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What’s the point of Kuwait? 1, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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…was the title of an article by Mshari Al Zaydi of Saudi’s ‘Al Sharq Al Awsat. It is an interesting piece which discusses the Shia Sunni divide in modern Kuwait. This debate was recently sparked off when two Shia Kuwaiti MPs eulogised Imad Mughniyeh after his death in Damascus last month. This, somewhat unsurprisingly, caused an uproar in Kuwait and led to calls for them to be removed from parliament, jailed, exiled and so on.

However, I didn’t find the article especially interesting from that perspective, but because of the way that it discussed Kuwait’s role or raison d’etre in comparison with Saudi Arabia. Al Zaydi quotes a probably apocryphal story where a man who is tired of the morning prayers leaves Saudi Arabia and goes to Kuwait believing that he will not have to perform them there. To his disappointment he is awoken for the morning prayers in Kuwait the very next morning, to which he is supposed to have said ‘what’s the point of Kuwait?’

How general a feeling this is I can not say, but I find it interesting that from this point of view Kuwait is seen as a miniature but less strict Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is, of course, something of a paradox. It has one of the most progressive parliaments in the region with female representation, and female voting all correct and present. Yet, it is one of the few countries that bans alcohol entirely and they even have specific x-ray machines at the airports to catch those trying to smuggle it back into the country. But their paradoxical stance is apparent here as well, as if they find a bottle of Bombay Sapphire in your bag (or indeed nominally pork hot dogs) all they do is shrug their shoulders, put it under their counter and sell it on to you at a later date at an eye-wateringly expensive mark up. Kuwaitis are also a relatively cosmopolitan bunch and go travelling abroad a lot. The road thorough Saudi to Bahrain is, to say the least, well worn. And why are they going there? Like the Saudis who flood there in absurd numbers across the King Fahd Causeway every weekend, neither group are going there repeatedly for the nice views or to see cultural artefacts. 

But, as Al Zaydi points out, Kuwait was supposed to be, and indeed believed to be “a scene that was a model for the Gulf and was admired and appreciated by the people of the Gulf owing to the tolerance and development that it demonstrated.” Therefore, with the Shia Sunni tensions that this recent Mughniyeh episode has revealed, what is the point of Kuwait, if not to act as an antidote to such primitive urges?

However, I do not think that the picture is quite as grim as Al Zaydi paints it. I do not forsee Kuwait’s demise, having been riven in two by ancient tribal hatreds in any way, shape or form. Why? Simply because they have so much money in Kuwait. They are, overall, too busy counting the cash, buying Humvees, shopping in Marina Mall, holidaying in Cairo, Bahrain, and London, and eating out at TGI’s to have the time or indeed crass stupidity to mess things up when they are going so well at present.

The point of Kuwait at the moment is, therefore, to brazenly and boldly show how compatible Western and Arab culture can be. Kuwait is a country littered, imbued and infested with Americana, which the population have thoroughly taken to. Nevertheless, they have kept some of the more austere elements of Islam, such as the prohibition of alcohol. Of course, there are, from time to time, examples of hostility between these groups, such as the closing of the Virgin Megastore for a few days for carrying some quasi-salacious magazine. Yet, owing to no small degree to its epic windfall, Kuwait is a success and a model to be followed if at all possible.


The Arab ideological straightjacket 1, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Lebanon, Middle East.
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Professor Barry Rubin at the Global Research Center for International Affairs (GLORIA), the people who manage, edit and produce the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), wrote an interesting and insightful argument about the blanket ideological straightjacket that pervades the Middle East. He, somewhat unfortunately, dubs this the Arab Ideological Doctrine Syndrome: AIDS. This is used to describe a general state of mind and policy whereby fighting Israel or America is the ultimate way to gain acceptance and righteousness. It doesn’t matter how you pursue this; if you are successful, what the repercussions of this are, or how badly this affects your country, people or friends – to fight Israel and America is to be immune to criticism and to be a saint. As Rubin eloquently puts it:

 You can lose the war (like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser), wreck your own country (like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein), be a dictator (like Syria’s Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad), lead your people into catastrophe (like Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat), and be extraordinarily corrupt (like…everybody) but it doesn’t matter as long as you fight Israel and the West.

Obviously, there are people who do not abide by such an ideology, who do not fight Israel or America. They are, therefore, by default and definition, pejoratively described as pro-US, appeasers, spies for the West, or moderates – and in this case, to be called a moderate is certainly a bad thing. Rubin uses the example of Lebanese cabinet minister Marwan Hamada. He was interviewed by Press TV, the Iranian news channel, where he defended himself from being accused of being a Western spy, the default position for anyone in the Lebanese government who is not out rightly supporting Hezbollah and castigating America or Israel as the devil incumbent.

He refuted the claim that he was a Western spy and simply maintained that he was a Lebanese patriot. Usually, as Rubin points out, such a line would be a sure-fire popular vote winner of a line. To be a patriot, to put your country’s interests first and foremost, to do all you can to ensure its viability, strength and security against all enemies is ordinarily the simple way to acquire legitimacy and respect. But not in the Middle East. Because Hamada puts his country first and above all else (unlike many of the actors in Lebanon) this means that he does not want to pitch Lebanon into the control of either Iran or Syria, allow Lebanon to be changed into an authoritarian Islamist state, or be “dragged into an unnecessary, damaging, unwinnable war with Israel.” All of which helps to explain why he was nearly assassinated a couple of years ago – he has no shortage of enemies.

Whilst Hamada may well be no saint himself, it is surely clear that he is one of many actors around the Middle East who try to eschew the typically damaging, retrograde but populist policies of attacking the common enemy. Rubin concludes by saying that this broad ideological outlook which makes enemies of moderates is the very reason why “peace, moderation, and pragmatism still cannot win there.” This is an unfortunately plausible and seemingly just conclusion. Perhaps the only hope is that the average ‘Arab on the street’ is able to distinguish between the seductive and the pragmatic policies as offered by politicians and people with power.