Kuwait stands on a precipice facing the ‘Islamic Caliphate’

Last week, Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior announced a full military alert because of the Islamic Caliphate’s push outwardss

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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Last week, Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior announced a full military alert because of the Islamic Caliphate’s push west and south towards Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The alert coincided with a similar move by Saudi Arabia and Riyadh sent a mixed force of Saudis, Pakistanis, and Egyptians to protect the kingdom’s northern border. Jordan repulsed an Islamic Caliphate attack for now and was able to maintain law and order among the salafists and Sunni tribes in the eastern part of the Hashemite Kingdom. Now there is concern about Kuwait’s internal dynamics and how well the al-Sabah rulers can control the undercurrents that are increasingly coming to the fore.

Kuwait is divided into two key groups: the Nomads (Hadhar) and the Bedu. The Hadhar are divided into a Sunni majority and a Shiite minority. According to an Arab official, the Sunnis are concentrated in four of the main governorates: Ahmadi, Mubarak al-Kabier, Jahra and Farwaniyah which comprises the bulk of the country outside of Kuwait City and on the borders of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. According to Kuwait officials, the Shiites make up 30 percent of the population and the remaining 70 percent is Sunni. Of this 30 percent of the population, 6-9 percent are Arab Shiites, 12-15 percent are Persian Shiites and 5-6 percent are Hassa Shiites from the “Eastern Province” of Saudi Arabia. These Kuwait officials are quick to point out that Arab Shiites and Persians Shiites include some Turkomens, Shirazis, and “Lore.”

The al-Sabah ruling family has its hands full with the country’s multi-level mix of nomads, bedu, tribes and a sectarian divide that challenges the security order in the country

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The Bedu are extensively tribal and these tribes cross over into the Hadhar where the tribes are Kuwaiti or Saudi affiliated. Importantly, Kuwaiti officials are thinking that messages from the Islamic Caliphate are giving additional momentum to a mix of tribal Sunnis who see greater “enlightenment” in the events in Iraq and Syria. This fact is sending shock waves throughout the states of the Arabian Peninsula where the tribal-sectarian mix is possibly beginning to fissure.

The key factor

The tribal element in Kuwaiti society is a key factor. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, the bulk of the tribes went to Saudi Arabia to stay with Saudi-based relatives. Once they returned to Kuwait, and ever since that time, the tribes are affecting Kuwait’s internal and external policy by asking for greater rights for Salafism and growing inclusion in the parliamentary processes. This situation is seen, for example, in the Kuwaiti emir’s constantly dissolving the country’s parliament and the ongoing problem with the Sunni tribal leader Musallam al-Barrak. The situation is making tribal members susceptible to recruitment, according to a Kuwaiti official.

Kuwaiti leaders are recognizing the Islamic Caliphate’s threat. Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah gave a critical speech on the eve of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Kuwait’s ruler told viewers not to threaten stability by playing “games” with politics, pointing to the turmoil in Iraq and elsewhere as examples of the dangers of political division. The emir stated: “are you aware of what is going on not far from us?” Although the message by the emir targeted the ongoing disputes in the country regarding struggles over the parliament, corruption charges, and an attempted coup, the real message focused on events to the north. According to a Kuwaiti official, the emir needs to keep the political, tribal, and religious divisions peaceful because the Islamic Caliphate represents a clear and present danger not only to Kuwait, but to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Kuwaiti official feels that Jordan will not let the Islamic Caliphate into the country and will take pre-emptive measures to protect the al-Sabah rulers. In other words, the Hashemite Kingdom is seen as protecting Kuwait and Northern Saudi Arabia from his point of view. Indeed, Jordanian riot control police were active in Kuwait following the Arab Spring - these forces may easily need to return soon.

Recruiting from Kuwait

Finally, the Islamic Caliphate may see a robust base from which to recruit young people from Kuwait to their cause because of the past mistakes of Kuwaiti Sunni religious leaders who worked to donate funds and supplies. In Kuwait, 75 percent of the population are young people. An Arab official asserts that Kuwait is fertile ground for potential “want to be” extremist violent jihadists because of the detaining of Musallam al-Barrack as well as the activity of Kuwait’s Ikhwan who are purportedly energizing these young people “to act out.” Consequently, Kuwaiti officials are now required to boost their monitoring of the country’s youth in order “to keep them quiet” and to avoid their being absorbed into the Islamic Caliphate.

Kuwaiti Shiite youth are also seen as a threat because of the sectarian disaster in Iraq. The four main Shiite neighborhoods in Kuwait City and surrounding areas of Dasma, Rumaithia, Daia’a, and Jabria are increasingly restive. According to a Kuwaiti official there is a “manifestation” of “new Persian radicals” in Kuwait attempting to create a “Persian cultural society” for Kuwaiti Persians of both Sunni and Shiite extraction. Another factor to recall is from 2008 when Kuwaiti Shiite politicians attended a public ceremony mourning the assassination of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah. Such displays of sectarianism are thought to be returning to Kuwait if events in Iraq between the Islamic Caliphate and Shiite militias and the 90 percent majority Shiite Iraqi army deteriorate. Any event to the north or elsewhere in the Levant is likely to inflame the Kuwaiti domestic situation as long as the government is locked in constant internal battle.

Clearly, Kuwait seems to be on a precipice. The al-Sabah ruling family has its hands full with the country’s multi-level mix of nomads, bedu, tribes and a sectarian divide that challenges the security order in the country. As long as the Islamic Caliphate exists in its current state, Kuwait will require help to quell any internal dissent because any social disruption will open the door to Caliph Ibrihim’s supporters to exploit collective gaps in the country. The impact on northern Saudi Arabia, as well as the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, is momentous.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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