By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: Nineteen thousand kilos of bullets. One hundred and forty-four kilos of explosives. Sixty-eight arms and two hundred and four grenades. This is the arsenal that was discovered in a farm and at two other locations in late summer 2015. The owners of the properties were arrested. In the end, 26 Kuwaitis, and one Iranian were charged with conspiring to destabilize Kuwait. They were charged with buying, transporting and storing weapons and explosives. Some were accused of receiving training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Thus began the saga of the so-called “Abdali” cell and the largest cache of weapons ever confiscated on Kuwaiti soil.
At first the government did not specify who the ‘terror cell’ belonged to and the case has been clouded by the umbrella of ‘national security’ as such cases are. But leaks prevailed throughout the case. Early on newspapers Al Anbaa and Al Seyassah cited sources linking the cell to Hezbollah and Iran. Its primary suspect is an Iranian diplomat Abdulreza Haidar Dahqani. He was working at his country’s embassy in Kuwait at the time of the discovery. He and some suspects escaped (apparently by speedboat to Iran), some were caught, escaped again and were then subsequently caught. In August of 2017 twelve suspects were arrested.
Kuwait expelled 15 diplomats over the crisis. News stories have ramped up the rhetoric of the situation, and the ongoing Qatar crisis, which tangentially is related to the whole affair, doesn’t help relations. The GCC states, including Qatar, backed the Kuwaiti steps.
Iran has denied any involvement, although I am not sure any country would admit to such interference. The Iranian embassy issued a rare statement expressing “deep dissatisfaction with the association of the name of Iran” with the case. Kuwait’s official memo of protest to the Lebanese government over Hezbollah’s involvement led to a rare televised appearance the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, denying that the Lebanese militia and political party had any operations in Kuwait. He stated that, Hezbollah “did not form cells in Kuwait and it does not have any cells or members there” and stressed that Lebanon has “great keenness on having the best ties” with Kuwait. Lebanon has much to lose in a boycott by Kuwait and other GCC states, which are an important market for their goods and an important source of tourism revenue.
Yet, it’s important (I think) to put these situations in context. This is not the first (or the last time) that Kuwait and Iran’s diplomatic relations have or will go stale. For much of the last forty-eight years the Iranian embassy in Da’iya has been closed behind its tall fences in the Diplomatic zone.
During the 1980s Kuwait witnessed dozens of security threats, including the bombing of the French and US embassies, the Kuwait airport, the hijacking of a Kuwait Airways flight, and an assassination attempt against the previous Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Iran and Kuwait’s relations were in deep freeze. Diplomatic ties warmed after 1991. Iran supported Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion, something that changed the previous antagonism significantly. Shia groups once considered a threat to Kuwaiti national security were also brought into the political and social fold, reducing domestic tensions and making Kuwait by far the most balanced society in the Gulf in terms of sectarian unity.
It was only after 2010 that relations declined again. Another spy cell was caught, with seven arrested (including two Iranian citizens) on espionage charges. Not long afterwards a number of Iranian diplomats were expelled.
In the meantime, attempts at repairing the relationship continue. The Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed, visited Tehran in June 2014 in a rare foreign visit. In February of next year, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a visit to Kuwait. But the situation remains tense, and there have been numerous setbacks, including the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in January 2016. This will continue for the foreseeable future until a lasting and comprehensive piece is made between all members of the Gulf, both Persian and Arab.
So has the Abdali case heightened sectarian tensions? I would argue yes as others have. Abdullah Bishara, the former secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has argued that “Iranian politics, Hezbollah politics, have played a role in the agitation of differences in Kuwait…Abdali sharpened differences” even further. For the domestic audience this affair compounds previous grievances that are long-standing on both sides.
But relatives of the detained ‘terrorists” have claimed they are unwitting victims. Some claimed the weapons were for self-defence, that they were old the remnants of the local resistance movement during the 1990 Occupation. Yet the size of the arsenal, as Sheikh Thamer al-Sabah of the National Security Bureau noted, is far larger than is necessary for self-defence.
If we look at this crisis another way we can perhaps remove some of the sectarian edge to the Abdali affair. Since 1990 Kuwait has had a serious firearms problem. The fleeing Iraqi forces left many weapons in the country after they left, and until relatively recently many Kuwaitis had automatic rifles and other paraphernalia from the Occupation stored away in attics and other hiding places. Kuwait has approximately 630,000 licensed and unlicensed guns making country the 18th highest gun per person state in the world.
Kuwait’s gun laws have become harsher over the years to combat unlicensed firearms and ammunition to curb these lasting impacts of the Gulf War. Under a controversial law passed in 2015, citizens homes can be searched for unlicensed firearms if there is a reasonable suspicion that there are weapons. Citizens were given a four-month grace period to hand over weapons (3,250 guns and 8 tons of ammunition were retrieved). This is a significant amount. From 2010 to 2012 only 41 firearms were taken, and in 2013 a mere 84. Although gun crime is rare (there have been occasional exceptions), the major concern has always been terrorism or accidental death (usually at weddings).
While there is a sectarian dynamic to these arrests, and there definitely is to some extent, there is also a clear law and order component to this case that has nothing to do with religious or ideological affiliation. Recently firearms and explosives were taken from Sunni militants planning attacks in the country and the crackdown against fire-arms in areas dominated by tribes or other ideological groups has been just as vigorous in the last several years. In general, the Kuwaiti government has cracked down on all groups and individuals with firearms and other weapons, and to their credit, there have been very few acts of violence in the country, rare in a region where violent acts are committed on an hourly basis in the name of God or other beliefs that have no real justice and only create hatred and more violence. At the end of the day, these weapons are gone, and that is a best place for them to be.
*Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto in Canada. He studies Kuwaiti politics, focusing on the historical development of social and political power in the cooperative societies since the 1940s. Geoffrey is also a freelance write for Zenith Magazine in Germany and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.