How Kuwait came to be such a major regional player in the financing of radical rebels in Syria is the subject of a recent interview with Elizabeth Dickens of the Brookings Institute conducted by Syria Deeply, a website run by journalists. Dickens chalks Kuwait’s ascendance as a financier up to:
- Lax regulation (ie, the failure of Kuwait to criminalize terrorist financing until recently)
- Business ties between Kuwait and Syria
- Numerous, experienced NGOs operate in Kuwait
Here’s an excerpt of the interview, with thanks to Arye Leonid Glozman for sending over a link:
Syria Deeply: Why has Kuwait emerged as a financing and organizational hub for charities and individuals supporting Syria’s rebel groups?
Elizabeth Dickinson: It’s a perfect storm. Kuwait has all the things that one would need to set up such a financing hub. The most important thing it has, or that it had until very recently, was extremely lax regulation. So after Sept. 11, most of the Gulf states had these really strict counterterrorism financing laws that gave them the ability to stop any suspicious transactions very swiftly, and they were cooperating with Western intelligence to build their capacity to find any suspicious transactions in the banking system.
Kuwait, however, did not do that, and its counterterror financing law basically said nothing about terrorist financing being illegal. And its central bank just didn’t have any investigative capacity – so even if they did want to stop something from going on, they wouldn’t really have the ability to investigate and figure out how to stop it.
Factor number two is extremely deep ties between Kuwait and Syria. Before the conflict started, Kuwaiti investors were among the single largest direct foreign investor in Syria, so there’s a lot of really longstanding business ties. You have a lot of Kuwaitis with homes and businesses in Syria, with Syrian wives. So there’s a really close personal connection there. There’s also 120,000 Syrian expats in Kuwait, which is a lot considering the population of Kuwait is only 3 million people.
Then you have all the factors that have made the Gulf a hub for financing – you have a lot of money, and a lot of people who are personally affected by what’s going on in Syria. I’ve had lots of people start crying in meetings there. They had the willpower to start getting involved.
The last part of this perfect storm is that Kuwait has the longest history in the Gulf of charitable and humanitarian work. Because of its relatively open political system, people living in Kuwait are allowed to start NGOs, there are private charities that are private, not semi-state organizations like they would be in Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaitis have a lot of experience doing project finance, going into a country and building mosques, wells and schools. The infrastructure of charitable giving is really strong there, and it has allowed a lot of people with expertise to move into sectors of aid that are more geared towards the military side.
There’s a lot of overlap – sheikhs will do a fundraiser for the mujahideen and their weapons … and hospitals.
Kuwait’s ability to be a hub was recognized early in the conflict by other Gulf citizens who were interested in getting financially involved in Syria. If I’m a Saudi and I want to give money to the rebels in Syria, I’m probably aware that my government is not going to look favorably upon that, so individuals elsewhere in the Gulf rely on bundlers in Kuwait to accept their donations on their behalf, and then the donations go from Kuwait to Syria, rather than directly from Saudi to Syria.
SD: What’s the breakdown of where the money from Kuwait is going?
ED: We have rough ideas of how much it is and where it’s going. Among the pro-rebel groups, the vast majority of the money is going to groups that are in the Islamic Front, like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. There’s evidence that funds are going to Jabhat al-Nusra…