Posts Tagged 'Kuwait'

Live from Kuwait: …democratization?

By: Jon Nordenson

There’s never a dull moment in Kuwaiti politics, but the last few days have been exceptional. In an unprecedented verdict, the constitutional court last week deemed the dissolution of the previous parliament unconstitutional, and reinstated it. Thus; the 2012 elections were declared null and void, and the oppositional parliament it produced is to be replaced by the less oppositional 2009-parliament. However, last night, thousands of protesters begged to differ; they even demanded a full parliamentary system. Are we witnessing a transition towards a more democratic system in Kuwait?

As I have written earlier, Kuwaiti politics have been in a state of constant crisis since Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s ascendance to the premiership in 2006. A campaign (or rather several campaigns) to oust him eventually succeeded last winter, and Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak replaced him. Then the parliament was dissolved, and new elections called for. These elections produced a clear oppositional majority in the new parliament, which now has been dissolved. The term “oppositional majority” might sound somewhat strange, but this stems from the fact that the government in Kuwait is appointed, not formed based on a parliamentary majority. Thus, the situation was that the majority of the parliament was seen as oppositional towards the government.

This parliamentary majority did, not surprisingly, continue to question government ministers, though not in such a harsh way as before. This may not be surprising either; if they had gone too far, the Emir might have dissolved parliament (as has happened many times before when the opposition question ministers), and all their electoral gains would have been lost. Nevertheless, the government seems to have viewed the situation as quite problematic; before the ruling of the constitutional court, the Emir issued a decree suspending parliamentary activities for a month (which would have lasted until their summer holiday, effectively suspending parliamentary activities until October).

Then came the ruling of the constitutional court, which is final. Their argument was that the Emir dissolved the 2009-parliament following Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s resignation, but before Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak had formed a new Government. Thus, the dissolution took place without a Government, which is unconstitutional. What is supposed to happen next is as follows; the current Government resigns (which it did yesterday), a new Government corresponding to the 2009 parliament is formed, former speaker of parliament Jasim al-Khurafi resumes his work, reconvenes the 2009 parliament, and they continue until their term expires in 2013. However, this is not likely to happen, as a majority of the 2009 parliament protest the court’s verdict and refuses to reconvene. Thus, as described by al-Qabas newspaper today, the most likely scenario is as follows; a new government is formed, the old parliament is reconvened but unable to perform its duties, the government asks the Emir to dissolve it, and new elections are held. Again.

The oppositional majority of the 2012 parliament has staunchly opposed the court’s verdict, deeming it political and unconstitutional. As mentioned, a rally was held outside parliament last night, under the heading “we won’t surrender”, drawing thousands of people (estimates vary, but most place the number at between 30 000 and 40 000). A new movement has also been launched; the “return of the majority”-movement. However, the most remarkable thing about last night’s rally was not the protest against the verdict or the rather impressive turnout; it was the demands put forward by the MPs (demands that have also been launched in the media by the same MPs): a full parliamentary system, with an elected Government, and Kuwait as a constitutional monarchy. These demands have been raised by youth movements for well over a year, but now a majority of the (ousted) MPs support them as well. Seemingly, the struggle for democratization in Kuwait has taken a big leap forward. There are, however, several factors at play one should bear in mind:

–          The Hadar/Badu split: Kuwait has been described as a divided society, and one split is between the Hadar (city-dwellers) and Badu (tribal) parts of the population. The Hadar have traditionally held on to the lion’s share of both money and power, whereas the Badu, in spite on constituting a majority of the electorate, are underprivileged in both arenas (which is part of the reason why many demand one electoral district). Not surprisingly, the Badu have been at the forefront of both the campaign against Nasir al-Muhammad, the opposition in parliament, and the campaigns for democratization. Thus, some have deemed the ouster of al-Muhammad and the opposition’s success in the last elections a “tribal revolution”, antagonizing many Hadar. (now) Former MP Muhammad al-Juwaihil has made a career out of this division, constantly making derogatory remarks about the tribes, and questioned their rights in Kuwait under the less than charming heading “Kuwait for Kuwaitis”. The tribes have taken the bait and lashed out against al-Juwaihil, on one occasion burning down his campaign tent. In other words; we might be witnessing an increased polarization of Kuwaiti society.

–          This also goes for sectarianism: about one third of Kuwaitis are Shias, and sectarian tension is a very sensitive subject in Kuwait. Following the “Arab Spring”, the issue has come to the fore. Whereas Kuwaiti Shias generally support the democratic movement in Bahrain, many Sunni politicians and activists have branded it as Iranian interference. Some Sunni politicians – who are part of the opposition – have also accused Shia politicians of lying in Parliament. It should be noted here that most of the Shia MPs were among Nasir al-Muhammad’s closest allies.

–          The Democratic credentials of the opposition: though the demands put forward now seems as important steps towards a more democratic Kuwait, not all parts of the opposition’s track record are equally persuasive. With regards to Bahrain, they have generally not supported the (Shia) democratic movement, whereas they have taken the opposite stance towards the (Sunni) uprising in Syria. Many of the oppositional MPs have supported tougher laws on blasphemy, even advocating death penalty for insults to the prophet. Not all support female MPs and ministers, and one has made negative remarks towards Kuwait allowing churches to be built in the country. The opposition is complex and consists of different groups and ideologies, but many would find it difficult to call it an unambiguously democratic opposition as such.

–          Disagreements within the royal family: there are differences within the ruling family as to which direction Kuwait should take for the future. One persistent rumor has it that some parts of the family are fed up with political bickering hindering any economic development, and are enviously looking to Qatar and the Emirates. Another point is the fight for power; many ambitious members of the ruling family seek their share of power, and try to position themselves. Often, they have allies in parliament and otherwise, giving the infighting wider effects. This has gone so far that the leading newspaper al-Qabas took the unprecedented step and spoke of it on their front page.

There are of course other important factors in play as well. For instance, the fight against corruption, an ever present phenomenon in Kuwait, is at once both very real and the favored accusation used by the opposition as well as pro-government forces. The tribes’ demand for democratic reform may of course be interpreted both as a step towards a more democratic Kuwait, or as the tribes using it for their own benefit, as they stand to win from more proportional representation. Kuwaiti politics is chaotic at the moment, and sometimes quite messy, and certainly unpredictable. But this might be just what democratization looks like. Many different forces with different motives are involved, some probably less noble than others. Yet; if more power is to be moved to democratically elected institutions, others have to give up said powers, which naturally will be a contested process. There is hardly any surprise in a process of democratization being a messy and unpredictable one, and these are adjectives that fit well with Kuwaiti politics at the moment. But one thing is, at least, certain: the question of a full parliamentary system has been raised by MPs, and many will probably feature this in their programs in the next elections (which, I expect, will happen shortly). Given the populist nature of Kuwait’s electoral campaigns, the proposal might very well gain considerable support should the electorate respond positively to it.


The Kuwaiti elections: new elections shortly?

By: Jon Nordenson

When Kuwaiti voters went to the polls on Thursday February 2nd, it marked the end of an eventful and extremely tense election campaign. And given the results, the work of the new parliament is likely to be eventful and tense as well, albeit short lived.

However, before going through the latest results, a quick look a the past few years in Kuwaiti politics is in place. From Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s ascendence to the premiership in 2006, until his (last and final) resignation in November 2011, Kuwaiti politics were in a state of “crisis”. As I have written earlier, the kind of “crisis” referred to here is somewhat different from other countries; it was not a particular and unusual situation that brought turmoil to the country. Rather, it was a constant, but slowely escalating conflict between the opposition and the government, effectively hindering any “normal” political work, that is; passing laws, developing the country, and so on. Instead, the legislative and the executive powers were locked in an seemingly endless cycle of interpellations, resigning governments and early elections.

When Kuwaiti voters went to the polls in 2009, for the third time in three years, the credo was that everyone was tired of political bickering and wanted a parliament and a government capable of doing their jobs and fulfilling their terms. The election provided a majority supporting the PM and the government, and for a while, the deadlock seemed to be broken. However, allthough the opposition constituted a minority, they continued their attacks on the cabinet, earning them the nickname “crisis MPs”. Then, following the break up of a oppositional rally by the police in December 2010, things escalated. Prominent opposition MPs present at the rally promised to question the PM in parliament, and to present a motion of no confidence.  Allthough the government still enjoyed majority support in parliament, immense pressure was put on Sheykh Nasir to resign.

Grass-roots movements against Sheykh Nasir, such as “Kafi” (enough) and “as-Sur al-Khamis” (the fifth fence, a reference to the old city wall of Kuwait City),  began to appear, and rallies were organized more and more frequently.  The movements became better organized and coordinated, and teamed up with oppositional MPs to pressure the PM under the slogan “Hukuma jadida – ra’is jadid – nahj jadid” (new Government, new PM, new approach). Throughout the spring and summer they held demonstrations, seminars, issued declarations, and – inspired by the Arab spring – their own “Friday of wrath/anger”. As is evident in their latest declaration, their ultimate goal is a fully democratic Kuwait, with an elected government.

Then came the “25 million KD”-scandal; 15 MPs were allegedly paid by the Government/the PM to be supportive in parliament. The scandal brought outrage among ordinary Kuwaitis as well as the opposition, which vowed to question the PM on the issue. However, MPs formerly supportive of the cabinet switched sides, and it became evident that the opposition now constituted a majority. Sheykh Nasir, as other members of the cabinet from the royal family, refused to face a vote of no confidence he actually might loose, and managed to prevent the opposition from presenting their questioning. Infuriarated by this, oppositional MPs along with demonstrators took the unprecedented step of storming the parliament on November 16th, 2011. The situation had become unbearable for the royal family, and Shaykh Nasir resigned. Defence Minister Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak was named as his successor, but before he formed his first cabinet, the Emir dissolved parliament and called for new elections.

Which brings us to this years campaign. One event in particular will be remembered from a campaign described by many as harsh and extremely tense; the burning of candidate Muhammad al-Juwaihil’s campaign tent. Al-Juwaihil, who made the headlines in December 2009 when he made derogatory remarks about Kuwait’s tribal population on his own TV-channel, once again lashed out against the Badu. This time, his remarks were directed against the Mutayr tribe, and provoked imideate reactions; hundreds of members of the tribe attacked his campaign HQ, and burned the tent to the ground. Police arrived at the scene, but proved unable/unwilling to interfer.

The incident was hardly accidental. The division between the Hadar (city dwellers) and the Badu (Beduins) is nothing new in Kuwait, but tensions have reached new levels over the past years. The Badu, which constitute a majority of the voters but a minority in parliament, feel marginalized, whereas the traditionally prosporous and mercantile Hadar feel their position threatened. Thus, when al-Juwaihil made his remaks, he did so knowing they would provoke a strong reaction, which in turn would benefit his electoral prospects among Hadar wary of tribal influence. Not surprisingly, both al-Juwaihil and his “partner in crime” Nabil al-Fadl were elected, as was five members of the Mutayr tribe. In the current political climate, both sides benefit from such incidents.

Moreover, it seems clear that the difference between the opposition and the government stems from more than just disagreement over particular issues. In fact, it has little to do with particular issues, as these are seldom dealt with by parliament. Rather, as discussed above, over the past few years it has been all about former PM Nasir al-Muhammad. But in reality, it may be a question of the Badu seeking greater influence. The movement against Sheykh Nasir, both inside and outside parliament, has consisted mainly of tribal MPs and activists. And in the elections just concluded, the opposition won 18 out of 20 seats in the two tribal electoral districts. If the difference in reality is an issue of Badu vs. Hadar, it seems unlikely that it will disappear even though a new PM has been named; more substantial changes would be needed.  As mentioned, the rallying call has been more democracy, which would, given that the Badu constitute a majority of the voters, give them greater influence. It should be noted here, though, that many tribal MPs have been staunchly against both female parliamentary participation in Kuwait as well as democratization in Bahrain (which would benefit the Shia majority), so to brand the opposition as purely democratict might be somewhat incorrect.

Moreover, there are of course other issues involved as well. The Arab spring has been influental in Kuwait as in other countries, providing momentum for the opposition. Secterian tensions between Shia and Sunni has been fuelled by events in the region, particularly Bahrain, and corruption is a very real and ever present phenomenon in Kuwait, important to voters from all political camps.

In last week’s elections, Islamist/Tribal/Oppositional candidates – all deemed oppositional by the Kuwaiti press – gained about 35 seats, and were the big winners. Shia candidates lost two seats compared to 2009, and ended up on seven. Liberals, who often found themselves in the middle between a staunch opposition and the government, did poorly, perhaps not surprisingly in the current climate. Whereas four women made history and were elected to the last parliament, no female candidate made it this time around. About 62% of Kuwait’s roughly 400 000 eligible voters went to the polls, and oppositional candidates won in four out the five electoral districts.

The opposition is by no means a unified groups; it consists of representatives from the Kuwaiti Muslim Brootherhood, Salafis, Nationalists and one liberal. Thus, they might find it difficult to unite on many issues, such as the amendement of article two of the constitution to make Sharia the sole source of law in the country. However, they have proved more than able to unite in their fight against the government before. And, as discussed above,if  the opposition is about much more than a fight against Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad, they are likely to do so again. With a majority of 35 seats, they will be able to pass a motion of no confidence against any minister. The traditional reaction of al-Sabah ministers to such a situation has been either for the government to resign, or for the parliament to be dissolved. Now, with a new PM, this would be difficult and embaressing, but perhaps also unavoidable.

Thus, the result of these elections might very well be a new round of elections in the not to distant future.

The meaning of ”crisis” in Kuwait

By: Jon Nordenson

Once again, political “crisis” looms over Kuwait, with some commentators suggesting that parliament soon will be dissolved, and new elections held. Yet, in light of the past five years in Kuwaiti politics, this can hardly be termed a “crisis”. Rather, it is politics as usual.

The background for the current crisis is the alleged transfer of approximately KD 25 million ($ 91 million) from government funds to two pro-government MPs. Obviously, this is a serious issue, and in many people’s eyes a confirmation of the corruption they see in every aspect of the Kuwaiti state. Not surprisingly, the scandal has provoked many initiatives from oppositional MPs and activists.

For one thing, opposition MPs have called for an emergency session on the issue, in order to debate this particular incident and to pass new laws to prevent corruption and money laundering. According to Kuwaiti law, an emergency session must be held if at least 33 MPs sign the proposal. So far, 29 MPs have signed, with about 20 pro-government MPs rejecting the initiative, at least for now. One might question whether or not this is a wise approach on part of the government; with such serious accusations, it should be in everyone’s interest to investigate them properly. Moreover, given the recent crisis combined with a fresh report from the IMF criticizing Kuwait for not doing enough to hinder money laundering and terror-financing, new laws on these issues might be a very good idea. It should of course be noted here that the government may agree with the need for a debate on the issue as well as to review country’s legal framework, even though it does not agree on the need for an emergency session.

The scandal has provoked other initiatives as well; a website launched by activists in the country encourage MPs to sign a pledge to provide the authorities with access to their bank accounts, in order to clear themselves from any suspicion of being involved in the scandal. Many MPs have signed similar pledges on their own initiative as well. Moreover, a large demonstration against corruption is planned for the 16th of September. And, of course, the scandal has provoked new istijwabat, that is, interpellations against cabinet ministers, in this case the PM himself.

As I have written earlier, Kuwaiti MPs have a constitutional right to question cabinet ministers on a particular issue, and the questioning may be followed by a vote of confidence. Previously, these interpellations have been a constant source of “crisis” in Kuwait, in that they have provoked the resignation of ministers, the entire cabinet and even the dissolution of parliament when the minister in question stands to lose the vote of confidence. It has been, for quite a few years, the weapon of choice for the opposition. This time, the interpellation on the 25 millions comes in addition to two other interpellations already presented against the PM, and they will almost certainly be followed by a vote of no confidence.

Thus, “crisis” is looming again, and as mentioned, many commentators have predicted the dissolution of the parliament and early elections. But this in itself is nothing out of the ordinary. Since the parliament was reinstated after the war in 1992, only to parliaments have completed their 4-year terms. Since 2003, there have been held four elections in Kuwait. Accordingly, there would be nothing extraordinary about early elections, and it can hardly be said to constitute a “crisis”, as a “crisis” implies that something extraordinary has taken place.

However, this is not to say that Kuwaiti politics is not in a state of crisis. The constant bickering between parliament and government seems to prevent any real development from taking place. The government seems unable to govern an unruly parliament, while the parliament is prevented by law from governing (the Kuwaiti government is not based on a parliamentary majority, it is named directly by the Emir. The parliament for their part has largely negative powers). The result is that nothing much happens; the grand development scheme adopted by the parliament earlier has not yet materialized, in fact, the PM just ordered a report on why it has not yet materialized. And, as the statistics mentioned above clearly shows; neither party is willing to give in, and the result is deadlock and “crisis”. Moreover; the level of corruption revealed in this latest scandal is hardly an asset in Kuwait’s stated bid to become a “financial hub” in the region. In all, crisis may be a fitting description of the state of Kuwaiti politics, but the constant “crisis” between parliament and government is merely a symptom of more fundamental problems.

Kuwait: reforms still going strong?

By: Jon Nordenson

Following three years of political turmoil, the parliament installed by the 2009 elections has proven to be a more stable one, with less focus on ”crisis” and more on passing laws. So far, a new labor law, a five-year development plan, and even a draft of a privatization bill have all passed through parliament. Confidence in the cooperation between parliament and government seems to be high, and HH the Emir has expressed his hope that the current parliament completes its four year term. If so, it would be the first time in years. Yet, as the MPs reconvene following the Eid al-Adha holiday, clouds may be looming on the horizon.


For one thing, there is the ever present threat of  “grillings”, that is, interpellations directed at cabinet ministers by MPs. As I’ve written earlier, such motions may be followed by a vote of no confidence directed at the minister in question, and have notoriously lead to political crisis earlier. However, following the 2009 elections, this seems to have changed. Instead of resigning (or HH the Emir dissolving parliament), the cabinet has chosen to face both interpellations and any following votes on confidence, though making sure they had the backing of a majority of the MPs (though some MPs reportedly have claimed that the government “buys” the support of other MPs). By doing so, crisis have been averted, and the parliament and the government have been able to carry on.


These days, a number of interpellations are reportedly being prepared by various MPs, prompting the Kuwait Times to announce the “grilling season”. The question is then, naturally, whether or not the cabinet and the parliament will manage to avoid crisis this time around? An intriguing article in Kuwait Times suggests so; negotiations are going on behind the scene, so that the interpellations can be held without the government running to big a risk.


Another potential cloud on the horizon lies in the implementation of the reforms themselves. It has not yet been determined how the development plan, which is intended to turn Kuwait into a financial hub of the region and drastically increase the country’s non-oil income, is to be financed. The discussions concentrate on a development fund, as well as the establishment of several companies, whose shares are to be made available to ordinary Kuwaitis. Yet, no complete plan for funding has so far been presented to parliament by the government.  The process has already been going on for months, and inevitably raises the question of whether the government and the parliament will be able to see the project through. Kuwait’s past record might suggest that the answer is no.


Then again, things do seem to be different with this parliament. Perhaps as a result of the constant “crisis” between 2006 and 2009, this parliament and this government seems determined to be more constructive and produce results. There seems to be a majority of the MPs (though with some changes from issue to issue) inclined to support government initiatives and to prevent crisis as a result of interpellations. Yet, if this new found pragmatism if to be successful, the projects of the government and the parliament must be realized.

Human rights and Economic Development

By: Jon Nordenson

Economic development is a major concern for Kuwait, as it is for any other country. But Kuwait has proclaimed some rather ambitious goals; the country is to become a “world financial hub” through new developmental projects. In addition to infrastructural renewal, the country is also looking to improve their record on human rights and corruption. But if Kuwait is to become the politically correct financial alternative of the region, some rather big changes have to occur.

In as far as Dubai (still) is the shining beacon to aim for with regards to becoming a “financial hub”, Kuwait has a long way to go. As Michael Herb shows in his article A Nation of Bureaucrats: Political Participation and Economic Diversification in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait lags far behind UAE and the other Gulf countries in terms of foreign direct investment. Moreover, they have fewer tourists visiting than any other gulf state. In addition, the turbulent relationship between parliament and Government hasn’t made the job of catching up with Dubai – if that is the goal – any easier.

Yet, this relationship seems to be changing. Since the elections last year, the level of “crisis” in Kuwaiti politics have declined, and new laws have been passed. A new labor law, a five-year development plan, and even a draft of a privatization bill have all passed through parliament. Arab Times recently reported that HH The Emir have expressed his appreciation of the good relationship between the legislative and the executive powers in the country, and according to Kuwait Times, Deputy Premier for Economic Affairs Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Sabah recently assured that “The development plan is on track since it was approved by the parliament”. Though much still has to be done, the development is intriguing; if the elected parliament and the government together manage to diversify Kuwait’s economy it would be ground breaking in the region. There is, however, no guarantee that this will happen. For instance, the privatization bill has been met with fierce opposition.

And then there are the issues of human rights and corruption. One should think that this is an area where Kuwait holds the upper hand towards the UAE; whereas Kuwait has an elected parliament and a history of grass roots political mobilization, the UAE has nothing the Kuwaiti democratic project. This may constitute a major Kuwaiti advantage; the parliament may give economic reforms legitimacy in the population, and a stable democracy may seem as s sound alternative to invest in. Yet, in the whole, Kuwait’s human rights record is not much better than the UAE’s.

If one compares Amnesty International’s annual reports on Kuwait and the UAE, the difference is not exactly striking:

UAE: Migrant workers were exploited and abused. Cases of torture and prolonged detention without trial were reported. Women continued to face legal and other discrimination. Access to certain websites was blocked. The authorities began to address the cases of stateless persons, or bidoun. One person was executed.

Kuwait: Migrant workers continued to experience exploitation and abuse, and to demand protection of their rights. Some were deported after participating in mass protests. The government promised to improve conditions. Several journalists were prosecuted. One case of torture was reported. At least 12 people were under sentence of death but no executions were known to have been carried out.

One may of course argue that the report on Kuwait is somewhat less condemning than that on the UAE, but it is in no way flattering for the country. And newspaper reports indicate that the authorities are still not serious enough in dealing with abuse of migrant workers. For instance, on the 25th of July, Arab Times reported of one housemaid dying when trying to escape, one being seriously injured, and another who hanged herself. In both cases, the police “registered a case and started investigations”. On the 22nd of May, the same newspaper reported of two housemaids who committed suicide. Both suicides were “surprising” to their employers, and the police “opened cases”.  There may of course be many different reasons behind such tragic events, and my intention is by no means to suggest that all Kuwaitis are in some way abusive towards their employees. Nevertheless, one need not follow Kuwaiti news for a long period before one detects a pattern. For obvious reasons, Kuwait needs to deal with these issues. And if the goal is to “improve Kuwait’s international image on human rights issue”, the authorities must step up their efforts.

As for corruption, Kuwait is ranked no 66 on Transparency International’s annual report for 2009, just behind Georgia. Dropping down from no 65 in 2008, the country came behind the other GCC countries. Just as unflattering, the country was banned from both the international football federation (FIFA) and the international Olympic committee (IOC), due to “government interference”. In other words, Kuwait has a long way to go in terms of corruption if the country is to become tempting for investors.

If Kuwait manages to institute economic reform through democratic procedures, this may give them an advantage in the region. But in order to become something of a politically correct alternative, human rights and corruption must be addressed more seriously.

The Kuwaiti elections one year on

By: Jon Nordenson

Last May Kuwaiti voters put together a new parliament, the first in Kuwaiti history to include women. An eventful year has passed, witnessing its fair share of “political crisis”. But despite some major setbacks, there are some encouraging signs as well.

Nevertheless, I start of with “crisis”. Why do I put “crisis” in brackets? Because there is something profoundly theatrical about Kuwaiti politics from time to time; MPs, cabinet minister and the media often seem more concerned about the political game, or making (the) headlines, than the matter at hand. Thus, when Kuwait Times claims that Kuwait “has been rocked by political crises since 2006”, they are both right and wrong. On the one hand, Kuwait has witnessed seven governments and three elections since 2006, in itself a clear indication of severe problems. And there are some serious issues behind these manifestations of crisis; an unresolved power struggle between an un-elected government and an elected parliament, lack of economic development, discrimination of women, discrimination of ex-pats, far-reaching corruption and more. On the other hand, up until now, both MPs and the government has seemed little willing to deal with the actual problems, and have instead put on a show for the media. However, this seems to be changing.

Perhaps as a result of the many battles over the last three years, both MPs and the government seem more set on resolving difficult situations today. Rather than to display a never ending will to go into battle, this parliament – and government – appear to have chosen a more pragmatic approach. As a result, the government has lived through several interpellations, and new laws have been passed. The interpellations make a good example:

Every Kuwaiti MP has a constitutional right to question cabinet members over any particular issue. The questioning may be followed by a vote of no-confidence, which, if it gains a majority, leads to the automatic dismissal of the minister in question. Before, such interpellations notoriously lead to either the government resigning, or the Emir dissolving parliament. But the last year has been different. Cabinet ministers – including the PM – have chosen to face the interpellations, and to face votes of no-confidence. Even as of today, a new interpellation against the PM is in process, and the PM has declared that he will face questions in parliament. Thus, political crisis is averted, and MPs are able to hold ministers responsible for their actions without risking crisis just for doing so. In my view, this strengthens the institute of the interpellations; it is the issue in question, not the institute in itself, which determines the fate of the government.

Moreover, new laws have been passed. Though this may seem trivial – after all, it is a parliament – the past few years have witnessed more political crisis than political initiatives in Kuwait. But this parliament has approved a new five year plan, a new law on labor rights, a debt relief law, and most recently, a law on privatization. Being a controversial issue in Kuwait, different bills on privatization has circulated in parliament for many years. But this time it passed, at least in principle. Moreover, on the second of June, the parliament is expected to pass a law enhancing the rights of Kuwaiti women.

This being said, all is not well in Kuwaiti politics. All the issues mentioned above – women’s rights, privatization, the five year plan – are put forth by the government. In their quest for economic growth, Kuwait seeks to polish its image, as well as to encourage private investment. But as soon as an issue appears that does not please the government, the outcome is very different. For instance, the Kuwaiti author and activist Mohammad Abdulqader Al-Jassem is currently being detained for speaking out against the royal family. Moreover, the willingness to deal with corruption, abuse of foreign workers and not least the issue of the bedoons seems all but absent. In all, Kuwait still has a long way to go in their democratic project, and the government is moving in the right direction only when this is deemed in line with its own interests.

Nevertheless, I believe the last year has been an encouraging one in Kuwaiti politics. As argued above, both MPs and the government seem more pragmatic, and the institutions of the parliament may be strengthened. Thus, this parliament might just be able to deal with some of the difficult issues facing Kuwait’s democratic project.

Development and censorship

By: Jon Nordenson

A quick look on Kuwaiti politics since the last elections suggests a positive development; laws have been passed, and no government has resigned. But then a show on a private TV-station set the scene for an attack on the country’s freedom of expression.

Kuwait’s elections last May were the third elections in three years. Moreover, those previous three years had witnessed no less than seven governments. Paralyzed by a power struggle with the parliament, the government did not manage to deal with pressing issues, and few laws were passed in parliament. As I have written earlier, many ordinary Kuwaitis were fed up with this deadlock, and voted for change in the last elections. And indeed, this parliament – and government – seems to be different from their predecessors.

For one thing, there’s the interpellations. Previously, when Kuwaiti MPs have moved to question ministers (often referred to as “grilling” in Kuwaiti English newspapers), in particular ministers from the ruling Al-Sabah family, this often led to crisis. But this time, ministers – including the PM himself – have faced questioning in parliament, and even votes of no-confidence submitted by MPs following some of the interpellations. With even the PM facing the parliament in this way, an important taboo has been broken in Kuwaiti politics, and the parliament has proved their ability to fill their supervisory function.

Moreover, the parliament and the government have taken on difficult political issues, and laws have been passed. For instance, on the 30th of January, the new labor law was sent to the government for ratification. The law, which includes many improvements for laborers in Kuwait’s private sector, has already been passed in parliament, and will soon go into effect.

The parliament also passed the so called “debt relief law”, intended to help Kuwaiti citizens manage their private debts. According to Kuwait Times, the law requires the state to buy approximately $ 16 billion (!) worth of private debts, spend $ 6 billion to pay off interests, and reschedule the payments so that no citizen must pay more than 35% of their monthly income in their monthly payments. One may of course discuss how wise it would be to spend such enormous amounts in such a way, and many have criticized the law. The critics include the cabinet, which refuses to accept it. But populism is undeniably a part of politics, and it shows a parliament determined to make political decisions.

In addition, the cabinet and the parliament is currently debating a five year development plan, the privatization of Kuwait Airways, and a new bill concerning the rights of disabled people. As for difficult matters, the parliament held a special session on the issue of the Beedons – stateless inhabitants of Kuwait – and their social and political rights. The question of the Beedons has for a long time been a difficult matter for Kuwaiti authorities, and a source for much international criticism.

In all, since the last elections, the cabinet and the parliament has managed to break the deadlock, pass bills, face pressing issues, and for the government; face questioning in parliament as well. Though one should be careful to deem something “good” or “bad” politics, it does seem that Kuwaiti politics has entered a more constructive path since the last elections, with focus on politics rather than on crisis.

But then came the comments of Mohammed al-Juwaihel on his own private TV-station, al-Sur (“The Wall”). Just before Christmas, al-Juwaihel said on air that Bedouins are not really Kuwaitis, and that only city-dwellers are real citizens of the country. Naturally, this sparked an outrage from tribal MPs and others, demanding action from the government. Al-Juwaihel was arrested, and now amendments to the media laws are discussed, which critics say will limit the freedom of expression in Kuwait. According to Reporters Sans Frontiers, the new amendments stipulate harsh penalties for anyone insulting members of the royal family, who makes blasphemous statements, or who incite sectarianism in the country. In addition, censorship will be imposed on Kuwait’s active blogosphere. Although the comments made by al-Juwaihel was what sparked these amendments, critics claim the government have been planning them for a long time, waiting for the right time to launch them.

The question then, is, where are Kuwaiti politics going? On the one hand, the cabinet and the parliament seem more able to create development and make political decisions, on the other, they seem less concerned about the basic democratic right of freedom of expression. It may be tempting to point to Dubai, where democratic rights are sacrificed in favor of rapid, economic development. And indeed, some of the points in the governments five year development plan does lead one’s thoughts to Dubai, such as the construction of the “world’s largest tower”. However, Kuwait and Dubai are two very different places; Kuwaitis are proud of their democratic project, and the government will probably face many difficulties if it should try to implement the above mentioned amendments. Still, these last few weeks have highlighted what might be a difficult question in Kuwait in the years to come; development vs. democracy.

Slippery slope towards democracy?

By: Jon Nordenson

The last couple of weeks have been extremely eventful in Kuwaiti politics. Four ministers have faced interpellation in parliament, and two of them votes of no-confidence as well. For now, crisis seems to be averted, with both votes failing to gain a majority. But is this positive, negative, or perhaps a little bit of both?

As I have written earlier, four ministers faced questioning in parliament (interpellations) last week, two of them being PM Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed and interior minister Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled, who also faced votes of no-confidence. Or, to be precise, the PM faced a vote of “no-cooperation”, but had it gained a majority, the lack of confidence would still be rather obvious. Each of these votes could easily have created political crisis in Kuwait had they passed, with the dissolution of parliament being a likely outcome. In stead, the PM was backed by 35 MPs, with 13 MPs against him and one abstaining. As for the interior minister, the numbers were 26 in favor of the minister, 18 against him and 5 abstaining.

So, crisis seems to be averted for now. But does this give reason for celebration? There is one obvious problem: the PM was accused of mismanaging public funds. If the accusations were true, the consequences for the PM should of course have been more severe. But to determine what’s true and not is rather difficult, accusations have been thrown both ways in the media, and the session itself was held behind closed doors. In addition, there are always many possible factors at play in Kuwaiti politics; tribal interests, internal royal family rivalry, personal interests (and prospects for re-election) of MPs and so on.

Still, what is quite clear is that yet another political taboo has been broken in Kuwait, the interpellation and no-confidence vote on the PM. Last June interior minister Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled faced interpellation and a vote of no-confidence in parliament, being the first member of the royal family to do so. Now the PM himself has followed, which could be seen as a de facto extension of the powers of the parliament. Even though MPs have the constitutional right to interpellate ministers, exercising this right has been sensitive when it comes to ministers from the royal family. Now the parliament has proved its ability to supervise and hold accountable for any wrong-doings all members of the cabinet, including those from the royal family. One should of course bear in mind that the government probably knew very well that they would win both votes of no-confidence, and that things could have been very different if they weren’t so sure. But still, they went through with it, even in the midst of hosting a GCC summit.

Naturally, many in Kuwait have praised this “historical achievement all world should idolize”, as cabinet member Mohammed al-Busayri put it. However, others have been less enthusiastic. MP Ali al-Rashid, a liberal former member of the National Democratic Alliance, last week suggested amending the constitution, to make interpellations more difficult. Although he claimed that he was “only floating ideas for debate”, his proposal sparked harsh reactions from oppositional forces. For their part, the government has distanced themselves from the proposal, claiming to have “no relations whatsoever” with it.

Whether or not this is true is difficult to say. It might be a test balloon from the government, or it might be an MP tired of Kuwait’s near permanent state of political crisis. Which leads us to a major problem; though the parliament successfully exercises its powers, these powers are, to quote Michael Herb, “largely negative”. The parliament can question ministers and block legislation, but have showed little ability to pass new legislation, and to deal with pressing issues. This is of course also the responsibility of the government, but the result is nevertheless political stalemate. Which in turn seems to frustrate Kuwaiti citizens, as well as MPs and ministers.

If Kuwait is indeed on a slippery slope towards democracy, this problem lies at its core. If the only result of the parliament’s battle for its democratic powers is stalemate and inaction, it will be hard to succeed, and it will be difficult to win popular support. Democracy is a big issue in Kuwait, but so are the financial crisis, a worn-down infrastructure, and unemployment.

The interpellation of the PM, and the following vote of no-cooperation might be viewed, at least for now, as yet another step on Kuwait’s journey towards a more democratic political system. But unless the Kuwaiti parliament finds some way of combining its expanding supervisory powers with constructive developmental work, things may become difficult up ahead.

What comes out of the desert these days

By: Bjørn Olav Utvik

Hakim al-Mutayri

Hakim al-Mutayri

Freedom or the Deluge and The Liberation of Man. Interesting book titles coming from a member of presumably the most conservative ideological tendency and of one of the most conservative social layers within one of the most conservative regions of the world, the Arab Gulf monarchies.

Hakim al-Mutayri is a member of the Mutayr tribe, one of the largest Bedouin tribes in Kuwait. He is educated in Islamic studies in Kuwait, Mecca and Fez, with a doctorate in Sharia Law from the prestigious Qarawiyyin university in the latter city. He also has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham. He is a long-time member of the Salafi Movement in Kuwait and one of the founders of Kuwait’s only formal political party, the Hizb al-Umma (Party of the Nation).

In his books Mutayri radically reconsiders Islamic orthodoxy as it relates to the preferred political system. He emphatically states that Islam properly understood has human freedom as its basic premise, and that in political terms this translates to the right of people to freely exchange ideas and not least to freely choose, and if need dismiss, political leaders. He boldly diagnoses the root of the Muslim problem with democracy to lie in the fact that the classical literature of interpretation of the holy sources were written at a time when despotism and hereditary rule had taken the place of the rule of the Prophet and his immediate successors where, according to Mutayri, rule was based on consultation of the people.

The religious scholars writing from the ninth century onwards felt bound to legitimise the military rulers of their time, he states, and cannot be taken as guidance today. He also digs deeper in claiming that the promotion of the idea of divine determination of events where human action and free will is reduced to insignificance is linked to this same agenda of securing the rule of those in power, and has done immense harm to the Muslim world.

Kuwait is special in that it has a salafi movement that engages in political work. What is a salafi? It is common understanding that the salafis are a particularly conservative brand of Islamists. Rather than seeking a way for the Muslim world to advance while staying true to the faith, the salafis concern themselves primarily with trying to replicate in detail the way of life at the Prophet’s time, and guarding against any deviation from the literally understood teachings of the Koran and the Hadith, the reports on the sayings and doings of the Prophet.

Salafis generally consider politics a business to be left to those in power. So the Kuwaiti salafis are deviating by the mere act of entering politics. But Mutayri from the depth of the salafi heartland produces an ideology seemingly at sharp odds with what most of us thought contemporary salaifsm was all about.

Westerners are often prejudiced against Arabs in general and more specifically against those who take their religion seriously, as the recent trouble over minarets in Switzerland amply demonstrates. Muslims are seen by some as representing an alien religion that threatens to bring us back to the Middle Ages.

In Muslim countries like Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon there is even among the Islamists a heavy prejudice against anything coming from places like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf Arabs are considered backward, uneducated and steeped in the traditions of the Bedouin, making their understanding of religion far more conservative even that the one being preached by movements like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. At the same time the Gulf people are considered to be somewhat corrupted by  the high level of income and the fact of being secured high standards of living without having to work, the actual work being done by other Arabs and by armies of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos.

Arriving then in for instance Kuwait and talking to people one discovers yet another level of prejudice. For among the whole spectrum of political opinion from liberal to Islamist all are warning against the reactionary effect of the growing role of the Bedouin part of the population with their backward ideas and tribal customs. The Bedouin only recently got political rights, and now the urban people of Kuwait city feel their position undermined by the uncultured Bedouin who produce more children, children who are now getting educated and elected to Parliament. And there they join the growing number of salafis.

Even among the salafis themselves the urban warn against the Bedouin.

A surprise then to find that precisely among the Bedouin salafis one encounters one of the more innovative thinkers within the international Islamist movement, and, in the Kuwaiti context, the ideologue that most boldly challenges the birth right of the royal Sabah family to control the affairs of the country.

Rising tensions in Kuwait?

By: Jon Nordenson

Seemingly, political tensions are rising in Kuwait, with four MPs being stripped of their immunity, four interpellations on the agenda for the December 8th session, and the interior minister Sheikh Jaber asking MP Khaled al-Tahous to “shut up” during a parliamentary session. But the reasons behind this apparent crisis are not as clear as Sheikh Jaber’s words.

To begin with the interpellations (Arabic استجواب , often referred to in English in Kuwait as “grilling”), these are the constitutional right of every MP to question a cabinet minister, and may – if 10 MPs demand so – be followed by a vote of no confidence. As I have written before, interpellations have often led to political crisis in Kuwait, especially when directed at ministers from the royal family. In such cases, the cabinet often prefers to resign rather than to face questioning in the parliament. However, this summer, interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah not only faced questioning in parliament, but a vote of no confidence as well (which did not gain a majority).  So, even though such interpellations obviously are problematic for both the government and the royal family, they do not automatically lead to crisis.

However, no less than four such interpellations are on the agenda for the parliament’s session on the 8th of December. And not only are three of them directed against members of the royal family, one is even directed at Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah. Even though four is something new, Kuwait has witnessed three interpellations submitted at the same time twice before; earlier this year, and in 1986. Earlier this year it led to the Emir dissolving parliament and calling for new elections. In 1986, it was followed by a six year suspension of parliament. This is not to say that the three interpellations were the reason behind the long suspension of parliament in 86, but it does indicate that three interpellations may be a bit too much for the government and the royal family.

Yet, according to Kuwait Times, the PM himself said on 30th of November that “I’m ready to confront the interpellation – we are a state of institutions that is governed by the constitution”. But at the same time, pro-government MPs demand that the session with the interpellation of the PM is held behind closed doors. Faisal al-Muslim, the MP who submitted the interpellation against the PM, has answered that he will “re-submit” his “grilling-request” if the session will be closed.

At the same time, other events bear witness of rising tensions as well. During a heated parliamentary session in mid-November, parliamentary immunity was lifted for MPs Mohammad Hayef, Saadoun Hammad, Marzouk Al-Ghanem and Khaled Al-Sultan. In addition, some claim that freedom of expression is under attack in Kuwait. Journalist Mohammad Abdulqader Al-Jassem is currently in jail for  ”slandering the prime minister”, and accusations of government surveillance of blogs have surfaced in the media. However, this has caused Kuwait’s vibrant blogging community to react, and one should not underestimate their determination in having their say. To quote one blogger: “Kuwait has not yet become a police state”.

So while Kuwait is facing some difficult days ahead, it might not be as dramatic as newspaper headlines should indicate. Still, it is difficult to see just how the government will maneuver through all of this; they do not seem very keen on facing the interpellations, at least not in public. But to dissolve parliament and call for new elections doesn’t seem tempting either, as this would be the fourth election in three years. And for the government to resign and then be re-appointed, as they have done in similar situations before, seems unlikely. If it did, it would be the eight time in three years.  Then there’s the option of dissolving parliament and not calling for new elections, but rather to suspend parliament. This has been mentioned in some newspaper articles, and was also mention last winter during a quite similar crisis.

During the crisis last winter, some newspapers reported that parts of the royal family wanted to suspend the parliament, whereas others were opposed to this. This time, divisions within the royal family has once again surfaced in the media, but now as the cause for the crisis. MP Marzouq al-Ghanim (who just lost his parliamentary immunity) pointed to “ruling family intrigues” as one of the reasons behind Kuwait’s political chaos, whereas liberal MP Abdullah Al-Rumi  is quoted in Kuwait Times saying that “disputes within the ruling family could be destructive to Kuwait”, and that “You must put an end to these disputes that are impacting parliament and the whole country”. Former minister of information Dr. Anas al-Rashid (who resigned in 2006, protesting among other things the government’s position on the issue of the electoral districts) also points to the media: “It is unfortunate that a section of the media has been used as a means to settle political scores”.

Whatever the reasons, Kuwait is in a difficult political situation at the moment. As with most political crises, it is probably fair to assume that there are many reasons behind the current situation, of which conflict within the royal family might be one. And if there are sections of the royal family who want to suspend parliament, the current chaotic situation seems to fit their needs. As for how this situation will be resolved, I think political analyst Shafiq Ghabra put it nicely in Kuwait Times: “It has now got to a point in Kuwait when you can’t expect anything and when you can’t expect anything, then expect the unexpected”.