This already jittery nation, perched at the edge of the Iran-Iraq war, has been badly frightened by the government's highly publicized arrest of 11 Kuwaiti Shiite Muslims suspected of sabotaging oil installations. Both Shiite and Sunni Muslim Kuwaitis expressed fears Sunday that the arrests would further strain already tense relations between the two communities. As the 6-year-old Iran-Iraq war has heated up, apprehension in Kuwait has grown that the war will eventually split this society apart, pitting the majority Sunnis against the Shiites. Western diplomats estimate Shiites constitute about 30 percent of Kuwait's population.
For many, the arrests, announced Saturday on state-run radio and television, confirmed their worst fears. Security forces displayed guns, grenades, and plastic explosives allegedly seized when the suspects were arrested. For the first time, signs displayed along with the confiscated arms gave the full name of the suspects and said after each name ``Kuwaiti.'' Everyone here recognized the names as those of Shiite families.
``This is of profound importance not only for Kuwait, but for the whole Gulf,'' a Western European diplomat said. ``This is a problem that all the Gulf states tried to sweep under the carpet - the problem of the Shiite communities and where their loyalties lay.''
The government's disclosure that members of Kuwait's own Shiite community were accused of sabotage suggests the threat of internal subversion is now considered serious enough to risk exacerbating communal divisions by singling out the Shiites, the diplomat said.
Most Kuwaiti Shiites trace their origins to Iran. Most of the Sunni majority originated in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Culturally, some Shiites still identify strongly with Iran, where a revolutionary Shiite regime - one which all Persian Gulf leaders find threatening - has ruled since 1979.
It is widely assumed here that the saboteurs must have been working on behalf of Iran - if not through a formal arrangement, then at least through ideological commitment to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Kuwait has been Iraq's largest financial backer in the war. In the first year alone, Kuwait reportedly granted Iraq some $3 billion in long-term concessionary loans. Each year Kuwait gives Iraq profits from the sale of 250,000 barrels of oil a day, in addition to undisclosed amounts of cash.
``We knew that there is a minority of Shiites who always identified with Iran,'' says Kuwaiti Khaldoun Naqeeb, a dean at Kuwait University. ``The question is how much of the identification is politicized.''
Several Kuwaitis, Shiite and Sunni, predicted that the arrests of the alleged saboteurs would lead to a crackdown on the Shiite community. ``We have been living with our heads in the sand,'' said a Sunni computer expert.``The government has been lenient in the past, and people thought that was good because it would unite all Kuwaitis. But there must be no tolerance now.''
Shiites already feel under suspicion, a Shiite intellectual said. ``I fear a sort of McCarthyism here. The whole situation is depressing, to say the least. I love this country; this is my land. But now the loyalty of all Shiites will be questioned.''
Kuwait has seen terrorist attacks since December 1983, when the United States and French embassies here were bombed. Most of those arrested were expatriates. Two Kuwaiti Shiites also arrested were eventually acquitted. (The release of the remaining 17 prisoners is a key demand of groups holding Western hostages in Lebanon.) The impression was that the security threat was posed by Kuwait's huge expatriate community.
The government's method of coping with the threat was mass deportation. Some 27,000 persons, were deported in 1986. Because they believed that the greatest threat to Kuwait was from outsiders, many Kuwaitis were shocked to learn that all the latest arrests were of Kuwaiti citizens. Of Kuwait's total population of 1.7 million, only 40 percent are Kuwaiti citizens. Kuwaiti citizenship is considered a rare privelege, available only to those who can prove their grandfathers were in Kuwait in 1920, and to a few others. Almost everyone else living here is on a two-year residency permit.
Citizenship holds many benefits. On a per capita basis, Kuwait is the richest nation on earth. Kuwaiti citizens receive free education, medical care, and housing. Most important, to be part of an elite Kuwaiti family is to have access to an economy that has created many billionaires.
In a Sunday editorial, the English-language Arab Times said: ``These people [the alleged saboteurs] have been given Kuwaiti citizenship. Kuwait has been very generous to them, given them the status as its sons.... We would not have been surprised had this come from strangers or infiltrators not loyal to this country and without the honor of nationality.''
``What can the people of Kuwait think of those who have plotted to kill innocent people and damage the economic establishment?'' it asked.
The government released no details about the investigation that led to the arrests. But well-informed Kuwaiti sources said the Jan. 19 bombing of Sea Island, a man-made island used for pumping oil into tankers, gave investigators the break they needed. Investigators checked rosters of workers authorized to be on the island at that time and found one man who had been there, but was not an authorized worker, the sources said. His arrest led to the arrest of others.
The final roundup came Friday, when security forces stormed a house in a middle-class Shiite suburb, sources said. In the ensuing shoot-out, they said, seven officers and eight suspects were hurt.
In attacks last June, six bombs exploded at key oil installations. A Kuwaiti source says Kuwait's daily production fell from 1.6 million barrels to 1 million barrels for six weeks. The damage caused Jan. 19 was much less serious, and was thought to be linked to Iran's threats to disrupt last week's Islamic summit here.