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Torture of a Kuwaiti: Minister resigns 17, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Last week a Kuwaiti, Mohammad Ghazzai al-Mutair,  died in a police station as a result of “excessive torture”. He had been arrested in Ahamdi in Kuwait’s south transporting 24 bottles of Whiskey; something that is wholly illegal in Kuwait.

An opposition MP who investigated the claim said that he had been ‘brutally tortured and had a stick inserted into his anus’ and he arrived at hospital with his hands and feet tied.

The Kuwaiti Minister of Interior, Sheikh Jabir Al Sabah, submitted his resignation after persistent demands, while 5 policemen have been suspended.

While there are many serious flaws with Kuwait’s Parliament and issues with its ingrained rentireism (as I often note), there cannot be many Arab countries where their national print media would have followed such a case and where the national representative body could force the resignation of a Royal Minister.

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

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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.

Arabian tribes and voting issues 21, April 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kuwait jails journalist 14, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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A Kuwaiti journalist has been jailed for 6 months for slandering Kuwait’s Prime Minster Sheikh Nasser Al Ahmed Al Sabah. Apparently, in a public gathering he said that he was “incapable of running the country” and he called on the PM to resign. Just imagine if such an absurd, petty and damaging standard was applied in the West.

Reporters Without Borders reports that Al Jassem, the journalist in question, is the subject of five lawsuits by the PM and the information minister. As a result of one of these suits he was fined $9500 along with the paper that published his article accusing the media of supporting the PM in fermenting Sunni-Shia tension in Kuwait.

Al Jassem was also encouraged to leave the country by Kuwait’s national security chief.

Kuwait’s Prime Minister is a nephew of the current Emir and has been forced to resign five times (I think) because of serious questions about his decision making as well about a cheque for $700,000 which he gave to an MP. Yet, rather than submit himself to the ‘indignity’ of being questioned by MPs as they requested, the Emir has dissolved Parliament three times in recent years.

Rather than dissolve Parliament for a 4th time to avoid wholesale paralysis of the Kuwaiti Parliamentary system and even the potential semi-permanent dissolution of the Parliament at a whole (as in the 1980s) he was questioned by MPs. Yet clearly the key issue remains: various Royal’s inability to get over the notion that they not actually divinely mandated beings and deal with people on a day-to-day basis.

In highlighting and provoking this kind of backward, regressive and wholly out-dated thinking, Mohammed Abdel Qader Al Jassem deserves neither jail nor a fine but the proverbial keys to Kuwait City. You can follow his blog at http://aljasem.org/

Kuwait’s Parliament dodges bidoon question 12, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Last week there was supposed to be a motion in Kuwait’s Parliament to deal with their bidoon problem. In Kuwaiti society, there is a whole swathe of stateless people with severely limited rights. Their life is difficult, they are not officially allowed to work, drive or own a mobile phone and are treated as second-class citizens. They live in cinder block houses with corrugated roofs though with AC. However, it must be noted that the ones that I visited in July still – like 95% of Kuwaitis – had a Philippine maid in the kitchen.

Their predicament is a divisive issue in Kuwait. Indeed, other GCC countries had similar problems in recent times. Saudi Arabia, though, sorted their problem out many years ago by simply giving them all passports.

For once, there appeared to be a genuine attempt by Kuwait’s parliament to sort out this issue however not enough Kuwaiti MPs turned up at Parliament to form a Quorum for the vote to go ahead. Presumably, they simply did not want to be forced to vote on an issue which is divisive in society.

Many Kuwaitis believe that the bidoon are people that have arrived from Iran or Iraq or other Arab countries relatively recently in order to take advantage of the hugely generous Kuwait welfare system. This is, however, a massive over-simplification. Many of the bidoons have been resident in Kuwait for generations now, a fact that many Kuwaitis like to ignore. It is difficult from an outsider’s perspective not to feel that it is a rather greedy trait of Kuwaitis to deny these people who have lived in Kuwait for decades and even fought in their army until the early 1980s a passport for what are – essentially – financial reasons.