Financial Times FT.com

Sunni-Shia relations: Bahrain dilemma exposes tensions

By David Blair

Published: April 18 2011 16:32 | Last updated: April 18 2011 16:32

Last month, Kuwait’s government faced an agonising decision that reawakened once dormant tensions between Sunni and Shia.

In Bahrain, there was a popular uprising among the island’s Shia majority, and Saudi Arabia, fearing the unrest would spread, marshalled a military force from the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies to help restore order.

Saudi Arabia duly sent 1,000 troops to help suppress the revolt in Bahrain – and the kingdom made clear that it wanted Kuwait’s armed forces to contribute.

This left Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Sunni emir, with a cruel dilemma. Between 25 and 30 per cent of Kuwaiti citizens are Shia Muslims, and many were appalled by the prospect of the country’s armed forces deploying against their religious brethren in Bahrain.

But Sheikh Sabah did not want to be accused of abandoning his brother Sunni monarchy. Meanwhile, many of Kuwait’s Sunni citizens were equally fervent in their belief that a Shia revolt in the Gulf could not be allowed to succeed.

This debate exposed the sectarian divide in Kuwaiti society for the first time since the early 1980s, when tensions ran high after the Iranian revolution.

Public rallies were held on both sides of the vital question of whether or not to intervene in Bahrain. In the end, Sheikh Sabah decided he would help rescue Bahrain’s rulers. But instead of sending troops, Kuwait infuriated Saudi Arabia by dispatching two warships as a token contribution.

Diplomats in Kuwait City have no doubt that Sheikh Sabah came to the right decision for the sake of his own country’s domestic harmony. Had Kuwaiti soldiers taken part in the suppression of Shia demonstrators, the consequences at home could have been severe.

But the tremors from this episode continue to be felt. Members of Kuwait’s parliament tabled a series of questions to ministers. In particular, they wanted to question Mohammed al-Sabah, the foreign minister, about the handling of the Bahrain affair.

This was a “very touchy subject”, says Abd al-Rahman Alyan, editor-in-chief of the Kuwait Times. “MPs from both sides were putting us in a shaky situation.”

Responding to public questions about the agonising decision over Bahrain was unacceptable to the government. The debate would inevitably have taken on a sectarian hue, with Shia MPs berating the minister for the token intervention – and Sunni members arguing that it should have gone further.

Instead, the entire government chose to resign on March 31. The emir is in the process of choosing a new administration.

Observers believe that mass resignation was the right move in the interests of avoiding sectarian passions. “The government has taken a wise decision to safeguard the stability of Kuwait,” says Mr Alyan. But the fact that this remarkable episode took place at all shows the latent tension in Kuwaiti society.

The Shia minority does not suffer the systematic discrimination faced by their counterparts in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.

In both of those Sunni monarchies, Shia are hugely under-represented in anything above the lowliest government positions. In particular, they are almost totally excluded from the security apparatus of the state. Sensitive jobs are almost entirely closed to them. A US diplomatic cable from 2008 reported that Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry did not employ a single Shia diplomat anywhere in the world.

In Kuwait, however, the situation has always been different. Members of the Shia minority are found in government posts at every level: two ministers in the outgoing cabinet were Shia. Meanwhile, nine of the 50 members of parliament are Shia, as are various senior advisers to the emir.

But suspicions about the true loyalty of Shia citizens still lurk beneath the surface. A belief that Shia Muslims owe their prime obedience to Iran’s theocratic regime is widespread in the Sunni Arab world.

This sentiment may be less common in Kuwait than elsewhere, but the emirate is not wholly immune either. The evidence for this lies in the fact that Shia citizens are firmly under-represented in the country’s security forces. There remains a stubborn belief that they cannot always be counted upon – and events in Bahrain have brought this to the surface.

“We noticed that people started taking sides in this situation,” says one Kuwaiti observer. “There has been a situation where people are asking: ‘Are you on the side of Iran?’”

The fact that they are still not sufficiently trusted to hold all government positions means that Shia Kuwaitis are often found in the private sector. Here, they have joined the successful merchant classes: some of the richest families in the emirate are Shia.

They have money and, via parliament and the cabinet itself, Shia Kuwaitis have real political influence. But recent events have shown that they still do not enjoy the trust of all their fellow citizens.

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