Kuwait steers clear of Middle East unrest

09 November 2011

Freedom of speech and political expression may have helped Kuwait avoid the civil uprisings of the Arab world, but parliamentary wrangling continues to stifle progress on key schemes

Key fact

Kuwait boasts some of the freest press in the Gulf region, if not the Middle East

Source: MEED

With demonstrators in the streets calling for the prime minister’s resignation, parliamentarians calling for changes to the constitution and youth groups protesting about corruption in the government, an outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that Kuwait had become the latest Arab state to fall victim to the political uprisings that have spread across the Arab world this year.

As long as there is oil, Kuwait will try to deal with the protests just by throwing money at the problem

Kristian Ulrichsen, London School of Economics

In fact, while serious, none of these events in themselves are particularly unusual in Kuwait. The country has had an elected National Assembly since 1963 and boasts some of the freest press and most open political debates in the Gulf region, if not the wider Middle East.

“What has happened this year wasn’t a sudden thing like what happened elsewhere in the region,” says a Kuwaiti political analyst. “The complaints people are making for the first time everywhere else, we have been hearing in public for many years.”

Kuwait state budget 2011 forecasts
 Official budget (KDbn)Low case (KDbn)Base case (KDbn)High case  (KDm)
Oil price ($)60103.7105.8111
Total revenues13.526.226.729.1
Oil revenues12.325.125.627.9
Non-oil revenues1.
Expenditure (official)19.419.419.419.4
Surplus (deficit)-5.996.87.39.7
Expenditures (NBK estimate)18.517.917.5
Surplus (deficit)7.78.811.6
Source: National Bank of Kuwait

While many have blamed Kuwait’s over abundance of political debate for restricting the country’s economic progress over the past decade, it is possible that the relatively high level of freedom of speech and political expression tolerated in the emirate may have prevented more serious uprisings from occurring in the country this year.

Changing perception to Kuwait

Given Kuwait’s track record of dealing with public criticism and the development of a population that understands the benefits of the social contract between the people and the government, governments across the region have been monitoring events in Kuwait closely this year.

If the Emir does not address the issues soon, things may worsen and the people’s frustrations will increase

Kuwaiti political analyst

“Maybe the effect has been to change the way that people in the region see Kuwait,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow at the London School of Economics and an expert on Gulf politics. “They may see that the political freedom in Kuwait isn’t as much of an impediment to progress, that it is more of a safety valve. It is still very dysfunctional, but the safety valve is there.”

But while the outlet for political expression in Kuwait may have defused some of the most potentially destabilising effects of the protests, it does not mean that the anger of the protesters can be ignored.

Opposition to Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabbah, who has faced the threat of parliamentary interrogation since his appointment in 2006 by his uncle and Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, has become more vocal than ever this year. This is a worrying trend for a premier whose government has resigned eight times in five years to avoid parliamentary questioning and has survived three no-confidence votes. On each occasion, he has been reappointed by the Emir.

In early November, opposition parliamentarians were claiming that they had gained the support of the liberal National Action Bloc in their attempts to unseat Sheikh Nasser, meaning that they had the 25 members of parliament (MPs) necessary to uphold a no-confidence motion against him.

“They say, as they have been saying since the start, that the prime minister and his cabinet are not capable of running the country,” says the political analyst. “But now they seem to have evidence of real wrongdoing by him.”

A central allegation of opposition lawmakers is that Sheikh Nasser had been involved in payoffs running into millions of dollars to MPs in return for support in passing new legislation.

Official resignations from Kuwait parliament

Where opposition parliamentarians have not yet been able to unseat Sheikh Nasser, they have managed to uproot some of his key allies. In June, Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah resigned in order to avoid parliamentary questioning over alleged misappropriation of public funds.

In October, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohamed al-Salem al-Sabah quit after increasing questions from opposition groups over his competence, perhaps the first Kuwaiti casualty of the Arab uprisings. One of the main complaints about his work stemmed from his handling of the GCC decision to send troops into Bahrain in March. Hardline Sunni MPs complained that he took too long to make a decision, alleging overly close ties with Iran, while Shia MPs complained that he was helping to oppress their co-religionists abroad.

To date, Kuwait’s response to the escalation in political tension that have accompanied the regional protests has been typical of the Gulf region’s wealthy economies – to throw money at the problem.

Mena press freedom 2010
Mena ranking (2010)CountryWorld ranking (2010)
13Palestinian territories150
14Saudi Arabia157
Mena=Middle East and North Africa. Source: Reporters Without Borders

In February, the Emir ordered that every Kuwaiti be given free food rations and a grant of about $4,000. The move was not unique to Kuwait. “As long as there is oil, they will muddle through, by just throwing money at the problem,” says Ulrichsen. “This is a Gulf-wide issue, not just a Kuwait issue. It is so much easier to give something, rather than take it away.”

Growing frustration from Kuwaitis

But for some Kuwaitis, this response has not been enough. While MPs’ attempts to unsettle the prime minister, seen as an attempt to undermine the ruling Al-Sabah family, has been a pretty standard part of political life over the past decade, a new development has been the growing number of younger Kuwaitis who are expressing their frustration with both parliament and the cabinet of Sheikh Nasser.

The Al-Sour al-Khamis (Fifth Wall) and Kafi (Enough) movements have both made use of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to organise protests in the country and to call for a greater level of debate over the way the country has been run. Their anger has been largely focused on Sheikh Nasser and the involvement of younger Kuwaitis has swollen the number of protestors involved significantly. On 21 September and 20 October, the country saw some its biggest public protests, when thousands marched through Kuwait City demanding the removal of Sheikh Nasser.

In early November, Sheikh Sabah held meetings with opposition and pro-government lawmakers in an attempt to broker a solution. The local media reported that he had told both sides that he hoped he would not be forced to use his ‘constitutional tools’ in the event of a no-confidence vote against the prime minister.

Some see this as a veiled threat to dissolve parliament to allow for the passage of key economic legislation – something which, to date, Sheikh Sabah has said he would resort to.

This, says the political analyst, is the choice which Sheikh Sabah may have to make sooner rather than later. He will either have to allow Sheikh Nasser to appoint a premier more to the liking of opposition MPs or curtail some of the country’s freedoms.

“If [Sheikh Sabah does not make a choice soon],” says the analyst, “we will either go on as we are now, with nothing happening, or things will get worse and the people will get more and more frustrated.”

Key projects and legislation have been blocked or halted because of the standoff between parliament and the government in recent years.

When Sheikh Nasser was appointed as prime minister, he promised economic reforms to reduce dependence on oil and create more jobs. In 2011, about 80 per cent of employed Kuwaitis work for the state, with almost 90 per cent of government revenues coming from oil.

Halted progress on projects

A new five-year plan was agreed in February 2010 between lawmakers and the executive, which called for the privatisation of a number of state assets, including national carrier Kuwait Airways Company (KAC) and a number of public-private partnerships including several independent water and power plants (IWPPs). Little progress has been made since.

On 31 October, KAC announced that it was putting plans for its privatisation on hold. Meanwhile, the tender for the first IWPP at Al-Zour has been underway since December 2010, with a contract award expected by the end of November 2011.

As long as the political stalemate continues, progress on economic development plans will remain slow. “It is business as usual, or paralysis as usual,” says Ulrichsen. “Everyone is totally aware of what they need to do, but no one thinks they can do it.”

Kuwait’s anti-corruption movements

Among the protesters who marched through Kuwait City in September and October were many familiar faces for those who follow the country’s political scene: members of the National Democratic Alliance, the Democratic Forum, and the Progressive movements, all parliamentary blocs.

But there were some new names involved: groups such as Al-Nahaj, which incorporates both opposition politicians and youth activists, The Fifth Wall, and Enough, all of which claim that corruption has reached endemic levels in the country and call for the removal of Sheikh Nasser as prime minister.

They were joined by Islamist MPs, including Faisal al-Muslim, a critic of the government of Sheikh Nasser and a vociferous anti-corruption campaigner; and MPs from the activist Popular Action Bloc, including Musallam al-Barrak, which has been a key player in a number of parliamentary questionings.

While there has long been cynicism in Kuwait over the agenda of opposition MPs in opposing Sheikh Nasser, the addition of youth activists, incensed by corruption allegations, including parliamentary payoffs, has added a new dimension to the country’s political scene over the past year.

“In the past, the government and the opposition fought and that was that,” says a Kuwaiti political analyst. “Now, young people from all walks of life are becoming more and more involved. The Emir, Sheikh Sabah, is popular in Kuwait, but his successor might not be and these are the people who will be holding him to account.”

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