The prominent Kuwaiti Shiite lawyer and former member of parliament Khaled al-Shatti was arrested April 2 after posting tweets critical of the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s fight against the Houthis in Yemen. His tweets suggested that the Houthis – Yemeni Shiite rebels supported though not controlled by Iran – are growing in power.
Shatti, who was released on bail April 6, was charged with challenging the emir, demoralizing Kuwaiti soldiers, offending the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and threatening Saudi relations with Kuwait.
His Twitter protest is not the only evidence of discord against Kuwait’s foreign policy. Seven out of Kuwait’s 10 Shiite parliamentarians (in a body of 50) also criticized the Kuwaiti Air Force’s participation in Saudi Arabia’s “Operation Decisive Storm,” on the grounds that it violates Kuwait’s constitutional prohibition on offensive war.
Their outspoken protest is unusual and telling: The Shiite MPs of Kuwait are the only such group in the region empowered by a positive legacy of regime-minority relations to take a stand against their government’s foreign policy on an official, institutional level. This level of activism is nonetheless surprising even by Kuwaiti standards. A Kuwaiti political persona tweeting in favor of the Houthi rebels is shocking and out of the norm of Shiite actions in Kuwait since the 1990s. And Shiite MPs taking a stand against the Saudi campaign on any grounds stands out as quite significant as compared to both the quiet Shiite activists in neighboring Saudi Arabia, who are worried about local sectarian backlash from the war on the Houthis rather than contesting the foreign policy itself, and the more bellicose response of Shiite political factions in Iraq, who have publicly protested the Saudi campaign and even had one MP offer to send fighters to defend Yemen.
Sectarianism has been getting worse in the Gulf, and many analysts generally conceive of this as an international process. Indeed, analysts have warned that a Saudi-led war on the Zaydi Shiite Houthis could devolve into a proxy war with Iran and further sectarianize the Middle East. The fact that Arab Sunni states have entered a coalition to fight a Shiite non-state actor in Yemen allegedly backed by Iran would, indeed, seem to be evidence of sectarianism. But sometimes what looks like sectarianism and regional ethnic hatreds is actually just good old domestic politics. As Marc Lynch argued in a 2013 Project on Middle East Political Science symposium, “The sectarian narrative radically exaggerates both the coherence of the ‘Sunni’ side of the conflict and the novelty of a long-standing power struggle with Iran. It is better understood as a justification for domestic repression and regional power plays than as an explanation for Middle Eastern regimes’ behavior.” That perspective applies to Kuwait’s new sectarian tensions as well.
My dissertation research – which addresses why governments change their policies toward non-core groups such as the Shiites of Kuwait – suggests that policies such as these political arrests actually have very little to do with their ethno-religious characteristics or even with the Iranian boogeyman’s growing power in the Gulf. Instead, they are calculated based upon their oppositional potential. That is to say, it is not Kuwait’s sectarianism that we must worry about, but rather its re-emerging authoritarianism. The crux of the issue is rentier Kuwait’s semi-authoritarian political structure and the type of dynamic it engenders. As a semi-constitutional monarchy, the highly mobilized Kuwaiti body politic can vote in free and fair parliamentary elections, and the Kuwaiti parliament is unique in the Gulf for having the power to remove confidence in individual ministers and override the emir’s veto via majority vote. At the same time, their choices are ultimately limited by an appointed cabinet that serves at the discretion of the emir. This situation leads to a dynamic in which the shape of the political opposition and the threat it poses to the ruler are variables of primary importance in how any societal groups, Sunni or Shiite are treated by their ruler.
The Shiites of Kuwait, who make up 25 to 30 percent of the population, have a unique place in national and regional history. Recent work by Fred Wehrey, Laurence Louer and Toby Matthiesen demonstrates how Kuwait has long stood out for having the most amicable sectarian relations in the Gulf, especially as compared to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. With very few exceptions – such as proportional access to mosques and staffing in high-level defense and interior positions – Kuwaiti Shiites have equal access to the large coterie of welfare benefits offered by the rentier state, including free health care, education, public sector jobs and state subsidized fuel and housing. They are nationalistic and loyal toward their government and feel central to the state’s history and its quest for survival. As such, with the exception of the 1980s – when, inspired by the Iranian revolution, a small group of Kuwaiti Shiites began to push for political reforms, including for Shiite equality, and were institutionally excluded and sometimes-violently repressed – Kuwaiti Shiites have most often been accommodated or co-opted by their government. The times when Kuwait did appear to be sectarian, it was usually doing so for reasons of managing political opposition.
In the 2000s, despite the perceived regional growth and threat of Iran’s power after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, the Kuwaiti regime did not repress its Shiite citizens but instead offered them more religious accommodation. In many cases, the Sabah ruling family has continued to defend the confessional group against growing societal and parliamentary Islamist and tribal sectarianism. Only four years ago, when Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to aid the Bahraini government in suppressing its Shiite-led Arab Spring, the Kuwaiti government decided not to send ground forces. Rather, it ended up sending a largely symbolic naval force instead, likely because the emir was highly sensitive to how its participation might impact Shiite allies in the government. In 2012, the Shiites briefly held 17 seats in parliament, the highest number ever, as a result of an opposition boycott of elections. Likewise, Shiite MPs seem to know their place in Kuwaiti Politics. Even their recent protest against Kuwait joining the Saudi coalition was carefully framed in constitutional terms, demonstrating the extent to which they fear being perceived as going outside the norms of their political system.
What has changed since that would lead Kuwait to join with its Arab allies in a potentially controversial and sectarian cause that could rock the boat with its Shiite allies at home? The answer is that Kuwait, along with many of its neighbors, has become more authoritarian in the aftermath of the region-wide and domestic uprisings that started in late 2010. The ruling elites of the Sabah family are reeling from the cross-class Islamist-tribal-youth coalition that has only intensified its demands for political reform since the Arab Spring, in addition to intra-family factionalism and allegations of coup plotting. To deal with this situation, Kuwait has revived some unique ways of stemming the ongoing opposition movement. In 2014, over 30 people were deported and stripped of their citizenship for supposedly undermining the country’s security. Most recently, at least 18 people were reportedly arrested at an March 23 anti-government protest, including regional human rights defender Nawaf al-Hendal, who had addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council only three days earlier. Hendal has since been released but his case has been referred to Kuwait’s Criminal Court.
More importantly, in the past few months it has become clear that there is not only a red line for Kuwaitis criticizing the emir, but a taboo on criticizing Kuwait’s regional allies as well. Several other Kuwaitis who have criticized the Saudi regime or involved themselves in public domestic opposition campaigns have been targeted as well. Shatti was joined by Shiite writer and academic Salah al-Fadhli, who was also arrested for speaking out about Yemen. Another Shiite MP, Abdulhameed Dashti is awaiting trial for criticizing the Bahraini government, and former Sunni MP Mubarak al-Duweileh was questioned over his criticism of the rulers of Abu Dhabi. Kuwait is not out of the norm for suddenly prosecuting regional dissent – Bahrainis criticizing the Saudi campaign in Yemen were immediately arrested, too. This regional criminalization of dissent is something that has been facilitated by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Security Pact, which Kuwait was the last state to sign. The pact has given legal means for the persecuting of opposition forces all over the Gulf, ostensibly on security terms. As Madawi al-Rasheed explains, “Meant to enhance security for economic development and stability of GCC countries, the pact has now tuned into creating cross-border controls, evacuating the Arab Gulf of dissent and eliminating safe havens for dissidents of one country in another one.”
The Kuwaiti crackdown on Sunni and Shiite dissent alike reveals that if anything, the regime does share a strong threat perception with the rest of the GCC, but that it perceives its biggest transnational threat not from Iran, but from the diffusion of democratic movements that may uproot its allied Gulf leaders. Indeed, Saudi itself has partially framed the campaign on Yemen this way – emphasizing its intent to restore Yemen’s elected president to power – in addition to rolling back ostensible Iranian gains in the region. The arrest of Shiites who speak publically about Saudi Arabia’s Yemen campaign, as sectarian as it looks on a superficial level, must thus be seen within the overall context of the progressive tightening of domestic security by a continually stressed Kuwaiti regime.
In this light, regime-Shiite relations have more to do with how formidable the political opposition is becoming in the Gulf and the shared regional threat of empowered domestic constituents than any single other factor. It’s not sectarianism, but authoritarianism. It is the internal threats to Gulf regimes like Kuwait, driven by their lack of meaningful reform in the last decade, that drives Gulf regimes to internationalize domestic problems in terms of “security” and sometimes “sect” (read: Iran) in order to distort and drive focus away from meaningful, local grievances. Regime treatment of Shatti for supporting the Houthi cause is one part of this larger authoritarian whole. Shatti’s tweets were outside the bounds of what he was allowed to do as part of a co-opted minority with traditionally good relations to the ruler, but also what is expected of him as a citizen of a beleaguered semi-authoritarian regime. As such, he has been bluntly told to stay out of oppositional and regional politics and go back to his lane. As one Kuwaiti source told me about the incident, after Shatti’s release, “He’s out, but they are keeping him close.” The question now is, will he and his co-sectarians stay there?
The answer is a bit of a catch 22. It depends on whether or not societal and regional anti-Shiite sentiment continues to burn from the spark the Saudis ignited. On the one hand, Kuwait’s participation in the invasion of Yemen may be just the catalyst its Shiite citizens need to move away from their longstanding alliance with the Sabah family. The semi-authoritarian Kuwaiti system that gave them the same freedom to criticize Kuwaiti foreign policy in constitutional, legitimate terms may offer them the opening they need. This would mean an even more formidable and further cross-cutting opposition to the Kuwaiti government and could perhaps augur for real political change. On the other hand, the Kuwaiti tribal-Islamist opposition has in the last decade become increasingly sectarian itself. This makes it likely the Shiites will continue to stand by the Kuwaiti regime in spite of their underlying disagreement with its foreign policies and lack of reform because they have no other alternative source of protection. In this sense, Saudi-driven sectarianism in the region seems to have inadvertently reinforced Kuwaiti authoritarianism as well.
Madeleine Wells is a PhD candidate in political science at the George Washington University.