So much of the West’s focus in the Middle East has lately been on what it is against – Islamic State, an Iranian bomb, and a brutal war in Syria exporting refugees – that it can easily forget what it supports.
An important anniversary might help.
A quarter century ago on Feb. 26, the Gulf state of Kuwait was officially liberated by American-led forces from Iraq’s occupation. The 1991 Gulf War was dubbed a “good war.” But one long-term effect is often overlooked. Kuwait has served as a relatively successful model among Arab states for its level of freedom and democracy. Its 1.2 million citizens are also a showcase for Sunni-Shiite harmony.
More to the point, Kuwait is one place for Arabs to hold a open debate on whether sharia (Islamic law) can be imposed by force and whether secular democratic rule is compatible with Islam. These debates lie at the heart of concerns over Iran, Syria, and the self-declared Islamic State group. In neighboring Persian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, openly debating such issues can land one in jail or result in 50 lashes.
Kuwait’s system of government still has room for improvement. It is deemed “partly free” by the think tank Freedom House. Critics of the royal families are harshly punished and the judiciary is not very independent. Yet it has a parliament elected by popular vote. Women have equal rights. The people have the means to air their grievances in peaceful, legal ways.
While Kuwait is valued as a source of oil – one reason for the Gulf War – it should now be valued more as a counterpoint to the growing authoritarianism and extremist Islamic rule in the region. Last year, it exemplified how Sunni and Shiite can live side by side. After an Islamic State bomb attack killed 27 at a Shiite Muslim mosque, the majority Sunni population rallied to support the Shiite community and restore the mosque.
A few other Arab states can claim similar successes, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. But lying at the heart of the Gulf and so close to Syria, Kuwait deserves more attention. The 25th anniversary of its liberation would be a good excuse.