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 Though it is – of course – out of date, some of the conclusions drawn are still arguably relevant.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

Kuwait enters an uncertain and more violent era 25, October 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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The following article appeared on RUSI.org

Kuwait is heading for a period of unprecedented turbulence; distinct even in Kuwait’s recent history which has seen Parliament dissolved six times in six years and escalating clashes between protestors and police.

A protest held on Sunday 21 October is thought to have been one of the largest ever held in the Gulf State. The opposition claim that over 100,000 people attended, though independent sources note that 40-60,000 is more realistic. Either way, it was a substantial protest. Though parts of the protest were peaceful; there were also clashes with the State’s Special Forces and Police who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

A Disputed Election

Tensions between the government and the opposition have been growing for years with increasing acrimony displayed on both sides. February 2012 saw the election of a heavily pro-opposition Parliament. Despite taking 34 of the 50 seats in Parliament the loosely defined opposition demanded nine out of sixteen Cabinet seats. They were offered three and accepted none. Consequently this Parliament argued more and got even less done than its predecessors, who had already set a low bar for accomplishment in the past decade.

Amid the usual acrimony and intransigence, two remarkable decisions in June changed the status quo. First, the Emir constitutionally suspended Parliament for one month, the first time that this had occurred in Kuwait’s history. Then, only two days later, the Constitutional Court annulled the February Parliament on a point of procedure and reinstalled the previous more pro-Government Parliament. This was vociferously denounced by the opposition and they refused to sit in the reconvened 2009 Parliament.

Parliament was dissolved on 7 October and elections called for 1 December. However, Kuwait’s constitution allows the Emir to amend laws when Parliament is not in session. Having threatened of the need to ‘correct mistakes’, on this occasion the Emir asked his Cabinet to adopt three laws including one that changed the voting system to one-man-one vote.

This move enraged the opposition who preferred the previous system where each voter could cast four votes. Though the permutations of this change are yet to be worked through, it is most likely that the opposition groups would lose out and they subsequently announced that they would boycott the elections.

This kind of strategy involves a huge amount of jeopardy. With no opposition running, the Parliament will be pro-Government. The Emiri decree, which needs to be ratified by a sitting Parliament, will likely be strongly upheld. This will institutionalise and legalise the system which the opposition fear will, to a greater degree, disenfranchise them.

Competition for Domestic Support

While there is widespread support for the opposition it is by no means universal. Wavering supporters may well be brought over to the Government’s side if it decides to use a portion of its budget surplus, currently running at nearly $50bn. to increase support through government largess. Debt forgiveness, wage rises, and increased subsidies are a common tactic in Kuwaiti politics and will likely be used again at some stage. Indeed, without the permanent intransigence of the opposition, if the December 2012 Parliament can actually get laws and investment packages passed, then this too will diminish the popular support for the opposition.

Crucially, the fear for Kuwaiti politics as a whole is that the opposition will be left with no tactic or strategy other than confrontation. It is now in the opposition’s best interests to force the Government into as much of an overreaction as possible to maintain support and sympathy. The Government have indicated that they will meet any illegal confrontation head-on, as Sunday’s protests indicate. Additionally, the Government announced a ban on protests of more than twenty people, a move that will strike at long-held principles among many Kuwaitis.

Far from cowed, in response the opposition announced another protest on 11 November and a ‘grand march’ on 1 December; an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of the vote and the Parliament.

Already the political divisions reflect deepening social divisions and these recent events will only worsen the divide. The pro-Government forces see the opposition as deeply obstructionist and resolutely focused on wresting power from their grasp. Both points are true to some degree but the opposition would note that it is only fair that power is shared more equitably given their majority-status and the fact that they have been relatively disenfranchised economically and politically for so long.

Part of this dynamic stems from deep-seated concerns about corruption in the elite, which is seen by the opposition in particular as yet another way that the entrenched elite secretes away more of Kuwait’s money. Aware of this concern, one of the other laws that the Emir asked the Cabinet to adopt referred to the creation of an anti-corruption authority with wide-ranging powers to request financial information from all public employees including Cabinet members, Parliamentarians, and even the Prime Minister. If the Government can establish this institution and instil public confidence in it by making it independent and endowing it with the necessary power and resources, then this could undermine popular support for the opposition.

The Taboo Breaks

Aside from the immediate concerns as to the upcoming political, rhetorical, and literal skirmishes between the opposition and government supporters, the escalation of the opposition in reaction to the Government’s policies has had more profound effects. Previously the Emir was an almost politically untouchable figure. However, this taboo, which had been under pressure for some months if not years, has been thoroughly broken with speeches and marches explicitly criticising his decision to change the electoral law. Any notion that the Emir could remain above the fray is finished. While monarchy as a concept is still resolutely the preferred system, Kuwait is entering a new era. Exactly what this new era will construe is difficult to predict, but it is certain to be more violent as the Kuwaiti elite faces its most significant challenge since the 1990 invasion.

Kuwait most corrupt GCC state: 2009 Corruption Index 17, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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(Saudi: Red. Kuwait: Purple. Bahrain: Green. Oman: Orange. UAE: White. Qatar: Blue)

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Qatar 38 32 32 32 28 22
KAS 71 70 70 79 80 63
Bahrain 34 36 36 46 43 46
Kuwait 44 45 46 60 65 66
UAE 29 30 31 34 35 30
Oman 29 28 39 53 41 39

Transparency International have released their 2009 index of perceived corruption around the world. The above graph and table show how the GCC states fare on the latest rankings in comparison to previous years.

Whilst Saudi Arabia has made the largest improvement jumping up some 17 places, as it did this from such a low base I feel that Qatar’s 6 place improvement from 28th to 22nd is just as (and if not more) impressive. For Saudi Arabia, it is good to see them make such advances. As I have discussed before, their relatively good placing in the ‘East of Doing Business’ tables can only be maintained if they get a serious grip on their somewhat endemic corruption problems. A rise of 17 places suggests that someone in Riyadh is thinking much the same thing.

As for the other GCC states, the UAE improved a not enterily unimpressive 5 places to 30th place, Oman rose a negligable place to 39th, Bahrain dropped 3 places to 46th and Kuwait dropped a place to 66th leaving with them with the dubious title of the GCC’s most corrupt member state.

Improvements in the Emirates have taken them back to where they were back in 2005. The effect of the credit crunch is unlikely to have been fully appreciated in this survey so – either which way -I expect a sizable change next year too. Bahrain are now 10 places higher (in a bad way) than in 2005-6. Of all the GCC states, they can least afford to become some quasi-corrupt backwater: they need to address these difficulties quickly. Kuwait, as I have discussed on several occasions, currently operates under the false assumption that they do not need foreign investments. As such, they may well not really care too much about their poor score. Yet now that they are rock-bottom of the GCC table and are fully 20 places worse than they were 4-5 years ago, perhaps they may seek to redress this balance, yet, given their institutional/governmental paralysis, their anti-foreign investment mindset and their apparent belief that oil will last forever, I doubt this very much.

Relative competitiveness in the GCC 7, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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ppoint slide

Here’s a slide taken from a survey of business attitudes in the Middle East. As you can see, it shows what business men and women think about which country in the GCC is leading the way, in their opinion, in terms of 1) making government more business friendly, 2) strides being made in legal reform, and 3) strides being made in educational reform.

In such a poll I would have expected the UAE to be the number one, but not necessarily as far ahead as they are. I would also have expected to have seen Qatar a bit higher up. These results broadly follow what Transparency International with their corruption perception index and Doing Business with their ‘ease of doing business in…’ index conclude.

Country Ease of Doing Business in…Index 2008 Corruption Perception Index 2008
World Ranking GCC Ranking World Ranking GCC Ranking
Qatar 39 4 28 1
UAE 33 3 35 2
Saudi Arabia 13 1 80 6
Bahrain 20 2 43 4
Oman 65 6 41 3
Kuwait 61 5 65 5

Things to note about these statistics:

  • Qatar is well placed: highest in region for lack of corruption and moderately placed in terms of ease of doing business.
  • Saudi Arabia is (astonishingly) well placed, coming 13th in the world for ease of doing business. Surely it can’t possibly go any higher given its atrocious placing on the corruption perception index. How on earth do they overcome this low score, coming 80th? Surely corruption ‘that bad’ will eventually tell its toll…
  • I have written about Kuwait before. Long story short, their poor showings in these indexes are indicative of their overall lack of enthusiasm for foreign investment or cooperation.

The historical corruption data:

corruption percetions inced 2004-8

(Apologies it’s so small: save it as a picture file to zoom in on it. Qatar-bright red. KSA-Reddy-brown (at the top). Bahrain-green. UAE-light blue. Kuwait-puprle ascending line. Oman-the variable yellowy-orange line.)

A few more things to note:

  • The higher on the graph, the worse the corruption.
  • Saudi Arabia is getting more corrupt and endemic corruption is notoriously hard a trend to reverse.
  • Qatar have, since 2004 (the oldest data I have to hand) been on a consistently ‘less corrupt’ trajectory.
  • The Emirates’ boom years from 2004-2008 have also seen corruption rise a not insignificant 6 places from 29th to 35th.
  • Bahrain are yo-yoing around (though not as bad as Oman). They will have to get a hold of these trends and keep them under control and on a downward spiral now that their oil deposits are severely depleted. Saudi and Kuwait can afford high corruption scores: Bahrain cannot.
  • Kuwait – disparaging of their need for foreign investment as they are – must address their upward spiral (44th-65th in four years) joining the likes of Cuba and El Salvador (and heading towards Columbia) on the index. Yes, technically, they may not need foreign investment now, but by the time they realise that they are beginning to need it, their corruption and economy more generally may be in no fit state to receive it.