Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Most Arabs Quiver at Shiites, but Not Kuwaitis

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Most Arabs Quiver at Shiites, but Not Kuwaitis

Article excerpt

When Sayed Husain al-Qallaf strode into Kuwait's National Assembly to take up his elected seat not long ago, activity ceased.

Other deputies sized up his brown robes and turban - denoting a Shiite Muslim cleric trained in Iran - then went back to work.

Elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, any rise of Shiite power is feared by majority Sunni Muslims who - like most Western countries - see Shiites as pro-Iran and bent on creating Islamic states. But in Kuwait, which boasts one of the region's most open and relatively democratic societies, Shiite leaders have been co-opted into the political system. Kuwait's example may prove a useful model for other Gulf states - especially in this oil-rich region, where internal threats can take on global significance. The split between Sunnis and Shiites is as old as Islam itself. But the divide sharpened after Iran's 1979 revolution, when the late Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeni ousted a pro-West monarchy and vowed to "export" the revolution. Since then, other Gulf rulers have remained anxious about their own Shiites. But Kuwaiti Shiites - who deny any political connection to Iran - have proved loyal. In October voting, the Islamist opposition won nearly 40 percent of parliament seats. (Only 15 percent of Kuwaitis - and no women - can vote.) "The fears that were in the minds of some vanished when I started to work," says the bearded Sheikh Qallaf. Like many Shiite politicians, he is a member of the opposition. Shiites comprise 30 percent of Kuwaitis. Some other Shiite politicians are wealthy supporters of Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah family. Kuwait stands in contrast to Bahrain, where a Shiite majority with few political rights has turned to violence against the government. In Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, some Shiites agitate against the leadership and may have aided in the June 19 Khobar bombing that killed 19 Americans. Both states accuse Iran of influencing their Shiites. But in Kuwait, "The royal family has been very smart," says one professional. "The Shiites have businesses and influence.... We have money, so everybody is happy." But there is a risk that such openness could undermine the regime. …

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