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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 Though it is – of course – out of date, some of the conclusions drawn are still arguably relevant.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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