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Kuwait needs ‘truth and reconciliation’ 12, November 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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I wrote the following article almost a year ago for a blog which has since disappeared. Though it is – of course – out of date, some of the conclusions drawn are still arguably relevant.

On the 4th December 2011, Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah was appointed Kuwait’s new Prime Minister (PM). He took over from the perennially beleaguered Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah, the former PM who has been the focus of opposition ire almost since taking office in 2006. However, those hoping that this could act as fresh start were to be disappointed when only two days later on 6th December the Emir dissolved Parliament for the seventh time in Kuwaiti history. The Emir must now call for new elections within 60 days unless he is to rule unconstitutionally, as his predecessors did in 1976 and 1986.

Even by Kuwait’s rambunctious standards, its Parliamentary life has been unusually vociferous in recent years. In the face of entrenched, powerful and at times bitter opposition, former PM Nasser Al Sabah had to form seven new cabinets during his tenure and face three votes of no confidence. This anger peaked on 14th November when protestors who had set up camp outside the Parliament stormed the building, entered the debating chamber, sang the national anthem and departed.

Three systemic problems lie at the heart of this profound intransigence.

First, one of the key concerns galvanising support is Kuwait’s long and illustrious history corruption. The Prime Minister was accused of corruption when in November 2009 an MP brandished a personal cheque of his for $700,000 destined for another MP. More recently, in August this year a transaction involving $92 million was being investigated and by September sixteen MPs were being investigated in a cash-for-votes scandal totalling $350 million.

Second, Kuwait’s Parliament has few positive powers. It does not have a say in forming the majority of the Cabinet and thus frequently feels little compunction to cooperate with it. When bills do not get passed and laws become interrupted, the Parliament feels no responsibility or significant burden to compromise and reach an accommodation. Instead, their main tool is the interpolation (or the ‘grilling’ as it is sensationally known in Kuwait); the ability to question MPs as well as the PM and, with a quorum, to call for a vote of no confidence. Typically a standard Parliamentary tool, in Kuwait this has been used irresponsibly by a number of MPs pursuing fringe issues or those wanting to force Parliament’s dismissal.

Third, in 2006 Sabah Al Sabah ascended to the throne. He took over after the previous Emir was in power for only 9 days, such was the level of his incapacity. Typically the Kuwaiti leadership alternated between two sides of the Al Sabah family: the Salem and the Jaber. To all intents and purposes, therefore, aside from the 9 day reign of Saad Al Salem Al Sabah, leadership skipped straight from one Jaber Emir (Jaber Al Jaber Al Sabah: r.1977-2006) to the current Jaber Emir, Sabah Al Sabah. Though high level political machinations typically go on behind the scenes, it is thought that the latent anger in non-Jaber sides of the Al Sabah household is significant and that ‘disenfranchised’ Al Sabahs have been agitating against Sabah by stirring up trouble in the Parliament.

Clearly, there is no short or easy answer to Kuwait’s problems. Frankly, Kuwait needs a truth and reconciliation commission to air the grievances in public, for admissions of guilt to be offered, reparations to be made and for a cathartic process to take place for Kuwaiti society and government after which a new tenor can set in. Barring such an impossible eventuality, the best option is for a few corrupt sacrificial lambs to be offered up for slaughter on the altar of the public’s desire for vengeance.

Aside from such scapegoating, for a more holistic solution to take effect movement is not only required from the Parliament and the elite but painful concessions would be needed from Kuwaiti citizens too. No longer must they demand jobs for life in the public sector; guaranteed and often staggering year-on-year pay increases; sporadic personal debt bail outs; frequent hand-outs from the government or guarantees of no taxes or household bills. Such policies not only hamper private enterprise in Kuwait and maintain an insidious culture of state-dependency, but are, in the longer term, wholly unsustainable.

It is, however, difficult to see either Kuwait’s citizens magnanimously acquiescing to such a change in the basic ruling bargain or the elite sacrificing one of its own to satisfy the mob.

Instead, Kuwait will doubtless muddle along, lurching from disrputionist Parliament via quiescent (i.e. bought off) Parliament to disruptionist Parliament. Slowly but surely Sabah Al Sabah’s considerable respect and untouchable status will erode as he staunchly defends the status quo corrupti. Concurrently, the protestors will test and push the limits, the authorities will lash back sporadically while Kuwait’s economy will be ever more needful for the promised but held up stimulus, privatisation and investment packages, as the public sector inexorably grows, leeching away perniciously at the state.

This briefly sketched scenario is scarcely controversial or pie in the sky; indeed, it is basically the template of the past five years of Kuwait’s history. It will need an intelligent, persuasive figure to lead the necessary changes in the elite, the Parliament and the people if Kuwait is not to be doomed to repeat its failures for years to come.

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Qatar is not Bahrain or Kuwait 8, November 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar.
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The following article appeared on Dohanews.co last week

While media outlets find it convenient and practical to generalize when it comes to reporting on “The Gulf” or the now 24-month-long “Arab Spring,” these terms can be problematic as they simplify complex issues.

For example, take the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. On the surface, these countries have many similarities in terms of tribal structure, intermingling of families, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic and political systems.

But the differences between the nations, and even in cities within one country, are stark. Riyadh and Jeddah – let alone in comparison to somewhere like Muscat – are poles apart and – to engage in a different sort of generalization – Kuwaitis are far more politically garrulous than their Qatari cousins.

So, will the similarities mean that the Arab Spring will sweep across all Gulf States, or will some difference impede its passage? Let’s take a case-by-case approach.

Kuwait

Kuwait has relatively a long, mercantile history. One author even dubbed Kuwait “the Marseilles of the Gulf” – such was the port-city-melting-pot nature of the place. This helped give rise to a rich and relatively independent merchant elite that exists alongside the ruling Al Sabah family.

This dynamic in which the ruling family must contend with other powerful players has set the feisty tone of politics in Kuwait. In contrast, Doha was never as cosmopolitan or as prosperous a city and consequently no merchant class could develop independent of Al Thani power. This meant that politics was, as it remains today, dominated by the Al Thani family.

Today the merchant families in Kuwait have mostly “joined sides” with the Al Sabah against those dubbed “the opposition.” Much of the opposition are referred to as tribal and Islamist in nature and were enfranchised later on in the 20th century when the Al Sabah needed more support. Initially they were grateful to the Al Sabah for giving them a passport and supported them in Parliament.

More recently, however, they have realised that they are in the majority in Kuwait and now feel that they deserve more power. In the ( annulled) previous election, they won 34 of the 50 seats, demanded nine Cabinet posts (of sixteen), were offered three and took none.

The battle lines are thus set broadly between the older, established, richer elites and the “younger” interlopers looking to get their share and upset the status quo.

Bahrain

While there has historically been tension of varying degrees between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain, the key dividing line was largely a socio-economic one. Though there was certainly a correlation between Sunni and Shia in terms of greater opportunities for Sunni Bahrainis, the tension was typically not manifest in an overtly sectarian way.

The Arab Spring changed that entirely. To some degree this was a state-sanctioned ploy to specifically and overtly use the sectarian angle as an effective way of corralling support against the uprisings in Bahrain. Though they may have been successful in halting any significant changes, this came at a terrible cost not only in terms of deaths and arrests but in terms of profoundly polarizing Bahraini society.

Qatar

Qatar possesses none of these key dynamics. It has neither a highly active public, political debating culture; latent sectarian concerns; nor deep and widespread socio-economic disparities among citizens. Moreover, it has a tiny indigenous population and prodigious riches to shower upon them.

Yet Qatar’s stability is not obtained through this alone, for its leadership has been putting Qatar on the international map in largely positive ways for over a decade now. This has changed the international perception of Qatar from having no reputation whatsoever – or being “known for being unknown” – to now being known for its mediation, Al Jazeera, sporting initiatives and supporting various factions in the Arab Spring. Overall, I believe that most Qataris are – if anything – pleased with this burgeoning reputation.

Just like every other state on Earth, Qatar does have its problems and its population has its grumbles. The pace of change and apparent “Westernisation”concerns some, while others want more transparency and a say in how the country is run.

By virtue of its proximity and its fraternal ties, Qatar will remain deeply concerned and interested in what transpires as its fellow GCC States wrestle with the Arab Spring. But barring a black swan event or a sea-change in attitudes, Qatar will remain as insulated as ever from the Spring.

Read more: http://dohanews.co/post/34966683468/guest-post-why-qatar-is-not-bahrain-or-kuwait#ixzz2BdVgYPGD