By Faisal Adel Alwazzan
The land and maritime borders between Kuwait and Iraq have been established through a series of political agreements spanning more than 90 years. These agreements have also received ratification from the United Nations and the Security Council. However, Iraq has exhibited a consistent pattern of reneging on these agreements with Kuwait, periodically sparking border crises. These political disputes occasionally escalate into violent military confrontations.
The most recent instance of Iraqi backtracking on border matters occurred on Sept 4, 2023, when an Iraqi court nullified the Kuwait-Iraq agreement on the maritime border, which was established in 2012 (known as the Khor Abdullah Agreement) and was ratified in 2013 by the Iraqi parliament. In fact, Iraqi reversals on border agreements typically coincide with domestic turmoil, with Iraqi politicians resorting to rhetorical discourse on Kuwait-related issues to divert attention away from internal problems while appearing patriotic.
It is possible that another regional player may have played a role in this latest incident. In this article, I provide a synopsis of the history of these border agreements. In 1920, the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sevres with the Allies of World War I, ceding numerous territories to the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Greece and other nations. However, this treaty was never finalized. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, signed the Treaty of Lausanne with several European countries and Japan.
Article 16 of this treaty states: “Turkey hereby renounces all rights and titles whatsoever over or respectingthe territories situated outside the frontier laid down in the presentTreatyand the islands other than those which her sovereignty isrecognized by thesaid Treaty, the future of these territories and islands beingsettled or to be settled by the parties concerned.The provisions ofthe present Article do not prejudice any specialarrangements arising from neighborly relations which have been or may be concluded between Turkey and any limitrophe countries”.
As a consequence, Iraq ceased to be a part of the Ottoman Empire, making it a new state that had yet to resolve its administrative structures and borders independently of its former Ottoman affiliation. The establishment of the new Iraqi state was orchestrated by the British Empire, which installed a Hashemite king in 1921. Conversely, Kuwait, prior to the formation of the Iraqi kingdom, had no ties to Iraq; it functioned as an independent state under British protection since 1899. In 1932, eleven years after the establishment of the Kingdom of Iraq, it sought to become a member of the League of Nations.
To fulfill the requirements for admission, it needed to define its borders with neighboring countries. Consequently, Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri Said wrote a letter to the British Ambassador in Baghdad Sir F Humphrys, in which he officially acknowledged the land borders with Kuwait. Said stated: “From the intersection of the Wadi-el-Audja with the Batin and thence northwards along the Batin to a point just south of the latitude of Safwan; thence eastwards passing south of Safwan Wells, Jebel Sanam and Um Qasr leaving them to Iraq and so on to the junction of Khor Zobeir with Khor Abdullah.
The islands of Warbah, Bubiyan, Maskan (or Mashjan), Failaka, Auhah, Kubbar, Qaru and Umm-el-Maradim appertain to Kuwait.” The letter, dated 21 July 1932 and agreed upon by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on August 10, 1932, served as the foundation for subsequent agreements. In 1938, Iraq’s foreign minister Tawfiq Al-Suwaidi renounced his country’s agreement and expressed a desire to annex Kuwait. He based his position on a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Kuwait from 1870 to 1899, mistakenly believing that Kuwait was a part of the Ottoman Empire.
However, the British Ambassador in Baghdad Maurice Peterson refuted his claim in a legal response. Peterson pointed out that according to Article 16 of the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey’s rights and titles, which it had relinquished in 1923, could not be reclaimed by another country through heredity. In 1963, the Baath Party, which had toppled Abdulkarim Qassem, the leader who had threatened to invade Kuwait and had refused to acknowledge the independence of the state of Kuwait, reacknowledged Kuwait’s sovereignty and its borders as outlined in the 1932 letters.
Prime Minister Ahmad Hasan Al-Baker signed an agreement with Kuwait’s head of delegation Sheikh Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah. In 1994, following the failed Iraqi attempt to reinvade Kuwait, the Saddam Hussein regime agreed to acknowledge the sovereignty of Kuwait and its borders. Iraq sent letters to the United Nations to substantiate and authenticate its position before the international community.
The Maritime Borders
In 1959, Iraq sought to appoint a Norwegian hydrographer and maritime border expert to assist the Iraqi government in demarcating its maritime borders with Kuwait and Iran. Consequently, Captain Coucheron-Aamot accepted the position and authored a report that established a median line as the boundary in the Khor Abduallah. This report received authentication from the Iraqi ministry of petroleum. In 1967, the sea borders were specified by a decree issued on Dec 17, 1967, and were updated on Oct 19, 2014. This decree was in compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982.
In 1993, the sea boundary was meticulously demarcated by a commission appointed by the United Nations. The report provided geographic coordinates in terms of latitude and longitude, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 833. Despite numerous agreements, the complete demarcation of sea territories has not yet been finalized, with delimitation efforts coming to a halt at point 162. The ongoing construction of two major ports in close proximity—the Kuwaiti Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port and the Iraqi Faw Port—coupled with the development of the Kuwait-Saudi Durra gas field, continues to fuel tensions and aspirations, not only for Iraq, but potentially for other nations as well.
In 2012, Kuwait and Iraq entered into a joint agreement concerning the regulation of maritime navigation in Khor Abduallah. This accord received ratification from both the Iraqi parliament and the Kuwaiti parliament in 2013, and it was subsequently submitted to the United Nations. However, to our surprise, on Sept 4, 2023, roughly a decade later, the Iraqi federal supreme court declared the Khor Abduallah agreement unconstitutional. This ruling, in fact, runs counter to established international law governing bilateral agreements.
What is even more noteworthy is that the court’s decision extends beyond the technical aspects of the agreement. It delves into longstanding and recurring Iraqi claims, particularly the assertion of Kuwait as part of Iraq. This stance disregards all the previously mentioned agreements between the two nations dating back to 1932, including Security Council Resolution 833. The Iraqi court’s ruling not only demonstrated its immaturity and irresponsibility, but also jeopardizes the recently improving relationship between the two countries.
This situation threatens to reset the progress made between them. On the international stage, Iraq is displaying a lack of seriousness and dishonesty in its commitment to respecting and adhering to international law, political agreements, and treaties. Lastly, it has always been said that true Arabs honor their word. Faisal Adel Alwazzan is Assistant Professor of History at Kuwait University and Advisor to the Centre for Research and Studies on Kuwait.