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Why an elected Majlis in Qatar will not work 11, May 2014

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The following Tweet simply and succinctly sums up for me why an elected Majlis in Qatar that actually has any power will not work.

It refers to a story in a local paper here in Doha quoting elected members of Qatar’s toothless ‘Central Municipal Council’ complaining and arguing against a recent hike in the price of diesel fuel. The core of the complaint is that the price hike will effectively be passed on to consumers in one way or another. While there may be some logic to this concern, I am struck by the similarity of this complaint to the exact genre of complaint that has so paralyzed Kuwait’s Parliament in recent decades.

Discussions about democracy in the Gulf unerringly come back to ‘the Kuwaiti example’. In short, though many in the Gulf may admire the relative freedom of action afforded to Kuwaitis and the power of its Parliament, potentially a real check on Emiri authority, few would actually want Kuwait’s system given its lamentable recent experience. As I wrote in 2011, 2012, and 2013 [and I suppose I’m now due to write the same article in 2014], there are fundamental problems at the heart of Kuwait’s democratic style of politics. In short, the issues are:

  • A ban on political parties frequently forcing candidates to make their own platform, which are typically so-called ‘service’ platforms i.e. parliamentarians promising to deliver more subsidies and other goodies for their constituents;
  • ‘Service’ platforms feed off historical differences in Kuwaiti society: in short, groups enfranchised in recent decades see this as an opportunity for them to get ‘their share’ of Kuwait’s wealth, which has been monopolized by other segments of society who have had far longer access to wealth and power;
  • The Prime Minister is appointed and he appoints to the Cabinet. Without the formalized input of the elected Parliamentarians, there is often little ‘buy in’ to the Cabinet and an antagonistic tone is set;
  • Before the Arab Spring, Kuwait’s politics was energized by growing youth movements, which were even more catalyzed by the Spring itself, which lent greater impetus to those seeking change and a greater access to wealth;
  • The only method available to the Government to keep the show on the road in recent years has been the increasing dispensation of cash. For example, from 2005 to 2013 government wages have risen from $6.7 billion to $17 billion. Though Kuwait’s oil revenues increased during this time period, there have been repeated and increasingly concerned warnings emanating both from within and outwith Kuwait as to the dangers of such levels of spending. The IMF, for example, predict that if the current spending rates are maintained, Kuwait will have exhausted all its oil savings by 2017.

While only some of these factors may be at play in Qatar – there are, for example, no similarly large cleavages in Qatari society as there are in Kuwait – the fundamental issue is the same. Would-be MPs in Qatar, in the absence of political parties, would inevitably fall back on a ‘service’ platform, which as the Kuwait experience has shown all too clearly has a caustic influence on long-term decision making and planning.


Kuwait’s Self-Flagellation Continues 24, April 2013

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The following article appeared on RUSI.ORG




Kuwait’s fractious politics has once more transcended protest to violence as the authorities sought time and again to arrest the former Member of Parliament Musallam Al Barrack. In mid-April, Al Barack was sentenced to five years in jail for undermining the status of the Emir when at a protest on 15 October 2012 he said ‘we [the people] shall not let you, your Highness, take us into the abyss of autocracy.’

However, four attempts to arrest Al Barrack later and he is still not in police custody. The farce of the attempted arrests involved the police not finding Al Barrack and sometimes with the former MP refusing to go with the police without a signed copy of the arrest document and the authorities’ inexplicable ability to actually come up with such a document. The escalating situation has led to increasing clashes at his residence.

The night of 17 April saw up to 10,000 supporters congregate at his house in a show of solidarity. An initial decision not to march that night soon changed with the crowd attempting to storm a near-by police station. The results were predictably bloody. A court decision on 22 April granting him bail to appear in May to appeal his sentence settled the issue, but only temporarily.

Al Barrack is at the centre of Kuwait’s political theatre and has become the focal point of the opposition. He is undoubtedly popular politician. He was famously elected with over 30,000 votes in the February 2012 election; a huge number in Kuwait and by far the most number of votes that a candidate has ever received. Even though the charges may be upheld in the May appeal and he may eventually go to jail in unjust circumstances, he is a long way from a Nelson Mandela figure.

Despite writing an article in The Guardian, Al Barrack is no liberal statesman and has supported some of the most distasteful conservative policies to emerge from Kuwait’s Parliament in recent years. In the context of a crackdown on Twitter users, Sunni MPs proposed the death penalty for Muslims who insulted God, the Quran, the Prophet or his wives. This move was made after a Shia Twitter user, Hamad Al Naqi, was arrested for blasphemy. Al Barrack, like many of his fellow Parliamentarians, vocally supported this motion. Only the intervention of the Emir using his privilege to strike down the law prevented it from being enacted. In a similarly sectarian vein, as Mona Kareem notes, Al Barrack has been a defender of the Bahraini regime and their crackdown on their Shia population. He also supports segregation in Kuwait’s education establishments.

A Pro-Government Parliament?

Al Barrack and a variety of other MPs who may loosely be described as ‘the opposition’ in Kuwait did not enter the December 2012 Parliamentary elections. The opposition boycotted the election after the Emir decreed changes to the voting procedures when Parliament was not in session. Although the Emir is allowed to take such actions, it is a grey area as to whether such an act needs to be voted on before it can directly affect the voting procedures. The opposition feared (probably correctly) that the new voting regime would have weakened their ever increasing grip on power in the Parliament. Rather than have their support adversely affected – and badly miscalculating that their burgeoning support in late 2012 could allow them to force the Emir to back down – they pulled out of the election.

Inevitably the Parliament elected in December 2012 was pro-government but with a lower turnout of just under 40 per cent. Shia candidates, who have often supported the government against the majority Sunni opposition, made large gains in particular winning 17 seats of the 50-member Parliament, more than doubling their representation in the previous Parliament.

However, as predicted at the time, by boycotting the elections, the opposition only left themselves with negative power: they can only affect politics in Kuwait by being as obstructionist as possible: Barrack’s thwarting of the police being the latest example of their tactics to whip up support against the government.

Any hope that the pro-government Parliament would help get Kuwait’s politics and projects moving again has been slow to materialise. While its intransigence does not reach the levels of previous opposition-led Parliaments, there has still been less cooperation than expected. Moreover, the government again finds itself trying to stave off splurging its budget surplus on debt-forgiveness and writing off interest on personal loans. The government in the form of the Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shamali rejected these proposals offered in early March 2013 and was ‘grilled’ (interpolated) in Kuwait’s showboating Parliament for his troubles.

Political Deadlock Over the Economy

One of the prime issues that divided the Kuwaiti Government and the Opposition was the former’s desire to avoid frittering away the Government’s surplus on buying people’s support. The government take the longer-term economic view that such actions are a cancerous factor in the Kuwaiti economy, hugely dis-incentivising the workforce at a time when Kuwait needs to be preparing for its post-hydrocarbon economy. Kuwait has plenty of oil left, but it is over dependent on this one source with over 90 per cent of the state budget coming from oil, the highest in the Gulf region. The opposition would counter-accuse the Government of trying to block a greater distribution of the state’s wealth.

With the Government not budging on this issue, the new Parliament is not passing the large and necessary infrastructure projects that Kuwait as a country has been needing for decades and the Kuwaiti political merry-go-around continues.

It was hoped that this Parliament might be more amenable to work with the government given the backdrop of the fractious months before the last election and the agreement among all Kuwaitis that Kuwait badly needs investment. Yet each parliamentarian wants to carve out his or her pound of flesh to take as a trophy to their constituents. In a political environment with no political parties, this is one of the key ways that a parliamentarian can distinguish themself in a given constituency: promising and bringing home the cash.

There are no easy answers for Kuwait’s troubles and no end in sight to the fractious politics, which seem destined to continue apace for some time to come. No sides are willing to compromise or subsume their goals to Kuwait’s overall longer term interest. In the meantime, the bitterness increases and the intransigence grows, while most Kuwaitis who simply want to get on with their life grow more and more exasperated as the factions fight it out.

On Kuwait’s latest issues 5, December 2012

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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 needs ‘truth and reconciliation’ 12, November 2012

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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.

Qatar is not Bahrain or Kuwait 8, November 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar.
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The following article appeared on Dohanews.co last week

While media outlets find it convenient and practical to generalize when it comes to reporting on “The Gulf” or the now 24-month-long “Arab Spring,” these terms can be problematic as they simplify complex issues.

For example, take the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. On the surface, these countries have many similarities in terms of tribal structure, intermingling of families, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and economic and political systems.

But the differences between the nations, and even in cities within one country, are stark. Riyadh and Jeddah – let alone in comparison to somewhere like Muscat – are poles apart and – to engage in a different sort of generalization – Kuwaitis are far more politically garrulous than their Qatari cousins.

So, will the similarities mean that the Arab Spring will sweep across all Gulf States, or will some difference impede its passage? Let’s take a case-by-case approach.


Kuwait has relatively a long, mercantile history. One author even dubbed Kuwait “the Marseilles of the Gulf” – such was the port-city-melting-pot nature of the place. This helped give rise to a rich and relatively independent merchant elite that exists alongside the ruling Al Sabah family.

This dynamic in which the ruling family must contend with other powerful players has set the feisty tone of politics in Kuwait. In contrast, Doha was never as cosmopolitan or as prosperous a city and consequently no merchant class could develop independent of Al Thani power. This meant that politics was, as it remains today, dominated by the Al Thani family.

Today the merchant families in Kuwait have mostly “joined sides” with the Al Sabah against those dubbed “the opposition.” Much of the opposition are referred to as tribal and Islamist in nature and were enfranchised later on in the 20th century when the Al Sabah needed more support. Initially they were grateful to the Al Sabah for giving them a passport and supported them in Parliament.

More recently, however, they have realised that they are in the majority in Kuwait and now feel that they deserve more power. In the ( annulled) previous election, they won 34 of the 50 seats, demanded nine Cabinet posts (of sixteen), were offered three and took none.

The battle lines are thus set broadly between the older, established, richer elites and the “younger” interlopers looking to get their share and upset the status quo.


While there has historically been tension of varying degrees between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain, the key dividing line was largely a socio-economic one. Though there was certainly a correlation between Sunni and Shia in terms of greater opportunities for Sunni Bahrainis, the tension was typically not manifest in an overtly sectarian way.

The Arab Spring changed that entirely. To some degree this was a state-sanctioned ploy to specifically and overtly use the sectarian angle as an effective way of corralling support against the uprisings in Bahrain. Though they may have been successful in halting any significant changes, this came at a terrible cost not only in terms of deaths and arrests but in terms of profoundly polarizing Bahraini society.


Qatar possesses none of these key dynamics. It has neither a highly active public, political debating culture; latent sectarian concerns; nor deep and widespread socio-economic disparities among citizens. Moreover, it has a tiny indigenous population and prodigious riches to shower upon them.

Yet Qatar’s stability is not obtained through this alone, for its leadership has been putting Qatar on the international map in largely positive ways for over a decade now. This has changed the international perception of Qatar from having no reputation whatsoever – or being “known for being unknown” – to now being known for its mediation, Al Jazeera, sporting initiatives and supporting various factions in the Arab Spring. Overall, I believe that most Qataris are – if anything – pleased with this burgeoning reputation.

Just like every other state on Earth, Qatar does have its problems and its population has its grumbles. The pace of change and apparent “Westernisation”concerns some, while others want more transparency and a say in how the country is run.

By virtue of its proximity and its fraternal ties, Qatar will remain deeply concerned and interested in what transpires as its fellow GCC States wrestle with the Arab Spring. But barring a black swan event or a sea-change in attitudes, Qatar will remain as insulated as ever from the Spring.

Read more: http://dohanews.co/post/34966683468/guest-post-why-qatar-is-not-bahrain-or-kuwait#ixzz2BdVgYPGD

Kuwait: putting the toothpaste back in the tube 30, October 2012

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I’m fairly sure that getting arrested was next on the ‘to do’ list of Musallam Al Barrack. He was already the most prominent opposition figure who received the most votes of any candidate ever and he was instrumental in breaking the taboo of overtly criticizing the Emir. Clearly what would augment his image further would be arrest and some time behind bars to really give him that oppressed, little guy against the system edge. And how sporting of Kuwait’s secret service to oblige and arrest him on 29th October.

He was arrested for openly criticizing the Emir with offensive remarks: as my Kuwaiti kids in class used to say:

“Mr David…he say bad word for meeee!”

Barrack is not the first to have been arrested on such charges, nor will he be the last; but he’s certainly the most popular.

Needless to say, this will galvanize and energize his support even more. This, though, is not the problem. There are, I suspect, many Kuwaitis who are not natural followers of Barrack who may feel increasingly uneasy with the Emir’s tactics of arresting opponents for mild criticism. It is these middle-ground voters who are the key.

While I’m sure the Emir would love to turn the clock back to more peaceful days when he sauntered above the fray untrammeled and unsullied by the dirty game of Kuwaiti politics [I exaggerate, of course], it is highly questionable as to whether he can fix the taboo that disallowed criticism of him by brute force.



On Kuwait on Chinese radio 29, October 2012

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If you have a spare hour and are so inclined here is a link to some interesting discussions on Kuwait with myself, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen – @Dr_Ulrichsen – and James Rae.


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

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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.

On Kuwait’s elections 14, February 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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For the fourth time in six years, on 2 February Kuwaitis went to the polls to vote in Parliamentary elections. Amid a carnival atmosphere, widespread social mobilisation, and a country abuzz with political discussion, Kuwait’s four female MPs who gained their seats in the previous election were summarily dumped out of office and a loose consortium of what may be termed tribal Islamists resoundingly returned to power to share office with a smattering of Shia, Liberal and elite-supporting politicians.

Overall, this opposition has now technically amassed enough MPs to potentially vote decisively on votes of confidence in Parliament; a sobering and likely sigh-inducing sight for the Emir. The emboldened tribal Islamists are sure to attack and press the Government with fervour when the Emir appoints his new Prime Minister who will in turn appoint the majority of the Cabinet in the coming days. This new block, if they can remain mostly united will present the Government with stiff opposition in their desire for reform of the system and for greater financial rewards for their electoral clientele. The political paralysis and consequent economic blockages that have largely gripped Kuwait since liberation from Iraq in 1991 seem likely to continue.

From ancient dividing lines to modern mobilisation

In Kuwait as in much of the Gulf, domestically there is something of a two tier society. Those ‘Hadar’ that settled first typically by the shore became the merchant class and evolved in separation, both literal and figurative, from those that traditionally roamed around: the Bedouin. This latter group began to settle in ever greater numbers as the 19th and 20th centuries progressed. Each traditionally viewed the other with suspicion and crude, culturally-specific stereotypes: the Hadar view the Bedouin as rough and uncivilised, having suffered from many a marauding attack over the years, while the Bedouin resent the subsequent wealth of the supercilious Hadar and their control of the politico-economic nexus.
The Hadar in Kuwait, as personified in the Al Sabah ruling family, used the tribes of the Bedouin over the years when they needed to shore up support against other factions. In return for gradual political emancipation and greater economic benefits, tribes were initially content to ally themselves to the Al Sabah, grateful for their inclusion. Today the Kuwaiti government is reaping the consequences of these decisions.

In the early days, tribal families made up only around one in five Kuwaitis, while today those typically described as tribal voters comprise more than one in two. The 2012 election saw 20 seats of the 50-seat national assembly go to tribal-affiliated candidates, including the largest ever vote tally for any candidate; 30,000 votes for tribal candidate Mussallam Al Barrack.

In conjunction with MPs who campaign on an Islamist agenda, who obtained 14 seats, these two conservatively minded groups now possess one seat more than an absolute majority (taking into account the Emiri/Prime Minister appointed cabined members with voting rights) meaning that they can, if they were to vote together – which is by no means certain – hold up laws and act to push through a vote of no confidence in a minister.

A profound lack of unity

Political parties are not allowed in Kuwait hence some explanation for why tribes can be so successful. They often hold pre-election primaries, which are illegal, to pre-select the candidate with the best chance of winning in the real election.
The lack of parties also means that there is a profound lack of responsibility. While people are aware of these supra-individual groupings, people are nevertheless voting for a single person. This has two primary effects.

Firstly, this means that individual MPs can more easily escape censure as and when things go wrong. If the economy stagnates badly under, say, the Conservative Party, then, typically, a range of Conservative MPs would bear the brunt of the public’s displeasure at the next available opportunity. While there is some ‘macro’ responsibility in Kuwait, it just does not translate to the same degree; an MP may be as intransigent as he wishes, causing blockages and holding up bills, and still have a strong belief that he will not face the consequences of his actions. Instead, it is the Government as an easily recognisable grouping that typically is blamed. This is not to say that it does not deserve censure or make it worse by appointing most of the Cabinet unilaterally, but that there is a dearth of responsibility on the average MP.

Secondly, in lieu of a widely understood background on which to draw votes (e.g. without the ability to say ‘vote for me; the Conservative candidate’) each individual candidate must differentiate him or herself to attract votes. This can mean that prospective MPs campaign on fringe issues or this leads to candidates hawking themselves as ‘service MPs’ whereby their sole goal in Parliament will be to, for example, push for as much debt relief as possible. Such a tactic is particularly present in the tribal MPs. Not only was this how they came into politics in the first place (above), but feeding from long-held socio-economically based jealousy versus the Hadar, many feel a duty to take as much money from the Hadar Al Sabah as possible while they can. Adding into this in recent years has been a raft of corruption scandals that fed the notion of the Hadar, or at least ‘someone else’, taking far more than their fare share and a commensurate impulse to seize what one can when one can, lest it all be corrupted away.

The core issue

It is as if some of the key segments in Kuwaiti society are pulling in vastly different directions. The traditional elite, Hadar in origins; the traders and the political operatives, feel that they are being attacked on several sides. They feel that their previous monopolies on politics, power and economics are being critically challenged – which they are – and they are seeking to do all they can to prevent any further losses of power.

The traditional Bedouins in the shape of the tribal candidates, now at least on parity in terms of numbers, feel that their time is approaching; the years of economic disenfranchisement are waning and it is time to press their advantage for their benefit.

There are other relatively widespread movements: the Liberals who chafe as Islamists seek to extend their control over society; the Shia who seek to protect their large minority’s rights in Kuwait; the youth who have been swelled by the succour of the Arab Spring and demand a change to the corrupt politics-as-usual attitude and the bickering that has stagnated their country.

Until these disparate groups can begin to come together and to work together for something approaching a united cause, bitter arguments, recriminations and a frozen politico-economic sector will once again typify Kuwait. Such a mature resolution is needed as Kuwait will not have the ready-cash swilling around as it currently does to inefficiently buy-off sectors of disquiet. When Kuwait’s rentier bargain starts faltering and when the sedative of distributing easy money wares off, if these cleavages are not settled, the battles for whatever is left will become all the more acrimonious and destructive.

Corruption in Kuwait 22, September 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Seven of Kuwait’s MPs are currently under investigation for corruption. This most recent round of accusation and counter accusation began when the National Bank of Kuwait and Kuwait Finance House reported suspicious transfers amounting to $92million between two members of Parliament.

There has been precious little reaction from Kuwait’s elite on this matter, which has fueled public anger which, it seems, is simply filling in the missing details with lurid suppositions of mass-corruption and graft in the Parliament.

Not that such assumptions are necessarily wrong. Kuwait has a long and illustrious history of corruption in the elite. Over the years, this issue has come up again and again to the point where many Kuwaitis (I’d even say ‘most’) seem to be of the opinion that the elite/government are implacably and irreducibly corrupt.

Through demonstrations and the voting in of populist MPs whose sole mandate, it can appear, is to fight this corruption, three highly damaging corollaries then occur:

1) MPs block crucial pieces of legislation from passing Parliament for fear that by granting, say, $5billion worth of investment in a real estate project, they are effectively allowing if not aiding and abetting corruption to occur. Kuwait is in desperate need of investment and it was only recently that a multiyear, $104billion plan was pushed through Parliament: the first in decades.

2) MPs also do their best to block similarly necessary pieces of privatization. Kuwait’s public sector, like many in the region, is hopelessly inefficient, expensive, over-staffed and bloated in general. Around 77% of Kuwaitis work in the public sector and a chilling, psychotic and whopping 84% of oil revenue is spent on public sector salaries, according to the World Bank in 2010 .

Necessary privatization bills are frequently derided as the ‘sale of Kuwait’ or ‘the legalized robbery of Kuwait’ and other such sensationalist tripe-filled notions. Famously, one such bill took over 18 years to pass through the Parliament. This is all the more surprising given the huge success in some industries which have been privatized – see Zain and Wataniya.

3) People demand cash. And debt relief. And no bills. And salary increases. And they get them, in spades. The government acquiesces to these demands to keep the natives vaguely silent: they essentially buy off citizens in droves. But the demands of Kuwaitis in the face of what they see as mounting and pervasive corruption is insatiable, even though they are the best paid of any nationals in the Gulf (where there is, let’s not forget, rather a lot of competition): it’s almost like that feel that they need to get their share before the elite graft it all away.

Indeed, Kuwaitis look at their staggering oil revenues, the small size of their country and then actually look around Kuwait, especially in comparison to the more glamorous cities further down the Gulf, and wonder where all their money has gone: ‘clearly’ it’s not been spent on Kuwait itself, so the elite must have stolen it all. This logic forgets, of course, the fact that Parliament can barely spend the cash (on big budget packages, at least) so tightly do some MPs agitate against any such plans.

It is difficult to overemphasize just how damaging this cycle is for Kuwait’s long term future. Kuwait can afford this now. Yet this will not always be the case. And when Kuwait needs to rely on income that is not derived from rent (oil), not only will it lack the infrastructure to pursue a ‘normal’ economy, such are the difficulties of investing in Kuwait to any significant or regular degree, but there must be core concerns that there will simply not be the Kuwaitis to staff any kind of competitive economy: neither trained particularly well nor with the skills or the drive to work efficiently and productively in a truly competitive economy, Kuwait will find itself at a considerable disadvantage.

Where to go from here? There are no easy answers, as the New York Times eloquently sums up.

If the emir allows Parliament to remain in place while at least one-fifth of its members are investigated for graft, he risks the growth of ever larger street protests and an erosion of public trust. But if he dissolves Parliament and calls for new elections, public outrage could help usher in a legislature hostile to the monarchy and more assertive in demands for constitutional changes.

However difficult, the current Emir, Sabah Al Sabah, simply must sort this out in some way, shape or form. He has genuine popularity and legitimacy in Kuwait as a whole. His successor is guaranteed none of these things and will likely endure questioning the likes of which would never happen to Sabah. Somehow he needs to marshal this to his advantage.

Kuwait needs a proverbial ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission. An opportunity for everyone to sit down, discuss what has gone on, make amends and to move forward on a new footing. Yet the recriminations and bitterness that characterises much of these interactions, coupled with astounding levels of obstinacy in the Government and – arguably – with a cultural aversion to public acts of contrition (can you really see an important Kuwaiti MP or member of the Cabinet publicly admitting he was corrupt?), makes such a scenario seem unfortunately unlikely.

Before the Arab Spring, I’d have said that there’d be a good chance that the Emir would unconstitutionally dissolve Parliament (as has happened a few times before) to pass some laws, push through some projects and to take the relentless pressure off his Governmnet as a whole and his PM in particular. But in this popular and febrile atmosphere, I don’t think that even Sabah’s charisma and support could pull it off.

Some kind of half-way-house would presumably involve the public flagellation of a couple of corrupt MPs. Give the mob some blood, show that the courts and the Parliament has teeth and scruples and follow this with exorbitantly punitive new anti-corruption laws and some kind of new independent body to pursue corruption with teeth. On the other side, scurrilously populist MPs would have to  – against their shameful temporary interests – agree to hold their fire and resist the so far irresistible lure of the lowest common denominator elite bashing with the stick of assumed corruption.

Many would fear that this would give the mob the taste of blood while most would surely be loathe to cast out one of their own, perhaps knowing that it could have been them, yet the impasse is growing in size and acrimony. Something needs to give on one side and it hardly seems likely that the populist MPs or the Kuwaiti public will spontaneously forgive and forget.

Out of this morass is the opportunity for an MP to make his name; to mark himself (or herself) out as a whiter than white, judicious negotiator. Perhaps such a prize will convince a suitably powerful MP to stick his/her neck out, eschew the trends and to embody the would-be new politics of Kuwait.