DUBAI (Reuters) - Kuwait backs international efforts against hardline Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria although the Gulf Arab state’s constitution prevents it from fighting in anything but defensive wars, a senior Kuwaiti official said.
Kuwait, a U.S. ally and neighbour of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, is part of a 34-nation alliance announced by Riyadh in December aimed at countering Islamic State and al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.
Several Gulf Arab states including Kuwait also provide varying kinds of support to a U.S.-led coalition that has been fighting Islamic State in Syria since 2014.
The issue of Gulf Arab participation in Iraq and Syria has come to the fore because Saudi Arabia said on Monday it was open to sending special forces to Syria, and the United Arab Emirates has said it would be willing to send troops to train and support a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
“Kuwait stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our brothers in Saudi on all fronts. We are always ready and able to provide what is needed to our Gulf partners within the confines of our constitution,” said Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s minister for cabinet affairs, in an interview in Dubai.
Speaking late on Monday, he said this could be “intelligence-sharing, the provision of establishments required by the coalition to facilitate their activities”. He did not elaborate.
Diplomats in the region have said Kuwait has permitted some foreign air forces participating in the U.S.-led coalition to use airfields in its territory.
Major OPEC oil producer Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq in 1990, can declare defensive war if under direct threat, according to the constitution which states: “The emir declares defensive war by decree. Offensive war is prohibited.”
Home to several U.S. military bases, Kuwait suffered its deadliest militant attack in decades in June when a Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up inside a packed Shi‘ite mosque, killing 27 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility.
“It’s very difficult to stop a lone, deranged person from doing something like that,” Sheikh Mohammad said, when asked about security measures since the attack.
“However many new procedures have been put in place in public areas in order to make it more difficult ... be it religious venues or commercial or social venues.”
This included new legislation requiring government buildings to install closed-circuit television and for private institutions to have CCTV with a data log in public areas.
He described the attack as a failed attempt to stir up sectarian tensions in Kuwait, which is home to a sizeable Shi‘ite minority active in business and politics.
“If anything, that bombing showed the world, and showed specifically the deranged people who adhere to this skewed doctrine, what it is to be Kuwaiti,” said Sheikh Mohammad, a member of the ruling Al Sabah family.
“It brought us closer together,” he said, because it had reawakened the idea of Kuwaiti national identity.
Kuwait, which sits across the Gulf from Shi‘ite Muslim power Iran, welcomed Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and hoped it would bring greater regional security.
But, like other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, it stood beside Saudi Arabia in a flare-up of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. That erupted when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi‘ite cleric on Jan. 2 and Iranian protesters retaliated by attacking Saudi diplomatic missions.
Iran should respect Saudi Arabia’s implementation of its sovereign law, Sheikh Mohammad said.
“What occurred in the aftermath, specifically the abhorrent infringement of the Vienna convention and the bullying tactics with the Saudi embassy and consulate ... were and are a great cause for concern in Kuwait, the GCC and the wider diplomatic world.”
Sheikh Mohammad, who is also acting minister of electricity and water, said Kuwait’s widening budget deficit had made urgent economic reforms necessary, including reducing subsidies for utilities, which he said would help prevent waste. Most Gulf states are planning economic reforms as low oil prices strain their finances.
Kuwait needed to protect its welfare programme over the longer term, to ensure it is enjoyed by those who need it, by cutting out “free-riders” from the system, he said. The plan, which would be Kuwait’s biggest subsidies reform since the 1980s, is being discussed by the government and parliament this week.
Thanks to subsidies it costs just over $10 to fill a car’s 50-litre petrol tank while electricity costs less than 1 U.S. cent per kilowatt hour, a fraction of what it costs to produce.
“One of the issues that is worrying for us, is within the next 10-15 years, if electricity and water consumption remains at present levels, more than a quarter of installed oil production will have to go to the power plants, irrespective of what the price of the barrel is,” he said, adding it was important to maximise oil exports.
Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood