Kuwait's shifting sands

Over lavish buffets in giant, air-conditioned tents whose generators battle with the searing summer heat, Kuwaitis have been arguing over an election that is being watched for signs that one of the freest countries in the Arab world is disillusioned with its political system.

Voters in the oil-rich emirate are choosing on Saturday between groupings (parties are still formally banned) of Islamists, independents, nationalists and liberals, against a background of turbulence that has included the dissolution of Parliament and controversial Cabinet resignations.

The 50-seat National Assembly has a history of defying the government, unusual in a region dominated by Saudi Arabia and the smaller hereditary monarchies along the Persian Gulf.

Kuwaiti MPs approve the state budget and other major laws and often exercise their right to question ministers, sometimes prompting them to resign under pressure—though they have no say in the formation of the Cabinet, traditionally headed by a member of the ruling al-Sabah family.

In one recent incident, Islamist MPs tried to force the resignation of the female Education Minister, Nouriya al-Subaih, because she refused to wear a headscarf. Two years ago, a stormy parliamentary session broke up with a chaotic mass walkout of MPs protesting against constitutional reforms.

Kuwait matters, not only because of its immense wealth—its oil reserves, the world’s fourth largest, were Saddam Hussein’s target in the 1990 invasion—but also because it is an oasis of albeit limited democracy in a desert of autocracy.

It acquired its first Parliament two years after independence from Britain in 1961.
Kuwaiti women were granted the right to vote in 2005, though there are still no female MPs, and the emirate has a varied and lively media. In the region, only Bahrain has a more developed democracy.

Kuwait’s other near neighbours—Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar—are still ruled without parliaments and are far more successful economically, attracting Western banks and blue-chip companies, vast amounts of foreign investment and building post-modern architecture that makes Kuwait look like a shabby backwater.

“The country has been retreating since the 1970s,” the Islamist candidate Mohammad al-Mutairi told an election rally. “Development is on hold ... while smaller countries which don’t have even a quarter of our wealth have progressed because they have an efficient political administration.”

Kuwaiti reformers want to diversify the economy away from its heavy dependence on oil and shake up services—the state still employs 90% of all Kuwaitis—but new laws have been repeatedly delayed in Parliament. A Bill to sell off state enterprises has been stuck since 1992 and legislation allowing foreign firms to take part in a project to boost oil production has been stalled for more than a decade.

“We should thank God for bestowing richness upon us. Kuwait is the fourth-largest country after the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq in terms of world oil reserves,” said candidate Yousif al-Zilzila. “The prices of oil are skyrocketing ... Why don’t we use it to develop the services sector?”

The emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved the Assembly in March. In the past the Parliament has been suspended for long periods—twice unconstitutionally—though it was reinstated in 1992 after the United States-led liberation from Iraqi occupation.

“The ruling family tends to blame the Parliament for Kuwait’s failure to develop as rapidly as Dubai—a model which allows the government to make decisions unhindered by democratic institutions,” commented Nathan Brown of the Washington-based Carnegie Foundation.

“Other countries in the region are coming to see Kuwait as a negative model of what democracy can result in. Kuwaitis are increasingly debating how to reform, or whether to scale back, their democratic experiment.”

Underlying tensions have surfaced during the campaign, most strikingly when tribesmen stormed a police station to free men detained for holding illegal primaries. These were banned in 1998 because of the belief they encouraged allegiance to tribes rather than the state.

Alongside allegations of intimidation and vote buying, there have been protests over the redrawing of electoral boundaries, with five districts replacing 25 in a further bid to weaken the influence of tribes and Islamists. This was one of the key demands of the Kuwait Orange Movement (a reformist movement inspired by “people power” in Ukraine and elsewhere) that led to Parliament’s last dissolution and new elections two years ago.

Sectarian strains between Sunnis and the Shia minority have been more pronounced in the aftermath of the war in Iraq and the increasingly assertive Iranian role in the region. Shia MPs were threatened with prosecution when they mourned Imad Mughniyeh, the Lebanese Hezbollah leader assassinated in Damascus earlier this year (and who was implicated in the hijacking of a Kuwaiti passenger plane in 1988).

Kuwait clearly has its own distinct problems, though Arab commentators like to emphasise the damage done by mayhem in Iraq and the “freedom agenda” pursued so selectively by the Bush administration. Its democracy, in any event, remains a fragile creature.—guardian.co.uk Â

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