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The Political Underpinnings of Kuwaiti Sectarian Polemics

[2008 election poster in Kuwait. Image from author's archive] [2008 election poster in Kuwait. Image from author's archive]

I am hesitant to write about sectarianism because I once heard that writing about divisions only increases awareness of them and deepens them. But regional commentators—and some international ones—seem to be writing about sects in the Middle East in a purely polemical manner. However, the Kuwaiti case is instructive for understanding that sectarianism isn’t necessarily a fact of life in the Gulf, and that the polemics employed throughout the region at present, while they take on religious overtones, largely stem from political goals.

Sunni-Shi’a relations in Bahrain are a result of a unique amalgamation of historical events particular to that island whereby power has continually shifted hands between Arabs and Persians, and different Sunni and Shi’a groups since the 9th century. Further north, the far younger state of Kuwait has experienced a very different history, which has produced a different political dynamic. Historical memory is less contentious, the presence of both Sunnis and Shi’as is seen as legitimate, both arriving in the area around the same time in the 18th century, and subsequently building the state together. The Shi’a currently make up between 25-30 percent of Kuwait’s population and a significant proportion of the elite merchant class. Shi’as hold high government positions and make up nine of Kuwait’s fifty elected parliament members. Kuwaiti neighborhoods are fully integrated and have been for decades, and while sectarian tensions have existed from time to time, they have never descended into violence. 

While Kuwait has until now escaped “sectarian” violence, there are no guarantees that this will remain the case. At present, it is more likely that we see a continuation of heated rhetorical wars in Kuwait in an attempt to force the government to take a political position in-line with Saudi Arabia’s vis-à-vis Iran and the Shi’a in the Arab world rather than remain in its quasi-neutral state. Already the Kuwaiti media has proven itself partial to the Saudis, as local talking heads and columnists incessantly refer to “strange and heretical” Shia rituals and practices, and make what were previously understood to be outlandish comments such as the false accusation that it is permissible for Shi’a men to have “many wives and prostitutes”—an incorrectly defined reference to jawaz mut’a—as the basis for a 30-minute television program. The Kuwaiti government has a relatively soft hand with the media when it comes to what publishing it considers a threat to national security, and it appears that until now anti-Shi’a rhetoric has not fallen under that domain. 

There are two historically unfounded narratives that the Kuwaiti media is pushing. One pertains to Shi’a origins, the other to their loyalty. The prevalent media discourse in Kuwait, as in other Arab countries, has been propagating the idea that Shiites have Iranian origins and are thus an alien presence that cannot be trusted. Casting aside history when inconvenient, the fact that there are Kuwaitis of Arab origin who are Shi’a and Kuwaitis of Persian origin who are Sunnis is completely disregarded. These ideas have not completely taken hold, as most Sunni Kuwaitis, when pressed, will admit that the Shi’a have been in Kuwait just as long as they have. Recently, however, questions like “do you really know who your neighbors are?” have been raised purely to elicit fear and suspicion when Kuwaitis come across someone whose last name they do not recognize. One woman recently told me that in Kuwait they used to “know their classmates,” but now they don’t know the people their children go to school with. Initially thinking she was speaking about Kuwaiti Bedouins (badu), I asked if that was whom she meant. “I don’t know,” she said. “They’re from Iran, these kinds of places.” It may be true that there is an influx of new families to Kuwait’s expanding neighborhoods, but the simple truth is that as Kuwaiti families are numerically outgrowing their household capacity, the population is being redistributed into different areas where their families had not traditionally lived. Furthermore, Kuwaiti citizenship is extremely difficult to obtain. To suggest that the government would be “importing” significant numbers of Iranians is quite a stretch of the imagination, and clearly a scare tactic employed by those who wish to make waves. Kuwaiti citizenship is only granted to people who have “done something good for Kuwait,” someone who has in essence proven their loyalty. This brings me to the second basis from which attacks against Kuwait’s Shi’a are being launched. 

Manipulating the alien concept of Shi’a religious authority, some Sunni polemicists claim that Shi’a loyalty to Kuwait is dubious and definitely secondary to Iran (ignoring that a substantial portion of Kuwaiti Shiites, for example, follow Sistani in Iraq). These claims are unfounded, politically charged and largely emanate from Kuwait’s Bedouins, whose loyalty was also in question in the not so distant past. In the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait’s merchants accused many families of Bedouin origin of both aiding Saddam Hussein and fleeing en masse to Saudi Arabia during the invasion. 

The Kuwaiti Bedouins and the Shi’a both have historically been allies of the ruling family, especially at times when the Sunni merchant families were at odds with the government for attempting to limit their political power. In the early 1980s, when the ruling family did not have enough support amongst the merchant class to pass laws or make constitutional amendments, it granted citizenship to some nationless nomads, later referred to as Kuwaiti Bedouins, in order to increase their number in parliament and in turn, support for the ruling family. (Perhaps one of the reasons why some are making the case that Iranians are being given citizenship). Granting citizenship to the Bedouins created animosity between merchant families of Shi’a and Sunni origin who have been settled in Kuwait for over two hundred years because the merchants saw the Bedouins as opportunists and late-comers. As the story goes, the Bedouins did not help build Kuwait, but they are more than happy to reap the political and economic benefits. Granting the Bedouins citizenship in the last 50 years has certainly diluted the merchants’ power.   

While antagonism still exists between the Bedouins and merchant families, there is a specific disdain that has arisen between the Bedouins and Shi’a merchant families more specifically. Since the rise of Islamist movements in the 1980s, which have received significant support among the Bedouins, overt hostility to Shi’a has surfaced. That accusations against the Kuwaiti Bedouins in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion coincided with Kuwait improving its official relations with Iran only exacerbated the tension between the two groups. 

Recent years have witnessed a “re-tribalization” of Bedouin politics, such as resorting to “tribal primaries” as a means to get elected or increasingly using tribal last names as opposed to family ones. Combined with their Islamist leanings, this has caused rifts between the Bedouins and the government. Meanwhile, the Shi’a have been able to capitalize on their historically strong business and political relations with the government and merchant families. The sectarian rhetoric that we see rising today emanating from the Bedouins, appears to be a strategic move from a group that stands a lot to gain should they be able to alienate the Shi’a and consolidate the Bedouins and merchant Sunnis into a single political block, thus shifting the more prominent divide in current politics between merchant and Bedouins to one along sectarian lines. 

There are a variety of nationalist and other cultural differences between the Shi’a of Kuwait and those of Iran, and summarily accusing them of loyalty to Iran is to disregard the historical position of Kuwaiti Shi’a as fully Kuwaiti. A popular litmus test for any group’s loyalty to Kuwait is a survey of their actions during the Iraqi invasion. Because kuwait’s Shia suffered and fought against Saddam’s army alongside their Sunni counterparts rather than fleeing to Iran for protection, they invariably passed this test of loyalty. Many of Kuwait’s Shi’a see Iran as an in important place for religious pilgrimage and the land of distant relatives, but they are quite happy to be Kuwaiti and uninterested in Iranian politics at a popular level.  Ironically, it seems that Kuwaitis have made a unique impression as the word “Kuwait” in colloquial Farsi has become an adjective describing something “requiring very little effort.” 

Absent the issue of sectarian loyalty, there remains the question of how the Kuwaiti regime chooses its allies. So far, the government has been able to maintain a somewhat autonomous balance. It refused to send Kuwaiti ground troops into Bahrain (although it did send navy vessels, a much less provocative contribution) while taking legal action against a Kuwaiti paper that labeled the GCC action a “Saudi invasion of Bahrain.” Similarly, the government reassured its Shi’a citizens of their legitimacy and respected position by offering its Shi’a MPs to arbitrate in Bahrain—an offer that was then refused by the Bahraini government—when last year it had jailed a writer who accused the government of being too cozy with Iran. On a popular level, the Kuwaiti Shi’a demonstrations in support of the Bahraini people have also contained messages of thanks as well as criticism for the Kuwaiti government for their actions. 

However, the government has yet to get a handle on the rampant anti-Shi’a comments within its media, which may have serious consequences. Othering tends to be like a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more Kuwaiti Shiites feel isolated, the more particularist they will become. In recent years, this has already translated to a more blatant assertion of Shi’a identity. Events in Iraq and Lebanon have been a major influence, both of which receive great sympathy from Kuwait’s Shi’a who have orchestrated public demonstrations of support in Kuwait from time to time. When these public displays of Shi’a solidarity occur, a rise in tension between Sunnis and Shi’as in Kuwait usually accompanies it, but quickly subsides. That being said, it does appear that in the past few years Shi’a identity is also taking on a type of material identity, such as wearing a certain ring or placing a Shi’a decal on cars, which is a more constant presence than an occasional demonstration. Although Sunnis have noticed these representations of identity, these insignia have not necessarily been instigators of tension. However, the turmoil in Bahrain, which has been painted as a sectarian uprising, and the anti-Shi’a rhetoric in the media have made Kuwaiti Sunnis suspicious of their Shi’a neighbors.

Even if the sectarian divide does not descend into violence, it is likely that continued polemics will exact a cost on the integrated society in which Kuwaitis now live. Such integration is largely the result of Shi’a presence in society and their relatively equal access with their Sunni peers on an institutional level (educationally, professionally and politically). If polemics result in discrimination and the polarization of institutions (such as ministries, educational facilities, professional societies, etc), this would be a very serious threat to the harmoniously integrated model that has been more or less the default throughout Kuwait’s history.  

Indeed, longstanding sectarian harmony in Kuwait, especially amongst the merchant class, is a testament to the fact that sectarian and ethnic diversity are not grounds for imminent violence or even tension. And this is exactly the reason why Kuwait will be the target for those who wish to disturb regional peace. If Kuwait on an institutional level can be drawn into the sectarian chaos, this is a major threshold, which, once crossed, will open floodgates for arguments of essential antagonism between the sects. Maintaining sectarian balance within its borders by recognizing that politically founded polemics are in fact a threat to Kuwait’s national security, and consequently neutralizing that rhetoric seems to be Kuwait’s only hope for avoiding getting caught in the crossfire (rhetorical or otherwise) between neighbors and retaining its political independence. If Kuwait wishes to remain autonomous of the strong arm of Saudi Arabia it must absolutely resist the pull towards sectarian polemics.

6 comments for "The Political Underpinnings of Kuwaiti Sectarian Polemics"

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I think the whole region is drifting towards greater sectarian conflict. As israel is getting diplomatically isolated with each passing day, american collaboration with its friends in the region will ultimately result in this sectarian conflict. scheme is being hatched by the super-brains to divide arabs for saving israel, now its upto the arabs how to escape the net. coincidently, arab dictators's n israeli interests are the same here.

familydoc wrote on May 04, 2011 at 11:59 AM
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Thanks for a thorough analysis. I had one remark regarding the following statement:

"In the early 1980s, when the ruling family did not have enough support amongst the merchant class to pass laws or make constitutional amendments, it granted citizenship to some nationless nomads, later referred to as Kuwaiti Bedouins"

To my knowledge, this granting of citizenships started significantly earlier than stated, at least since the 1970s, though I don't have scholarly references on hand to back it.

Marzouq Alnusf wrote on May 04, 2011 at 09:18 PM
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Yes, you are correct that there have been various points at which the bedouins were given citizenship. Aside from the period in 1980 that was mentioned in the article, 1948 was an important year because the emir made two decrees about who could be a citizen. These defined "asil Kuwaitis" as those which met any of the following criteria: 1. members of the ruling family, 2. persons residing in Kuwait since 1899, 3. children of Kuwaiti men and 4. children of Arab or Muslim fathers also born in Kuwait.

However, in 1959 this law was amended. Number 4 above was dropped, and the criteria for number 2 was extended to the year 1920.

Lindsey Stephenson wrote on May 05, 2011 at 03:52 AM
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Dear Marzouq,

Yes, you are correct that there have been various points at which the Bedouins were given citizenship. Aside from the period in 1980 that was mentioned in the article, 1948 was an important year because the emir made two decrees about who could be a citizen. These defined "asil Kuwaitis" as those which met any of the following criteria: 1. members of the ruling family; 2. persons residing in Kuwait since 1899; 3. children of Kuwaiti men; and 4. children of Arab or Muslim fathers also born in Kuwait.

However, in 1959 this law was amended. Number 4 above was dropped, and the criteria for number 2 was extended to the year 1920.

If you are interested in this topic, there are a couple of people who have written about it in English: - Mary Ann Tetreault, "Stories of Democracy:Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait," Columbia University Press, 2000. - Anh Nga Longva, "Citizenship in the Gulf States: Conceptualisation and Practice," paper presented at the Conference on Citizenship and the State in the Middle East, University of Oslo, November 22-24, 2996.

Lindsey Stephenson wrote on May 05, 2011 at 09:56 AM
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Lindsey nice article, i commend you on it, to the point, a good thorough analysis, my hat off to you =)

Latif Al Roumi wrote on May 05, 2011 at 07:39 PM
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So there are a few things that need to be said here:

The opening paragraph implies that delving into sectarian issues drives the wedge further; and although you recognize the danger, you proceed to criticize polemics by writing your own polemic.

Disagreeing with the opinion of a talking head in Kuwait's relatively free media is fine, but don't imply that this segment of the Kuwaiti media represents the disposition of the government toward Shi'a. It's inaccurate and reckless. You later mention that the Kuwaiti government had reassured its Shi'a citizens they held respect and legitimacy (refusing to send ground troops to Bahrain, offering a Kuwaiti Shi'a arbitrator) which seems to contradict an earlier implication.

It's mentioned that the Kuwaiti media is more partial to the Saudis. In the examples you have found this to be the case (and, to be sure, most media coverage does not revolve around Sunni-Shi'a issues), how surprising is it really that a country comprised of 70-75 percent Sunnis would lean toward its own side in a Sunni-Shi'a ideological battle? And what of those who do not publicly engage in these battles? Aren't the non-participants the majority?

You relay information collected through an isolated interview [the decision to retain your participant's incorrect grammar here seems suggestive] to propound Sunni fear of their mysterious Shi'a Iranian neighbors?? Just about every neighborhood in Kuwait has a massive billboard that reads 'Hasawi Motors' or 'Behbehani Electronics' - the most powerful merchant families in Kuwait are of Iranian descent! "Sistani of Iraq" is clever phrasing, you should also note that Sistani is Iranian.

Why the shameless smearing of bedouin, calling them 'nationless nomads' who had no part in building Kuwait? Many of the hadhari families that 'built the country' were once bedouin, and the bedouin you're ostensibly referring to in your piece are now hadhari. It would be useful to mention that Kuwaiti culture is intricately tied to bedouin culture. Remnants of 'nationless nomads' are prevalent today in the form of tribal ties and the diwaniyyah (a traditional gathering space with roots in bedouin culture; as a Fulbright scholar on diwaniyyas in Kuwait you surely knew this already). Furthermore, you touch on bedouin MPs and their 'Islamist leanings' while conveniently omitting the fact that six Shi'a MPs are Islamists.

Interesting that your solution is to have the government essentially censor a segment of the Sunni media. What should the government do about the Shi'as' right to express themselves freely and publicly (as you mention they do)? 30 percent is not insignificant, especially considering Kuwait's population of 3 million and the government's strong ties with the Shi'a, so as to imply that there is an overwhelming Sunni majority threatening a Shi'a minority. The Shi'a are just as Kuwaiti as the Sunni. There's no need to depict them as an oppressed minority and vacillate as you do.

I realize it might seem petty to nitpick like this, but the article is a partial piece with half-truths. With your intelligence and experience in the country you could've just as easily written an article on Sunni-Shi'a unity, which you and I both know is the real marvel of Kuwait.

Al-Wahda wrote on June 23, 2011 at 07:33 AM

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