Suliman Al-Atiqi, a PhD candidate at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and a regular contributor to Sada

On June 26, 2015, a suicide bomber wreaked havoc on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. The perpetrator targeted a Shia mosque in the heart of Kuwait City during prayers, killing 27 and wounding over 200, mimicking two consecutive Friday attacks in Saudi Arabia. The attack—claimed by the Islamic State as targeting a “temple of the apostates”—was clearly an attempt to sow Sunni-Shia strife in Kuwait. However, unlike elsewhere in the region, Kuwait remains among the least susceptible to this vulnerability, as has been demonstrated in the aftermath of the attack. 

The historical roots of Kuwaiti nationalism are deeply rooted in a shared extremist threat in the first third of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the radical Wahhabi Ikhwan movement committed atrocities against the Shia in al-Hasa, located in modern-day Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Back then, the Riyadh-based militia had deemed that not only were the Shia infidels, but also the entire people of Kuwait, using this as a pretext for territorial expansion. The Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah encouraged building a Husseiniya (Shia congregation hall) in Kuwait, which attracted Shia fleeing persecution. Ever since, the Sunni ruling family has cultivated close ties with the Shia, who currently enjoy proportional representation in government, the private sector, and the parliament. Kuwait’s Shia have become socially and economically diffused throughout the tight-knit city state and have historically contributed to all sectors of life—from business to politics and the arts. 

Therefore, within moments after the bombing, Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah visited the site, against security protocols, claiming “these are my children.” The country rallied around these symbolic words and did not interpret the attacks as an act of aggression against the Shia minority, but an act of aggression against the state and society at large. Hence in funeral proceedings in Kuwait’s Grand Mosque the next evening—attended by the Emir, the Crown Prince, the Prime Minister, ministers, and members of parliament—the state received condolences for the “martyrs,” symbolically signaling that the condolences are to the state in its entirety and not to a sect in the country.  

In the country’s greatest security breach since the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaitis—under the leadership of the ruling family—showed unity and solidarity in rejection of extremist ideology, as they did a century ago. In fact, at a time of increasing tensions, the attack reversed this trend and strengthened inter-sect relations, invoking Kuwait’s historically exceptional interfaith unity.