At a traditional evening meeting known as a “diwaniya”, Kuwaiti men drop banknotes into a box, opening a campaign to arm up to 12,000 anti-government fighters in Syria. A new Mercedes is parked outside to be auctioned off for cash.
They are Sunni Muslim and mainly Islamist like many Syrian rebels who have been trying for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is a branch of Shia Islam.
Syria’s war has widened a faultline in the Middle East, with Shia Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah backing Assad and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations supporting his opponents.
“The world has abandoned the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution so it is normal that people start to give money to people who are fighting,” said Falah al-Sawagh, a former opposition member of Kuwait’s parliament, surrounded by friends drinking sweet tea and eating cakes.
In just four hours the campaign collected 80,000 dinars ($282,500). The box moves to a new house each day for a week. Sawagh estimates this type of campaign in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries per capita, raised several million dollars during the last Ramadan religious holiday.
Sunni-ruled Kuwait has denounced the Syrian army’s actions and sent $300m in humanitarian aid to help the millions displaced by the conflict in which more than 90,000 have died.
Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kuwaiti government policy is against arming the rebels. But the US ally allows more public debate than other Gulf states and has tolerated campaigns in private houses or on social media that are difficult to control.
Kuwaiti authorities are nevertheless worried that the fundraising for Syria could stir sectarian tensions – Kuwait has its own Shia minority. The West is concerned that support will bolster al-Qaeda militants among the rebels.
Some opposition Islamist politicians and Sunni clerics have openly campaigned to arm rebel fighters, using social media and posters with telephone hotlines in public places. Former MP Waleed al-Tabtabie, a conservative Salafi Islamist, posted pictures of himself on Twitter clad in combat gear in Syria.
“There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah said when asked about the Reuters report.
Official Kuwaiti fundraising for humanitarian aid goes through United Nations channels, he said, at a news conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
As for unofficial fundraising, he emphasised that any collection of funds requires a special permit to make sure the money “is going to the right side or to the right party.”
Kuwait’s minister for cabinet affairs, Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, said what was happening in Syria was “heart-wrenching” and understood why Kuwaitis wanted to help.
“What is happening in Syria just inflames the emotions on both sides. That’s why we are trying to steer a middle ground.”
Syria is blocked from international bank transfers from Kuwait because of sanctions, so former MP Sawagh visited the Syrian town of Aleppo last month with cash in his luggage for rebel fighters. He did not say how much he took.
Sawagh and others in his campaign also travel to Turkey and Jordan to hand over money to intermediaries.
Washington is worried the money may help strengthen fighters with links to al-Qaeda who are hostile not just to Assad but also to the United States and US-allied Gulf ruling families.
It wants Western and Arab allies to direct all aid to Syrian rebels through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.