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Sunni Islamist Reactions to the Iranian Revolution: The Case of Kuwait

At the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Kuwait was embroiled in its own political crisis. In 1976, the Kuwaiti government unilaterally and unconstitutionally disbanded the country’s legislature, sparking the country’s first major period of unrest since its formal independence from the United Kingdom in 1961. Prime Minister Shaykh Jaber had submitted his resignation to Emir Shaykh Sabah on 29 August 1976, which spurred the dissolution of parliament on the same day—notably without the scheduling of new elections to replace the outgoing legislators, as required by the constitution. The parliament had only been in place for just over one year, having been elected in January 1975. On the same day of the dissolution, the Emir placed restrictions on the press and suspended certain articles of the constitution.

These moves—perceived by some as tyrannical—were not without support in Kuwait. Even some Kuwaitis opposed to the dissolution often felt that the 1975 parliament had gone too far in its repeated criticisms of the government and failed attempts to push through legislation that lacked both popular and executive support. Because political parties are not legally permitted in Kuwait, the country’s political blocs are far more loosely organized than those in most other nations; they can take actions for a variety of reasons, ranging from ideological disputes to personal animosity between legislators. These clashes have at various times made the parliament particularly obstreperous and ineffective. Most critically, during the 1970s, Kuwait’s parliamentary opposition had become linked increasingly to opposition figures in other Arab countries, particularly through transnational links fostered, for instance, as documented by Dr. Talal al-Rashoud, by student groups protesting in solidarity with Palestinians, who at that time were the largest expatriate group in the country.

The government particularly disliked the opposition taking stances that complicated its foreign policy, which was traditionally understood to be the purview of the ruling family. Immediately before its dissolution, parliament had passed a resolution that criticized Syria’s intervention in Lebanon “as a blow to the national and Palestinian movements and called upon the government to stop paying its contribution to Syria as a member of the Confrontation States against Israel.” It further criticized alleged Saudi intervention in Kuwaiti politics, and one group of MPs “went as far as to suggest that alien Arab residents of Kuwait be allowed to acquire Kuwaiti citizenship if they met certain requirements.” Importantly, “[a]ll of these legislative initiatives were considered inappropriate interventions in the very core of the prerogatives of the royal family. Fear was mounting that the opposition, with the help of the alien Arab residents, would be able to create the same instability as was taking place in Lebanon.” Furthermore, the structural weakness of the opposition, hampered by the lack of political parties, meant that these groups were more capable of organizing protests and blocking proposals than of actually putting forward their own policy prescriptions—a criticism that has been lodged toward the Kuwaiti opposition in recent years as well.

In an effort to weaken the opposition, the government passed a press law that allowed newspapers to be suspended for two years if they were perceived to serve “foreign interests” and banning papers from taking foreign advertisements that were not approved. Such measures indicate a long-held fear of the political power of transnational movements not only in Kuwait but across the Arab world—a fear justified in many Arab leaders’ minds by the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Moreover, Kuwait’s leaders regarded the then-ongoing Lebanese Civil War as the natural result of democracy and sectarianism in that country, and fears that Kuwaiti democracy could spur similar divisions contributed to the decision to dissolve the parliament. The increasingly belligerent political opposition worried the leadership to such an extent that a legislature of any type was considered risky.

Kuwaiti Reactions to the Iranian Revolution: The Government

Concerns about regional events affecting Kuwaiti politics appeared well-founded in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran and Saudi zealots led by Juhayman al-Otaybi seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. These developments worried regional leaders about the potential for both Sunni and Shiʿi Islamist political contestation. There was concern about the role of external support for the opposition, and religious opposition was seen as particularly dangerous to the existing political order after the Iranian Revolution. These fears appeared justified when Iranian merchants in Kuwait closed their businesses in February 1979 after Ayatollah Khomeini called for a general strike—illustrating how his authority transcended national borders and igniting fears among Kuwait’s leaders about losing the political loyalty of the country’s Shiʿa minority. Perhaps most concerning to the Kuwaiti government, as Plotkin Boghardt traces, the Kuwaiti public reaction to the overthrow of the Iranian monarch had been “‘joyous’ and ‘supportive.’” To a certain degree, the positive sentiments transcended the political, religious, ethnic and other divisions among Kuwaitis, who generally “admired” and “felt proud” of the Iranian people for their success. This reaction, unsurprisingly, provoked fear in the political leadership.

Against this challenge, Kuwait’s leaders attempted to project strength. In February 1979, the interior minister stated in no uncertain terms that the government would “‘strike with an iron fist anyone trying to undermine security’ in Kuwait.” There was a concerted media effort on behalf of the country’s information ministry, and indeed information ministries across the Arabian Peninsula, to portray the revolution as distinctly Shiʿa in character, and later as solely Iranian, in order to make it less appealing to the predominantly Sunni population of the Gulf. In fall of 1979, the Kuwaiti government put in place legislation to limit the size of public meetings to 20 people and authorized police to attend all public and private gatherings. In addition, a curfew was implemented to stop public processions or demonstrations after sunset, and the government put in place compulsory military service for male citizens over the age of 18. In October 1979, it also approved procedures for a general mobilization of the country’s armed forces, and significantly increased defense expenditures. These actions appear to have been largely successful in heading off unrest; several accounts from members of the Muslim Brotherhood during this period note that, in spite of their hopes, the revolution “quickly metamorphosed into a Shiite phenomenon rather than a more general Islamic one.” One account also notes that during this period, the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood cemented its ties with the Kuwaiti Government and sought to demonstrate its loyalty by reviving Wahhabi and Salafi conceptions of Shias as “improper” Muslims—sacrificing a remote chance at gaining power in exchange for a seat at the table within Kuwait’s existing political order.

Kuwaiti Reactions to the Iranian Revolution: Sunni Islamists

As Helen Rizzo puts it, “[t]he Islamic revivalists became increasingly politicized and powerful in Kuwait after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They were no longer passive organizations.” And indeed, for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Jam‘iat al-Islah al-Ijtima‘i (Social Reform Society, hereafter “Islah”) worked alongside the secular opposition in agitating against the government’s attempts to amend the constitution in a way that would limit parliament’s power. Ultimately, the government gave in to cross-ideological public demands and did not change the constitution in 1980, but the posturing of the Islamists generally and Islah in particular placed them well for the 1981 parliamentary election—the first they chose to contest as a bloc, and also the first elections anywhere in the world in which Salafis participated.

While Kuwait’s Sunni Islamists became more politically active in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, they did not necessarily become increasingly oppositional. According to Dr. Ali Al-Kandari, after the start of the Iran-Iraq War, in which Kuwait officially backed Iraq, Islah

launched a fierce attack against Shias by casting doubts on their loyalty in the aftermath of the explosions carried out by Hizbullah against Kuwaiti and foreign interests and even the Emir himself. Salafis drew upon Wahhabist literature, especially accounts of the early Wahhabist struggles against Shias in 1801, when Saud bin Abdulaziz attacked Karbala and destroyed a number of Shia trends and fads such as the dome constructed over the tomb of al-Hussein bin Ali. The Salafis also employed fatwas issued by Saudi Salafis declaring Shia practices un-Islamic.

Clearly, then, any enthusiasm that Kuwait’s Sunni Islamists may have had for the Iranian Revolution was quelled by concerns about maintaining ties with the government, which during this period had shown itself increasingly hostile to opposition political movements, especially those deemed to have transnational ties. As violence increased in Kuwait throughout the 1980s and as Kuwait sided with Iraq in its war with Iran, the Shias and Iran became welcome scapegoats for Sunni Islamist movements hoping not to be targeted either by the state or by non-state violence.

Kuwaiti Reactions to the Iranian Revolution

Within Kuwait’s Shiʿi minority, the Jamiʿat al-Thaqafa al-Ijtimaʿia (the Cultural and Social Society) had formed in 1968, but became more politically active after 1979. As Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra puts it, the organization, which had “represented the interests of large segments of the Kuwaiti Shiʿi community” after 1979, “came under the influence of pan-Islamic ideology inspired by the Iranian Revolution.” An Iranian cleric and supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, Abbas al-Muhri, and his son were instrumental in connections to Iran; the elder al-Muhri had moved to Kuwait as Khomeini’s official spiritual representative after Kuwaiti Shiʿi merchants had promised to build him his own mosque, the Shaʿban Mosque, which became the meeting place for broader opposition movements. Al-Muhri’s son Ahmed led a march to the Iranian Embassy to support Khomeini’s government after the revolution, which spurred the Kuwaiti Government to deport many Shiʿas who had been born abroad and to arrest those Kuwaitis who had participated. As Wells describes,

Ahmed al-Muhri continued to politicize the Shiʿi cause in Kuwait by organizing weekly conferences at the Shiʿi Shaʿban Mosque in Kuwait City on general issues of citizenship, the program of the stateless, and the 1976 parliamentary shutdown and state retreat to authoritarianism. Due to their basic reformist penchant, al-Murri’s sermons and the so-called ‘Shaʿban Movement’ attracted a crosscutting segment of the opposition, including both Shia quietist Shirazi and activist Daʿwa currents, and the regime’s oldest enemies, Sunni liberals (formerly nationalists), who, inspired by Iran’s Revolution on a purely political level, had recently become more Marxist in nature.

In fact, famed Kuwaiti nationalist leader Ahmed al-Khatib gave a speech at the mosque, which was said to have hurt his support base ahead of the 1981 elections. The regime, understandably concerned about the cooperation between pro-Iranian Shiʿi segments of the population and Sunni Kuwaitis, initially tried to splinter the movement through separate negotiations with Shiʿi notables. However, when this approach failed, the government criminalized meetings in February 1979 and used force to ensure the movement had left the mosque. The regime also arrested al-Muhri and deported 18 members of his family to Iran after revoking their Kuwaiti citizenship.

After the government scuttled the Shaʿban mosque movement in 1979, Kuwait’s Shiʿi community became divided into two main segments: “(a) the politically conservative merchant oligarchy, who generally followed a traditional loyalist political line, and (b) the young middle class ‘revolutionaries’ who called for the overthrow of the conservative Gulf monarchies and their replacement with Islamic republican regimes analogous to the Iranian model.” The Shaʿban mosque movement had managed to unite former Arab nationalists, who had become leftists, and Shiʿi middle class militants into a single group. After the deportation of the al-Muhris, the government turned to expatriates within Kuwait that were believed to be politically active. On 17 January 1980, the director-general of Kuwait’s internal security forces stated that some 18,000 illegal immigrants had been deported over three months, the start of large-scale deportations due to political concerns that continued into the 1980s. In addition to the deportations, as Boghardt notes, “reopening the assembly would help drive a deeper wedge between Kuwaiti citizens and foreign residents, some of the latter of which were key disseminators of revolutionary ideas in Kuwait.” By calling parliamentary elections in 1981, with newly drawn districts designed to increase representation of Sunni tribes and decrease representation of Shias, the Kuwaiti Government hoped to alienate the Iranian Revolution as foreign and therefore irrelevant in the Kuwaiti political sphere.

Kuwait’s response to the Iranian Revolution is an interesting case study of Gulf foreign relations, as it was to a significant extent tempered by domestic political considerations and constraints. Where an alliance did form between Khomeinists and Kuwaitis, it was with former Arab nationalists who had less to lose in terms of a connection to a regime that was increasingly unwilling to tolerate political opposition. Conversely, Islamist movements otherwise sympathetic to the revolution allied with the government in order to avoid losing their existing share of power, ensuring their survival over the long run and evolving the nature of their participation in politics in the decades that followed. The issues raised during that period—notably the issues between the government and the parliament—have remained hotly contested within Kuwait to the present day.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Kuwait

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Dr. Courtney Freer is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University. Previously, Dr. Freer was Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. From 2015-2020, Courtney was a Research Officer for the Kuwait Programme at the LSE Middle East Centre. Her work focuses on the domestic politics of the Gulf states, particularly the roles played by Islamism and tribalism. Her book Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies, based on her DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford and published by Oxford University Press in 2018, examines the socio-political role played by the Muslim Brotherhood groups in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. She previously worked at the Brookings Doha Center and the US–Saudi Arabian Business Council. Courtney holds a BA from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the George Washington University.  


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