By Richard Behar
Oil-rich Kuwait is a land of disturbing contradictions. The citizens of this monarchy enjoy high literacy, yet suffer huge restrictions on speech and press. It’s a deeply religious country, yet bribery is widespread and public officials engage in corruption with impunity. There are no laws in Kuwait protecting women from domestic violence or sexual harassment, and yet its women are among the freest in the Arab business world. Case in point: Rasha Al Roumi, the chairperson and CEO of Kuwait Airways, the country’s wholly-owned flagship carrier.
When it comes to hatred of Israel, however, in many regards Kuwait flies solo. Due to peace agreements, Israel has long enjoyed full diplomatic relations, and mutual air travel, with Jordan and Egypt. Other Arab nations, ignoring the 71-year-old Arab League boycott of Israel, quietly do at least some business with Israel — and allow Israelis to board their passenger planes on flights that run between certain foreign countries.
But the Emir of Kuwait, like the fabled spear-carrying Don Quixote, still sees value in chasing old windmills. In his view, even one Zionist must be viewed as excess baggage, and — despite the filing of discrimination complaints in the U.S. and Europe against his airline — the monarchy won’t budge. At Kuwait Airways, a permanent blackout period is always in effect for Israelis at their ticket counters, anywhere on the planet. It’s a position that, in the long haul, may cause disaster for the long-suffering, unprofitable airline.
In grounding those planes, Kuwait has decided that if it’s going to be forced to carry any Israelis — that would include, of course, Israeli-Americans using Israeli passports, as well as Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20% of the country — it would rather not fly at all between European cities. In December, following civil legal action that led to regulatory warnings in the U.S., the airline made a similar decision. It grounded its lucrative New York-London route, rather than let Israelis aboard.
Call it Kuwait’s HateGate.
“Many Arab League states say, ’Okay, we hate Israel, but we want to make money — so we’ll keep the boycott laws on the books, but we won’t really enforce them,” says Amanda Berman, the director of legal affairs at the Lawfare Project, a New York-based legal think tank that compelled the shutdowns in the U.S. and Europe. “Meanwhile, the Kuwaitis say, ‘Forget profits, our hatred of Israel supersedes all else.’ The irony is that the Arab League boycott was instituted to bankrupt Israel and, instead, these companies are willing to bankrupt themselves just to prove the ferocity of their animus.”
While Israelis are hardly beating down the doors to experience KAC’s in-flight service, the airline could use all the passengers it can attract. The average age of its fleet is about twice that of their top competitors in every other Persian Gulf nation. Plus it has a shortage of trained technical personnel, as it struggles to keep that fleet operational. On average over the past decade, the airline has lost more than $100 million a year. The country itself is facing dire budget shortfalls due to weak oil prices. Meanwhile, more than 90% of Kuwaitis work in the public sector, whose entities (including KAC) are bloated with staff. Some experts say a current restructuring and overhaul of the airline may be a final opportunity to save it.
As for specific new litigation that could further hurt KAC, Lawfare Project’s Berman is tight-lipped. But she issues a clear call to battle:
“People and corporations participating in the Arab League boycott should seriously consider their business models,” she says. ”From this point forward, they are on notice that refusing to deal with Israelis will expose them to crippling liability throughout the Western world. It’s not only the airlines. We will leverage this pivotal precedent in our continuing offensive against the Arab League boycott and its progeny, the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement. And through our powerful international network of attorneys, we will shut these businesses down.”