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On Kuwait’s latest issues 5, December 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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A couple of quick thoughts on Kuwait:

1) Had the numbers of protesters continued to be in the range of the first major protest back in October then I think we would have to look very carefully at Kuwait as in a dangerous place. Yet this is not the case. Even on the occasion in October despite claims from the opposition that there were over one hundred thousand people there I am yet to come across reliable evidence for this fact (though I am happy to be corrected).

2) Subsequent protests have – from what I can gather – been significantly smaller. The protest at Musallam Barrack’s arrest that was expected to be 100,000+ (and the opposition gave out tickets to try to prove this) but was much smaller. And so has every other protest since. The litmus test for this was the long planned protest on December 1. Again it appears that this was no where near 100,000.

3) Nevertheless, one cannot forget that Kuwait is a small country with around 1 million Kuwaitis. Thus several tens of thousands of protesters is still a significant number.

4) I am still of the opinion that the opposition have badly miscalculated. The Parliament will now be significantly less intransigent than its predecessors where the Islamist/Tribal opposition dominated and blocked anything and everything. There is a chance, therefore, that – shock, horror – Kuwait’s Parliament may actually get things done.

5) The Government now can undertake a relatively easy strategy to severely undercut a lot of the opposition support. a) Doll out some cash in the short term. b) Get something tangible done via the Parliament; show it is working and makes a difference to Kuwaitis. c) Give the newly appointed anti-corruption body some teeth and ideally a sacrificial lamb to show the elite is taking top level corruption seriously. None of this may be necessarily easy to do but it is surely easier now than it was before and nor is such a plan necessarily the best thing for Kuwait, but these are the options facing the Government if it is sensible from its perspective.

6) While such a plan would not undercut the hardcore tribal/Islamist elements it does not need to. Such a plan would take away broader support and sympathy leaving the opposition whittled down somewhat and their demonstrations getting ever smaller (as they already appear to be). This would place the opposition in an ever smaller minority, vociferously obstructing the continuation of Kuwaiti life and the normalization of Kuwaiti politics.

7) The opposition’s power has only ever been a blocking, negative power only now they have moved from intransigence in the Parliament to the streets (I don’t say this to denigrate the opposition  you can only play the hand you’ve been dealt). Without the legal scaffold of Parliament they are simply demonstrating and will need to ever more increase the intensity of their protests to force the Government to change. They run the real risk that after several months of this dragging on – of them protesting and disrupting and especially if the Parliament can make headway – the wider population will become increasingly disenchanted or even angry with their cause in the search for reconciliation or simply in the desire to get on with normal life.

 

 

 

 

 

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.