Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

Kuwait’s Sectarian Equation

By Cinzia Bianco
August 26, 2015

On June 26, a suicide attack during Friday prayers in the historic Shi’ite Imam Sadiq mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 people and wounded 227. Hours after the suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest, Daesh (“Islamic State”) took to social media and claimed responsibility. A Saudi Arabian national by the
nom de guerre Abu Sulaiman al Muwahhidby—of Najd Province (a Saudi Arabia-based Daesh division)—was identified as the perpetrator.

The gruesome act caught many analysts by surprise, given that sectarian relations in Kuwait have been relatively positive compared to other Arab states. However, developments that unfolded in Kuwait prior to the June 26 attack highlight how sectarian issues in the region have negatively impacted Sunni-Shi’ite relations within the emirate. 

On April 2, Khaled al-Shatti, a prominent Kuwaiti Shi’ite lawyer and former parliamentarian, was arrested after posting tweets critical of the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s fight against the Houthis in Yemen. Shatti had suggested that Iran’s power was going to prevail in Yemen. He was charged with challenging the emir, demoralizing Kuwaiti soldiers, offending the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and threatening Kuwait City’s relations with Riyadh. Shatti was released four days later. Other Shi’ite parliamentarians (7 out of 10 in a body of 50) also criticized Kuwait’s participation in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen on the grounds that it violates Kuwait’s constitutional prohibition of offensive war. 

Kuwait’s sectarian orientation makes the emirate a palatable target for Daesh and other extremist groups that thrive on spreading sectarian strife. Indeed, the chaos in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen has offered Daesh fertile playgrounds, as such conflicts have triggered extreme polarization along sectarian lines throughout the greater Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two leaders of the Sunni and Shia blocks, exacerbate this polarization by backing opposite parties in each of the conflicts currently enflaming the region. Yemen is a case in point. The fact that Arab Sunni states have formed a historically unprecedented military coalition to fight the Houthis—a Shi’ite non-state actor in Yemen, allegedly backed by Iran—underscores the region’s growing Sunni-Shi’ite divide, a conflict that is clearly raising sectarian temperatures in Kuwait’s political sphere.

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Cinzia Bianco holds a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London. She worked as a Junior Researcher at the South Asia and the Middle East Forum in London and was a Research Fellow in Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for the European Commission project, “Sharaka,” focusing on EU-GCC relations. Bianco represented Italy at the G8 Youth Summit in the Foreign Affairs Commission (Paris, 2011) and at the G20 as an expert in the Commission on International Trade (Mexico City, 2012).