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Kuwait steers careful sectarian course in fight against ISIS

Kuwait steers careful sectarian course in fight against ISIS

Having just spent a few days doing research in Kuwait, it was interesting to see how relatively relaxed Kuwaitis appeared to be about events in neighbouring Iraq.

Kuwait would quite naturally be concerned about the possibility of the conflict spreading further south, as well as the impact it may have on Kuwait's own sectarian relations. Yet on both counts Kuwaitis appear relatively sanguine, and with good reason. They don't see ISIS as any type of existential threat, largely because Iraq's Shi'a-dominated south acts as a protective buffer.

Kuwaiti soldiers during rehearsals for the 50/20 celebration parade, 2011.

Nor do they see the sectarian tensions being imported into Kuwait. Kuwait has always stood out as a rather unusual example of the inter-sectarian compact.

It does have a small but vocal Salafist trend amongst its Sunni community, and several hundred Kuwaitis are believed to have fought or are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Yet its Shi'a community (about a third of the population) is integrated to a much greater degree than anywhere else in the Gulf.

There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the fact that many of the richest merchant families in Kuwait are Shi'a (many of Persian origin) and they have been staunch supporters of the Emir for decades. This was particularly welcome during the period of Arab nationalism (a largely Sunni construct) during the 1950s and 60s. While the Iranian Revolution and some terrorist attacks perpetrated by (mainly foreign) Shi'a in Kuwait caused tension, the role of Kuwaiti Shi'a in opposing the Iraqi occupation of 1991 allowed the Shi'a to regain any ground they may have lost.  [fold]

What this means is that, when dealing with regional security issues, Kuwait must steer a careful course as close to the middle as it can, lest it exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Kuwait rather diplomatically sent a naval vessel in support of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) intervention in Bahrain in 2011, ensuring it ticked the Gulf solidarity box without upsetting its own Shi'a constituency. For the same reason, Kuwait has joined the Coalition against ISIS but has not contributed aircraft like the other GCC members (with the exception of Oman). But it has provided timely financial assistance and basing support.

Article 68 of the Kuwaiti constitution forbids offensive war and requires the Amir to decree a defensive war, which provides legal justification for the lack of Kuwaiti aircraft in the Coalition. But the understanding that the jihadists in Iraq in particular have some sympathy among Kuwait's Salafist and tribal minorities would also be a major consideration in Kuwait's approach.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DVIDSHUB.

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