The years since the Arab Spring uprisings began in late 2010 have been good to Kuwait’s Salafi Community (Al-Jamaa al-Salafiyya), the country’s oldest and most prominent Salafi group. Following a wave of antigovernment protests beginning in 2011, Kuwait’s ruling Al Sabah family co-opted the Salafi Community as a counterweight to its opposition. Consequently, the Salafi Community has established a strong presence in state institutions while also expanding its transnational linkages. But the relationship between Kuwait’s ruling elite and the Salafi Community is indicative of the frequently complex ties between Arab regimes and Islamist groups, characterized by pragmatic, shifting alliances; the pursuit of a comparative advantage by both sides, particularly in terms of political power or expanded patronage networks; and the concomitant desire of regimes to keep a tight rein on Islamist groups. In Kuwait’s contentious political landscape, the ascendance of the Salafis could quickly turn.

The Salafi Community, more commonly known as the Revival of Heritage (Ihya al-Turath), is named after its transnational charity organization, the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (Jamaiyyat Ihya al-Turath al-Islami), or RIHS. The Salafi Community has participated in Kuwaiti parliamentary politics since 1981, represented in the legislature by its political wing, the Salafi Islamic Gathering (Al-Tajammu al-Salafi al-Islami). While the RIHS and the Salafi Islamic Gathering are officially separate entities, it is an open secret that they are closely interlinked institutional arms of the Salafi Community—in some regions of the country, the Salafi Islamic Gathering’s electoral campaigns are even organized by employees of the RIHS.1

Kuwait’s political order is unique in the Gulf. The country has a multiparty parliamentary system with a powerful legislature and relatively free elections, which provides a wide margin for political opposition. Yet Al Sabah family members still fill the country’s principal political positions. In order to maintain its dominance, the ruling family has long pursued a balancing game to offset or neutralize its adversaries while fragmenting the political landscape to its advantage. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, the government naturalized around 200,000 tribesmen who had not previously possessed citizenship. The tribesmen were expected to vote for the government’s candidates in elections, counterbalancing the mostly urban leftist and Arab nationalist opposition.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Al Sabah family began providing political and financial assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to socially and politically strengthen themselves while again seeking to thwart prominent Arab nationalists. At the same time, the governing elite turned to the nascent Salafi movement to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from dominating Kuwait’s Sunni Islamic scene.2 With institutional and financial backing, the Salafi movement was able to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Social Reform Society, a charity that also served as a political party before 1991. Fahad al-Ahmad Al Sabah, a prominent member of the ruling family, donated funds to enable the Salafis to establish their own charity—the RIHS—providing them with political cover for their activities.3

The Salafi Community was a major beneficiary of the turbulent chain of political events that followed the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. While the protests in Kuwait did not lead to an immediate regime change, they inspired a multifaceted opposition movement that demanded political reform and an end to corruption. This opposition, which brought down the government in November 2011, included tribal groups, Islamists, and liberals. The Muslim Brotherhood severed its previous alliance with the governing elite to join the protests, drawing accusations of being the protests’ main organizer from parliamentarians and opinion makers close to the government.4

In contrast, the Salafi Community’s reading of Islam’s foundational texts argued that revolt against a legitimate Muslim ruler is forbidden. It expressed this view in Friday prayers, religious lectures, newspapers, and on social media. While this won the Salafi Community the favor of the ruling family, the Salafis did not emerge unscathed. The network behind the Salafi Community split into pro-government and pro-opposition camps, and a majority of those opposed to the government—led by the veteran Kuwaiti Salafi politician Khalid Sultan bin Issa—left both the Salafi Islamic Gathering and the RIHS.

Many Kuwaitis also viewed the Salafi Community as unquestioningly supportive of the ruling family, which contributed to its dwindling popularity. In the November 2016 elections, the Salafi Community’s candidates failed to win a single seat in parliament. Despite this setback, the Salafi Community preserved its alliance with the Al Sabah family.

In response to the protests, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah dissolved the opposition-dominated parliament in late 2012, precipitating new elections in early 2013. However, the opposition boycotted these elections, allowing for the formation of a mainly pro-government legislature. The loyalist Salafis were rewarded with prominent positions in state institutions. For example, one of their leading figures, Ali al-Umayr, became the oil minister and then the minister of public works.

However, the Al Sabah family’s main instrument of co-optation was providing the Salafi Community with a dominant role in what is referred to as Kuwait’s Islamic sector (Al-qita al-Islami), which includes state Islamic institutions such as the Zakat House (Beit al-Zakat), the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, and the Kuwait Awqaf Public Foundation (Al-Amana al-Ama li-l Awqaf). Since the 1980s, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood have competed for influence in these institutions, which have typically been dominated by skilled individuals belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood fell out of favor with the governing elite, however, the ruling family’s Salafi supporters were able to increase their authority over this valuable institutional web of religious patronage.

The Zakat House was established in 1982 as an independent governmental body to collect zakat, the Islamic religious tax, and invest it in charitable projects inside and outside Kuwait. The idea for the institution originated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the Zakat House until its director, Abd al-Qadir al-Ajil, retired in 2014. In his place, the government appointed Ibrahim Salih, a member of the Salafi Community. A number of Zakat House employees who had belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood were retired or their contracts were not renewed, and they were replaced by Salafis or unaffiliated government loyalists.

The Salafis’ increased presence in the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs was even more noticeable. Similar to what happened in the Zakat House, Muslim Brotherhood members were pushed out and, in many cases, Salafis close to the Salafi Community took their place. Currently, most department heads and the deputy minister, Farid al-Imadi, are Salafis. As a result, the number of imams affiliated with the Salafi Community has significantly increased. Some Kuwaitis even say a majority of mosques are now controlled by Salafis.

Many Salafis have also received posts in the Kuwait Awqaf Public Foundation, an institution that supervises Islamic endowments (waqf), which are established for specific charity purposes. The Awqaf Public Foundation has a say in who to support and where to carry out activities specified in the founding document of an endowment, so an influential position in the foundation can be especially beneficial in extending one’s network of patronage. However, unlike in the Zakat House and the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Muslim Brotherhood influence remains strong within the Awqaf Public Foundation, despite attempts to curb it.5

The Salafis’ Transnational Charities

In co-opting the Salafi Community, the Al Sabah family gave Salafis the opportunity to expand their networks into other countries. The Salafi Community’s enlarged role in Kuwait’s Islamic institutions increased its access to financial resources for charity projects overseas, and it was able to use such resources to bolster the influence of the RIHS and augment its own power.

This new opening for the RIHS built on three decades during which it had established a presence in more than fifty countries. Beginning in 1987, the charity was active in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, helping refugees who were crossing the Afghan border. Kuwaitis showed a great willingness to donate money to support humanitarian activities, enabling the society to expand worldwide. In addition to helping Muslims affected by conflict, the RIHS proselytized by investing heavily in poverty alleviation, building religious schools and mosques, and sponsoring thousands of preachers.

The Zakat House provides a good example of how, under the new Salafi leadership that took charge of the institution after 2011, the Salafi Community has benefited from state resources for charity purposes. The Zakat House cooperates with Kuwaiti Islamic charities, entrusting them with implementation of relief projects abroad. According to a senior employee of the Zakat House, the share of these projects assigned to the RIHS has increased under the Salafis.6 The employee also noted that foreign Salafis who are ideologically close to the Salafi Community have traveled to Kuwait to meet with officials of the Zakat House, feeling that the new leadership affords them a greater chance of receiving funding than was previously the case.

The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs provides similar powers of religious patronage. Its Foreign Relations Department sponsors the building of Islamic centers overseas and pays for Kuwaiti religious scholars to lecture abroad. More often than before, the beneficiaries of the ministry’s financial support are foreign Salafis with connections to the Salafi Community. As a former ministry employee explained, for someone to stand a good chance of receiving such support, he or she needs to have the backing of the Salafi Community.7

In a further sign of the Salafi Community’s growing influence, its charity now receives more donations from members of Kuwait’s merchant class who are close to the emir, as well as from wealthy members of the ruling family. Affluent Kuwaitis usually make donations to charities by financing specific projects, such as the building of a mosque or a clinic. As a result of today’s close relationship between the Salafi Community and the ruling elite, the RIHS now receives more funds for such projects.

In recent years, Salafis from around the world have been invited to participate in the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs’ annual Islamic conference, the Conference for Reform and Change (Mutamar al-Islah wal-Taghyir). As an employee of the RIHS explained, the conference provides excellent opportunities to meet like-minded Salafis and expand Salafi dawa, or proselytization, into new locations.8 This is how the RIHS successfully established its presence in New Zealand a few years ago.9

Data measuring the international expansion of the Salafi Community’s networks are scarce. Yet the impact can be observed in as unlikely a place as Buddhist-majority Cambodia, where Muslims constitute only 4 to 5 percent of the population.10 Since the fall of the Vietnamese-backed communist regime in 1991, thousands of transnational charities have established themselves in Cambodia. The most active organizations are those from Malaysia and the Gulf. Although only a few of them are Kuwaiti—including the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Social Reform Society and the International Islamic Charity Organization, another charity close to the Brotherhood—the RIHS has become very influential among Cambodian Muslims. The charity established its presence in the mid-1990s and, since then, has built an educational network with a local Muslim nongovernmental organization that includes more than thirty boarding schools in all provinces. One of its major achievements was building a hospital in Kendal Province with several other Kuwaiti charities. It has also launched poverty alleviation projects and sponsored hundreds of preachers across Cambodia.

Since 2013, the RIHS’s Cambodian activities have grown significantly. Due to the society’s increased financial capabilities, it has expanded its system of all-female boarding schools. Until 2016, only one such school existed, in Tboung Khmum Province, with room for 740 female students. Currently, new buildings are being built for 1,100 students at both the elementary and secondary levels. In 2017, the charity opened two more all-female boarding schools in southern Kampot Province, which it began building in 2016.11

While the Kuwaiti government’s co-optation of the Salafi Community might have increased the group’s influence abroad, it has been accused in Kuwait of focusing less on the purity of Islam than on the pursuit of political interests. Only a handful of people today attend the religious lessons of sheikhs close to the group, whereas dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of people attended a few years ago.12 The Salafi Community’s electoral defeat in 2016 was the first time since it began participating in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections that none of its candidates won a seat.

At the same time, the freewheeling context of Kuwaiti politics means the political alliance between the ruling family and the Salafis is likely to end at some point. The Salafi Community could easily fall out of favor if the ruling elite’s interests dictate supporting another group, as happened to the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2011 protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s falling out with the Al Sabah family is also not irreversible. Many people in Kuwait, including individuals from within the state bureaucracy itself, regularly point out that the Salafis do not have enough accomplished cadres to run the Zakat House and the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs with the same efficiency as the Muslim Brotherhood.13 This may push the ruling family to restore ties with the Brotherhood and renew its influence in the Islamic sector. This could lead to the marginalization of the Salafis, due to their already diminished popularity.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Salafi Community’s co-optation by the ruling family is an illustrative example of how Kuwait’s political system works and how Islamist movements engage with it. Due to their support for the ruling family, the Salafis have taken on a prominent role in the state’s Islamic institutions, which has enhanced their sway both inside Kuwait and abroad. However, this relationship, defined by the Islamists’ dependency on state favoritism, has also allowed Kuwait’s rulers to create divisions among Islamist groups, in the same way they divided their nonreligious rivals.

There is also an inherent disadvantage in the Islamists’ relationship with the ruling elite, which has effectively allowed the Al Sabah family to squeeze Islamist groups between two unpalatable outcomes: If they align with the ruling family too closely so as to bolster their religious patronage capacities, their popularity may decline. But if they adopt a position opposing the ruling family, they may be cut off from its favors. The widespread perception that the Salafis are blind followers of the ruling family has already damaged the Salafi Community’s credibility. The Al Sabah family can only gain from this dilemma. By keeping a major center of power in the state off-balance, they maintain their supremacy in Kuwait’s complex political game.

Notes

1 Author interviews with a number of employees of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, Kuwait City, April 13, 2016.

2 Author interview with a veteran Salafi, Kuwait City, February 2, 2016.

3 Author interview with a veteran Salafi, Kuwait City, February 2, 2016.

4 Author interview with a government official, Kuwait City, November 7, 2013.

5 Author interview with a former employee of the Awqaf Public Foundation, Kuwait City, January 14, 2018.

6 Author interview with a former employee of the Zakat House, Kuwait City, May 5, 2016.

7 Author interview with a former employee of the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Kuwait City, January 16, 2018.

8 Author interview with an employee of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, Kuwait City, April 7, 2016.

9 Ibid.

10 The section on Cambodia is based on personal observations by the author in Phnom Penh, Kampot, Tboung Khmum, Battambang, and Kampong Cham Provinces, November 2016, April–May 2017, and July 2017.

11 Personal observation by the author, Kampot Province, Cambodia, May 2017.

12 Personal observation by the author, Kuwait, February 2012–February 2018.

13 Author interviews and informal conversations, Kuwait, January–May 2016 and December 2017–February 2018.