By Emily Murphy
Since 2011, the question facing the Middle Eastern monarchies has been how to prevent political dissent and maintain their hold on power in an age of social media and penetration of Western ideals.
In Kuwait, the al-Sabah family and the Emir have had few real threats to the endurance of their regime. Scholars relate this trend to a cultural and historical understanding of the place of the Emir in the state apparatus — the al-Sabah’s monopoly on political power mimics the pre-oil partition of power between several elite families. In a power- sharing Bedouin society, such a system comes naturally. However, as Kuwaiti values and identities shift from Bedouin to urban, the unwritten social contract between the citizens and the ruling family ought to be questioned. Money can only hold power for so long, and it is vital to understand what gives the Kuwaiti government legislative and supreme authority over its citizenry apart from providing a financially stable life.
Kuwait has been an independent country since 1961. Its constitution has likewise existed since 1961, and there have been surprisingly few attempts to radically alter the state apparatus. The ruling family, the al-Sabahs, have continued to retain control through the monarchy with little political opposition. The family managed to retain legitimacy throughout the discovery of oil and sudden distribution of wealth, the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi invasion, and the Arab Spring.
It has achieved this stability through a number of democratic concessions, an adherence to Islam as a source of law, an increasingly tight control of citizenship and the media, and, most importantly, the creation of a luxurious welfare state and other financial incentives.
Yet, the nature of democratic government contrasts sharply with the rulership of the al- Sabahs. The government exists in a system with rule of law, but it is split between the Constitution and Shari’a. Only Parliament is held accountable through elections, but its power is fairly artificial and often undermined by the Emir. The Sovereign Wealth Fund will enable the state to continue financially incentivizing its citizens for decades even if oil ran out, but its ability to co-opt citizens is on a time-table, as citizens come to expect money and therefore stop associating it with the regime. Thus, the term “democracy” to describe Kuwait is fairly inaccurate.
The regime’s power has come from its representation of an elite group of Kuwaiti citizens, whose fear of losing their status prevents political engagement and questioning of the regime. Because of consequences for insulting the Emir, it is difficult to gauge Kuwaitis’ satisfaction with the present political order. Many complain about Parliament’s inefficiency yet still appreciate and value for Parliament. The pride in democracy, as well as a common desire to live outside of Kuwait, indicate a disconnect between the ruling family and the citizenry.
This paper will seek to shed light on the aspects of Kuwaiti identity which are integral to a cohesive feeling of citizenship. It will then assess threats to the defined citizen-identity, whether the state or the Islamist opposition will be able to preserve Kuwait’s national and ethnic integrity, and which will best appeal to Kuwaiti citizens.
It is helpful to understand the dynamics that make up the term ‘Kuwaiti’. Kuwaiti citizenship has been defined by the 1959 Nationality Law, which cemented as citizens those whose families resided in Kuwait prior to 1920. It has been amended many times since. As Longva noted, the shift from jus soli to jus sanguinis, as well as the other significant changes to the original 1959 law, have served to increasingly restrict access to Kuwaiti citizenship.
One such restriction to citizenship was the 1981 amendment, which limited citizenship to Muslims. The more sociological view of Kuwaiti citizenship would certainly place Muslim identity as one of the most important labels. Islamic culture is present in all aspects of Kuwaiti life: mosques are never more than an eight-minute walk away, women are often fully clothed in abayas and hijabs, food is generally halal, and Ramadan is celebrated by everyone.
The teaching of Arabic language in schools seems to be another of the primary unifying aspects of Kuwaiti identity. Indeed, British historian Albert Hourani explained that “a common factor in most schools was the emphasis on the teaching of Arabic. For the greater number…of graduates of the new universities, Arabic was the only language in which they were at home, and the medium through which they saw the world. This strengthened the consciousness of a common culture shared by all who spoke Arabic.” The cohesiveness created by the Arabic language continues to be relevant in contemporary Kuwaiti society, as Kuwaitis from different tribes can still connect through their common language.
The Kuwaiti dialect is very similar to the Saudi dialect, which in turn is closely related to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). However, Kuwaitis informed me that there is a word, mashallah, which exists only in Kuwait. There is no direct translation for mashallah; it’s use is as a general space-filler, somewhat like the word “like” in American vernacular. Yet for Kuwaitis, of whom there are only about 800,000, the linguistic marker serves an important purpose. Dhari Aljasmi explained that “no matter where you are, whether in the West or in Syria or Egypt or Jordan — if you hear someone say ‘mashallah’, you know they’re Kuwaiti.’ The word connotes a sense of community even on an international stage, and ties Kuwaitis to their identity and their roots in an important way.
And Kuwaitis are keen to preserve that identity and linguistic marker. An American expat, employed as a second-grade teacher at a private school in Kuwait, noted the difficulty of teaching in a society suspicious of non-Arabic speakers. She noted that Kuwaiti mothers have become increasingly vocal in recent years about the teaching of Arabic to their children by non-Kuwaitis. Even though many Kuwaitis see it as below them to work as a teacher, it is expected and feared that Arabic speakers of dialects other than Kuwait’s will somehow corrupt the ‘Kuwaitiness’ of their children.
Many of the Kuwaitis interviewed mentioned that they identify themselves as Arab; indeed, they often cited “Arab” as an identity they associated with even more closely than “Kuwaiti.” In particular, according to Dr. Narwah as well as most other interviewees, “realistically, in the Arab world, especially this part of the Arab world, it is always the influence of tribe.” Many were high school students, who expressed a keen interest in leaving Kuwait to study and live abroad. Almost every Kuwaiti I befriended spoke avidly of traveling;
furthermore, most had already spent significant amounts of time abroad. This emigration has led to “brain drain”, wherein the brightest minds of a country leave to live and work elsewhere. Dr. Narwah noted the gradual nature of the “brain drain,” and alluded to “political issues around the Arab Spring” as a starting point for the increase in those leaving Kuwait. He noted that it seems young people are concerned with progress, as opposed to security, which is the primary concern of older generations. For young Kuwaitis, their society is somewhat stagnant, pushing them to go abroad.
Dr. Narwah noted in an interview that most Kuwaitis’ Twitter bios can be rather revealing about Kuwaiti identity. Twitter bios are usually just a few words, meant to give a snapshot of the Twitter user’s life. Usually, according to Dr. Narwah, they simply state “Arab, Muslim…” and then their tribal identification.
He said of his own identity that “Arab, that’s my ethnicity. I belong to Kuwait, that’s my land. And my religion is Islam, so I have an affiliation with that.” Other interviews yielded a similar hierarchy of identity: Arab, then Kuwaiti (although many identified as a Gulf national instead), and then Muslim. However, radical Islamist groups, the last of Green and Byman’s predicted conflict sources, see Islamic identity as the foremost trait in any Kuwaiti Muslim. Given that many Kuwaitis actually move outside Kuwait for a large part of their lives, the tie to the specific land of Kuwait is somewhat precarious.
On the other side of the pan-Arab identity are those who migrated to Kuwait. Kuwait’s dependence on foreign workers has been a defining aspect of Kuwait in the post-oil age; especially since 1965, in which year the expat population of Kuwait overtook the native population. Hourani observed that, “the increased knowledge of peoples, customs and dialects which was brought about by this large-scale migration must have deepened the sense of there being a single Arab world within which Arabs could move with comparative freedom and understand each other. It did not necessarily, however, increase the desire for closer union; there was an awareness of differences also, and migrants were conscious of being excluded from the local societies into which they moved.”
A similar rallying point throughout recent Arab history has been the defense of Palestine in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, very recently Muslims and Arabs in France protested the relatively innocent “Tel Aviv” event at Paris beaches. The common enemy of Israel may be seen as the only persistently unifying aspect of the “Arab” identity. However, as Hourani noted, the last time there was a real “common front of Arab states” was during the war of 1973. Since then, the concept of “Arabism” and a pan-Arab state seemed to have disappeared.
Kuwait’s acceptance of foreigners has a somewhat sporadic history. For instance, throughout the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Jews were extremely well-integrated into Kuwaiti society, whereas Christians were excluded from Kuwaiti integration. Interestingly, Jews were forced to leave Kuwait in the 1930s both through state and cultural means. Yet the cultural disapproval of Jews came not from a movement within Kuwaiti culture; rather, it was the state-imposed (through the head of the Education Council, Shaykh Abd Allah al-Jabir Al-Sabah) importation of Palestinian teachers who brought the Palestine-Israel conflict to the hearts and minds of Arab-identifying Kuwaitis.
This in turn led to a cultural shift: Kuwaitis began to see themselves as Arabs and Muslims, rather than solely a member of their respective tribes. Kuwaiti civil action was limited, but evidence suggests that they were quite aligned with the ‘Great Revolution’ of 1936.
In recent years, Kuwaitis have been more and more hesitant to accept outsider groups into the increasingly restrictive circle of Kuwaiti elite. Dr. Narwah noted “I saw the shrinkage of the percentage of Kuwaitis of the population…I’ve seen it shrink from 50% to 30%. I’m very sympathetic to the Emiratis.” The influx of migrant workers has not only affected Kuwaitis’ presence in the public sphere; it has also affected their family, personal, and civic lives. The government has reacted to the population change by restricting official terminology for what it means to be Kuwaiti, but it is necessary to understand the societal understanding of identity in the new context as well. The information is then useful for evaluating the success of Kuwaiti state legitimacy. If citizens feel connected to the state, they are more likely to value the state and their place within the state apparatus.
Anh Nga Longva has been one of the only scholars to dig even deeper into the essence of Kuwaiti identity. Longva convincingly describes Kuwait as an “ethnocracy,” borrowing the term from Ali Mazrui. By “ethnocracy”, Longva is referring to the restriction of Kuwaiti identity and citizenship to a specific group of people; defined not by race, sect, or even religion.
Rather, Kuwaiti identity is based on a cultural acceptance of the 1959 Nationality Law and its subsequent amendments. Several analyses of Kuwaiti culture have been discussed above, but Longva’s enlightened perspective dismisses many of these broad-based theories. For example, scholars have focused on the switching dynamics of the merchant class with the elite class (the Al-Sabah family) through the consolidation of oil wealth to the elites, as well as the impact to all citizens of living in a welfare state and living as a minority in one’s own country.
Each of these, however, is somewhat discredited by Longva’s note that oil money and the welfare state have become taken for granted, so that the use of financial incentives for loyalty to the regime “loses their potential as a means of political co-optation.” Indeed, Kuwaiti political opposition has been primarily focused around the idea of corruption and the appropriate distribution of oil wealth to citizens, rather than on the kinds of socio-political issues that tend to dominate Western politics.
It ought to be questioned whether an ethnocracy such as that of Kuwait can ever really move forward as a nation. The lack of true civic engagement in a Kuwaiti ‘Arab Spring’ suggests that many of the aspects which enable a democracy to move forward — such as public debate and movement on issues of social justice — may never occur in Kuwait. Civil society since the advent of oil revenues and the welfare state has undergone a significant change. Pre-oil Kuwaiti society was focused around the family; houses and housing communities were built around common grounds for entire families. While Kuwaitis still value family to an extent far greater than is common in the West, the centering of one’s life on family is no longer relevant. The government provides all needs that families would normally provide, and couples therefore have been choosing to step away from their family and live more separated lives (Longva 2005).
A group of Kuwaiti women studying at American University of Kuwait alluded to this disenchantment with the family. One noted, “I wanted to study elsewhere, because Kuwait is too small. Everyone knows everyone and will report to my parents!” The others agreed, but when questioned as to why they chose to study in Kuwait then, each had the same answer: their father would be too upset if they were to go so far from home.
This casual exchange, common among 20-somethings worldwide, sheds light on the generational disconnect among Kuwaitis. The grandparents of these young women would have lived through Kuwait’s disastrously painful 1920s and 1930s, and would have depended completely on the family unit. The women’s parents, then, were raised by families with this mindset. Now, however, the mindset has become used to the automatic wealth and financial independence — creating a shift in how young Kuwaitis view their connection to their family.
It also may lead to conclusions as to why the youth-dominated ‘Arab Spring’ did not take a particular hold in Kuwait. It is possible that many young Kuwaitis see themselves living abroad, in more liberal countries. The AUK women mentioned wanting to go to Europe or America, and a group of Kuwaiti high schoolers discussed their plans to study in American cities for university. Each of the high schoolers’ friends were either already in the United States or were planning to apply to almost exclusively U.S. schools. Such a desire to study and live abroad indicates a relative disengagement with the political system and with Kuwaiti society.
The lack of political engagement in Kuwait is more interesting still because it is not necessary. Whereas in many Arab states, political opposition is severely restricted, in Kuwait, political opposition is almost a sort of honor. Indeed, Longva noted that “to Kuwaitis, the raison d’être of the National Assembly is not so much to legislate as to oppose the ruling family….”
And to an extent, the opposition has been more successful in its role as such than could have been expected. In 2013, in response to a drop in opposition engagement among Kuwaitis, leaders of various opposition groups formed a general coalition in order to write down their demands for constitutional change. The document argued that “society is divided, Kuwait’s oil wealth has been pillaged thanks to corruption, the justice system is unfair, and human rights are neglected.” Even the Islamic Constitution Movement (the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait) proved willing to accept a constitution without Shari’a as the sole source of law. Opposition leadership is clearly willing to step up and make changes in Kuwait, thus why it is surprising that the populace at large isn’t more involved.The question of Kuwaiti involvement in opposition returns to the concept of identity. Al- Nakib remarked that “today the tribes (aligned with the Islamists) have become the principal opposition to the government.” Interestingly, Al-Nakib also mentioned that the dichotomoy between the two tribes did not originate from conflict; but rather arose as “an outcome of the state-building strategies adopted in the early oil decades of the 1950s and 1960s, and maintained through the 1980s.” Al-Nakib thus illustrates the dynamic nature of civic identity: it is influenced by entrenched historical identities and by official state actions with repercussions throughout society.
As noted at the beginning of this article, the Arab Spring sparked a wave of fear in Gulf monarchies. The “dated” form of democracy in Kuwait is feeble at best — most citizens have little belief in the power of the Parliament to achieve anything with success, and the real power is concentrated in the un-elected Emir and the Emir’s council. Moreover, most groups in Kuwait are considered subordinate to the elite hadar class, a risky, pre-French Revolution scenario. Shi’a and women are discriminated against, and the bidun population is deprived of the most basic right: citizenship. All of these are easy-to-point-to potential sparks for an invigorated attempt at a coup. “Regime stability” in this context therefore refers to the ability of the government (especially the al-Sabah family) to continue to keep a lid on political dissent and to enforce its rule over the citizens.
Green and Byman, in “The Enigma of Political Stability in the Persian Gulf Monarchies”, identified several tensions in Gulf regimes which may prove to cause serious conflicts. Their proposals provide a starting point for assessing threats to the Kuwaiti state. Despite a relatively stable period since the paper’s writing in 1999, many of the “potential sources of conflict” remain relevant in today’s modern context. In particular, the identified problems of lacking accountability, decreasing oil revenues and other economic woes, religious militancy and discrimination, as well as the debate concerning modernity’s interaction with tradition, all play an important role in Kuwait’s contemporary state actions. Of these, the most important factors vis-à-vis regime stability are accountability, economic problems, and sectarian discrimination.
In addition to these, international conflicts and the empowerment (yet further ostracizing) of women pose significant counterbalances to the monarchy. Green and Byman suggest that a political illusion, in the context of the Gulf states, may be almost as effective at countering political dissent. Green and Byman observe that representative institutions, even where they are weak, “suggest that the ruling families are willing to go outside their own ranks when weighing decisions…when individuals seek to change society or to oppose a government policy, they now have a legitimate forum in which to express themselves.”
This suggests that the Emir’s relative distance from the public, as compared to previous decades (the Emir’s office used to be located in the center of the Grand Souk, so that citizens could bring their complaints and problems directly to the Emir) has not been perceived by the public as creating a less representative state. Discussions with interviewees has somewhat disproven Green and Byman’s thesis in this regard. Kuwaitis expect Parliament to work, because they it is technically a legislative body, and are frustrated by the lack of legislative action or legitimacy.
Green and Byman also pointed to the economic dependence of Gulf citizens on their respective states as a potential conflict area. Unfortunately, citizens have become so accustomed to the welfare state system that any decrease in social safety nets will be seen as a failure of the government. Kuwait’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, which receives 20% of oil revenues, will enable the state to refrain from decreasing social safety nets for a long time, yet there is the possibility of an eventual drying up of funds. This would, as Dr. Narwah noted, result in a disaster for Kuwait, whose economy is completely lacking in diversity.
In such an event, the temporary legitimacy given by the people to the Kuwaiti state would evaporate, as would the reason which most interviewees gave for their choice to stay in Kuwait: “we’re here for the oil.”
The July, 2015 attacks highlighted both Sunni militarism and a continued disaffection between the Sunni majority and Shia minority in Kuwait. Green and Byman pointed to Saudi Arabia as an example of a state which has long had to deal with the effects of Sunni radicalism, as evidenced by the November, 1979 attacks on the Grand Mosque and various calls for the Saudi state to act more in accordance with Islamic principles.
Francis Fukuyama has noted that “in contemporary developing countries, one of the greatest political deficits lies in the relative weakness of the rule of law.” Kuwait’s economy is by no means “developing”. In a political sense though, the state’s level of democracy is in a developing process by which legitimacy and accountability are slowly on the rise. Indeed, Fukuyama’s remark is strikingly relevant to Kuwait’s political situation. While the Parliament is an impressive hallmark of democracy, especially in the otherwise-autocratic Gulf, their are significant other problems with Kuwait’s governmental legitimacy. Institutionalisation of the Rule of Law, as well as increased incorporation of civil society, would strengthen the democratic nature of Kuwait.
The question of accountability in Kuwait provides an interesting discussion. Kuwait has long been heralded as the sole democracy in the Gulf: the National Assembly, Kuwait’s Parliament, has been functioning (excluding dissolutions) since 1938. However, the National Assembly seems to lack any substantial legal standing, as the Emir has a final veto on all legislative matters. For example, in 2014, the Emir opted to end all legislative action on the controversial “bikini bill.” The National Assembly has passed a significant amount of legislation and has therefore been a fairly effective legislative branch, but it is clear that the ultimate political power resides with the un-elected Emir, and that, therefore, political accountability in Kuwait is an illusion.
Shafeeq N. Ghabra, writing in 1997 about the need to counteract the Islamist challenge, discussed the intricate relationship between political action and rule of law. Ghabra titles the Kuwaiti model “an experiment in flexible pluralistic corporatism,” meaning that the state “legitimizes certain groups at the expense of others.” In this way, only a limited portion of the population has any significant influence in the government, and those groups with influence have been specifically chosen by the government. And the trend since 1997 has not changed; as Dr. Narwah noted, “unfortunately, the move since the Arab Spring has been to weaken the checks and balances [on the ruling family and within Parliament].” It is a positive feedback loop of influence, leading back to the Emir.
Ghabra’s discussion points out the most basic flaw in a system without rule of law: when decision-making is concentrated in one person’s hands, mistakes can have long-lasting consequences. In Ghabra’s example, the government’s choice to co-opt Islamist groups in the aftermath of the 1986 suspended elections has resulted in an Islamist-dominated Parliament. The success of Islamic groups in Kuwait can be attributed in large part to the suspended elections, as they constituted a state-sanctioned, formal group. Civil society activity therefore surrounded Islamic groups, whose message of equality challenged government corruption. As Ghabra noted, “contradictions within the opposition between liberals and Islamists are one thing, but the government’s use of its power beyond the laws and rules of the country is another.” The population was able to recognize Islamic groups as an anti-corruption linkage institution, and therefore coalesced around them.
Islamic groups play in to an interesting paradox in Kuwait. As Green and Byman noted, an increase in political inclusion, through at least partially representative institutions, leads to decreased “violence from political alienation.” Furthermore, the attempt to establish Shari’a law, while not consistent with Western notions of democratic norms, represents a movement towards establishing a Rule of Law, whereby even the Emir may be subject to the specific mandates of Shari’a. Islamic leaders have claimed that the implementation of Shari’a is “the only way to solve moral degeneration in Kuwait.” In these ways, the Islamic groups seem to be moving Kuwait towards further democratization.
On the other hand, the prevalence of Islamic groups and the movement of Bedouins to settle in urban areas has spurred what Muhammed Ansari termed “desertization.” Bedouins living in the desert tend to have very conservative values. Further, as Ghabra commented, “The societal process of change from traditional to modern and rural to urban created among the Bedouin the condition of isolation that would make them more open to messages helping them define the world, simplify its meaning, and find (sometimes superficial) solutions to its problems.” In short, urbanized Bedouins bring to the urban setting very firm conservative values. This can challenge the level of democracy in the state.
For example, Parliament recently debated a proposed law which would effectively ban certain types of commentary on Twitter. The more urbanized, elite MPs objected to the ban, and extended the discussion to say that the law challenged Kuwait’s identity as a democracy. Yet the conservative elements of the Parliament staunchly advocated for the law.
Desertization is the process by which previously nomadic Bedouin groups settle in the urban areas of Kuwait, bringing with them conservative desert values. As Parliament has become more representative and accountable, then, it has grown to reflect the prevalence of Bedouin conservatism. Without formal political parties (which are, in fact, outlawed) Kuwaitis are left to vote along tribal and family-related lines. Yet the ruling al-Sabah family is of the established urban elite class — the Hadhar identity, which tends to have more liberal viewpoints. Thus, as the Parliament has become more and more conservative, the Emir has become more likely to veto legislation, which concentrates power further into the Emir’s hand by undermining Parliamentary authority. Ghabra observed that “the lack of public debate since 1986 contributed to the Islamic groups’ growing strength and popularity” as a counterbalance to the increasing monarchical tendencies of the Emir. The prevalence of Islamic parties, then, can be seen as ultimately detracting from the legitimacy of the Kuwaiti government in the minds of its constituents.
Ottoway and Abdulatif suggest yet another advantage of Islamist groups in Kuwait: the role of feminism in Islamism. Many Arab and Gulf women are sensitive to Western notions of feminism, which is seen as completely contrary to the role of God. Ottoway and Abdulatif even quote a woman involved with Hizbollah as stating that “feminism” is completely incompatible with Islam.
Yet the authors point to a variety of Islamist groups across the MENA region which include woman branches. In a similar way to American feminism throughout WWII, women become empowered through their practical need in the work sphere of Islamist groups. Recognizing the need to cater, at least rhetorically, to worldwide conceptions of women’s rights, Islamist groups like Hizbollah find ways to incorporate women into the hierarchy. Once there, women begin to gain confidence and to see that they should have an important role for their societies.
Ottoway and Abdulatif suggested three dominant types of feminism in the Muslim world: secular, Westernized feminism, an Islam-based feminism advocating the primary importance of Muslim women in Islamic and Quaranic history, and a final form of feminism which seeks to reconcile Western feminism with Islam and Islamic principles. This final form is fairly new, and often subtle enough to go unrecognized by major press and media. Yet its impact can be huge.
As an example, a group of Saudi women, spoken with in the fall of 2014, expressed a general distance in their minds from Western feminism and Western concepts of women’s rights. However, the same group of young Saudi women also saw themselves having futures as doctors and academic. They saw themselves divorcing a husband if he wasn’t a good match, and they saw themselves being able to raise a family in accordance with Islamic tradition while simultaneously finishing school and embarking on an outstanding career. These are all feminist dreams, but simply without the connotation of Western or secular feminism. The young women saw themselves as simply being empowered women in an Islamic context.
The example of the Saudi women can be applied in greater scale to fit Ottoway and Abdulatif’s argument. If Islamist groups enable the “final form” of feminism mentioned above, in which feminism and Islam are brought to a coexistence, then there is a genuine hope for progress in women’s rights. The subtlety of empowering women without labeling it “feminism” is only feasible when coming from the total opposite of Western, secular groups. It has to come from women in Islamist groups. In that way, progressive reform regarding women’s rights is more likely under an Islamist regime.
The growth of Islamism was one of several paths the Kuwaiti population has taken in its efforts to make the government and royal family more accountable. The financial constraints encountered as a result of the Iraqi invasion led Kuwaiti citizens to question the al-Sabah’s, who had lived out the invasion in a hotel in Saudi Arabia. It is understandable in such a context that the citizens, who had lived through the invasion, would seek financial sacrifice on the part of the royal family. Although a series of financial scandals de-legitimized the royal family even further, it took pressure from Washington for the al-Sabah’s to restore the national assembly. Elections proved to further de-legitimize the state, in that the government came to be dominated for many years by opposition groups. The response by the royal family was to shut down Parliament and to increase censorship of the press. Such actions compacted the notion that democracy in Kuwait was doomed.
Kuwait’s behavior within the international relations of the Gulf provide a confusing history of frequently switching allies and enemies. Yet Kuwaitis still identify with Arabs and see themselves as belonging to the greater Muslim community worldwide (known in Islam as the umma). As noted by F. Gregory Gausse III, the concept of pan-Arab identities and transnational belonging have a significant effect on the political stability and legitimacy of the Gulf states because “these identities…offer ambitious leaders access to the domestic politics of their neighbors, using ties with groups across borders as levers of influence on other governments.” Gause’s observation has been quite accurate in the case of Kuwait.
Transnational identities of Sunni and Shia have been particularly important in shaping state policies as well as political and civil action among the populace. About a quarter of the Kuwaiti population is of the Shi’i sect of Islam, making it a rather large minority. Indeed, Kuwait’s Shi’i population is much larger (percentage-wise) than that of its neighbor, Saudi Arabia (Gause III 2010). External events seem to have largely shaped the relationship between the two sects within Kuwait. Prior to the 1990 Iraqi invasion, Kuwait had largely sided with Iraq as an ally to counterbalance Iran, which had reportedly backed and inspired a series of attacks on Kuwait in the 1980s. Even earlier, in 1978, Shi’i representatives in Kuwait and Bahrain, which had been appointed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, were “subsequently arrested and expelled…after Shi’i demonstrations there.” Kuwait’s financial support to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war cemented Iran and Kuwait as enemies.
Yet in the fallout from the 1990 invasion, Kuwait’s citizens and government were required to reassess their regional allies. Arafat and the PLO had sided with Iraq during the invasion, which triggered questioning of Kuwait’s ties to Palestine. Even more dramatically, Kuwait began to seek a better relationship with Iran in the common defense against Iraq. It was perhaps this shift which could account for the relatively cohesive community of Sunni-Shia Muslims in Kuwait today.
The June attacks on the Al Sadeq mosque throw into question the actual territorial safety of Kuwait. The Islamic State (or ISIS), which groups Shi’i Muslims with “unbelievers”, initially claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack raised questions about how terrorists were being created in Kuwait, and how to fix it Terrorism in general has increasingly been a problem in Kuwait; since the attack in June there have been several arrests, including preventative arrests of groups linked to the Islamic State (Etheridge 2015). A similar increase in terrorist attacks in Europe has triggered an onslaught of semi-discriminatory laws grouped as “deradicalization” or “countering violent extremism (CVE)” action. In Kuwait, CVE has been taken to extreme measures: a counter-terrorism law enacted towards the end of July mandates DNA testing for all Kuwaiti citizens and expats — an astounding 4.2 million people whom the state is now expecting to get tested.
Further efforts to counter extremism are likely to center around Kuwait’s stateless population, the bidun. A UNHCR Human Rights Report estimated that the number of bidun in Kuwait is around 106,000. That’s 106,000 people who don’t have access to government aid, who can’t travel for extended periods of time, and who don’t have access to decent jobs, education, or healthcare. The potential for conflict in such a group is very high. Bidun have tended to keep a low profile, but it is probable that the backlash against the June attacks will further ostracize the bidun community. In early August, The Kuwait Times released a list of 29 suspects for the bombing. Of those, the vast majority (twelve) were bidun.
The focus on Hadar versus Badu in Kuwait is remarkably different than most other Arab monarchies, and indeed different than most other Arab states. While the world has become attuned to the conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a groups throughout the Middle East; in Kuwait, the Sunni-Shi’a divide has been significantly less dramatic. Estimates on the size of the Shi’ite minority in Kuwait vary, but the most recent estimate places the number around 30 percent.
It is true that Sunni-Shi’a tensions do exist, and do play a role at all levels of Kuwaiti society. For example, in June of this year, The Lebanon Daily Star reported the resignation of a Kuwaiti MP for sectarian concerns. The MP, Faisal al-Duwaisan, a Shi’a, felt insulted and threatened by his fellow MP, Hamdan Al-Azemi. Yet throughout Kuwaiti political life and civil society, there are far more examples of cooperation between the sects than conflict; as noted by Al-Marashi in a 2015 article, “Kuwaiti Shia [have an] active part in the parliamentary process and continue to be relied upon by the Kuwait royal family as allies, notwithstanding the fears of a resurgent Shia Islam following the 2003 Iraq war and the rise of a Shia government there.” Likewise, there have been several efforts made by Sunnis and Shi’i alike to condemn inflammation of sectarian tensions.
The cohesiveness of the Sunni-Shi’i community in Kuwait further supports Longva’s claim that Kuwait’s legitimacy is based on an ethnocratic elite regime. Longva suggests that, in an ethnocratic regime, “there is a feeling that internal fissions should not be able to divert the community’s attention from the main threat…” In the case of Kuwait, the “main threat” posed is the increasing influx of migrants whose numbers overwhelm those of Kuwaiti citizens. Even politicians act with an awareness of such a threat, as exemplified by al-Mishari’s July 2012 statement that “No majority or minority, no hadar or badu, no Sunni or Shi’i. We are all Kuwaitis fighting against disorder.” Likewise, numerous journalists have been making claims similar to Labeed Abdal’s that “…moves to tear Sunnis and Shiites apart in many Arab and Gulf countries are unsuccessful attempts to reproduce the same divisions…”
In the wake of the June, 2015 attacks on a Shi’i mosque, sectarian tensions have been further diminished. One Sunni Kuwaiti described his own efforts the very day of the attacks: “I did go to the mosque then the hospital…there [was] no space. The hospital was full. So I went to the Blood Donation Bank.” The show of solidarity perhaps mimicked a sense of solidarity which occurred in the wake of the Iraqi invasion. Solidarity, however, is not to be confused with a combined identity. Ibrahim Al-Marashi observed in a recent article that “the Shia are by no means an undifferentiated mass, but rather differ in beliefs, local and national identity and cultural values, and thus ‘Kuwaitiness’ and Gulf identity of Kuwait’s Shia has been demonstrated over time.” It is yet to be seen whether the societal solidarity that emerged in the aftermath of the bombing will translate into political support for the Shi’i community.
The “Gulfie” Shia community to which Al-Marashi alludes has not fared as well across the Gulf as in Kuwait. Shi’i are consistently harassed and persecuted by the Bahraini government, despite a history within Bahraini society of peaceful Sunni-Shi’i relations. Along with public executions and other atrocities, the Bahraini government has been revoking citizenship for Bahraini Shi’i since 2012, using Article 10 of the Bahraini Citizenship Act and claims of Iranian terrorism. 128 Bahraini Shi’i have lost their citizenship in this year alone; destroying their ability to have a job, bank account, or civil life.
The “threat” which Bahrain’s government feels can be somewhat equated to the “threat” felt among Kuwaiti elites from the massive migrant community. Kuwait’s own stateless population, the bidun, are less obviously persecuted, in the sense that there has been fewer cases of violence from the Kuwaiti government against them. Yet they are subject to many of the same problems as Bahrain’s stateless; such as joblessness, inability to travel, and inability to access decent schooling or healthcare. Lacking these basic necessities and any political influence are strong propellants towards protest and action against the government. Despite their desire to appease the Kuwaiti government in hopes of one day achieving citizenship, the bidun are the most likely sect in Kuwait to protest; indeed, Kuwait’s Arab Spring included pro-bidun citizenship protests.
Kuwait has been threatened by violence and war far decades. An interviewee noted, “Kuwait is located in the middle of the war area. So we’re not safe.” This feeling has hung over Kuwaitis since even before the 1990 invasion; as Kuwait was a common target between both Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. In the past year, the threat of terrorist activity has hung over Kuwaitis heads (as it has in much of the Western world). Kuwait’s history of support for Iraq and then turn to support for Iran makes it a target for extremism from both the Sunni and Shi’i sects. Furthermore, its connection to the United States, who protected Kuwait in the Gulf War as well as in other conflicts, makes Kuwait a potential target for anti-Western groups such as Al Qaida.
These external threats are made more potent by the fact that Kuwaitis themselves, as well as bidun, are becoming radicalized by external groups and taking terrorist actions. The June bombings have been attributed to a Saudi. But, terrorists across the globe, including the Chatanooga shooter as well as ‘Jihadi John’, are Kuwaiti. It is vital, not only for Kuwait, but for the entire international community, to address the problem of radicalized Kuwaitis and understand how they have deviated from the peaceful Islam practiced by most Kuwaitis.
Kuwait has a vibrant civil society — an anomaly in the Gulf. Diwaniyyas, a sort of dinner part at which is discussed everything, including (and perhaps, especially) politics, are an integral part of every Kuwaiti’s life. Thus, Kuwaitis have the potential to organize together, to create movement in their society. There are very real issues that need to be addressed in Kuwait— from the integration of women to helping the bidun achieve citizenship and guaranteeing basic human rights for expats, to stopping such large threats as terrorism and human trafficking.
Political parties are an initial step towards creating this movement, as several Kuwaitis suggested in interviews. The fear, of course, is that establishment of political parties will cause sectarian strife and distract from the problem of preserving Kuwaiti identity in the face of the growing expat population. If Kuwaitis can become more secure in their identity as Kuwaitis, perhaps through a solidified legislative rule of law, they may feel more at ease to address problems. Increased connection with the Kuwaiti state would encourage more young, movement-oriented minds to stay in Kuwait and prevent the “brain drain.”
Surprisingly, an Islamist-ruled Kuwait does not seem like as dire a context as many Western thinkers would contend. That being said, there is probably a middle road, in which the Parliament gains legitimacy through actual, productive dialogue between political parties. The conclusion from almost everyone seems to be, however, that without opening Parliament to structural change, very little societal movement can be expected. Without societal movement, the regime-destabilizing threats could spin into actual political movements outside of the government’s control. In the end, then, it may be in the al-Sabah’s best interest to address the change in political context — that a new, more vibrant democracy is needed for efficiency — and concede some power back to other elites.