Posts Tagged 'Kuwait'

Islamists set the agenda in Kuwait

By: Jon Nordenson

During the last week, Islamist MPs have raised issues of female MPs and veiling, as well as unislamic curriculum in the schools. Liberals fight back.

The issue with female MPs and veiling started directly after last election, in which four women were elected to parliament. Two of these (Rola Dashti and Aseel al-Awwadhi) do not wear the Hijab, which sparked strong reactions among some islamist MPs. Mohammed Hayef Mutayri, a Salafist MP, referred the question to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which gave their ruling last week. In it, they concluded that “Muslim women are obliged to wear the hijab in front of men not related to them”. Islamists also argue that Kuwait’s election law specifically demands that female MPs wear the Hijab, since the law states “that women must abide by the rules of sharia while participating in elections as a candidate or voter” (this requirement was added by islamist MPs when women were given suffrage in 2005).

However, this does not mean Hijab will become compulsory for female MPs. Liberals argue that such a religious ruling has no authority to interpret laws in Kuwait, and that this is the exclusive domain of the constitutional court. Moreover, liberal female MP Rola Dashti launched a counter attack this week, proposing to remove the above mentioned requirement from the election law. In her view, “the regulations clearly violate articles in the constitution which call for gender equality and make no reference to sharia regulations”. The issue might be resolved by the end of this month; on the 28th of October the constitutional court is set to give their verdict on a Kuwaiti citizen’s law suit against the two unveiled MPs, demanding that they lose their seat in parliament.

As for unislamic curriculum, this may not be the most noteworthy news story of our time, but it may tell us of confident islamists eager to pursue their agenda. This Tuesday, independent islamist MP Hussain Mizyad attacked the Ministry of Education’s official curricula for having “deviated from the principles of Islam”. As an example, he cited the “music subject for class six students”, which “purportedly aims to instill Islamic principles in the hearts and minds of school children”.

MP Mizyad’s attack probably won’t amount to anything. Still, it probably won’t raise smiles among liberals either. And although the constitutional court’s verdict on the hijab issue might resolve it for now, it will hardly be the end of liberal-islamist battles over issues like these.

New session, same tensions

By: Jon Nordenson

The reopening of the Kuwaiti parliament after its summer break is drawing nearer, with two rather obvious questions perhaps being how long this parliament will last, and how many interpellations it will witness? Some MPs have already announced their intentions to “grill” ministers, seemingly gearing up for some stormy political months.

To start off with the interpellations, it might be some stormy months indeed. MPs have vowed to interpellate the Minister of Public Works and State Minister for Municipal Affairs over both accusations of corruption and the Mishref sewage plant scandal, as well as the Health Minister for failing to deal with the swine flu, Furthermore, MPs Ahmad al-Saadoun and Musallam al-Barrak plan to interpellate the Prime Minister sheikh Nassir Muhammed al-Ahmad over – among other thing – the Dow Chemicals deal. Moreover, information minister sheikh Ahmad Abdallah al-Sabah has been harshly criticized by MPs for banning privately-owned Scope TV’s political satire program Sawtak Wasal. Lastly, there is the difficult issue of the tragic al-Jahra fire.

The tragic fire took place in mid-August at a wedding celebration in al-Jahra district. The women`s tent caught fire, killing more than 40 women and children, and injuring more than 60. The former wife of the groom allegedly admitted using petrol to set the tent on fire, creating the deadliest civilian disaster in modern Kuwaiti history. MPs have accused the Government of not being prepared for such scenarios, claiming fire-fighters and ambulances arrived too late. An emergency session of the Parliament to look into the incident has been proposed, but MP’s have agreed to postpone thisuntil the investigation of the fire is finished.

As I have written earlier, interpellations – especially against al-Sabah members of the cabinet – have often led to the Emir dissolving parliament in the past. Still, the last thing parliament did before they went (to London and Beirut) for their summer holidays this year was not only to witness the interpellation of interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, but to vote on a no confidence motion against him as well. And the parliament was not dissolved. So while the numerous interpellations certainly don’t strengthen the cooperation between cabinet and parliament, they do not necessarily lead to crisis. Furthermore, the last parliamentary election in Kuwait was held only a few months ago, perhaps another reason for the cabinet, the Emir and the parliament to deal with any forthcoming interpellations without forcing upon their people yet another election.

Privatization looming in Kuwait?

By: Jon Nordenson

In a recent article in Kuwait Times, the headline read «KAC to be privatized by the end of the year». According to the article, KAC – the Kuwaiti Airways Corporation – would be privatized before we write 2010, in line with the time limit for the privatization process set by the cabinet. Two studies has been conducted to establish the value of the company, and a decree from the minister of commerce is set to establish a new company with «an estimated capital of KD 300 million». Sounds easy.

But it is not. Privatization and economic diversification is – and many would call this an understatement – a controversial issue in Kuwait. In a country where a vast majority of the population rely on a government funded by abundant oil incomes for their salary, status quo is the preferred alternative, a view also reflected in Parliament. And, as Micheal Herb points out in his brilliant article on the subject in The International Journal of Middle East Studies, «(..) the structure of the Kuwaiti political system tend to encourage political deadlock». Previous attempts by the government on privatization, encouraging foreign investments in Kuwait, investing in other countries etc have notoriously been met with hostility in Parliament, as for instance the infamous Dow Deal.

So what about the KAC? Of course, Kuwait Times may have reasons I do not know about to believe this time it will be different. Still, a well informed source in Kuwait told me that this issue has been going on for ten years, and that «it is all about politics and some unions wouldn`t allow it so they don`t get fired».

In a different article from the same newspaper, published six days later, we could read quite a different story on the issue of economic diversification, this time the view of the private sector in Kuwait: « (…) sources revealed that the private sector was growing less confident in working with the government for reasons that range from the government’s lack of seriousness in executing these projects to their recent action of withdrawing or cancelling projects without providing proper justifications».

In other words, with the prospects of economic diversification in Kuwait being rather slim, the privatization of the KAC may very well meet the same fate as other, previous projects. Nevertheless, the case will be interesting to follow as the struggle to meet the cabinet`s deadline goes on.

”In Kuwait, everything is politics…”

By: Jon Nordenson

“..and everyone is a politician”. The words are not mine, but I`ve heard them several times during my stay here in Kuwait. From the local co-ops to the unlucky football referees, it`s all politics.

To start off with football: the royal family is very involved in Kuwait`s football association, as well as in other sports associations, sometimes with conflicting agendas. Many view this as a problem, as for instance this blog, and Kuwait Times reports that the parliament has formed a committee to investigate the issue. Furthermore, the football clubs are – naturally – run by boards, to which there are elections. Joining these boards is seen as a good start to a political career, making the competition though. As I was told: “it`s basically a competition of who is willing to spend the most money to get elected”. Thus, the clubs are politicized, and, to a certain extent, their supporters as well. This – in turn – leaves the referee in a rather difficult position, and I`ve been told it`s not unusual for referees to get beaten up after games. And as I witnessed Kuwait`s Cup Final on Monday (22.06.2009), I did indeed see a somewhat frightened looking ref, who blew his whistle every single time someone fell, perhaps not wanting to upset the wrong people.

The local co-ops are another example. Residential areas in Kuwait are organized around local centers, which all contain a co-op. Who gets to run these co-ops, “is political”. As this illustrates, “politics” is sometimes synonymous with personal interests, as – I suppose – you can say about politics in pretty much every country in the world. Still, these interests, many times conflicting but sometimes coinciding are a dominant feature in Kuwaiti politics, that needs to be taken into account in order to understand how this country is run.

I pretty good example is the ongoing controversy around interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah. As I`vewritten earlier, MP Musallam Al-Barak “grilled” (interpellated) the minister this Tuesday (23.06.2009), around three issues: a contract for setting up boards during last year`s election, surveillance cameras in front of the parliament, and his alleged lack of effort to stop vote-buying.  Seemingly straightforward, many interests are involved.

For one thing, MP al-Barak is said to have promised his electorate to go forth with the interpellation, and indeed he did. The “grilling” took place in a special session of the parliament this Tuesday. After the debate, ten lawmakers put forth a motion of no confidence against the minister. The vote on the motion will be held next Wednesday (1st of July), and if 25 or more MPs support it, the minister will have to go.

9 of the 10 MPs who signed the motion were tribal, which – when talking about interests – may be important. As interior minister, Sheikh Jaber struck down on tribal primaries – officially forbidden – before the 2008 election, much to the annoyance of tribal candidates. Facing the no confidence vote, he claims the tribal MPs are out for revenge.

As mentioned, the vote will be held next Wednesday. Until then, the cabinet on the one side and al-Barak and his supporter on the other, will battle for the votes of still undecided MPs. A minister actually ousted through a vote in parliament is unheard of in Kuwait, so the vote will only take place if the cabinet is confident in having a majority. If not, the minister will resign, or be assigned to another ministry through a cabinet reshuffle. Therefore, the battle of the undecided is of every importance. As of Wedensday (24.06), al-Qabas newspaper reported that 18 MPs support al-Barak, 21 the government and 10 are undecided. Rumors hold that these ten MPs have close ties to minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd (who also has a leading position in many of the country`s sports associations, and who was ousted from government in 2006), and that he is using their importance in this issue to gain influence in the cabinet. Though such claims are difficult to verify, I haven`t met anyone who objects that Kuwaiti politics is a mixture of many, many agendas.

And of course, in a country where everyone is a politician, very many follows these events closely. On Tuesday, people started queuing in front of the parliament at 7:00 am to follow the session. Several bloggers reported live from the parliament`s gallery, and newspaper al-Jaridah provides all details from the session as well.

So whatever one might think of Kuwaiti politics and Kuwait`s political system, one cannot ignore that it engages the Kuwaiti public. Still, whether or not this translates in active participation obviously varies; only 20,56% of the electorate cast their vote in Thursday`s (25.06) local elections.

Once again: grilling

By: Jon Nordenson

Less than a month has passed since the parliamentary elections, and barely a week since the inaugural session of the new Assembly. But still: a “grilling” request has been filed against a Sabah-member of the cabinet, this time by MPMuslim al-Barak of the Popular Action Bloc (كتلة العمل الشعبي ).

As I have written earlier, ”grilling” (interpellate, or in arabic:استجواب )is a constitutional right of Kuwaiti MPs to question cabinet ministers in parliament, and may in turn lead to a vote of no confidence. With the government wanting to avoid the humiliation of such a process, interpellations – especially when directed at cabinet members from the ruling a-Sabah family – have notoriously led to the cabinet resigning, or the Emir dissolving parliament. This, in turn, has left Kuwait in a status of permanent political crisis.

The results of the latest parliamentary election, held on May 16th, have been said to be a reaction to this crisis, with the electorate demanding stability and development rather than endless political quarrels. Still, the same electorate re-elected three of the five Islamist MPs who filed requests to interpellate ministers in the last parliament – thereby earning the nickname “crisis MPs” – as well as al-Barak, who made it perfectly clear during the election campaign that he would request to interpellate Interior Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, were the Minister to be re-appointed.

True to his word, al-Barak filed the request on June 8th, accusing the Minister of “squandering public funds, failure to prevent vote-buying and ordering the installation of cameras to spy on public rallies” (Kuwait Times, June 9th 2009). The big question, then, is of course: what will the government and the Emir do?

Following the election, the Emir called for cooperation between the cabinet and the parliament, and for an end to the ongoing crisis. Still, a new cabinet was appointed that contained names bound to cause the opposite. As mentioned above, grillings against Sabah-members of the cabinet has marked a red line for previous parliaments. However, it would seem rather absurd if the government were to resign, or the parliament to be dissolved, approximately three weeks after the election. From this point of view, we might be witnessing a rather momentous challenge to Kuwait`s democratic project.

On the other hand, the “grilling” request may never go so far. The government may demand to refer the request to the constitutional court to verify whether or not it is in line with the constitution. The government may also demand that the debate in parliament on the request will be held behind closed doors.

For the moment, the request is scheduled to be debated in the parliamentary session on June 23rd. If the debate takes place, the outcome may be rather grim.