the announcement of Security Council Resolution 833. In a move described by analysts as unprecedented, the UN’s mandate extended to the demarcation of the maritime boundary. During the same year, the US ordered a missile strike on Iraq’s Military Intelligence Headquarters; 23 tomahawk cruise missiles hit the site. As would be expected, Iraq’s decision to turn its back on US-led diplomatic efforts, including Resolution 833, would come back to bite successive Iraqi governments.
Between 1993 and 2003, the terms of that resolution — which reaffirmed previous resolutions and the establishment of the UN Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission, a body that Iraq has consistently disowned — were not applied by Kuwait’s parliament. Kuwait’s position and opinions on the matter are well documented, but as far as Iraq’s position is concerned, this has been eroded by political disarray and the pact of silence maintained by Kuwait-leaning Iraqi politicians cheerleading for Kuwait’s Emir at the expense of Iraq’s national sovereignty.
When asked about the official Iraqi position, former Transport Minister Amir Abduljabbar refused to “mention names” but argued that many are motivated by financial and business interests and others swapped their loyalty for permanent residence in the country. “Important delegations that visit Kuwait frequently do not consist of maritime experts but, instead, they send these lackeys,” he claimed in an interview with local Al-Rasheed satellite TV station.
Political anxieties over Iraq’s fading sovereignty of the shared maritime zone are deepening in the face of Baghdad’s inaction. A 2013 maritime deal initiated by former premier Nouri Al-Maliki received nationwide condemnation as experts and activists claimed that he had ceded the shared zone to Kuwait ‘s ruling class in exchange for billions of dollars. The exposé coincided with Kuwait’s attempt to activate the deal in January 2017, almost 3 years after it was signed in secret and in the absence of a parliamentary quorum.
The then-Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi refused to validate accusations of “betrayal” and “relinquished sovereignty” levelled at Maliki and offered no further clarity on a deal critiqued largely for its opaqueness. Iraq’s shaky position under Abadi has yet to stabilise under current Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Allegations of Kuwaiti meddling in the strategic shipping corridor entered a new phase last September, after Iraq lodged an official complaint. This was followed by calls from Iraqi parliamentarians to adopt the recommendations brought forward by a special parliamentary committee. One MP aligned to the White Iraqiya bloc, Alia Nassif, has urged Iraq’s three presidencies to activate the recommendations that the report advances. Its findings depict a dangerously lopsided agreement that will embolden Kuwait to police the joint maritime zone and prevent foreign vessels from sailing in Iraq’s territorial waters hoisting Iraq’s flag. Kuwait’s endless pursuit of re-demarcating the border would also deal a paralysing blow to fishing crews on either side of the waterway by prohibiting them from fishing. As underscored in the report, Iraq’s fishing communities will have nowhere to go in the likelihood of such an event. In fact, the last few years reveals an upturn of violent incidents in which Iraqi fishermen have been shot at by Kuwait coastguards.
In response to Iraq, Kuwait’s permanent UN representative, Mansour Otaibi, issued a letter to the UN Security Council in which allegations of a “land dispute” were shrugged aside. The dispute was coloured as topographical and climatic and one in which it was easy to reach a solution. “Kuwait called on Iraq more than once to start negotiations to settle the issue,” added Otaibi. In a tactical swerve, Kuwait is turning up the heat on Iraq by skirting around its claims and placing the onus on Baghdad’s central government.
Kuwait ignored the very specific focus of Iraq’s official protest; the construction of a naval platform as part of Mubarak Al-Kabir Port on the west bank of the canal. “Iraq was never consulted about the construction of this,” claims Abduljabbar. “I have warned about the construction of Fisht El-Eij platform since 2012, when I suspected that they would bury rocks along particularly shallow parts of the canal.”
Abduljabbar injects into the debate essential contextual details, and raised two red flags: one rests on the site where Kuwait is building Mubarak Al-Kabir Port. Iraqi officials warned then, and now, that upon completion it will block Iraq’s access to the waterway and suffocate Al-Faw Port which Iraq started building before Kuwait even though of building Mubarak Al-Kabir. Kuwait’s success, Iraq has argued, rests on its ability to tamper with a canal that Abduljabbar insists had millions spent on it by Iraq.
“The platform which Iraq denounced in its official letter in fact shares the same name as the curve in the estuary that ends at Umm Qasr,” a local marine pilot who asked to remain anonymous told MEMO.
Kuwait, though, insists that Iraq was informed and that “the installation of the platform is a sovereign right”; official press statements from Baghdad and the remarks of other notable figures suggest that Iraq disagrees. As Abduljabbar has argued on countless occasions, the consistency of Iraq’s claims became obsolete following the removal of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. “I have argued in the past and till now that the construction of Mubarak Al-Kabir Port does in reality violate the agreements under which Kuwait justifies its position: resolution 833 and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he explained live on Al-Rasheed TV. “Every time the regime changes in Iraq — in 1963, 1968, 1979, 2003 — Kuwait finds a way to secure its share of the spoils. I’ve appealed to various Iraqi politicians, who have wantonly ignored my requests; some even refused to accept my letter.”
Diplomatic storms over the same issue have subsided only to re-emerge. Iraq has operated under the logic that the delimitation of the border zone as Resolution 833 ordered is an inter-state affair in accordance with international law. Similarly, Kuwait has justified its position with reference to the UN treaty on the law of the sea of 1982. As of yet, there is no common ground upon which the two sides agree.
Khor Abdullah is, in fact, Iraq’s only gateway to the Arabian Gulf into which the country has poured both money and labour for the port’s modernisation and infrastructure development. During Iran’s occupation of Iraq’s Faw Peninsula during the 1980-1988 war, Abduljabbar points out, “Iraq was the one that defended the peninsula and later de-mined the shared corridor. Given that we have joint responsibilities, where was Kuwait?”
At the forefront of Iraq’s position is a crucial detail too often skipped over; the fact that Iraqi officials never endorsed UN Resolution 833. Abduljabbar notes that, after 1993, “The UN was left hearing from one side only since Iraq under Saddam Hussein didn’t participate in these discussions. This has eroded any leverage Iraq once had. More dangerously, the Gulf Cooperation Council backs Kuwait’s position although Iraq’s calls for the boundary’s coordinates to be established with international oversight have fallen by the wayside.”
Publicly, Kuwait’s display is nothing short of comradeship with Iraq, but in private it appears to be pursuing a fait accompli strategy which is totally unsympathetic towards Iraq’s rights and position.