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Kuwait's strong response to internal subversion alters life in oil-rich state. Kuwait, under threat from Iran's missiles, has cracked down hard on pro-Iranian domestic subversives. Some see signs this has paid off. But others fear it may backfire by radicalizing more of Kuwait's Shiite population.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1987


Concern is rising here that Kuwait's war on internal subversion may become counterproductive. The Sunni Muslim government has held up relatively well under the strain of sabotage and bomb plots carried out in recent years by Shiite-sect extremists sympathetic to Iran.

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But some diplomats and other analysts worry that a continuing crackdown by security forces may backfire on the ruling Al-Sabah family by radicalizing a larger sector of the emirate's Shiite Muslim population.

The extremists are said to represent only a tiny fraction of the Kuwaiti Shiite community, which encompasses more than 35 percent of the total population of about 1.8 million.

``The polarization is increasing here,'' says a diplomat with long experience in Kuwait.

A Shiite awakening could threaten to undermine the ruling Sunni status quo not only in Kuwait but throughout the Gulf - a development which could have repercussions far beyond the region.

The Gulf Arab states provided the US, Western Europe and Japan with 17 percent of their oil requirements during the second quarter of 1987. Kuwait's 95-billion-barrel reserves comprise 14 percent of the noncommunist world's total, and are second only to Saudi Arabia's.

According to diplomats and Arab analysts, Kuwait remains highly vulnerable to the actions of small, tightly organized cells of violent Shiite extremists that continue to operate here.

On Nov. 25, Kuwait suffered its 11th bomb blast this year. The target was the office of the American Life Insurance Company. No one was reported injured, and damage was minor. The incident follows a pattern of targeting American offices or US-related businesses that began with the car-bombing of the US Embassy in December 1983.

Kuwaiti economic installations and government offices have been bombed as well. Two years ago, the motorcade of the Emir, Sheikh Jabir Ahmad Jabir Sabah, was ambushed in an unsuccessful assassination attempt.

As a result of the extremist attacks, Kuwait has been transformed into a hodgepodge of concrete barriers, barbed wire, lookout towers, blast-proof glass, tank traps, search lights, metal detectors, and armed guards.

The government has suspended the elected National Assembly, enacted press censorship laws, outlawed public gatherings of more than three people, required identity cards for all residents, deported thousands of Kuwaiti residents of Iranian origin, restricted Kuwaiti Shiite employment to ``nonsensitive'' jobs, and stepped up intelligence operations in Shiite neighborhoods.

The situation underscores the complex task that Kuwaiti leaders face in trying to build a sense of nationalism to counter the strong attraction of many Shiites to the revolutionary ideology of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

``The Shiite population is very jumpy and feeling very Shia,''says a Western envoy.

For the Gulf Arabs, Kuwait represents symbolically and literally the front-line - after Iraq - for stopping the spread of pro-Iranian Shiite extremism.

Each of the Sunni-governed Gulf states has chosen its own means to counter the threat. The United Arab Emirates takes a neutral position on the Iran-Iraq war in hopes of avoiding confrontation with both domestic Shiites and Iran. Saudi Arabia, after years of iron-fist tactics, has begun to shift toward a policy of accommodation toward its own Shiite population.

According to a well-placed Kuwaiti official, tough measures have paid off here by making it more difficult for pro-Iranian extremists to find new recruits willing to conduct subversion and plant bombs.