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Qatar and Kuwait rely on foreign assistance as an essential tool of regional influence and rank among the top international donors, but the two states have played their hands quite differently. Kuwait has generally worked within international or Gulf state frameworks, while Qatar has often been a maverick.

Kuwait was the first Gulf state to provide aid to Arab states, establishing its Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development in 1961, the year of its independence. More than other Gulf states, Kuwait has delivered significant assistance through UN channels; for example, in 2013, Kuwait allocated $300 million to UN aid for Syrians. Kuwait has also hosted international conferences to raise funds. In 2018, one such event raised $30 billion in commitments for reconstruction aid to Iraq, with Kuwait itself contributing $2 billion. During the Arab uprisings, Kuwait—which saw significant opposition protests of its own—generally hewed close to the policies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example contributing $4 billion to the Gulf effort to support the 2013 Egyptian military coup and participating in the Gulf effort to crush the 2011 Bahrain uprising.

Khulood Fahim
Khulood Fahim was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow with the Middle East Program.
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By contrast, Qatar has taken an independent approach toward foreign aid, seeking to amplify its global role and to position itself as a regional mediator in conflicts such as those in Lebanon, Sudan, and Yemen prior to 2011. Qatar also established itself as a key interlocutor on areas such as Gaza, which it has consistently supported. Beginning in 2011, Qatar used its foreign assistance to side with protestors and opposition groups amid the Arab uprisings. Notably, Qatar provided $8 billion in assistance to Egypt between 2011 and 2013 and was a strong political and financial supporter of the government of Egypt’s then president Mohamed Morsi—one of several factors contributing to a 2017 Saudi and UAE blockade of Qatar as well as an ongoing crisis within the GCC.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the two countries have continued to provide assistance, most recently to Gaza and Iran. In early April, Kuwait was named the World Health Organization’s top contributor to coronavirus response operations, with a contribution of $60 million. However, the economic impact of the virus outbreak has also necessitated a turn inward. Among the economic stimulus measures that the two countries have introduced, Kuwait increased its budget for government institutions by $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2021, and Qatar is providing its private sector with $20 billion in economic incentives. As Kuwait and Qatar increase domestic expenditures amid a competitive and unstable market for oil and gas, their ability to provide regional assistance and, by extension, maintain their international standing is unclear.