Madeleine Wells Goldburt, a PhD candidate at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @Swellwells.
The bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait by the Islamic State (IS) raised questions about the past and future of Sunni-Shia relations in the country. The bombing had the unintended effect of reinvigorating social unity and strengthening government protection of Shia citizens, who comprise roughly 30 percent of the population. Kuwait is an outlier in the Gulf in many ways, including the comparatively open nature of its institutions, its historically less confrontational relations with Iran, and the history of its own Shia minority population. And, for very practical reasons, Kuwaiti rulers absolutely cannot let sectarianism get out of hand. They need the historically coopted Shia to balance out the reformist opposition in the National Assembly.
While Gulf regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have used the specter of Iran and its alleged influence on local Shia populations to justify draconian sectarian policies that stave off meaningful reform, Kuwait’s government policies toward its Shia population have less to do with their historical links to Iran, and more to do with domestic concerns about the shape of the opposition. The Shia currently hold 10 out of 50 seats in the National Assembly and have generally served as a bulwark against the opposition since 2008. If the Shia are marginalized, they could rejoin the opposition coalition—making it more heterogeneous and even more threatening than the tribal-Islamist-youth reformist coalition that crystallized during the Arab Spring.
But while IS’s bottom-up strategy of intensifying sectarianism in Kuwait is likely to fail, there are risks the group’s appeal could grow among disenfranchised segments of the population, like Kuwait’s stateless residents. The Islamic State is not likely to succeed in mobilizing them on specifically sectarian grounds, since the group itself is comprised of both Sunni and Shia and has long been united on the sole issue of achieving nationality. However, it may succeed by presenting an alternative to the government’s marginalization and crackdown.
Known as the bedoon (from the Arabic bedoon jinsiyya, or “without citizenship”), most of this group of over 100,000 lost their access to Kuwaiti nationality when they failed to register in the initial pre-independence census of 1958. The state denies them essential legal documents such as birth and death certificates or access to public healthcare, schooling, and equal employment opportunities. The bedoon have been progressively cut out of most state benefits since the mid-1980s, despite the fact that they once formed the backbone of Kuwait’s defense forces; the government increasingly depicts today’s bedoon as foreigners without legitimate claim to citizenship or welfare benefits. Due to their increasing economic marginalization and the foot-dragging of successive Kuwaiti bodies dedicated to solving the stateless situation, the bedoon now have serious grievances against the government. Not surprisingly, the government has responded with violence to the bedoon’s efforts to force the government to consider their claims to citizenship.
The bedoon could be ripe for IS-style radicalization if IS can offer them what the Kuwaiti state will not: economic security, employment, and belonging to a community. Indeed, one stateless man played a key role in driving the suicide bomber to the attack; of the 29 conspirators arrested thus far, most were residents of Kuwait, including thirteen stateless and seven citizens. The government has responded by disproportionately scapegoating and cracking down on the bedoon and pursuing draconian policies, such as suspending the issuance of Article 17 passports, collectively punishing the group for the crimes of a few. This will only exacerbate the potential for radicalization and foreign influence.
The bigger concern for Kuwait is not sectarian strife, but its government tendencies to crackdown on dissent, particularly during times when security threats are high and may be used to justify limiting the political sphere.