Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

Kuwait and the Islamic State

By Alex Stout and Giorgio Cafiero
November 3, 2015
This article was originally published by Lobelog

Throughout the twenty-first century, the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait has enjoyed relative stability and security. This tranquility is largely attributable to the harmonious coexistence of Kuwait’s Sunnis and Shi’ites and the ruling monarchy’s accommodation of the latter. Indeed, the relatively positive relationship between the Al Sabah family and Kuwait’s 400,000 Shi’ite citizens contrasts significantly with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where sectarian problems have led to much violent unrest and harsh regime-led crackdowns in recent years.

However, Kuwait’s Sunni and Shi’ite citizens have not always been on the best terms. Throughout the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, many Kuwaiti Sunnis questioned the Shi’ite minority’s loyalty to the ruling monarchy. Security forces spied on and arrested a number of Kuwaiti Shi’ites for seemingly baseless reasons. Kuwait’s sectarian tensions eased significantly following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf nation’s Sunnis and Shi’ites—in abstractly viewing themselves as “one country/people”—maintained peaceful relations within Kuwait as sectarian temperatures rose steadily in many other Arab nations following Saddam’s fall from power and the subsequent expansion of Iran’s regional influence.

Today, Kuwait finds its own stability under threat, however, from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in neighboring Iraq and Syria and its affiliates in the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As underscored by the June 26 suicide bombing, which killed 27 and injured 227 during Friday prayers in an historic Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait City, IS has demonstrated its ability to recruit Gulf Arabs to advance the group’s sectarian agenda in Kuwait and beyond. Ultimately, further terrorism against Kuwaiti Shi’ites has the potential to transform the Persian Gulf nation into a new sectarian flashpoint in the region.

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Alex Stout is a research analyst at Gulf State Analytics. Giorgio Cafiero is the co-founder of Gulf State Analytics.