Year of muted celebration in Kuwait

15 March 2011

Confrontations between parliament and the executive and growing restiveness among Bedouin Arabs will make for a tense year in Kuwait

In numbers

120,000: The population of stateless Bidun Jinsiya in Kuwait

$100bn: Value of major projects that will be started in Kuwait over the next five years

Source: MEED

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kuwait’s independence, the 20th anniversary of its liberation from Iraqi occupation and the fifth anniversary of the assumption of power of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

But events at the end of 2010 threaten to dampen the celebratory mood. On 28 December, Kuwait’s National Assembly witnessed the rare sight of the emir’s nephew, Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, facing intensive questioning from representatives of the country’s three main opposition groups.

I would be surprised if the protests by the Bidun spilled over into the wider society

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, London School of Economics

The parliamentary grilling was demanded after security forces clashed with opposition lawmakers and their supporters at a rally on 8 December. Four MPs were injured. Kuwaiti authorities say the crowd taunted police and did not have a permit for a rally.

Confidence vote

Under Kuwait’s constitution, which dates back to 1962, the formation of a cabinet does not require the confidence of parliament. But once formed, the National Assembly can question cabinet ministers and withdraw confidence. With the top cabinet positions allocated to leading members of the ruling family, a parliamentary grilling is a confrontational step.

Kuwait crossed a positive threshold  when it began to allow the prime minister to be questioned

Source in Kuwait

On 5 January, Al-Sabah survived a vote of no confidence in parliament, which would have either relieved him of his post or seen parliament dissolved – a common occurrence in Kuwait politics. His tenure has not lacked drama. This was his eighth grilling in his five years as premier, during which parliament has been dissolved twice.

The situation was compounded by the arrest and prosecution of a popular local journalist, Mohammad Abdulqader al-Jasem – a sharp critic of the prime minister and the government. The crackdown has led to a sense that some of the political freedoms enjoyed by Kuwaitis are being rolled back.

“The two events, the clampdown and the issue of freedom of speech have led to concerns that some of the freedom Kuwaitis have enjoyed is being rolled back,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow and deputy director of the London School of Economics’ Kuwait programme.

Kuwait can lay claim to have led the protest movement currently challenging the status quo in the Gulf. Even before the civil unrest broke out in Bahrain, Kuwaiti opposition MPs campaigned to oust the prime minister in street protests.

The unrest in Kuwait has not been as widespread nor as violent as in other countries, but the situation in Bahrain appears to have emboldened sections of Kuwaiti society.

On 19 February, at least 30 people were wounded during clashes in Jahra, northwest of Kuwait City, between state security forces and ‘stateless’ Arabs demanding citizenship.

The police used smoke bombs and water cannon to disperse the crowds. Shortly afterwards, two Kuwaiti youth groups announced plans for a protest to be held on 8 March. The Interior Ministry has warned it will not allow any public rallies or gatherings.

For the time being, the protests are confined to groups with long-held grievances. Most of the protesters are Bedouin Arabs and long-term residents of the state known as the Bidun Jinsiya (Bedouin without nationality). Descended from nomadic groups, whose ancestral lands are within the borders of Kuwait, the Bidun comprise about 120,000 people, some 4 per cent of Kuwait’s population. They are denied citizenship and do not have access to free education, healthcare or the employment opportunities that are open to Kuwait’s 960,000 nationals.

Kuwait handouts

Broad-based popular movements to force wider political and social concessions look unlikely. Kuwait appears secure with its combination of a small, but largely comfortable population living on oil-funded government subsidies.

“I would be very surprised if the protests by the Bidun spilled over into the wider Kuwaiti society,” says Ulrichsen. “They have too much to lose from any overturning of the status quo. “They have the social safety net, the oil redistribution that wasn’t so prevalent in Bahrain, and they don’t have the internal divisions to the same extent either.”

The unrest takes place against a backdrop of an affluent society, with an elaborate and tax-free social welfare system for its citizens. There are few problems that cannot be solved with the generous cash handouts.

“The protests are organised by youth groups, but where do they end up when they graduate?” asks a source in Kuwait. “Working for the public sector.”

Kuwait sits halfway along the road to democracy. An incomplete constitutional monarchy along with unrecognised political parties have exacerbated its political wranglings rather than solved them.

In recent years, the open debate facilitated by Kuwait’s political system has become a barrier to getting anything done. The parliament and executive, which is comprised mainly of ruling family members, have become embroiled in confrontations.

Political stalemate in Kuwait

The stalemate is aggravated by deep divisions within each side. Just half a century ago, Kuwaiti politics was the monopoly of the ruling family and its leading merchants. Today, a disparate and uneasy parliament is formed from Shiites, Bedouins, liberals, Sunni Islamists and women.

The divisions between the parliament and executive has taken its toll on the development of Kuwait’s economy.

Decisions on key development projects have been delayed and fundamental decisions to diversify Kuwait’s economy have also been deferred. Constant reshuffles in top executive positions is making it difficult to pursue any consistent policy.

Parliamentarians are eager to examine government contracts and large projects.

A planned fourth refinery scheme remains on the drawing board and a $17bn petrochemicals venture with the US’ Dow Chemical was cancelled in December 2008. 

Pressure is piling on the embattled Al-Sabah. On 2 March, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) joined opposition groups Popular Action Bloc, the Reform and Development Bloc and the Islamic Salaf Alliance, in calling for the formation of a new cabinet under a new prime minister, citing the lack of economic development under the current government. The opposition also called for breaking the monopoly on “sovereign ministries”, which have only been occupied by members of the ruling family. A cabinet reshuffle is expected to be announced in the coming months.  

This has been seen as a sign that the stalemate in Kuwait’s political system is finally coming to an end.

“Kuwait crossed a positive threshold last year when it began to allow the prime minister to be questioned,” says a source in Kuwait. “This was a ratcheting up of the notion of accountability. So now you can hold the premier to some form of account, at least publically.”

This kind of legislative oversight and accountability is rare in the Middle East, and unheard of in the Gulf.

Kuwait, the Gulf’s liveliest experiment with democracy is capable of generating debate on key issues, but sometimes appears unable to make decisions. Compared with the economic dynamism displayed by some of its Gulf neighbours, Kuwait can appear stagnant.

“I think Kuwaitis are very conscious of the fact that they live in an extremely vibrant region, where Qatar and the UAE have incredible resources and are moving very fast, leaving them to feel that Kuwait has been overtaken,” says Ulrichsen.

Few Kuwaitis could imagine launching and successfully implementing a scheme such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) in Saudi Arabia. “That opening in 2009 really focused the mind, ” says Ulrichsen.

Project awards in Kuwait

On 24 February, Kuwait’s Central Tenders Committee, which oversees all major tenders in the country, approved the award of a $2.6bn contract to a consortium of South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering & Construction and the local Combined Group Contracting Company for the construction of the 37.5-kilometre Subiya causeway.

The scheme is intended to relieve some of the congestion in the densely populated Kuwait City, but design concepts were approved more than seven years ago.

The government has announced that $100bn-worth of major projects will be started in the next five years in the first phase of a long-term drive to modernise and expand Kuwait’s infrastructure.

The total value of megaprojects that have been approved, or may soon go ahead, is significantly larger. State-owned Kuwait Petroleum Corporation’s investment programme for 2011-15 is worth $90bn alone.

“They feel like in the 1960s, Kuwait was at the forefront of political, economic and social development in the Gulf, and now they are lagging behind,” says Ulrichsen.

“A lot of this is to do with the way they cannot make a major decision without it being politicised and dragged through the appeals and counter appeals.”

It is not just pride that is at stake. Kuwait’s infrastructure is being stretched uncomfortably thin. There is cautious optimism that Kuwait, while far from overcoming its bureaucratic shortcomings, is moving in the right direction. But the ongoing protests on the streets and the ongoing confrontations in parliament will dampen the party spirit in Kuwait.

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