KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait is not a “free-rider” in U.S.-led campaigns against terrorism and other threats, a senior Kuwaiti security official said on Thursday, rejecting comments by President Barack Obama critical of some U.S. allies.
Sheikh Thamer al-Sabah, President of Kuwait’s National Security Bureau, was referring to Obama’s remarks to The Atlantic magazine last week in which he said some states in the Gulf and Europe were “free-riders” who called for U.S. action without getting involved themselves.
In an interview, Sheikh Thamer said Kuwait, like fellow Gulf state Qatar, had opened up air bases and airspace for the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Aircraft from other Gulf countries had carried out sorties, said Sheikh Thamer, a member of Kuwait’s ruling family.
“I am just wondering what a free ride is when we do all of these things,” he said, referring to Kuwait’s role.
“When we share intelligence, when we open our air, land and sea, when we spend billions of dollars in trying to combat terrorism and trying to help the Syrian refugees, how is it free?” he added.
“I actually looked up ‘free ride’ in the dictionary and I would like other people to know what a free ride is and see what we are doing here in this part of the world, especially when he mentioned the Gulf.”
Sheikh Thamer’s comments were unusually critical of the United States for a Kuwaiti official. They echo those on Monday by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief, who said the American leader had “thrown us a curve ball” in criticizing Riyadh’s regional role.
When asked about what Sheikh Thamer said, the White House referred to comments it made on Monday.
Spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States viewed Saudi Arabia and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “as effective national security partners who can and should do more.”
“We’re encouraging them to do more to contribute to the security situation in their region of the world.”
Kuwait, which borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia and lies across the Gulf from Iran, is working to combat the threat of attacks by Sunni Islamist militants like Islamic State on its own soil, Sheikh Thamer said, as well as Iranian-backed operatives.
In June last year a Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shi‘ite mosque in Kuwait, killing 27, in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
The bomber was previously unknown to authorities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, where he had been in transit, Sheikh Thamer said.
“He wasn’t under their radar, they didn’t know him. He was radicalized, to our understanding, through either the Internet or through people he might have known,” he said.
“This is something that is very serious for us, if you don’t know the person, how can you defend yourself or how can you protect yourself?”
He said countries from the six-nation GCC had been compiling blacklists of suspected militants and shared them with Western allies.
He said Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers had not diminished Kuwait’s concerns over Iran.
These included militant sleeper cells and spies, involvement in regional conflicts and the safety of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Kuwait is the closest major population center to it.
“The security issue from Iran was always there and I think will always continue. It is not something new,” he said.
“I salute you for trying your best to work with Iran only on their nuclear program despite knowing what Iran is doing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for other places in the world, for bombings, for hijacking of aircraft, for assassinations of people,” he added.
“I salute them on how they can actually sit down and talk about only the nuclear program with the knowledge they have of how Iran is capable of doing all of these things. I can’t do it.”
He voiced concern about Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militias are fighting alongside government forces against Islamic State.
“We are living in a very hot spot in the world,” he said.
Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington, Editing by Andrew Roche and Grant McCool