Kuwait and Bahrain

Uzi Rabi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Although Iran and Iraq are the two Middle Eastern states with the largest Shii populations, large numbers of Shiis can also be found in several Gulf states, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With the exception of Bahrain, where the Shiis are a majority, each of these states is governed by a Sunni monarch, who rules over a Shii-minority population. In Bahrain, the Shiis constitute about 70 percent of the country’s citizen population. In Kuwait, roughly 30 percent of the country’s citizens are Shiis, while in the UAE, the Shiis account for roughly 15 percent, and in Qatar for 13 percent of the population.1 Even Oman, which is located in the lower Gulf region, has a small but significant Shii population concentrated near the capital area and along the Sultanate’s Batina coast. Above and beyond the sheer numbers of Shiis in the Gulf states, there is also an important sociocultural dynamic underlying the fabric of sectarian relations in the Gulf. Contemporary Sunni Arab culture in the Gulf maintains a particularly strong legacy of tribal traditions. Although most nomadic and semi-nomadic Sunni tribes of the Arabian Peninsula had become sedentary during the twentieth century, they still maintain a strong tribal identity governed by historical lineage and family genealogy. This tribal identity is imbued with a sense of cultural superiority with respect to the Shii peasants, pearl divers, and fishermen who are considered to belong to inferior, non-tribal populations. Broadly speaking, there is a widespread perception among the Sunni majority that Shiis in the Gulf states are ethnic Persians who retain allegiance to Iran, despite the fact that ethnically, many of the Gulf states’ Shiis are Arabs. The Islamic Revolution in Iran had far-reaching implications for the Arab states of the Gulf, from Kuwait in the north to the Sultanate of Oman in the south. From its inception, the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini represented a threat to the Gulf states by communicating directly with their Shii communities, whose leaders were old acquaintances of the new Islamic government in Iran. The revolution in Iran marked the beginning of an important new era for the traditionally passive and cautious Shiis of the Gulf, influencing their political behavior in various ways, depending on the particular state, its demographics, and local political culture. This chapter will examine more closely Shii politics and militancy in two of the most important Gulf states, Kuwait and Bahrain. Not only do these two countries have the largest Shii populations out of all Gulf countries, but as far as Shii-Sunni relations are concerned, both have stood in the eye of the storm in recent years. Moreover, internal developments in both of these countries have larger geostrategic implications, given long-standing territorial claims over Kuwait and Bahrain by Iraq and Iran, respectively.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMilitancy and Political Violence in Shiism
Subtitle of host publicationTrends and Patterns
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781136663536
ISBN (Print)9780415619929
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2011


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