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Kuwait Book Fair bans books 21, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait has banned 35 books from its Book Fair including What Life Taught Me? by Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal and the best selling The Yacoubian Building. Many of the books are widely available across the Middle East and none of them, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, refer at all to Kuwaiti society.

The Fair is held under the auspices of the Kuwaiti National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters and is one of a host of similar fairs across the Middle East. One of the key issues in Kuwait is that, arguably like in Saudi (though of course to a lesser degree), these kinds of educational-cum-social events and organizations are often under the purview, either by design or by force of personality, of somewhat dogmatic and even extreme religiously motivated MPs. When an MP decries that book x is licentious and haram, it becomes near impossible for another MP to defend it, lest s/he is castigated as promoting some ungodly activities in pure, untainted and Muslim Kuwait.

I’ve written on Kuwaiti book censorship before here.

Update:

The 2010 Arab Booker Prize winner Abdo Khal has announced that he will boycott the Kuwait Book Fair because of their decision to ban certain books.

Kuwait introduce female police 9, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait is a country of many apparent contradictions. At times it appears to be extremely conservative, for example, although relatively freely available, alcohol is banned. Yet a brief wander around Kuwait’s malls shows women unapologetically not covering their hair and even – gasp – wearing tight-fitting clothing.

These contradictions sometimes cause difficulties. When, a few years ago, Kuwait decided to change to the more internationally accepted Friday-Saturday (as opposed to their Thursday-Friday) weekend, to read some op-eds at the time was to think that the apocalypse was imminent, such was the uproar. [Indeed, one columnist and MP was aghast that they would be following the Zionist State.]

Kuwait did not always have this split-personality. Back in the 1970s (and before) Kuwait was relatively liberal. Indeed, my old headteacher frequently remarked that when she arrived in Kuwait it was perfectly acceptable for women to wear (what would today be considered to be) obscenely short skirts.

The growth of Islamists over time slowly but surely robbed Kuwait of these socially liberal policies. In 1983 they gained sufficient power in Parliament to have alcohol banned. Until America and the international coalition rescued Kuwait from being relegated to an Iraqi sub-province in 1991, Kuwait did not have especially close relations with the West. From then on, however, the exigencies of security overcame whatever cultural desires prevented closer contact previously. Indeed, for much of the 2000s, up to 60% of Kuwait was given over to the US military for its use.

It is also interesting to note that the 1991 invasion was something of a watershed event for women. Just like women in the UK in the aftermath of the First World War, women proved that they were indeed ‘useful’. The few Kuwaiti men that stayed behind found it difficult to move freely in occupied Kuwait. Women, however, could move around with relative freedom; hence, their subsequently improved status. Still, despite frequent attempts to politically emancipate women, it was not until 2005 that they got the vote.

Today, Kuwait is – like many countries – split in two with traditionalists versus modernizers. This can be frequently seen in Kuwait’s rambunctiously populist Parliament where Islamists have used their powers in recent years to bring Kuwait to a proverbial halt over their desires to stop changes in their society.

Predictably, therefore, the introduction of female police in July this year caused something of a panic for the Islamists. One MP, Mohammed Hayef, vociferously spluttered that this was

an abuse to the female identity, a violation of Islamic ethics and a blind imitation of western and westernised countries. There will be dire consequences if the minister fails to correct his mistake.

Indeed! Whatever next? Male-female equality! Clearly – again – the end is nigh for Kuwait.

The interesting article in The National also mentioned that initially policewomen had problems with arrogant, cheeky youths in Kuwait’s malls. After dishing out verbal abuse groups of boys were taken to the police station and – shock, horror – had their preciously styled, gelled and coiffured hair shaved off. What a fantastic punishment.

So far it appears that the women are only allowed to patrol the malls, the airport and other female-only areas. Still, one step at a time.

Ramadan’s excesses 6, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Islam, Kuwait, Qatar.
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After living in Kuwait I confess that I was left with a slightly sour taste during Ramadan. As far as I understand things – please correct me if I am incorrect – Ramadan is a time of reflection and a time to think of those who are less fortunate that yourself. This is primarily why people fast; to foster a feeling of hungry empathy, so to speak.

Therefore, to binge on food at a gloriously laid out opulent banquet every evening (countless such examples can be found across the City) seems, to me, to miss the point.

Figures from Qatar reinforce the point. Apparently, food consumption increases three times during the month with small families (5 people) spending on average £2700 on feasts.

Dutifully not eating and drinking with the full knowledge that there’s a whopping meal in x hours doesn’t seem to be overly pious to me.

Kuwaiti MP wants subsidy for second wife 25, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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In a country with subsidies for gas, electricity, water, medical care, fuel, food, loans, education and housing where the state guarantees jobs in the bloated public sector where wages have gone up 22% per year since 2000, one might think that there are no other possible benefits that a Kuwaitis could bleat for. However, one would be wrong. A Kuwaiti MP has put a proposal in front of Parliament for Government subsidies for men to get a second wife.

This proposal, which is designed to reduce the “problem” of the number of unmarried women would be  – presumably – in addition to the $14,000 that men get for marrying in the first place.

What’s next? Subsidies for having sex?

Saudi nails maid as punishment 25, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia.
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Reports have emerged of a Sri Lanken maid in Saudi Arabia whose employers hammered 23 nails into her body as punishment for not doing enough work. Not too much else to say about that particular story, really.

Whilst this example is particularly extreme, the torture and abuse of maids and other domestic servants is a thoroughly endemic problem in many Gulf States. As I have said before, pick up a Kuwaiti newspaper are you are guaranteed to find examples of Maids running away from their employers brutality or clippings of maids having killed themselves.

When I returned to Kuwait in August 2009, the first newspaper I saw had three such stories. The first maid killed her self by jumping off a balcony. The second maid killed herself by swallowing bleach. The third maid attempted to kill herself by taking a massive drug overdose.

I think it’s worth repeating: these stories are daily occurrences in Kuwait and, I suspect, Saudi Arabia.

Just try to imagine for a second just how atrocious her life must have been where swallowing bleach seemed to be the better option.

Kuwaitis trying to reestablish links to the past 15, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Every summer since 1986 groups of young Kuwaitis have returned to the pearling beds for 10 days that were a mainstay of their country for more than a century. They dive looking for pearls in an effort to retain a link to their past. From the late 18th to the early 20th century pearling was one of the key drivers of the Kuwaiti economy. At its height it employed over half of all Kuwaitis and affected every aspect of life.

The introduction of the cultured pearl in Japan and the great depression in the 1920s and 1930s decimated this trade across the Gulf. Though other Gulf countries like Qatar suffered far worse, Kuwait too was adversely affected. The discovery of oil in 1934, whilst a sign of things to come did not actually help for the Second World War intervened. Oil was finally exported from Kuwait in 1946.

From then on Kuwait never looked back. The welfare state was rolled out from the 1950s onwards and the majority of Kuwaitis soon began working in the public sector which became more and more bloated and distended as the century progressed. Life for Kuwaitis became easy as they became richer and richer. Any links to the hard work of their past was lost.

The massive benefits that oil has brought Kuwait has also fostered concerns in older Kuwaitis. They fear younger generation growing up in AC and – essentially – luxury know neither about their past nor notions of ‘hard work’. Bluntly speaking, there is no real need for a Kuwaiti child to work hard in school. No matter what his qualification (or lack thereof) he will get a well paid job in some Ministry or other along with a whole raft of other subsidies. This is the modern Kuwaiti way. Whilst, of course, many Kuwaitis work diligently in school and progress to University, nevertheless, there is a pervasive fear or concern in Kuwait that a whole generation is being spoiled.

These ideas of entitlement are corrosive. Kuwait has the most responsive and democratic Parliament in the region. However, political parties are not allowed. This means that MPs must get elected ‘themselves’ without a party’s broad platform to fall back on. Many MPs get elected on a ‘service’ platform i.e. by promising the continuation and expansion of subsidies from the state. It is no coincidence, for example, that public sector pay has risen on average 22% for each of the last 10 years.

A population which grows up on a generous welfare state is, understandably, reluctant to let it go. MPs in Parliament reflect these wishes. Privatisation, which will cause redundancies, raise prices and force Kuwaitis to…well…work, is vehemently opposed. Agreements to work with foreign companies, to attract their investments and expertise are rejected for fear that Kuwaitis’ money will either simply go to foreigners or to a Kuwaiti elite. A telling sign of just how much Kuwait does not want foreign interference in their economy is in Foreign Direct Investment rates. The graph below shows the scale of the problem: Kuwait attracts a preposterously small amount of FDI.

(Hint: Kuwait is in Green; the flat line on the bottom).

Strictly speaking, this is not a problem at the moment. Oil is here for a century or more (how long such demand will last is a different question) and so Kuwait can continue to run its hideously inefficient public sector. However, a time will come when this will change; when foreign expertise is needed to forge new industries to replace oil and subsidies will need to be toned down.

On the former questions the key issue is that other GCC states, in similar predicaments but with different attitudes, have been forging such industries for, in some cases, decades. Airlines, petrochemicals, tourism, financial services and a raft of other ‘possibilities’ are being explored. By the time Kuwait realises that it needs to change or prepare the change for its economy, these other industries – the natural choices for Kuwait – will be highly advanced in neighboring countries fostering high barriers to entry: Kuwait will be decades behind their regional neighbors. On the latter matter, whilst it is just a matter of a population changing their attitudes, this is far easier said than done, particularly after generations of state handouts: who will vote for someone pledging to reduce those?

Kuwaitis are so concerned about their younger generation being lazy and having such an easy life that they are currently debating whether to introduce conscription to instill some kind of discipline. A relatively extreme measure such as this is needed. Attitudes towards money, work and foreign expertise need to change in Kuwait.

Hat tip: NTY Article, Abstract JK

Kuwait uses terror laws to arrest journalist for questioning leadership 30, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait is one of the most politically and democratically advanced countries in the Middle East. They also have one of the freest presses in the region. Long established newspapers like the Kuwait Times are broadly free to discuss all manner of topics even if, for example, criticising the ruling family is wholly out of bounds. Kuwaitis are proud of their proto-democratic institutions even if they are frequently infuriated by their inaction and inability to get things done and their robust press is similarly a source of some pride.

However there is currently a severe test of Kuwait’s relatively free press. Mohammed Al Jassem is a former editor of a Kuwait daily newspaper (Al Watan – The Nation) and the founding editor of the Arabic versions of Foreign Policy and Newsweek. He is also one of Kuwait’s most famous journalists and has a habit of criticising the Prime Minister, a nephew of the Emir. This is, essentially, the extent of his charges.

The Prime Minister is no stranger to criticism and has been the subject of various attempts to make him answer questions in Parliament; the so-called ‘grillings’. Yet Al Jassem’s criticisms have struck a very raw nerve. He accuses the PM of being some kind of conduit for Iranian power and influence to grow in Kuwait. He is also accused of exhorting the PM to resign in a private meeting.

The Al Sabahs reacted furiously to these allegations. They rained down slander and defamation cases on Al Jassem who was sentenced to 6 months in jail in one example. Under appeal he was rearrested under the auspices of an Internal Security Law and charged with “instigating the overthrow of the regime and “inciting to dismantle the foundations of Kuwaiti society.””

Along with using this terrorism-type law to arrest him he has been treated, according to the Washington Post, as a terrorist; being hooded when brought into court and handcuffed and confined to a courtroom cage. Perhaps most worryingly, local press has been banned from covering his trial.

The Iranian issue is extremely sensitive throughout the Gulf. The smaller and richer GCC states fear Iran in various ways. Directly, Iran poses a serious military threat, yet this is significantly mitigated by the presence of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and in the Gulf waters. The more pressing concern, therefore, is the notion of Iranian ‘5th columnists’ at large in GCC states. Bahrain with a Shia majority and Saudi with a significant minority in their resource-rich Eastern provinces have more acute fears than Kuwait yet many are still concerned. Salafi MPs in Kuwait have been drawing attention, much like al Jassem, to what they see as the worrying growth of Iran’s influence in Kuwait. Some MPs were arrested in 2008 when they praised/celebrated the death of Imad Mugniyah, the assassinated Hezbollah leader. Other MPs have ominously warmed that there are Iranian ‘sleeper cells’ throughout the Gulf.

Whilst concerns of the growth of Iran’s soft power are to some degree understandable, notions of legions of Iran sponsored sleepers or indeed that the PM is somehow spreading Iranian influence, are not credible.

Nevertheless, Al Jassem’s comments, striking with force such a profound nerve in Kuwait and the Gulf more generally, will prove a serious challenge to Kuwait’s vaunted relative press freedom. I expect Al Jassem to be sentenced to jail for, say, 15 years only to be released after 6 months as well as possibly being exiled.

Iranian Ambassador: Kuwaiti journalists paid by Israel 4, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Kuwait.
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Kuwait’s outgoing Iranian Ambassador has accused some local journalists of being paid by ‘the Zionist State’ to attack Iran and defend Israel. He is referring, I assume, to the recent stories in the Kuwaiti Press of the discovery of Iranian Revolutionary Guard spies embedded in Kuwait.

This type of fear – that of Iranian sponsored or inspired 5th columnists in Gulf societies – is, I believe, the key fear of most Gulfies, more so than a ‘conventional’ Iranian military threat.

The key problem for the Iranian Ambassador is that even if he is correct and the story is fabricated, he sounds so absurd once again pinning the blame on Israel for this that one simply can’t take him seriously. I think there might be a moral here…something to do with a boy…wolves…crying…sheep…

Facebook more popular than all Arab newspapers 26, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Middle East.
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The BBC reports that Facebook now has some 15 million subscribers across the Arab world; a million more than all newspapers – Arabic, English and French – put together. This is, of course, no great surprise. Not only is the standard of Middle Eastern journalism fairly abysmal [as I’ve argued here, here, here and here] but given the youth bulge in many Middle Eastern societies not to mention the generally closed-off nature of civil society and other forms of expression, meeting, etc, and Facebook is tailor-made for the region.

This kind of growth will be perturbing some of the region’s less enlightened governments. Only yesterday Kuwait announced that it was going to ban BlackBerry messenger in a valiantly pointless attempt to stand in the way of an ever increasingly technology dependent and technologically savvy population. It will only be a matter of time, I’d have thought, before some Sheikh or other in the GCC or some enthroned dictatorially democratic leader in the rest of the Middle East decides that Facebook ought to be wholly banned. Much luck to them.

Hat hip: MEI Editor

Kuwait to ban BlackBerry 25, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwaiti dictators authorities are to ban BlackBerry Messenger service in the country. They are perturbed as it can be used “to spread rumour and call for strikes”. How scandalous. On hearing this did anyone else automatically think of Canute trying to hold back the waves?