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Arabian tribes and voting issues 21, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Tribal voting in the recent Poet of Millions talent contest perfectly highlights issues facing those seeking full democratic elections on the Arabian Peninsula.

The hugely popular Poet of Millions competition (the Gulf’s equivalent of ‘Pop Idol’) recently hit the headlines throughout the Middle East after a Saudi women – Hissal Hilal – won through to the final with controversial, politically and socially based poetry. Specifically, she heavily – if eloquently – criticised Saudi’s infamous religious police. This caused predictable uproar in conservative Saudi Arabia where women are – to put it crudely – to be neither seen nor heard.

Yet in the final, despite being awarded higher marks by the judges than the eventual winner, she came third. The winner instead was Nasser Al Ajami from Kuwait who triumphed thanks to 40% of the final and overall mark being decided by a public vote.

The Al Ajami tribe is one of the largest and most important tribes in the Gulf. In this instance, they embarked on a multi-million pound rigorously organised campaign to make sure Nasser won.

The National reports that the campaign began three weeks before the final event with a fundraising campaign. The depth and breadth of the vast Al Ajami tribe was plumbed and money and support sought. Apparently, somewhere in the region of £5million was raised. This was used to advertise Nasser and to send “bulk text messages through the country’s telecommunications companies to encourage Kuwaitis to vote.” This is in addition to Al Ajamis themselves voting multiple times. Naif Al Ajami, a distant relative, spent roughly £500 on voting 400 times.

Whilst the tribal nature of Arabian society is well known, this instance offers a perfect example of exactly what a tribe in action can do. This has direct relevance for those seeking democracy in the Gulf.

Kuwait, for example, is the most democratic country in the Gulf. Yet whilst this is praise-worthy, its Parliamentary system has been in a state of absolute gridlock for years. Other Gulf nations look to Kuwait with trepidation when they see the stagnating and divisive effects that ‘democracy’ can bring.

Kuwait has tried to sort out these difficulties by cutting the number of election districts from 25 to 5. This was to make it more difficult for richer politicians to buy votes as well as to break the monopoly of tribes on whole districts. Yet the power of the tribe could not be broken. Still tribes would (illegally) host ‘primaries’ to make sure that tribal members could have a ‘consensus candidate’.

None of this is to say that democracy is intrinsically incompatible with Gulf society, only to point out once more [can it be pointed out enough?] that if intrinsically Western ideas such as modern democracy are implemented elsewhere, they need to be adapted to indigenous systems.

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