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Kuwait arrests Iraqi spy 8, September 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iraq, Kuwait.
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The fun and games between Kuwait and Iraq continue apace.

Latest developments include the arrest of a man ‘of Iraqi origin’ for some kind of intelligence links with Iraq. The chap apparently liven in Hawalli, my old area of Kuwait (aaah…Abou Khodor…you are missed…) and worked for a communications company.

It’ll not before long such a spy is found in Iraq, I am sure, secreting secret stuff back to Kuwait. The tit for tat nature of this saga continues.

Kuwait’s ‘special’ public sector 30, August 2011

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The General Inspection and Control Department of the Interior Ministry has reportedly summoned a police officer — a Lieutenant Colonel — for receiving his monthly salary on a regular basis although he has been absent from work for 18 months.

Is anyone surprised? Anyone? No; thought not. Just checking.

The worsening Kuwait Iraq relationship 26, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iraq, Kuwait.
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I recently wrote an article for Foreign Affairs discussing the ever-worsening Kuwaiti-Iraqi relationship. You should give it a read.

I note today with neither joy nor vindication a further worsening of their relationship. Specifically, an Iraqi MP has accused Kuwait of stealing Iraq’s oil with ‘slant drilling’. This comment, as infuriating as it is by itself, is all the worse given the historical resonance with which it is loaded loaded: Saddam Hussein said the same thing as one of his pretexts for invading Kuwait.

At the moment the relationship is entering a spiral. Comments from deliberately provocative MPs on both sides purely designed to please a domestic audience are making things worse. This patch of deliberate provocation will pass.

Then, cool-headed MPs must prevail upon their counterparts to reset this relationship for everyone’s sake, using the real benefits which are possible should the two neighboring countries come together as a carrot. Needless to say, these MPs will have a hard time, for it is infinitely easier to prey on the public’s prickly fears and prejudices than it is to ask for a mature and long-term thinking approach.

Kuwait reaps the sectarian Gulf whirlwind 8, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait’s Parliament is undergoing another crisis. The Deputy Prime Minister, Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahad Al Sabah, resigned in June rather than face an interpolation by disgruntled Members of Parliament (MPs). Though these interpolations are supposed to be a standard Parliamentary questioning tactic, in Kuwait they are described as ‘grillings’. They are usually highly accusatory, hostile and an ordeal that can last for hours on end. A grilling can be brought by any MP over any topic, though a quorum is needed to follow the grilling with a motion of no confidence. In the past MPs have used and abused interpolations to pursue their own partisan and disruptive agenda.

It is only since 2006 that it has been possible for the Prime Minister (PM) himself to be subject to a grilling. Previously, the Crown Prince was also the Prime Minister. But from 2003 to 2006, Sabah Al Sabah officially took over the title of PM from the ailing Crown Prince, Saad Al Sabah. This broke with tradition and the PM was now no longer also directly in line to the throne. The possibility of interpolating the PM thus emerged, though Sabah Al Sabah never faced this problem as it was clear that he would soon be Emir. His PM, Nasser Al Sabah and his governments, however, have had repeated problems.

Nasser’s first government was dissolved by the Emir when it was barely four months old after reformist MPs, in an unprecedented move, sought to grill the PM over issues regarding changes to electoral districts. In the new government there were, as always, a handful of changes in personnel, but the MPs had a solid majority and forced through the district changes that the Government and the Emir sought to block. Any notion of opposition unity after this success soon evaporated ‘leading to a situation in which highly factionalized parliamentarians use their tools with abandon in pursuit of no coherent agenda.’ [1]

Since then, the PM has faced another eight grilling requests by MPs and has formed seven cabinets in five years. In 2009 the Minister of the Interior became the first Royal Minister to face an interpolation and a subsequent vote of confidence as opposed to simply resigning beforehand. He passed and this ushered in a brief era of reconciliation. The PM followed suit in December 2009 and was grilled along with four other cabinet members in a twenty hour marathon session finishing at 5:30 in the morning. A motion of non-cooperation with the PM was soundly defeated with only thirteen of fifty MPs in support.

More recently, at the start of 2011 the PM faced another nine hour grilling and a subsequent motion of no confidence. Though he again passed, he did so only by a narrow and unconvincing three votes.  Similarly, in June he passed though twenty four members of the fifty member Parliament either abstained or voted to oust him: hardly a resounding vote of confidence.

What exactly are the key issues which so frequently flare-up and cause such anguish in the Parliament?

Corruption and privatisation

An abiding concern of the Parliament is corruption. Given the billions upon billions of dollars swilling around Kuwait, MPs are in a perennial state of fear that the elite is creaming off millions of dollars that rightly belong to the Kuwaiti people. As with every country on earth, they have some justification for these fears. Examples range from classic ‘company fraud’, such as the long ago but not forgotten Kuwait Oil Tankers Company saga to examples involving individual MPs or even the Prime Minister himself. In the latter example, an MP paraded one of the PM’s personal cheques around Parliament which was, he claimed, a clear example of the PM trying to bribe a fellow MP. The PM wholly denied the charge.

Linked with the fear of corruption is a fear of privatisation. Numerous MPs see the privatisation of Kuwait’s industries as the legalised theft of Kuwait and bitterly oppose such laws when they come to Parliament. They cite fears that either Kuwait’s elite or foreign speculators will come in, take over and make huge profits while the price will rise for the services that they charge. To some degree, these fears are well founded. Profits can be made if an industry is well run and when heavy subsidies are taken away prices can go up as the market adjusts to the real price of the service. It was only under the temporary hiatus of tensions in mid-2010 that a privatization bill and other desperately needed economic stimulus packages (some eighteen years in the making) finally made it through Parliament.

Royal intrigue

Kuwait typically operates under the unwritten understanding that power in the form of the Emir would alternate between the Jabr and the Salim branches of the Al Sabah family. However, this cycle has been broken recently. Not only did Saad Al Sabah – from the Salim side – only reign for nine days due to severe illness, but the current Emir, Sabah al Sabah – from the Jabr side – installed his half-brother Nawaf Al Sabah as Crown Prince and his nephew Nasser Al Sabah as the Prime Minister. The Salim side have thus been significantly emasculated from power and this dynamic is believed to be contributing to the rancour and acrimony in the Parliament.

More generally, many MPs seem to be persistently aggrieved by the lack of changes in the makeup of the Cabinet. As has been noted, the current PM has formed seven Cabinets. Rarely do more than two or three Ministers change from one to the next. Moreover, the key posts of Defence, Interior and Foreign Affairs are always held in Al Sabah hands.

Iranian issues

The institutional and nigh-on perennial issues that have plagued Kuwait’s Parliament in recent decades have been further complicated and embittered by the recent surge in Sunni-Shia tensions in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, ably and willingly abetted by Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, has deliberately foisted a sectarian lens onto the troubles in Bahrain. This has been done not only so that the states in question do not have to consider whether the Shia in Bahrain have legitimate grievances but because this suits their geopolitical world-view and fits their prejudices. Indeed, despite persistent accusations that Iran is ‘behind’ events in Bahrain there has been a stunning lack of evidence presented.

In contrast, specifically in Kuwait there is in fact evidence of Iranian involvement. A spy ring was discovered operating in the country and those involved were sentenced in May this year for passing on sensitive information to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This news stirred Kuwait’s Salafi MPs and the Iranian Ambassador in Kuwait was expelled.

Subsequently they protested loudly and demanded to grill the PM over the fact that Kuwait did not contribute troops to the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) military support of Bahrain. Also, in the face of what they see as blatant Iranian aggression, the PM hosted Iran’s Foreign Minister and agreed to the return of the Iranian Ambassador – all in a bid to dampen tensions. This further irritated the Salafis. Indeed, they accuse the PM, who speaks Farsi and is a former Ambassador in Tehran, of weakening Kuwait’s national security by taking these calming actions. A group of MPs sought and failed to force him to resign in June over these matters. Within minutes of their failure, they had again tabled another motion to grill the PM.

Nevertheless, while he is ever more the focus of these tensions, they are not confined to the PM. Indeed, a serious fist-fight broke out in Kuwait’s Parliament in May between Shia and Sunni MPs under the gaze of a group of American lawyers invited to watch proceedings.


Sectarian relations in Kuwait are, therefore, at a low ebb. The Prime Minister is wholly caught up in this conflict and has countless other detractors; he is the lightening-rod for all criticism from large sections of MPs and the public alike. Indeed, at least two youth groups Al Soor Al Khamis (the fifth wall) and Kafi (enough) have emerged recently, that have protested for the ousting of the Prime Minister.

The way forward for Kuwait is not at all clear.

It seems inconceivable that the Prime Minister could ever marshal an effective and compliant Parliament; his bitter history as the focus of the opposition’s ire, now compounded by his involvement in sectarian issues, makes him profoundly estranged. Even if this Parliament can stumble to its four month-long recess, the chances of everyone ‘forgiving and forgetting’ when the new term starts are slim to nil, even if the worst of the sectarian tensions are over.

Twice before has the Kuwaiti Emir unconstitutionally dissolved Parliament (i.e. dissolved it but did not reinstate it within the stipulated time frame). Sabah Al Sabah has insisted that he will not do this, even though he would be able to pass numerous important laws and packages that are currently jammed in the Parliament. Were he to do so, while some may feel that this would be a reasonable response to Parliament’s unedifying and damaging behaviour of late, in an era of Revolutionary fervour, there would soon be immense pressure on him to re-instigate the Parliament. Choosing another PM would be seen as a sign of weakness and would by no means guarantee a more pliant Parliament, yet, for lack of other options, it is one of the few tenable alternatives available.


1 Nathan Brown ‘Moving Out of Kuwait’s Political Impasse’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (June 2009)

2 Habib Toumi ‘Kuwait no-cooperation motion unlikely to pass’ Gulf News 19 June 2011

The need for enslaved female concubines 9, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Remarkably, Salwa Al Mutairi, a “female political activist” and a former parliamentary candidate has called for the intruduction and

provision of enslaved female concubines for Muslim men in Kuwait in a bid


protect those men from committing adultery or corruption.

Apparently, you see, she has been told that some rich Muslim men ‘feared’ being seduced

into immoral behavior by the beauty of their female servants, or even of those servants ‘casting spells’ on them

therefore – clearly – it would

be better to purchase women from an ‘enslaved maid’ agency for sexual purposes.


She seems to have thought it all through: these elslaved women would be rented out as maids are today by an agency. She even notes a potential source for these enslaved women:

these maids could be brought as prisoners of war in war-stricken nations like Chechnya to be sold on later to devout merchants.

None of this is, apparently forbidden by religious law:

Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (766-809 AD) was married to one woman but possessed 200 concubines.

Good to know.

The mind, as they say, boggles.

Iranian-Kuwaiti tiff continues 12, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Kuwait.
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Amid spiking tensions between the states on either side of the Gulf and in the aftermath of Kuwait expelling three Iranian diplomats found guilty of spying, Iran retaliated by expelling an undisclosed number of Kuwaiti diplomats in return. This kind of tit-for-tat expulsion is the norm in these circumstances. Yet a Kuwaiti MP seems to have taken it all rather badly. Indeed, he condemned the Iranian Government for violating

all diplomatic traditions and norms and good neighbourly relations.

I wonder what Kuwait would have done had Iran started this episode and (unjustly, of course) expelled a few of their diplomats. Would Kuwait have taken the higher road? I think not.

Still the Kuwaiti MP in question, Mubarak Al Waalan, in a clear, calm and assertive attempt to thoroughly worsen relations further, suggested in a petulant, teenage manner that Kuwait ought to expel all Iranian diplomats. That’d learn ’em good, I’m sure.


Problems on the horizon for the Gulf States 10, April 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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Born in an era when the German Mark was trading at over four trillion to the Dollar and the League of Nations still sought to regulate international alliances, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who has lived through the inauguration of fifteen US Presidents, is truly a man of a different age.

Given what one might – rightly or wrongly – expect from a Saudi King who is nearly a nonagenarian, steeped in the austere, conservative Wahhabi culture of Saudi Arabia, some of his policies have been relatively enlightened. For example, he founded the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), which is a resolutely co-educational campus where Saudi’s feared mutaween (religious police) are not allowed to go, where women can drive and are not mandated to cover their hair.

A Shia Lens

Yet one sphere in which Abdullah certainly is hawkish and conservative is that of Saudi foreign policy towards Iran. Here Abdullah appears to subscribe to the notion that Iran is perennially seeking to undermine Arab societies in some way, shape or form. Unprecedented in modern times, the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Bahrain exemplifies this logic, with Bahrain seen as the front line of a cold but warming war which must be defended against Iran at all costs.

Three primary currents of fear – noted in their order of their priority to the Saudi government – drove this extreme policy.

Firstly, Riyadh fears that the establishment of any kind of meaningful Shia participation in Bahrain’s government – let alone a representative Shia Parliament – may allow, if not actively encourage, some kind of a militant Shia beach-head on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. The notion that a Bahraini Hezbollah could emerge, or that some units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could be covertly based in Bahrain, but a few kilometres from Saudi Arabia’s key oil fields, is immiscible to Saudi Arabia’s core security purview.

Secondly, Abdullah does not want to see the installation of a Shia-led government in Bahrain at the expense of the Sunni Al Khalifah family’s power. Such an upheaval could be interpreted as the first step towards the emasculation of royal power in Bahrain, and Riyadh is loath to allow such a precedent to be set.

Finally, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid the establishment of any kind of strong Shia-led government so close to its own Shia population, lest contagion spreads and they too begin to demand more rights.

These events take place in the context of what many in the region see to be growing Shia power, as encapsulated by the notion of a Shia crescent ‘enveloping’ the region, as suggested by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2004. The recent expulsion of three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait convicted of spying for the IRGC [1] exacerbated tensions and further fostered notions of Shia encroachment.

This Shia lens through which many people in the Gulf (certainly not just Saudi Arabia) view regional politics means that, for example, the protests in Bahrain are not seen as a disenfranchised sector of society complaining and demanding equal opportunities and fair representation, but necessarily instigated by Iran. ‘You see the same people on the streets of Bahrain as on the streets of Iraq … these people … [are] sent by Iran to cause trouble’ as one Kuwaiti put it, linking the narrative of Iran fostering sectarian strife in Iraq with Bahrain. [2]

Is It Merited?

In many ways, this kind of vilification of Iran is exactly what Tehran wants. It strives to foster a reputation for itself as a mighty state with elite and highly capable armed forces, whose sole goal is to propagate the Revolution and the velayat-e faqih rule of law.

In reality, Iran is – to a large degree – a paper tiger. Considering that it is arguably the richest state on earth in terms of oil and gas deposits, economically it is surprisingly weak with a GDP per capita of around $11,000, high unemployment and inflation. Socially, it has the world’s highest rate of human capital flight (often referred to as ‘brain-drain’) and the world’s highest proportion of opiate drug-users. [3] Politically, the country is riven with conflict, as evidenced by the million-strong protests after the stolen election in 2010. Militarily it is outspent five to one by the UK, and even by the comparatively tiny United Arab Emirates (UAE). Moreover, as General Petraeus recently bluntly stated ‘The Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force.’ [4]

Asymmetrically, Iran needs to be taken seriously: the Islamic movements that it spawned and still supports in the Levant are arguably as strong as they have ever been and contribute to Iran’s deterrence. Also, its IRGC irregular forces have been relatively well-funded when compared with its traditional armed forces, and it would be foolish to underestimate them.

Nevertheless, this Iran – the Iran reliant on endless rhetorical bluster and a desperate showmanship striving to live up to several thousand years of a proud and strong civilisation whose key strengths today are, in fact, ambiguity and other asymmetries of power – bears little resemblance to the perfidious and powerful Iran as envisaged by some Gulf Arabs.

A Rock And A Hard Place

Whatever the true extent of Iranian power and their actions on the Arab side of the Gulf, the simple fact is that Saudi Arabia acts as if their threat were compelling and imminent. This may have unforeseen implications for regional security.

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) met recently, and issued a joint statement in which Iran was accused of ‘blatantly … interfering in Kuwait’s affairs’ and of ‘continuous … interference in the domestic affairs of the GCC countries … and [instigating] sectarian sedition between … [GCC countries’] citizens.'[5] This is unusually aggressive and inflammatory language from the GCC States and reflects the point of view of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE more than Qatar or Oman.

Though Doha and Muscat may well be as uneasy about Iran’s motives or actions in the Gulf as other GCC members, they deal with Tehran in a different way, taking, where possible, more conciliatory approaches. For Qatar, the fact that they share and jointly exploit the world’s biggest gas field with Iran plays a key role in this decision and Qatari authorities are understandably wary of antagonising Iran.

Qatar and Oman will be under pressure to tow the GCC line, as they have in this instance. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait will want a united GCC front against Iran. While these two states will follow this to some degree, it would require a full reappraisal of their foreign policy towards Iran if this trend of difficult relations between the GCC and Iran were to continue. They are thus left with some difficult decisions, which might give them no choice but to antagonise either their fellow Arab States or Iran.


[1] Habin Toumi ‘Kuwait to expel three Iranian diplomats involved in spy ring’ Gulf News 31 March 2011 http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/kuwait/kuwait-to-expel-three-iranian-diplomats-involved-in-spy-ring-1.785663

[2] Personal interview (March 2011)

[3] For more statistics like this see ‘Iran is a Paper Tiger’, Intelligence Squared Debate, 24 February 2011

[4] Josh Rogin, ‘Petraeus: The U.A.E’s Air Force could take out Iran’s’, Foreign Policy, 17 December 2009 <http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/17/petraeus_the_uaes_air_force_could_take_out_irans>

[5] GCC states condemn Iran’s blatant interference in Kuwait’s affairs, Kuwait Times, 5 April 2011  <http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTI3NDY1Njg5MQ>

Free food & over $3500 for Kuwaitis 17, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Sometimes it can be tricky to come up with a definition of the rentier state; sometimes not.

On the occasion of Kuwait’s 50th anniversary of its independence from the British and its 20th anniversary of its liberation from Iraq, the Emir Sabah al Sabah is giving every Kuwaiti 1000 dinars or $3560 as well as 13 months of free food rations.

Several points now come to mind:

– Given that Kuwait is arguably on the brink (again) of serious issues in its Parliament, this may be a wise decision to try to placate all sides for a (short period of) time.

– I don’t quite understand the food stamps. Aside from simply being given 1000 KD, Kuwaitis have one of the most generous welfare states on earth (guaranteed jobs, ‘free’ loans then loan forgiveness, no taxes, no bills etc etc). Why would such a population who are – let’s be blunt here – very rich need food stamps? Perhaps it is some traditional-paternal ritual that the Emir wants to keep alive.

– Overall, I fear very greatly that these kinds of handouts are harmful for the longer term. Instilling in Kuwaitis more so than is already the case that they are owed free money, food and opportunities simply because they are Kuwaitis and not because of anything that they have done is a grim precedent to set. Emir after Emir will be forced to follow suit dishing out these bonuses for (again) nothing. Eventually, as Kuwait’s oil whittles down and it has to rely ever more on its (substantial) financial investments [for there is no meaningful sign of industrial diversification yet], such bonuses will become costlier and costlier for the Government to give out. Yet a population weened on such gifts will not give them up readily. Essentially, I see Sabah giving out this cash now as storing up huge problems for his great-grandchildren when they come to rule.


Kuwaiti Special Forces ‘beat’ MPs and protestors 10, December 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwaiti Special Forces clashed violently with what they describe as an unauthorised protest organised by opposition MPs. Reports indicate that they harshly used their batons to beat protesters, including many MPs themselves, in an attempt to disperse the crowd that had gathered at the house of MP Jamman Al Harbash, one of the key organisers. Numerous participants and MPs were taken to hospital for their injuries.

This rally was the second one designed to bring attention to ‘a government plot’ to amend Kuwait’s 1962 constitution underpinning Kuwait’s brand of Parliamentary Democracy. It also has its roots in the long-standing confrontations between Opposition MPs and the Government, as represented by the Prime Minister (the nephew of the Emir).

One of the key issues at stake concerns corruption in the elite, which is a persistent bug-bear of Opposition MPs (and the population as a whole). Specifically, they wanted to protest the prosecution of an MP (Faisal Mislem) who showed a copy of a cheque for £400,000 from the Prime Minister to a former MP. At the time this caused a huge furore, not only because it was a flagrant accusation of bribery by the (Royal) Prime Minister but also because it was hugely embarrassing for him.

Before the protest, earlier in the day Emir Sabah Al Sabah, had warned that protests could be held within MPs houses or Diwaniyyas (meetings) but were not allowed to spill out onto the streets. This is something of a legal ‘sticking point’. A 2006 declaration by Kuwait’s constitutional court clearly states that rallies may be held without government approval. The Emir is trying to lightly back-peddle on this by suggesting that while this is true, this does not give some kind of carte blanche for any and all protests to take place.

Given such clear backing and instruction from the Emir, it is believed that the unpopular Prime Minister gave the order for the Special Forces to intervene.

MPs plan to ‘grill’ (interpolate) the Prime Minister on this subject today in what will certainly be a heated session. They broke the taboo allowing them to interrogate the Royal PM this time last year. This ushered in a period of relative calm and productivity in the Parliament. Previously, MPs wilfully sought to ‘grill’ the PM knowing full-well that doing do would force the Emir to dissolve the Parliament. A key corollary of this harmful atmosphere in the Parliament was that much needed economic reform packages were consistently delayed. Though they have gone through now in the past 12 months as a sign of improving tensions, many are yet to come into legal force.

There must surely be fears in Kuwait that this latest spat could, once again, escalate tensions between the Government and the Parliament. The fall out of this could be a return to the bitter and acrimonious politics of recent years in Kuwait where the difficult decisions that need to be taken regarding Kuwait’s economy and infrastructure once again fall victim to the febrile atmosphere of partisan politics and dissention.

On Kuwait’s sponsorship system U-turn 19, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Opinion.
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The FT has a good article discussing Kuwait’s u-turn on abolishing their kefala sponsorship system. The day after it was announced by the Labour Minister that Kuwait would get rid of the system by February 2011, the announcement was rescinded by the same Ministry.

The key issue is that abolishing the system directly affects swathes of Kuwaitis. Currently, nationals of Gulf States can set up a massively lucrative businesses importing workers from abroad. Given the lack of oversight and the culture sadly prevailing across much of the GCC, wages are regularly unpaid, holidays canceled, gratuities reneged upon and far longer hours of work demanded. Yet, as I noted in a recent post about Qatar’s kefala system, businessmen voting to get rid of this system is like Turkeys voting for Christmas: unlikely.

The repeal of the whole system would redress the balance in employer-employee relations significantly and – essentially – hit (in this case) Kuwaiti businessmen in their pocket. When Bahrain announced that they were abolishing their kefala system their business lobby erupted with anger. The same happened in Kuwait and the same in Qatar. Instead, loop-hole-ridden, half-hearted reforms are enacted that are a shadow of what was initially promised.

It clearly does not matter to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that they are on the third and worst tier of the U.S. State Department’s watch list for human trafficking: is it truly unfair to say that by definition the majority of Kuwaiti businessmen care more about their profits than the human rights of the workers they import? Alas I’m not sure that that is such an outlandish statement.